Too Many Actors Spoil the Plot

"I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am but an attendant lord, one who will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two..."

--T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," 1912

Washington D.C.

Hamlet wasn't actually much of a Hamlet either.

As a result of peculiar late-19th-century scholarship, everybody in America thinks Hamlet was indecisive. Far from it. His problem is that he is too impulsive, not that he is incapable of action.

The other common mistake is regarding Hamlet as a psychological play. Of course Shakespeare used and knew psychology. He was a poet, whose field is all life. But Hamlet is actually play about politics.

The Kenneth Branagh film version of Hamlet, recently seen in theatres and coming out on videotape on July 22, is a sharply political play having nothing whatever to do with indecision and very little to do with tortured post-adolescent psychology.

Branagh's Hamlet is a young prince who is too busy feeling unemployed to notice that he already has a job, which is to save the kingdom from the incompetents who are running it now.

What's Hamlet got to do with the fate of the kingdom? Plenty. As heir-apparent, he has to make sure that Claudius doesn't screw up his inheritance before he can get to it. This means limiting the influence of the king's chief advisor, the old duffer Polonius; and it means restraining his own impatience.

Hamlet has a perfect means to do the former. He can marry Ophelia, Polonius' daughter, whom he loves anyway. Hamlet would thus have a direct channel to getting Polonius to do what is necessary for the kingdom instead of, for instance, wasting time setting spies on his student son, Laertes.

And Hamlet could have taken the appearance of his father's ghost as a sign that he needs to tread very carefully indeed. Instead, of course, he uses the ghost to justify all kinds of rash behavior.

But he need not do it that way; his tragedy is that he does yield to impulsivity and thus ruins, rather than saves, the kingdom.

The genius of the Branagh production (aside from not cutting the lines, and getting everybody to pronounce their lines distinctly) lies in showing that invasion by young Fortinbras of Norway is the threat the Claudius administration faces and signally fails to deal with.

No matter that Claudius may or may not have assumed the throne illegally by murdering his brother, Hamlet Senior. Kingdoms must go on, and someone must be in charge of them. His title to the throne is not what is at issue; it is his performance as king that is the problem.

Hamlet refuses to see that an illegitimate king still has to do his job, and may even need the help of the heir-apparent to save him from his own mistakes. For in tragedy every character, not just the protagonist, is a tragic figure. And it is the clash between good and good that makes tragedy, since evil is neither a subtle nor a powerful phenomenon despite its ubiquity.

The Claudius of Derek Jacobi is a wonderfully complex presentation, ready to be a worthy opponent for Hamlet and a worthy ally as well, depending on the situation.

Perhaps his power in the part is explained by a remark Jacobi made at the National Press Club in April. "When you are playing a King in Shakespeare you play the man inside the King; and when you are playing a man in Shakespeare you play the king inside the man."

Both Claudius and Hamlet make the same mistake. Claudius lets his love for Gertrude drive him to crime, instead of helping run the kingdom properly. And Hamlet lets his hatred for Claudius drive him to stupidity, instead of helping run the kingdom properly.

Both let their private obsessions dominate their public behavior, and it dooms not only themselves but that which they are supposed to protect with their very lives, namely the well-being of the kingdom and its citizens.

The parallels to our own political situation are disgustingly obvious. We have a President, Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader, and two political parties all of whom, together and apart, are so busy running away from the actual problems of the country that the potential for national tragedy has risen to the level of virtual certainty.

We do not face an invasion; instead, we face disintegration. But just as Claudius thinks he has dealt with Norway by sending an ambassador whose powers are strictly limited and whose report of success is highly suspect, we seem to think that by trying to bribe the middle classes with lower taxes we can keep the country from falling apart.

A balanced budget is no more the answer to America's problems than Hamlet's killing Claudius at prayer would have been to Denmark's. Both were just convenient temptations in lieu of doing something effective instead.

The balanced federal budget of 2002 will be such a small part of Gross Domestic Product that corporate domination of citizens' lives, already rife, will be completely unchecked. And instead of doing anything about economic reform, our modern Hamlets are wandering around listening to the ghost of Adam Smith.

At the end of Hamlet, Fortinbras is King. The kingdom has gone from Claudius, merely incompetent, to Fortinbras, actively malevolent. Branagh's production shows Fortinbras' soldiers violently attacking the palace and even giving poor Osric only the dignity that death conceals.

Hamlet's tragedy is not that he drives his girlfriend mad, kills the Prime Minister unnecessarily, and kills his once-future-brother-in-law and the King without becoming King himself: Rather it is that, by doing all these things, he fails to fulfill his actual duty.

Hamlet should have made Claudius prepare for war in case Fortinbras invaded, and ensured that the embassy to old Norway was effective. Then he should have gone back to Wittenberg, gotten his degree, married Ophelia, and after weeping copiously when Claudius died of old age, made either Horatio or Laertes Prime Minster.

Our modern political Hamlets, likewise full of impulsiveness rather than indecision, cannot be bothered to actually run the country. Instead of childrens' health, they worry about abortion. Instead of job creation, they worry about drug testing. And it is our tragedy that they fill the air with cries and stir their limbs with gestures without accomplishing anything except avoidance of the real problems.

James McCarty Yeager's too, too solid flesh refuses to melt even in the heat of Washington's summers, having practiced on Houston's first.

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