Dillon's Interpretation of Hamlet

A player's Hamlet
Man of Action
The ghost
Hamlet's madness
Hamlet's death

A player's Hamlet

On hearing of the arrival of the players, Hamlet does not ask the natural question "What players are they?" until after he has prescribed their roles and corresponding fates: "He that plays the king shall be welcome - his majesty shall have tribute of me; etc." The six roles he describes and the fates they suffer match the other main characters in Hamlet, and so arose the idea of a touring company of six stock-character actors, directed by Hamlet, performing the outer as well as the inner play, in a manner reflecting the practices of the world's two oldest surviving theatrical forms, Commedia and Noh.

Man of Action

I try to avoid forming any directorial concept before rehearsals, but after ten years of wanting to play Hamlet and after seeing many ill-conceived productions (the only performance I have admired unreservedly has been that of Mark Rylance), it was inevitable that I should have formulated some idea of what the play and the character are about. Towards the end of the play, Hamlet says he has "been in continual practise" at swordsmanship, and the King bets on him defeating Laertes in nine out of twelve passes. Knowing that the role demanded some skill with a sword, and lacking any fencing training myself but with a little experience of Chinese martial arts and a fascination with Japanese culture, I began Kendo training on 6th May 1991, not knowing that it would influence my entire outlook on Hamlet, acting and life in general. When I did eventually come to play Hamlet, I found in him no trace of the conventional intellectual prevaricator, and further study of the development of action within the play, its stage history, and Elizabethan thinking on royalty, ghosts, revenge, madness, and readiness for death confirmed my feeling that Hamlet is a classical Man of Action.

The events of the play are, in true classical fashion, highly condensed, with one incident rapidly following upon another in a near continuous stream of action. Each of the three movements of the play covers a period of no more than 48 hours. Hamlet's self-reproach in the soliloquies and in the closet scene, far from being the self-disgust of a prevaricator actually springs from the frustration of a man who can and does kill in an instant in both hot and cold blood. By contrast, Laertes's willingness to cut Hamlet's throat in the church, which academics have often admiringly contrasted with Hamlet's supposed inaction, reveals only cowardice.

With the example of Charles Windsor before them and a stage history of two centuries of romantic misrepresentation, critics and audiences may expect to see royally stiff-backed, pompously-spoken, neurotic Hamlets laboriously weighing up the pros and cons of getting up off their backsides to actually do something. Personally I find nothing so tiresome as watching actors putting on airs to play aristocracy, (they should study just how gauche the truly noble Miss Bonham-Carter can be), and while the 60s idea of Hamlet as working-class hero may not be strictly correct, to the Elizabethans it would have proved more royally than Hamlet the Ponce.

The ghost

Elizabethans held three views on ghosts: Catholics believed they were spirits released from purgatory for a purpose; Protestants held that they were devils; and sceptics thought them the illusions of melancholy minds. The Ghost in Hamlet has something of each doctrine, so neither the Prince nor the audience can be sure of his story. The veracity of the Ghost has great significance for the question of whether Hamlet delays; whether he is a hero or a coward. To be an avenger and not just an assassin, Hamlet must confirm the Ghost's story before killing the King, and realising this he instantly forms a plan to go 'undercover'. Although two months pass between his first interview with the Ghost and the play-within-the-play (when he gets the corroboration he needs), and another two months pass before he returns from England and kills Claudius, despite his own misgivings and self-accusation these delays are entirely due to factors outside Hamlet's character or control.

Hamlet's madness

A more truly ambiguous question is the reality or not of Hamlet's lunacy. In Act One Hamlet declares his intention to "put an antic disposition on", but later, in his treatment of Ophelia and the killing of Polonius, he appears to be genuinely, tormentedly mad, so that when he tells his mother that he is "not in madness, but mad in craft", neither she nor the audience can believe him. The question is not answerable from the text, but it is one which every actor of the role must consider. Just as in the martial ways, physical discipline also trains the mind and spirit, so, like Plato, I believe that by the repetition of roles actors come to resemble the characters they play. This applies both to Hamlet and to the actor playing him. Richard III is famous for giving actors bad backs, and Hamlet is renowned for driving actors mad; one recent British Oscar winner had to quit a National Theatre production after (reportedly) seeing the ghost of his dead father in a lift!

Both Hamlet and Ophelia lose their self-control and this ultimately causes their own deaths, and so by the definition of madness as a self-defeating loss of reason, both may be considered truly mad. But there is a more modern notion of madness which that cracked actor, Antonin Artaud, summarised:

"And what is an authentic madman? It is a man who has preferred to go mad, in the sense in which society understands the term, rather than be false to a certain superior idea of human honour ... a madman is also a man to whom society did not want to listen and whom it wanted to prevent from uttering unbearable truths."

Hamlet's death

For me, Hamlet is, above all, a play about coming to terms with death. At the beginning Hamlet cannot accept the death of his father. By the end he has accepted his own - "The readiness is all." Playing the final act, I was constantly reminded of the Hagakure's advice:-

"I discovered that the Way of the Samurai is death. In a fifty-fifty life or death crisis, simply settle it by choosing immediate death. just brace yourself and proceed ... In order to be a perfect samurai, it is necessary to prepare oneself for death morning and evening day in and day out. When a samurai is constantly prepared for death, he has mastered the Way of the Samurai, and he may unerringly devote his life to the service of his lord."

The background to Hamlet's philosophy is, of course, Christian but several Christian commentaries contain attitudes similar to the Hagakure. Martin Luther said that Christians "should behave as those who are at every moment ready for death", Calvin that "we ought to live as if we were every moment about to depart this life" and St. Francis Bales in Letters to Persons in the World wrote: "Happy are they who, being always on their guard against death, are always ready to go". Christ himself preached:

"Watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord will come... Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh." (Mathew 24:42 & 44).

Perhaps, as we approach the end of the millennium, this coming to terms with impending doom explains the current popularity of the play.

This article first appeared in the programme for George Dillon's production of Hamlet in 1995. Other pages from that programme are also available:

Quotes on Hamlet
Hamlet's Stage History
Hamlet - Story, Dates, Sources, Texts, Cuts
William Shakespeare

© George Dillon, 1995

George Dillon's Tour Dates

(as of Friday, 15 December 2017)

Show              Date                     TOWN, Venue               

DECEMBER

Black Curtain Friday
15th Dec 2017
LONDON,
Soho Theatre

2018

FEBRUARY

Graft - Tales of an Actor Sunday
11th Feb 2018
RUGBY,
Rugby School

Workshop Monday
12th Feb 2018
RUGBY,
Rugby School

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