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I studied Othello for my Leaving Certificate examinations. I really like that play, so drama studies was one of the few classes I looked forward to. Our teacher decided to take us to see a production of Othello showing in the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin. The director had made an interesting choice. While a white actor in blackface played the Moor, he cast the part of Iago with a black actor. This was intended as a comment on the racial politics surrounding productions of the play in the past. Thankfully it is rare to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production featuring a white actor in the main title anymore. Unfortunately the overall play that we saw was fairly mediocre. I will never forget the actress playing Desdemona slipping into her native D4 accent mid-speech: “O-thell-looah”. Yikes.

I will always remember that play though, as it showed a certain bravery in attempting to reinterpret Shakespeare, who has become a sacred cow that we mere mortals are not allowed to doubt. I love the language of the plays, the sonnets, I love the mystery as to the Bard’s own identity, I love his use of propaganda in the historical plays – but above all the work of William Shakespeare was intended to be entertainment. Its richness and wit were part of the package, but in the years since his work has been raised on a pedestal, become abstract, divorced from the sense of fun often present in the plays. His writing is full of profundity, but it also was intended to get a laugh.

By divorcing the ‘genius’, of Shakespeare’s plays from the content – be it frivolous, thrilling, or indeed a ‘weepie’ – we have done his memory a huge disservice. He is the dry, dusty voice of academic lectures, while the height of wit enjoyed by the likes of his audiences has been replaced by: Hallo ladies, Look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me, sadly he isnt me

“Hey Mike, get this Bill Shakespeare on the blower, I think we have the purrfect guy for that Othello part!”

McCreery and Del Col’s story begins with the history of Prince Hamlet. Exiled from the castle of Elsinore following his murder of Pelonius, his friend Rosencrantz confesses to him that he and Guildenstern have been commanded by King Claudius to make him a captive of the King of England. Before Hamlet can decide on a course of revenge, he is visited by a dreadful vision, which in turn is interrupted by an attack of pirates.

The ship lost, his friend dead and Hamlet barely escaping with his life, he comes to on the shores of England. He is welcome by King Richard III (notice anything) who informs him of a prophecy by three witches (nudge, nudge) that he is to kill an evil god known as Shakespeare (meta!). Richard promises Hamlet that if he does this his father will be returned to life and his evil uncle Claudius dethroned. The Danish Prince agrees and accompanied by the king’s aide Iago (eep!) sets off on his quest.

This book is great fun. Shakespeare’s villains including Richard, Iago, Lady MacBeth and Don Jon conspire to destroy their own creator, whereas rebels known as ‘prodigals’, such as Juliet Capulet, Othello and Falstaff seek to prevent their enemies from succeeding. In this ‘England’, Shakespeare is a literal god, whose power is represented by a talismanic quill that Richard wishes to possess. The villains of course plot and scheme against one another, while the ragged band of heroes try to convince Hamlet to do the right thing and protect the innocent country folk harried by murderous soldiers in service to the king.

There are a number of other books out there, such as Mike Carey’s The Unwritten, or Bill Willingham’s Fables that are similar to this, although I imagine Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, particularly the Midsummer Night’s Dream storyline, is the primary inspiration for this mash-up of ‘high’, and ‘low’, culture. My personal favourite example of this trope is Bugs Bunny abridging Wagner’s Ring Cycle to seven minutes!

However, this book earns bonus points for making Othello bad-ass. Check out that panel up top.

Here’s a fun, unpretentious mash-up of classic literary figures and an action/adventure story. Great fun.

Do I dream? Cried Manfred returning, or are the devils themselves in league against me? Speak, infernal spectre! Or, if thou art my grandsire, why does thou too conspire against thy wretched descendant, who too dearly pays for – Ere he could finish the sentence the vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him Lead on! Cried Manfred; I will follow thee to the gulph of perdition.

The Castle of Otranto is a book that has achieved immortality courtesy of first year English students in college. It is a literary virus, passed on from one generation to the next, thanks to this –

It is generally regarded as the first gothic novel, initiating a literary genre which would become extremely popular in the later 18th century and early 19th century. Thus, Castle, and Walpole by extension is arguably the forerunner to such authors as Charles Robert Maturin, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne du Maurier.(wiki)

It is a footnote, a book no one ever reads outside of completionists and academics. So while I knew of it, I never bothered to investigate. I was surprised to find that I liked it.

Walpole’s tragic tale begins with Manfred the lord of the castle Otranto preparing for his son’s wedding. He is eager to continue his family line and despite the sickliness of his heir Conrad, rests all his hopes on his union with Isabella, the daughter of a missing lord with a rival claim to his lands. Manfred’s grandfather inherited the castle and its territories from Alfonso. His claim to it is weak and he fears the return of Isabella’s father from the Crusades. He is also aware of an obscure prophecy, which hints at a dire fate for his family line.

On the night of the wedding tragedy strikes when Conrad is found crushed beneath a giant helmet. The castle is thrown into confusion – although secretly Isabella is relieved as she felt little love for her arranged match. Manfred flies into a rage when a mysterious peasant points out that the helmet belongs to the statue of Alfonso. He orders the stranger to be kept captive beneath the helm that crushed his own son. This macabre command shows how his rage has begun to warp his judgment. Manfred in desperation to avoid fate decides on a new course of action. He commands his pious wife Hippolyta and daughter Matilda to remain in their chambers and asks Isabella to join him. When they are alone he attempts to force her to consent to marry him. He blames his wife for producing an unsuitable heir and has decided to divorce her. Isabella refuses and flees in terror. Manfred becomes a man possessed and orders the castle searched to find her. As the night continues there are further signs of the supernatural within the grounds. Spirits and agents of God’s divine will makes themselves known, condemning Manfred’s desperate madness.

Reading Walpole’s novella it is obvious the influence it had on books such as Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. There are corrupt lords and foul deeds hidden behind castle walls. Unnatural portents and the very real threat of damnation. What surprised me was the influences contemporary readers can detect in Walpole’s own novel. The plot bears a slim resemblance to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, once again due to palace intrigues and lordly haunts. Furthermore though there are occasional comic scenes, with servant girl Bianca and the idiotic duo of Jaquez and Diego stretching Manfred’s patience to breaking point with their babble. These scenes of aristocrats growing increasingly impatient with their ‘domestics’, owes a lot to Shakespeare’s comedies, such as the encounter between Dogberry and Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing.

There is also doomed romance and melancholy princes, as well as a silent knight whose presence threatens Manfred. All in all a gripping yarn.

It deserves better than to be a footnote in a college text book. Jan Svankmajer appears to agree.

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