Another new take on Hamlet: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

To our surprise, we’ve read two novels in the last year that riffed off Hamlet.  The first was John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, a clever “prequel” to Hamlet that used Shakespeare’s characters (see this Emsworth post). The second was a fairly new, equally clever, popular novel urged upon us by our wife: David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

David Wroblewski

Unlike Updike, Wroblewski invented his own characters for Edgar Sawtelle, and he set his story in central Wisconsin, not Denmark, but he purposefully took his plot directly from Hamlet. As a result, nearly all the characters represent figures from Hamlet; in fact, some of their names deliberately evoke Shakespeare’s characters. Edgar’s mother, for example, is not “Gertrude,” but “Trudy.” Edgar’s uncle (who becomes Trudy’s lover) is not “Claudius,” but merely Claude. Just as Prince Hamlet’s name was the same as his murdered father’s, Edgar’s name is the same as his father (“Gar”), who is also murdered.

If you’re into Shakespeare, part of the fun of reading Edgar Sawtelle is figuring out which character corresponds to which Hamlet character, and which scenes correspond to which scenes in the play. The royal court’s trusted adviser Polonius, for instance, becomes the Sawtelle family’s trusted friend Dr. Papineau, a veterinarian who advises the Sawtelles on their family business of breeding and training dogs. Laertes becomes the vet’s son Glen, who blames Edgar for his father’s accidental death. The reader is startled to realize, a third of the way through Edgar Sawtelle, that Ophelia is represented by Edgar’s dog, Almondine.

One might well ask whether the essential plot of Hamlet truly has such universality that it merits retelling. When we think of the core stories and legends of our culture — Oedipus and his complex; Ulysses and his long journey home; the Prodigal Son; Hansel and Gretel; the quest for the Holy Grail, to name a few — we think of motifs that trigger sympathetic vibrations deep within us: a boy’s intense, jealous love for his mother, a child’s fear of being left alone, a young man’s wanderlust, the universal yearning for the transcendent. These themes appear and reappear in our literature.

But what of Hamlet‘s story?  Does each of us have a primal fear that our uncle will murder our father to marry our mother?  We all have mothers, we’re all afraid of being abandoned, and we all feel at times that we’re born to wander, but how many of us have nightmares in which our uncles replace our fathers in our mothers’ beds?

The part of Hamlet that resonates, of course, is his dithering and equivocation, his procrastination, and his self-loathing. We can all identify with indecision, and in Edgar Sawtelle Mr. Wroblewski duly makes young Edgar vacillate over what to do after he learns that his uncle has murdered his father. But here the story is strained; noble deeds decisively performed may be expected of a prince, but Edgar is just a boy.

And so Mr. Wroblewski’s gimmick of recycling key elements from Hamlet doesn’t always work — especially with ghostly occurrences.  Those were part of Prince Hamlet’s world, but Edgar Sawtelle is the story of secularized, twentieth-century Americans living somewhat unconventional but nevertheless thoroughly American lives on a farm in Wisconsin, a world where otherworldly manifestations have no place. When the deceased Gar appears to his son Edgar as a ghost, and when other unnatural events occur, one can’t help feeling that the supernatural has been forced into a story where it does not belong, merely because the author concluded that a “re-telling” of Hamlet had to have a ghost.

Other elements seem forced, as well. Because Hamlet includes a scene in which Prince Hamlet persuades the traveling players to re-enact on stage the scene in which Claudius pours poison in his brother’s ear, Mr. Wroblewski wrote a scene in which Edgar’s trained dogs re-enact the scene in which Claude injects his brother with poison. The scene taxes our credulity. And again: in the middle of Hamlet, the prince is dispatched off to England by his uncle. In Edgar Sawtelle, young Edgar is also exiled — but where Hamlet’s adventures away from Elsinore occupy very little of the play (and occur offstage), Edgar’s wanderings around rural Wisconsin (an odyssey that during which, un-Hamlet-like, Edgar learns important truths about himself) occupy a quarter of the novel.

The last few pages of Emsworth’s softcover edition of Edgar Sawtelle included something he has never seen in any book: a transcript of a fawning interview with the author about how he wrote the book (it took him 10 years). Sample (and remember that Edgar’s dog Almondine represents Ophelia): “”That being said, your ‘Ophelia’ is the first one I’ve ever really understood emotionally.” “Thanks very much. I’m very proud to hear you say that.”

We rolled our eyes, figuratively speaking, when we learned from this interview that Mr. Wroblewski (who was 48 years of age in 2008 when this, his first and only novel so far, finally came out) spent a good deal of time talking about it in a masters program writer’s workshop. One thing he and his fellow work-shoppers must have fussed over was whether readers would stay interested in a novel whose twists and turns would necessarily be so predictable.  There was no need to worry.  Either because or in spite of the advice Mr. Wroblewski got from his workshop, Edgar Sawtelle is a first-class page-turner; we know what’s going to happen, but we’re desperate to know how. The prose is excellent, the characters are truly drawn, and Mr. Wroblewski’s powers of description are fully equal to his powers of narration. The book is a keeper.

A new take on Hamlet: John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius

For years I was engaged in a hopeless contest with John Updike as to whether he could churn out new books faster than I could read them. The author was ahead by a dozen lengths when his death in January 2009 gave me a sporting chance at catching up.  Gertrude and Claudius had been sitting patiently on my shelves for nearly ten years, and it was one of the first unread Updike titles that I tackled.

I remember hesitating over whether even to buy it in the first place.  The novel’s premise seemed like a pretentious gimmick that I wouldn’t like: Updike had borrowed both the plot and the characters from Shakespeare’s best-known play.

How wrong I was! I enjoyed Gertrude and Claudius tremendously, and all the more so because I had spent so much time in the preceding year boning up on Hamlet, which we saw on a Stratford Festival stage (Stratford, Ontario) in the summer of 2008 (see Emsworth’s report on that fine production).

Gertrude and Claudius is the back-story of Hamlet, as imagined by Mr. Updike.  If you know Hamlet, you know that a lot has already gone down before the play begins. Prince Hamlet has been at Wittenberg long enough to become a perpetual student, he and Ophelia are already an item, his father had died suddenly for no apparent reason, and his mother and his uncle Claudius are newly married.  The novel starts thirty years before the action of the play when Gertrude was a teenager; it takes us through the wedding of Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet, Act I.

Thanks to Updike, we now know that Elsinore was Gertrude’s father’s castle, and that she was a mere 17 years old and motherless when her first marriage was arranged.  We know the real reason Claudius didn’t come to his brother’s wedding.  We know that King Hamlet was too drunk to consummate his marriage to Gertrude on their wedding night, and we know just how well their marriage turned out. 

And Gertrude and Claudius answers most the questions you might ever have had about Hamlet. Exactly how innocent was the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius before the murder of King Hamlet, and how long had that been going on?  Where did Claudius learn about exotic poisons?  And what might Polonius have had in common with a certain character in Troilus and Cressida?

Hamlet and his mother Gertrude as conceived by Delacroix. Polonius is behind the curtain.

Modern playwrights specify what their characters should look like, but Shakespeare didn’t, and Updike helps us out here as well. He gives us Gertrude as a copper-haired beauty who’d become plump by the time she married Claudius in her late forties, Hamlet as a curly-haired, bearded redhead. 

In writing Gertrude and Claudius John Updike was showing off.  He must have thought it good sport to set about writing a novel based on the characters of Hamlet that would not only meet his usual high standards of storytelling and character development, but would also amount to a scholarly “interpretation” of the play.

Of course, for someone who could write three brilliant sequels to a masterpiece of his own (Rabbit, Run), a “prequel” to someone else’s masterpiece probably wasn’t that much of a stretch.  I enjoyed Gertrude and Claudius not only because I was already intensely interested in its characters (I fell for Updike’s gimmick, after all), and not only because of its many happy allusions to the language of the Bard, but also because this novel was a riveting tale on its own merits.

We rank our ten favorite Shakespeare plays

Sargent - Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Macbeth may not be one of our favorite Shakespeare plays, but this portrait of Ellen Terry playing Lady Macbeth is probably our favorite picture by John Singer Sargent

Since starting the Emsworth blog, we’ve been amazed to see how many first-rate websites and blogs are devoted more or less exclusively to Shakespeare. The one we like best and visit the most is the indispensable Shakespeare Geek, whose learned readers happily debate such enduring questions as whether Hamlet’s mother was in on the murder of his father. The Geek has guest appearances from Shakespeare experts, passes along news from the world of Shakespeare scholarship, and cheers the ongoing impact of Shakespeare on culture.

The Geek recently invited readers to rank their favorite ten Shakespeare plays so he can poll the results. This is our list:

10. Measure for Measure. A bracingly earthy play in which a hypocritical judge sentences fornicators to death, but demands sex from a woman who seeks mercy for her brother. Angelo is one of our favorite villains. And there’s the glorious cameo role of Barnardine, the reprobate who successfully insists that he’s too drunk to be executed.

We were delighted to learn recently that, back in the early 1800s when Thomas Bowdler prepared his editions of Shakespeare with the smutty parts taken out or rewritten to make them suitable for family reading, he threw up his hands and gave up Measure for Measure as an incurable case.

Shylock -- Al Pacino (2004 movie)

Al Pacino as Shylock

9. The Merchant of Venice. The first Shakespeare we ever read and still a top favorite, even though we have yet to see a good production. Who can resist either the trial scene or the “In such a night” duet of Lorenzo and Jessica?

We’d like a moratorium on the whining about the ethnic stereotypes in this play. Sure, Shylock’s character shows evidence of the ingrained prejudices of the day, but the playwright’s affirmation of our common humanity was a breakthrough. And as Portia says, “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.”

8. Troilus and Cressida. All good literature and drama is “relevant” (how we despise that tiresome word!) in today’s world. But what Shakespeare play presents a more apt metaphor for our own times than this tale of Greeks, lost in sensuality and relativism, who have lost the sense of what they’re fighting for, or why it makes any difference which side they’re on? The play’s attractions include two of Shakespeare’s most repulsive characters, Thersites and Pandarus.

Falstaff - Orson Wells

Orson Wells as Falstaff

7. Henry IV, Part 1. The play that gives the best sense of England in the Bard’s own day. Prince Hal’s slumming with Falstaff is great fun.  But the picture of Falstaff’s manning his regiment with unarmed peasants for cannon fodder is sobering. Those were cruel times.

If the Shakespeare Geek were inviting his readers to rank their favorite practical joke scenes in Shakespeare, our favorite would be the prank Falstaff’s fellow villains played him on the highway near Gadshill. (Our second favorite is the hilarious scene in All’s Well in which the blindfolded Paroles, believing himself a prisoner of the enemy, doesn’t hesitate to betray his comrades.)

Prospero -- John Gielgud

John Gielgud as Prospero

6. Othello. So many Shakespeare plays revolve around characters like Iago who control and manipulate people around them that we’ve often thought the playwright must have had recurring fantasies of having godlike control over his fellow humans. But none of the Bard’s other puppet masters is so thoroughly sociopathic as Iago. The visceral impact of the final scene is unparalleled.

5. The Tempest.  Gonzalo will forever be a hero to Emsworth and all bibliophiles because he made sure the castaway Prospero was supplied not only with food and clothes, but also with books:

Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

Even the wretched Caliban knew the value of Prospero’s books:

First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot

4. Hamlet. For all the usual reasons, we never tire of Hamlet. And the comic relief — the garrulous Polonius, the traveling players, the gravediggers — always comes just when the play needs it the most.

Fuchsia -- Mervyn Peake's drawing

Mervyn Peake's drawing of his own character, Fuchsia

3. Twelfth Night. Here we confess that since boyhood we have been prone to hopeless crushes on fictional female characters: Mona in Elizabeth Enright’s The Four-Story Mistake, Perry Mason’s secretary Della Street, Titus Groan’s sister Fuchsia in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Bobbie Wickham in P. G. Wodehouse’s Wooster/Jeeves stories, Jane Austen’s Emma — and the quick-witted, slender-figured Viola, heroine of Twelfth Night.

Feste’s our favorite Shakespeare fool. There’s just no other Shakespeare comedy that we like nearly so well.

2. Julius Caesar. A gripping story, the best plot of any Shakespeare play. So many delicious scenes: Cassius’s courtship of Brutus, the assassination of the tyrant Caesar, the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, the exquisite quarrel between Brutus and Cassius — and especially the cameo appearance of the unfortunate Cinna the poet. “Tear him for his bad verses!”

Brian Bedford as Lear

Brian Bedford as Lear at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, 2007

1. King Lear. This is Emsworth’s favorite Shakespeare.  We identify in an alarming way with Lear, with his monumental mistakes of judgment, with his inability to swallow his pride, with his instinct for the grand and the dramatic.  And Emsworth has three daughters too (and is counting on them to take care of him in his old age)! 

The comic moments in King Lear almost overshadow the tragic. Just when his heartache is most acute, Lear has the presence of mind to address “Poor Tom” with a self-deprecating witticism: “Didst thou give all to thy two daughters?”

King Lear (and Cordelia) on canvas

In an earlier, generously illustrated post, we noted how artists have liked to paint scenes from Hamlet. Happily, artists have also given plenty of attention to Emsworth’s favorite Shakespeare play, King Lear.

The finest Lear picture that we know is also the easiest to see in person, at least for New Yorkers. It’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it illustrates abbey-cordelias-farewell1the end of the dramatic first scene in King Lear. The aging English warrior and king, Lear, has called his three daughters to him in order to divide up his kingdom among them; he plans to enjoy himself in retirement at their respective castles.

With ill-considered vanity, Lear first asks his daughters to tell him how much they love him. Goneril and Regan flatter the old man shamelessly and are awarded their shares of his kingdom. But Cordelia, his youngest daughter and always his favorite, refuses to play the game and arouses the wrath of the choleric old king, who gives her nothing and banishes her in a fit of pique.

Cordelia calls out her hypocritical sisters in a parting speech whose lines are engraved on the frame of Cordelia’s Farewell, the 1894 picture by the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey from the Met shown above:

Ye jewels of our father, with wash’d eyes
Cordelia leaves you: I know you what you are;
And, like a sister, am most loath to call
Your faults as they are nam’d. Use well our father:
To your professed bosoms I commit him:
But yet, alas, stood I within his grace,
I would prefer him to a better place.
So farewell to you both.

The three sisters are on the left side of Abbey’s large painting (nearly ten feet wide!). Regan wears a dark gown, Cordelia wears a bitter smile and holds up the folds of her red dress, and Goneril, in white, points toward the back of the stoop-shouldered Lear, who is followed by a dog. (The dog is not in Shakespeare.)

abbey-the-play-scene-from-hamlet-yale-1897Scenes from Shakespeare seem to have been something of a speciality for Abbey. He used a similar palette in The Play Scene in Hamlet, at the art museum at Yale University (shown here; Hamlet is lying with his head on Ophelia’s lap). It looks as if his models for the two pictures may have been wearing some of the same borrowed costumes and props.

In the play, things go badly for Lear after he has given away his kingdom. Regan and Goneril can’t be bothered with their father and refuse to let him stay with them; they even turn him away in the face of a storm.

william-dyce-king-lear-and-the-fool-in-the-stormAs the tempest reaches its height, Lear wanders on the heath, accompanied only by his Fool and his faithful friend, Kent, railing against the elements, his ungrateful daughters, and the unjustness of the fates. Of all the scenes from Lear, the tempest scene seems to have been the most tempting to painters. This large picture, King Lear and the Fool in the Storm, by the Scottish painter William Dyce, who showed the wind but overlooked the rain, was painted about 1851 and is at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. The Fool is begging his master to go and ask his daughters for mercy: benjamin-west-king-lear-detroit-1788“here’s a night pities neither wise man nor fool” (Act III, scene 2).

Kent persuades Lear, nearly mad with grief, to take shelter in a hut, a scene that is the subject of the American artist Benjamin West’s crowded 1788 painting, King Lear (just above), which is at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the hut, Lear, the Fool, and Kent are joined by Edgar (disguised as a madmen), and then by Lear’s friend Gloucester, who romney-king-lear-in-the-tempest-tearing-off-his-robes-iii-iv-107-12risks the wrath of Lear’s older daughters by offering the king food and shelter. According to Maria Grazia Messina in Shakespeare in Art, the English portrait painter George Romney was “obsessed” with the story of Lear. The Romney painting to the left, King Lear in the Tempest Tearing off his Robes (left), gives us the moment in Act III, scene 4 when Gloucester appears through the storm, looking for Lear. In the center of the picture, Lear is tearing off his clothes in solidarity with the near-naked Edgar; the Fool points to Gloucester, who carries a torch: “Look, here comes a walking fire.”

william_blake_-_lear_and_cordelia_in_prisonToward the end of the play, Cordelia returns from exile with a French army and is briefly reunited with her father, whose senses are recovered and who now realizes how unjust he has been to his youngest daughter. But after a battle, both Lear and Cordelia become prisoners of the bastard Edmund, as depicted in William Blake’s 1779 watercolor, Lear and Cordelia in Prison (above), james_barry_-_king_lear_weeping_over_the_death_of_cordeliawhich is in the Tate Britain in London. At Edmund’s order, Cordelia is hanged. Lear discovers her body and carries her onstage, then himself dies of grief, the scene portrayed in the Irish painter James Barry’s 1774 picture, King Lear Mourns the Death of Cordelia.

The leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival

(August 2008) From a distance, Emsworth has followed the shenanigans at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) over the last year with more than his customary irritation. Let us review the chain of events:

Richard Monette

Richard Monette

     1. In late 2006, Richard Monette retires as the Festival’s Artistic Director after 14 extraordinarily successful years, leaving the Festival in solid shape.

     2. Incredibly, the Festival’s board of directors, under no particular pressure to do so, decides to replace Monette not with one person, but with three: a triumvirate of Marti Maraden, Don Shipley, and Des McAnuff. The three are supposed to have “equal” responsibility for programming and the hiring of talent. Decisions are to be made by “consensus.” Antoni Cimolino is made General Director of the Festival on the understanding that he will keep his fingers out of artistic decisions.

     3. The three co-artistic directors plan a 2008 season with five Shakespeare plays instead of the usual four.  They also include a play by Euripedes, an obscure Spanish play from the late 1500s, and an adaptation of Moby Dick that has essentially no dialogue. They put four of of the five Shakespeare plays in the 1838-seat Festival Theater.  They program two popular musicals (The Music Man and Cabaret), but put them both in the smaller, 1083-seat Avon Theater.  They give the Festival a cumbersome new name, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Marti Maraden

     4. Throughout the fall and winter of 2007-08, the three co-directors can’t agree on much of anything.  More often than not, Des McAnuff is off in London and New York on other projects, making it difficult for Shipley and Maraden to collaborate with him.  Cimolino interferes and makes artistic decisions that Shipley and Maraden think belong to the co-artistic directors.

Antoni Cimolino

     5. On March 8, 2008, Shipley and Maraden quit as artistic directors, citing Cimolino’s interference.  The finger-pointing begins. In an interview, the frustrated Maraden complains there was “no protocol for decision-making.” Cimolino claims he intervened only when the three couldn’t agree on major points. To her credit, Maraden keeps her commitment to direct All’s Well That Ends Well and The Trojan Women during the 2008 Stratford season. (See the Emsworth review of All’s Well at this post.)

Des McAnuff

     6. Des McAnuff — the member of the triumvirate who apparently had the least time to devote to the job, and whose resume is thinnest in classical theater — is installed as sole Artistic Director. In July, Dean Gabourie is appointed as assistant artistic director.

     7. Predictably, tickets for The Music Man and Cabaret are are scarce. Meanwhile, the Shakespeare plays are performed before hundreds of empty seats in the Festival Theater.

     8. In mid-July, Cimolino and McAnuff warn Stratford personnel that the Festival is on track to lose as much as $5 million during the 2008 season. They blame gas prices, the U.S.-Canadian currency exchange rate (currently disadvantageous to us Americans), and a general decline in Ontario tourism — everything but the directors’ programming decisions. Personnel cutbacks and a less ambitious season are forecast for 2009.

Any fool who has spent any time with artistic types would know that appointing three experienced, strong-willed directors who don’t know each other very well to be co-artistic directors of a major repertory theater company, with all major decisions to be made by “consensus,” is a recipe for disaster. What was the Board of Directors thinking?

Anyone could also have predicted that feelings would be hurt and relationships damaged upon the inevitable collapse of the triumvirate. One can only hope that Don Shipley and Marti Maraden will not be so soured by their leading roles in this debacle that Stratford audiences will be deprived of their talents in future years.

Stratford's Festival Theatre

Stratford's Festival Theatre

But the Board’s decision to place the Festival’s artistic direction in the hands of a three-person committee can also be blamed for the programming decisions that will apparently cost the Festival millions of dollars this year. (Emsworth gloomily predicts that it will not be long until he and other members of the Stratford Festival are called upon to to help narrow the deficit.)  Not one of the three, I would wager, if the responsibility had been his or hers alone, would have gambled the 2008 season on the proposition that large audiences would fill the Festival Theater to see The Taming of the Shrew and All’s Well That Ends Well, or that audiences would buy tickets for a lesser-known Shakespeare play (Love’s Labours Lost) as readily as they would for (say) a popular work by Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, or Tennessee Williams.  But responsibility was diluted.  When you bargain for decision-making by committee (“the buck stops nowhere”), that’s what you get.

Robin Phillips

Most irritating of all is that the Stratford Festival has been through this before.  A friend recently lent Emsworth a copy of A Stratford Tempest, a 1982 book by the Toronto journalist Martin Knelman about the leadership debacle that followed in the wake of the 1980 resignation of another highly successful artistic director, Robin Phillips. Amazingly, the book relates, the Board of Directors chose to replace Phillips with a committee of nine co-artistic directors!

In short order, most of this unwieldy committee resigned.  The remaining four put together a promising 1981 season — but then the Board of Directors panicked, fired the four, revamped the season, and hired a single artistic director, John Hirsch.  The Festival lost a lot of money that year, too. Many of the survivors of the 1981 debacle are still associated with the Stratford Festival, including Brian Bedford, Marti Maraden, Martha Henry, and others.  Why can’t an organization like the Stratford Festival learn from its own mistakes?

Hamlet (and Ophelia) on canvas

John William Waterhouse's "Ophelia"

Seeing Hamlet recently at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) reminded this art museum junkie that he has also seen a good deal of Hamlet, Ophelia, and other Hamlet characters on the walls of art museums. (See the Emsworth review of the Stratford’s Hamlet, in the summer of 2008, which starred Ben Carlson in the title role and the bodacious Adrienne Gould as Ophelia, in this post.) We checked our notes from our museum travels and did a little research.

From the late 18th century through the nineteenth, the urge to paint Hamlet was epidemic. Here, for instance, the noted British portrait artist Thomas Lawrence painted the actor J. P. Kemble as Hamlet. In a portrait of St. Peter, keys to the kingdom would dangle from the saint’s belt; in a portrait of St. Sebastian, arrows would pierce the saint’s breast. For Hamlet, apparently, a skull in the hand identifies the melancholy Dane.

The Hamlet painted in 1866 by Edouard Manet, on the other hand, has a sword at his feet, presumably in anticipation of the fatal fencing contest Manet - The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet) (Natl Gall DC 1866)he is about to have with Laertes. Manet’s picture, entitled “The Tragic Actor,” is a portrait of the 19th-century French actor Philibert Rouvière delivering one of the soliloquies from Hamlet. According to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to which the painting belongs, Rouvière was noted for his “highly pitched, emotional performances” in Hamlet.

Painters tended to paint the moments of high melodrama in the play, as played by the celebrated Shakespeare actors and actresses of the day. The French romanticist Eugene Delacroix, for instance, portrayed Hamlet with his mother at the moment when Hamlet is about to stab Polonius through the curtain behind which Polonius is hiding. Another Delacroix painting shows Hamlet, seconds later, contemplating the corpse of Ophelia’s unfortunate father.

Ophelia was the most popular Hamlet subject, especially among the pre-Raphaelites. Edwin Austin Abbey painted the dramatic moment during the “play scene” in which the players act out the murder of King Hamlet by Claudius:

Hamlet: Lady shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

The best-known pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted Ophelia in the company of King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and Ophelia’s concerned brother, Laertes, who exclaims, “Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia! O heavens! Is’t possible a young maid’s wits should be as mortal as an old man’s life?” Ophelia sprinkles herbs and flowers on the ground, saying, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died, they say a’ made a good end.” The picture is titled The First Madness of Ophelia.

Ophelias on canvas tend to be limpid, dazed-looking fantastics, like the John William Waterhouse painting at the top of this post. Another pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais, painted Ophelia as a corpse, floating down the river, covered with garlands, looking much like a drowned peacock. This picture is at the Tate Gallery (Britain) in London; Elizabeth Siddal was Millais’s model.

The gravedigging scene was also an attractive subject for Hamlet painters. Delacroix painted more than one version of the gravedigger holding up to Hamlet and Horatio the skull of the jester Yorick, the fellow of infinite jest and of most excellent fancy, who, Hamlet reflects, had played with him when he was a boy: “Here hung those lips that I have kiss’d I know not how oft; where be your gibes now? Not one now to mock your own grinning, quite chop-fallen.”

What about King Lear, the Fool, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia on canvas? See this post.

What Harry Potter could have learned from Hamlet

Despite his best intentions, Emsworth has occasional brushes with popular culture. A few years ago, for example, he fell prey to the addictive tales of J. K. Rowling. What a story-teller! But the way she concluded her Potter story in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, released about a year ago, was hugely unsatisfactory.  Now, after spending some time with Shakespearean tragedy (for example, see Emsworth’s review of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in this post), Emsworth is in a position to explain why.

J. K. Rowling simply failed to respect the rules of tragedy. For six heart-racing volumes, the Harry Potter saga was shaping up as one of the grand tragedies in our literature. But in the end, Rowling lacked the intestinal fortitude needed to end her tale properly.

The rules of tragedy have been well understood since Aristotle laid them down 2,000 years ago, and I summarize them here, not intending to patronize any readers, but merely to refresh them on what they learned while studying Julius Caesar in ninth grade. A tragedy must, first, be a serious story about a conflict between a hero and a great malign force. In a tragedy, moreover, the hero must undergo a change of fortune, preferably because of his own mistake or flaw, leading to a disastrous, heart-rending denouement.

Consider Lear, that warrior king and grand personality, whose fatal mistake is to misjudge the characters of his daughters and to surrender his kingdom prematurely. With his world aligned against him, he loses everything. King Lear ends, oh so satisfyingly, with a stage strewn with corpses. Kent and Edgar, who survive, rule in Lear’s place.

Consider Othello, that great general and commanding figure, whose fatal weakness is to trust the sociopathic Iago and to allow him to plant fatal seeds of jealousy in his bosom. Weakened, Othello loses everything, and the play ends (once again, most gratifyingly) with blood and bodies everywhere. Gratiano, a minor character, succeeds to Othello’s place.

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

Now consider Harry Potter, a hero among heroes, a wizard prodigy, a born leader and Quidditch captain, whose destiny is to battle the world’s greatest wizard. Like Lear, Othello, and Hamlet, Harry has a fatal weakness: a powerful connection with Voldemort tempts him to the dark side. Harry flirts too closely with evil and, in a moment of ambition and weakness, betrays his friends. Too late, he repents, and the story ends with bodies (including his own) and wands broken and strewn over the great hall at Hogwarts. The wizard world starts anew; a minor character, Neville Longbottom, succeeds to the place in the world of wizards that Harry might have held.

Only, of course, that’s not how J. K. Rowling wrote it. Because she lost her nerve plotting and writing the final volume, Harry never makes a fatal mistake, never loses his way, and rises safely and blandly from the wreckage of the final battle.

And so do Hermione and Ron. And so does practically everyone else. In fact, after all the hullabaloo and speculation by Potter fans over what would transpire, who among the Order of the Phoenix actually dies? An elf. The werewolf. The duplicitous Severus Snape. One of the Weasley twins (the twins do not have distinct personalities). Tonks (you probably don’t remember who she was, either).

J.K. Rowling lost her nerve in "Deathly Hollows"

In fact, at no point in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — for that matter, at no point in the series — are readers called upon to deal emotionally with the deaths of any character they have truly come to care about, except Dumbledore, and his age and infirmity take the sting out of his loss. J. K. Rowling flinched at her final task, which was to break our hearts.

She even shrunk from disposing of her villains. What possible reason could Rowling have had for letting Percy Weasley live? When a character in a tragedy has lost his way and gone over to the enemy, he must perish, even if he has belatedly seen the light. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this; that’s why the great warrior Boromir was slain at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

And why, oh why, does Draco Malfoy survive? In a properly staged final battle, Harry’s arch-enemy would repent and, in a moment of high drama, would strike a critical blow on Harry’s side. Then, having atoned for his earlier wickness, and in a state of grace, Draco would die fighting. At the very least, Draco should die at the hand of the Dark Lord, so as to punish his parents for their wickedness. But nothing of the sort happens. Readers are not even told what happens to Draco after Harry last encounters him.

Let there be no mistake: J. K. Rowling wanted to write a tragedy. Why else would she have attached an epigraph to the Deathly Hallows in the form of a quotation from the playwright Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy (died 455 B.C.)?  But when it came down to cases, she lacked the stomach for the tragic conclusion that her story deserved.

From the dark tone of the fifth and sixth books, we were fully justified in expecting that (a) the forces of good would, in the final conflict, sustain serious losses and (b) that even if the Dark Lord were defeated, the wizard world would never be the same. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, to which the Harry Potter saga owes much, the defeat of Sauron marked the end of an age and the departure of the elves from Middle-earth.

Instead, Rowling left readers in a wizard world where all was copacetic, where the survivors were happily mated up, and where their little wizard offspring were happily heading off to Hogwarts. Sentimental rubbish, and a good tragedy wasted.

Hamlet at the Stratford Festival (a review)

(July 2008) This year’s Hamlet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) really surprised us, from the casting to the pacing to unexpected moments of humor.  But this show really works.

The ghost of King Hamlet (James Blendick) and Prince Hamlet (Ben Carlson)

We knew we were in for something different from the opening scene.  Everyone knows, of course, the opening of Hamlet: jittery guards pacing over the foggy, ghost-infested ramparts of Elsinore Castle, folklore about supernatural visitations, debating how to let Prince Hamlet know that they have seen the shade of his late father. Like the ominous themes at the beginning of a Tchaikovsky symphony, the opening scene of Hamlet sets the mood for an evening of gloom. There’s only one way to play it.

Or so we thought. In this production, this opening scene went by in a flash. The ghost of the late King Hamlet (James Blendick) had given Prince Hamlet (Ben Carlson) his marching orders (“Revenge my foul and most unnatural murder!”) and retreated to purgatory almost before we had settled into our seats and staked our claim to the armrest.  Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio popped up through the trapdoor, whipped through their lines, and made their exits.  The scene changed, and Claudius and Gertrude, the happy newlyweds, were leading a promenade at a castle ball.

This Hamlet reminded me of nothing more than fast-paced thriller motion pictures from the 1930s and 1940s like The Big Sleep and Foreign Correspondent, filled with snappy repartee and action sequences. The movie connection was reinforced by the military-looking costumes worn and the rifles carried by many of the male characters (props not mentioned in my edition of Hamlet), and also by the use of blinding spotlights at different points in the play, meant, no doubt, to suggest the play’s probing into the dark recesses of the souls of Claudius, Gertrude, and Prince Hamlet.

Ben Carlson

Ben Carlson

We know Ben Carlson well from his work at the Shaw Festival. Several years ago, we saw him as Jack Tanner in a full-length version of Man and Superman, in which he had an almost impossibly long part to learn, compared to which memorizing his lines for Hamlet must have seemed like child’s play.

It is now clear that his talents are as well fitted for Shakespeare as for Shaw. Like the very best actors we have seen at Stratford, Carlson manages to make Elizabethan English intelligible to twenty-first century audiences, even when delivered, as here, at hyperspeed. (Instead of a melancholy Dane, this production of Hamlet features a manic Dane; the manic effect is exaggerated by stage lighting that leaves Carlson’s eyes mostly in shadow, not unlike a raccoon.) Best of all, Carlson showed us that Hamlet includes a healthy share of witty lines. I doubt that audiences at Stratford have ever laughed so much during performances of Hamlet.

The casting of this production defied all my preconceptions. In my mind’s eye, I see the Danish prince as a tall, slim, brooding teenager with an introspective, romantic bent. But Ben Carlson is a stocky man of medium height at best, decidedly older than what one might expect from a student at the University of Wittenberg (granted, the character is actually thirty, according to the gravedigger), thoroughly extroverted, with just a hint of incipient middle-age paunch. He’s no heartthrob.

Maria Ricossa as Gertrude

The same went for other characters.  I imagine Gertrude as a full-figured, vaguely sensuous woman approaching middle age, but Maria Ricossa, a trim, brisk Gertrude, is fully satisfactory.  I think of Ophelia as a barely adolescent flower girl who mopes around Elsinore; Adrienne Gould gives us a spunky Ophelia who knows her mind.  We liked her a lot, all the more because our expectations for Ophelias are so low.

Mercifully, this Hamlet spares us overlays of Freudian psychology.  Gertrude has no incestuous designs on Hamlet, and Oedipus does not rear his head. However, this Hamlet was systematically stripped of melodrama, which many theater lovers will miss. The show never slows down, even for dramatic effect, not in the scene in which Hamlet flinches from dispatching the conscience-ridden Claudius as he prays, not even when it is finally time for Horatio to say, over Hamlet’s corpse,

Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Laertes and Claudius

Laertes and Claudius

(Act V, Scene 2.) Claudius (Scott Wentworth) and Laertes (Bruce Godfree) keep up a brisk dialogue even as they play billiards (badly) and plot the murder of Prince Hamlet during Act IV, Scene 7. (The large billiard table on which they played was another distracting prop not indicated in my edition of the play.) To my surprise, by the end of the play the rapid dialogue seemed natural; we’d gotten used to it.

The Players

This was still a long play, a little over three hours; not much seemed to be cut. Fortinbras and his army, left out in some modern productions, duly appeared, and the play was better for their presence. The same for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Best of all, we saw and heard much from a marvelous troup of traveling players, who endured Hamlet’s gratuitous advice about how to act their parts with as good a humor as Laertes tolerated Polonius’s advice to be true to his own self.

Hamlet and Ophelia as conceived by Eugene Delacroix and Dante Gabriel Rossetti? See this Emsworth post on painters who’ve done scenes from Hamlet.

Seeing Hamlet reminded Emsworth of how J. K. Rowling lost her nerve in the final volume of the Harry Potter saga. See this post on what Harry Potter could have learned from Hamlet and other Shakespearean tragedies.

For Emsworth’s review of the Stratford’s Festival All’s Well That Ends Well, see this post.  For Emsworth’s review of Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival, see this post.

Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, including Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (see this post); Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).

Emsworth gripes about the recent leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival, which resulted last winter in Des McAnuff’s becoming the sole artistic director of the Festival, in this post.