At the Globe Theatre last Wednesday afternoon I had the good fortune to witness the rendering of devilish deeds in the Court of Elsinore. A Prince Hamlet thereto was most energetically acted by the esteemed member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Mr Richard Burbage. Forsooth Mr Burbage was the very Prince. But, methinks Prince Hamlet, in Mr Shakespeare’s rendering, a lily-livered un-prince-like prince. He doth protest too much with his to be upon this globe or to die speech, and wishing his too too too solid flesh to resolve itself into a mist. ( Your pun will not be punning if you take this play out of the Globe Theatre!) I thinkest well about the sweet delights of melancholy but the Prince herein doth wear his liver (an excess of bile!), pancreas and heart upon his sleeve. In short he is not a man; he is a snivelling brat; a slave of unkempt passion. In Mr Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy we see a real man; a hero who avenges his son. Revenge, as private revenge, is indeed a noble deed legitimised by our Holy Old Testament. Methinks Prince Hamlet is not a Christian. ( Are’t thou a Pagan?)
In this theatrical presentation there is a metaphysical comedic interlude whereupon two grave-diggers unearth a festering human skull. There was much laughter among the groundlings at the clownish antics of these gravediggers. Me-thought that it was a device of theatrical proportions that Prince Hamlet knew the once- living owner of this skull. (Much skullduggery afoot!) A piece of luck devoutly not to be wished. Mr Shakespeare here inserted some lines of verse to play on the feelings of his audience like a viol player upon his viol. “Alas poor friend – my Yorrick, I knew him.” (Alas that is not an iambic pentameter.) Moreover Hamlet talks of the dust from Alexander’s bones stopping up an ale-barrel. He talks of kissing lips that have perished; Mr Kyd would not elaborate such versified sentiment, methinks, without a beauteous display of rhymes.
The King Claudius in this performance is a manipulative self-seeking character. Most convincingly played by the rotund Mr William Slye. Look you readers upon his ‘Oh my offense is sour; it reeks to heavenly heights,” speech. It is a moving moment whereupon his guilt shivers upon the bare stage. Mr Nicholas Tooley plays the Queen Gertrude, another doomed character, uttering her last breath in the last scenes of this tableau of terror. I should, alas, also add that there is a most brassy bloodbath in this finale, not for the faint hearted.
The Prince doth act most ungallantly toward the poor Ophelia in this Revenge Tragedy, berating her virginal womanhood with false and distraught accusations. I am loath to understand the ratiocinations of his disordered soul. It is, forsooth, the very epitome of ecstasy, resolving this and acting not; deferring, deferring, procrastinating, rooted to the ground like a statue. Man is indeed distinguished from the animal by the powers of Reason not Unreason.
Mr Shakespeare: if I may be so bold to address you. I can furnish you with the address of my esteemed friend Mr Webster, who has among his effects a manuscript of Mr Kyd’s titled, The Householders Philosophie. I urge you to study this folio for your edification. I know you will not plagiarize but invite you to merely learn from the master.
How to Live on the Moon
Pack copies of Outstanding Stories,
one well-used board game, Blast Off
(a game of modern space exploration
for 1-4 players; planet Earth version)
a Meccano Moon Base Kit,
Jack and the Beanstalk vegetable seeds,
and ensure your Dan Dare space suit
is in good working order.
Before countdown re-read
Spacecraft Commander’s Briefing
for an extra confidence-boost.
After blast off relax and read
HG Wells’ First Men in the Moon,
to the accompaniment
of the Moonlight Sonata.
After touch down
adjust your Dan Dare suit,
relax for a few minutes
-read your Eagle comic
-help yourself to coffee
from your personalised vacuum pack
before stepping out onto an alien world.
It is difficult to do justice to this masterpiece. It is a book of profound spiritual teaching about mortality and values. Poor Ivan has an existential crisis which would do justice to Jean Paul Sartre! He asks of his life, “What is it all about? It can’t be that life is so senseless and loathsome.” His crisis is triggered by illness, which – along with loss or other traumatic experiences – is an all too common factor in forcing us to question our lives. As we get older and, if we have the courage, we start to review our lives honestly without flinching from the ‘mistakes’ we have inevitably made. It takes a long time for Ivan to face himself in this story but eventually he says: “What if in reality my whole life has been wrong?” Once he asks this question he struggles to suppress it but it gradually becomes more insistent in his thoughts until he has to accept it. He wonders if all his career moves, ambition and marriage have been a sham and perhaps qualities such as compassion and kindness ‘might have been the real thing.’ He reviews his early life and recognises that childhood had something which he lost as he grew older – innocence and honesty perhaps!? His peasant servant, Gerassim, epitomises simple, honest kindness. There are many moving passages where he simply helps poor Ivan in his distress. The ending is far from depressing too; I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it but just to say it is a perfect resolution to all that has gone before.
I can’t imagine many young readers understanding the deeper aspects of this story as when you are in your twenties your energies go into strengthening your ego and pursuing material and emotional security at the expense of more universal, lasting contentment. It was living his life in the light of everyone else’s opinion which created the sham of Ivan’s life.
This is a novella that bears repeated readings. If you haven’t read this masterpiece you simply MUST! Surely it counts as one of world literature’s timeless jewels.