There’s a strong Freudian thread running through the Donmar Warehouse production of Hamlet starring Jude Law now playing at the Broadhurst Theater in New York.
But not the expected one.
Law’s Hamlet isn’t working through any Oedipal conflicts and there are no repressed incestuous urges inspiring his verbal and physical assaults on his mother in the scene following his accidental murder of Polonius. Hamlet is driven by a general homicidal rage unleashed by the unfortunate old man’s death. When Hamlet crouches over his terrified mother it’s in the posture of a berserk warrior about to deliver the coup de grace to a fallen enemy whose identity doesn’t matter to him and who is interesting to him only as a target for his bloody-minded fury. All he says about his mother and his uncle is just ranting. He’s barely listening to himself. It’s only the arrival of his father’s ghost that snaps him out of it. Otherwise Gertrude would just have been the second victim of a mass murder that would have ended the play two acts early.
This is one angry Hamlet.
A murderous rage has been driving him since the ghost’s first appearance and it’s been growing but until he stabs Polonius it has expressed itself in…jokes.
Which is where Freud makes his entrance.
Hamlet is a witty young man, but Jude Law is the first actor I’ve seen who’s recognized that Hamlet’s preferred forms of humor are forms of hostility---sarcasm, insults and put-downs, and verbal practical jokes in which he takes what other characters say and turns their own words back on them to make them look foolish in the literary equivalent of pulling their chairs out from under them as they go to sit down.
This is is not the melancholy Dane of legend sighing through speeches in which he wishes for death and contemplates suicide. As Law plays him, his defining speeches aren’t the more famous “Too too solid flesh” and “To be or not to be” blank verse soliloquies but the short prose speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
“Quintessence of dust” is a punchline. The speech is a NOT joke, as in People are amazing---NOT. Life is worth living---NOT. Your existence matters to me---NOT. Hamlet sets up his friends (and the audience) to expect a prettily worded and high-minded point and then slaps them in the face with his blunt cynicism.
Two themes from Freud cross at this point in Law’s performance. Freud famously elaborated on the connection between humor and anger and aggression. But he also defined depression as anger turned inward.
Law’s Hamlet isn’t melancholy but he is suffering from depression as Freud described it.
Hamlet arrives on stage in the second stage of grief. He’s angry at having lost his father, but he’s angrier at the fact that nobody else seems as angry about it as he is. The world is going on as if his father had never existed. The two people besides Hamlet himself who should be most devastated, his father’s wife and his father’s brother, have not just gotten over their loss in a hurry, but by getting married have pretty much written the old king out of their lives. Their former relationship went through him and was defined by their connection to him. Hamlet believes that that old relationship should continue exactly as it was even without the king there, which is the same as believing that time should have stopped with his father still alive. He wants the world to revolve around his father in death just as it did, or Hamlet thinks it did, in life. Gertrude and Claudius have decided that life belongs to the living and Hamlet is furious. His first speech is practically a temper tantrum.
Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
There is a staggering amount of vanity in this speech. Hamlet is saying, Look at how cut-up I am! This is the way all of you should be. What’s wrong with you? a question that can always be rephrased as See how right I am!
Stripped of its poetry down to its bare meaning its an almost childish outburst, snippy, arrogant, and demanding of attention, pity, and admiration.
Basically, it’s something you’d expect out of a spoiled teenager who thinks he has all the answers adults are too stupid or corrupt to have figured out.
But that’s what Hamlet is.
Ignore all the references that place his age at around thirty. Those are there to explain why a middle-aged man is playing the part. Hamlet, as a character, makes the most sense, and earns and deserves our sympathy, only if he’s seen as being very young, nineteen or twenty at most.
(And after all he is a student at a time when young men went off to college at fourteen.)
Hamlet is at the borderline between adolescence and adulthood. He hasn’t worked out his place in the world yet, which means he hasn’t worked out an identity of his own yet either. He is still defined to himself by his place in his family and by his relationships to his father and mother, both of which have been obliterated by his father’s death, shattering his sense of self. Actually, he seems to have over-identified with his father to the point that he may have had no sense of himself at all except as his father’s son. And he can’t imagine that any one else has a sense of themselves apart from their relationship to the old man, which is why he can’t understand how his mother hasn’t vanished into her grief the way he’s vanished into his.
With his father gone, Hamlet is lost to himself. We don’t know if he could have overcome his grief and made his own place in the world, because the Ghost comes along and gives him a job to do, which is to go on being what he always was, the dutiful son, his father’s shadow and surrogate, with no ego of his own.
The Ghost really is rather selfish.
Hamlet’s assignment is essentially to remain trapped inside his grief, to give up any thought of coming to terms with it and moving on, to in fact end his own life as independent actor just as it’s beginning and take on the role of walking dead man.
Now Hamlet has a reason not just to be angry about his father but to be angry at his father.
I’m don’t know how much of this figured in Law’s thinking when he worked out his interpretation of the role, but it is the case that in the text Hamlet’s first real jokes come after he meets the Ghost and are directed at the Ghost and Law doesn’t deliver them with the comic affection he could have and what Hamlet is doing when the Ghost returns to interrupt is getting Horatio and Marcellus to swear that they will go along with his plan to put off acting on what the Ghost has told him.
Hamlet cracks wise to avoid saying flat out that he intends to disobey, at least to an extent and for a while, his father and not become the immediate tool of the dead king’s vengeance.
But such a good son can’t be angry at such a paragon of a father, can he? He can’t defy him.
Much has been written to discredit the old notion that Hamlet’s fatal flaw is his indecisiveness and I don’t need to rehash it here, except to note that once Hamlet decides to kill his uncle, all hell breaks loose. His “indecision” has kept him and everybody else alive. His “decisiveness” proves fatal.
But this Hamlet is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. He spends his (actually short) period of indecision stewing in conflicting angers. He is angry at the Ghost, suspecting it might really be a demon tempting him to commit murder, and he is angry at himself for doubting his father and disobeying him; he is angry at his mother for obvious reasons, and he is angry at himself for being angry at his mother. He can’t make a decision because whatever decision he makes might very well be wrong.
He is thwarted every which way and it frustrates the devil out of him and his frustration adds to his anger. Unable to act, he acts out. He makes jokes.
And this makes people think he’s crazy.
And that’s the---sorry about this one---the funny thing. Except for the spectacle he makes of himself in Ophelia’s bedroom, the main symptom of his “madness” is that he’s turned into a comedian.
A question actors and directors tackling Hamlet have to answer is just how real Hamlet’s madness is. One way to answer that is that in order to pretend to be mad Hamlet has to loosen his grip on reality and slowly or suddenly, depending on where you locate the point in the text, reality slips from his grasp. And that’s sort of the way Law and director Michael Grandage go.
Their Hamlet doesn’t go crazy, exactly. He’s driven nuts by everybody’s studied determination to ignore his madness.
No one laughs at his jokes. No one is provoked, except Ophelia, who knows when she is being made fun of and who is hurt by it. But she doesn’t actually acknowledge anything specific he says. She just knows he’s being mean to her and, in this production, she goes off to pout.
The adults respond to his “madness” with fixed smiles and banalities meant to calm him down. The more they humor him, the more determined Hamlet is to get a rise out of them. His clowning grows more desperate and antic. His jokes turn coarser, meaner, uglier.
And still nobody reacts. Not to his face, at any rate. Behind his back Claudius arranges to ship him off to England, at first just to get him out of the way because he’s become so annoying.
And by this point Law has let his Hamlet become that annoying, putting the audience on Claudius’ side at least when it comes to this decision.
(Claudius puts us back on Hamlet’s side by then deciding that hustling Hamlet out of the country isn’t enough and plotting to have him killed.)
Although Hamlet’s sarcasms, insults, put-downs, and other forms of verbal abuse are aimed at other characters, he turns out to be the only one who suffers any effects from his jokes. The others are protected by their conviction that he’s mad so they don’t have to take anything he says seriously.
But Hamlet keeps trying and he wears himself out in the process. After a while, it begins to seem as though Law’s beating himself up, with each wisecrack and bit of clowning rebounding on him like a blow and leaving him looking bruised and stunned. You’d think he was his own main target.
And you might be right.
Law doesn’t try to play Hamlet as a twenty year old, but he gives him an essential boyishness that explains the way both his joking and his scheming get out of control. He may not be a kid, but he is naive and inexperienced when it comes to things like murder, revenge, and making bargains with ghosts who may be demons. He’s had little experience in acting on his own, his life before the play apparently having been a relatively placid and conventional one, his career path set for him by traditions and duties he never questioned, let alone thought to rebel against.
Suddenly, here he is, a secret rebel against everything he once thought right and proper, plotting treason and murder.
He’s in undiscovered country for him and he gets lost immediately. And Law captures a sense of a little boy lost, desperately looking around for landmarks and other clues to the way out or at least forward, expecting help to arrive in the form of some grown up who can guide him, frightened to find himself alone and dependent on his own inadequate self, furious that he’s been put in this situation through no fault of his own, and furious at himself for not being able to rise to the moment.
No wonder he’s depressed.