51943ghzzil-_sx317_bo1204203200_One of Hollywood’s favorite genres is the contained thriller: its budget probably won’t involve an enactment of World War III, a city-destroying earthquake, or a meteor headed towards Baltimore, all relying on too much CGI, which gets expensive fast. But this: a bus is going to blow up if it drops below a certain speed; a man is stuck in a phone booth and if he hangs up on the caller he will be shot dead; a young woman is stuck in an underground shelter with a possibly insane John Goodman. And don’t forget Alien: within the confines of the spaceship Nostromo, in a place where no one can hear you scream, a killer is on the loose, having evolved from a small and slithery reptilian piece of belly-bursting nasty into a very large slithery reptilian thing with chrome teeth and battery acid for blood. But in Hamlet we’re in a world that isn’t so different. After all, As Hamlet himself says, “Denmark’s a prison.”

Hamlet was written somewhere around 1601, and is the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. It takes place within the walls of Elsinore Castle, an isolated, wind-swept fortress, modelled on Kronborg Castle on the isle of Zealand, across the strait from the Swedish town of Helsingborg. Outside it’s cold and damp, and in the play we only leave the castle proper to visit the royal graveyard, hardly a place to warm the heart.

LeMay

Frankinsane

By J.S. Breukelaar

Humor

It’s that time of year again. Student papers are in and there are marking meetings to attend. But it’s all a bit hard to take—again. Helmet for Hamlet. That one’s getting old. Opheloria for Ophelia. There’s a new one. Someone in the meeting wonders if it’s catching. I eye the door. It’s closed so the students can’t hear us laughing at them. (Not at, mind you; just, you know, toward.)

We teach what’s called a “core unit.”  You have to pass it before you can get your degree. For a psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet, a student cites Dr. Carl Hung. A Freudian slip, perchance?

The marking meetings are a ritual. Once a semester, we bond over bloopers.

Hamlet’s problem? He was shellfish.

Most of us are what’s called “casual academics.” As part of a cost-cutting initiative to reduce full-time staff yet still meet ever increasing enrollments, humanities departments such as ours rely on instructors-for-hire, but there is nothing casual about the fact that we publish, lecture, teach, grade and often counsel a vast body of diverse students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend university. Some, I’ve discovered, have never read a book. And not because of any language barrier. They’ve just never read a book.

To sea or not to sea. It’s all the same to them. What matters is getting that piece of paper that qualifies them as a teacher, translator, nurse or—God forbid—psychologist. We try and hammer home that a semi-literate school teacher will find him- or herself working as a glorified babysitter, and an ignorant translator will end up delivering skip bins, but it just doesn’t seem to compute.

Frankenstein created ‘new spices.’ Who knew? Some wag blurts out a weary zinger about a reanimated Victoria Beckham. It’s been two hours. The pile of papers seems to be getting bigger not smaller. Descartes, a student writes, was a jew list (dualist). The meeting erupts.

Perchance what’s rotten in the state of Denmark is that in spite of glossy government initiatives to make tertiary education available to all, most of these students sweep in from Skelltown High so unprepared for Frankenstein, philosophy, and $4 lattes that they’re set to fail before they begin.

Alas, poor scallop.

F’s and C-minuses. Coffee cups and water bottles and laptops. Plagiarism and office politics. You never know. Funding for summer schools, learning centers or literacy classes might just eliminate, or at least reduce, the rationale for these meetings. And then where would we find our fun?

Three hours later we have a winner: good old Victor Frankenstein, haunted by his double dangler.

Analyze that, Dr. Hung.

 

I am teaching Hamlet. This is a first for me, and it has given me a chance not only to revisit the play, but also Almereyda’s messy, masterful adaptation (2000); and one summer in my own life when the time felt most terribly out of joint.

It seems to me that Hamlet is not so much a guy who couldn’t make up his mind, nor a man who thought too much, or who lacked resolve, or any of those things—or maybe all of them. The guy was just too totally into himself. That’s what makes Hamlet so compelling. The lure of drama, whether a play, a book, or a film, is the desire to be seen. We wait for that moment when we become real in the eye of the character, when what they say, or how they look, makes us suddenly real to ourselves. But Hamlet refuses. There’s the rub. He obliterates us the way he feels obliterated. That’s how up-himself he is. It’s very frustrating.

Oh, he can see himself, up to a point. ‘I’m an errant knave’ he brags to the lovesick Ophelia, without really ever seeing the girl in front of him. All he can see, all he can be, is himself. He just doesn’t get, that in order to be, as Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh says in one of the most extraordinary scenes in the film, we have to inter-be. In so being, in being so himself, Hamlet cannot inter-be. He can only be, as the murderous Claudius says, his ‘character, naked’—a contradiction in terms. So be it. If I cannot see myself in him, then I cannot be either.  Watching Hamlet is being Hamlet…. unable to be because of not being able to see oneself in the gaze of another.

Hamlet takes twenties-something slacker solipsism to a whole new level; Ethan Hawke nails it. His Hamlet is self-reflection to the point of self-obliteration. He would extinguish himself and thus aspire to the extinction of all.

This is not the first time the Dane has gotten to me. When I was twenty-three I dropped out of school for the last time. Or so I told myself. Fuck them and the donkeys they rode in on. I broke up with my boyfriend, moved into a place by myself, and stopped seeing friends. But before I did, I did something kind of kinky. In love with Shakespeare, I approached my professor and asked him if he’d tutor me privately. I’d pay, I said, whatever he thought was fair. I just didn’t want to live if I couldn’t live without Shakespeare. Astonishingly, he agreed. An astonishing man. Diminutive and rail thin, pasty, with a reputedly critically ill wife that no one had ever met, he agreed to read with me over one weird summer every Thursday in a restaurant near his house and we would discuss Shakespeare. Macbeth, Richard III, Twelfth Night, Hamlet.

Of course, Almereyda had not yet made his movie.  Last Action Hero was just a twinkle in John McTiernen’s eye … I watched and wept with Withnail. My ex wanted to get back together.  I sent him a note, quoting Viola from Twelfth Night. ‘O time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me to’untie!’  Nerdy, right? The ex went off and bought himself the biggest most complete Globe Shakespeare he could find. It must have set him back a pound of flesh. It’s one of those big tomes with gold-edged pages and cheesy line drawings. I didn’t know this at the time, and the only reason I know about it now is because it sits on our bookshelf and whenever anyone in the family wants to check up on a quote, we refer to it. Our kids love the illustrations.

But that was all in the future. Like Hamlet I was too into into myself to really see my boyfriend, or a future with me in it. I was too concerned with my own character, naked, whatever that was. I couldn’t inter-be for the same reason Hamlet couldn’t: I was bereft. Like Hamlet I was grieving over a loss with ‘impious stubbornness.’  My best friend had died three years earlier, and I just couldn’t get past it. In the winter following her death I’d locked myself in my apartment and played old Beatles albums over and over again. Especially, ‘Here comes the sun,’ because I knew it never would.  Even though there was no suggestion of foul play, she’d died in an ugly, unnecessary way, and above all, without me, a terrible betrayal. I too thought that if I sat there for long enough on my own, my ‘too too solid flesh, would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,’ or adieu. Either or.

My only comfort were the dreams in which she’d appear, month after month, year after year, and for a few precious moments, or days, or however long the dream seemed to last, we were together again, yes, but it wasn’t the same. There was something wrong. A distance between us. She scared me a little. Remember me, she’d say, and there was something else.

Remember death, the undiscovered country, impossible dream. Memento mori, sixteenth century manifesto and the most paradoxical message of all. Remember your death, say our ghosts. Like that’s even possible. Sam Shepard is the ghost in Almereyda’s film, materializing in front of a Pepsi Lite vending machine.  ‘Wondrous strange,’ says Horatio, Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend. The ghost appears and reappears.  Don’t kill yourself, he tells Hamlet. Don’t go crazy. I need an untainted mind. Here is my story. I love you. Remember me.

Is that why they come, our ghosts and dream girls? Hamlet’s ghost, Yorick’s skull dug up by the clumsy gravedigger—we knew him once, didn’t we? Good night, sweet lady.

In dreams she’d be and wouldn’t be—alive and not alive—and she’d want something from me. Like Hamlet, I couldn’t give it to her. I wanted to, but it she wouldn’t look at me, not really. I’d crane my neck, will her to meet my eyes, but she’d turn away. That was the dream. Remember me, she’d say. And something else. And then she’d leave. And between her visits I’d do my damnedest to forget. I spiralled into the madness of not-forgetting. That’s all I could do.

The weekly meetings with my professor were therapeutic and instructive, but over time I sensed him becoming distracted and distant. Maybe it was because of his wife. I don’t know, but the summer ended and so did our Shakespeare sessions. I continued to be haunted by my dead friend. I had cut off all ties with her family, and with our group from school. I tried to go to a couple of reunions but was so traumatized by her ghostly presence that I hit twenty-something excess with a vengeance. I never talked about her and surprisingly I never wrote about her until very recently. Last year. Oddly enough it was a poem, the first real poem I ever wrote, and even more oddly, it was published, and stranger still, it was read and admired by the man who would become my agent.  There are indeed ‘more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’

We are teaching our students that Hamlet just doesn’t get the whole political thing. He can’t or won’t play the game. He is too into being true to himself. Maybe if he was savvy he would have been able to get rid of Claudius while he had the chance. And then he could have taken the throne and lain the ghost to rest. But maybe that’s kind of what he didn’t want, not what he wanted to be—to be King and to still be bereft. To have the whole world and have nothing, to be and not to be. After the publication of my poem, the dreams stopped.  Every night, I’d go to sleep and think, please, maybe tonight. But she’s gone. Gone and not forgotten. Her story, finally, told. Memento mori. The impossible dream.

When Hamlet lies dying, Horatio would drink of the poisoned cup that killed his best friend. Like Horatio, all I ever wanted to do was to throw myself into the grave and shovel dirt over the both of us. But Hamlet, and maybe my friend, have a better idea. Stay, says Hamlet to the weeping Horatio. Stay alive. Tell my story. Remember me.

We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.

 

No one hates higher education more than I do.

Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh combined have fewer nasty things to say about the academic establishment, academic elitism, and academics.

Words are the very DNA of literature; the tiny building blocks that make up the characters we love and cherish, the worlds in which they inhabit, and the sentences that describe every action within.

At least seven hundred words in the English language can be attributed to just one man: William Shakespeare. If words are the DNA of language he is the Lord of creation.

I hated Shakespeare at school. I was won over through my own reading, although the simple fact that he invented the expression ‘what the dickens?’ would have been enough. Mostly it was down to Hamlet. I love that play. I used to know the speech he gives to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act Two, Scene Two off by heart…

I will tell you why; shall my anticipation prevent your discovery and your secrecy to the King and Queen, moult no feather: I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appears no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! 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? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.

In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead the whole speech is dismissed by one of the title characters as Hamlet saying ‘something about losing his mirth.’

I’m currently working as script editor on a condensed adaptation of Hamlet for a friend who’s directing it at the big theatre in town. I’m pretty proud of that, and was flattered to be asked to do it. It’s a fairly standard production that does little to the original text aside from place the action in a more modern war setting, and cut out as much as possible in order to keep the play to approximately an hour in length.

I’m also writing a version of Hamlet which is little more than a low brow version of Stoppard’s play. It tells the story of Hamlet through the trial of Horatio, who is arrested at the end of Shakespeare’s play and charged with every death in the play. It’s indisputably a low-rent bastardization of a literary classic in which original lines are re-worked as lame jokes.

The bit I’m least proud of is Horatio informing the ghost of Hamlet that Tuborg is the new most popular beer in Denmark, to which Hamlet replies ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark…’

I wouldn’t protest too much if the ghost of Shakespeare appeared in my room, gagged me with his ruff, and then stabbed me through the heart with his quill until I die.

I hope it doesn’t come to that though.

I wrote a play over Christmas which is being staged at an arts festival in the summer. It’s loosely based on The Divine Comedy and features God as an alcoholic raconteur. It plays the concepts of journeying though Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven for laughs— and cheap ones at that.

And yet poking around and mutilating Hamlet somehow feels more blasphemous… more sacrilegious….

There’s always the sense with long dead writers that you can get away with messing with their original work without asking. Jean Rhys didn’t ask if she could borrow the characters from Jane Eyre, she just did. She won a literary prize for it, and then complained that it was long overdue and worthless.

You couldn’t exactly do that with living writers, in the same way you have to get permission to borrow any songs you want to re-work, or borrow parts of. I couldn’t really sit down after lunch and take the characters from The Da Vinci Code and place them into my own idea for a zany comedy.

That’s not a great example to use, as I’m really talking about literature.

How can it be that pillaging from the shit-sodden streets of medieval London feels more acceptable than playing with the characters from a more modern time?

I think it is as simple as the concept of ownership, very similar to the idea of songs entering the public domain. Except that with literature you have to wait more than fifty years for it to be okay. Hamlet has been around so long most people know the story without even reading it, or being conscious of where they picked up that knowledge. Its part of British culture, the same way I knew what a Tardis was despite being born the year Doctor Who was cancelled.

Essentially people were borrowing from Shakespeare before he’d even finished giving us all those new words… those fresh building blocks of literary life.

I’d love to ask Shakespeare what he thinks about all the thousands of versions of his work… particularly how he would feel about my own twisted experimentation with Hamlet.

I hope that he’d crack a wry smile, and enjoy and appreciate the affection that is intended. It’s not exactly the sort of thing you could sit down and write without a deep familiarity with the text, and a genuine love of it…


We sit there, the two of us. We’re drinking Carlsberg against out better judgement. Shakespeare asks me if there’s any mead, and I have to tell him sorry, we haven’t had that liquor here since 1869.

I begin to tell him about this play I’m writing, and about how it starts right after Hamlet ends. I tell him how as Horatio says ‘now cracks a noble heart: good night sweet prince’ we hear police sirens.

‘Police sirens?’ enquires the Bard, who died several hundred years before Sir Robert Peel founded the modern police force.

I explain to him as briefly as I can the history of the police. I tell him they’re officials who are meant to uphold the law.

‘People who stop people like you stealing my work?’ he asks. He asks with a smile so I can’t tell if he’s being serious or if this is that famous Shakespearean banter.

Slightly nervously I try and explain away any feeling of guilt and wrong-doing I feel. I try and explain that no, what I’m doing isn’t theft. I ask him to listen and to understand that I’m taking his characters and putting them in my own story. Then I let him know that what happens is Horatio gets murdered for every murder in Elsinore.

‘That’s ludicrous’ says Shakespeare. ‘Hamlet killed everyone. You should know that.’

I tell him that he doesn’t get it, and that times have changed and that now if the police walked into a building that was full of dead bodies and there was only one guy in there still alive then he would be under suspicion. Furthermore he would have a motive by being Hamlet’s sole heir as his friend, and thus become the King of Denmark.

‘That’s stupid’ he says. Shakespeare starts sulking. ‘I don’t like it.’

‘Tough’ I would retort. ‘I’m taking a logical approach to your story and using that to derive humour.’

He begins to look visibly angry. He crushes his beer can into an aluminium ball and throws it to the ground as he rises to his feet. ‘It sounds like you’re just picking holes and making fun of my work!’

As the Bard rises he draws a small bladed weapon from his coat pocket.

‘What the dickens?!’ I exclaim.

‘Stop. Stealing. My. Words!’ The Bard says through gritted teeth.

I panic and cry; this hypothetical chit-chat has rapidly spiralled out of control.

‘Is that a dagger I see before me?’ I shout, which only really exacerbates the situation.

The Bard moves towards me silently, thrashing his blade in my direction.

‘O happy dagger!’ I cry, still refusing to learn my lesson. ‘This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die!’

I feel the blade kiss the base of my neck, and few droplets of warm red blood blossom like rose against my skin.

‘A touch, a touch I do confess’ I announce, only enraging the Bard further.

‘For fucks sake! Stop taking my words and placing them out of context for comic effect!’ Shakespeare shrieks as the dagger plunges deep, raking over the topsoil of my flesh and planting the seeds of death deep into my leaking heart.

His face contorts into a cracked smile of evil satisfaction. My blood drips from his dagger like the droplets fall from an ice lolly in the hot summer sun.

As I lie there the blood pumps from my open chest cavity, the blood cells escaping like rats deserting a sinking ship. There is a darkness… a terrible, ghoulish darkness. The edges of Shakespeare’s body begin to slip into the shadows and merge with the black abyss.

‘You’re not so clever now, are you?’ he says, and it sounds like a distant echo… a whisper on the wind.

With the last of my vitality I break into a beatific, taunting smile. My lips twitch uneasily. I look into his eyes and I in a fractured whisper I say ‘O! I am slain.’

In those final moments I am left with the frustrated horror enveloping the Bard’s countenance.


The rest is silence.