Just before final exams, I often quoted Hamlet as I told students, “The readiness is all.” Then I proceeded to review the main points for essay questions. Of course, Hamlet, by the time he says this, has dropped out of college; he has prepared for a swordfight, and he has faced his demons and has ready himself to die.
Preparation for viewing the performance of a great play only enriches the experience. Spreckels presents “Hamlet” beginning Feb. 1, 2019.
Four hundred years later, most of us are familiar with parts of Hamlet although we may not have studied the play. We all know the first lines of the most recognizable soliloquy of all of Shakespeare’s works, “To be or not to be; that is the question . . ..” And we have heard other parts of this famous speech such as “Conscience does make cowards of us all” or “To die, to sleep—-to sleep perchance to dream—-ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come.”
Shakespeare created lines that stand alone to speak to us all. Who has not questioned life’s existence? Who has not pondered one’s motivations? Who has not thought that eternal rest might offer dreams or possibly nightmares?
“Hamlet” pulls all of these thoughts and many more about all of our lives together in memorable and beautiful phrases. The play shows everyday characters even though it deals with kings, a queen and a prince. The loquacious statesman, Polonius, unknowingly mocks himself when he says, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Wise elders use many words to speak about life’s truisms.
We find the essence of their meaning in one-liners on greeting cards; for example, Polonius goes on for thirty lines to give advice to a son who is going away to college. The scene can be humorous, depending on the director’s choice. While Polonius gasses warnings and platitudes, his son and daughter visually poke fun at him in such a manner that Polonius’s well known line, “This above all to thine own self be true,” becomes deflated by the antics of the children.
Why see this play if preparation might be necessary? Because we know so much of it out of context. Because it will be pulled together locally, at Spreckels by a very fine director and many highly experienced actors. Because we have an opportunity to see the play as a whole. Because Hamlet is a very funny play even though it is a tragedy.
How can we prepare for this play as we are not in a Shakespeare class and this seems like much work for something that should be fun? Go online, read summaries of “Hamlet.” In the nineteenth century, Charles and Mary Lamb turned many of the plays into readable short stories, including “Hamlet.” See Kenneth Branaugh’s 1996 film version where you will not only witness great acting but also be entertained with a Who’s Who procession of famous film stars, from Jack Lemon to Robin Williams, making cameo appearances. You can also find a twenty-five minute animated version of the story. Finally, try reading a scene a day and preface or conclude the reading by scanning a summary of the scene.
In three short months, you will become an expert on the most well-known play in the English language (which has been translated into dozens of other languages.) You will look forward to the Spreckels presentation as a whole and will be ready for all of those famous speeches and lines that we all recognize.
What! All of these preparations after the holiday season? Are you crazy? Shakespeare and Hamlet might reply, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” You will enjoy the play and know the source of many platitudes. You will have some quotations at hand to apply to your favorite local or national politician or your boss: “One may smile and smile and be a villain.” You will understand why people rattle on when they are attempting to cover something up: “The lady doth protest too much me thinks.” You will know why I suggest that we work to enjoy something as wonderful as the play “Hamlet”: “I must be cruel only to be kind.” Finally, you will know why “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
I am a little mad, like Hamlet, because I suspect that many readers would enjoy this preparation and certainly the Spreckels production. I not only hope my editor will allow this to be published but will actually let me write more about this wonderful play during the next month. Or, perhaps, the editor will fire back at me, “Madness in great ones must not go unwatched,” and tell me to just keep my eye on the local stories. Whatever that outcome may be, please consider putting “Hamlet” at Spreckels on your calendar in Feb. and March.