Spying. Disguises. What’s real and what’s not, are notions explored by the Bard ever since he first put a character in disguise, usually in plain sight, and set him or her to impersonate or spy on another, often with fatal consequences.
Playing at Shakespeare — in rehearsal and performance — in full view in a public park, offers an expanded notion of reality and truth. There’s the action onstage along with the offstage action — from tourists riding by on Segways, to the sounds of a wedding ceremony, to a jogger running through the scene, to actors changing costumes in the distance — which all become part of the show.
Performing mostly in daylight only deepens the realities and truths sensed by the audience — actors are right in front of them as they move through their parts, often playing more than 1 character. We watch the audiences reaction to their character changes, wondering at their easy acceptance of the reality we present to them in each scene. Often a character will be a kind of bridge between the audience and the actors, spending time with them during the show, as Abigail Ellis’s Horatio does this year in Hamlet: in motion.
My assistant director, Yam Drori, has spent a lot of time thinking and writing about Hamlet — it’s one of her favorite plays — and I’m thrilled to share her thoughts about impersonation, disguise and Hamlet, translated by Natan Skop.
Yam writes: Impersonation is a central theme and motif in Hamlet, as many characters have outward expressions that do not fit their hidden inner truths and falsehoods, which connects to a web of related motifs and themes found throughout the play.
Ears and listening feature heavily throughout the play, turning words, language and speech into tools for malicious exploitation. Instead expressing ideas, feelings and creating connections, they become distortions of the truth and weapons for manipulation. The entire play is full of expressions related to ears. For example, the castle guards want to “assail” Horatio’s ears with the tale of the Ghost (Act 1, scene 1), or in Hamlet’s advice to the players not “to split the ears of the groundlings” (Act 3, scene 2).
The clearest expression of this motif is the method by which Claudius murdered the King, by pouring poison into his ear. The murder is recounted by the Ghost (Act 1, scene 5) and re-enacted twice by the players (Act 3, scene 2). Claudius, the seasoned politician, is a prime example of twisted language, used for his own deceitful ends. “So the whole ear of Denmark / Is by a forgèd process of my death / Rankly abused” the Ghost tells Hamlet (Act 1, scene 5).
When Laertes entreats Ophelia not to listen with a “too credent ear” to Hamlet’s “songs,” the changing meaning of listening receives a musical connotation. This continues in Hamlet’s speech to Guildenstern about the recorders, “You would play upon me…. You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass” (Act 3, scene 3). Hamlet refers to Guildenstern’s efforts to manipulate and extort information.
The motif of listening connects to the motif of spying. It seems that the only way to get information in Elsinore is by eavesdropping; Polonius and Claudius listen to Hamlet and Ophelia’s conversation (Act 3, scene 1), Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet (Act 2, scene 1), and finally Polonius hides in Gertrude’s room to listen to her conversation with Hamlet (Act 3, scene 4).
Listening is connected to the motifs of voice and muteness. The ability to make sound, to speak, to articulate, as opposed to tongue-holding, muteness, inarticulate-ness. When it is proper to give voice to internal thoughts and when it is not? When are our voices blocked by others and when are they blocked by ourselves? Polonius advises Laertes to “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice” (Act 1, scene 3), but ironically, he doesn’t act on his own advice.
The King also tells Laertes “You cannot speak of reason … / And lose your voice” (Act 1, scene 2). Voice always has power and influence, even the voice of the cock crowing moves the Ghost of the Hamlet Senior to leave (Act 1, scene 1). Hamlet himself is a prime example of articulateness, but only when alone with the audience, when he can get across his ideas and inner feelings with precision and depth. With other characters Hamlet is gagged, frozen — “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (Act 1, scene 2). To express himself Hamlet must pretend, act the part of a madman. Through the motif of acting, of impersonation, the truth under the surface is revealed, just as in the play-within-a-play.
This connects to the motif of action and inaction. Hamlet is in a vacuum between thinking, the inner meaning, and acting, the outer meaning. Hamlet mocks himself that he only speaks and does not act (Act 2, scene 2). The importance of correlation between words and actions is central to Hamlet, as can be seen in his advice to the Players (Act 3, scene 2). Words without meaning are merely noise – connecting to the motif of noise and silence – noise that increases, threatening to burst, unrest in the state, political, social, emotional and psychological. Hamlet longs for silence, “To die, to sleep” (Act 3, scene 1), and it appears that silence exists only in the embrace of death. If not serenity, at least silence, as in Hamlet’s dying words (Act 5, scene 2). Only in death, we cease impersonation, in death there is no acting or performance of identity. Just as Hamlet discovers when gazing at the skull of Yorick (Act 5, scene 1), death emerges as the great equalizer, the final dance partner that each person must lead into the unknown.
Quotes are from the text as appears on “No Fear Hamlet”, http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/, which was edited by John Crowther.