Saturday matinee. Front row seats. Hamlet.
Keith and I have attended several previous performances of the play. We wondered how this year’s American Shakespeare Center Renaissance Season ensemble would interpret it. As soon as Hamlet (the fabulous Josh Innerst at right) took the stage, there was no doubt.
Scholars usually focus on Hamlet’s madness and Ophelia’s, which leads to her drowning death. But it is Hamlet’s uncle Claudius who first gives in to madness. The inciting madness of covetousness. Before the play begins. Though he claims his brother the king died accidently, in truth, Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father. In short order, he marries Hamlet’s mother the queen and assumes the throne.
The ghost of King Hamlet appears to his son, asking for revenge, another kind of madness. Hamlet fils decides to feign madness to “catch the conscience of the King,” his Uncle Claudius. But madness once embraced becomes its own mousetrap.
Hamlet’s mother Gertrude avoids seeing the madness in herself and her new husband by not looking in the mirror. She dies because of this avoidance and her new husband’s continued treachery. His plot to kill Hamlet ends up poisoning them all – Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet – and Ophelia’s brother Laertes.
Feigned or not, madness and its methods touch almost everyone in Hamlet’s world. Even supposed innocents like Polonius – Laertes and Ophelia’s father – and simpletons Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get caught in the web.
Nine deaths. Few players left standing on stage at the end. Such is the toll of madness.
"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." (Act II, Scene II)
When Polonius speaks this line, he thinks Hamlet is madly in love with Ophelia. The “method in it” makes sense. Love has driven him crazy. The audience knows better.
Or do we?
Hamlet’s crazy treatment of Ophelia could be interpreted as methodically feigned, to drive her away from his madness out of love for her, which he declares upon hearing of her death. Or it could be his real madness: to punish Ophelia for his mother’s weakness.
“Frailty, thy name is woman,” Hamlet says in Act I, Scene II, referring to his mother. “Get thee to a nunnery,” he says to Ophelia in Act II, Scene I. A nunnery. A safe place away from madness, where she might retain her faithfulness and do no harm to others. Yet we all know perfect safety and faithfulness are impossible. And we all do harm to one another, whether we mean to or not.
The madness of sin and its methods. We all see it. If we look in the mirror.