In what ways might "Hamlet" be relevant to a modern audience?
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Many of the themes of "Hamlet" - family relationships, the existence (and the providence) of ghosts, political struggles, surveillance and what happens after death - are themes still present in the modern world: and if a production can articulate these themes clearly, or in a "modern way", the play itself might seem highly relevant.
Some directors, like Gregory Doran (who has just directed the RSC production starring David Tennant - see below for a review) might choose to set the play in modern dress to emphasise the modernity or indeed the timeliness of its themes. Clearly many film directors believe the play to be modern: the two best film versions starring Ethan Hawke and Kenneth Branagh are set respectively in the modern day and in a loosely Edwardian period. That neither opt for Elizabethan dress might suggest the ongoing relevance of the play to modern interpreters.
I would also add that it remains relevant because of the theme. I personally prefer all of Shakespeare's plays to be done in original costume; changing the dress seems to indicate to me that something has to be done to make it relevant to our times.
Again, I think it's relevant because the theme is relevant. We live in a time when knowing what is with enough certainty to act is as much of a problem as it was for Hamlet. My experience is that the people who are most willing to act are the ones with the least sense of the complexity of situations; the more we know, the more we seem to understand that there is truth in many positions, not just in the one we seem to "prefer." I think Hamlet's problem will always be there with the person who tries to understand the complexity of many of life's decisions, the consequences both intended and unintended (although these are not always clear), and who can be caught in the same indecision as Hamlet.
On the other hand, some people will see the man of action, Laertes, who is more than willing to take action based on biased information and, perhaps, act without sufficient thought.
Sadly, their end is about the same, but there has always been something in this play for everyone and as long as human nature doesn't change, there always should be.
This discussion is really interesting to me since I teach Hamlet to high school seniors, many of whom question the relevance of reading Shakespeare in 2008. I agree with a lot of the above. I find that analyzing Hamlet's motivations, or lack of motivations, ends up being pretty easy for my students in the long run because of the relevance of Hamlet's struggle as the dutiful son. Conflicts with a mother, stepfather, girlfriend . . . on the surface level, most students can relate. Then, as we delve deeper, they are usually quite empathetic with Hamlet's notable inaction and his frustration with himself over it, a quality of his that many adult readers I know have trouble understanding or empathizing with.
One note about the costuming points brought up earlier . . . I have a BFA in Theatre and have acted in several different Shakespeare productions. Though I typically cringe when directors feel the need to "conceptualize" a Shakespeare piece (I was in a production of Macbeth once that was set in a post-apocalyptic world), I disagree that Shakespeare productions should be costumed in Elizabethan garb. The most successful productions I have been a part of have been costumed fairly loosely concerning time period - usually something that ends up being sort of simple, Victorian-esque costume pieces. Many directors believe this is the best choice because it helps to not turn off some (or sometimes, many) audience members who would be distracted by the sometimes goofy-looking Elizabethan costumes, thereby allowing the audience to focus on the acting, the plot, etc.
Who doesn't deal with ambition and deceit in a modern world? Claudius' ambition took such a hold on him that he murdered (that never happens in today's world) his brother and married the Queen in order to get the throne. Of course, in a truly Macbeth manner, he had to secure his throne and was willing to go so far as to murder the true King of Denmark, young Hamlet. My students always love Hamlet for the confusion Hamlet feels about his situation...to believe the ghost or not, to kill Claudius or not, to act a little off in order to find out the truth, and dealing with a girlfriend and his mom in the process...too many of them are able to relate to that for one or more reasons.
I am working on a memoire on Hamlet and western culture. I am analyzing the play starting from myths to reach more recent theory. What I find most interesting is that Hamelt is at the same time absolutly timeless, hence forever modern, yet perfectly epitomizing its time. Hamlet more than any other Elizabethan play I have read is modern in its thought. I will refer here to the soliloquy of Act III Sc1 wherein Hamlet medidates on life and suicide (roughly speaking) The very ideas are to be found again in Camus' Myth of Sisyphus, a pillar of modern philosophy and theatre (there is a whole theatre of the absurd and Camus all along his essay dealt with the absurd) In his essay Camus says that man commits suicide because he feels "an alien, a stranger" and "his exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or a promised land" The consequence of this is a "divorce between man and his life" Now if we look at these lines we can easily pinpoint Hamlet. He is a stranger in his own home. His home and its hierarchy are completely disruprted and he can't situate himself inside it. He cannot mend this since his avenging arm is tethered by thought and pondering. The ghost assigned to him a task and his postponing it results in his loss, "an existential divorce". Indeed, Hamlet is a 5 acts play where almost nothing happens....
Consider, too, how many of our young people come from homes where there is a step-parent. Even if that step-parent didn't actually murder their own parent (heaven forbid!), there is still the potential for a great deal of resentment - much like the resentment Hamlet felt toward Claudius and Gertrude (prior to discovering that his uncle murdered his father, of course).
As I've said so often, that is the cool thing about Shakespeare and what I love introducing to my students - look at the themes that are apparent in the plays, then look to the things that we deal with on a daily basis...chances are it will be like holding a mirror up to nature! :)
"a mirror up to nature" that's something that evokes realism. I forgot who said this but it's a french guy I think "a mirror walking along the road" or sthg like it. And if we are able to describe a piece of literature which is 450 years old as being "realistic" then we can say that maybe Arnold wasn't mad when he said that the poet sometimes happens to transcend time and space and that what he creates then is absoult and universal. If a play as old as this is refered to as modern today then that kind of super-literature that Arnold preached does exist but the real question is: who is today capable of producing it?
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