The Attendant Prince

Modern approaches to Hamlet have been strikingly critical of the Prince and the play. “So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure.” That is not Shaw in playful mood, but T.S. Eliot in deadly earnest. And why is the play a failure in his eyes? “In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others.” For Eliot there is action without motive. Hamlet’s response to facts goes beyond the facts. And for Eliot that is a puzzle. But that is the point. What happens in Hamlet is what Hamlet says is happening. What we see are events in the mind of the Prince. Hamlet is not a tragedy. That is not simply it fails the Aristotelian criteria. The same can be said for all Shakespearian tragedy. Hamlet is not a tragedy because the events are not presented as objectively true.

This lends the work to parody because it is itself a parody. That is not to dismiss it, but it is to regard as a subversive commentary, an anti-drama, an absurdist revolt against reality. All its truths are subjective. So regarded, the play becomes a precursor of the modern. There is some resemblance to Pirandello’s Enrico Quarto, where a count feigns madness in order to retain his sanity in a mad world. Hamlet is a drama of questions to which there appear to be no answers. The world has no meaning, no centre, no reason beyond the fact that it turns and that we live on it.

Hamlet is a drama of questions to which there appear to be no answers. The world has no meaning, no centre, no reason beyond the fact that it turns and that we live on it.

The comedic possibilities the play offers are rich. Parodies began appearing in the Nineteenth Century. These may be summarised in W.S. Gilbert’s description of Irving’s Hamlet – “funny without being vulgar.” It was in part a lampooning of Victorian pomposity characterized by the greatest actor of his age. It was also a recognition of the absurdist deconstructions of Hamlet which were to come in the twentieth century. In 1930’s Moscow the traveller Peter Fleming saw a production of Hamlet that played, like Chekhov, as a comedy of manners.

It was a vital principle in theatre to demystify and deconstruct Shakespeare. Central to the necessary project was, of course, the play generally regarded as the masterwork, the quintessence of the elusive genius we name as Shakespeare. Charles Marowitz led the way with his curious collage, The Marowitz Hamlet (1968), every line of which was Shakespeare’s, but rearranged. “I am Hamlet the Dane” is intended to assert authority, even terror. But in this version it produces only laughter at Court as the powerless Prince fights insuperable odds. Marowitz has declared his contempt for Hamlet, an ignoble unworthy of great drama Shakespeare has given him.

There is not much time for the Prince in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), a consciously absurdist pastiche that relates the narrative from the viewpoint of minor characters. In their place we have the attendant prince. His presence is marginal to the concerns of the play.

After the characteristically “60s” exuberance of these plays was John Wain’s long poem Feng (1976). Wain returns to the Scandinavian myth in which Amleth is but one character in a wider canvas of power and consequent revenge. The return to source rediscovered the fundament of darkness out of which a humanist poetry was wrought. At the same time came Medium Fair’s Amleth, an enterprising travelling theatre company’s staging of the folktale.

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