by Chris Davis
I'm so in the mood for the Tennessee Shakespeare Company's Hamlet, which opens Friday at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens. It's partly because this has been such a cold and foggy Spring, I suspect. And partly because, as I was so recently reminded while sitting in on a completely unrelated class, it’s a fun show when action is suited to the word.
I’ve often wondered if Hamlet knows he and Ophelia are being watched by Polonius in the "get thee to a nunnery" scene. But I’ve never heard a more compelling case for this idea than one made by actor/director Nick Hutchison in a class he’s been team-leading with Dean Michael Leslie of Rhodes College.
The class is a fantastic fusion comparing folio and quarto texts while contrasting the way academics and actors approach the material. The session I attended quickly evolved from a common colloquium into a Da Vinci-code-like treasure hunt for nuance and meaning as Hutchison and Leslie questioned all presuppositions and searched for their clues in Shakespeare’s bedeviling mashup of verse and prose.
First Question: Why does Hamlet tell Ophelia to go to a nunnery?
After some obligatory, not especially convincing talk about how he might be woman hater, a student after my own heart gave the best possible answer: Hamlet the actor is role playing. He’s driving Ophelia away to protect her. Just like Bruce Wayne does in all the Batman stories. To be clear, the student didn’t bring up Bruce Wayne. That’s all me.
Yes friends it’s about to get nerdy.
Shakespeare's greatness sometimes gets in the way of his goodness. A tyrannizing importance eclipses the things that make it a joy and, if I'd been a participant that day instead of an an observer, I'd have probably embarrassed myself by talking on and on about comic books and how much you can learn about the Prince of Denmark by reverse engineering direct descendants. Like the Batman. You know the story: Playboy millionaire Hamlet tries on the inky cloak of an avenging spirit. And like that.
Through most of the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene Ophelia speaks in verse. Hamlet answers her back in prose. Hutchison's wise thoughts: She wants to make this a love scene and he has to shut that down. And when Hamlet asks about the whereabouts of Ophelia’s father Polonius the established pattern changes fast. The verse is interrupted, her answers come clipped and prosaic. Hutchison thinks this is the text’s structure behaving like a stage direction, alerting us to some unspoken but possibly unsubtle change in the action.
At home, my lord.
Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the
fool no where but in's own house. Farewell.
O, help him, you sweet heavens!
If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for
thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as
snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a
nunnery, go: farewell.
Hutchison asked a David Mamet-like question: Is it common for Ophelia to go about the castle unescorted? That was all it took for the change of pace to make sense.
I’m not married to the idea that Hamlet’s playing the noir detective, acknowledging that something's amiss and fishing for a tell. But I love it.
These kinds of questions give the great words life, reminding us that there’s also a juicy pulp allure to Shakespeare's stories.
Regardless of how TSC chooses to send Ophelia to the nunnery, this was the conversation that whetted my appetite for Shakespeare’s original Dark Knight.
For ticket information, a link.
A Hutchison-directed production of As You Like It opens at Rhodes' McCoy Theatre April 12.
I can’t miss that one either. The Twelfth Night he directed there a few seasons back was terrific. Besides, the last time Rhodes did As You Like It, your pesky blogger played Touchstone. With pantyhose on his head. And a big pink codpiece. Just like Shakespeare intended.