“It’s Like A Mirror”: Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet”

Hamnet coverIn one way, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet has not, in its effort to win the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, chosen its moment well: a historical novel set in the sixteenth century, it must defeat Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light in its own Tudorbethan sub-category before even having a hope of triumphing in the tournament proper. It’s not that the novels’ approaches to the period are entirely similar – O’Farrell does not restrict herself to the third-person limited, and she opts for the economical over the encyclopaedic – but equally, and beyond the jerkins and the ruffs, they certainly share a lyrical, empathetic approach to the Tudors that inevitably situates them side-by-side on a shortlist.

In another key way, however, Hamnet is the perfect novel for the moment – because it is a plague book. No one really knows what killed the only son of William Shakespeare – he is primarily remembered by his orthographic near-double, the Prince of Denmark. But O’Farrell has chosen to have him bitten by fleas, and in so doing  has written, quite without planning it of course, a novel that became in 2020 simultaneously rather too close to the bone and also unusually comforting.  We should all, of course, still be paying attention to the high politics and state-making with which Mantel concerns herself; but in 2020 much of our attentions have also turned inward. Hamnet speaks to the smaller world of the domestic space, riven by disease and shattered by grief, out of control and yet also the only unit left to us in making sense of events. “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre,” we read early on, “from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.” Hamnet is about that hub, where The Mirror & The Light is about – seeks to encompass – all its many spokes.

The novel begins with Hamnet running. He is, like most young boys, in persistent motion. At this particular moment, his family are nowhere to be seen, distracted by concern for his sister, Judith. Of course, this activity will end soon and the familial fretting will guiltily shift focus – and, equally naturally, the contrast is O’Farrell’s point. Also part of the purpose of the novel’s opening pages is sketching the geography of the very small world in which its events are set. When William eventually leaves for London and Southwark, we do not follow him; we instead stay in Stratford, and mostly on Henley Street – though occasionally we, like the characters, make the trip to the space of Shottery, where the Hathaways reside. This tight mise en scene offers O’Farrell the opportunity to paint the intimacy of the enclosed spaces in which most of the characters spend much of their time: the kitchen, the glover’s workshop, the bedchamber. The few streets of Stratford, too, become material in our reading the novel, and even a funeral procession to Holy Trinity is given the ballast of attractively quotidian detail.

By centring the novel in this way, its comparatively rather small stakes in fact come to matter a great deal – as of course they should. Hamnet isn’t really concerned with William except in his role as a father and husband; we spend most time with him early on, as a frustrated Latin master, and he becomes a mystery to us once he adopts the earring of the rakish playwright. The novel is, despite its title, in large part the story of his relationship with Anne – here known by her own insistence as Agnes. Agnes, the sister of the boys to whom William is assigned as Latin master, is given by O’Farrell the same gifts of human sympathy and understanding which are so often assigned to her husband; his self-actualisation becomes as much her project as his own. “She can look at a person and see right into their very soul,” he says of her, before London and Hamnet’s death drive wedges between them. “There is not a drop of harshness in her. She will take a person for who they are, not what they are not or ought to be.”

This comes as special relief to William, since his own father – the harsh glover, John – has no patience for his son’s sense of displacement, nor his apparent lack of interest in the practical trades to which John has devoted his life. Agnes, however, recognises that William “had more hidden away inside [him] than anyone else she’d ever met.” When William chooses to leave for London and not take his family with him, this hidden part bites the hand that has fed it. “It is evident to Agnes now … that her husband is split in two,” and duality feeds much of the rest of the novel: life and death, brother and sister, husband and wife, London and Stratford, sickness and health. Unusually, in doubleness the novel finds much not just of its conflict but also its consolation. In the novel’s denouement, for example, Agnes steals away to London, unbidden by her husband, to discover what his double life involves – adultery, probably, dissipation surely. But instead she attends the Globe, and sees a production of Hamlet, in which William plays the ghost of the young man’s father.

Her husband wrote these words, these exchanges, but what has any of this to do with their boy? … Why would her husband have done it? Why pretend that it means nothing to him, just a collection of letters? How could he thieve his name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained? How could he take up his pen and write it on a page, breaking its connection with their son?

[… But] her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy. He has found this boy, instructed him, shown him, how to speak, how to stand, how to lift his chin, like this, like that. He has rehearsed and primed and prepared him. He has written words for him to speak and to hear. She tries to imagine how her husband could have schooled him so exactly, so precisely, and how it might have felt when the boy got it right, when he first got the walk, that heartbreaking turn of the head.

[…] Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dread. […] He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.

Having spent hundreds of pages, and in novel-time several years, with this family – who are in many ways historically, culturally, religiously distant from us – this passage, in which William at first has no idea his wife is present, is profoundly moving. This is because O’Farrell has picked apart the grief of the Shakespeares, the absence in their life that the plague has created. When Hamlet first dies from his sickness, which he has suffered while all the while his father is in London or travelling belatedly back, Agnes can barely believe it: “It is an impossible idea that her son, her child, her boy, the healthiest and most robust of her children, should, within days, sicken and die.” William, at first so distant as to see confoundingly unmoved, ultimately admits the same: “I am constantly wondering where he is,” he confides to her. “Where he has gone It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind.” The complexity of this family, the doubleness of the individuals that make it up, the tight confines in which they share space, are laid bare – rent open, cast into chaos – by the random event of illness. Each member of the family must first identity, then acknowledge, then somehow accommodate, the knowledge that “[what] is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or brigand.” Hamnet is in part a book about how one family might do that.

Their pain is heightened by how arbitrary is Hamnet’s death. In a bravura passage, O’Farrell proposes sketches how, for “the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these two people need to meet” – but, in the telling, she makes clear how reductive even this emphasis upon chance proves to be. In fact, the necessary connections are even more rosicrucian and random. The two people are a Murano glassmaker and a cabin boy: the second contracts fleas from a monkey he plays with; the first is sick one day and his understudy fails to pack a shipment of beads safely, instead using rags the cabin boy’s fleas eventually migrate to onboard the vessel. When the beads are eventually delivered to Stratford-upon-Avon, as a result of yet more coincidence and hundreds of miles from Alexandria and Murano, a young boy dies. The almost improbable chain of events encourages fear – buboes send Stratford into cold shivers – and also, of course, superstition and foolishness: when a doctor arrives in a plague mask, Hamnet asks why he wears the strange device. “Because he this it will protect him,” Agnes explains. Will it? the boy responses. “His mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.'” But wear it he does.

All of this, needless to say, feels grimly relevant. But there is also a certain consolation in reading of plagues past, of quarantines and isolations and cumbersome prophylactics that – though terrifying then as now – also connect us to other human beings through shared experience and the empathy we can, with effort, practice in its presence. Hamnet adopts a laconic style that is never lachrymose or over-laden with pathos; but it is also deeply sad while finding room for hopes: of reconciliation, of memory, of love. I don’t think, in the quality of its execution or its clarity of vision, it has much in fact to fear from the mirror or the light.

“Perplex’d In The Extreme”: Hytner’s “Othello”

20130812-171746.jpgIn my post about a couple of the offerings of the RSC’s summer season, I skirted around the hardly original contention that, in production, a play by Shakespeare needs to become more than a beautifully-read text if it is to enjoy success. David Farr’s Hamlet enjoys beautiful verse-speaking and, of course, some of the most elegant lines in all of Shakespeare; in his Titus Andronicus, Michael Fentiman has some charismatic actors occassionally stumbling through prosaic couplets, but it is Titus which emerges as the more compelling piece.

Nicholas Hytner, outgoing director of the National Theatre, is known for treating the Bard with something less than reverence. Where even Fentiman keeps the most curious of original textual oddities in his production, Hytner is not beyond editing or even – gasp – rewriting Shakespeare in order to craft for the audience a better experience. In his programme notes for the NT’s current production of Othello, at the Olivier until October, he posits Shakespeare as a kind of problem – a rewarding writer who nevertheless offers often impossible puzzles for the contemporary director. “The solution,” he writes, “is the actor.”

Othello makes a good argument for this vision of wrestling Shakespeare into submission. As Iago, Rory Kinnear seeks not to make sense of his character, but to dramatise his confusion: the only his Iago knows for sure is that he does indeed hate Adrian Lester’s Moor. He hates with such a passion, however, that it is beyond his ken. Kinnear plays Iago as a frustrated squaddie, a working-class bloke who enjoys a beer and a fag (we first see him emerge from a shabby nightclub with Tom Robertson’s hilariously hapless Roderigo); his famously honeyed words are trotted out, at first distractingly, in a gruff estuary burr. He is not the villainous puppet-master, in control of events and planning each move far ahead; he is the streetwise opportunist, not quite able to express his own emotions but aware enough of other’s frailties to make use of them.

This characterisation gives the play a renewed immediacy: as Iago panics and remodifies his stratagems (in the final moments of the play he seems genuinely shocked by what he has wrought), so too the other characters appear to have – briefly, haltingly – chances for redemption. Before Lester’s Othello descends by the end of the evening into vain self-pity, he is a wry, likeable figure – Lester’s early soliloquies are easily the most beautifully delivered in the entire production, and his reputation as one of our finest Shakespearean actors can only be bolstered by a role into which he almost entirely disappears. Likewise, Desdemona (an engaging Olivia Vinall) is an innocent abroad, a woman whose largest fault is a lack of understanding.

Hytner writes all this large with a focus on the play’s military aspects. Much of the action of Othello takes place in a Cyprus newly occupied by the invading Venetian force, which has arrived expecting a war and yet whose soldiers find themselves instead kicking their heels and making nice with the locals when a convenient breeze, 1588-like, does for the Turkish fleet. Hytner’s set design therefore takes the form of a Camp Bastion construction, all bleached concrete and featureless, functional spaces in which the assembled soldiers, cooped-up and without a real job to do, kick footballs around listlessly or get roaringly drunk in order to fill the time.

Into this vacuum step two destabilising influences: the primacy of the bond between soldiers over the one they share with those they serve and protect; and, of course, gossip and jealousy. The General persona Othello builds up when in the company of the Duke of Venice during the first act slowly breaks down in the field until he is once again throwing tables around and growling orders for violence, like the frontline fighter he once, so successfully, was; Desdemona, meanwhile is allowed, unusually, to join the occupying force in Cyprus – and, dressed in her little trainers and brightly-coloured leggings, finds herself entirely at sea, and absolutely disruptive.

Iago, a chip on his shoulder the size of the silver-spooned Cassio’s promotion above him, juggles these elements to devastating, but not always predictable, effect. Although he is manifestly unaware of what really drives him – first his career prospects, then his hatred for Othello, then the rumours that his general and his wife have slept together, then his love for Desdemona – he is a keener student, in a demotic fashion, of what drives others. This is because he, unlike the civilian Desdemona or the officer Othello, understands and is embedded in the brilliantly-depicted military life of the unit. So, too, incidentally, is his wife and Desdemona’s keeper, Emilia (a very effective Lyndsey Marshall) – who is here cast also as a solider, although less effectively given a prim RP accent which makes Iago’s class identity a little less clearer, and without much in the way of positive counter-weight. The insular, totalising culture which all these characters share, however, gives the play a new explanation for Othello’s devolution – not, in fact, the tearing of a superficial layer from a barely civilised, gullible savage, but a reversion, through misuse of the soldier’s bond of blood, to the killer he was trained by the ostensibly shocked state to be.

All of this gives Hytner’s production a coherence in intimacy and domesticity – each individual put on the rack, Desdemona’s bed an instantly recognisable flat-pack thing, placed in a prefabricated bedroom of beige walls and carpets. With a few tweaks to the text, and not a lot of reverence, the production becomes conversely more serious, and in its final scenes all the more horrifying. At the end, Lester and Kinnear take a special little bow together apart from the main cast – a practice about which I agree with Titus Andronicus‘s formidable Katy Stephens – but they have so impressed in the context of a quite expertly realised ensemble effort (the central scene between them as Iago opens up Othello’s jealousy, however, is admittedly the most compelling collaboration between two actors you’re likely to see all year). Though its Iago is without the self-knowledge to analyse or stop himself, this Othello will, I think, define others for some time to come.

“Then Yield Thee, Coward”: Goold and Stewart’s Macbeth

For one so popular, Macbeth is a difficult play. It has all of those actorly superstitions attached to it, of course: bad luck, on-stage injuries, unspeakable soliloquies. It is also by repute a play about evil and darkness, a singularly merciless piece in which no character really emerges with their goodness wholly intact; it is also about perversion and terror, black magic and weakness; even the Porter, ostensibly the play’s only truly comic turn, seems most interested in nihilstic eschatology. Most of all, though, it has always felt to me as if it lacks something – context, perhaps, or at the very least a neat frame – which both accounts for its laudable brevity but also at times its odd imbalance. Macbeth’s tragedy is that he is constantly aware of the consequences and repurcussions of his actions; but this is also the source of the play’s occassional incoherence, as the main character veers from snarling barbarity to learned humanist discourse. His wife, so potent a figure in the first half, as she wilfully ignores the potential fall-out of her machinations, all but disappears in the second, reduced rapidly and with little explanation to a fitful, deranged husk; the play’s only vaguely heroic character, Macduff, arrives very late in the action – and is motivated largely by regret that he left his wife and children alone and vulnerable in dangerous Scotland.

All of which makes Macbeth a difficult play to make work properly. You can whizz through it at a lightning speed, pausing only for the famous lines, of which there are many, and the bloody battles, of which there are almost as many. This was the approach taken by the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s 2007 production, in which David Westhead huffed and gruffed his way through the play with only its inherent inertia to carry him through. Roman Polanski, too, relied in his 1971 film version on camera tricks and shock moments (a cave full of naked witches, blood pretty much everywhere). Just as famously, meanwhile, Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen’s 1976 RSC production stripped away almost everything except the text – sets, coherent costuming, almost all props – and forced unity on the play through mood and severe lighting. One of the principle effects of this approach was to emphasise how weird a play Macbeth really is.

Rupert Goold’s version of the play, first performed at Chichester in 2007, and broadcast in a special film version on BBC4 last Saturday (and on PBS in the US), tries to steer a middle course between these options, and does so with remarkable success. It isn’t afraid of being difficult or weird – the words themselves, as one would expect in a production featuring Patrick Stewart in the title role, are given full weight and focus, whilst the witches, here a trio of grisly hospital sisters, are allowed some moments of considerable oddness – but by the same token does not under-emphasise the play’s kineticism, with pitched battles, gunfights, and resplendent sets all playing a part. Of course, this reminds in execution of Gregory Doran’s Hamlet, similarly filmed and broadcast last Christmas. But Goold’s production moves faster, and is in some ways less reverential, than David Tennant’s turn as the Prince of Denmark.

In setting his vision of Macbeth in a Soviet-style dictatorship, complete with 1950s cars and grainy TV footage, Goold isn’t do anything too surprising with the material – in some ways, we’re reminded of Complicite’s 2004 production of Measure for Measure, in which cells and CCTV played a crucial part, in others of 1955’s Joe Macbeth, which playfully refigured the tale as a 1950s gangland parable. Even my Cambridge Schools Shakespeare edition of the text has a picture of Hitler and Stalin in it. But there’s also a shrewd and subtle mixing of registers – modern armoury against vintage uniforms, camoflauge fatigues next to timeless dinner jackets – which lets the play leak outwards. There’s lots of 1984 here, with huge posters bearing Stewart’s moustachioed face speaking of personality cults and unmedieval despotism; but the fluid quality of the dialogue, which even where liberties are taken with it feels laudably sensitive in delivery,  and the rapid succession of events, are both thoroughly contemporary. Banquo is here assassinated on a train, in a scene straight out of Hitchcock; Ross, transformed from a useful authorial device to a venal-but-crucial apparatchik in a great performance by Tim Treloar, is brutally interrogated by Lennox in a fantastic reimagining of the doubled language of Act 3, scene vi. This is a production bursting with good ideas.

Only an ill-judged dance in the middle of the banquet scene, which interrupts to little effect Stewart’s compelling portrayal of a man facing the sheer horror of his bloody actions, and the better but perhaps not quite perfect sequence in which the witches’ “hubble bubble” speech is delivered as a poor sort of rap, mar this well executed vision. As all good Macbeths should, this production barrels along – but in Stewart it has found an actor, at times overly self-conscious but here most often fully submerged in the role, able to pull together the divergent aspects of his character into a man first fearful, then resolved, then broken. Stewart’s chemistry with Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth (excellent, and where she needs to be more magnetic and charismatic than Stewart) adds the necessary erotic frisson to the play’s central dynamic, allowing the audience to believe in the high hurdles the husband in particular must jump so quickly and so early on in the play.

Primarily, however, Goold takes fear as his guiding theme, intensely present of course in the text itself (another way in which this lively production remains very true to its source). Its Big Brother stylings – even as Banquo muses aloud that he fears Macbeth has played most foully for his crown, he discovers a microphone concealed within a light switch – allow the play to foreground the invasiveness of Macbeth, the way in which fate comes to meddle in intimate detail with the lives of men, but also the manner in which each of the characters is concerned to one extent or another with personal salvation. Malcolm (whom we first meet here as he executes the rebellious Thane of Cawdor) tests Macduff by (perhaps) inventing a signal lack of probity for himself; Macbeth agonises endlessly about the fate that awaits a murderer beyond death; and the witches, of course, emphasise the judgements of posterity in their prophecies. The absence of fear leads baldly to rash, inhuman actions – too much, of course, and the native hue of resolution is sicklied over. Fear – of the assassin’s knife, but also simply of falling short, of being caught out – thus permeates the play, and are here writ large on a totalitarian canvas.

The grain is roughened with the production’s depiction of Duncan, the king described by many as good and just, and thus an unworthy and much lamented victim of Macbeth’s dagger; here, he is little different than Macbeth himself will become – uniformed, warlike, and oleaginous, dispatching his henchmen to wreak swift retribution on any who dare move against him. The now traditional ambiguity of the play’s close – in which Malcolm holds aloft the severed head of a traitor and promises a glorious reign to come – adds another note of continuity, as if Macbeth isn’t really so bad, but that power is. Power, like fear, is as damaging in its fullness as in its absence; without there is mere anarchy, with an excess tyranny. In one sense, then, what Goold thus does is make this singularly imbalanced play into one about balance.

Of all the very fine performances, Michael Feast’s as Macduff is worth particular mention: the character’s reaction to Ross’s news that Lady Macduff has been murdered along with all her children can be a difficult one to play. Feast achieves it better than any I have ever seen – with a long silence, and an “O hell-kite” whispered through gritted teeth. He delivers Macbeth’s head to Malcolm in a state close to madness (again, Goold allows no one to emerge without a spot upon them); but that silence is the most humane moment in the play. An inserted pause, too, enlivens Macbeth’s final words: “And damned be him that first cries, ‘Hold!,” Stewart bellows at Feast – and then, at the climax of a fight in which he gets the better of Macduff, Macbeth sees the witches a final time and whispers, with a relieved resignation, “Enough.”

Macbeth has found his balance.

Politics and Play in Early Modern England

Just thinking aloud [ablog?] …

“Other phenomena of the Elizabethan political world might also be considered as phenomena of the casuistical mode in which people were driven by conscience to do things that they would in other circumstances consider improper. […] Casuistry provides the framework within which we can understand a world in which even the most conformist of people might be driven to acts of disloyalty.” [Glenn Burgess, British Political Thought 1500-1660, pp. 126-127]

A Mirror for Princes?

Burgess’s overview of Reformation and post-Reformation political thought in the British Isles is, by the author’s own admission, a little idiosyncratic: the thinkers he includes, and those he excludes, will no doubt continue to lead to great debate in the review pages. But it represents a convincing portrait of an age in which the central political question was one of obedience, to whom it was owed and from where it was derived. The issues of monarchy whuch Burgess shows writers returned to again and again run through the period and the islands from Buchanan to Lilburne: is the monarch divinely or temporally sanctioned (most commonly, an arcane and ambiguous mixture of the two was devised), and, either way, how far does that writ stretch? Essentially, is anyone allowed to resist the monarch’s authority, and if so under what circumstances?

The theatre of the period is rich with responses to, and instances of, this vexing question: Marlowe’s Edward II prefers Gaveston to governance, and is duly overthrown; Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is pitted against wounded and riotous courtiers; and Henry V, in no fewer than three plays, is put under a lens by Shakespeare, and for every rousing St Crispin’s Day has a moment of cold and unflattering disavowal (of Falstaff, of his father). What is interesting about each of those examples, but especially Shakespeare’s, are the personal elements at play. Shakespeare’s Henry V is not just shown on the throne, but shaping himself for it; Prince Hal is first seen as a dissolute, scheming, human adolescent. This personal dimension is not covered by Burgess for obvious reasons, but it seems fundamental to the battle over the monarch’s mystique which he sees in the philosophy, and which scholars such as James Loxley have seen in, for instance, the poetry of the 1640s.

In his Soul of the Age, Jonathan Bate in unapologetic in placing Shakespeare at the heart of the controversies of his day: “He lived between the two great cataclysms in English history: the break from the universal Roman Catholic church and the execution of King Charles I. His plays were made possible by the first and helped to create the conditions that made possible the second.” [pg. 18]  Bold stuff, but Bate’s ultimate argument seems fair enough: in examining the personal lives of lords, ladies and kings, Shakespeare and his theatrical contemporaries were rendering the authority of mysticism untenable. Kevin Sharpe has suggested that “the playhouses of the 1630s did something to substitute for the absence of parliaments” [Criticism and Compliment, pg. 32]; the political role of theatre surely had a longer pedigree, and a deeper effect, than merely that.

“Heaven Make Me Free Of It”: Doran and Tennant’s Hamlet

"Should I gurn yet, Gregory?"

I had a ticket to see David Tennant’s Hamlet at Stratford. Work commitments and the vagaries of the British rail network meant I had to leave my seat vacant, though – so hurrah for the BBC, who on Boxing Day aired a 3 hour film version of Gregory Doran’s production.

‘Film version’ over-emphasises the concessions to the medium made in transition: there are no real camera tricks here (a few shots of the action seen in CCTV footage notwithstanding), and the frames hold langurously to the actors and their lines. What mininal reaction shots there are are beautifully chosen – early on, for instance, Tennant’s face is shown several times as Claudius speaks of his grief. Occassionally, too, characters speak direct to camera, though tastefully always during soliloquys and always fleetingly – “Aye, there’s the rub,” Tennant admits to us in a moment of affecting eye-contact candour.

The main joy of the transition is in the location – the house in which it is set, all black marble and dark woods, is shot gloriously, and is in perfect tandem with the indeterminately modern dress and the direction of key scenes (particularly, for instance, the ‘nunnery’ scene or that in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question Hamlet about Polonius’s corpse). In blue and black hues, the film encourages paranoia and foreboding – those CCTV cameras feature heavily – and the unshowy framing nevertheless exhibits variety enough to entertain.

Largely, though, this is a cleverly filmed play, static and concentrated on language and the actor’s physicality. This is all the better, because the film’s purpose is clearly to record, in the way of Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen’s King Lear, the gathering of a rare cast in a landmark production. The character of Hamlet is often put into relief by those who surround him, and Tennant’s is well served by the supporting players: Penny Downie’s powerful Gertrude and Mariah Gale’s fragile Ophelia, Peter de Jersey’s doleful Horatio and John Woodvine’s sonorous Player King, but especially Oliver Ford Davies’s subtle and memorable Polonius. Even Osric (played with obsequious glee by Ryan Gage) is done rather well.

Patrick Stewart, though, as almost all the reviews at the time pointed out, is a quite singular Claudius: sympathetic but also monstrous, regretful but relentless. His ‘my offence is rank’ speach is quite simply a masterclass: full of emotion but far from declamatory, all control and restraint whilst also deeply affecting. His wolfish half-smiles at Ophelia’s funeral are beautiful; in his conversation with the newly rebellious Laertes, he is commanding but also, one feels, not a little foolhardy: there is in this King something of the Prince, just far better repressed. Stewart’s Claudius, too, longs for the bare bodkin.

The comparison between Claudius and Hamlet is less kind to Tennant. His Prince is at times furiously convincing – in the Closet scene he is rivetting, as in his ‘I am alone’ soliloquy and his confrontation over a recorder with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the exchange with Horatio in which he admits regretting “that to Laertes I forgot myself”. But where Claudius is a study in control, perhaps fittingly – but not always successfully – this production’s Hamlet spins wildly. Sometimes, it works – in that gloriously changeable scene with his erstwhile university friends, and also in some of the scenes with Polonius (though this be madness…). In others, however, it simply feels over-played or shapeless – “O, that this too solid flesh would melt” is too much too soon, and in the exchange with Claudius about Polonius’s death the madness is played more than the emnity; the stuff with the players, particularly just prior to and during their performance, is far too broad and open, whilst the “Dost come here to whine?” rant against Laertes’s grief starts well but veers into raving. Close-ups often help Tennant’s pacing – “to be or not to be” is rendered memorable primarily by its intimacy, so too his stately “how all occassions do inform against me” – but how far this is direction propping up delivery is harder to tell outside of the theatre.

Still, what Tennant achieves is a Hamlet simultaneously coherent – he is to some extent pretending madness – but also, crucially, quixotic – how far he knows himself, controls himself, becomes increasingly uncertain, though by the play’s close all has resolved into fatalism. This is no small achievement. Indeed, it’s a considerable one, and with along with the production’s other virtues makes it well worth watching, and a key contribution to the play’s storied history. This version emphasises Hamlet’s refusal to remain within a limited system – by contrast, Laertes (a comparatively weak Edward Bennett) buys into Claudius’s power structure, whilst the King’s own will to power allows him to withstand the lash upon his conscience. But, despite the bankruptcy of this acceptance, Doran is ambivalent about the wisdom of rejection, since there is no real alternative to that against which Hamlet rails. Claudius at least achieves peace where old Hamlet did not, and the effect of the Prince’s choice upon the other characters, and indeed all of Denmark, is catastrophic. This Hamlet is maddened but also, in all ways, a little maddening – and that is no bad thing.

“If There Be Truth In Sight”

After 1988, 'Shakey' had more hair...
After 1988, 'Shakey' had more hair...

More twists in the case of the suspicious Shakespeares. You might remember that Katherine Duncan-Jones took apart the Cobbe portrait’s link to Shakespeare in part on the back of the fact that the Folger, or Jansenn, portrait’s likeness to Shakespeare had been added many years after the bard’s death, suggesting dishonest tampering. As reported in The Independent yesterday, however, there has now emerged research dating those alterations – largely to the subject’s head, making him appear balder and therefore more like the man depicted in the Droeshout portrait – to the Bard’s lifetime, meaning that their removal in 1988 conservation work (which was sceptical as to the Folger’s attachment to Shakespeare) may well have lost to the world a wealth of information about the playwright’s aging process.

Except that the quote from Rupert Featherstone, director of the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge, which accompanies many of the press reports of this story (including the Telegraph’s and the Guardian’s) hardly seems to speak that strongly of the conclusions drawn from the technical analysis: “We can no longer peer down a microscope to look at the physical evidence of the overpaint,” he says, which might just as well mean we can’t tell that the oil paint hair plugs are earlier as that we can’t tell they’re later, right?

Indeed, the spin on this research seems to come largely from, erm, the owners and promoters of the Cobbe portrait. Stan Wells gives two separate reasons why two separate paintings might have been altered in similar ways (this is called stretching credulity), including the claim that the homoerotic sonnets were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton (this is called deliberately courting controversy). You may remember that Wells and Cobbe’s case for their portrait rests on tenuous connections, the best of which is its link to Shakespeare’s early patron, Southampton. It follows, of course, that any portrait of a bloke in a ruff which resembles another portrait of a bloke in a ruff which was once thought to maybe possibly be Shakespeare, is, when belonging to the Earl of Southampton, definitely an image of Shakespeare. Especially when you can’t prove that the baldness wasn’t added to the portrait earlier than you’re arguing in your nasty debunkings. (So nyeh nyeh nyeh.)

More debate needed, I think.

“What Our Seemers Be”

Is this a Shakespeare I see before me?
Is this a Shakespeare I see before me?

Oh, Stanley Wells, you wag. With an uncharacteristic flourish, that eminent Shakespearean has declared that a previously unregarded painting in a private collection is the only painting of the Bard that was taken from life. In all things, Shakespeare is a will o’ the wisp, and his image is similarly akin to the proverbial scotch mist. Wells knows all this, and his adamancy in approving the Cobbe portrait, whilst unusual, only adds to the publicity and excitement: how few paintings there are, and how exciting we have a new one! Stefanie Peters, at her blog, stands for the breathlessly credulous:  “yes, this is what Shakespeare looked like.”

Of course, nothing in Shakespeare studies is so easy. Something doesn’t ring true about the Cobbe painting. Adam Roberts, over at the Valve, had a good stab at these feelings of uncertainty, but focusing on a nose and a gammy eye always leaves one open to being the victim of a trick of the light. (Luther Blissett, is that really you in the comments?) No, on reflection the real killer muist surely be the subject’s clothes. It is hard, for instance, to reconcile this courtly gent with the picture of the far humbler later Shakespeare so wonderfully built from scraps by Charles Nicholl in his wonderful book, The Lodger. Likewise, the clothing of the man in the Chandos portrait similarly fits with the idea of Shakespeare as a working poet from the provinces than all that lace and embroidery.

In March 20th’s TLS, Katherine Duncan-Jones picks up these threads (geddit?) and demolishes the case for the Cobbe portrait with an ease with ought to make us wonder whether Wells is just having an early April fools. She clear-sightedly fingers Sir Thomas Overbury as the real subject of the painting, comparing the Cobbe portrait convincingly with one of Overbury owned by the Bodleian Library. Overbury was infamously poisoned in the Tower of London after crossing Royal interests in a Jacobean scandal, the celebrity of which neatly links with the Cobbe’s Latin inscription (“Principum Amicitias!” – or “The Leagues of Princes!”), and helpfully accounts for the tight timeframe in which the cluster of paintings similar to the Cobbe and the Bodleian portrait were produced.

It’s worthwhile not having too fixed a picture of Shakespeare in one’s mind; but at the same time he would surely not have been depicted as the foolish, painted thing on show in the Cobbe picture. Not for want of trying, he was just never quite that sucessful at court.