This will be a little different from the other blog posts. Hamlet is first of not a “little-known” piece (though it is a gem *ba-dum ching*, sorry I just had to). Secondly I’m not going to review the written play, but a performance of it.
So I am a Shakespeare fan, and as a fan of the Bard I of course had to see how his 450 year anniversary was being celebrated (This was in 2014, he was born in 1564). So I went to The Globe’s site and saw the ‘Globe to Globe’ project. A two year (23. April 2014 – 23. April 2016) old journey where the theatre group performs Hamlet all over the world. 200 performances in 200 different countries.
Not to mention that I would have to go by aeroplane to another part of the country. Yes a first world problem, but I was really sad. So, then I started doing some research and found that they where playing a few months later in Hungary (not only during my holiday, but the day before my birthday). So my mother and I decided to travel down there for a week, with the main attraction being the show.
Poor mum. The play was performed in an outside theatre on an island, and we weren’t prepared for the cold at all (It had been hot the nights beforehand, but being on an island it was much colder there than on the mainland). In the intermission she went inside a café and sat there waiting for me as the dedicated mum that she is. (My fan-girl mode was at it’s peak, so I didn’t notice it like she did and ended up with the sniffles afterwards.) I also want to mention that I probably scared one of the actors.The actors came around and talked to some of the audience members before the show started to get us fired up. I had seats in the front row, in the middle, and this actor came over to my section. He asked us who had travelled the farthest to get there. Me, already full blown fan-girl, raised my hand and almost shouted out “ME. I’M FROM NORWAY!”. The poor guy took a step back and you could see him pondering if he needed to call the guards to protect him from the crazy woman. Luckily for me he let it go, and the show started and I had two realisations.
I had forgotten how incredibly funny the play is. I know that Hamlet isn’t known for it’s humour, but they had really highlighted it and it was wonderful.
How difficult it is to translate humour, and even Shakespeare, across language and cultural boarders.
The play was performed in English, with two screens, one either side, with the translation in Hungarian. It was also clear that the people sitting in the almost full theatre, which can accommodate 3500 people, where the cultural middle and upper-class of Hungary. They didn’t seem to understand why this weird woman in a too thin t-shirt was sitting trying not to laugh too loud when they were watching one of the greatest tragedies in western culture. I could see the people sitting next to me sending me side glances wondering if they were supposed to laugh as well or I was the one who was uncultured. I might sound like a snob, but they didn’t get it, and that is fine. The humour in Hamlet is very often overlooked. So I ended up trying desperately to send energy to the players, as the majority of the audience was draining the energy. I wanted them to continue to do the great work as I was enjoying myself. At the same time I was trying to hide my laughter from the people sitting around me. I will give an example of what I mean when I say it was “lost in translation”.
Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing my lord.
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
Ophelia: What is, my lord?
It is somewhat common knowledge that ‘country matters’ means sex. It’s less known that ‘nothing’ was a slang word for vagina (A thing is the penis, and ‘no thing’ means no penis). While you get the first pun, the real joke is lost if you don’t know this and therefore realise that it is a double entendre. (Well actually a triple entendre. ‘I think of nothing’ can be read as ‘I think of nothing’, but also the idea that there is a thing/penis between her legs, either her own or someone else’s). This has nothing to do with English, but about knowing Shakespeare and his writing.
This made me think of Laura Bohannan and her article Shakespeare in the Bush (http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/picks-from-the-past/12476/shakespeare-in-the-bush). Bohannan is an American anthropologist who gets into an argument with a British colleague. This colleague states that she, as an American, can never really understand Shakespeare as a British person can due to culture. This angers Bohannan, and when she at a later state is in West Africa studying the Tiv tribe she decides to put this to the test. She starts telling them the story of Hamlet, and while they are very receptive to the story there are elements that she is struggling to explain. For example that Hamlet is so angry that is mother has married after waiting only two months, when the Tiv people thinks she waited too long. That Hamlet and Horatio is trying to figure out the murder on their own, and not going to the elders which is their custom. The concept of ghost.
The wonderful thing about the way the Tiv people received Hamlet, is that they could discuss it in a way that isn’t hindered by common convention. There are some (Read more about it in the book How to talk about books you haven’t read) theories that say the Ghost is just an hallucination, wholly or partly. The Tvi can speculate about the nature of the Ghost because they aren’t bound by what “intellectuals” say about Hamlet. They can interpret it what way they want. In the same sense I wonder if the lack of response from the audience was that they weren’t open or prepared for the humour that was presented to them because Hamlet is so connected with tragedy. The most known phrase “to be or not to be” literally means “to live or to die”. It’s about suicide.
There is still over a year left on the project, and it will be interesting to listen to their experience. Was my performance the norm or the exception to the rule. Did focusing on the humour of a tragedy leave the audience mute, or was one of the most known writers of all time really one who could transcend the language and cultural barriers.
If you can and you are interested I would highly recommend going to see this play, but maybe brush up on the story first. Here is a lot of some of the more common puns http://www.shakespeare-navigators.com/hamlet/Pap.html or this article by Alexander Crawford http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/humourhamlet.html
Now don’t get me wrong, they had a lot of physical humour as well, and it was interesting to see how they staged it from a theatre point of view since the play ha to be very mobile and flexible to accommodate so many different scenes and climates. I would love to hear from other people about your experience from watching it, and your thoughts about the language and cultural differences.
In April 2016 the project will be in Denmark, which is just very close to me, and I would love to go there and see it again. If I wasn’t afraid the actor I scared in Hungary would put a restraining order on me.
Read more about the project and find out when it’s close to you here http://globetoglobe.shakespearesglobe.com/hamlet/the-map?date=01+Mar+2016
The list over the articles/books mentioned:
Shakespeare in the Bush, Bohannan : http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/picks-from-the-past/12476/shakespeare-in-the-bush
How to talk about books you haven’t read, Bayard : https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1143788.How_to_Talk_About_Books_You_Haven_t_Read?ac=1
Common puns in Hamlet: http://www.shakespeare-navigators.com/hamlet/Pap.html
Humour in Hamlet, Crawford: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/humourhamlet.html