A Literature Nerd’s Love Letter to Hamlet
By Amanda Finn
Photo Credit: Graphic by Andrea Klohn.
Hamlet is my second favorite Shakespearean play. It won’t ever replace Macbeth as my absolute, hands down favorite, but Hamlet the character is the top of my favorite characters list. Largely because it’s fun to debate his actions and meanings (shoutout to Ann Pleiss-Morris at Ripon College for encouraging this) and also because those soliloquies are just too good.
Enter Maurice Jones of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s latest production of the tragedy in Denmark.
With Jones as the title character it feels almost foolhardy to argue about Hamlet’s intentions or soundness of mind. The profound grief and all that goes along with it emanates from Jones’ portrayal of the doomed prince.
Suddenly the undergrad argument of Hamlet’s “madness” came flooding back. As did the discussions about Ophelia (Rachel Nicks). In CST’s latest production neither character elicits that kind of cringey “crazy” trope. They aren’t “crazy” or “mad”. They’re grieving and sorrowful. One seeks vengeance while the other seeks clarity.
Both Hamlet and Ophelia sing in this production, which is both melancholic and beautiful. Companies that utilize the power of song with Shakespeare’s works delight me because historically music would have been a major part of the production. We don’t need to wholly utilize “what things might have been like” and bore audiences to tears, but some integrations bring a whole new dimension to the show.
CST’s rendition of Hamlet felt so eerily present-day that I’m still getting chills thinking about the show days later. Even hundreds of years of human history doesn’t change the pull of greed in the world. Or the hunger for power. “The play’s the thing” that reminds us that evil has always existed in the world and, sadly, the only sound solution is to try and fight back.
Even though we can’t always win those earthly battles.
Jones’ Hamlet, however, is probably the closest one to attempt triumph. Complete with humor to disaffect the pain, Jones’ Hamlet isn’t going quietly into any sweet night. Never before has “what a rogue and peasant slave am I” brought me to the verge of tears. “To be or not to be” practically begged for a standing ovation (which is a token I give sparingly.)
Hamlet and Ophelia as a duo has never quite made sense to me. No matter how many times I read the play or see a production or filmed version, things always seemed rotten between them. It wasn’t until CST’s production that I finally see the tension of their tenuous relationship. Hamlet does, truly, love her. Her death (spoiler alert?) smashes his heart and her advances when he is distracted by thoughts of vengeance are unwelcome.
Suddenly the entire play became an apt metaphor for the destructive nature of grief. Like a tsunami it will overtake whatever is in its path. Hamlet is a means of showing us the ways in which we are all affected when sudden grief and sometimes unrelenting anger can come into our lives.
And now, for me, the Shakespearean tragedy bar is set at Jones as Hamlet.