Living with Hamlet: Part Two
By Quinn Mattfeld
Editor’s Note: This is the second of three blog posts written by actor Quinn Mattfeld about playing the towering role of Hamlet this year at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
An actor’s approach to Hamlet at some point becomes as much about the choices he doesn’t make as about the ones he does. Lawrence Olivier’s 1948 film version begins with the unfortunate prologue, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Any such specious definition of Hamlet’s character or the tragedy to which he gives his name is a deadly pitfall that discerning actors ought to guard against in order to avoid imposing limitations on that which is limitless.
“Hamlet is melancholy.” “Hamlet is mad!” “Hamlet is in love with his mother.” Actors are often the recipients and sometimes the perpetrators of these reductive musings on the character’s nature. I believe the first step of any sincere journey toward playing the Dane necessarily becomes weeding out the cultural junk-DNA that so frequently follows in his wake.
The flaw in many of the underlying assumptions about Hamlet have nothing to do with the accuracy of the psychological projections onto his motivations, but rather the fact that those assumptions are static. As with Olivier’s qualitative prologue, what much of the speculation on Hamlet fails to take into account is how he changes—or rather that he changes and with such frequency.
The Hamlet that begins the play is a wholly different creature than the one who ends it. The same is true of Hamlet before he speaks “To be or not to be” and after; as well as before and after “rogue and peasant slave,” “how all occasions,” and “the fall of a sparrow.”
The vehicle underlying Hamlet’s character arc is discovery. Throughout the course of the play Hamlet discovers the nature of his own humanity and the spiritual agency he generates in that process comes in the form of change.
“To be or not to be” transforms in the span of two acts into “let be.” “Am I a coward?” becomes “conscience does make cowards of us all.” What began as a question is ultimately resolved by the undoing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when Hamlet declares to Horatio, “they are not near my conscience.” He then further argues that killing Claudius by the means of his own device is “perfect conscience.”
In playing Hamlet, I continue to find these transformative arcs of language throughout the text: “seem,” “beast,” “now,” “no more.” Shakespeare builds these words and ideas into Hamlet’s experience of the world and does not repeat them unless their meaning and significance propels him forward into a new understanding of himself.
The joy of Hamlet is not in playing out an intellectual exercise or pet theory about just any old literary character. The beauty is in the transformative experience of a character who evolves as his story evolves, whose concept of himself is as malleable as the shifting circumstances of the Danish court.
Hamlet’s final state and how he arrives at it are certainly matters of individual artistic interpretation, but the understanding that his character arc is one of continual transformation and self-discovery is probably the best place for an actor to start.