Shakespeare

At a press screening of Kenneth Branagh's four-hour-long ""Hamlet,'' we ran into a colleague during the intermission. The lights went up after Branagh had bellowed out the ""How all occasions do inform against me'' soliloquy, with martial music blaring, in front of a bogus-looking mountain backdrop. (The Melancholy Sherpa?) Under all the din, a few titters had been audible. ""Well,'' said our colleague, ""this ought to put a stop to the Shakespeare boom.'' Maybe, maybe not. But we were relieved that somebody else thought there was a Shakespeare boom. So many of the scholars we'd interviewed had given us the old horselaugh. The Bard is back? Was that our angle?

The truth is, he never went away. A couple of years ago the multiculturalists had supposedly frog-marched him out of school curriculums. Yet in his native England, every kid must now read two plays and take a national exam; no mass suicides reported. In the United States he's still studied in more than 90 percent of high schools. In universities, postcolonialists, feminists and specialists in ""queer studies'' rope him in as either a fellow subversive or No. 1 whipping boy. While the writer whom critic Harold Bloom has pronounced ""the center of the canon'' may never again bestride the narrow world like a colossus, he gets around OK for a 400-year-old.

In New York the week before Christmas you could see three new Shakespeare films--not counting ""Hamlet,'' which opens Christmas Day. Former Royal Shakespeare Company director Trevor Nunn offers a handsome, splendidly acted ""Twelfth Night.'' Al Pacino's ""Looking for Richard'' is half ""Richard III'' and half a film about filming ""Richard III.'' And Australian director Baz Luhrmann's post-MTV ""Romeo & Juliet'' has car crashes, gun battles and Mercutio as a black drag queen. In London they're building, on the original site, a replica of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's own company performed--and he himself supposedly played Old Hamlet's ghost. Already more than 300,000 people have attended performances in the uncompleted structure. This month an organization of travel journalists voted it the top tourist attraction in Europe.

Tokyo also has a re-created Globe; they do visiting RSC productions, a Kabuki ""Hamlet'' and a kyogen ""Horazamurai''--""The Merry Wives of Windsor'' to you. The small town of Maruyama-machi is finishing Shakespeare Country Park, with a replica of his birthplace. In Moscow, actor Aleksandr Yatsko is still trying to raise money for a small, mobile Globe, but you can catch ""King Lear'' at the Malaya Bronnaya Theater, ""Much Ado About Nothing'' at the Army or ""Romeo and Juliet'' at the Satirikon. You just missed a collaborative production with a Tokyo company: the Montagues were Russians and the Capulets Japanese.

The scholarly Shakespeare industry cranks out commentary at an annual growth rate of 4 or 5 percent; in the next six months we'll have four new editions. A new bibliography has some 25,000 entries just from 1987 to 1994--plus 80,000 reviews of printed matter and productions. That's a lot of aperCus, considering that much of what there is to say had been said by 1818, when Coleridge and Hazlitt had weighed in and Keats had coined the term ""Negative Capability'': Shakespeare's capacity for ""being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.''

On the Internet--skip down a few lines if you don't want to hear about this--you can ""tour'' the new Globe or play with the Random Elizabethan Curse Generator (e.g., ""Thou purpled rump-fed hugger-mugger''). MIT's powerful search engine can sniff out individual words, parts of words or word combinations in all 37 tragedies, histories and comedies, plus the nondramatic poems. And the other day we did a search of press coverage, punching in the names ""Bill,'' ""Hillary'' and ""Macbeth'': 749 citations. Hey, great minds.

Since we take the persistence of Shakespeare for granted, it's hard to step back and see just how odd it is. He now needs decoding: looking up ""fardels'' and ""bodkin,'' disentangling syntax: ""How in my words somever she be shent,'' says Hamlet before confronting his mother, ""To give them seals, never, my soul, consent!'' Uh-huh. His plots wouldn't fly in the cheesiest sitcom or cop show. Take that scheme to murder Hamlet: was the whole court not supposed to notice when he keels over dead after a scratch from Laertes's foil or a sip from Claudius's cup? So why does Shakespeare still rule our stages--no other playwright comes close--and speak to our souls?

Maybe it's the characters: Samuel Johnson called them ""the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find.'' Or, as British actress Judi Dench says, ""He writes real people.'' Maybe it's the words? D. H. Lawrence marveled ""that such trivial people should muse and thunder/in such lovely language.'' And poet Ted Hughes has called his writing less archaic than ""futuristic,'' with its ""weirdly expressive underswell of a musical neargibberish, like a jostling of spirits.''

Or is he simply oversold? In his 1989 book ""Reinventing Shakespeare,'' Gary Taylor, coeditor of the Oxford Shakespeare, called him a literary ""black hole,'' so weighted down by his reputation that he no longer emits any light. Taylor sees the elevation of a gifted (but not uniquely gifted) Elizabethan-Jacobean playwright to world-lit heavyweight champ in perpetuity as right-wing dirty work. ""How would he do in the book or theater market,'' says Taylor, ""if he were no longer compulsory in classrooms? Look at the amount of labor that's put into making Shakespeare work for today's students. He has to be put on this kind of cultural welfare.''

Johnson slapped down similar critiques back in 1765, predicting they were ""likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox.'' But Taylor knows, as Johnson could not, the power of today's entertainment industry; Shakespeare's long-term survival, he argues, depends not on academe but on Hollywood. ""Shakespeare has to make it in the movies, or he's not going to make it.''

If so, it could be a bumpy ride for the old boy. Movie realism makes Shakespeare's artifice look weird: seeing 20-foot-tall actors up there in living color only emphasizes that they're talking ""musical neargibberish.'' This may not be a deal-breaker for TV-mutated Gen X-ers, who supposedly pay only intermittent mind to language. Or has rap music revived the old skill of listening closely to spoken poetry, and decoding syntax scrambled for the sake of rhyme or meter? But film directors tend to overcompensate for the talkiness with visual hustle-bustle. Add a conventional film score to the already musical speeches and you've got aural clutter. The other inadvertent laugh Branagh's ""Hamlet'' got at our screening came when sappy music wells up, for the umpteenth time, as the prince says he's ready to die (""If it be now, 'tis not to come''). Say what you will about Luhrmann's ""Romeo & Juliet''--and we're about to--it's such a slam-bang mix of Fellini, Sergio Leone and God knows what else that its in-your-face music (by such bands as Everclear) is no more maddening than anything else.

Luhrmann would agree with Hughes about Shakespeare's ""futuristic'' language. ""He made up words, changed them, chopped them up,'' says Luhrmann. ""So I wanted to do it in a nonprecious manner. That round-voweled execution is a fashion of the '30s.'' This sounds fine until you hear how bad his actors are. But young moviegoers suffer as exquisitely with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio as kids in 1968 did with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Franco Zeffirelli's Aquarian-age version. And Luhrmann's postmodern Verona is Elizabethan at heart: full of sexy, scary, violent young thugs with too much time on their hands and precious few adults worth their respect. This is the play that's always made young people feel Shakespeare was their secret ally; if nothing else, Luhrmann has saved that bond for one more generation.

What Branagh's ""Hamlet'' will accomplish--besides nip in the bud the Shakespearean careers of Jack Lemmon (Marcellus) and Billy Crystal (First Gravedigger)--is more worrisome. Certainly it's an Event. You've got the world's most famous play by the world's most famous writer with the world's most famous Shakespearean--except for Sir John Gielgud, now 92, whose nonspeaking bit part gives an extra hit of totemic oomph. You've got the whole play--no holding back stuff like those very interesting observations on the vogue for child actors. You've got costumes: Lemmon's outsize hat makes him look as if he's guarding the Wicked Witch of the West. You've got more fake snow than in any movie in history, even ""Dr. Zhivago.'' (We learned this from the press kit.)

More to the point, you've got world-class performances by Branagh and Derek Jacobi (Claudius), whose own ""Hamlet'' was Branagh's great inspiration, and fine ones by Julie Christie (Gertrude) and Kate Winslet (Ophelia). Branagh's Hamlet is an omni-directional ironist: one especially fine moment comes after he's stabbed Polonius: pursuers spot him, he sees that they see him and he minces away on tiptoes in a parody of escape. And Jacobi's Claudius is a spot-on portrait of a glad-hander with a secret sin. If Branagh's revisionism (Polonius is cagey; Hamlet and Ophelia had sex) doesn't convince you, at least it'll make you think.

But as a filmmaker, Branagh is as clunky as Luhrmann is trendy. After the ghost scene, an earthquake about as convincing as special effects on the old ""Star Trek'' rumbles away so you can't hear the crucial speech in which Hamlet warns his friends to pay him no mind later if he pretends to be crazy. And a De Palma-esque sweeping camera circles the actors like a police helicopter. This trite coup de cinEma ruins the bedroom scene. You know the camera can't go a full 360 degrees because it'll hit the bed, so as Hamlet and his mother argue about... whatever, you're riveted: where's the damn thing going to stop?

Still, Branagh's ""Hamlet'' offers a mass audience total 70-mm immersion in the masterwork that remains the heart of the heart of Western culture. And at the heart of that work is a subversive, morbidly self-conscious misfit: the first romantic, the first slacker. The last guy in the world you'd think high-culture pooh-bahs would want skulking around, with his smutty puns, his smelly old jester's skull and his bare bodkin, ready to make his quietus in a New York minute if he weren't afraid the next world would be even worse than this one. Whether or not Shakespeare can cut it in Hollywood, a writer so dark, so funny, so downright weird--and, on the other hand, so noble, so resonant, so heartbreaking--can always get a gig somewhere. At least until language, culture and human nature have changed so much we can no longer understand a word he's saying. Or until we can get him figured out, whichever comes first.

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