Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hamlet's Last Words

The podcast that inspired today's post can be found here. (And while you're there, I would recommend perusing their other podcasts. Then supporting your local public radio station.) I listened to it a while back, but it was brought back to mind today by another story on NPR about Jude Law stepping into the role of Hamlet. Not sure how I feel about that, but then every actor approaches the role somewhat differently. It is arguably one of the most famous plays in existence, probably #2 behind Romeo and Juliet I would think - though I much prefer Hamlet, and has been subject to much interpretation.

I would hope I'm not giving anything away by saying Hamlet dies at the end, in, arguably again, one of the most famous death scenes of all time. His last words are "the rest is silence." Which is generally the last thing he says. Only, there's another version, where it isn't the last thing he says. Added after Shakespeare's death, they may or may not represent an editorial decision made first by an actor interpreting the role. Given that Hamlet is a role that is open to much interpretation, this seems a small thing, but I found that the idea of Hamlet having a death rattle not only pretentious and presumptuous on the part of the actor who thought to do it, but also unnecessary.

Before I go too much further, I should say there are times when just because an author chose to end the story arc one place, it doesn't mean that it's forever sacrosanct. That said, you have to pick and choose your moments, and your story before you decide the original ending just wasn't good enough. I've never read "Gone With the Wind," nor seen the movie... and have no desire to. That said, I'm familiar enough with the ending, and think it remains one of the better endings in literature. Ambiguous, sure, but at least with a heroine who stands on her own. Only to end up with a "happy ever after" in the sequel.

Which invalidates the original ending, I think.

Which is my problem with Hamlet's death rattle.

You take what is, essentially, a perfect ending. A poetic ending, especially given Hamlet's penchant for wordiness (exceeded only by Polonious). And then you undo all of that for no good reason other than someone else's hubris. (Which is a major Shakespearean theme, so it kind of fits.)

I'm not saying you can't ever mess with something. The Lego version of the Bible is at once both faithful to the text and somewhat irreverent. There's a couple of riffs off the Lord of the Rings that made me laugh out loud. But those were meant to be what they are. With Hamlet and GWTW the add-ons were serious efforts. Completely extraneous serious efforts.

I'm not even saying you can't continue the story. I'd like to know what happens to Rick after the end of "Casablanca" and think that would make a good story. Might even be tempted to write it someday. But I wouldn't have Ilsa get back off the plane, or come back to Rick. Because that would undo the power of the original ending and, if I may say so, be disrespectful of the text. I won't say that "Scarlett" was disrespectful of GWTW - as I said, I've not read it so I won't presume to comment too extensively. I have read, and watched, Hamlet. And I cannot imagine it with a death rattle.

All I am saying is that if you feel the need to mess with a classic ending, or the story in general, maybe you ought to think twice about it.

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