July 8, 2009

The Idea of Hamlet

April 24, 2003

Shakespeare may have been a playwright, and in his time, that may have been a way to attain riches, to bring one’s self up from wretches of a pastoral life in the country, the son of a glove maker. In America, over four hundred years after his birth, we still foster the same dreams of fame and fortune. The details have altered though. Instead of an open-air playhouse in London, we have a different medium, The Big Screen. The only real censors are the people who pass through the turnstiles to see the offerings of the movie studios. The only royalty that the modern playwright is concerned about is the one they receive in their checks from the motion picture companies.
Shakespeare would have envied the freedom that today’s directors have. He was ingenious in his methods of subverting the censors and veiling his purposes, but thanks to the first amendment, that doesn’t have to be worried about in Hollywood. The main worry in Hollywood is the almighty dollar. If you don’t make something that people are going to want to see, your career won’t last long.
I believe some concessions must be made if you want to develop a play of Shakespeare’s into a motion picture. The modern audience has been long tempered with scenes dripping with special effects. They seem to crave it in an unprecedented manner. However, due to the nature of the Jacobean and Elizabethan stages, there aren’t many special effects in his plays. Also, outside of the romances, many of the concepts in his plays are foreign to the audience we’re trying to sell the movie to. The idea of Royal secession and serfdom are not in consciousness of a country that has been taught that everyone can be the president if they so desire. Finally, we have to be concerned with the language of the production. Shakespeare’s plays were written in early modern English. While it is obviously a precursor to the language that we employ in everyday speech, it is still inaccessible to many people who would consumers of our product.
What must be remembered is that first and foremost, motion pictures are a business. Millions of dollars are earned and lost everyday in the motion picture industry, and they still exist because they have achieved a system where more money is earned than lost. A director must find a balance between art and commerce to be successful. In making a movie out of one of the plays, all these considerations must be considered before production. If the proper balance isn’t maintained, the movie is failed to stand in line with flops such as Ishtar and The Postman.
The language issue troubles me the most as an artist. Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the greatest craftsmen the craft has ever seen, and I would hate to under mind his work and vision. However, there is a wall between our English and Shakespeare’s English. His language has many more word rooted in French than we are accustomed to using today, and he fill his characters’ mouths with archaic words and phrases. If one were to utilize Shakespeare’s tongue today, he would be met with many raised eyebrows. However, I realize that even most of Shakespeare’s works weren’t original compositions. Many of his plots have precursors in the canon, so the precedent that he set himself of changing things makes me less wary of altering the his plots. I remain deferent to him though, so while I will chance changing the context surrounding the character’s actions in the plot, he words remain his. As inspiration for this, I look at the production of Romeo and Juliet that was popular in the early 1990’s.
The director of the production of Romeo and Juliet changed many of the circumstances. For one, he put the two star-crossed lovers in modern day California. In doing so, many things had to be dealt with. For one, in Shakespeare’s Verona, people commonly carried around swords. He solved this by creating a fictional gun manufacturer by the name of “Sword.” There were many minute things of this nature, and they were done so well, the viewer almost forgot about the language. What is another way to achieve the same effect? One way is the inclusion of some of Hollywood’s hottest stars.
(Cue clichéd fantasy music) 1
I am a hot young director. I am invited to all the parties and everyone wants to be my friend. Both of my previous movies have been both critically acclaimed and hits at the box office. My prior efforts leave me feeling happy, yet unfulfilled. I haven’t done anything artsy enough to justify all reading I did in college, hanging around coffee shops. I have a distinct feel that I need a legacy picture, one that will be remember even after my star has fizzled out. I’m familiar enough with Orson Welles to know that even some of the brightest fall before their time. I am also unfamiliar enough with Orson Welles to know that he spent the twilight of his career doing the exact same thing doing what is developing in my mind.
Shakespeare! “If I want to do something artistic and something cutting edge at the same time,” I say to myself, “I’ll do Shakespeare.” I may have had too much to drink, for I easily have forgotten all the limitations that doing a Shakespeare play on the big screen have. I’ve long ago enumerated them to myself, but I maintain that what needs done is a Shakespeare play, but with a twist. Being a hot director, not many people question me. Yes-men surround me.
Excited by my idea, after sleeping off the hangover of the previous night, I lock my door, unplug my phone, and rummage around for the collected works that I know I saved from college. I work long into the night.
Days go by.
I finally emerge from my garret energized by the scope of what developed in the days I was in self-imposed exile. Truthfully, it was the scope and the large quantities of cocaine I had inhaled. (In this fantasy, I’m a hotshot director, not a saint. I’m not going to make any apologies.)
I arrange for meetings with studio heads, all who have been eagerly awaiting my next project. I clear my throat. Everyone leans forward, hoping that the increased proximity will help them understand my genius in a little better light.
(Now begins a play within a story within a paper about a play.)
Dramatis Persona
J. Edgar Mihelic, young hotshot director.
Larry Wilkins, Studio Head of Sony Pictures.
Ebenezer Goldstein, Studio Head of Miramax Pictures.
Jerry Turner, Studio Head of AOL / Time Warner / Coca Cola / McDonald’s
motion picture division
Ryan, friend of William Jefferson Clinton
William Jefferson Clinton, former President of the United States of America
A Television

Scene One 2
Enter J. Edgar Mihelic, [young hotshot director], Larry Wilkins, [Studio Head of Sony Pictures], Ebenezer Goldstein, [Studio Head of Miramax Pictures], Jerry Turner, [Studio Head of AOL / Time Warner / Coca Cola / McDonald’s
motion picture division.]
Mihelic: Thank you gentlemen, for your attendance. I am here with my personal guarantee that you will not be let down. You will soon realize that you were present at one of the watershed cultural events of our lifetime.
[Grabs a skull that just happens to be lying around]
Wilkins: Which is?
Mihelic: “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite / jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a /” A thing that has been waiting to be done for many years. We need Hamlet, another Hamlet.
(From Hamlet 5.1.171-172)
Turner [with bemused grin on face]: Well, Mister Mihelic, I hate to inform you that there have been many productions of Hamlet done before.
Mihelic [enraged]: Please, sir, don’t patronize me. I know that there have been previous editions of Hamlet made, but there has never been a J. Edgar Mihelic Hamlet done before, trust me on this account.
Goldstein [with stereotypical dollar signs in his eyes]: This might work. Tell us more. Please, I beg you.
[The lights go down, there is darkness, Faintly, Beethoven’s Ninth symphony plays but then, unexpectedly as it crescendos, the music cuts and a single spotlight flashes on our star, J. Edgar Mihelic, who is alone on an unadorned stage.]
Mihelic [simply dressed, hands behind back]:
Well, this Hamlet play,
the Edgar Mihelic way?
Is that what you say?
I’d set it in a time closer to today.
The language, I’d keep.
If not, there’d be no way for me to sleep.
The bard
is not hard
to understand. But we must find a way for the audience to relate,
or this deal we would not be able to consummate.
We will keep the idea of renaissance,
but shift a little its essence.
Imagine Harlem, in 1928.
The Denmark Club is hopping; all the cats claim it’s great.
The great trumpet player Hamlet was called a king of men.
His Jealous brother Claudius brought him to an untimely end,
and Hamlets wife, the noble Gertrude, has her hand stolen.
Let us not forget the young son. Now the intrigue can begin!

Goldstein [now only a voice, but its still with those stereotypical dollar signs in his eyes]: Yes, you might have something there. Pleas continue Mister Mihelic.
[The soliloquy continues, but it is muffled, muted even. The conversation remains unintelligible as the camera pulls away from the shaft of light. The shaft narrows in the middle of the screen until it is nothing but a narrow white line on a field of black. ]

Scene Two 3
Enter William Jefferson Clinton, [former President of the United States of America], and Ryan, [friend of William Jefferson Clinton.]

Clinton: Is the new edition of Hamlet you got there?
Ryan: The new edition it is. I can’t wait to watch it. The director is the same guy that made Wanting to Destroy the Folly of Men, and that really weird picture.
Clinton: He did that Pale Fire, right?
Ryan: I believe that was the name of the movie. I didn’t get it, but all the critics said that it was one of the best films of the year. I hate when you go see a movie that makes no sense because the ads looked good and the critics said so too.
Clinton: I only went to see it because someone said the same guy who wrote Lolita wrote the book it was based off of. And you don’t have to know me that well to anticipate that I would be a fan of Lolita.
[Both laugh a knowing laugh.]
Put it on, I can’t wait to see it.
Enter Television.
Television:
The famous tale of Hamlet is now yours to be seen
Staring Morgan Freeman as Claudius, Sarah Jessica Parker as Gertrude, Jennifer Lopez as Ophelia, and Nelly as Horatio.
Featuring James Earl Jones as Hamlet,
and introducing Derek Jeter as Hamlet, the “Prince of Denmark”
Clinton: It’s weird that they’re all black.
Ryan: I would hypothesize that Mihelic is trying to further explore the racial subtext that Shakespeare himself explored in some of his own works, most notably in Othello, the Moor of Venice.
Clinton: You have a good point there. I would also like to state that the interracial thing is interesting. I’m familiar enough with the play to know that Sarah Jessica Parker will end up with both Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones at one point.
Ryan: In that light, it’s interesting to not the choice the director made for the role of Hamlet. He may not be an actor, but with the themes he’s going with here, it was a wise choice to choose a suck a light-skinned actor. I just hope that he can come through.
Clinton: That Derek Jeter is too an actor, haven’t you seen his line of Gatorade commercials? They work on me. I have pantry space filled to the overflowing with Gatorade, and its all to his credit.
Ryan: That may be so, but he has never acted in anything so serious as Hamlet.
Clinton: Don’t fret; he’ll be all right. Oh, look, they’re in Harlem. That’s an interesting choice. I don’t know why someone would try to update a movie and only place it in somewhere we’re still not familiar with. Look at all the period garb and flapper dresses. I wasn’t around in the Twenties, were you?
Ryan: Of course I wasn’t around in the Twenties, you know that. I have to guess about the motives about putting the movie in the twenties. Sometimes an artist can sense change around them, but the change really isn’t tangible enough for the rest of the world to readily grasp a hold of. The public won’t be able to really notice this change until after the fact, and the change is already evident. You have to realize that sometimes these people have a sixth sense. Maybe he’s trying to tell us that we are in the midst of such a period right now, only we really aren’t aware of it. Think about it. After the Harlem Renaissance, Black people realized that they had a culture around them, and having a culture helps define someone as a people. This self-definition as a culture, as a unique people eventually led to many great things for their race. They still had a long way to go, but this was the beginning of something big for them. I think maybe Mihelic’s saying that we should be more conscious of what’s going around now in the world, and with us.
Clinton: Or maybe you’re just over-analyzing things too much. I’ve known you to do that. Maybe he’s just trying to take advantage of on the current fascination with black culture that America has been in for a while.
Ryan: I don’t think I’m over analyzing, but you may have a point there too. H could have used many different reference points to indicate a cultural change, but he did choose one that had less controversy than say, the civil rights movement. Their leaders were out there trying to advance the cause for their race, and the whites disliked them. These whites like James Earl Ray, all for the up keeping of the status quo. I don’t think the status quo is good all the time, that’s cultural inertia.
Clinton: Look, all I’m saying is that he’s probably out to make a buck. You don’t find many artists in Hollywood anymore.
[The entire screen fades to black.]

Scene 3 4
Enter William Jefferson Clinton, [former President of the United States of America], and Ryan, [friend of William Jefferson Clinton.]

Ryan: Isn’t that Bernie Mac and Cedric the Entertainer?
Clinton: It appears to be. And I’ll be, they’re shoveling out a crematorium.
Ryan: I think that in Shakespeare’s original production, they had them as gravediggers, but in updating a play, sometimes you have to make concessions. There were still cemeteries in New York at this time, but cremation was gaining in popularity as burial space became ever more expensive.
Clinton: Tell me about it, I’ve been looking for somewhere to bury my wife, and the lots cost an arm and a leg.
Ryan: Why are you looking for just your wife? Hillary is still in fine health.
Clinton: Who ever said your wife had to be dead before you wanted to bury her?
[Laughs heartily]
We’ve been talking over the whole movie; I want to see this part.
Television [Derek Jeter is on screen]: “Hoe absolutely the nave is! We must speak by the / card or equation will undo us. By the lord Horatio, these / three years I have taken note of it. The age has grown so pickled / that the toe of the pheasant …”
(Deliberately misquoted from Hamlet 5.1.126-129)
Clinton: This is crap. It makes no sense. Somehow, I feel like I’ve been let down.
Ryan: Yeah, maybe he should have stuck with the Gatorade commercials. While you were talking, I was watching one of the more famous lines of dialogue in the English language, and Jeter tore it to pieces. I’m ashamed to be English right now. He had that skull in his hand, and was talking not to Yorick, but to York. He made the poor jester’s name only one syllable. This is trash; I can’t stand to finish it.
Clinton: Maybe he’s spent too much time in New York.
[Enter Derek Jeter, in Full Yankee Pinstripes, holding a Louisville Slugger.]
Derek Jeter: “…the rest is silence / O, O, O, O!”
(William Shakespeare’s Hamlet 5.2.300-301)



Notes:
1. Here, the author of the piece takes a quite freethinking shift from the formal requirements of a paper to the more liberal outlook.
2. Location, a bright meeting room in a Hollywood office building. Turns into a stage through the miracle of cinematic technology.
3. Location, A living room typical to the poverty-stricken American Midwest.
4. The scene continues, but thanks to an amazing literary disjuncture in time, the television is now at 5.1.1 of John Edgar Mihelic’s Version of Hamlet.

Work Cited:
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition: Tragedies. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997. 296-387