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This morning I awoke entirely excited for it to be tonight, for, as I mentioned the other day, tonight is the debut of the latest Royal Shakespeare production of Hamlet on PBS. This version stars David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as both his father and his uncle (and possibly the evillest version of Claudius I've seen represented on the screen). And then I remembered that it's still National Poetry Month, and I'm doing my Building a Poetry Collection series of posts, and thought perhaps I'd follow up yesterday's choice of Tennyson's "Break, Break, Break" with a bit of the Bard. Maybe "Break, winds, and crack your cheeks!" from King Lear (although it's not technically a poem - it's a soliloquy written in blank verse, however, so I could've cheated) or perhaps "Blow, blow, thou winter wind" from As You Like It. Instead, I've come up with this compromise: a poem about Hamlet by Carl Sandburg, which happens to repeat the word "breaking".

They All Want to Play Hamlet
by Carl Sandburg

They all want to play Hamlet.
They have not exactly seen their fathers killed
Nor their mothers in a frame-up to kill,
Nor an Ophelia dying with a dust gagging the heart,
Not exactly the spinning circles of singing golden spiders,
Not exactly this have they got at nor the meaning of flowers—O flowers,
  flowers slung by a dancing girl—in the saddest play the inkfish,
  Shakespeare, ever wrote;
Yet they all want to play Hamlet because it is sad like all actors are sad
  and to stand by an open grave with a joker’s skull in the hand and then
  to say over slow and say over slow wise, keen, beautiful words masking
  a heart that’s breaking, breaking,
This is something that calls and calls to their blood.
They are acting when they talk about it and they know it is acting to be
  particular about it and yet: They all want to play Hamlet.

Form: Free verse. Sandburg uses a lot of internal repetition (e.g., killed/kill, not exactly, flowers/O flowers,/flowers, sad, "to say over slow", breaking, calls, etc.) as well as alliteration and assonance (e.g., "spinning circles of singing golden spiders" is full of both). And check out how long some of his lines get - so long that they don't, in fact, fit on one line at all!

Discussion: Sandburg's poem says it all, does it not? That all actors want to play Hamlet, even though they cannot possibly understand the reality of Hamlet' situation. They can only play at it, or approximate it - they love it for its pathos and its lovely lines, not for Hamlet's reality. It's a poem full of irony, and a bit of a smack at the good people of the theatre world, at the same time that Sandburg so clearly conveys what it is about the role of Hamlet that is so very appealing, despite the despair and the loss and the ruin.

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( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 28th, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
GREAT poem -- and so true. And now I have 'Lover and his Lass' stuck in my head too ;)
Apr. 28th, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)
" . . . with a hey and a ho and a hey, nonny-no!"
Apr. 28th, 2010 04:02 pm (UTC)
Dost thou dare to insult me, Carl? Fie on thee!

Take a look at my latest blog subject line... :-)

Apr. 28th, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
Re: "inkfish"?
Yeah - I'm not sure that Sandburg intended to call Shakespeare a cuttlefish, which is one meaning of inkfish. Love your quote from Prufrock.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 28th, 2010 04:41 pm (UTC)
Technically, an inkfish is a cuttlefish, but I rather think that Sandburg was paying Shakespeare a sort of a compliment here, not calling him a squid. When I see the word I think of Shakespeare's slippery use of language, and of "kingfish" and of ink, not of actual fish. *wonders what exactly Sandburg meant by it*
Apr. 28th, 2010 07:02 pm (UTC)
right - I was thinking of an analogy of water to paper, where a fish is at home in water, and an inkfish is a writer at home with paper which brought to mind a very slithery Shakespeare fish swimming through the ink, leaving words behind him like a squid leaving ink

(backing away slowly) I'm gonna go now. =)
Apr. 28th, 2010 09:27 pm (UTC)
Yes - you said that exceedingly articulately!
Apr. 28th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
I've never read this poem and at first blush I love it! (And your mood logo is too funny!)
Apr. 28th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
I downloaded an entire set of mood themes for last year's "Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month" and I can't bear to part with them!
Apr. 28th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
Shakespeare, an inkfish--what a terrific image!

I need to read more Sandburg.
Apr. 28th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
Me too. Bartleby has a lot of it available online - at least three of his books are out of copyright!
Apr. 28th, 2010 05:38 pm (UTC)
I... might have to memorize this one! Can you believe I've never read it before? *love*
Apr. 28th, 2010 09:28 pm (UTC)
It's pretty boss, isn't it?

That's right, I said "boss." I am all about bringing back outmoded slang lately (not really on purpose, it just turns up - lately I've also been fond of saying that certain things "give me the wig" - quote M "WTF?")
Apr. 28th, 2010 06:25 pm (UTC)
I'm excited about tonight too!
Thanks for setting the mood...

Apr. 28th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)

Not near as excited as I was when we saw Jude Law playing Hamlet live, which was absolutely, gobsmackingly phenomenal, but still - EXCITED!
Apr. 28th, 2010 06:54 pm (UTC)
lol - now I want to play Hamlet! =)

(have I mentioned that my major was theatre?)
Apr. 28th, 2010 09:30 pm (UTC)
As Sandburg said about theatre folks - they all want to play Hamlet.

These days, I'd probably be cast as Queen Gertrude. On the one hand, I resent being old enough to potentially play Gertrude; on the other . . . man, that's an interesting part. She's no Lady Macbeth, but still!
Apr. 29th, 2010 11:59 am (UTC)
Heck of a lot more interesting than Ophelia in any case! =)
Apr. 29th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
I am not so sure of that, depending on how you read Ophelia. As I pointed out in this post, there is a method to Ophelia's madness as well, and playing her as crafty/cunning would be good.
Apr. 29th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)
I loved the way Slings and Arrows handled Ophelia, and for those few minutes I found her interesting, but it didn't stick. I understand that she's been inside of this box all of her life, so when the walls (her brother and father) fall down, she goes mad, but when it comes down to it, Ophelia's this passive character who just does as she's told and the only thing that she does of her own accord is kill herself. Give me a Juliet or a Lady M or even a Hermione from The Winter's Tale - sure, she was a "statue" the entire play, but Paulina was keeping her hidden so at least she was living her own life - those women are all active. The passive characters just drive me nuts.
Apr. 29th, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC)
Rant on with your bad self!

I happen to agree that passive characters are maddening (like, say, Miranda in The Tempest, which I just read. She's only mildly subversive in encouraging her lover to rest when he's supposed to be hauling wood). I think, however, that Ophelia can actually be a bit of a subversive character, if played well. Kate Winslet remains my favorite on-screen Ophelia (for her "mad" scene), but Helena Bonham Carter does more to indicate that she's not complying willingly.
Apr. 29th, 2010 06:05 pm (UTC)
lol - I am feeling rather ranty today. :)
I bet Helena Bonham Carter would have pulled off an awesome Ophelia.
Apr. 29th, 2010 11:26 pm (UTC)
Bonham Carter is Ophelia in the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet.
Apr. 30th, 2010 11:25 am (UTC)
Oh! I haven't seen that version since it was on TNT a few years ago. I must have been paying more attention to the Hamlet/Gertrude relationship in that and completely missed Ophelia.
Apr. 28th, 2010 11:51 pm (UTC)
That's the essence of art, isn't it? We want to play Hamlet, or write Hamlet, but no way in heck do we want to BE Hamlet!

I wouldn't trade places with the main character in my book, that's for sure!
Apr. 28th, 2010 11:59 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't trade places with the main character in your book either. :)
Apr. 29th, 2010 12:18 am (UTC)
Love it! I'm watching Hamlet right now.
Apr. 29th, 2010 04:01 am (UTC)
Isn't it FABULOUS?
Apr. 29th, 2010 12:41 am (UTC)
Patrick Stewart is Mesmerizing

THANK YOU - SO MUCH for mentioning it your blog a few days ago.

Amazing production! Amazing performances!
Apr. 29th, 2010 04:03 am (UTC)
Re: Patrick Stewart is Mesmerizing
You are quite welcome. As you know, I've seen it before tonight. And the performances are indeed remarkable. (Jude Law was at least as good as David Tennant when I saw the play on B'way in the fall.) But Patrick Stewart's read on Claudius is completely fresh, as far as I can tell.
Apr. 29th, 2010 04:15 am (UTC)
imdb said Patrick Stewart played him before.....

I saw on imdb that Patrick played him decades ago.
Apr. 29th, 2010 04:31 am (UTC)
Re: imdb said Patrick Stewart played him before.....
He did. And he played the role on stage with Tennant two years ago. But his take on Claudius was decidedly new to me.
Apr. 29th, 2010 04:28 am (UTC)
Ooh, love this poem! Thanks, Kelly!
Apr. 29th, 2010 04:31 am (UTC)
Glad you liked it!
Apr. 29th, 2010 09:55 am (UTC)
I HATE IT when I come over and everybody's already said all the clever and witty things I was going to say (this time about Shakespeare being an "inkfish"). And although it's probably completely lightweight as far as Shakespeare scholarship goes, I'll still report that I just finished listening to Bill Bryson's bio of the bard and enjoyed it very much. (Gotta start somewhere, eh? At least I'm starting!)
Apr. 29th, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
I have the Bryson book - it's quite good. I like how he set out to document how little we actually know about the Bard that is actually certain. There's also a new, illustrated edition of his work that takes into account the latest portrait, believed to have been painted during Shakespeare's life.

I like that Bryson claimed to be lightweight - probably true when compared to some of the "great" scholars, but it also makes him easier to relate to in many ways. And I'll take the Bryson over the new book by Charles Beauclerk any day (Beauclerk is one of those who thinks that Shakespeare wasn't actually Shakespeare; he's a proponent of Shakespeare's works having been written by Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford).
Apr. 29th, 2010 12:50 pm (UTC)
Patrick Stewart
He *was* mesmerizing as Claudius and Ghost. Did you know that he, as Captain Picard on Star Trek:TNG, used "What a piece of work is man" as an argument for humanity (when arguing with an omnipotent alien, Q)? His interpretation was lovely and quite different from David Tennant's last night. I'm sure he was a fine Hamlet in his youth.

David Tennant was *awesome* as Hamlet. What a great, nuanced performance! Thanks so much for the heads-up. I"m going to look for the DVD.
Apr. 29th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Patrick Stewart
I see your Star Trek citation, and I raise you a Dr. Who reference (there are many from which to choose): There was an episode entitled "The Shakespeare Code", in which the good Doctor meets Shakespeare, who at first flirts with Martha, then with the Doctor, leading the doctor to say "57 academics just punched the air" - a reference to ongoing discussions about Shakespeare's potential bisexuality given all those sonnets to the Fair Youth.

Tennant's performance was gorgeous throughout, I thought. I too am ordering the DVD (available May 4th).
Apr. 29th, 2010 04:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Patrick Stewart
I loved that Doctor Who episode. Fun!! I'm suffering David Tennant-as-Doctor withdrawal something awful right now.
Apr. 29th, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Patrick Stewart
I hear good things about the new Doctor, though.
Apr. 29th, 2010 04:49 pm (UTC)
Jeez, I love Sandburg. I really need to get a collection.

And can I just say, re: "Break, winds, and crack your cheeks!" -- honestly, Mr. Shakespeare. Tut tut. Boys and their fart jokes.
Apr. 29th, 2010 06:01 pm (UTC)
So true. That Shakespeare really was the Master when it comes to punning (as I was thinking last night when Tennant's Hamlet said something to Ophelia about COUNTry manners). I need to get a Sandburg collection as well. On the plus side, Bartleby.com has three of his books available for you to read through online.
( 42 comments — Leave a comment )

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