Boozy Books: Hamlet

Greetings, fellow Cacti, and welcome to the first edition of Boozy PLAYS, our special edition of Boozy Books for the month of August, aka SHAKESPEARE-A-PALOOZA! As we’ve mentioned before, Nerd Cactus is headed to the Stratford Festival later this month, and so we’ve decided to dedicate our entire month to everyone’s favorite Bard, William Shakespeare! We recognize that this means we’ll probably have exhausted our ability to write about him (we’re not Shakespeare scholars, just fans), so any suggestions for topics beginning with S for Saturdays are totally welcome. Right now we’re leaning toward food…you know, since we keep exhorting you to drink.

Moving on. The first play we’re going to feature this month–and the first we’ll be seeing when we arrive in Stratford–is Hamlet, Shakespeare’s best tragedy featuring a skull its main character used to know. (No worries on a Gotye link here…I hate that song.) OK, so arguably one of his best plays overall, and so well-known and studied that I remember being specifically barred from writing about it during my AP English exam back in high school. It’s so pervasive, I’m surprised there was never a Wishbone episode about it. Although…perhaps Hamlet chewing on Yorick wouldn’t be quite the thing. How many of us haven’t held a Halloween skull and proclaimed, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio,” at some point? (Actually, most people misquote the line and have it end with the word ‘well’, but I’m assuming you know better.) “To be or not to be” jokes are thrown around so casually, it’s almost ceased being funny. Almost. It depends on the joke. Along with Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, I’d argue it’s Shakespeare’s most popularly recognized play. And half of Macbeth’s fame is those damn witches.

(Yes, the Doctor played Hamlet. His Claudius is Captain Picard. Find it, watch it, enjoy it.)

We all know the story. Hamlet is Prince of Denmark, and his father has recently died, leaving his uncle, Claudius, to take the throne (presumably because Hamlet is too young to take it himself) and marry Hamlet’s mother. The young Prince is not pleased at this turn of events, to say the least, and mourns his father in a way we’d consider totally OK, but which is deemed inappropriate for a man of his time. (Imagine the therapy bills he would have racked up, though.) When he hears that some of the guards at Elsinore have seen the ghost of his dead father, Hamlet is determined to see him; when he does, he is ordered to avenge his father’s ‘most unnatural murder’. Well, this fits right in with the young man’s temperament and beliefs, and so he sets out to find the truth and avenge his father.

Well…*spoiler alert for the 1 person on the planet who doesn’t know how Hamlet ends, and you should be ashamed of yourself, one person…like, seriously*

Five acts later, after Hamlet spends the entire play talking and (perhaps) losing his sanity in the process, everyone dies. It makes Game of Thrones look like a trip to Disney World. In the end, the prince of Norway shows up and immediately gets a kingdom. Go Fortinbras!

What’s important about Hamlet isn’t really what happens, since very little actually does. Hamlet determines to find out who killed his father, gets the proof he needs, dispatches his friends to die in his stead (and their own spin-off), kills his girlfriend’s father, agrees to a duel, and then everyone dies. In between these bright moments of action, however, are the speeches. Or, perhaps more accurately, The Speeches. The ones every actor dreams of speaking ‘trippingly on the tongue’. The ones that invite an actor to test his mettle against a revelation of self so powerful and raw, it leaves a man naked on the stage or screen. Hamlet reveals all of himself; he shows grief and despair, anger, uncertainty, regret…challenging an actor to be completely authentic. And the entire production rests on the shoulders of that authenticity.

I am not surprised every actor wants to play him. Heck, I’m not surprised that so many of the women I know want to play him. But I can also understand why so many don’t think they’re ready for it. Someone once told me that, as a director, they’d ask all the potential Hamlets to audition naked (literally nekked), and any who balked at the challenge weren’t ready to play the role. Now, I’m not sure how well that’d play out–auditions are nerve-wracking enough without having to put your goodies on display–but I can see the merit in such a decision. If an actor isn’t prepared to reach even this first level of nakedness, how can he be prepared to show his naked soul before hundreds, if not thousands, of people?

Hamlet is one of my favorite plays. It’s clear to me that Shakespeare filled it with his own grief at losing his son, Hamnet, and what we’re experiencing every time we see/read the play is the outpouring of that emotion. It is a writer bleeding himself onto the page, and using his pen as a means of catharsis. Knowing this humanizes Shakespeare in a way that little else can. He’s more legend than man now, mythic in his genius and scope (a lot of that because of us and our interpretation of his works); this–a man mourning his son and turning that grief into beauty–is human. Perhaps the most human someone can be.

I still hate the character, though. STOP TALKING, HAMLET, AND KILL YOUR DAMN UNCLE! *cough* I mean…perhaps you don’t need to ‘teach the controversy’ quite so much, Hamlet. In the words of Nike, just do it.

Also, Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Hamlet right now in London, so…if you can get that ticket, I would go ahead and try.

What to drink? Well…I’m going Cabernet Sauvignon. Why? Well, the word Sauvignon derives from ‘savage’, and I thought…what’s more savage than grief? What tears a man apart like loss? Also, this is a dark red wine that is almost opaque, allowing no light to shine through, and it requires a good long cellaring period in order to deal with those difficult tannins. In other words, it takes a long time to get there, and it’s a bit temperamental, but the pay-off is great. Cabs also pair well with really deep, rich, hearty flavors (dark chocolate, steak, lamb, stinky cheeses, etc), and what about Hamlet isn’t deep, rich, and hearty? Bonus points if you drink it out of a skull cup!

To buy the play:

Note: the whole thing is also available for free on the internet. If you’re interested in owning the play, might I recommend purchasing a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare? Barnes and Noble has a beautifully bound one for only about $20. I have linked it below.

To buy the wine:

(This one is $25. If you want to spend more or less, that’s up to you. Wine is personal, man.)

Well, this has been Boozy Plays! Tomorrow, we delve into our regularly-scheduled Day of Shakes, wherein we’ll be discussing something Shakespeare-related. It’s up to A. Anyway, it has been a pleasure talking Danes with you! Until next time!



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