New Skin for the Old Ceremony: Re-Working Hamlet’s Soliloquies

By psychologising human nature, Shakespeare extended the soliloquy’s theatrical reach.  Before him, in the formative years of early modern stagecraft, in, say, The Spanish Tragedy and The Jew of Malta, Kyd and Marlowe had toyed with the notion of audience complicity in their protagonist’s journey.  Relative to their illustrious successor, neither made it beyond sharing from the stage certain monochromatic faits accomplis, a Platonic ‘what you see is what you get’.

By the time of Hamlet, Shakespeare had developed soliloquies into existential machinations, into the protagonist publicly evaluating their confusion over the right course of action.  Performed well – a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance – Hamlet’s soliloquies remain the most challenging turns in the English language.  For their obvious collusive complexity, they are also the most sought after, and duly remain proscribed as audition pieces by many acting schools.  In our soliloquy workshop my goal was not to attempt to explain their incessant appeal, but, in terms of contemporary acting, to enliven what history’s glut has rendered mostly staid.

As a way of opening up the text, we worked on 30 mini scenarios which called for varied styles of presenting Hamlet’s five key soliloquies.  14 Students were given ten lines each, to be performed directly to an audience within the usual audience – three listeners at the foot of the chair from which a different Hamlet began their set of lines.

What came out initially was a deliberate slowing down of delivery, and a sharp focus on meaning.  So far so good.  I asked Hamlet to tell a ghost story round the fire, and to be an irrepressible gossip in front of a cabal of friends.  Here, “why what an ass am I…” heralded a sleepover confessional.  Hamlet appeared for ten lines in front of an asylum’s release board, desperate to stay, trying all psychopathy to out-Herod Herod.  Then, Hamlet-as-Fox-Newsreader urged us softly but firmly to “[w]itness this army of such mass and charge / Led by a delicate and tender prince” as though reporting from the Damascus suburbs.  As one shrewd student was later to put it, by “distorting the way the words were read, and maybe assigning a different value to them, [we] actually clarified their meaning.”

And so to “To be…”, more often approached with dread than vigour, weighted down in a drowning pool of history and expectation; one of the rare stage speeches during which audience members might volubly beat the actor to the line, if not best him altogether.  So is it possible to blow new life into old lines, life that extends, not merely restates, our understanding of his predicament?

In the spirit of the above exploration, our “To be…” was delivered to commissioned officers by a war room General, a commander-in-chief at strut the night before Agincourt, where an entire army, not just its leader, might live or die in the name of action.  The result was enthralling, the actor strode the width of the rehearsal room with purpose instead of uncertainty, the immediate moral imperative supplanting any sense of dither.  The only burden was how, not whether, to survive.  For this Hamlet, death was not an option and, as with each scenario, the text was successfully opened, stretched, and re-focussed through modern filters.

A successful exercise.