Hamlet Dramaturgy

Informing Bethany Lutheran College's Spring 2013 Production. Shows at: April 19, 20, 26, 27 at 7:30pm and April 21 at 2pm

Alienating the Audience

I was reading this article by Robert E. Wood called “Space and Scrutiny in ‘Hamlet.'” Something that jumped out at me was how Shakespeare alienated the English audience, in a way, by making the English court allies with Claudius. Claudius sends a letter to the English court with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern telling the court to kill the young prince Hamlet. Thus, England is united with the villain, Claudius, against the protagonist. At this point in the play the audience is clearly on Hamlet’s side, they have watched his world turned upside down and sympathetic to his feigned insanity. Shakespeare has created a barrier in his production between his English audience and their home country.

While this theory is, in and of itself, fascinating, Wood’s article got some wheels turning in my head. The rest of the article is about how “Hamlet” takes up space differently than other classics. By making the stage less of a series of destinations and more of what Wood calls “an altar” for the theatrical action taking place, there is a sense of the audience being removed; both because they are removed from what would be a normal theatre experience for them, and because the physical action of the production alienates them. By this concept Shakespeare has completely removed the audience from their comfort zone.


The Globe Theatre: Alienation Center

I don’t know if I entirely agree with Wood, after all, Hamlet spends much of the play talking only to the audience, so while they might be removed from the action of the play, the audience is certainly not emotionally alienated in any way. If anything they are the opposite of alienated, they hear Hamlet’s most intimate thoughts during the most vulnerable point in his life. So while they might be out of their comfort zones with the physical space of the production, that discomfort could certainly deepen the audience’s emotional connection with Hamlet.

What do you guys think? Does Wood’s theory hold water? How can this idea impact our production?

You can find Robert E. Wood’s article on JSTOR here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/3199996.pdf.

Lydia Grabau, Dramaturg


12 comments on “Alienating the Audience

  1. Benji
    March 1, 2013

    Although not an entirely strong argument, a problem with the theory seems to assume that Claudius is completely 100% vilified. Although egregious sins have certainly been committed, Claudius remains a somewhat sympathetic human being in my opinion. He is an inexperienced ruler who acts in passion and panic that ultimately leaves him with major emotional struggles which he brazenly communicates to the audience. This creates sympathy or at least dimension for Claudius, and seemingly breaks down said barrier. Of course it’s possible to present Claudius as a completely one-dimensional supervillian, but why make the audiences’ decision for them? Let them somewhat chose the extent to which Claudius is the bad guy. At the end of the day, How much cleaner are Hamlet’s hands compared to Claudius?

    • hamletdramaturgy
      March 1, 2013

      Yes! I think this connects with Pete’s idea that Claudius can’t be entirely villainous, otherwise why wouldn’t the rest of the court suspect him of murdering King Hamlet in the first place? Even the young prince Hamlet doesn’t suspect Claudius until the Ghost tells him what really happened… and even that wasn’t enough, Hamlet had to stage the play to have enough proof to avenge his father’s death.

  2. Aaron Wendroff
    March 1, 2013

    I agree with you Lydia that the audience is not emotionally alienated from Hamlet (the character), or at least our audience won’t be. I think that in addition to the sympathy they will have for his tragic circumstances, Hamlet is also often very funny and witty, especially when he is feigning madness, and I think people could connect with him on that basis, too.

    This blog entry brought up some questions for me:
    How much do each of the other characters sympathize/connect with Hamlet? Does Polonius (for example…) like Hamlet? Respect him? Truly feel sorry for him and/or worried about him? What did Hamlet’s relationships with the other characters look like back when things were normal/before his father was murdered? And did Gertrude love Hamlet Senior? Did the people love him? I think I’m figuring some of these “Hamlet prequel” questions out in rehearsals and hope to understand more as we do more and as I read more, etc.

    • hamletdramaturgy
      March 1, 2013

      Aaron, these are all really good thoughts, and ones that I think have to be addressed throughout the rehearsal process!

      Personally, I think everyone is kind of fond of Hamlet, I doubt he was anything spectacular before our production begins… but regardless of that he is the only son of the king of Denmark. We know he is well-educated and that he’s clearly smooth with the ladies (hence Ophelia’s madness.) I think some of Polonius’s early lines with Ophelia as well as Laertes dating advice to Ophelia hint at how each of them feel about Hamlet before the boy feigns madness.

  3. Peter Bloedel
    March 2, 2013

    There’s a lot going on here. I think that Wood’s article has a little bit of merit but I might actually propose that Shakespeare is not attempting to turn the English against Hamlet, but (if theatre can indeed be used as a social corrective) is perhaps using his play to say something about the nature of royalty, and by connecting England to Claudius might be saying something about the class structure in England while still sitting in the “metaphysical” safety of Denmark. It’s a cleaver ploy if he is doing that, and I’m not saying that he is, but then again, theatre that seems not to be “preachy” actually does have the most to say to us. We sometimes think the most when we don’t know that we’re thinking…and every good dramatist knows that on some level.

    As for the “space” point. I think that Hamlet is constructed in such a way that we almost don’t care where we are. Settings come and go and it almost doesn’t matter. There are a few places that are important (Gertrude’s closet…the Graveyard) but most of the time while I am directing this I find myself asking “Where are we now?” and much of the time it doesn’t really matter. This plot moves and we just follow along. We don’t care where we are. This is part of the genius of the play, and if I might say, makes it perfect for a unit set like we have. The Globe (Shakespeare’s theater) was much the same. The plot takes us everywhere we need to go, and very little has to be spelled out to the audience. I like that.

    As far as Hamlet being smooth with the ladies…I like to think that Hamlet is smooth with one lady. We are exploring that Hamlet really did love Ophelia and this is why the break off from her (to pursue his own demise really) is heart wrenching. I think it will be in our production anyway.

    • hamletdramaturgy
      March 2, 2013

      Cool! Coming back to Aaron’s point, would you say that Hamlet was well-liked in the court before his father died, or before the play begins?

      • Michael
        March 7, 2013

        I would believe that Hamlet was almost certainly well-liked by most of the court. At the start of our play, however, he is cloaked in clouds of grief. I think it interesting to connect this with Shakespeare’s own grief over the death of Hamnet (and yes, I know, this has not been categorically proven to relate, but it’s poetic to see it). It’s not too much of a stretch to see this heartfelt emotion alienating Hamlet from everyone else – he allows himself to wallow, and cuts himself off from other human contact because, frankly, he doesn’t WANT to feel better. He doesn’t WANT to be comforted, because that would be, in his mind, a betrayal of his father (much as Gertrude and Claudius betrayed him by so swift a marriage). Certainly Shakespeare, at the death of his child, would have similar emotions, denying any comfort because he doesn’t want to betray the memory of his son.

        We come to Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia, and we see an extremely interesting dynamic of this emotion. Not only has Hamlet’s pent-up emotion found a potential outlet in revenge, but this is an outlet in which he yet must remain alone and uncomforted. Therefore, though he loves Ophelia, he has to reject her and push her away, because he cannot allow her to be involved in this grief. Perhaps Shakespeare felt much the same way with Hamnet’s mother. This grief is a personal emotion, and while it is fine to say that misery loves company, it also loves solitude. In Shakespeare’s own emotion, he must feel that he is the only one who truly understands his grief. Hamlet, too, sees no one grieving for his father the way he is. And herein lies his conflict: he love Ophelia and wants her comfort, but also realizes his own self-destruction borne by his grief and his revenge, and therefore must keep her away to protect her. As he says to Gertrude, “I must be cruel, only to be kind.” If Ophelia herself rejects him because of his behavior, then he is the kinder in the end because she has been protected. The irony, of course, is that she loves him as well and cannot so easily break with him without breaking her heart and her mind. Thus in “protecting” Ophelia, Hamlet kills her.

        This, of course, relates to the alienation of the audience in this way: Hamlet stands amidst all these who see him – seas of people all around who laugh and shout and gasp at him, “they open their mouths wide against me,” if I might be so bold as to connect this to a psalm (Psalm 22:14). These flapping maws, even if they try to preach comfort, simply don’t understand him, and Hamlet must assert that he is alone. The audience can have no part in his grief. This, perhaps, is Shakespeare’s way of getting people to understand him. Though he himself may feel cut off and alienated on the basis of his grief, he does indeed wish to be comforted, but it has to be a true sympathy. The playwright, then, understanding the catharsis of the theatre, creates the sympathy and empathy he needs, while simultaneously alienating everyone around him. Thus the two things his grief needs are fulfilled.

  4. hamletdramaturgy
    March 7, 2013

    Michael, I think this is really a fascinating idea, and I think it relates to a conversation we’re having over here: https://hamletdramaturgy.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/shakespeare-uncovered-hamlet-with-david-tennant/.

    I think the ultimate purpose of this grief we see Hamlet going through, and that alienation from the audience is essentially about Hamlet enduring pain and loneliness so that the audience will never have to endure. Even if someone replicates Hamlet’s situation in their own life, there is comfort knowing that while you are alone and alienated from everyone else’s experience, Hamlet has also felt this alienation. There can be no perfect empathy between situations, but there is empathy in that moment of despair, that realization that no one else has your grief.

    This is at its core tied to the process of catharsis and the goal of dramatic theatre. Otherwise why would anyone be interested in watching a bunch of Danish people die?

    • Michael
      March 8, 2013

      Yet I don’t think Shakespeare’s intent was so unselfish and concerned with this audience. Unless he’s Nicholas Sparks or a member of that lot, a writer primarily writes for himself (although it can be argued that the ‘pop-writers’ are also writing for themselves in the sense of the dollars they earn writing what people want). Certainly Shakespeare knows what his audience wants and can give them the emotions they need (it seems, in fact, that they probably had a great relationship with the amount of time he can spend making fun of the English and the audience members in the play), but the words that he writes come, as their primary and ultimate source, from himself and what he needs to write. The reason we want to watch this lot of Danish deaths is that in it we see a truly human emotion. There is a man behind all this tragedy, and we know that it is not merely the political tragedy of some nation in ancient time that matters nothing to us, but it is the tragedy of a human being, like ourselves. The genius is the dichotomy: while the play is selfish, it is a bridge between men; while it discusses something utterly foreign and strange, it is familiar and hits home. I doubt that Shakespeare’s intent was to ‘help’ his audience, to protect them from these emotions, at least not primarily. I think he is angry with his audience. These people who live all around him cannot be close to him. While they come to see what he does, to see the several barings of his soul, he is nothing to them. Yet he recognizes the fact that he needs them. The emotions he presents are his own, and he needs someone to empathize, and so he forces the audience to do so.

      • hamletdramaturgy
        March 12, 2013

        True, perhaps it was not Shakespeare’s intent to help the audience, per se, but is that the purpose of theatre? Or, better yet, is that really what catharsis is about, in your opinion? Should that relief, that help be our purpose in creating this production?

  5. Michael
    March 12, 2013

    I guess the main problem I have with the idea that theatre happens before us so that it doesn’t happen to us is that it doesn’t actually prevent all these events from happening. Certainly to an extent it can teach us not to go on vengeful rampages, but I don’t think that’s its ultimate purpose: rather its purpose is to flex our emotional muscles, so to speak. By experiencing the grief, rage, and heartache of Hamlet along with him, audience members are prepared for when they experience those emotions themselves. As a medium, theatre is a location for conversations to occur, for sympathy to find a firm footing, so that people aren’t alienated and alone in their personal emotions. I do not think that Hamlet’s purpose is to teach people not to get caught up in self-seeking revenge, nor that Macbeth’s is to teach people not to murder for personal gain, nor that Doctor Faustus’ is to teach people not to make deals with the devil (although all these are certainly things people should know how to not do). Rather they are a rehearsal ground for emotion, like a fire drill. We can practice feeling these emotions so that when they hit us in real life we aren’t totally paralyzed by them.

    That being said, I stand by my original statement that Shakespeare was not doing this primarily for the audience’s benefit, but for his own – and I would argue that any good playwright does the same, because, I would argue, it is impossible to do otherwise. It is simply not in the abilities of a non-divine author to create a selfless piece of art.

    As to the question of whether our own work should be aimed at helping the audience, I think certainly it should. At the same time, no work can be honest if it is not selfishly honest – and that is the paradox of art.

    • hamletdramaturgy
      March 12, 2013

      Michael, these are all great thoughts. I’m especially interested in the comparison of theatre to a fire drill. Perhaps theatre is a rehearsal for real life… certainly we don’t have to go through the same exact things as Hamlet (I will never be a Danish prince) but we can prepare ourselves for that feeling of abandonment Hamlet goes through and know that someone else feels that exact same way, even if the situation is different.

      As Christians, I think our work in the all areas of art reflects the paradox of our existence. “Simul justus et peculator” bleeds over into our well-intentioned theatre, so I definitely agree with you there. Shakespeare, and all writers and creators, make things for themselves, to express themselves… so of course this production is no different, but I would like to think that if we keep our minds on the audience as we create this show, it will ultimately lead to a better, more fruitful production.

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This entry was posted on March 1, 2013 by in Shakespeare/Hamlet History, Text.

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