Saturday, June 03, 2006

On Matters Literary

William Shakespeare's Hamlet is a play about a guy who doesn't do something, then decides to do it. This goes on for four acts; when something finally happens (ie, Hamlet kills somebody, and dies himself) the play ends.

As ideas for plays go, Hamlet isn't very good. It's the most undramatic of dramas; a play where the actors get to talk heaps but act little. If you want an explanation, it's a tragedy where the hero - Hamlet - is brought undone by a fatal flaw: procrastination. In other words, Hamlet was a lazy bastard kept on putting things off. Personally, I prefer the rich comedy of King Lear, where the characters get to recite lines like 'Out, vile jelly!' at one another with relish and aplomb before popping one another's eyes out. Amputation does much more for a play than procrastination, it seems to me. Still, Literary Tradition disagrees with me; and Literary Tradition is always right.

Anyway, the thing about famous plays like Hamlet is they get jokes written about them; arcane, bizarre jokes that nobody except a few writers and assorted Shakespeare fans will understand. Laura, the proprietor of the fine literary blog Sarsaparilla - now linked - uncovers one such joke:

The rest of the page is occupied by Letters to the Editor - a virulent, sarcastic screed about letters Christina Rossetti may or may not have written to married men, two dull longwinded alphabetic "poems" attacking the condition of modern poetry, a proto-RWDB slam on the rubbishness of modern universities, a plaintive request for help identifying a story of castaway children on an island, and an apparent joke, about Hamlet, which I have read at least four times and still don't understand the punchline.

What could the joke be? I don't know. Possibly nobody does, since Laura doesn't reveal the contents of the joke on the post, all of which makes me suspicious: maybe that's the joke? Maybe she aims to put us all in a condition similar to Hamlet, unable to decide what the content of this joke about Hamlet could be?
Just how much comic potential does Hamlet have, anyway?

Sundays in the Park with Hamlet
(A minor tragedy, in which nothing happens, by Master William Shakespeare)

SCENE: Hamlet walks into a newspaper store.

Store Owner: Good morning, sir!

Hamlet:Ah, but is it really a good morning, my whey-faced pamphleteer? That, I propose to you, is a moot point - a very moot point indeed.

SO: What can I do for you, sir?

H: Ay, me! Another moot point! Thy point could not be mooter! Thou art a philosopher, I woot, my friend! Truly, though art a rival to Thales of Anixmander himself! What can you do? What can we all do? I wish I knew ... I wish I knew ...

SO: (Cheerfully) So, it was a paper you wanted, then?

H: A paper? A paper, thou say? Ay, for then I would be a papist. Truly, I would pape, pape, pape around town! And this merry muse asketh of me what I dost want! Well, let me tell you ...

12 hours, and many more words, later ...

SO: Sorry to interrupt your soliloquy, sir, but it's closing time.

H: (Stopping mid sentence) Eh? What didst thou say, good verse-vendor?

SO: Were you buying a paper, sir, or leaving?

H: Oh! Voice of doom, voice of destiny! Your words stab at my heart!

SO: ...

H: Very well. Did the Herald Sun have the footy results in it then?

(Takes paper, pays for it, trips on stairs and falls flat on his face in the dust outside as Shopw Owner slams door behind him.)

H: O Tempora, O Mores.


SCENE: Hamlet is sitting at a restaurant table, across from Ophelia.

Ophelia: (Looking over menu) Well - what wouldst thou like, my deary-duck Hamlet?

H: Ah! My fate overtakes me! What wouldst I like, indeed? Will I procrastinate, or delay? O, that the infernal Lord in the high heavens might smite me, kill me, or otherwise, end my very life!

O: Hammy, dear, is something wrong?

H: The agony! Methinks I hear my father whispering to me from across that other bourne, whence none return!

Hamlet's Father: HAMLET OF DENMARK! I'm right here! Make up your mind, son!

H: Begone, foul shade! Begone, malignant conscience! Vanish like the evil vapours into the night! I will have none of thee!

HF: HAMLET! How many times do I have to tell you - I wasn't dead, I was just resting.

H: Oh, alright, Dad. Shut UP! What did you want, then?

HF: I'm not hungry.


SCENE: Hamlet and Yorick stand at a cross-roads.

Yorick: Well, Hamlet, mate, where'd you say this pub was again?

Hamlet: O despair! O horror!

Yorick: Calm down, mate. What's the matter?

Hamlet: I cannot remember!

Yorick: No problem. We'll just walk down this way until ...

Hamlet: But what wouldst the fates do to thou then? Yea, Yorick, it seems to me, even now, that I see thee being run over by a car; or struck down, in the midst of the day, by lightning! As flys are to wanton boys, Yorick, so are we to the Gods: they play us for their sport!

Yorick: Fine! We'll go that way, then!

Hamlet: O, I am filled with a nameless, formless dread! No, friend Yorick - say you will not go! For, as like as not, thou wouldst run into a train whilst crossing the tracks, or catch some foul canker from the airs wafting forth from those garbage receptacles, or ...

Yorick: Alright, mate! We won't do anything! We'll just stand right here! It's safer, isn't it?

Hamlet: Ye Gods in the high heavens! That would be worst of all, for then, for no reason at all, we would be at risk of a sudden stampede of wild elephants that ...

Yorick: Hamlet, mate, buddy, pal, friend - we're not going to die!

Hamlet: (Head in hands) Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well ...


SCENE: An abandoned warehouse. Hamlet dangles by his neck from a hangman's noose, hanging over a vat of boiling Nitrick acid, which is flanked by venomous cobras, rabid wolves, and members of Al Qaeda.

Hamlet: (Placidly) To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler ...

Random Stranger: (Bursting in randomly, in the way random strangers have in plays) HAMLET! Why are you dangling by your neck from a hangman's noose over a vat of Nitrick acid, which is flanked by venomous cobras, rabid wolves, and members of Al Qaeda?

Hamlet: (A look of infinite existential despair at the realisation of the essential nihilism of life crosses over his face -any decent actor should be able to do this - then he shouts out his reply) Um ... I'll tell you LATER!


The joke doesn't make sense? No, well, the original didn't, either. Who cares? If it was bad enough for Shakespeare, then it's good enough for me.


Martha said...

Hahaha! I never much liked Hamlet either, though it was supposed to be the best of the bunch. I was always partial to Macbeth, personally. There was some adaptation by Kurasawa where the Macbeth character with a Japanese name gets shot so full of arrows it becomes a bit comical. I also liked Lear. He has soliloquies too, but not so long, and more important, not so boring.

TimT said...

Macbeth is so much better, what with that surreal bit about the 'woods being on the move', and Lady Macbeth's freaky dreams, and so much else. But Hamlet was the nicer character. Macbeth did all his killing for himself, but Hamlet - well, everybody kept on dying for him, he was that nice. There was Yorick - how did he die again? And Ophelia, who topped herself (evidently driven batty by Hamlet's speeches). And how could I forget poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

At least they had a play written about them.

Caz said...

Well, you can't go past a good story with witches in it, can you?

The whole Romeo & Juliet thing was nicely handled; I always thought. Aaah, young lurve and all that.

TimT said...

Very young love. Juliet is barely in her teens when she meets Romeo. And interestingly, she's much more sensible than him, even at that age!

ras said...

Hrmm, I found Othello more tragic than Hamlet, and Macbeth was indeed the better written play....

but we all seem to miss a midsummernights dream...honestly it doesnt get more kinky than that (even the lolita-esque romeo and juliet) A woman falling for a donkey, a foursome ,fairies playing in a forest.

Some much action...i wonder whether he wrote that after hamlet...a play with so much inaction.

TimT said...

Totally agree. Several composers have written music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, including a suite by Felix Mendellsohn and an opera by Benjamin Britten. I saw a version of the opera in Sydney a few years ago with some rellies, it was directed by Baz Luhrmann and set in India at the time of the Raj. It was great!

Britten and his partner Peter Pears (who, I think, helped in writing the libretto) tended to exaggerate the queer elements of the plot, giving Puck some mesmerising music.

Lucy Tartan said...

Hee. Thanks for the link. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead contains some fairly amusing Hamlet jokes. Your sketch reminded me a bit of Waiting for Godot, too, so it's all good.

TimT said...

Clive James did a good essay about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern which I read, though I can't say when I saw the play I understood it. Like a lot of modern works, the idea seems to be more interesting than the actual work. Or maybe I was just more interested in Clive James writing about Tom Stoppard than in Tom Stoppard ...

Anyway, as I said here, I'm fascinated in the 'side' characters in great historical dramas, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Anonymous said...

I went into the library on the weekend and looked up the 'joke' myself. It's not a joke, in fact. It's a short letter in which one scholar says to another: okay, if that's your theory, then explain how blah-blah-blah fits in with it, eh?
In the following issue of the TLS, Professor A comes back with a long reply of how the objection doesn't negate his theory about the play-within-a-play in Hamlet. For further details, look it up yourself; it's not interesting enough to talk about.

Lucy Tartan said...

Anonymous, congratulations on catching me out in my lame attempt to make my post just a tiny bit more interesting. I talked up the other three letters too, you will have noticed. As you say, the letter itself is a piece of very minor snark and not really worth discussing. I sincerely hope it was worth the effort of a trip to the stacks.

Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. said...

You might appreciate Richard Curtis's "Skinhead Hamlet" at

Email: timhtrain - at -

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