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A new genre, call it "The Businessman as Revolutionary," has corporate culture co-opting counterculture in the Internet economy. Yet, as Jeremy Rifkin argues in The Age of Access, it's capitalism itself that may be transformed -- and not necessarily for the better.


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The Rest Is Silence

The Prince of Denmark in the age of digital reproduction

by Wen Stephenson

August 16, 2000


Discussed in this essay:

Hamlet
Adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda
(Miramax, 2000)

Shakespeare's Language
By Frank Kermode
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000)

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
By William Shakespeare
(The Globe, 1601)

It was a good century for the Dane. True, not every critic threw roses -- when T. S. Eliot, in 1919, pronounced Hamlet "an artistic failure" it must have seemed, at least in certain circles, that the play and its hero would never recover. But in terms of popularity, if the frequency of his appearance in the movies is any indication, the Prince of Denmark has risen to new heights in the age of mass media. There have been at least thirty film adaptations of Hamlet to date (according to the Internet Movie Database), not to mention numerous television versions for the BBC and doubtless other networks. Translation from page and stage to celluloid and screen has proven irresistible, which must say something about the continuing hold on the imagination of Shakespeare's longest, most challenging, and, many believe, greatest play (Mr. Eliot and his "objective correlative" notwithstanding).

Michael Almereyda's film Hamlet, released in May to a generally enthusiastic critical reception, is the first major screen adaptation of the new century. It is also the third in just the past decade (if you don't count The Fifteen Minute Hamlet or Green Eggs and Hamlet, both from 1995, among other sendups). Franco Zeffirelli gave us a serviceable adaptation in 1990, starring Mel Gibson, and Kenneth Branagh came along in 1996, casting himself, memorably, in the title role. Yet another Hamlet is reportedly on the way, this time set on Long Island in 1910 and starring Campbell Scott.

Hardly anyone ever stages or films the play uncut (Branagh's defiantly over-the-top, four-hour production being a notable exception), but Almereyda's film goes to extremes in the way it cuts, restructures, and ultimately alters the play. Strangely, few critics bothered to make much of this -- or, if they did, they seemed not to care. They should. Almereyda has given us a completely different, and diminished, Hamlet. Ethan Hawke may fancy that he has joined the list of actors who have played the Prince on the screen (Laurence Olivier, in 1948, foremost among them), but in fact he has played a character at best based on Hamlet; he has not played the role written by William Shakespeare.

From the first frame we know this Hamlet is an altered beast. Hawke's visage appears, contained within a grainy, bluish, washed-out video (a self-portrait, we later realize, an entry in a kind of video diary). His voice tells us that he has of late lost all his mirth, questioning what it is to be human, "this quintessence of dust," as the image of his face gives way to disconnected scenes of contemporary global mayhem, à la CNN. (Hawke's opening lines -- a condensed version of the famous "What a piece of work is a man" speech -- are taken from Hamlet's dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in Act 2. Thus Almereyda opens his film with a "new" mini-soliloquy that doesn't exist in the play.)



Hawke, with Diane Venora and Kyle MacLachlan, in Hamlet

Cut to Manhattan in the year 2000. Instead of the court of Denmark at Elsinore we have the Denmark Corporation, headquartered in a glass skyscraper. Its CEO, Hamlet's father (Sam Shepard), has recently died under mysterious circumstances and his brother, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), has assumed the helm and married Hamlet's mother -- the lovely, lusty, if somewhat faded society matron, Gertrude (Diane Venora). The young Hamlet, we are told, has returned from school for his father's funeral suspecting some foul play. Skipping the first scene entirely, the action opens on a corporate press conference, as Claudius, with Gertrude at his side, holds up the front page of USA Today and vows to defy a hostile takeover attempt by the Norwegian firm of Fortinbras. Hamlet, unshaven and aloof, slouches in the wings, wearing leather pants and one of those knit-wool ski hats with flaps that hang down over the ears, while a stern portrait of his father on the wall behind him glares down over his shoulder at the proceedings. Hamlet is depressed, dissolute. He seems distant from his girlfriend, Ophelia (Julia Stiles), a hip downtown photographer -- though when he's alone he can't stop languishing over the countless images of her (and his parents, and himself) that he keeps on his computer's hard drive and carries around on a portable DVD player, his constant companion.

This Hamlet, you see, is wired to the gills. He has a digital video-production studio in his bedroom. He probably writes multimedia reviews for some avant-garde Webzine in the East Village. This is Hamlet for the MTV generation, a fragmented, jump-cut collage, with a soundtrack to match. To be sure, there's an element of knowing irony in Almereyda's production -- some of the absurdity of the setting and casting (particularly Bill Murray's Polonius) is unmistakably played for laughs -- and there is certainly a grain of social satire. Almereyda holds up the mirror, or the video screen, as it were, to our media-saturated, digitally seduced zeitgeist. But in the end the film takes itself far too seriously to be given much credit as a self-conscious parody of our late-postmodern poses.

Somewhere in the midst of it all are Shakespeare's words -- or what's left of them. Almereyda's cut-and-paste job goes well beyond a contemporary resetting of the play; it gives us something more ominously revealing, perhaps even symptomatic, of our cultural situation. Aside from the sheer quantity of words that have been discarded (at least half the play), two significant aspects of Almereyda's adaptation bear mentioning.

First, the whole question of Hamlet's feigning madness is inexplicably lost from the screenplay. Though Almereyda reconstructs the ghost scene in which Hamlet learns of his father's murder and receives his charge of vengeance, he skips the all-important lines in which Hamlet makes Horatio and Marcellus swear not to reveal that they know anything of Hamlet's intention, formulated even as he speaks, to "put an antic disposition on." Thus, from that point forward, with every reference to Hamlet's ambiguous mental state neatly removed -- that is, with a Hamlet who is not mad or pretending to be mad, but simply distraught and pissed off -- we get a Hamlet that is largely stripped of ambiguity and reduced to a two-dimensional melodrama of love and revenge, depression and suicide.

Second, as one quickly gathers, this Hamlet is not a scholar-playwright-poet-actor but a slacker-filmmaker-videographer, and it follows that the play-within-the-play is replaced by a film-within-the-film (the players, and all of Hamlet's interaction with them, are entirely cut, along with any indication of Hamlet's knowledge of stagecraft). This Hamlet's Mousetrap, in which he catches the conscience of the King, is a soundless, digitally edited short film, reflecting Almereyda's own editing techniques in the larger film itself. As becomes clear, the move from writing to filmmaking, word to image, author to auteur, is Almereyda's underlying conceit, and it shapes his whole production.

Hamlet's role as filmmaker-videographer, though it's too clever by half, makes possible the film's admittedly intriguing visual strengths. For this film is as obsessed with image as Shakespeare's play is obsessed with language. Indeed, if there is a third dimension to this Hamlet, it is Almereyda's use of video imagery to represent the inner, conflicted emotional state of Hawke's otherwise emotionally flat Prince. The images pick up where the words leave off (or are simply missing), and the visual is required to do much of the work that the verbal here cannot. Just as Shakespeare's play is intensely conscious of its own medium -- its status as theater and highly figurative dramatic language -- so Almereyda's use of video imagery makes his film hyper-reflexive, constantly commenting upon the medium in which it communicates.

Almereyda's visual achievement, however, quickly becomes the film's primary downfall. For the images don't just complement, they compete with the words of the play, even displacing them, as Hawke's abridged lines become the voiceover to a series of video montages. But you can't displace Hamlet's words and still have Hamlet. This is because Hamlet is as much a play about language as it is a play made out of language -- a play of words that constantly plays on words.

At the end of Almereyda's film, most of Hamlet's dying speech is replaced by one last montage -- replaying, as though his life were passing before his eyes, the obsessions that have plagued him and fueled his suicidal melancholy. When Hawke does breathe his final words -- "the rest is silence" -- there is a chilling sense that they refer to the fate of Shakespeare's language in the age of digital reproduction.

Shakespeare's Language A new book by the English literary critic Frank Kermode reminds us why we need Shakespeare's language -- indeed, Shakespeare's Language is the title of the book -- and sheds light on why a film like Almereyda's robs us of the very essence of Shakespeare's dramatic poetry, which is wordplay raised to the level of metaphysical inquiry.

"Every other aspect of Shakespeare," Kermode writes in his preface, "is studied almost to death, but the fact that he was a poet has somehow dropped out of consideration." Contemporary critics, Kermode complains, "have little time for his language; they tend to talk past it in technicalities or down to it in arcanely expressed platitudes." Kermode stakes out his turf between "an obsolete and detested idolatry" and those "modern counterparts" who would "rubbish Shakespeare," as though to take him down a peg, by insisting that he is only intelligible if seen as part of the political discourse of his day. "But in the end," says Kermode, "you can't get rid of Shakespeare without abolishing the very notion of literature." If this sounds a bit like the Yale critic Harold Bloom, author of such best-selling polemical tomes as Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) and The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), be advised: Kermode may defend the Bard against assaults from tenured radicals, but he is no Bardolater, as Bloom defiantly calls himself.

In a passage that might have been written for Michael Almereyda's edification, Kermode drives home the idea that although Shakespeare's plays were first of all theatrical productions, it is also true that the impulse to give contemporary audiences a Shakespeare they can relate to on the stage (or screen) must not deprive the plays of their essential literary value. To help his point Kermode draws on the authority of the distinguished English director Richard Eyre.
"The life of a theatre," [says Eyre], "should always be in the present tense." This is true, and the work of a modern director must always be to fuse the horizons of past and present; to read well and faithfully is always to read anew, but without introducing distortion. Eyre adds, "The life of the plays is in the language, not alongside it, or underneath it.... An Elizabethan audience would have responded to the pulse, the rhythms, the shapes, sounds, and above all meanings, within the constant ten-syllable, five-stress lines of blank verse. They were an audience who listened."
They obviously watched too, but most importantly, as Kermode and Eyre note, they attended to the words -- they encountered the language in all its complexity and beauty.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"Hamlet Alone," by Helen Vendler
An article from The New York Times Magazine in which Vendler nominates Hamlet as the greatest poem of the millennium, calling it "our pre-eminent post-Christian poem."

Shakespeare and the Globe: Then and Now
A site produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica to commemorate the official inauguration of the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. It explores the legacy of Shakespeare, from the original Elizabethan productions in London to modern international performances, films, and operas.

Kermode's purpose is to reacquaint us with the intricate workings of Shakespeare's dramatic verse, and he constructs his book to trace the development of Shakespeare's language from an early, highly formal and conventional rhetoric to something altogether more wondrous and strange in the later plays. Kermode sees a turning point in this process, around 1599-1600, associated with the writing of Hamlet and Shakespeare's move to the Globe theater, a point "at which Shakespeare, already the author of several masterpieces, moved up to a new level of achievement and difficulty."

It is the achievement of this difficulty that most concerns Kermode. For Shakespeare, especially in the later plays, is nothing if not difficult. "It is simply inconceivable," Kermode writes in the introduction, "that anybody at the Globe, even those described by Shakespeare's contemporary, the critic Gabriel Harvey, as 'the wiser sort,' could have followed every sentence of Coriolanus." He reminds us that no less a critical intelligence than Dr. Johnson had trouble with many of the plays' most obscure passages, and that Johnson, "who liked Shakespeare best when he was writing simply, would struggle awhile with such passages and then give up trying, as he alleged Shakespeare had done."

But Kermode's central argument here is that what has often been seen as semantic confusion in Shakespeare, those moments when meaning is most elusive, may actually represent something wholly unprecedented in English literature, a "new way of representing turbulent thinking," which at times led the poet "beyond the limits of reason and intelligibility." Describing the aesthetic marvels that are Shakespeare's soliloquies from the time of Hamlet onward, Kermode writes,








From The Atlantic:

"The Academy vs. the Humanities," by Frank Kermode (August 1997)
A review of John M. Ellis's Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities.

We register the pace of the speech, its sudden turns, its backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can consider them. This is new: the representation of excited, anxious thought; the weighing of confused possibilities and dubious motives; the proposing of a theory or explanation followed at once by its abandonment or qualification, as in the meditation of a person under stress to whom all that he is considering can be a prelude to vital choices, emotional and political.
This begins to give some idea of what is lost when Shakespeare's words take a back seat to the ambitions of directors and critics who are more concerned with their own agendas than with Shakespeare's poetic art.

Kermode takes up the "Globe plays" chapter by chapter, beginning with Julius Caesar. Some of his readings may come across as more dutiful than inspired, and at times his microscopic focus on the language can come at the expense of more expansive vistas, so you feel that the play is never quite seen whole. Not so the chapter on Hamlet, the play Kermode (along with just about everybody else) sees as the breakthrough achievement in Shakespeare's development as a poet. Here Kermode is at his best, presenting an almost scene-by-scene close reading that zeros in on and illuminates the play's rhetorical innovation in a way that sheds light far beyond the margins of the page.

Kermode draws our attention to the essential aspect of Hamlet -- its obsession with ambiguity, a kind of profound existential uncertainty, mirrored in the language itself. Look closely, and you begin to see that the language of the play is "obsessed" -- to an unparalleled degree, Kermode insists -- "with doubles of all kinds, and notably by its use of the figure known as hendiadys." Aware that most of us may be a bit rusty when it comes to Greek and Latin rhetorical terms, Kermode tells us that hendiadys (which is a late Latin modification of the Greek hen dia dyoin) means literally "one-through-two," as illustrated by such everyday phrases as "law and order" and "house and home." "Anyone who has known the Book of Common Prayer," he points out, "is familiar with such language: 'We acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and weaknesses.'" Doubling can take many forms, and hendiadys is just one. Antithesis is another, as when two opposite or opposing terms are paired. Simple repetition is another. And the lowly pun (my example, not Kermode's) can be the most subversive form of doubling, as a single word or phrase is made to carry two or more meanings simultaneously. Wordplay is ambiguity itself.
Sure, you think, just the sort of thing that an English professor would come up with. Perhaps. But think again -- as the examples pile up, it becomes clear that Kermode is surely on to something. Hamlet is famous, or infamous, for its sheer abundance of words, but when you realize how much of the language is the kind described by Kermode, how often Shakespeare uses two or more words in one breath to say the same thing, or indulges in wordplay that calls attention to the double meanings of individual words or phrases, it is startling. "So numerous are these doublings," Kermode writes,
that it is easy to ignore them, but when they are pointed out, and the language of the play compared in this respect with the language of others, they seem to be of its very essence. The doubling devices give the verse its tune, or might perhaps be thought as a sort of ground bass that sounds everywhere.
And the doubling operates not only at the level of language; it permeates the entire structure and plot of the play. Hamlet is full of doubles and mirrorings: Cornelius and Voltemand; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Laertes and Fortinbras; the play-within-the-play, and of course the dumbshow, which is a play within the play-within-the-play. Hamlet himself is doubled, and starkly contrasted, in the ghost of his father, who also goes by the name of Hamlet the Dane. Ophelia's all-too-real insanity mirrors Hamlet's "antic disposition," his madness "in craft." Her suicide mirrors and mocks Hamlet's own unconsummated flirtation with "self-slaughter." And the list could go on.

At this point, with Kermode's spotlight trained on the play's most distinctive and original feature (one is tempted to say that this rhetorical device of doubling becomes another character in the play), we can see that although Almereyda's film may succeed on its own entirely visual terms, it fails to capture the essence of Hamlet, the play's linguistic and psychological ambiguity, and we begin to see why the failure matters.

Hamlet's first lines in the play perfectly embody the kind of doubling and ambiguity that Kermode has highlighted, setting the tone for all that will follow. Indeed, the first words out of his mouth turn on a famous pun: Claudius addresses him as "my cousin, Hamlet, and my son," to which Hamlet replies -- in an aside to the audience (as if to wink and say, "pay attention, you're going to hear a lot of this from me") -- "A little more than kin, and less than kind." This is followed hard upon by a second pun, more subtle and pointed than the first:
KING. How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

HAMLET. Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun.
Almereyda's screenplay skips these famous lines completely, and we can only wonder at the cause or justification -- surely not length. The effect is to rob Hawke's Hamlet of the wickedly ironic wit with which Shakespeare introduces the Prince, a wit which comes as close to defining Hamlet's character as anything else -- his melancholy and metaphysical broodings included.

The exchange with Claudius leads straight to a dialogue between Hamlet and Gertrude that produces the Prince's first extended speech and the play's first lines of poetry that are apt to lodge in your ear and echo there throughout the rest of the play.
QUEEN. Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not forever with thy vailèd lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

HAMLET. Ay, madam, it is common.

QUEEN. If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?

HAMLET. Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not "seems."
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passes show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
Kermode, sticking to his theme, has this to say about Hamlet's speech:
Here we have not only the repetition of "seems," the extravagance of following the black cloak with the black suits, the extraordinary line 79, which could be rendered "Nor breathy breathing of forced breathing," and the concentrated theatrical references of "actions," "play," and "show," in lines 84-85. (The Folio text has "shows" instead of "shapes" in line 82, perhaps a revision intended to stress this little theatrical cluster, to emphasize the unparalleled deliberation with which this play attends to theatrical figures.)
He might also have mentioned the poison-tongued irony of "good mother" (referring back to Gertrude's "Good Hamlet"), which is perversely echoed in Hamlet's parting words to the dying Gertrude in Act 5, "Wretched Queen, adieu!" (cut by Almereyda). This sort of irony is yet another kind of doubling -- through indirection, by saying one thing and meaning quite another -- and we see it as well in Hamlet's concluding couplet here, with its ironic implication that whereas he "has that within which passes show," he is surrounded by those, Gertrude included, who only wear "the trappings and the suits" of sincerity.

Almereyda keeps this speech of Hamlet's more or less intact -- Hawke speaks the lines in his nasal tones as he walks along Park Avenue with Venora and MacLachlan. Without the preceding exchange with Claudius, however, and its barbed wordplay, the lines lose most of their thematic resonance. What's more, with the entire issue of Hamlet's feigned madness missing from the screenplay, the whole theme of "seeming/not-seeming" that this speech introduces -- of surface illusion and inner reality -- is also lost. Almereyda certainly gets the self-conscious theatricality of the play, but he apparently doesn't realize that without the question of Hamlet's sanity hovering over everything, and thus without all the rhetorical and thematic doubling that springs from it, such crucial lines as these have nowhere to go -- they are spoken and forgotten.

For the question of Hamlet's madness -- whether the "show" he puts on denotes him truly -- is ultimately the principal figure of ambiguity, of seeming versus being, at the heart of Hamlet. If wordplay -- the two-in-oneness and pervasive doubling at the rhetorical level -- is a constant reminder of the instability of meaning inherent in language, then Hamlet's antic mind-play enacts the instability of meaning at the level of character, of psychology, and finally of metaphysics. "To be or not to be," yet another instance of rhetorical doubling, is the question that is never answered. Rather, as Hamlet explains to Horatio just before the fateful contest with Laertes,
There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.
Shakespeare's Hamlet escapes the prison of language in the end -- just as he escapes what he calls the "prison" of Denmark -- somehow learning, between Acts 4 and 5, to make peace with multiplicity and uncertainty. For Hamlet (and, it would seem, for Shakespeare), the Word cannot be trusted -- it can be two or more things at once -- and yet somehow this master of words and wordplay finds it within himself to look into language's abyss, the abyss of ambiguity, and to utter a simple, mysterious, and finally inexplicable "Let be." This is perhaps the play's finest and most ironic bit of wordplay, Hamlet's most outrageous and profound turn of wit: a seemingly alchemical transformation of "to be or not to be," a resolution of the unanswerable, into the simplicity of an almost beatified statement of oneness.

Kermode closes his reading of Hamlet by stepping back and trying to place the play in perspective, both in terms of the wider scope of Shakespeare's oeuvre and of literary history. It is no pat summation; true to the difficulty and complexity of the text, Kermode contrives no easy conclusions, but maintains a kind of humility all too rare in literary criticism today. (Bloom, on the other hand, has his Hamlet loom larger in the Western consciousness than Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah.) Kermode's conclusion seems utterly apt in the present context, and ought to be read by every future director who would attempt to bring the play to the stage or screen.
Hamlet is literature's greatest bazaar: everything available, all warranted and trademarked. The sense that it constitutes a quantum leap in the development of English poetry and drama is widely shared. Some will say that greater achievements lay ahead, but in that case Hamlet was an essential preparation for them. Whatever a critic's approach, this will remain true; for example, the whole idea of dramatic character is changed for ever by this play.... we may think we know the type or put together from experience a good idea of it, but no one much like Hamlet ever existed before. That is why images of Hamlet usually reflect what came after, not before him. To take him as the herald of a new age is neither idolatrous nor hyperbolical. In this new age we need not expect matters to be made easy for us. The new mastery is a mastery of the ambiguous, the unexpected, of conflicting evidence and semantic audacity. We are challenged to make sense, even mocked if we fail.
The failure of Almereyda's Hamlet need not be mocked. To his credit, Almereyda has created an interesting film to watch -- if frustrating to listen to -- and he has given us a way to think about Hamlet's standing at this cultural moment. For what better conceit than to make a digital-age Hamlet who is not a master of words so much as of electronic images? What could be more clever than to substitute the book that Hamlet enters "reading upon," in Act 2, with a DVD player? And yet, to us, what is this quintessence of millennial angst?


Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Words of Marshall McLuhan: BBC Interview by Frank Kermode, 1964
"Well here we are, a couple of archaic literate men, Gutenberg men, talking on the television."

Well, here are a few things he is not: ambiguous, unexpected, audacious. He comes treacherously close to cliché. And that may be the real tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in the digital age. Watching Almereyda's film, it strikes me that our artists may no longer know what to do with Hamlet. After all, by now the "wiser sort" have grown so accustomed to indeterminacy, linguistic and otherwise, that it is taken for granted. Derrida is in the air we breathe, along with McLuhan, the other deity whose presence hovers over us all. We "consume" media, hyper-aware of our hyper-mediated existence, of the truism that all meaning comes filtered and distorted through layers of being and seeming. So we make of Hamlet a two-dimensional cartoon character, a twentysomething in need of Prozac. His wit and his wordplay are displaced by the play of images flitting across a screen. The rest may not be silence, exactly -- more like the bright blue nothingness when the video runs out.


What do you think? Discuss this article in the Arts & Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on arts and culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Wen Stephenson is the editorial director of Atlantic Unbound and an associate editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His article "High-Performance Poets" (on recordings by W. H. Auden, James Merrill, and Sylvia Plath) appeared in The Atlantic's April, 2000, issue.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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