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Shakespeare wrote his play, Hamlet, some years after the deaths of his father, John Shakespeare, and his only son, Hamnet (age 11). Hamlet is the first of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.
Hamlet is the most autobiographical of Shakespeare’s characters. Briefly, the evidence for this is that, like Shakespeare, Hamlet is a playwright and an actor. Hamlet writes The Mousetrap, hoping to catch ‘the conscience of the King,’ just as Shakespeare wishes with his art to hold, ‘as it were, the mirror up to nature.’ Hamlet is also a passionate lover of theater, as evidenced in his speech to the players. He believes that theater is a deeply spiritual discipline and devotion, which can teach the actor to become a supremely balanced human being.
Hamlet’s Father takes place over a few weeks in The Globe Theater in London in the early 1600s. William Shakespeare is in the process of writing, revising, and rehearsing Hamlet with two of his fellow actors, the tragedian, Richard Burbage, and the comedian, Jack Kempe. The plague has driven the actors into the countryside, and only these three actors remain in London.
As the play opens, we see Shakespeare fencing with himself before a mirror. He wants to act the hero in his new play, Hamlet. A persistent and flamboyant young man, Percy, passionately desirous of being an actor, enters and insists upon becoming an apprentice at The Globe. The preoccupied, anxious and tired Shakespeare, is very resistant to the idea of an apprentice. He perceives the insistent young man to be a nuisance and an interruption. But Richard Burbage, perceiving the potential in Percy, accepts him as his apprentice. Percy is a catalyst that helps resolve the conflicts of the other characters in the play. In addition, his learning process, theatrical as well as spiritual, takes him, and the other characters, through many twists and turns of the plot (not to be revealed here), to the development and completion of Hamlet, the play.
Shakespeare, at the beginning of Hamlet’s Father, is at a crossroads in his personal and artistic journey. I have adapted Harold Bloom’s conjecture in his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, that Shakespeare started to write a previous version of Hamlet while his son Hamnet was still alive. I have extended that conjecture, and imply that Hamlet, in this earlier version of the play, was an embodiment of Shakespeare’s vision of his son as the ideal, individuated, balanced human being: a warrior-philosopher-scholar-saint-lover-poet King; a person who is comfortable with all his roles, no matter how contrary and opposing they might appear to be; a person who feels at home with his disparate, warring selves.
But after the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamlet, the character, became less an idealized version of the grown Hamnet than a reflection of the playwright himself, a man more interested in words than in actions, more adept with his pen than his sword. Hamlet, a peace-loving contemplative faced with the necessity of having to make war, finds himself as the reluctant protagonist of a revenge-play.
Shakespeare is unable to proceed with the play because Hamlet is unable to reconcile himself with the role of warrior and king; the first requires the perpetration of violence, and the second an autocratic exercise of power. To find oneself stuck in a role that one is temperamentally unsuited for is a prescription for tragedy. That Shakespeare believes the art of warriorship necessary in a hero is reflected in his premise that it is Hamlet’s refusal to participate in the roles of warrior and king that cause his tragedy.
How does this necessity for warrior skills apply to a playwright whose profession is words, whose lance is the pen? This question is the central dramatic question that preoccupies Shakespeare, the character, in Hamlet’s Father. Another dramatic question of the play is: how does the artist, detached, cool, unaffected by the tragedy around him, scavenging even the deaths of his son and father as material for his art, come to terms with his human, moral self that deplores this banditry that preys even upon his own heart and his own grief?
The central conflict of the play is between Jack Kempe, a Falstaffian character, and William Shakespeare who, like Hal in Henry 1V, has outgrown his need and friendship for Kempe, his Comedian. Shakespeare, as he moves into his ‘tragic period’ and becomes increasingly serious about his art, comes again and again into conflict with Kempe, who embodies the uninhibited, a-moral, joyous response to life and living, like Zorba, in Nikos Kazanzakis’ Zorba The Greek. The conflict between them is essentially the conflict between a tragic and a comic view of life, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, intention and instinct.
Such a conflict is warranted by an inherently dualistic vision of life, and duality, the two opponents in any conflict (good/evil, hero/villain, man/woman, action/inaction, doing/being, words/silence, love/death, fear/desire life/death, illusion/reality), is the very stuff of drama. This external conflict is an embodiment of the conflict within William Shakespeare himself, standing at the crossroads, paralyzed, like Hamlet, between his shadow and light self, his Caliban and Ariel, his spiritual self that would arise above conflict, and the self that is embroiled in and attached to a duality that is the very fabric of his art. He knows that it is only in a dual world that drama, based upon conflict, can exist and flourish.
In short, Shakespeare is in the very heart of the duality of life. In the beginning of the play, he is conflicted, torn and divided by it. But in the process of writing Hamlet, and interacting with Percy, he comes to terms with his own grief and suffering over the death of those he loves, his own impulses as a creator, and the brutality of life itself. He comes to accept and celebrate life as it is, with all its suffering and duality. His crises, in fact, is a healing one that sets him free to dance smoothly between all the contraries of life, tragedy and comedy, death and life.
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