In the winter of 1989, overwhelmed by work, I prepared Hamlet one day ahead of my classes by reading the play while listening to Paul Scofield’s version on Caedmon tapes — stopping, rewinding and restarting a small tape recorder in a back room whose big window looked out over snow and woods. I wore headphones. One small light shone on the desk. Sometimes, to rest my eyes and to let go for a moment, I would turn off the lamp and watch the snow, Scofield’s voice in my ears. It was always a strange, exhausted, half-spooky moment, as if the Ghost might emerge from the dark trees and stand waiting for me. If it catches you, this play will hold you spellbound. It caught me. It joined itself to my imagination more deeply than all but three other books.*
Hamlet compels us to see it in our heads before we see it on stage. We will have read it, perhaps acted it in a class, marked the speeches and scenes we found most affecting, created shadow-characters in our imagination. Then, at some point we witness it in a theater or on screens and make comparisons between what we first saw in our minds and what others made in performance. Some performances become enduring memories: Paul Scofield’s Ghost in Mel Gibson’s production — his voice so full of suffering; much of Branagh’s production especially his delivery of “To Be or Not To Be” and of the ‘Sparrow’ speech; Kate Winslet as Ophelia; Derek Jacobi as Claudius; Charlton Heston as the Player King. And Ralph Fiennes’ light-speed performance whose Hamlet becomes atomized, ricocheting back and forth as one assault after another is launched at him.
In the beginning, armed Francisco, strung out and heedful of noises, cries into the darkness, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.” By the end, every major character will have ‘unfolded’ something unexpected of his or her life — Claudius’ confession, Horatio’s defiance of Fortinbras, Gertrude’s final loyalty to her son and the Ghost’s callous use of him, and Hamlet, most of all — who trusts us completely and strips himself down to one self and then another after another in front of us, all the while as intense and juiced as a severed high tension cable. Sparks fly from him. He is alive. #He is forever alive. His life changed my own.