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Identity and the Self in ‘Hamlet’

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Marilyn Simon writes in The Conversation:

“Who’s there?” These are the two words that begin Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is primarily this question, and not “To be or not to be?” with which Hamlet wrestles throughout the play. The two words are spoken from one soldier to another; Elsinore’s castle guards are on the midnight shift, and on the face of it, the words simply set the stage for the time and place. (Shakespeare’s theatre had limited technology for special effects and set pieces, so atmosphere had to be invoked entirely with words.) But on another level, one that Shakespeare clearly intended, the question is an existential one, as is the more confounding response of the other watchman: “Nay, answer me. Stand, and unfold yourself.” This call-and-response poses a number of questions. Who are other people? How can we know that what others reveal to us is the real them? How do I “unfold” myself to others? Who am I, under my “folds”? Am I what I show others? Something deep within? Is my identity a series of socially constructed layers? Or do I create myself through the process of “unfolding” itself? Is there a real “myself” underneath the layers of the pre-existing social and biological conditions which constitute my material reality? If so, how do I know it when I see it, if not for the social expectations placed upon me to self-actualize by seeking myself out? “Who’s there?” That is the question. And it is not a simple one. On the contrary, it is an inscrutable question, and even those who claim to have the answer cannot communicate it because we cannot know whether what they’re showing us is the real them or merely a layer that they haven’t fully unfolded.

Though Hamlet himself is often criticized (most frequently by disenchanted high school teachers) as having the “fatal flaw” of indecision and inaction, he is in fact an incredibly dynamic character, constantly shifting in his relationship to his own sense of self. The play begins with Hamlet taking a decidedly modern position on his relationship to himself. It is one that resonates with our current cultural moment of gender identities, defined as “the deep and intimate feeling a person has of themselves.” “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,” Hamlet says in his first soliloquy (1.2.129–30). Hamlet is asking for a release from his “solid flesh”—that is, his body—so that he can instead become “dew,” which is something pure, uncorrupted, and ethereal. He feels constrained by his body. Who he is on the inside, his “deep and intimate feeling,” is what he wishes to become. Curiously, the word “solid” in this passage is one of those funny words in Shakespeare that is different in three versions of the play. The earliest versions of this play, those we consider “authorial,” spell this word differently: one is “solid,” another “sallied,” meaning attacked or assailed, and another “sullied,” meaning polluted and defiled. We cannot know, of course, what single meaning Shakespeare intended, or even—a trick of the bard—if he intended all three. The point is that Hamlet does feel constrained, degraded, and assailed by his body. He finds his physicality to be a hindrance to his inwardly held value. His “solid flesh” exists as an arbitrary and unfortunate limit to his innate feeling of himself, his felt essence. The world as it is, by contrast, is a fetid and soiled place. “’Tis an unweeded garden,” he says, “That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (1.2.135–37).

Hamlet is, as we all know, a prince. Much of what he rejects as “rank” and offensive is his social status, both the privileges and the responsibilities that come with it. (He’s basically a Prince Harry who finds that royalty cramps his style.) Hamlet’s life is predetermined, his role entirely socially constructed. “His greatness weighed,” Laertes says, “his will is not his own, / For he himself is subject to his birth” (1.3.16–17). Once again, I’m struck by the contemporary resonances of Hamlet’s angst. Socially constructed roles, those instilled in us from birth, form us and condition us, curtailing our wills, molding our identities. We are all “subject to our birth” to some degree. And often this subjugation is an affront to our innate and intimate feelings. It restricts us, and makes our wills not our own. Hamlet is entirely on side with our progressive values of rejecting such constraints. He was there before us.

The irony is, though, that Hamlet’s push to be and act “authentically” paralyzes him, and he isn’t able to act at all. Hamlet’s dead father tasks the young prince with avenging his murder, repairing his mother’s virtue, and restoring health to the entire country of Denmark. None of this was chosen by Hamlet, who wants to instead continue his university studies in Germany. For the first half of the play, Hamlet wrestles with the pointlessness of doing anything if nothing is chosen by us. We live assailed by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” under the tyranny of cause and effect. The rage Hamlet feels during the first three acts of the play is not directed towards Claudius (though he does hate his uncle/stepfather), but rather towards Fate, towards the “strumpet fortune” who has her way with us, regardless of our personal feelings. “Our wills and fates do so contrary run,” the play says, “That our devices still are overthrown; / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none our own” (3.2.199–201). What we are, what we want to do, what we think and believe are all irrelevant. We live instead in a world where, to be blunt, shit just happens. We are creatures of contingencies. At best, we make it through life by dodging fortune’s slings and arrows. It is the word “still” that strikes me in this passage. It connotes something that occurs continuously, that is both unmoving and ongoing. We might believe ourselves now to be beyond the threshold of such contingencies. Contemporary ethics seems to value the innate feelings of an individual more than a sense of duty or submission to one’s socially constructed or biologically determined role. Hamlet shares our frustrations. He embodies them. At every turn Hamlet rails against his birth, that primal and unchosen event which determines all others. And though there is a large part of him that wants to kill Claudius, Hamlet finds that he can’t. Hamlet’s thoughts instead tend towards killing himself, doing away with his suffering through the ultimate act of self expression by finding his “quietus” with a “bare bodkin.”

Shakespeare’s insight here is astounding. Hamlet wants to be free of the “solid flesh” that encases his dewy essence, but it is his inwardness itself that is the problem. “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” the prince says, “were it not that I have bad dreams” (2.2.252–54). Limit, the realities of external and unchosen constraints, are ostensibly what troubles Hamlet. Yet here he admits, almost as an afterthought, that the limit exists within him. Or rather, the limitlessness he fantasizes about experiencing is prevented by … what, exactly? His “bad dreams”? But what are those? Is it a dewy purity or a dark abyss that lurks within us? When Hamlet “unfolds himself,” what does he discover? It is one thing to have an intimate sense of who we believe ourselves to be, but are we really who we wish to think we are?

Hamlet insists that he is an authentic, genuine self. “Seems, madam?” he says to Gertrude, who asks him why he always seems to be so despondent, “Nay, it is, I know not ‘seems.’” It isn’t, Hamlet goes on, his clothes, nor the way he looks, nor his behaviour, nor even his own face that “can denote me truly. These indeed seem, / For they are actions that a man might play; / But I have that within which passeth show— / These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.76, 83–86). The problems, of course, for Hamlet are two-fold: on the one hand, whatever it is within us literally “passes show,” it is inexpressible. We all feel as though we have some innate sense of ourselves, of our value, our essence, our soul. But that inner self can always only remain on the inside. All we can do is attempt to show others our innate feelings by how we look, dress, and act, but those superficial things will always be inadequate. And the gap between who we feel ourselves to be and how we show others what we are will become a site of insufficiency, and thus anxiety. How can we ever measure up to the feelings we have on the inside? On the other hand, Hamlet admits that what is inside himself isn’t necessarily what he’d like to find there. What are these “bad dreams”? This, too, is deeply human; we are usually not as good or pure as we would like to believe. Perhaps it is the murderer Claudius, and not Hamlet, who gives full outward expression to his inner feelings.

It is the tension between knowing himself and having to live up to the social expectations that are not reflective of his inner choices which fuels Hamlet’s impotent rage throughout much of the play. In Act Four, however,  . , ,

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Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2021 at 1:25 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Psychology

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Bob Fosse documentary

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And see also this New Yorker interview with Ann Reinking from May 2019.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2020 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Art, Movies & TV, Video

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The Dazzling Razzle of Ann Reinking and Where to See It

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Ann Reinking was a national treasure. (I’ll mention that All That Jazz is one of my all-time favorite movies.) New York has a fine article on her and her career and contributions with several excellent clips. Here’s one:

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2020 at 11:24 am

Posted in Art, Movies & TV, Video

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‘They just told my story’: What happens when a play about union busting tours Rust Belt cities

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Peter Marks reports in the Washington Post:

Hunched over and weeping, Fred Kimbrew had to look away from the stage. He would say later that it felt as if he were seeing the pain in his own life being reenacted . And in a way, he was.

 The play was “Sweat,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Lynn Nottage about the racial animus aroused by busting a steelworkers’ union in a dying, blue-collar Pennsylvania town. In a one-of-a-kind event, New York’s Public Theater is taking an ensemble of Broadway and off-Broadway actors to 18 small towns and cities over 29 days in five Rust Belt and Upper Midwestern states — the heart of MAGA country — to foster the notion that the arts shouldn’t be classified as blue or red. Rather, they are red, white and blue.

“The difference the play makes to the people whose stories are being told is extraordinary,” said Nottage, standing in the makeshift theater in one of Erie’s poorest neighborhoods, where the “Sweat” tour was launched Thursday. “I think that what red and blue can recognize is that we all share the same narrative.”

It is unheard of for a distinguished theater company to look beyond America’s major cities and book a play such as “Sweat” — which had a pre-Broadway run at Washington’s Arena Stage and played for 129 performances on Broadway last year — into places like Erie; Ashtabula, Ohio; Saginaw, Mich.; and Hayward, Wis. And not just visit unconventional cities, but also unorthodox stages: “Sweat” on tour is being presented free of charge in union halls, churches, food pantries, even centers for men and women recently released from prison, like Climate Changers Inc., a social-service facility on hardscrabble East 11th Street in Erie.

Theater is often viewed as a diversion for moneyed classes of a progressive bent in cosmopolitan places. To Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, this tour attempts to redress the imbalance and seek out audiences in Donald Trump’s America. “One of the things that we have done is turn our back to half of America, in the idea that the riches of theater belong to the coasts, to the elites,” Eustis said. “The Public has done a commendable job of reaching out to urban populations, but we’ve said to half the country, ‘We got nothing for you.’ We have done the same thing to that part of the country that the economy has done: We’ve abandoned them.”

“Sweat” seems a fitting vehicle to start changing that perception. Set in 2000 to 2008 in Reading, Pa., where Nottage did her research, the play is built around the friendship of two women, one white, one black, who work the assembly line in a metal tubing plant. The breakdown of their relationship and the tensions that escalate around them occur as the African American worker, Cynthia, is promoted to management just as the company locks out union members, recruits cheaper replacements from the local Latino community, and starts shipping jobs to a plant in Mexico. Seething, the locked-out white worker, Tracey, provokes a violent incident in the union workers’ favorite watering hole, with terrible consequences.

Watching a story so familiar, played out with such rawness, by actors on a makeshift stage barely an arm’s length away, is too much for some audience members, including those who have never been to a play before. “I’m from Aliquippa, Pa.,” Kimbrew said during the post-show discussion, led by the Public’s Chiara Klein, that follows every performance. “My grandfather worked in the steel mill for 40 years. When you took out the mill, out came the drug activity. So it was play ball, or sell drugs,” he added, choking up.

Asked afterward why he cried, Kimbrew replied: “You ever went somewhere and felt, ‘They just told my story?’ ”

In Ashtabula, on Friday night, 50 miles down Interstate 90 from Erie, Eustis was in the audience at a food pantry, where people came for the food and stayed for the play. “The audience was older and very quiet during the show — very few laughs, little sort of rumbles of recognition,” he said. “I was not quite sure how they were reacting. Then, after the show, they started talking, and every single person broke into sobs. I thought, ‘These are people who don’t know how to respond to theater, but it’s getting to them.’ It was about losing the town’s identity and their feeling of belonging not to the future but the past. Their reaction was powerful, but in different ways than I would have thought.”

Ashtabula County gave Donald Trump 57.2 percent of its vote in 2016, and Sawyer County in Wisconsin, where Hayward is located, awarded him nearly 60 percent. Trump even scored narrow victories in more reliably Democratic counties, like Saginaw and Erie. So in a sense with this tour, the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit — a company arm that traditionally brings Shakespeare productions to New York’s outer boroughs — was venturing into what might be regarded for a liberal theater troupe as politically hostile territory.

So intent was Eustis that the show not be perceived as one-sided that he added this note to the programs handed out every evening: “This isn’t a Republican or Democrat play. This play does what theater does best: it tells the truth about the lives of people who don’t normally get the spotlight, who aren’t glamorous or rich, but who are as heroic and deep and complicated as anyone.”

Erie, a city of 98,000 on the shores of Lake Erie, halfway between Buffalo and Cleveland, suffered from the same kind of deindustrialization that has afflicted communities across the Rust Belt. Since 1960, it has lost about a third of its residents, and at the same time has become a significant destination for refugees and immigrants. About 20 percent of the population is made up of what the city calls “New Americans.” In an interview in his downtown offices, Mayor Joseph Schember (D) recalled working as a teenager as a chipper in an aluminum casting plant in the city’s once-bustling industrial corridor. “You could walk down 12th Street and get five good jobs,” he said.

Now, the plants are closed and the city has been regrouping, with bipartisan efforts to lure innovative businesses and participate in federal community-development initiatives. As to whether the corrosive political battles in the nation’s capital have much impact in Erie, the city’s genial mayor observed: “I think we think more about what’s going on here. The leadership is working together like never before.”

Schember would show up Thursday evening at Climate Changers, but the question hanging in the air in the hours before the event was, would anyone else? A lot rode on the success of this first stop, as it would set the tone for a month’s worth of stops on the tour, a project underwritten largely by the Ford and Mellon foundations. “This is hugely different from any theatrical experience I’ve ever had,” said Steve Key, who was an understudy in the Broadway production and now plays Stan, the former plant worker who presides over the bar in which the play takes place.

Public staffers need not have worried; by 6 p.m., the space was filling up, with an audience about equally black and white — a rare occurrence in Erie, people were saying. “This event is very, very important,” said Patrick Fisher, executive director of Erie Arts and Culture, a local support organization. “The fact that you can use an art form for an impartial conversation — that is why the arts matter.”

By 6:30, the room had an overflow crowd of 125. Extra folding chairs had to be brought in, although the supply of free vanilla cupcakes at intermission seemed just about right. Even more important was the nourishment the main event was providing.

“It does take you into how things really are,” said Gail Mitchell, a longtime Erie resident who came with her husband, Arthur. Wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers cap, Arthur Mitchell was compelled to think about . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

2 October 2018 at 1:10 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life

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