I really fell for Shakespeare watching Derek Jacobi use five words to change the whole meaning of a play. This was in the BBC Shakespeare – those often shoddy, always ambitious, occasionally brilliant attempts by the BBC to do ALL THE PLAYS and pay scant attention to quality while always trumpeting the width. Jacobi was playing Hamlet, and wasn’t the first I had seen, but he managed to change me forever.
O Romeo . . .
I was already a fan of Shakespeare from my early teens. My high school English teacher, a wonderfully inspiring lady in the old mould, had foolishly cast me as Romeo in our school production even though at 13 girls would barely talk to me let alone let me climb up their balcony. The production began with me sitting in a spotlight wistfully staring at a flower; the flower represented Rosaline, I believe, that offstage object of desire Romeo cannot live without but forgets completely by Act 2. It was probably a hopeless production (Mercutio left Queen Mab’s description mostly to the prompter) but I got to kiss a pretty girl and wear a flouncy shirt.
A few years later, Hamlet became an obsession. I was a troubled teen, and worse an arty one, an irritating combination for all. I wrote bad poems and even worse sonnets. And though my father had not been murdered by mine uncle, and my mother had not remarried, and I had not accidentally murdered my girlfriend’s father and she had not gone mad, I thought that Hamlet was exactly like me and I was exactly like him and oh Shakespeare you clever devil. I don’t think it now, but at 16 I was convinced Hamlet was a kind of Jacobean Catcher in the Rye – a manual for troubled teens.
Words, words, words . . .
So I knew the play well and got the idea – Hamlet is prompted to revenge by the ghost and pretends to be mad to throw everyone off the scent. The “antic disposition” that involves shouting at Polonius and walking weirdly into Ophelia’s chamber. But in the BBC version, Jacobi does something new. At the end of the nunnery scene, having realised he is being manipulated and taking out his rage on his ex-girlfriend, Hamlet’s diatribe against women ends (in prose, not verse, so he’s not trying to be pretty):
“. . . you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad.”
Strong stuff. Jacobi plays it with open emotion. But at the end, just before the last bit, he looks up with a sense of shock on his face. Stares straight at us; has a moment of realisation. He says, with horror and surprise:
“. . . it hath made me mad.”
And we realise it really has. He was pretending, or trying to, but now events have overtaken him – the lies and manipulation and pain have genuinely changed his soul without him knowing. And we watch him realise it. Brilliant – just a single line, the emphasis on a single word, but it changes the whole meaning of the play. So much achieved with so little – a great actor with a 400 year old text, and there is suddenly something new before us, freshly alive with its author long since in his tomb.
Some are born great . . .
It was this simple moment that made me see what could be done with Shakespeare. How fortunate we are to know nothing of what he thought of his own work, how it should be done, what it “really” means. Much rather this than Bernard Shaw’s lengthy prologues, Ben Jonson’s witty commentaries or Brecht’s epic essays. Shakespeare left us no advice – we don’t even known which version of Hamlet we are to perform – so we must take our own. And we do: I was equally marvelled by David Tennant’s bold decision to root Hamlet in genuine grief, sinking crushed to the floor when we meet him then beginning his soliloquy from a ball of despair; Christopher Ecclestone using the players to act out the Trojan speeches so we can fully understand them; Ben Whishaw talking simply to the audience as though we were old friends; even Benedict Cumberbatch (too lacking in irony for my taste) managing a convincingly real “To be or not to be” in the midst of an elaborate production. And it doesn’t have to be Hamlet – seek out Adrian Lester as Othello and watch him tell the council members his story of wooing Desdemona. It’s spine-tingling; more words than Jacobi, but brilliance cut from the same cloth.
Not all Hamlets are great. “They have their exits and their entrances . . .” Yes but which one? When I played Hamlet (thought I’d mention it. “You played once i’the university, you say?”) my main achievement was mostly managing to come on and off in the right places. And getting through to what my best friend told me was “a surprisingly sarcastic death scene.” Oh well, my Mum said I was great. And she’s never been a fan of Derek Jacobi.