Staging Hamlet for Improbable Fictions posed a problem: how do you depict the ghost of Hamlet’s father? Special effects often fall flat at this moment: various combinations of white sheets, eerie green lights, and zombie makeup. And certainly, the special effects budget of an IF production totals about $0.00. I trust our audiences to have a lot of imagination: our actors carry their scripts around onstage, after all, and it’s improbable (if not impossible) for an audience member to forget that theatricality unless they let themselves become invested in the show. Even so, King Hamlet’s ghost needs to be a bit terrifying, and while I could have asked our Ghost (Steve Burch) to simply step onstage and “play dead,” letting the audience imagine the rest, terror needs to be more visceral. The supernatural demands to walk the stage.
With that in mind, I set out to hack the opening act of Hamlet to bits. Marcellus and Bernardo disappear from the text. Instead, the play opens with the meeting of Hamlet (David Bolus) and Horatio (Amber Gibson). Hamlet soon asks Horatio for a speech: “We’ll have a speech straight: come, give us a taste of your quality; come, a passionate speech” (a line taken from Hamlet’s later dialogue to the First Player). Hamlet leads Horatio over to a tape recorder; Horatio tentatively begins the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from the 1st Quarto of Hamlet (known as the “bad quarto”). When Horatio’s memory falters, Hamlet picks up the train of thought as a dialogue:
HAMLET records the speech on a tape-recorder. HORATIO To be, or not to be-- HAMLET Aye, there's the point. HORATIO To Die, to sleep... HAMLET Is that all? HORATIO Aye, all. HAMLET No, to sleep, to dream-- HORATIO Aye, mary, there it goes, For in that dream of death, when we awake, And borne before an everlasting Judge, From whence no passenger ever retur'nd, The undiscovered country, at whose sight The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd. HAMLET But for this, the joyful hope of this, Whol'd bear the scorns and flattery of the world, Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor? HORATIO The widow being oppressed, the orphan wrong'd, The taste of hunger, or a tyrant's reign, And thousand more calamities besides, To grunt and sweat under this weary life, When that he may his full Quietus make, With a bare bodkin-- HAMLET Who would this endure, But for a hope of something after death? HORATIO Which puzzles the brain, and doth confound the sense, Which makes us rather bear those evils we have, Than fly to others that we know not of. HAMLET Aye, that. O, this conscience makes cowards of us all.
Hamlet stops the recording, and Claudius strides onstage with his opening monologue.
In a later scene, Hamlet decides to listen to the recording. However, the supernatural decides to step in. The audio track below is what Hamlet hears from the tape recorder (sound design courtesy of the fantastic Jerrell Bowden). During the performance, Hamlet cradled the tape recorder and carried it into the center aisle of Farrah Hall 214: the Ghost’s voice quite literally walked amidst the audience.
(click to listen >>>>) (<<<< click to listen)
Since we didn’t get Hamlet’s responses on tape, I’ve included a portion of the script below. You’ll probably want to open the audio file in a new tab.
SCENE V. Enter HAMLET. Hamlet listens to tape-recorder. [voice-over] HORATIO To be, or not to be-- HAMLET Aye, there's the point. HORATIO To Die, to sleep... HAMLET Is that all? HORATIO Aye, all. HAMLET No, to sleep, to dream-- HORATIO Aye, mary, there it goes, For in that dream of death... Static. Ghost Mark me. HAMLET I will. Ghost My hour is almost come, When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames Must render up myself. HAMLET Alas, poor ghost! Ghost Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing To what I shall unfold. HAMLET Speak; I am bound to hear. Ghost So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear. HAMLET What? Ghost I am thy father's spirit. List, list, list! If thou didst ever thy dear father love-- HAMLET O God! Ghost Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. HAMLET Murder! Ghost Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and unnatural. HAMLET Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge. Ghost 'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father's life Now wears his crown. HAMLET O my prophetic soul! My uncle! Ghost Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast, With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,-- O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power So to seduce!--won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen: Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard, Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole, With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, And in the porches of my ears did pour The leperous distilment. Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd, No reckoning made, but sent to my account With all my imperfections on my head: O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible! Let not the royal bed of Denmark be A couch for luxury and damned incest. But, howsoever thou pursuest this act, Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge, To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once! Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.