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Brook's stated intention is "to prune away the inessential" in Hamlet and find "a myth" at the play's heart. This means he begins with a fundamental misunderstanding, since Hamlet is a work of poetry, and contains nothing inessential. Granted, we're uncertain of its exact contentsthis most complex of poetic texts poses notorious textual problems. We don't even know how much of the play Shakespeare actually wrote. What we do know, from the patchwork of editions that have melded over the centuries into a standard text with variants, is that Hamlet is an intricate and highly individual work, conforming less to a standard pattern than almost any other serious work in Western drama before Pirandello. Among plays that offer its degree of dramatic excitement, there's literally nothing like it.
To dig out the "myth" underlying Hamlet would be all too easy, since it's that of Orestes: the son's vengeance on his adulterous mother and her partner in crime, his father's murderer. But Shakespeare's Hamlet, a notoriously ineffectual avenger, was created to rebuke the myth. A philosophy student who wishes he could melt into dew and disappear, he has real doubts about living, let alone taking revenge, plus emotional ties to his mother that confuse him further. The Ghost warns himthough not in Brook's versionto leave her alone, but he can't help focusing on her, which links him to Oedipus as well as to Orestes.
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And Hamlet himself is only the key piece at the center of Shakespeare's elaborate structure, in which almost every other piece is held up to him for comparison at some point. Young Fortinbras, the unthinking warrior whose uncle sits on the throne of neighboring Norway, is the hero of a framing story; everything Hamlet isn't, he'll profit from Hamlet's confusion. Claudius, the drama's antagonist, is explicitly equated with Hamlet: the plague of doubt runs in the family. (Claudius's dirty politicsmake peace with Poland, then let the Norwegians invadeare echoed by Hamlet's lethal trick on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.) Most daringly, Shakespeare made Hamlet's love the center of Hamlet's subplot: Ophelia, too, doubts and hesitates, and is dominated by two parental figures. Once she's dead, Laertes catapults up into the main plotanother antagonist and still another parallel to Hamletto his own cost, since his poisonous trick, like Claudius's, backfires.
Laertes, dying, famously uses the same image that Polonius, in one of the many scenes Brook deletes, has previously applied to Hamlet's letters to Ophelia. Cutting Hamlet is a ticklish task because the play's substance is embedded in its twisting use of "words, words, words." Almost every significant line in the first half, like Polonius's "springes to catch woodcocks," turns up in an altered context later. The strings of linked images embroidered through the text are startlingly un-lofty. Rotting flesh and the parasites that feed on it recur most frequently. Identity is the central question: What are humans, that they should live like this and then turn into worm-food? Brook's version begins and ends with the play's opening line, "Who's there?," directed at the audience. But Shakespeare gives the line a context: It's addressedimproperlyby the guard coming on watch to the one he's relieving, who immediately rebukes him. The play concludes, not with the same abstract question, but with a grosser military misunderstanding: a royal cannon salute in memory of the un-soldierly and un-royal Hamlet.
Brook is oblivious to the play's overarching irony, just as he is to the way it lives in language. As with his previous diminution of Carmen, he's taken a work that had acquired mythic status only through its individuality and tried to turn it, reductively, into a generalization. The process worked better with Carmen, which needed to shed the excess weight acquired in a century of opera-house Schlamperei. But Hamlet's tradition, shredded over recent decades, is worm-food itself; the work no longer needs anything but sustained clarity to make it live again. Even in terms of boiling it down to its essence, Brook's focus seems uncertain. On a nearly bare square of glaring orange carpet, he runs through a set of excerpts that only dimly convey any overriding purpose. Some seem chosen to keep Hamlet's point of view central, some purely to give actors their standard showpieces. Nor is Brook, whose comic sense has always been fairly lame, above a self-conscious jokiness that deflects viewers from both play and myth. His smarmiest jokesticking "the morn in russet mantle clad" at the very endnearly destroys everything that precedes it.