A Hard Dane’s Night

In Search of the Perfect Hamlet (Or Just a Good One)

Most impressive of all, Bergman never tried to rescue us from the play's fundamental state of metaphysical doubt. If Sophocles' Oedipus is a parable about the limits of human understanding, then Hamlet is a paradigm of modern consciousness sentenced to uncertainty despite all its impressive learning. "Who's there?" is the opening line of the play, and few directors have Shakespeare's unsentimental capacity to admit that the question is unanswerable. Bergman had it, and he demonstrated it in the relentless questioning of Hamlet's plight. Is violent revenge ever morally justifiable? How can one trust the validity of occult signs and injunctions? Confronted by the pervasiveness of death and disorder, how can dignity and honor be maintained?

It is because of these enduring conundrums that Hazlitt thought the reality of the play lies not in performance but "in the reader's mind." "It is we who are Hamlet," he observes, a notion far less self-flattering than Coleridge's "I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so." And though our intellectual and moral sensibilities seem paltry when placed beside a character endowed with Shakespeare's encompassing genius, we follow Hamlet's lead into the dark. The text is a road map of uncharted human territory. Brook's and Caird's handling may not take us very far into the mystery. But at least Bergman reassures us that theater at its unshackled best can set us nobly on our tragic way.

Illustration by Jeff Crosby

Ingmar Bergman returns to BAM June 20 through 24, directing the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden's production of Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata.

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