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Hamlet

As Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Kent Thompson shows us, the most famous play ever written requires little or no adornment to succeed. Set in what appears to be the early 20th century, during European royalty's last hurrah, Thompson's production uses no scenery to speak of, other than a static scaffold, and minimal props. The effect, as it should be, focuses on character and action. The relatively modern setting also allows for a more naturalistic approach to scansion and language.

Aubrey Deeker as Hamlet
Aubrey Deeker as Hamlet
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Aubrey Deeker's performance in the title role is stunning and non-ambiguous. Despite all the drivel in the program guide and accompanying educational materials1 that fail to provide intelligible explanations for playwright's motives and context for the play, the production itself unfolds with a strong throughline in which Hamlet—a highly sensitive, intelligent, clever, and motivated young man—uses his talent to revenge his father's murder.

Once Hamlet learns from his father's ghost (John Hutton) that his uncle committed the foul deed, all of the prince's relationships are clouded by this knowledge, and in short order he makes a series of decisions to clear the obstacles from his path: First, despite Hamlet's love-hate relationship with Polonius (Sam Gregory), chief counsellor to the crown, he has, up until his father's murder, courted Polonius' daughter, Ophelia (Amelia Pedlow). But immediately following the famous decision-making speech ("To be or not to be ..."), Hamlet begins to untether himself from Ophelia, despite his conflicted feelings, so that she will not grieve if he loses his life in the process of taking care of business. This disengagement is exascerbated when he realizes that his encounter with Ophelia is being spied upon. Overhearing Hamlet's disparaging remarks to Ophelia, Claudius tells Polonius that Hamlet is not in love with her and that he, the King, is going to send Hamlet to England (with Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern).

To truly understand where the plot details vary from the original source materials, it is necessary to understand that this play is the most autobiographical play in the entire canon. And while, in their zeal to protect their longstanding academic theses or festival branding, those who support a Stratford grain dealer turned actor and script thief as the playwright have shown themselves willing to murder Elizabethan context and timelines, and suppress evidence—to further a biography devoid of facts—we shall have none of it.

Edward de Vere lost his father at age 12 and subsequently became a ward of the state under the guardianship of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I's chief of state. Many of de Vere's ancestral properties were tendered to Sir Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, by Burghley. De Vere's mother remarried in short order and remained remote from her son. These relationships and events (among others) are evident in the play, as Hamlet's inheritance is usurped by Claudius (Peter Simon Hilton), who marries his mother, Gertrude (Kathleen McCall), before any respectable grieving process has ensued.

Sam Gregory as Polonius
Sam Gregory as Polonius
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Gregory has great fun with the pompous, self-annotating Polonius (modeled on Burghley), including his punctilious recitation of Burghley's famous precepts—"To thine own self be true ...", "Neither a borrower nor a lender be ...", etc.—as part of his effort to get his profligate son Laertes (modeled on Thomas Cecil) to straighten up, as well as to further his hopeful efforts to get his daughter Ophelia (modeled on Anne Cecil) married to Hamlet (de Vere),2 and figure out what Hamlet is up to by spying on him (which Burghley did to de Vere). When Hamlet eventually stabs the "old fool," who was hiding behind the curtain in Gertrude's suite, this is pure fantasy fulfillment for de Vere (given his history with Burghley). When de Vere came of age, he married Anne. While their relationship was not without some fondness for a time, Ophelia means "profit" and/or "indebtedness" in Greek. Burghley promised de Vere a dowry of £15,000 (four to six million dollars today).

Kathleen McCall as Gertrude and Peter Simon Hilton as Claudius
Kathleen McCall as Gertrude
and Peter Simon Hilton as Claudius
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Hilton's Claudius is marvelously two-faced, at once the model of a new husband with the best interests of his step-son at heart and, in the privacy of his own quarters, an admitted murderer (regicide) who gives orders for Hamlet's death as well. McCall's Gertrude is sincerely confused by her son's behavior, since she has no clue that Claudius (her former brother-in-law and now husband) killed her former husband, despite Hamlet's forceful criticism. When Hamlet interacts with his father's ghost, she thinks him mad, and remains oblivious (despite her growing anger towards Claudius) up until she drinks from the chalice poisoned by Claudius. Hutton's characterization of the ghost is imperial, detailed, and persuasive.

Aubrey Deeker as Hamlet and Amelia Pedlow as Ophelia
Aubrey Deeker as Hamlet
and Amelia Pedlow as Ophelia
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Pedlow's Ophelia is sweet and captivating, in spite of the manipulation she suffers at Polonius' and Hamlet's hands. After Hamlet has rejected her and she learns that he has killed her father, Pedlow's characterization is a remarkable confluence of grief and madness, with a dash of calculation.

(Left to right) Aubrey Deeker as Hamlet and Jacob H. Knoll as Laertes
(L to R) Aubrey Deeker as Hamlet
and Jacob H. Knoll as Laertes
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
As he did with so many of his plays, de Vere worked from the original sources—in this case the Hamlet myth ("Amleth")—while adding biographical details and plot dynamics to improve the drama. In this script, once Claudius is slain, de Vere abandons the "Amleth" storyline and borrows from "Beowulf": "It is Beowulf who fights the mortal duel with poison and sword, turns to his loyal comrade to recite a dying appeal to carry his name and cause forward, and dramatizes a succession struggle brought on by an invading nation."3 It's worth noting that the only known copy of Beowulf was in the library of Cecil House. It was signed out to one of de Vere's tutors, Thomas Nowell, in 1563.

Poison is also a factor in the death of Hamlet's father, whose ghost tells his son that Claudius poured poison into his ear. Later, "to catch the conscience of the king," Hamlet asks the players to perform from Gonzaga, where a similar murder is enacted. De Vere became familiar with this story when visiting Italy to pay his respects to Baldisare Castiglione, whose book The Courtier served as de Vere's code of noble conduct, including the use of pen names to mask his identity. Gonzaga, a cousin of Castiglione, murdered the Duke of Orbino by such means. Nice work by Hutton as the lst Player responding to Hamlet's acting instructions, layering a naturalistic manner over the period style. As a young man, de Vere was an actor, and knew of what he was speaking. Shortly thereafter, Hamlet sees through Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern's act and, after this, curbs his intent to murder Claudius, when he finds the King praying, so as not to send his father's murderer to heaven. Deeker's Hamlet is so wonderfully lucid, showing the depth of Hamlet's enmity for Claudius.

Aubrey Deeker as Hamlet
Aubrey Deeker as Hamlet
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
The biographic details in de Vere's masterwork are quite granular; for example, when certain, non-contextual interpretations tell us that Hamlet is mad when he calls Polonius a "fishmonger." But Burghley was responsible for an Act of Parliament that ordered citizens to eat fish on Wednesdays ("Cecil's Fast," it was called). This was Burghley's way of beefing up England's fleet. So, in fact, Hamlet's use of this term mocks Polonius—i.e., Polonius is correct when he says there is method in Hamlet's "madness."

The playwright's choice of setting was undoubtedly a result of the tales brought back to court by his (de Vere's) brother-in-law Peregrine Bertie (Lord Willoughby), who spent five months at Elsinore castle, as Elizabeth's ambassador. Additional details in Hamlet from Bertie's account include the pecular Danish ritual of discharging volleys during the toasts, noted by Claudius. Bertie also visited Tycho Brahe during his stay in Denmark, and learned of the supernova in Cassiopeia, which the guards discuss. Astronomical language from Brahe via Bertie makes its way into the canon: Claudius uses "retrograde to our desire," "peevish opposition," and "conjunctive to his soul"; Bertie also met courtiers named Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern.

(Left to right) Anthony Bianco as Greavedigger's helper and Philip Pleasants as a Gravedigger
(L to R) Anthony Bianco as Greavedigger's helper
and Philip Pleasants as a Gravedigger
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
In the famous gravediggers scene, where Hamlet contemplates a skull, Yorick is based on Will Somers, a famous royal jester that de Vere had known in childhood and who had died 23 years prior to 1583 (as the gravedigger explains), when de Vere began writing Hamlet. The gravediggers' arguments regarding the dubious nullification of Anne's suicide are derived from a combination of a legal case studied by de Vere at Gray's Inn (Hales v. Petit), plus his own experience and legal entanglement when he was 17-years old and charged with murdering a servant during a fencing exercise. Philip Pleasants' gravedigger is a wonder of tombstone wit and philosophy.

Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg and wonders about Giordano Bruno's theories on the nature of the universe, infinity, and elementary particles, which de Vere heard directly from Bruno at a series of Oxford lectures.

(Left to right) John Hutton as the Ghost and Aubrey Deeker as Hamlet
(L to R) John Hutton as the Ghost
and Aubrey Deeker as Hamlet
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
When Hamlet boards a ship, witnesses Fortenbras' troops (modeled on an encounter between de Vere and the Teutonic Duke Jan Casimir), has his ship boarded by pirates, and is left naked and humiliated on the shore, he is recounting actual events in his own travels to the continent. Benjamin Bonenfant's commanding Fortenbras redeems Hamlet, in a swift and strategically blocked finale. Coupled with Hamlet's appeal to Horatio, this final scene serves as another of the playwright's appeals at having his (true) name remembered.4 "The rest is silence."

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Hamlet runs through February 23rd. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows



Footnotes:

1 Some examples of how Stratfordian arguments are based on nonsense:

1. In the program guide, former theatre reviewer and now University of Minnesota J-School teacher writes: "But his (Thompson's) basic question ("What's going on here?") goes deeper and has been debated almost since Hamlet opened at the Globe Theatre—a date we don't have (1603 maybe?)." That is the whole point with the Stratford case: there are no facts. The argument is all "If, if, if, if, if, if, then maybe Stratford is the playwright"6 (as illustrated in the study guide, where the conventional biography on page 4 willingly admits the whole chronology and most of the details are all speculation). Many if not all of the plays were FIRST produced at court, usually under different titles and only later performed on the public stage (often after some rewriting). One must distinguish between the quartos which note that they have been updated and the quartos which the Stratford man filched. If you don't believe he was a thief, please read Ben Jonson's poem, "The Poet Ape" (below) in which he details the Stratford man's behavior. We also have new evidence that the Stratford grain dealer was prosecuted for hoarding grain during a time of shortage (1598) and was also pursued for tax evasion. This new evidence also proves the desparate attempts by Stratfordian to show that the grain riots referenced in Coriolanus, I, i, 67-74, as being after de Vere's death in 1604, are pure bunk.

My favorite Stratfordian gobbledygook (repeated in the program guide) is the contention that Hamlet was written in honor of the Stratford man's son Hamnet, who died at age 11. Yes, this makes perfect sense, since, as forensic handwriting experts have opined, the Stratford man was not familiar with writing his own name, meaning he was illiterate. So, naturally, he would misspell his own son's name on his way to writing one of the world's most eloquent works. Of course, the Stratfordians have a retort for this: there were no dictionaries at the time, so "misspellings" were common. Yes, that's true for those who barely knew how to write, but for the literati, spelling was generally consistent and handwriting was LEGIBLE, unlike the Stratford man's "chicken scratchings," as Mark Twain called them. Oh, and did we mention that Hamlet is based on the Scandanavian tale "Amleth," not on the adventures of Hamnet?

2. In the study guide for the play, we are told that Robert Greene's famous quote (in his Groatsworth's of Wit) regarding the Stratford man was penned in jealousy: "—an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, it is his own conceit the only Shakescene in the country."

As Mark Anderson notes, "A closer reading of Groatsworth, however, discredits Shakspere as a writer of any capacity. In Aesop's Fables, the crow was a figure that disguised itself in the plumage of other birds. A "Johannes factotum" in sixteenth century usage was a braggart and vainglorious dilettante. And according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Elizabethans often used the word suppose to mean, "To feign, pretend; occasionally, to forge." Shakspere, Greene's Groatsworth suggests, was actually an imposter." (Mark Anderson, "'Shakespeare' by Another Name," Gotham Books, New York, 2005, pp.317-8)

This is essentially the same thing that Jonson says in "The Poet Ape":

Poor "poet-ape," that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are even the frippery of wit,
From brokage [brokerage] is become so bold a thief
As we, the robbed, leave rage and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion [revision] of old plays. Now grown
To a little wealth and credit in the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man's wit his own.
And told of this, he slights it. "Tut, such crimes
The sluggish, gaping auditor devours;
He marks not whose 'twas first, and aftertimes
May judge it to be his, as well as ours."
   Fool! As if half-eyes will not know a fleece
   From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.

What Greene and Jonson are saying has nothing to do with jealousy, as Stratfordians contend. They are maligning a thief.

2 William Cecil was a commoner who saw advancement in marrying his daughter into one of the oldest Earldoms in England. Later, he became only one of two men elevated to the peerage during Elizabeth's half-century reign.

3 Op. Cit., Anderson, p. 23.

4

My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
--Sonnet 72

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
--Romeo and Juliet, II, ii, 1-2

Ben Jonson's comments to the readers of the 1623 first folio:

Reader, look not on his picture, but his book.
Thou are a monument, without a tombe,
And art alive still, while thy book doth live ...

Cover page to Richard III (circa 1594) comes with variations of "Willi ... Sh ... Sh ... Shak ... will Shak ... Shakespe ... Shakspeare ... Shake-speare7 ... william ... William Shakespeare ... William Shakespeare" in the margins.

... my name receives a brand
--Sonnet 111

6 For example, the noted orthodox Shakespearean scholar Sir Sydney Lee wrote that that "The phraseology of Golding's translation (of Ovid's "Metamorphoses") so frequently appears in Shakespeare's page ... as almost to compel conviction that Shakespeare knew much of Golding's translation by heart." (Op. Cit., Anderson, p. 27). Lee wrote this at a time before the authorship question had been properly researched. The Stratfordian argument regarding Lee's observation goes like this:

If Stratford went to school,
if Stratford stayed in school after his father ran into financial difficulties,
if Stratford stayed in school long enough to learn Latin,
if Stratford stayed in school long enough to become a Latin scholar,
if Stratford had access to Golding's translation (Stratford's last will and testament mentions no books or theatrical properties), and
if Stratford had access to Golding's translation long enough to memorize its contents,
then maybe he is "Shakespeare."

For de Vere, the argument runs like this:
Arthur Golding was de Vere's uncle. He tutored the boy for two hours a day for two years and involved him in the actual translation. This is why all 15 books of the "Metamorphoses" are referenced in the canon.

And so it goes with the rest of the Stratford mythology versus the de Vere biography: "If, if, if, if, if, if, then ..." versus "1 + 1 = 2."

7 This early form of the playwright's pen name plays a key role in understanding many of the references to "Shake-speare" and "Shakespeare" in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Golden Age of pseudonyms, when "almost every writer used a pseudonym at some time during his career," according to literary historians Archer Taylor and Frederic J. Mosher (Op. Cit., Anderson, xxviii); for example:

Martin Mar-prelate, an anti-Anglican pamphleteer
Cuthbert Curry-knave, satirist
Tom Tell-Truth, polemicist

The pseudonym "Shake-speare" importunes Athena, divine protectress of learning and arts, who was born from the head of Zeus, fully armed, shaking a speare (Minera is the Roman equivalent), as well as de Vere's coat-of-arms and his hereditary role as overseer of the sword-of-state, to wit:

In 1592, Thomas Nashe, one of de Vere's literary acquaintances, wrote a poem to "Will Monox" (Will, mon [my] ox [Oxford]): "... has thou never heard of him and his great dagger?"—that is, the massive sword. This was the first public association of de Vere with "Will."

In the same year, Nashe says "Pierce Penniless" (the bankrupt "speare") is the author of Venus and Adonis. (Nashe is Moth in Love's Labor's Lost) In 1593 (age 43), de Vere ceased publishing under his own name, the same year that the name William Shake-speare first appears, as the author of the epic poem Venus and Adonis. (Michael Satchell, "Hunting for good Will," US News & World Report, July 31, 2000, pp. 71-72.) Thereafter, the hyphen begins to appear in publications of the plays (1598) and poems. Before 1598, all plays are published anonymously.

Other references to de Vere as the playwright include:

  • 1578, Gabriel Harvey (Holofernes in Love's Labor's Lost), a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, praises the Earl of Oxford (in Latin) with the words "Thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes a spear."

  • 1589, De Vere was a courtly poet and playwright who, as noted in The Art of English Poesie, would be recognized as perhaps the finest of his age "if [his] doing could be found out and made public with the rest."

  • 1589, George Puttenham writes, "... I know many notable gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it: as if it were a discredit for a gentleman, to seem learned."

  • 1598, Francis Meres writes in Palladis Tamia, "Noblemen and Gentlemen of Her Majesty's own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford." And "... the best for Comedy among us be Edward Earl of Oxford." Further, this book specifically addresses poets with pen names.

  • 1615, Richard Brathwait pens Strappado for the Devil:
  • Yea, this I know I may be bold to say,
    Thames ne'er had swans that sung more sweet than they.
    It's true I may avow it, that ne'er was sung.
    Chanted in any age by swains so young,
    With more delight than was perform'd by them,
    Prettily shadow'd in a borrowed name.
    And long may England's thespian springs be known.

    Translation: Let me tell you, London never saw writers more gifted than the ones I saw during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. And never were there more delightful plays than the ones performed by youth whose author wrote under a borrowed name.

  • Circa 1650, John Ward, a vicar from Stratford-on-Avon recorded in his private diary, "I have heard that Mr. Shakespeare ... supplied the stage with 2 plays every year and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of £1,000 pounds a year ..."
  • Yes, de Vere was awarded the second highest annual stipend on Elizabeth's list (only James of Scotland, who followed her on the throne received more) to write the history plays. The Stratford man's estate never exceeded £350. Stratfordians are thus clueless when it comes to Antiphalus of Ephedus' comment in A Comedy of Errors: "A thousand pounds a year, I buy a rope."

    The reviewer gratefully acknowledges the research and scholarship of:

  • Mark Anderson, "'Shakespeare' by Another Name," Gotham Books, New York, 2005.

  • Charlton Ogburn, "The Mysterious William Shakespeare—The Myth & the Reality, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1984.
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