I rarely watch television these days, because I find that the majority of the things they broadcast are dangerous.
As food for the mind, they tend to please rather than to nourish. Imagine a diet of little beside cookies and ice cream. That's what much of television can do for your ability to think.
April 23 is the traditional date for the birthday of William Shakespeare, and the Public Broadcasting System took advantage of that anniversary to present some real food for mind and soul - a recent production from the wonderful Royal Shakespeare Company, at Shakespeare's home town of Stratford-upon-Avon.
All of theater is a kind of marketing, and the recent PBS presentation combined two of the most common baits for popular sales: The play presented was ''Hamlet,'' which is one of the most frequently performed and studied plays of any era or any country. One expert I consulted believed that only ''Cinderella'' has been more frequently filmed. The second believes in casting popular actors from regular television, who attract their fans to watch whatever they might perform.
This production featured two ''stars,'' although only one of them might be familiar to American audiences. Sir Patrick Stewart is probably best known for his role as Jean-Luc Picard, in one of the many ''Star Trek'' series. He portrayed Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and the presumed murderer of Hamlet's father.
Better known in Britain, but less so in the U.S. is Scottish-born actor David Tennant, who for several years has portrayed the title role in the ''Doctor Who'' series, about an immortal time traveler who deals with creatures from outer space and from other dimensions. Americans who know him probably watch the ''Dr. Who'' series on the BBC America channel, or remember him as Barty Crouch, Jr., in the ''Harry Potter'' films.
I'd like to talk with you a bit about this particular production of the play, then about the play itself:
THE PBS HAMLET
A good piece of literature is like a fertile patch of soil. It can produce anything from a mighty oak tree to a tasty strawberry to a fragile lily.
This production of ''Hamlet'' was directed by Gregory Doran, and was originally performed at England's Stratford, in 2008, where it was very popular. Research indicates that Tennant was out of the cast for quite some time, due to a back injury, with his role performed by Edward Bennett, who portrays Laertes in the film.
The production was filmed by the BBC in 2009, after Tennant returned to the cast, although it isn't a direct filming of the original production. The audience of a play can usually see the action from only one point of view, while a film crew can show the action from a distance or from above, or focus directly on an actor's face. A film can show an entire room, while on stage, you typically will see only one side of the room, etc.
The BBC broadcast the film on Dec. 26, 2009, and it was a great success, so it was acquired for broadcast by PBS, who broadcast it on April 28, 2010, shortly after Shakespeare's birthday. Locally, it was shown on WNED, the Buffalo outlet of PBS.
Doran has set the action in the modern day. He employs contemporary technology, such as the use of guns and security cameras, to make the play's actions more relevant to the modern audience. It doesn't hurt to remember that Shakespeare also set the action in his own present day, not in 12th Century Denmark, so it is not unnatural to play with the setting.
The play is usually reported to have been written in the year 1600, give or take a year or two. Shakespeare never typed his script up for publication, and different actors who had performed the play wrote down their memories of their own lines and those of their colleagues, with the result that there are several different ''original'' versions of the play. Directors who choose to use every word and every action of every script will find themselves dealing with more than four hours worth of performance.
Doran trimmed the play down to three hours for this version.
The play was filmed entirely in a studio. Scenes such as the battlements of the castle, where the ghost of Hamlet's father first appears, and the graveyard where Ophelia is laid to rest, are presented indoors, portraying their stated settings.
Doran has chosen to use his most famous actor, Patrick Stewart, to portray both the play's king, Claudius, and the previous king, Hamlet's father. His logic is that the two characters are brothers, and would, therefore, look alike.
In my opinion, though, it doesn't work. In one of the play's most central scenes, Hamlet holds up pictures of the dead king and the current one and asks how anyone could accept going from one picture to the other, which is absurd, if the pictures are the same.
One of the great strengths of the BBC production is that sometimes our viewing of the action shifts from live action to a black-and-white image with markings on it, such as we might see on a security video. Just before Hamlet delivers one of his classic soliloquies, he proclaims ''Now I am alone.''
Doran has Tennant reach up and destroy a security camera, and then say, ''Now I am alone.'' It resonates with a modern audience who understands the pressure of perpetual observation, intruding into every facet of our lives.
''Hamlet'' is filled with plays, within plays, within plays. It begins with ourselves, the audience, watching the guards on the castle battlements, who are watching the ghost of Hamlet's father. Later, we watch Hamlet, as he watches his mother and her husband, as they watch the play he has presented to them, ''The Murder of Gonzago.'' There are many more such examples.
The sense of perpetual spying and betrayal of people's lives and private thoughts is a running theme, for the entire play, and the cameras beautifully enhance that theme for the modern audience.
Although you may have missed the broadcast of the production, you can wait for it to be re-broadcast, which is likely, or you can watch the entire production at your leisure by taking your computer to www.pbs.org/gperf.
THE PLAY, ITSELF
I can't imagine that any other work of literature has inspired more people to weigh in on where it comes from and what it means.
Let me give you a quick run-through of the plot, in case you haven't been fortunate enough to have read and studied it, or if you encountered it so long ago that your memory isn't fresh. If you know it all, already, skip down a few paragraphs.
The play begins up on the walls of Elsinore Castle, which is located in Denmark. Soldiers on patrol have seen a ghost which looks exactly like their former king, who has recently died. They eventually fetch Prince Hamlet, the son of the dead king, (also named Hamlet) who recognizes the ghost as his father's spirit. The ghost claims that he was murdered by his own brother, Claudius, who married his late brother's widow within a month of his death, and now wears the crown of Denmark.
Hamlet undertakes an investigation, to determine if the ghost is to be believed - it might be an evil spirit, sent to tempt him into performing a murder. He hires a troupe of traveling actors to perform a play, in which a ruler is murdered in exactly the same way that the ghost claims he was killed, and he watches his mother's and his uncle's reactions, to see if they will betray guilt. In most versions, the queen is unaffected by the play, while Claudius jumps up and orders the play to be stopped.
Hamlet now believes he is duty-bound to avenge his father by killing Claudius. However, Claudius has begun to suspect Hamlet, even though he has already named his nephew and step-son as his heir to the throne.
Hamlet has been away at the University of Wittenburg, in Germany, until called home for his father's funeral. Before leaving, he had something of a relationship with Ophelia, the daughter of the chief advisor to the king. Her family has advised her that a prince may not choose his own wife, and that if she becomes involved with Hamlet, she will destroy her own hopes of a successful marriage.
When Hamlet begins acting strangely, though, her father and the king convince her to confront Hamlet, while they watch from a hiding place. They also convince two of his childhood friends, named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to ''sound him out,'' and see what's bothering him.
Eventually, Hamlet feels he has been betrayed by his uncle, by his mother, who married his uncle, by his girlfriend and his buddies who are spying on him, and by the country, which has chosen Claudius as king, when Hamlet thought he, himself, should follow his father.
Eventually, the king convinces Ophelia's brother, Laertes, to kill Hamlet by participating in a fencing match with him, in which Laertes' sword is not blunted, as the sport requires, and furthermore, the point is smeared with a deadly poison which will kill anyone who is scratched by the blade. As a back-up, the king prepares a goblet of poisoned wine, in case Laertes is unable to scratch Hamlet.
Eventually, Hamlet is killed by the poisoned weapon, but he kills Laertes with it as well. Dying, Laertes blurts out the plot and accuses the king, and Hamlet turns the foil against Claudius as well. The queen, meanwhile, has offered to drink a toast to her son's skill, and ends up collateral damage to her husband's plotting.
There is a great deal of evidence that there was an earlier play on the same plot. That earlier version is usually described as ''The Ur-Hamlet.'' A few writers have claimed that it was Shakespeare's own play in an earlier form, and it seems to have been treated as something of a joke in the late 16th century.
Marjorie Garber in her brilliant volume ''Shakespeare After All,'' offers proof that the ghost in the older play cried ''Revenge, Hamlet'' so often and so loudly, that it became common in 15th Century England, that if someone accidentally stepped on someone's toe or spilled something on the tablecloth, people would yell out ''Revenge, Hamlet,'' in the impassioned accents used by the actors, after which everyone would laugh.
There are as many interpretations of the play as there are people who have made a serious attempt to read it or watch it performed. One important element is the difference between what seems to be and what actually is true. The PBS ''Hamlet'' frequently uses mirrors and two-way mirrors as well as the already-mentioned surveillance cameras, to create a separate image from the real thing.
When Ophelia's father is killed by Hamlet, who thinks he is killing the king, he is usually stabbed with a sword or a knife, through a curtain, behind which he is hiding. In this version, he is shot, through the glass of a two-way mirror, which shatters into pieces, each reflecting a slightly different version of what is happening in front of them.
Actor Laurence Olivier made a film of the play, in which he introduced two elements which have been employed in nearly every film since. First, the play uses four different soliloquies, in which the prince speaks his thoughts aloud, so the audience can know what he's thinking at that point in the play. Olivier recorded the words of the soliloquies, and the audience hears them, while the actor doesn't speak, to strengthen the audience's understanding that they're hearing thoughts. In this version, Tennant speaks the speeches himself, not in recording.
Second, Olivier suggests an inappropriate relationship or potential relationship, between Hamlet and his mother, offering a Freudian partial explanation for the degree of agitation under which everyone is working. Doran and Tarrant don't play that element up, although a poisoned sword and a poisoned cup are Freudian enough, if you're into symbols.
The actors in this version do a creditable job. Stewart succeeds in looking regal while proving himself treacherous. Tarrant is approximately 40 years old, which I think distorts the character he is playing, who is a university student. Nonetheless, he isn't just a famous name, brought in to sell some tickets. His acting is most creditable.
He has huge eyes, which he bugs out at us or turns into the sad puppy look, whenever it suits the play, and his chin and cheeks are unusually thin, which causes him to purse his lips often as he speaks, which adds a comic aspect to what he is saying.
Freud thought Hamlet was stymied in his plans to kill Claudius by the fact that he, himself, was attracted to his mother, and therefore recognized his uncle's murder of his father as his own sin, reflected back at him.
Sarah Bernhardt believed that Hamlet was actually a woman, disguised by Hamlet, Sr. and his wife as a son, because only men could inherit the Danish crown in those days, and they needed a legitimate heir.
Some experts believe that Hamlet was truly mad through most of the play, while others believe he was only pretending to be insane, to mask his investigation of the king.
Like fertile soil which can produce hundreds of kinds of plants, a wonderful play like ''Hamlet'' can support the thinking of hundreds of serious readers. With a bit of energy, you can become one of them.