Hamlet: Poem Unlimited
by R. Paul Sardanas
January 22, 2012 – On the Opening of “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited”
The first in this series of Shakespeare Online Against Abuse productions, “Othello Falling”, came to a close in
late 2011, and I was strongly moved to continue the effort of writing and performing as a means to combat abuse
in our society. The adaptation of Othello, which I performed along with the gifted spoken word poet and
photographic artist Jaeda DeWalt, was conceived as a means to use classic storytelling to illuminate some of the
ways that abuse happens in relationships. As the tragedy of Othello and Desdemona unfolded through the
fifteen weeks of production, we delved deeply into the dynamics of relationships torn with suspicion, doubt,
miscommunication, anger, and ultimately violence. Crafting the text of the play into a performance format for two
people was a great challenge, but a satisfying one. We were able to explore the psyches and emotions, the
drives and flaws and obsessions in these characters in way that I hoped could bring catharsis to couples caught
in cycles of pain and violence here in the present day.
With the end of “Othello Falling”, the published play-in-poetry (Gromagon Press, December 2011) went on sale,
with all proceeds donated to an organization called Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA), where safe haven
programs are available for women and children trying to work free from abuse environments in their lives.
But the struggle against abuse did not end with the lowering of the curtain on a play. It continues, all around us,
every day. And so I determined to continue this benefit, adapting and presenting more Shakespeare with a hope
to entertain and enlighten, but also continue shining the bright light of the creative arts into the dark and lonely
and painful world of those suffering from abuse.
Choosing “Hamlet” for the next production seemed a natural progression. In many ways this play has, like no
other, displayed how violence can become rooted into families—how ambition, deceit, self-interest, and tragic
inability to communicate can cause frightening damage to lives.
For this production, more than just one man and woman are cast into the spotlight of tragedy. So I am
immensely gratified to welcome three co-performers: David Cuccia as Horatio, Kristaline Shanon as Gertrude,
and Di Niven as Ophelia. They are three of my dearest friends, and are powerful creators in their own right. In a
way their presence is a statement of how families can also be healing and supportive: they are in many respects
my own chosen family, and we have crafted a circle together of love and respect that is the polar opposite of the
destructive relationships within “Hamlet”.
Together our goal is to dig deep into the dynamics of a family gone dark; lost in cycles of hurt that mirror, sadly,
many damaged families in society around us. I hope that our audience sees in the moments of pain and choice
and emotional wreckage that the play embodies, choices of a different nature: ones that might have averted
tragedy, and might avert it in our own lives.
January 22, 2012
Hamlet is a play brim-full with characters. That diversity allows a remarkably broad exploration of the themes of
revenge, despair, ambition, and thwarted hope that mark the play. But for this production, I wanted to take more
time with a smaller circle of the principal characters. My aim is dig into the family dynamics of the royals of
Elsinore, to illustrate the ways that families can inflict hurt on one another, precipitating what can be generational
cycles of abuse.
To that end, I chose (aside from Hamlet himself of course), the three characters that I felt truly loved the tragic
Prince of Denmark. Real life rarely has in it the blackest of villains to perpetrate violence and emotional damage;
instead, people who might readily express, sincerely, their love for one another, become enmeshed in behaviors
that leave all involved scarred, confused, and bleeding from the soul. So my focus for the unfolding of “Hamlet:
Poem Unlimited”, is on Hamlet, his friend Horatio, his mother Gertrude, and his lover Ophelia (pictured below as
they appeared in the fine Kenneth Branagh film of the play -- and below those, by myself, David Cuccia,
Kristaline Shanon, and Di Niven).
I read the play itself over and over, doing what readers and players have done for centuries: trying to find the
heart of these characters…reading between their lines to try and learn about the individuals they are. Hamlet
himself has been portrayed along a wild spectrum of characterization, often in tune with the psychological
fashions of the day. From a vengeful warrior-son to an introspective and ineffectual personality. Hero and Anti-
hero. For my own Hamlet, I decided to attempt a complex mix of thoughtful, cynical (yet with moments of stubborn
and lingering hope); haunted by a domineering father; intensely intelligent. His madness, which clearly begins in
the play as a device to expose his murderous uncle, infects him more and more as he reels from perceived
betrayals, rank dishonesty, and violent ambition all around him. Horatio is steady and perceptive, loyal and
caring. And there is more to him than that: he is a man who recognizes hypocrisy and will take no part in it. His
devoted friendship to Hamlet is often the Prince's one anchor to sanity. Queen Gertrude has been played many
ways, from the matronly to the Oedipal, but I saw in Gertrude a remarkable capacity for love, along with
possessing what Kristaline Shanon, who plays her in this presentation, called a significant “boy confusion”. To
my mind she had no part or knowledge in the acts that ended the life of her first husband, Hamlet’s father.
Ophelia has been portrayed very poignantly over the centuries, and in fact her name has become a catchword
in psychology for a vulnerable young woman who becomes irreparably damaged by the destructive actions of
her loved ones. But I see Ophelia differently. A more fiery spirit—how could she not be to love the mercurial
outsider, Hamlet?—and one closer to madness even than Hamlet himself. In a way I think of Ophelia as braver
than Hamlet; while he plays with madness and slips back and forth across its boundaries, she half-longs for the
insanity that might free her from being stifled and suffocated by her father and brother, and the petty
shallowness of life at court.
I am so deeply gratified, now in the third week of the presentation of “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited”, to see how these
characters have grown even beyond this conception through the performances of David, Kristaline and Di. Such
subtle nuances they have brought to the roles, bringing the force and grace of their own personalities into that
of the characters.
Hamlet is a tragedy, as all hurt and abuse is tragic. It is difficult to steer these four characters, all of which, I
believe, have longing and perceptive souls, into the wreckage of lives that lies in store for them. But there is
hope: if not for Hamlet and his family, then for those who might recognize in the ruins of these fictional lives ways
to reclaim their own.
February 19, 2012
David, Kristaline, Di and I have progressed far into Act Two, an act which I think many who view the play struggle
with, as a dizzying array of figures are brought onstage, all with plot-and-counterplot, action and counter-action
circling around them. But when taken in the context of a family in crisis, this is both apt and accurate to illustrate
how the dynamics of relationships can go so far wrong.
In essence, it is a careening vehicle with too many people at the wheel, and no one at the wheel. Each feels they
are acting in a way to resolve pain or trouble, and yet being unsure, they turn to one another in semi-blindness
for validation or assistance in these solutions. The result? Everything goes wrong, on virtually every level.
When this happens in a real life family, pain and confusion is scattered everywhere. Sometimes, as in Hamlet,
there is an act of violence or betrayal (Claudius’ murder of his brother to claim the throne of Denmark), and that
sets in motion a chain of events, actions and emotions that all others in the family must attempt to cope with.
Acts of abuse in real-life families are no less devastating than the premeditated death that drives the action of
Hamlet. The abuser devastates not only his specific victim, but everyone who loves that victim. Attempts to deny
the abuse, cover it up, or to cling desperately to a hope that somehow by keeping silent everything will be all
right, invariably end in disaster.
In the play, Hamlet is unsure that he can trust the accusing ghost of his father. What if the accusation is a lie?
Horatio, his friend, wants to help, but Hamlet does not ask his advice: he instead calls upon his loyalty to ignore
the Prince’s seeming madness, and let him pursue his own anguished means for discovering the truth. Hamlet
trusts his lover Ophelia, but fears to share his burden with her as, if the accusation of the ghost is true, to
confide in Ophelia would put her in an impossible position between Hamlet and Ophelia's own family -- who are
close advisors to Claudius -- thus spreading the poison of doubt and hate to her loved ones. Ophelia,
devastated by being shut out, turns to her father, who promptly takes his misunderstanding of the situation to
none other than Claudius (the abuser), and his wife Gertrude, who is guiltless of any crime, but also looks to
Claudius to help in healing the mysterious pain of her son.
What a mess.
The seeds of tragedy are sown into the lives of each and every one of these people, and the deeper the
miscommunication, the more hurt is spread everywhere, until it all devolves into deeper loss, and new violence.
If only such things happened in fiction, and not in life. But of course this could be a snapshot of a modern day
family trying to cope with abuse. Parents, children and friends all either hiding from the truth or desperate and
misguided in attempts to help one another. On the grand stage of Hamlet, people will die, people will go mad. On
the intimate stage of homes and families in crisis, the wounds can linger on and on in subtle places of the body
and spirit, often with no hope or support for healing…carrying the cycle into the next generation.
The saddest thing I see in the actions of Hamlet: Poem Unlimited Act Two, is thwarted caring. When we are in an
environment where truth and communication are crippled, then how can this possibly, despite all the caring
desire in the world, resolve itself in health?
March 4, 2012
As we move into the intense events and scenes of Act Three, no one character illustrates the effects of abusive
behavior on others more than Ophelia. And in the light of modern perceptions about trauma, she becomes a
very nuanced character indeed. “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited” is designed to illuminate how abuse in families can
lead to tragedy; but this presentation of the play is not alone in exploring that concept. Below are some excerpts
from Ellen T. Goodson’s article: “And I of Ladies Most Deject and Wretched: Diagnosing Shakespeare's Ophelia
with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”.
If William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is “the most famous play in English literature,” his Ophelia is arguably the field’s
most tragic female figure. Torn from her lover and bereft of her father, the young woman falls into grief-stricken
madness that ends, in many literary and theatrical interpretations, in suicide. Critics and directors have
characterized her as an innocent child, a passive daughter, compassion-inducing soul, and an undeserving
victim. Yet her clichéd portrayal as “helpless, crazy wretch” gains a humanizing dimension when seen through
the lens of modern psychological research: Ophelia is not insane, but traumatized. Ignoring scientific evidence
that accounts for her madness dismisses her, and to a greater extent women, as not worth saving. Her behavior,
illustrated by her speech and characters’ descriptions of her conduct, satisfies the criteria for PTSD. Because of
this condition’s unique origin outside the mind, her diagnosis demonstrates that she in not irreversibly, wildly
crazy but within the reach of others’ help. Instead of being an irrational madwoman, a symbol of suffering virtue,
Ophelia becomes fully human, a woman of conflicting emotions who understandably cracks under severe stress
Ophelia’s diagnosis with PTSD humanizes a character that audiences have pitied for centuries, but with whom
they could not empathize. Unlike many psychological ailments, this disorder does not connote “insanity,” to
which many viewers cannot relate. Between 70 and 80 percent of people experience severely jarring ordeals that
passing months have soothed. Instead of being stark mad, this young woman simply suffers from “a failure of
time to heal all wounds” . Since PTSD may affect anyone, Ophelia loses the label of “madwoman” to audiences,
and becomes approachable, lively, endearing. Audience members may place themselves in her shoes more fully
and see through her eyes more clearly. Her descent into traumatized depression is more, not less,
heartbreaking because viewers know and love her. Shakespeare’s classic play literally takes on a new life in this
modern interpretation for modern spectators.
Moreover, women audience members may find this understanding of Ophelia as liberating for themselves as for
her. The deaths of Hamlet’s only female characters, combined with the absence of a mother figure, have hereto
indicated that women are all disposable. Whether innocent or guilty, crazy or conniving, women do not deserve
to be rescued, even from preventable tragedy. Ophelia’s treatable diagnosis, however, demands attention and
care more than hopeless delirium does, demonstrating that she as a woman has a right to aid and comfort.
Since her illness partially derives from needing a mother, she proves that women are essential to maintaining
mental and physical health. By identifying Ophelia’s madness as PTSD, women read as more than fragile,
unnecessary pawns of men.
From the beginning of our presentation of Hamlet, Di Niven’s portrayal of Ophelia has been one of remarkable
depth; a woman of intelligence, strength and perception—an outsider, who is subjected to trauma after trauma
by those she trusts. Ultimately she feels herself alone, as do many who feel trapped in situations of abuse.
By reaching out, by seeking for awareness as Ms. Goodson does in her article above (and as we are doing
through this play in support of Community Action Stops Abuse), I hope that we give some comfort to today’s
women and children whose lives may echo Ophelia’s. You are not alone.
March 18, 2012
The concept of bearing witness is an important one for many abuse survivors. So many have been—often
brutally—conditioned to keep silent; out of fear, out of shame, out of doubt that they will be believed.
In Act Three of Hamlet, which David, Kristaline, Di and I are enacting this week, the Prince arranges for a play to
be staged (a play-within-the-play), and in it the death of his father and what he perceives to be the complicity of
his mother in the murder are re-enacted before the eyes of those he suspects of being perpetrators. In this
version of Hamlet his mother Gertrude is not complicit, nor has his lover Ophelia joined his enemies, as he also
suspects. Still, at this point he has come to a place of isolated and desperate thinking. The only one of his family
and friends that he trusts is Horatio, and Hamlet tasks him with watching the reaction of King Claudius. But also
are gathered virtually every other character, all to bear witness. This is a dream, I think, of most abuse survivors.
To create a situation where all doubt is banished, all denial is impossible. And to have it seen and experienced
by the perpetrators, enablers, and supporters alike.
Hamlet is not subtle in his method. He hammers the image of violent betrayal and murder into all who view “The
Mousetrap”. And yet, even in the context of this story, denial continues. King Claudius rushes away, confirming
his guilt, but there is no great epiphany among the rest of the witnesses other than Horatio; instead, there
remains a stubborn inability to perceive the truth. Most, despite the experience of the play-within-the-play, will
continue exactly along the courses of action they had planned prior to seeing it. Denial is truly a powerful thing.
But for the viewer, and by extension, those survivors who struggle in the shadows and silence of abuse, there is
catharsis in seeing violence and the betrayal of trust revealed; for at least a brief instant, there is vindication in
having the truth displayed in the bright light of day. The same instant in real life—even if it takes place simply in
the mind and spirit of an abused person and among those who have earned the lasting trust of that person—
can serve as the turning point where a life of fear can be left behind.
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