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Panel 3.

Hamlets Today: Retooling Hamlet for the New Century

Hamlet and Hamlet, both the play and its eponymous protagonist, are obsessed with change. They both are fixated on the divergence of ‘then vs now’; they are gripped by the reappraisal of the past, an Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit of sorts. This obsession with change within the play also explains why the play as a whole has served as both an object and a vehicle for appraising change in the reception of Shakespeare: appropriations of Hamlet, a synechdocal “great tragedy” that opens up a perspective on the whole oeuvre, also reveal how we see Shakespeare. The contributions in this panel focus on four different Hamlets and show how these current appropriations help us reassess the play and its author in the new century.

Tom Cartelli (Muhlenberg College USA)

In the course of the last 40 years of revisionist Shakespeare criticism, some scholars have had trouble separating Hamlet and Hamlet—character and play—from their alleged embeddedness in patriarchal and misogynist constructions. In more recent years, Hamlet has also come into critical scrutiny for its uniformly Nordic whiteness. The emerging queer subjectivity of Juicy, the protagonist of James Ijames’s Fat Hamlet, may be Ijames’s primary way of distinguishing the different kind of man his latter-day Hamlet is from Hamlets and Hamlets past. But just as crucial in rendering his difference is the play’s reconfiguring of Black manhood and Black American family life in a changing South (the play is expressly set in an unnamed town in North Carolina) in a way that elides the play’s originary whiteness. Ijames’s African-Americanizing of Hamlet, the character and Hamlet, the play, offers a particularly potent counter to recent efforts to see both as serving some kind of white supremacist function. Indeed, in the hands of Ijames, the play’s director, Saheem Ali, and its actors, Shakespeare’s play demonstrates its capacity to serve as the platform for any number of countercolonizing functions. Moreover, by localizing the originary Hamlet’s resistance to the patriarchal insistence on revenge in a young Black man’s queer subjectivity, Fat Ham arguably taps into and releases Hamlet’s liberatory content, bringing to light what’s always been embedded there.

Zoltán Márkus (Vassar College, USA)

The Berliner Schaubühne’s Hamlet has been on the road since 2008; their English-language program lists about thirty cities in which the production has been performed, including Sarajevo, Sydney, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Ramallah, Tehran (as well as Venice and Moscow). Last October, it arrived at the BAM in Brooklyn, where I saw it together with ten undergraduate students. This paper is based on the students’ reactions and reviews. Touring is the name of the game for today’s theater world, but this paper invites us to move away from essentializing views that differentiate between good international audiences that get the productions’ “message” and bad audiences that don’t, and to pay closer attention to the local audiences’ reactions and appropriations of the productions on tour. How—and what—is Hamlet when it is in German in Brooklyn? How can a reduced cast of 6 actors tell the tale of Hamlet? Why did director Thomas Ostermeier and stage designer Jan Pappelbaum turn Elsinore into a mud-bath? Why was Lars Eidinger’s Hamlet so insufferable for most of the students? Why were both Ophelia and Gertrude (both played by the same actor, Jenny König) sexually assaulted? The students’ responses to such questions point beyond the Schaubühne’s Hamlet and sketch the contours of the play for the new century—as seen from Brooklyn.

Christina Wald (University of Konstanz (Germany)

What would happen to Shakespeare if a pandemic killed 99% of the human population in a few weeks, all governments fell apart and all infrastructures of travel, communication and education collapsed? Would Shakespeare’s plays survive such an end of the world as we know it? And if they survived, what could they offer for a postapocalyptic situation? Such questions are raised in the TV series Station Eleven, first released in December 2021 on HBO in the midst of our actual pandemic. Based on Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 novel with the same title, the series focuses on a postpandemic travelling theatre group dedicated to the works of Shakespeare. Expanding the novel’s Shakespearean intertexts, the series turns Hamlet into a forum to act out and work though traumatic losses, both on an individual and on a collective level, and to develop models for future action that go beyond reiterating previous damages. Station Eleven, this paper argues, transforms Shakespeare’s tragic template into a hopeful outlook that might aptly be described as a romance of creatively reassembled leftovers.

Douglas M. Lanier (University of New Hampshire, USA)

A documentary on the making of an experimental performance of Hamlet, The Hamlet Syndrome explores how Hamlet’s crisis of action might speak to the generational crisis of youth in wartime Ukraine, as the nation struggles to resist Russian tyranny and assert its identity as a modern European state. This paper addresses the tensions and congruences between two approaches to appropriating Shakespeare (and especially Hamlet) to engage with political change–experimental performance, which stresses the expression of trauma, and reparative performance, which stresses the amelioration of trauma. Though current accounts tend to portray reparative Shakespeare as retrogressive and complicit with social injustice, The Hamlet Syndrome suggests, this talk claims, the ways in which these two approaches to political appropriation of Shakespeare might work in uneasy tandem.