To thine own self be true,/ And it must follow as the night, the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Over the years, I have seen a number of Hamlets (Anton Lesser, Ian Charleson, Kenneth Branagh, Jude Law, Ben Whishaw, Simon Russell Beale and I even, as a guilty pleasure, enjoyed Mel Gibson’s portrayal in Zeffirelli’s 1990 film of the play) and all have – to a greater or lesser degree – shed new light on the complex soul of the Prince of Denmark. Last week, I went to see the latest production of Hamlet at the National Theatre where Rory Kinnear (the son of the late, Roy Kinnear) takes on the role with a renewed freshness. His performance and the inventiveness of this production makes you feel as if you are watching the play for the first time.
One of the challenges that any actor faces when they approach Hamlet is to what extent they travel the fault lines between sanity and insanity in the character. Kinnear’s Hamlet is very sane and his “antic disposition” is a psychological mechanism to protect himself from the pain of grief and injustice. This Hamlet circles the epithet “to thine own self be true” and considers if that is possible when "the time is out of joint” and you are under surveillance from family, peers, institutions and society.
In such an environment, must we repress truths about ourselves in order to survive, achieve preferment or engender some form of acceptance from others? Are we ever willing to let down our guard and be entirely honest with ourselves or with another? Or is there always an element of self-deception when we look at ourselves and subterfuge when we present ourselves to others? Do we prefer to manufacture and live with the illusion rather than wrestle with our reality? Kinnear's Hamlet asks if it is possible to live a more authentic appropriation of who we are? If so, what might that look like? The director, Nicholas Hytner, in a programme note remarks:
One of them (the play’s chief concerns) is human authenticity. It’s one of Hamlet’s obsessions: the apparent impossibility of being authentically oneself, or of knowing others authentically. The first line of the play is famously resonant: “Who’s there?” The second line seems even more telling to me: “Nay answer me: stand and unfold yourself!” Is it possible to completely unfold yourself? To anyone else, or even to yourself?
Rory Kinnear commenting on the famous soliloquies that are so central to the play observes:
Hamlet is someone who’s constantly searching for the truth in humanity and in himself, and, through the continual betrayal of those he once loved or was close to, adopts more and more walls to protect himself or to obscure his motives. In those five or six soliloquies you’re able to be open, to enlist the audience to your situation and to work things through with them...He’s trying to be honest with himself.
This might seem like simply a psychological process of introspection - the caricature that many people have of Hamlet is of a melancholy youth, a sort of Danish Morrissey, endlessly soul mining or indulgently navel gazing depending on your prejudices. But Kinnear suggests that Hamlet’s self actualisation cannot be reduced to mere psychology or sociology but is something that also happens outside his immediate understanding of himself:
Madness seems to be a label for behaving outside the norms of society. Hamlet, in seeing the ghost of his father, seems to be taken – as well as to rage at the murder and adultery, which he might have already suspected – to a state of wonderment at this other-worldliness, a new sphere of life. But at the same time he’s wondering how he’s going to be able to deal with this knowledge. He instantly decides that the way to deal with it is to behave as “other” as possible. If he tries to sit on his new knowledge it will out somehow, so actually to let rip from the start.
I find these questions of identity, of what makes us who we are, fascinating and, perhaps, that is why I so enjoyed this production. Are we, as Descartes describes it “in the strictest sense only a thing that thinks: that is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason...a thinking thing”? Is such an atomistic description of the human person adequate or is our authentic identity to be realised in something beyond the self, for example, in love for an Ophelia or a mother or God? Does the ek-stasis of being, the movement towards communion with others lead to a transcendence of the boundaries of the self and thus to true authenticity? Is the philosopher, Charles Davis, correct when he writes in Body as Spirit:
Man’s true subjectivity is not the self-sufficient independence of an isolated monad, but a self-possessed openness to the plenitude of being. As an embodied subjectivity, the self participates in the plenitude of being only in and through the world with which it is a bodily one.
Too many big questions here to think and write about in a brief blog post. But the fact that a production of Hamlet still has the power to stir such universal concerns makes it a profound, unsettling and moving experience.