Back in the winter of 2014, I was entranced by Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Pericles. The play follows a cast of characters (Pericles, Prince of Tyre, among them) as they voyage around the Greek islands. There are death sentences, murder plots, shipwrecks, pirates, mistaken identities. David H. Bell’s production played out like a modern adventure film set within the soft, aquatic colors of ancient Greece.
I bring up Pericles mostly to explore a question: how do we choose which of Shakespeare’s plays are “cannon” and which are “the lesser works”? The website shakespearences.com has made a study of logging the regularity with which Shakespeare’s works are produced. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are ranked as the top three—Pericles is right in the middle at 24, underneath the prominent comedies and tragedies and above most of the histories.
Beyond statistical analysis, I have long understood that Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth are seen as the shining quartet—the best works of drama by the master dramatist as judged by the types of scholars who study Shakespeare line-by-line (and sometimes even get paid for it). Among this grouping, Hamlet tends to rise to the top of the list as Shakespeare’s greatest work.
This Barbara Gains-directed production of Hamlet was my first time seeing this classic on stage although I have taught the play (in summer school… yes, I resorted to showing The Lion King to kill time) and seen three movie versions. I filed away all of my prior experiences to look at the play with fresh eyes, and I was captivated by the world Gaines and her team created. Starting with actual rain falling from the ceiling, Hamlet (Maurice Jones) stands isolated before his father’s grave and sings a dirge. Thus sets the stage for a psychological telling of Hamlet heavy on the protagonist’s inner agony.
While watching Hamlet navigate his various conflicts, my favorite scenes were those between Hamlet and his peers. In his discussions with Horatio (Sean Allan Krill), Hamlet opens the complexities of his mind to the audience, perhaps in ways that even transcend many of Hamlet’s well known soliloquys. Jones as Hamlet was at his best in scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Alex Goodrich and Samuel Taylor), initially playing the traitors’ devotion to King Claudius (Tim Decker)* as a card in his mental battle against his uncle/step-father, and then elevating his encounters to all-out hatred.
The most intriguing theme of Hamlet is that regardless of our stations in life, we all end in the same place: the ground. And thus, the most awe-inspiring moment for Chicago theater patrons was when Mike Nussbaum emerged as the gravedigger. At 95 years old, Nussbaum is still delivering, in this case a tragic-comical performance exploring how Ophelia’s death might be pivotal to the royals, but the suicide of a nobly-born woman remains mundane for commoners who are not impacted beyond their regular day’s work.
Less satisfying—not so much in this production but in the play itself—are Hamlet’s interactions with the two women in the play. Gertrude’s (Karen Aldridge) dialogue never allows for any insight into her thoughts. She is distraught by Hamlet’s madness, and Aldridge added effective subtext to the character, particularly in the later acts as she distances herself from Claudius as part of a lager conceit that Denmark is being split apart by all of the madness. Ophelia (Rachel Nicks) remains a problematic character in my eyes. In most of her scenes she is forced to passively react to her father’s (Larry Yando) over-protectiveness or to Hamlet’s cruelty. She is allowed one scene of insanity, and then she dies off-stage. Hamlet later exclaims to Ophelia’s grieving brother (Paul Deo, Jr.) at her graveside, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers, if you added all their love together, couldn’t match mine.” This line always feels hollow line for me because nothing in Shakespeare’s text supports that Hamlet loves anyone (except maybe his father) as much as he loves his own misery.
Having now seen an exceptional production of Hamlet, I cannot help but contemplate where it sits in my estimation of the Bard’s works. On the whole, Hamlet leaves me wanting a little more for probably the same reasons that so many regard it as Shakespeare’s best. Hamlet is filled with deep emotion and iconic lines (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” / “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” are just two fantastic examples). But with the spotlight focused directly on Hamlet’s inner thoughts, there is too little room for depth in those who surround him, particularly the female characters. And, unlike the aforementioned Pericles, almost all of the action is within Hamlet’s mind rather than played out on-stage. And thus, while I might be the only Shakespeare fan to argue that Pericles deserves a placement alongside Hamlet, if given a choice I would be likely revisit the bright, adventurous islands of Greece before the chilly dampness of Denmark.
* I would be remiss to not acknowledge the work of Susan E. Mickey as costume designer. Particularly, check out King Claudius’ (Tim Decker) blue shoes, which were a significant topic of discussion for my friends and me during the intermission. (also pictured in front: Samuel Taylor and Alex Goodrich)