“Hamlet” is a masterpiece. Many of us have read it or listened to it on audiobook. I’d never seen it acted, though, until my recent trip to London. Did I come up with anything that hasn’t already been said? I doubt it, at least not about the play itself. I do, however, have a story to tell about my experience watching the play. Isn’t that what reading and writing is all about? Isn’t that what Shakespeare was after when he wrote the play? To have it act on each individual in a special way.
The Globe is an open air theatre. Historically, people would sit under one of the three covered levels of the theatre, but if they couldn’t afford to pay the price for a penny they could stand in the “pit” or “yard” below the stage and watch the play from there. People packed in and stood throughout the entire play. These people were called “groundlings” and there were even jokes made about them during the plays.
During the play, Hamlet actually refers to the groundlings in Act 3 Scene 2:
O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise.
During the early 17th century people would pay the penny just to get a chance to steal a purse from another “groundling” or patron. In 1599, Thomas Platter mentioned the cost of admission at contemporary London theatres in his diary:
There are separate galleries and there one stands more comfortably and moreover can sit, but one pays more for it. Thus anyone who remains on the level standing pays only one English penny: but if he wants to sit, he is let in at a farther door, and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion in the most comfortable place of all, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen then he gives yet another English penny at another door. And in the pauses of the comedy food and drink are carried round amongst the people and one can thus refresh himself at his own cost.
We went back in time, temporarily, and subjected ourselves to this “groundling” experience. It would be too noble of me to say that we did it for purely academic purposes, instead, we simply booked our tickets too late to get a seat.
It rains in London. It rained in London for our entire stay. So, my experience of seeing Hamlet is as a “groundling” on a rainy day.
It’s one thing to experience Shakespeare on the page. It’s quite another to experience Shakespeare from the ground in the rain and then be the butt of Shakespeare’s joke at the same time.
Seeing Shakespeare in this way makes me think that I don’t need to match the academics line by line in analyzing the deeper psychological implications of Hamlet’s case. I need not parse the play line by line looking for some new writerly tool or tactic. The vocabulary seems to be less important when you see the play acted out with adequate emotion. Long soliloquies become impressive shows of emotion that I can empathize with, especially being shoulder to shoulder with my fellow-man.
So, my experience with Shakespeare makes me think this: we need to spend more time reading Shakespeare out loud, preferably with a friend. Alternatively, we need to see Shakespeare acted by professional actors. Further, if you can get into out in the open air and see Shakespeare you’re probably going to see barriers to understanding lifted. If you get lucky enough to be rained on while watching Shakespeare, then real quickly you’re going to see that the Shakespeare experience was not really created to be fully had sitting in a class room parsing word by word to discover the meaning. The classroom is just the starting point, albeit a damn important one.
Photo: Alicia Murphy