Ten years ago, my flatmates and I had an ongoing conversation about doing a horror production of Hamlet where the Ghost really was a devil. In Act Two, Hamlet wonders if the Ghost is an evil spirit preying on his depression:
The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape: yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.
and we thought it could be fun to see what would happen if he was right to wonder that.
Most of the play didn’t change that much, except for some of the tragedy becoming even more tragic, like the decimation of Laertes’ family: Horatio lets his affection for Hamlet stop him from being more critical as the murder plan takes off; Gertrude is horrified at her son’s wild accusations; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are worried about their friend’s mental health, and believe they are lying to help him.
The big stumbling block was Claudius’ “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven” soliloquy, where he talks about killing his brother King Hamlet. Claudius is alone, and knows he is alone, so the speech couldn’t be written off as Claudius lying or trying to trick anyone: we just couldn’t figure out why Poor, Put-Upon, Actually an OK Guy Claudius would say that speech. My flatmate wanted to try to play it as Claudius going mad, and beginning to believe the rumours about him. I wasn’t as fussy about textual fidelity: I wanted to just cut it. We kept talking about the play idea over £4 Somerfield red every so often, and then we all moved out and it never went anywhere.
Today I was standing in the kitchen making walnut-parsley pesto, when I realised that Hamlet comes in straight after that speech, and sees Claudius talking to himself – praying. What if Claudius’ soliloquy were a fantasy of Hamlet’s? Hamlet has just said the day before that he’s not sure whether the Ghost is a devil or telling the truth; in fact Hamlet is so careful to make sure Claudius is really guilty that he comes up with the complicated “stage a play with a similar murder then watch to see if my uncle looks really sweaty” plan. Seeing Claudius flat-out admitting the murder, and being horribly wracked with guilt about it, would be a dream for Hamlet’s conscience.
Also, if Hamlet suspects that the speech was a fantasy/hallucination, it could also explain why he hesitates to kill Claudius in that scene: if he’s beginning to doubt his own experience and memories, he wants to wait for even more confirmation.
Anyway – there we go, 2007 flatmates, a way to keep that speech in without damaging the “The Devil made them do it” concept too badly. LET’S GET THE BAND BACK TOGETHER AND TAKE IT TO FRINGE If any other textual contrarians want to put on that production – or already have – please let me know. I really want it to exist in the world at least once…!