. . . If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
On the evening of Hazel Blears’s resignation from the government, I went to see Jude Law in the Michael Grandage-directed Hamlet, the conclusion to the Donmar’s West End season at Wyndham’s Theatre. During the interval much of the talk in the stalls bar was of how appropriate it was to be watching Hamlet on a day of such political drama and intrigue (we did not know what was to come). Certainly there was a sense in the
audience that Shakespeare’s tragedy of thwarted revenge had a startling contemporary resonance; there were inevitably chuckles and nods of recognition as we were told there was “something rotten in the state of Denmark” or Hamlet bemoaned the absence of honest men in the world.
With our political class never before more discredited and voters so alienated, it was satisfying to be reminded, in the heightened artificiality of a West End theatre, that the hugely ambitious and the power-seeking should never be fully trusted and that high ambition invariably drags in its wake profound difficulty and sorrow. Hamlet is, superficially at least, not deeply political in the way of Macbeth, where “nothing is/But what is not”, and Lady Macbeth, like the ambitious would-be politician she is, feels “the future in the instant”, as James Purnell must have done as he wrote the letter he surely believed would bring an end to the Brown premiership. Or of King Lear, where an aged and exhausted monarch looks on uncomprehendingly as those he believed were closest to him scheme to destroy him. Or more obviously of the histories, with their manipulation of the ambiguous space between truth and fiction.
The disintegration of the kingdom of Denmark following an act of regicide, the gathering forces of a distant army set on invasion and the interventions of an unquiet ghost provide the backdrop to what can be easily viewed less as an explicitly political text than as an intensely personal study in confusion, despair and self-reproach. Hamlet’s Elsinore is a place of restlessness and distrust but it does not have the murderous paranoia of Macbeth’s castle in Inverness, and there is no coherent or organised plot to topple the king, Claudius. Hamlet knows from the beginning that if the murder of his father is to be avenged, he must act alone.
Yet Hamlet is a play many great politicians have admired and turned to at moments of stress. Watching the Donmar’s production through the aspect of the contemporary, as recent events inevitably force one to do, I was for the first time more interested in the role of Claudius than in that of Hamlet, in spite of the allure and energy of Law’s interpretation. To watch Hamlet not quite without the prince, but with a keener eye than usual for the contributions of the supporting players, was to understand why a politician as great and complex as Abraham Lincoln was so fascinated by the play, and especially by the character of Claudius, the guilty king who murders without pleasure but for self-interest.
In the Donmar production, with its beautiful and stark monochrome sets and often subdued lighting, Claudius is played with control and grace by Kevin McNally: blithely confident and charming in public, but anguished and self-aware in private. When he delivers the soliloquy that Lincoln thought the finest in the play (“In the corrupted currents of this world . . .”), he falls to his knees, as if in pain or supplication, as
if he is pleading for a forgiveness that he knows can never be his.
By contrast, Law’s Hamlet has only two modes of expression: agitation and anger. He is fit and energetic, with a thick, muscular neck – he breathlessly sprints and struts, bounds and crouches. His diction and delivery are precise and clear, and though often humourless he succeeds, unintentionally perhaps, in conveying just how dislikeable Hamlet can be: narcissistic, self-pitying, cruel. But one never has a sense that this Hamlet, for all his grandeur of expression, is as existentially isolated and despairing as his elevated words would have it, longing for death. Nor does he capture, through nuance or tone, how much Hamlet changes during his long absence from Elsinore.
When Hamlet returns late in the play from England, he is supposed to be calmer, more settled, finally determined to act but also prepared to die (“readiness is all”), so that others might live free from the taint of Claudius’s corruption. But even in these late scenes Law remains as largely agitated as before.
In his time away, there is supposed to have been an important shift in Hamlet’s self-understanding and, for the first time, he openly expresses empathy for others, for Laertes especially and for Ophelia, whom he has bullied to her death:
But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For, by the image of my cause, I see
The portraiture of his . . .
However, Law’s delivery of these important lines was too rushed and perfunctory; he spoke them with purpose but without feeling; nor did he convey the required subtle shifts in character.How old is Hamlet? It is easy to assume, because of his astounding self-absorption and because he returns from university to attend his father’s funeral, that Hamlet is younger than he is. But, according to the gravedigger, he could be as old as 30.One criticism of Law is that he is far too old to play the part; in fact, if you believe the gravedigger, he is rather well cast. At the age of 36, Law is losing the golden sheen of his youth, the gilded, wise-guy frivolity that made his performance in The Talented Mr Ripley so assured and compelling: his hair is receding, his skin is taut but sun-worn and there’s fatigue behind his eyes. Law-as-Hamlet looks less like a student than someone approaching the first crisis of early middle age: not old but no longer as young as he would wish to be, which is fine.
At present, with the crisis in Labour so deep, a week seldom passes without one political commentator or another seeking to draw comparisons between the struggles of Gordon Brown and one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, and the contemporariness of this particular Hamlet quickened the atmosphere at Wyndham’s. Turning to Shakespeare is one obvious way of trying to make sense of the melodrama of the Brown premiership, with its attendant feuds and media hysterics, even if the plays inevitably end up being misread or misappropriated. For Jonathan Freedland, in the Guardian, Brown’s story combines the jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth and the equivocation of Hamlet. For Anne McElvoy, in the Sunday Telegraph, he is Lear, a raging autocrat who cannot accept that his time has passed, a victim of his own too-long imperious rule who, confronted by disloyalty, asks if this is the promised end. For others, Brown’s 10 Downing Street is variously Hamlet’s Elsinore or Macbeth’s castle: a place of refuge, sickness and paranoia.
Few would doubt that there is a tragic dimension to Brown’s plight. For so long the commanding presence of British politics, he is the victim both of desperate bad luck and of his own stubborn pride and delusions. Brown is the stealth taxer who, against Labour tradition, embraced the ideology of neoliberalism not as an end in itself, but as the means by which to redistribute wealth; the man who fatally believed he had mastered the free market, bending its forces to his very will (“I have abolished boom and bust”); the man who believed the job of Prime Minister was his as if by natural right but who, in office, has proved so spectacularly ill-suited to the role. In his own self-image, Brown remains more sinned against than sinning.
To watch Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions nowadays is a bit like watching a great heavyweight champion who has spent too long in the ring and who seems intent on defying even time’s arrow itself. Now, more than ever, he is on the ropes, refusing to go down, yet taking blows from the kind of lesser men he would once have swatted aside so casually.
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Other Shakespearean heroes of the G20
Barack Obama Henry V
In the wake of the Iraq War, Henry V made an easy comparison with Tony Blair’s foreign policy. Leaving overseas conflict aside, Barack Obama’s mastery of public oratory upholds the tradition of Shakespeare’s king. His inaugural speech recast the Founding Fathers in the rhetoric of Agincourt: “a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing.” Like King Henry, the president seems to have won his audience over to his cause.
Silvio Berlusconi Falstaff (Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor)
The Italian premier has become notorious for his jovial, irreverent behaviour. In April, after downplaying the entire G20 summit as “just a round table”, he displeased the Queen with an uncouth shout to “Mr Obama!” (who, sadly, did not return an “I know ye not”). The following day he skipped the official photograph at the Nato summit, and left Angela Merkel waiting on the red carpet as he chatted on his mobile. As Samuel Johnson wrote of Falstaff, “his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy escapes and sallies of levity, which make sport, but raise no envy”.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Jack Cade (Henry VI)
When protesters marched on the City of London on Financial Fool’s Day (1 April 2009), the Brazilian president, Lula de Silva, seemed to be the only G20 leader speaking with their voice. The crisis had been caused by the “blue-eyed bankers”, he said. Attacking many other leading G20 member states, he argued that the poor should no longer be the victims of globalisation. Lula may have conducted himself with more diplomacy than Shakespeare’s rebel leader, but he captured the spirit of popular uprising.
Michelle Obama Rosalind (As You Like It)
The true star of the G20 summit was not, for many commentators, even a world leader. First ladies have typically adopted a dated model of stay-at-home femininity, supporting uncontroversial good causes
and smiling for the press. Like Rosalind, Shakespeare’s most enduring heroine, Michelle Obama (Secret Service code name: Renaissance) has brought new individuality to a conventional role. Even the Queen forwent formality to enjoy a quick hug with the jewel of the show. l
Brown is far too old to be Hamlet and much too young to be Lear – but as he addresses colleagues around the cabinet table he must know that, like Macbeth, “false face must hide what the false heart doth know”. What prevents Brown’s story from being truly Shakespearean – apart obviously from the absence of dead bodies lying scattered across the floor of the House as they were on the stage at Wyndham’s the other night, though before him Brown must daily see the metaphorical corpses of his various victims, Banquos one and all – is that he has not yet had his one true tragic reversal, the one moment of blinding self-revelation that exposes the depth of his suffering and of how much he has been changed by it. Perhaps the truth is that he has not been changed at all, or not quite enough.
Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth: all are wholly altered before they die. Lear, solipsistic and loftily contemptuous at the beginning, dies humbled and in self-forgetfulness, concerned, at the last, only for the fate of his loyal daughter, Cordelia; it is not he but Kent who, after the death of Cordelia, asks: “Is this the promised end?”
There is no Brown-like defiance in Lear’s closing remarks, only resignation and belated expressions of self-understanding. This Lear, so unrecognisable from the man he once was, would understand the meaning of the words “Let be” as uttered by Hamlet shortly before he dies, as the Prime Minister perhaps would not – at least, in his present position of stubborn defiance, until he hears the final, fatal midnight knock at the door. (If Law’s Hamlet has an ultimate flaw, it is that he does not seem to understand the meaning of “Let be” either, even as he speaks the words, with “letting be” being an act of simultaneous acceptance and release, a letting go of what you most wish to hold on to – in Brown’s case the premiership, in Hamlet’s life itself.)
For now, though he must be hurting, Gordon Brown remains defiantly unaltered, still more sinned against than sinning, seemingly unaware of or refusing to accept how hated Labour is in the country at large. That’s hubris at its most Shakespearean.
“Hamlet” is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 22 August. Details: Wyndham's Theatre website