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The purpose of this blog is two-fold.

First, it enables people to catch some of the inner workings and thoughts as we grow Grain of Sand Theatre.

Secondly, it gives us a 'green' place to provide all the notes, background, and dramaturgy that would typically fatten a theatre program.

Check out the rest of our website for production photos, cast bios, and more!


Sunday, July 10, 2011

What's in a Name?

         There is an interesting pattern to the names in Shakespeare's Hamlet, that we have given (more-than the intended?) meaning in Hamlet: Reframed. Four characters are given names in Saxo Grammaticus' original Life of Amleth. They survived with minor variation for four centuries. Shakespeare changed the original names, gave names to minor characters, and added others; or they could have been introduced in the now-lost version known as the Ur-Hamlet, a play written about 10 years before Shakespeare's rendition.

Name change
Here is a table showing some of the names in their Shakespearean and Saxo Grammatical forms:

William Shakespeare Saxo Grammaticus
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Amleth, Prince of Denmark
Hamlet's father Horwendil
Gertrude Gurutha
King Claudius Feng
Ophelia An unnamed "fair woman"
Polonius An unnamed eavesdropper
and Guildenstern
Two unnamed retainers of Feng

(Source: Amleth, Prince of Denmark)

Hamlet (Sam Rabinovitz)
and Gertrude (Sara Bickler)
keep as they are
         Barely touching Hamlet's and Gertrude's original names, Shakespeare changed “Feng” (or Fengo, Fengon, etc.) to “Claudius!” At first, this odd translation seems somewhat random. Sure, “Claudius” is a much better name for a king than “Feng.” But why not change everything? Why not modify “Hamlet” and “Gertrude,” too? This is my speculative answer: the story of Hamlet was known to the Elizabethans. While the Saxo Grammaticus's Latin text might not have been wide-read, a 1570s French version by Francois de Belleforest called The Hystorie of Hamblet (in its 1608 English translation) would have been available to the Elizabethans and their playwrights, and the Ur-Hamlet may have provided enough publicity for Shakespeare to keep the title character the same. (A play called King Leir came out in 1594. Shakespeare's much better King Lear was written around 1605. Chances are he did a similar reconstruction of Ur-Hamlet.)

         The fact is, Shakespeare (or his Elizabethan predecessor) gave the king a Roman name, and left the queen and prince with Danish names. In Hamlet: Reframed, we have used this to inform the regime change. Characters with Latin names (Claudius, Polonius, Cornelius) or Greek (Laertes, Ophelia) represent the new order. The Danish names (Hamlet, Gertrude, Voltimand, Osric) are the old guard. We liken the shift to the post-9/11 change in the US. Different rules, different players. This means that Cornelius is an up-and-comer in Claudius' regime, compared to the more established Voltimand and Osric, who came in under Hamlet Sr's reign. Voltimand could certainly have carried the diplomatic message to Norway alone, but Claudius sends Cornelius, too. He addresses them:
You, good Cornelius, and you, Voltimand (I.ii).
Maybe Shakespeare just needed an extra syllable to make the verse work. Maybe he's telling us something.

         It is also worth noting that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are German names. This separates them both from the “new” Danes and the “old.”

Job descriptions
         In updating the Viking revenge tale, Shakespeare infused the his story of Hamlet with Elizabethan politics and international conflict. Since these elements are the primary focus of our reframe, we have chosen to make the politics more accessible to the modern audience. In doing so, the messengers and servants that were somewhat interchangeable in Shakespeare's text now have modern job descriptions.
  • Voltimand is civil intelligence, likened to the State Department. Her job entails gathering and distributing non-military information, and dealing with general diplomatic matters.

  • Cornelius is military intelligence. She deals with the Norwegian troop movements, as well as reporting on Laertes' riot when it “O'erbears [Claudius'] officers” (IV.v).
Cornelius (Allison S. Galen) and Voltimand (Pamela H. Leahigh)
get ushered out by Polonius (Jay Tilley)
  • Osric is on personal detail for the king. She brings him personal messages, and serves as security detail, as well as refereeing the duel at the end of the play.
Osric (Liz Dutton)

         By utilizing the variety of names in Hamlet and modernizing the play, we have created a world of Elsinore that is at the same time true to Shakespeare's text and familiar to the modern audience, especially in Washington, DC, where Hamlet: Reframed is being produced.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Bad King Hamlet

         The text of Hamlet does not provide a wealth of information on what kind of king or person Hamlet Sr was.  Additionally, we are so used to seeing the story from Hamlet's point of view that we end up with a potentially skewed perception of the old king.   Shakespeare doesn't give us much to go on, and in our reframing we hear even less about him.  What Shakespeare has given us is a rich political environment of a country in the midst of a change in leadership, resulting in a massive policy upheaval.  This is the background fundamental to our production, recognizable to the modern American audience.   The US government experienced this sort of revision from Clinton to Bush, and again from Bush to Obama (ignore the months of campaigning or public elections).  In looking at these changes and heeding what little is said (by people other than Hamlet), we can piece together a picture of the late king.

That warlike form
         We see the old king only as a ghost (and in our production not at all).  He enters in full armor, and likely fully armed.   He was a war-king. The first description of the ghost by the watch is:

that . . . warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march (I.i)


Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown'd he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice. (I.i)

and later to Hamlet,

Armed at point exactly, cap-a-pe [head to toe] (I.ii)

These lines indicate that Hamlet Sr is remembered in armor.  He was not a decadent king, wearing jewelry, nor a pious king, wearing priest-like robes.  He was a war king, looking for battle.  What is more revealing in these lines is the mention of Hamlet Sr's wars with Norway and Poland.   The only other country mentioned in the entire text is England, where Hamlet Jr is sent to die:

And, England, if my love thou hold'st at aught--
As my great power thereof may give thee sense,
Since yet thy cicatrice looks raw and red
After the Danish sword, and thy free awe
Pays homage to us--thou mayst not coldly set
Our sovereign process; which imports at full,
By letters congruing to that effect,
The present death of Hamlet. (IV.iii)

        So the Danes had also conquered England, with different results.  In Norway, Prince Fortinbras' armies are preparing for retribution.  Poland gets invaded by Norway with Danish consent. England, instead, we can envision as a Danish colony or protectorate.  They are still licking their wounds from the last time they fought Denmark, and are likely an occupied nation, perhaps a puppet government.  None of these victories could have happened on Claudius' watch – he is far too busy tending to domestic affairs to be an international aggressor, and has only been king for a few months.  They must have happened all during Hamlet Sr's reign, and must have marked the legacy of his regime.

         What's more, we also know that Hamlet Sr was reckless in his war-mongering.   A report by Cornelius in our production (originally exposition in I.i) tells the story of Denmark and Norway:
Cornelius (Allison S. Galen) reports

Our last king [Hamlet Sr]
Was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway,
Thereto prick'd on by a most emulate pride,
Dared to the combat; in which our valiant Hamlet--
For so this side of our known world esteem'd him--
Did slay this Fortinbras; who by a seal'd compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror:
Against the which, a moiety competent
Was gaged by our king; which had return'd
To the inheritance of Fortinbras,
Had he been vanquisher; as, by the same covenant,
And carriage of the article design'd,
His fell to Hamlet.

Hamlet Sr wagered his entire nation on a duel with Fortinbras Sr, then king of Norway, and there was no one who could (or would) stop him.  This must have created some ill will between the Danish court and the king.  (In the world of Hamlet: Reframed, it is the beginning of the rift between Gertrude and Hamlet Sr.)   On the other hand, a strong military and Hamlet Sr's erratic behavior served as a deterrent to potentially aggressive enemies, and no doubt kept Denmark relatively safe.  No one was willing to attack the nation while Hamlet Sr was alive.

Mark Addy as Hamlet Sr?
         In Hamlet: Reframed, we take this one step farther.  Our Hamlet Sr cared little for anything other than fighting and drinking. (Mark Addy's performance as King Robert on Game of Thrones encapsulates him pretty well.)   This inevitably led to mismanagement: overspending both monetary and human resources on military left the rest of the nation dry.  We imagine a Denmark with a failing infrastructure, poor schools, a deregulated financial sector, and neither the money nor the people to fix them.  Claudius murders him (in his sleep; not by outright duel, of course) out of patriotism, rather than greed or lust.  The country he loves is failing, and he thinks he can do better – he can't really do much worse, right?
         Unfortunately, Hamlet Sr had been keeping foreign enemies at bay.  Perhaps Claudius underestimated the degree to which other countries would seize on Denmark's perceived new weakness and test the new regime.  Perhaps he weighed the pros and cons, and took the risk.  Regardless, as soon as the news of his death reached Norway, young Fortinbras turned his military sights on Denmark – revenge for the death of his father all those years ago.  This is where the play begins.

Regime change
Claudius (John Stange)
is good at diplomacy
         Claudius is everything his brother was not: intelligent, diplomatic, a non-fighter.  While Hamlet Sr's philosophy was that 'the best defense is to maul your enemies so that they never think of attacking you,' Claudius tries a non-aggressive two-pronged approach.  The first is to build military defenses to physically stop an invading force.  (Hamlet Sr's spending had been entirely offensive.)   At the same time, he sends ambassadors to Norway to negotiate with the king, Fortinbras' uncle, and attempt a bloodless resolution to the campaign.

         The diplomatic approach provoked the Norwegian king to slap the hand of young Fortinbras, but he nevertheless

Gives him three thousand crowns in annual fee,
And his commission to employ those soldiers,
So levied as before, against the Polack. (II.ii)

Young Fortinbras
(Christopher C. Holbert)
What's more, the Norwegians request safe passage through Denmark on their way to and from Poland. 
        Many snippets of the text indicate that Fortinbras does not change his original intent, but hides it behind the thin veil of this diplomatic agreement.  First of all, the point of attack in Poland is an frontier town with no military or financial value, far from the heart of the Polish empire.

[They] go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee. (IV.iv)

This is not an invasion of Poland.  This is a raid, but with a two thousand troop “army of such mass and charge” (IV.iv) plenty enough to assail Elsinore on their way home.

         That their passage through Denmark takes them anywhere near Elsinore is also cause for Danish concern.   This may be another example of Shakespeare's lack of geographical knowledge (Proteus takes a boat in Two Gentlemen of Verona from Verona to Milan, two land-locked cities).  However, in Hamlet: Reframed, we have chosen to use the true geography to inform the Norwegian campaign.

Denmark at Shakespeare's writing of Hamlet
         Elsinore is located on the island of Zealand.   To march past, the Norwegian army must sail to the island, get off the boat, walk by the castle, get on another boat, and sail away, a waste of resources if it were without purpose.  We might see the Norwegian reasoning in two ways.  First, Fortinbras might merely be flexing his military muscle by walking through Denmark.  (Henry V attempted such a march through France in 1415, ending with the surprising English victory at the Battle of Agincourt.)  Or he could be there to conquer.  All the evidence in the text points to the latter, but the success of either would certainly mark the end of the savage and powerful reputation that King Hamlet earned for his country.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Not Single Spies - Denmark as a Surveillance State

        During the story of Hamlet, Denmark is going through some remarkable, yet subtle changes, as the regime shifts from Hamlet Sr.'s reign to Claudius'. One of the primary shifts is to a surveillance state. People are being watched, never as before. Claudius and Polonius (his spymaster?) keep their eye on everybody, not just on Hamlet.

         While present in the source material, Shakespeare upped the surveillance ante in his version, no doubt due to the environment England found itself in at the time. Queen Elizabeth had created an unprecedented network of spies, both domestic and abroad, managed by Sir Francis Walsingham. This ring probably included playwright Christopher Marlowe and scientist/statesman Sir Francis Bacon. Elizabeth's espionage tactics successfully penetrated the Spanish Armada, and assisted in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots – her cousin and chief rival. (It was Mary's assassination attempts against Elizabeth that motivated the Act of Association of 1584, barring anyone in on a regicide plot from taking the throne.)

         Nicholas Hytner, director of London's National Theatre production of Hamlet last year, said in an interview published in the production's playbill,
The play was written about a surveillance state: a totalitarian monarchy with a highly developed spy network. That was the system under which those who first watched this play lived. Elizabeth I exerted control through an internal security system that must have impinged on the lives of everyone who was present at its first performance.
         England in the 16th and 17th centuries was a very different place than Denmark in the 11th and 12th, and Shakespeare wove the idea that everyone is under surveillance subtly and powerfully into the tapestry of Elsinore.

Hamlet (Sam Rabinovitz) hides himself the best he can
         Hamlet, of course, is always under surveillance. His soliloquies (cut in our text) are inner monologues, known only to him; the rest of the time in Elsinore, he is keenly aware that he is never alone in the room. This is precisely why he feigns madness around the king and his minions in the Saxo Grammaticus tale that serves as the original source material. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, he must take his charade a step farther, never breaking character, never able to be himself.

        What toll does this take on his psyche? While this is not a primary question in our production, it was the topic of several private discussions with Sam Rabinovitz, the actor playing Hamlet. At some point, we decided, the line between 'playing mad' and reality starts to blur. True madness “leaks out” with increasing regularity, though since Hamlet is a good actor, the people around him don't realize the true extent to his insanity until it is too late.

         In our new frame of the Danish court, we are more concerned with the watchers than the watched. The king himself is the center of information in his regime. To that end, he employs people to observe and report – and not just on Hamlet. He knows of the impending Norwegian invasion before they deploy a single troop. He knows of Laertes' and Hamlet's returns to Elsinore before they arrive. 
Voltimand (Pamela H. Leahigh)
and Cornelius (Allison S. Galen)
         At the top of Hamlet: Reframed (and unchanged from the original text), Claudius sends Cornelius and Voltimand on a diplomatic mission to Norway, to talk to the Norwegian king about halting the Norwegian invasion of Denmark before it begins. He gives them
                       no further personal power
          To business with the king, more than the scope
          Of these delated articles allow. (I.ii)

This is certainly not a job that requires two diplomats. Claudius sends them as a pair to keep them honest. They are to watch each other, and report back on their return.

Rosencrantz (Kelsey Meiklejohn)
Guildenstern (Jack Powers)

         Due to his melancholy disposition, and later to his mental instability, Hamlet is the subject of much of the surveillance (as Claudius says, "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go."). We barely see Hamlet in our production before Claudius and Gertrude have employed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather,
So much as from occasion you may glean,
Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him thus,
That, open'd, lies within our remedy. (II.ii)

Hamlet's college friends' business at Elsinore is two-fold. First, they're asked to cheer him up. If Claudius and Gertrude are not letting Hamlet go back to school in Wittenberg, they'll bring his friends from there to Elsinore. But secondly, more importantly, and more tellingly, the king and queen want Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to report back to them on Hamlet. At this point, there is nothing sinister in Claudius' request. He is keeping his eye on everybody.

Opheia (Kristin Rogers)
and Polonius (Jay Tilley)

         Polonius' role in Claudius' administration is never explicit, but he is at home with espionage. He is quick to use his own daughter to test his theories about Hamlet's madness. Well before the famous nunnery scene, he asks Ophelia first to avoid Hamlet, cutting off all communication between the two. A (fairly) obedient daughter, she does. But Hamlet nevertheless comes to Ophelia, doubtless aware that his “mad” actions will get back to the king. Polonius tests Hamlet himself, and twice, hides himself while others interrogate Hamlet – first Ophelia, then Gertrude.

         However, Polonius' espionage work is not limited to Hamlet. In a revealing scene, as soon as Polonius' son Laertes leaves to return to school in France, Polonius puts a tail on him. He wants to know who Laertes' friends are, his and their habits, and how he handles insults. This scene is often cut, as it is in our version, due to time. We did use it, however, to inform us that Polonius is far more shrewd than many productions give him credit for. His foolishness, like Hamlet's madness, is an act that makes him seem less threatening, and puts him in a better position to glean information from others.

Devices for Surveillance
Elsinore on CCTV
         The film of the David Tennant production does a wonderful job of showing this surveillance. Every move is being recorded on CCTV – the guards patrolling the perimeter, Hamlet in the hallways and in the main room in Elsinore. Every once in a while, the film cuts to the CCTV camera view, constantly reminding us of the world these Danes inhabit. Hamlet, too, is fully aware of the electronic eye on him, which builds up to a point of frustration – he rips a camera off the wall and begins his soliloquy: “Now I am alone. . . .”
         Hytner's National Theatre production utilizes similar elements on stage. Nearly all of Hamlet's movements are monitored by cameras and armed guards wearing earpieces, who occupied the stage for most of the production.  Polonius' instructions to Ophelia are accompanied by photographs of her relationship with the prince.
          Branagh's film production, set in the 19th century, conveys the same sense of espionage and surveillance with one-way mirrors and hidden passages. His Hamlet is not always being watched, but is never sure.

        Our modest and minimalist production in the round utilizes simpler devices. Our Claudius seems to be behind every door. Every time Hamlet leaves Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, Claudius enters from another direction, eager for a full report. He does the same after Gertrude's conference with her son.  Polonius calls Ophelia's cell phone and places it in her pocket before her encounter with Hamlet.

        Whether a production focuses on Hamlet's side or Claudius', the idea of surveillance is imperative.  Hamlet must know that he is under surveillance, for he launches counter-intelligence measures himself in the forms of his madness and his play, "The Mousetrap."  Similarly, any production must acknowledge that Claudius' regime is an intelligence-driven government.  Claudius doubtlessly realizes that knowledge is power, and surrounds himself with diplomats and spies, so that no piece of information relating to the state of Denmark escapes his grasp. What's more, he realizes that the information is better when it “come[s] not single spies/ But in battalions.”

Friday, July 1, 2011

Why Reframe Hamlet?

         Many people consider Hamlet to be the best play Western literature has produced. The play is praised for its philosophy, for the beauty of Hamlet's soliloquies, and great debates surround issues of Hamlet's madness, his action or inaction, and his sifting illusion from reality. Why, then, do we choose to de-emphasize these elements in presenting Hamlet: Reframed, to cut the soliloquies and the philosophizing?

         The question is almost an answer in and of itself. Because Hamlet is so familiar (even those not acquainted with the play itself will discover nearly half the phrases in it have become modern adages). Because we already know the character of Hamlet so intimately. Because the same questions have been asked by each successive generation (and the answers have not changed much in 400 years).

         It is as easy for some to consider the play dead as it is for others to put it on a pedestal.
         We choose neither.
         We cannot view Hamlet as a sacred work, infallible and untouchable. On the other hand, we acknowledge the play has life in it, much of which has been overlooked, or at least overshadowed by the complexity of the title character, and by the poetry he utters.

The Frame
Sam Rabinovitz as Hamlet
         The play of Hamlet, not surprisingly, follows the character of Hamlet. It is told almost entirely from his point of view, to the extent that the whole play feels like it is Hamlet's fantasy version of his own story. When reading or seeing the play, we all acknowledge this on some level. We realize that this is not how real events play out: that restless ghosts don't send sons after uncles, that the avenging brother doesn't just happen to return carrying a vial of poison, that the entire leadership of a country does not all die within minutes of each other, wrapping up a dynasty neatly (if bloodily). But we accept these leaps of the imagination because we go along with Hamlet. We see his story through his glazed eyes. And we have for centuries.

The Reframe
         For that reason, Hamlet is tired. Many productions seem to be vanity projects – actors or directors wanting to tackle this great play, offering their drop of creativity to the sea of Hamlet exploration. But does that serve the audience? Does seeing one more slightly different, slightly new take on the same character provide an audience with a fresh view of the play, themselves, or their own world?

What if no one saw this?
         The film of Hamlet starring David Tennant does some of this, and provided the point of departure for our reframing. Among other things, it wonderfully depicts Denmark as a surveillance state. Even when Hamlet is alone in the room, CCTV cameras are on him, and we imagine Claudius and Polonius watching his every move from a control room at the heart of Elsinore. It begged the question: what if the cameras were turned off?

         We wouldn't see Hamlet rationalizing his every decision. We would not see him ponder the meanings of life and death. We would not see him encounter the ghost of his father, which launches him on his vengeful crusade. Instead we see him suspiciously greet his visiting friends, brutally break up with his girlfriend, kill one of Denmark's top advisers, and get sent to England because his behavior doesn't suit a prince.

         So we leave the frame of Hamlet, but find we need an anchor, a new perspective. Something more objective. Our frame asks: if the audience were members of the court, even one fairly close to the action, but not privy to everything, what story would that be?

         It turns out there is quite a bit left in Hamlet, once you take away the prince of Denmark (or his perspective). A newly wed king and queen. A prince who is unhappy about something, but we're not quite sure what. An impending invasion from Norway. The “kitchen of politics” (to borrow a phrase from Anouilh's Antigone, which also depicts family conflict affecting an already unstable nation). Shakespeare offers so much to the world of Elsinore that is overlooked (or cut) in most productions.

Not Shakespeare's Hamlet
         We are not producing Shakespeare's Hamlet, which is Hamlet's Hamlet. We are mining the text for different ore, and producing Elsinore's Hamlet. We offer a new perspective to the events of the play, one in which the affairs of state are the primary concern, and Hamlet increasingly becomes a threat to the well-being of the nation.

         One major result of the change in perspective is how we portray Claudius and Gertrude. In Hamlet's mind, his mother Gertrude is a horny old woman, and his uncle/step-father Claudius is a cartoon villain, little more than a Snidely Whiplash. In our production, we see this point of view in 'The Mousetrap,' the play Hamlet has commissioned for the king and queen to see. However, where the play-within-the-play serves to drive home the point of fratricide/regicide in Shakespeare's version (and “catch the conscience of the king”), in our Reframed, it shows the stark contrast between who the king and queen are, and what Hamlet thinks of them.

Claudius (John Stange) and Gertrude (Sara Bickler)
get news from Voltimand (Pamela H. Leahigh)
         Our Claudius is a king who's rolled up his sleeves and gotten to work, trying to repair the country after decades of his brother, Hamlet's father, acting selfishly rather than governing in the best interest of the state. He is a practical man, politically savvy, charming, and on top of the business at hand – all in all, a good king. We have not changed the fact that he killed his brother (with good reason in our case), but because it's not a fact the court would know explicitly, it hardly comes up in our cutting.

         Gertrude, more than anybody, wants what is best for the state, and what's best for her son. She is the daughter of a Danish king (we went back to the original source material, where Hamlet Sr. and Claudius marry into royalty), and intimately concerned with the nation's well being – it's her family's legacy and responsibility. She has crowned Claudius instead of Hamlet not out of lust, but because Hamlet is not ready to rule. She knows that if Hamlet takes the throne, he is being set up for failure. Along with needing to clean up Hamlet Sr's mess, his death has motivated Prince Fortinbras of Norway to invade Denmark. This is not time for a teenager to take charge. Claudius, who has been involved with Danish politics for years, has a better resume. Instead, the they name Hamlet as Claudius' successor, and ask him to remain in Denmark, at the heart of the government, and learn the craft of leadership.

         Shakespeare has woven a beautiful and subtle tapestry of family and political drama that in most productions, hangs in the background. In reframing Hamlet, we explore this unstable political world and what effects an unstable prince have on it.
The new Denmark
Gertrude (Sara Bickler), Claudius (John Stange), and Hamlet (Sam Rabinovitz)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Problems of Succession

      Any modern production of Hamlet needs to navigate three separate rules of succession. The way we, especially as Americans, imagine the laws of succession today differs greatly from the Elizabethan view, which is itself removed from the rules of the story's Danish origin.

21st Century America
      We are used to the idea of a hereditary lineage, where the eldest child becomes the next monarch. In our cultural memory of “once upon a time,” it is the eldest male child that would take the throne. However, our concepts of “once upon a time” are typically that of the Grimm brothers (Cinderella, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, etc.), Irving (Rip van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow), or Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers). When we think back further, we imagine the medieval world as depicted by Malory (Le Morte d' Arthur), Tennyson (Idylls of the King), or the Robin Hood legends (collected and popularized by Francis Child). While the source material for these tales might date centuries earlier, all of these authors were writing in the past 250 years. The United States predates most of these texts, as does the end of French royalty. Since then in British and other familiar monarchies, it has been the eldest heir who has been crowned. The idea has become so ingrained that today when we think of succession, we first think that the eldest child must inherit the throne.
Simple, right?

Amleth, Prince of Denmark
12th Century Denmark
      It can be difficult, then, for the modern audience to imagine the rules regarding succession in Hamlet's Elsinore, yet these rules provide the roots of the succession in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The principal source is Saxo Grammaticus's Life of Amleth, written around 1185 as part of his Gesto Danorum (a heroic history of the Danes). This tale is likely written down from a much older oral tradition. Isaac Asimov, in his wonderful Guide to Shakespeare, estimates the story taking place about 1050, well in the realm of “once upon a time” for Saxo Grammaticus. It is a Danish tale, set in Viking times in Viking lands, and is more culturally kin to Beowulf than to Othello. Rather than imagining the original Danes of Elsinore living in drafty stone castles, wearing doublets, robes, or shiny plate armor, we might more accurately picture them in mead halls wearing tunics or chain mail.

Hamlet going to England?
     This was a time of blood-feuds and expanding empires, but also of expansive international trade. A king had to be a military commander as well as a chief justice and a business leader. A weak king could mean being annexed (possibly forcefully) by a neighboring kingdom. It was not in the best interest, then, to name a king solely by birth. If the eldest child fit the criteria for ruling, then there would be little argument. But it was also likely that the late king's brother, uncle, or younger child might succeed as ruler. By these rules, Prince William (or Harry) might succeed Queen Elizabeth, if he was thought to have more leadership potential, rather than her son Charles.

     Less common ways to a throne include popular demand or military might, securing a crown by overwhelming popular consent or physical prowess. These are all claims to the throne we see in Hamlet. Hamlet is the son who is passed over in favor of the king's brother Claudius. Laertes and Fortinbras have more tenuous claims: Laertes leads an uprising of Danes, and Fortinbras enters commanding an invading army.

17th Century England
      Shakespeare's Hamlet was written about 1600, halfway between Saxo Grammaticus' writing and now. The then-400-year-old Danish tale must have had a “long ago and far away” sensibility to it, which was not entirely abandoned in Shakespeare's re-working of the story. Additionally, the Danish succession laws that must have pushed the bounds for Elizabethan idea of “once upon a time” were given a new perspective in light of recent English history. The Tudors, of which Queen Elizabeth was the last, gave England five monarchs in three generations. Who was fit to rule, and how these decisions were made, were popular themes in Shakespeare's plays, and could not have been very far from the public consciousness. Shakespeare's histories depict the turnover of succession in previous generations, dating as far back as King John (reigning 1199-1216), and as recent as Henry VIII, the Queen's father.

Henry VIII family portrait
     Queen Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII, having a negligible hereditary claim to the throne, defeated Richard III in battle to take the crown, and succession would have followed the male line from there. However, his son, Henry VIII, left only one legitimate male heir, Edward VI. When he died as a teenager, succession followed to Henry's daughter Mary, then begrudgingly to her half-sister Elizabeth. When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet at the turn of the 17th century, Elizabeth was 67 years old, childless and well past child-bearing age. Thus, the Elizabethan audience would have been familiar with issues regarding succession, with a cultural memory of other succession laws. It was not until 100 years after Hamlet that Britain adopted its current succession laws in 1701.

     The Elizabethans would have recognized Claudius' claim to the throne over Hamlet's as archaic, but it would not have seemed as shocking as it seems to us. Asimov points out that Hamlet's primary concern with the succession is not that Claudius succeeded Hamlet Sr., but the speed at which the decision was made (presumably before Hamlet could get from Wittenburg to Elsinore and nominate himself for the position).

     Complicating Shakespeare's plot seems to be a recognition of the Act of Association of 1584, which stated that anyone involved with a murder attempt on the monarch would be out of line for succession. This recent law colors some of Hamlet's and Claudius' behavior. While a public act, such as a fight, denouncement, or outright murder may have been legitimate ways to the throne in 11th century Denmark (or as it often was in medieval England), it certainly was not in Elizabethan England. Therefore, Claudius had to murder his brother in secret, unlike his source counterpart, who covered the deed with excuses. Likewise, Hamlet cannot kill Claudius outright, but first must expose Claudius' fratricide.

     Our production is not governed by the 1584 Act, but by modern laws and media coverage. Claudius's murder of Hamlet Sr. is justified, but still kept quiet, since murder is a capital offense, and even the whisper of suspicion in the media could bring down his reign. Indeed, in Hamlet: Reframed, there is not the whisper of Claudius's act, since the court had no suspicion of the deed. Even when Hamlet “outs” Claudius by performing 'The Mousetrap,' the murder lurks, at most, just below the surface.

Our 21st Century Elsinore
Claudius (John Stange)
      A modern audience will come into the theatre with modern assumptions regarding succession: It is a crime that Claudius jumped the line in front of Hamlet. Why does no one question Claudius' claim? There are certainly choices that make these laws work, but Claudius must be in total control, either by fear or by charm, and that limits what kind of man the production can show him to be. In trying to reframe the story out of Hamlet's perspective, the audience's first thought regarding lineage cannot put them back on Hamlet's side.
       Therefore, instead of letting modern sensibilities fight both Shakespeare's text and its source material, we shifted the world so that the succession laws are not familiar to a modern audience. Despite setting Hamlet: Reframed in the present, we have gone back to the source material to inform the succession in Denmark. For example, in Saxo Grammaticus' telling, it is Gertrude whose father was king, not Hamlet Sr. Nowhere in Shakespeare's play is there evidence that the bard altered this lineage, but neither is it explicit. In Hamlet: Reframed, we have chosen to preserve Gertrude's royal blood. Therefore, it falls on Gertrude to name Hamlet Sr's successor. Hamlet was not 'passed by' in an illegal sense, but both the abruptness of Claudius's coronation and Hamlet's own sense of entitlement give him cause to loathe the decision and distrust those it benefits.
The royal bloodline:
Hamlet (Sam Rabinovitz) and Gertrude (Sara Bickler)
      In modernizing the world of Hamlet, we nevertheless made several choices that put Hamlet: Reframed closer to its Danish source, and let them play out today. It is our hope that many of these choices are new to today's audiences, and assist in reframing the familiar story.