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Hamlet: Director's Notes

Though I have spent much of my career in and around the plays of Shakespeare, I somehow have never managed to work on Hamlet—either as an actor or a director—and it is thrilling to deeply examine a text that I thought I knew.


So many things that I thought of as absolute, textually supported ideas about the characters and events of the play vanished as I realized that there were ideas lodged in my mind, not from the text itself, but from previous productions of the play that I had seen. I have loved working with this unbelievably gifted cast and designers; their willingness to explore this text from zero—with no predetermined ideas of the world of the play and who these characters are—has allowed for one of the most thrilling rehearsal processes that I’ve ever been around. With an intent to neither thumb our nose at tradition, nor to accept tradition as our guide, this process has allowed us an opportunity to see the play freshly.


Here for a production meeting for Hamlet some months ago, I had the opportunity to tour the vaulted archives of the Folger, and as we were walking down the rows of the spectacular collection, I saw a grouping of books on Hamlet. I asked about them and was shown the prompt books from productions of the play. In front of me were Edmund Kean’s Hamlet, John Barrymore’s Hamlet, each with notes filling their margins as those actors struggled to solve the play in production, clearly just trying to figure it out. There is no absolute Hamlet, neither the character nor the play. I saw myself in a long continuum of theater artists that have wrestled with Hamlet, and recognized that the wrestling is the point of the matter. I am somehow thinking of T.S. Eliot all the time working on this play (ironically, since he rather famously didn’t care for Hamlet): “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”


Hamlet is a great play but not a perfect one, and in its dramaturgical imperfections reside the greatest opportunity for exploration. It is thrilling to explore the textually unanswered questions: Is Ophelia’s death a suicide (the one character who sees her death, Gertrude, describes an accident)? Are Claudius and Gertrude sleeping together before the murder of King Hamlet? How do we handle characters like Ophelia, the Ghost, Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—how do we understand them as people with their own needs and desires exclusive of Hamlet’s journey? To look on this play with fresh eyes, with as few preconceptions as possible, has allowed us a deep and wonderful exploration.


I hope you enjoy this production of Hamlet as much as I have enjoyed working on it at this storied organization with these incredible artists. I have not striven to make the “absolute” Hamlet but have taken Eliot’s words as my instruction:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

—Joseph Haj

Shakespeare. Hamlet. London, 1604

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