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English-speaking versions of Hamlet vs. European versions
The many contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare enacted on the modern stage underline the fact that Shakespeare was a playwright for the ages, not simply a man of his own time. However, in the ways in which Shakespeare has been adapted to modernity, it becomes apparent that modern directors are just as intent upon revealing their own personal preoccupations as well as revealing the nuances of Shakespeare's plays. This can be seen when comparing British interpretations with European and other non-English language stagings of Hamlet. Although the most obvious difference between these two categories is that British interpretations are in the original language of Shakespeare while European stagings are enacted in translation, the difference runs far deeper. English productions tend to emphasize the psychological, internal conflict of Hamlet and view the play in terms of its psychological drama. In contrast, European interpretations of Hamlet have stressed the social dimensions of living in a Denmark that is ruled by a murderous king with a secret, a place which Hamlet calls a prison. Shifting attitudes towards 'truth' can be seen in the representation of 'truth' and theatricality in Hamlet in all nations' productions, but the individualism of the English-speaking world has tended to deemphasize the political aspects of the work.
It should be noted that in its original form, the elements of Hamlet had both a political and a personal aspect. Take, for instance, Hamlet's father's ghost, In Protestant Elizabethan England, the idea of a 'ghost' would have been a forbidden concept. "The ghost presents an interesting double bind for the audience, and defines a new type of theatricality. The ghost, in whom the public does not believe -- belief would be forbidden both religiously and morally -- achieves his effect only in retrospect…the ghost, in the truth of his untruth, cannot actually be doubted in the slightest." (Haverkamp 2006: 176). According to the Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet is awash in concerns about what it meant to mourn the dead in an England that had rapidly transitioned from Catholicism to Protestantism. What did it mean to have a ghost asking for revenge in a Protestant country, coming from a purgatory that officially no longer existed? "Purgatory…was at the center of vast web of institutional rituals and customs, and these practices had been forcibly repressed by the Church of England for almost forty years when Shakespeare's Hamlet was first performed & #8230;Reformers often rushed to discard age-old customs and practices that had acquired the familiarity and authority of ancient tradition. The iconoclasm of the Reformation left an enormous gap in the cultural and spiritual life of the English people, and Renaissance drama stepped in to help fill that gap" (Goldman 2001). The original Hamlet was intended to be a commentary on this new relationship between humanity and God that had been imposed upon the people of England by the state.
But long after these concerns were no longer cultural obsessions, Hamlet continued to be popular. In fact, it seemed to grow in popularity as a play. The universal themes of revenge and parent-child relations have caused Hamlet to be interpreted again and again, and translated anew in the theater, long after these concerns have abated. Hamlet contains many elements that have made it attractive for philosophical or psychological study, for academics spanning from John Keats to T.S. Eliot to Sigmund Freud. The apparent strangeness of some of Hamlet's actions, such as deciding to pretend to be mad and refusing to kill his uncle seem to make his psychology uniquely complex yet impenetrable.
Yet the continental European theater, Hamlet has often been shown as prisoner of an oppressive state -- someone who is very sane, rather than possibly mad. The fact that many dissidents during the communist era were imprisoned in asylums only sharpened the perceived analogy between the plight of Hamlet and the plight of protestors to regimes. For example, in Eastern Europe, in one 1977 staging of Hamlet by the director Heiner Miller called Hamlet / Machine, "the spectral presence of Hamlet's father materializes on two television monitors framing the stage, and placed strategically on the near side of the audience beyond the proscenium. It is as if the summons to vengeance, emanating from beyond the fourth wall, is an ironic twist on the fate of East Berlin's capitulation to voices that carried over from the West past the other wall. Partially overhanging the auditorium was a mechanized contraption consisting of a spotlight and a speaker that moved on tracks, a cruel reminder, I was told, of the clandestine technology the Stasi, or secret police, in the East would employ to spy upon its citizens" (Dasgupta 1991:175).
The view of Hamlet as the archetypal protestor is still omnipresent in Eastern European productions. In a 2006 Polish production, called "Hamlet from Gliwice." In "keeping the memory of the father becomes both a duty and a burden to the protagonist. While the mother urges him to remember, the hero struggles with the postwar guilt as a German raised in Poland. Hamlet from Gliwice does not ask who killed his father, but rather whom his father killed while in Wehrmacht. The play thus becomes the means to catch the conscience of the author, actors, and the audience, rather than that of the murderer (in this production Claudius is imagined as Hitler)" ("Hamlet Gliwicki: Full video," Global Shakespeares, 2006). In this interpretation, translating Shakespeare's vision for a modern audience is less important than using the cultural resonance of the figure of Hamlet to make a commentary about the real, historical past. Claudius in the original Shakespearean play is a far more complex and ambiguous character than Hitler -- Hamlet's uncle tries to pray for forgiveness, but then does not when he realizes that he is unwilling to give up the treasures for which he killed. The play and the character in the Polish rendition are used as an instrument and a vehicle for political discourse, not to explore Hamlet's psyche.
Using Shakespeare and other classics allowed many authors living in oppressive states to speak the unspoken, much like Shakespeare was able to talk about some of the religious conflicts gripping his nation in a clandestine fashion. Perhaps the most poignant example of this can be seen in the Soviet version of Hamlet, made by the dissident director Kozintsev, and later made into a film. This version cut dialogue between Hamlet and the players as irrelevant with the aim of showing "man's essential dignity in a world representing his indignity: and to 'make visible' the poetic atmosphere of the play" ("Kozintsev's Hamlet," Hamlet Guide). One again, working with a translation "Kozintsev made some cuts and some additions in order to bring out his conception of a Hamlet whose tragedy is caused by forces primarily outside of his own mind. (In contrast, Olivier's Hamlet  was introduced with Olivier's statement, 'This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind'" ("Kozintsev's Hamlet," Hamlet Guide).
In Olivier's interpretation, the crux of the play was Hamlet's indecision, and had Hamlet been a more decisive character, the play would have ended differently. In Kozintsev's, Hamlet is a man buffeted by fate, and when someone is living in an unjust political system, resistance is futile. The Kozintezev film was wildly popular in Russia, no doubt because citizens could read into the subtext of the play themes that could not be directly spoken of aloud. Another popular version was staged in 1971, at Moscow's Taganka Theater, in which "Yuri Lyubimov opened a production that ran in repertory until 1980 (217 performances in all), when the early death of Vladimir Vysotsky, the poet-singer-actor who had played the lead and given the production its special character, brought it to a premature end" ("Vysotsky's Hamlet," Hamlet Guide). The play was a translation of Boris Pasternak's version of Shakespeare, and rather than the humor and wit Hamlet, the tragedy of the work was stressed. Instead of telling jokes, the actor, during the graveyard scene "recited Pasternak's Hamlet poem from the banned Dr. Zhivago" ("Vysotsky's Hamlet," Hamlet Guide)
The stir is over. I step forth on the boards.
Leaning against upright by the entrance
I strain to make the far-off echo yield
A cue to the events that may come in my day ("Vysotsky's Hamlet," Hamlet Guide)
This is a sharp contrast to Hamlet's actual words in the original, which are humorous and sarcastic rather than mournful. "Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?" (5.1)
Of course, every director, regardless of nationality, has his or her own interpretation of Hamlet. But in the English-speaking contemporary theater, Hamlet's internal psychology rather than the exterior, oppressive nature of the court of Denmark is at the forefront of the interpretation. One of the most famous examples of this can be seen in Lawrence Olivier's staging of Hamlet, later filmed. Olivier used the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet as…[continue]
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