The Many Faces of Hamlet

Not just an excuse to put up a picture of David Tennant... truly!
The theme for one of my book groups next month is -- tah-dah! -- Hamlet. By happy coincidence, I'd made sure that one of my birthday presents was the David Tennant version of the play, which I watched over a couple of sessions. I think this might have been the first time I've ever seen Hamlet all the way through, and I'm afraid for much of it, I had to concur with Alice, who said plaintively, 'I don't understand what's going on...' Not saying I was distracted by the leading man... but it's possible...

I knew I had a copy of the text somewhere in the house. Hamlet wasn't one of the Shakespeare plays I studied at school (Romeo & Juliet in Year 10, then Macbeth, then Anthony & Cleopatra for HSC) but I'd acquired a battered copy of it from somewhere. I planned to read the original, and then tackle the two YA versions we'd chosen for book group. But I couldn't face it. All those dense, impenetrable words... all those footnotes... that stern, intimidating introduction... My appetite for hard work has sadly diminished since I was eighteen.

So I skipped it, and went straight into John Marsden's novelisation (which, interestingly, I found in the adult section of the library). This goes beyond being a direct translation of the play into modern prose. Marsden adds his own descriptions of the setting and characters: the forbidding castle, the white-haired, uncanny prince and adds his own interpretations of their motivations. But in truncating many scenes and glossing much of the dialogue (though he preserves some of the most famous lines), Marsden succeeds in making the action of the play far more intelligible. Finally I could follow exactly what was going on and figure out what the hell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were up to.

Armed with my new understanding, I next turned to Nicki Greenberg's lavish, full colour graphic-novel style volume, 'staged on the page' as she puts it. I'd flipped through this book when it first came out, but had trouble 'reading' the visuals, distracted as I always am by the words, and unable to decipher what the pictures (or the words) were telling me. But this time I was captivated -- I understood the story, I had a feel for the characters and what they were saying to each other, and to us. Nicki's gorgeous illustrations added a new dimension.

At last I feel I have a (bit of a) grasp of Hamlet. And now I might just have to go back and re-watch the David Tennant DVD, and this time, I think I'll really appreciate it.

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