For my final project for this course, I decided to do an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, Hamlet. I chose the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy for many reasons, one of them being that it is a soliloquy I had taken upon myself to learn a few months ago. With it being one of the most recognizable soliloquys in the cannon, I thought I should probably know it in full. However, choosing to recite this soliloquy for this project opened my mind to the myriad of possibilities that there are with this play, and how my adaptation fits into the current conversation around Shakespeare in both the scholarly sphere and what has been discussed in this class.
First, I want to talk a bit about the soliloquy itself, why it speaks to me and then I’ll move into my adaptation. As I began to learn this soliloquy I found that I really needed to dig into the language and look at each word on its own to really have it sink into my memory. But what was more than that was that I found a way into the soliloquy that I hadn’t before. I used to be very content with the high school answer of “Hamlet’s contemplating suicide” but the more I read it, the more I spoke the words myself and really made myself feel those words, I realized just how much more than that is really going on. Hamlet isn’t just contemplating suicide for himself, rather the concept of suicide as a whole, and even the larger concept of death, and how humanity views those things. I think that part of Hamlet’s frustration isn’t so much that he thinks he shouldn’t commit suicide, but that he realizes that he can’t just like how most of us can’t. And he discovers in his musings one of the deepest truths of humanity: you don’t know with any sense of certainty what happens after you die. It is truly “[t]he undiscovered country from whose bourn/no traveller returns.” There’s that inherent fear in dying, one that most people have, because of this lack of certainty. And I think that’s where Hamlet gets the ideas for the next lines as well, that because we don’t know what’s going to happen, we get scared, and so we don’t do anything about our rotten lives, and even when we could, we don’t. We also get a fabulous glimpse into his mind in the list of injustices that Hamlet thinks are unbearable or cause for deep unhappiness. Thinks like “the insolence of office” or “the law’s delay” or “the pangs of despised love” give us a good indication of the things that are going on in Hamlet’s life, things that we know are going on, but that we see how heavily they are all weighing on Hamlet. Hamlet is trying to work through the issues in his life pretty much on his own, and being a man of logic doesn’t seem to be helping him much either. I would argue that while this is one of the most logical arguments of the play, it’s also one of Hamlet’s most emotional soliloquys.
Part of the reason this soliloquy means so much to me is because two years ago one of my dearest friends committed suicide. It was shocking and heartbreaking and awful. And yet in learning this soliloquy I realized how Shakespeare had so perfectly put into words all the thoughts and emotions that I was going through trying to deal with this loss so perfectly into one soliloquy. In performing it, I really felt a connection to the words, especially the lines “and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to; ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.” I feel like part of what these lines are saying is how hard it is for the people left behind as well as the people who have passed, and unfortunately I am all too familiar with how that feels.
Now I’d like to discuss the particular choices I made in my adaptation of this soliloquy. I think that having a female Hamlet is a totally viable option, and opens the door to many interpretations of the play. In terms of the macro level of the play itself, I think that by having Hamlet and Ophelia be childhood friends rather than lovers fills the void that many scholars point out of a lack of female homo social relationships in Shakespeare. Losing a good friend can be just as devastating as breaking up with a lover, and the box of remembrances that Ophelia has from Hamlet could just as easily be notes and gifts and things that one friend would give another. It shows how many kinds of love there are, and that friendship fits into that world as well. Having to change he/his/him to she/hers/her wouldn’t be a huge issue, as it doesn’t disturb the iambic pentameter, however changing prince to princess does. So I think I would leave it as price, and make it a tribute to Queen Elizabeth I who had the heart and stomach of a king. I think that Hamlet would need to demand the same respect as Elizabeth I had to. I think it makes Claudius’ ability to take the kingdom right out from under her a lot more understandable as well.
In terms of the filming itself and my choices there, I wanted to film it in the hallway because hallways are such liminal spaces and therefore it’s easy to be overheard as Hamlet is. I made sure to leave the end door open a crack, to imply that Claudius and Polonius are listening just beyond it, yet Hamlet is so distracted that she doesn’t even see it. While Hamlet’s dress was black, I wanted to make sure that she also had something on overtop to represent the cloak that Hamlet and Gertrude talk about at the beginning of the play, but the stripes also imply the seeming madness that is to come. I wanted it to be a private moment that Hamlet is having, totally unaware of the potential for other people to hear her.
I truly enjoyed performing this soliloquy, and would love to have the opportunity to perform it again. I think that this play is one of Shakespeare’s most famous for a reason; it deals with so many elements of life and human nature, the moments of truth are frequent deep and profound, and Hamlet is easy to connect with if we put ourselves in his shoes. I’m looking forward to experiencing this play again this summer, and hopefully many more times in the future.