This year marks the 400th death anniversary of the greatest bard of the English language, William Shakespeare, and elaborate celebrations have been planned around the world to run through 2016 for this milestone.
His canonical plays, his comedies, histories and tragedies have provided grist to the creative mill of thinkers, poets and writers in English and other languages, to painters, composers and librettists.
It might be interesting to periodically give the spotlight this year to key characters and settings from Shakespeare’s plays and look at how they inspired the creativity of others over time. Let us start with ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’, his longest play, his first masterpiece, and “arguably the greatest tragedy in the English language”.
Perhaps it is not surprising that such a dark brooding tragedy in which almost all the main characters eventually die, except for Horatio who lives to tell the tale, should inspire in different ways at least three Russian composers: Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote two compositions dedicated to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The fantasy overture ‘Hamlet’ (Opus 67a, 1888) and incidental music for a benefit production of the play at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg (Opus 67b, 1891).
Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet fantasy overture is an underrated and underperformed masterpiece. Unlike his other fantasy overtures (like ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or ‘The Tempest’ for example), it lacks a structural development in the conventional sense (exposition-development-recapitulation) but it magnificently captures the gloomy atmosphere of the battlements at Elsinore castle and the dilemmas and conundrums tearing Hamlet apart. A beautiful plaintive oboe melody represents Ophelia, the central love theme.
In the incidental music, Tchaikovsky uses an abridged version of the fantasy overture, followed by 16 other pieces. He adapted some music from earlier compositions but also wrote new material. Although he apparently enjoyed the performance of the play with his music in it, he did not think much of his own music and refused permission for it to be used in a subsequent production in Warsaw. Today, the incidental music is performed (again, not often enough) in a concert version using 10 of the pieces including the condensed overture.
Prokofiev also wrote incidental music to Hamlet, when it was staged in Leningrad in 1937-38 by Sergei Radlov. Radlov had previously worked with the composer on his satirical opera ‘The Love for Three Oranges’ and his ballet masterpiece inspired by another Shakespearean play ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The incidental music to Hamlet only gained public interest after Prokofiev’s death. In ten movements, it begins with The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, followed by Claudius’s March, Fanfares, Pantomime, four songs of Ophelia, The Gravedigger’s Song, and Fortinbras’s Final March.
Hamlet’s existential quandary, his chronic inability or unwillingness to act, became known as ‘Hamletism’, something Russians could identify with as it so closely resembled Oblomovism, the indolent hero of Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel.
Dmitri Shostakovich himself attracted this label, and even today, his Fifth Symphony is sometimes referred to as his Hamlet Symphony. His opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had been viciously attacked in the “Muddle instead of Music” article in the Pravda, and his Fifth Symphony was a chance for the composer to ‘rehabilitate’ himself in the eyes of the Stalinist regime. After the peace offering of this symphony, in the official view, he was now “a Hamlet who had risen above metaphysical dithering to claim his place in the world”. But in the words of music critic Brian Morton, “perhaps this fallen prince of Russian music was still mad and dissembling sanity”. Is the exultant march in the finale really triumphal, or a death march?
Shostakovich dealt with Hamlet more directly on three occasions in his music: the first was a disastrously ‘comic’ farce of the play by Akimov (1932), and the next two were collaborations with Grigori Kozintsov. Shostakovich recycled music from King Lear for the 1954 staging of Hamlet, but his music for the 1964 Kozintsov film adaptation of Hamlet is today regarded as among his best film scores. His friend Lev Atovmian arranged the film score into an eight-movement suite. The music has three themes, two masculine (Hamlet father and son) and one feminine (Ophelia). The dithering Hamlet junior is sometimes portrayed by aggressive brass, at other times by plangent woodwind. Ophelia’s theme is dance-like, fluid, and given the tone colour of the harpsichord.
The British composer William Walton collaborated with Sir Laurence Olivier to produce three of the most highly acclaimed Shakespeare films of all time. The film Hamlet got Walton an Oscar nomination for his score, and won Olivier the award for Best Actor. Olivier wanted his production to portray a “psychological/Freudian” Hamlet, and does Walton give him that in his score! The music from the film has been adapted by Christopher Palmer into a fourteen-movement concert suite “Hamlet: A Shakespeare Scenario”. An historic recording by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and with Sir John Gielgud as speaker is well worth a listen.
When it comes to film adaptations in languages other than English, Vishal Bhardwaj’s hard-hitting Haider (2014) will probably jostle for elbow room with the best of them. I’ve watched it a few times and my admiration for it keeps increasing. The translocation of the setting from the medieval kingdom of Denmark to turbulent 1990s Kashmir is a stroke of sheer genius. The casting is excellent, right down to the Salman 1 & 2 avatars of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But it is Tabu’s Gertrude that steals the thunder even from Shahid Kapoor’s Hamlet. The high points for me are the adapted “To be or not to be” soliloquy (“Hum hain ke hum nahin”) and the play-within-the play scene, turned into a superbly choreographed song ‘Bismil’ at the Martand Sun Temple Kashmir. Critics have faulted it for taking too many liberties with the Bard’s words or even the spirit of Hamlet. But this is artistic license, not a slavish translation, in my view. I’ve not seen Bhardwaj’s Maqbool or Omkara (his adaptations respectively of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello) and this might be the perfect year to “make amends ere long”, to borrow a line from the Bard from another play.
(An edited version of this article was published on 13 March 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)