One of the reasons I love working with director John Langs is that he is a master of focusing in on an actors path within a text. He is rigorous about slowing the process down and making sure that each moment is as carefully lived in as any other. “Who’s there?” is cared for as much as “To be or not to be.” John uses a vocabulary that is worked out in detail by Declan Donnellan in his book, The Actor and the Target; the key word being “target.” Today, working on Hamlet’s first soliloquy, John and I (as well as our extraordinary Stage Manager, Ev Matten and exceptional verse coach, Gigi Buffington) sat down and slowly, patiently plotted our way through the speech making sure each phrase had a target.
There’s the target of the audience, to whom I am speaking. Believe it or not, this is a choice that must be made. It is actually very common now days for soliloquies to be delivered as personal mental conversations with one’s self that the audience merely witnesses. In Shakespeare’s day this was not a question. They were delivered frankly to the audience with out apology. At American Players Theatre, we tend to go with the latter. Though not always. After many years of exploring the option of addressing the audience, I’ve found that it is simply much more dramatic and engaging to watch an actor speak with another person (or group of persons, as is the case with direct address), than to be muttering to his or herself. Tremendous drama lives in the unexpected. What unexpected thing can happen to a person talking to his or her self? Not much. On the other hand, talking with an audience opens a flood of possibilities as to what might happen.
Then there is the Target of God. Another choice must be made here. In this first speech, as in much of Shakespeare, the phrase “O God” is pronounced. Is Hamlet using the word as an expression of frustration? If so, the target is himself. What if we accept the presence of a God that can be spoken to and called upon for answers? Well then, “O God” suddenly has a much different meaning, especially when God doesn’t answer.
Characters off stage or unseen may also become targets. We are playing around with these targets and what it might mean to demand a response from one that is not there. How many times have you muttered in the car after being cut off by a “dumbass jerk” in another car? It happens all the time. Words we’d like to say to someone, but dare not do so to their face, we utter in our privacy
The target list is infinite depending on the show and the given circumstance of a moment. Now, to get off this target for a moment and aim at another…
I have heard it argued, and by people with great knowledge and insight, people I very much respect, that the “To be or not to be” speech, while clearly about what it might mean to kill one’s self, comes out of no where or is the first time Hamlet considers such a thing. I beg to differ. I believe Hamlet’s first soliloquy is all about a longing to be dead. I look to the first four lines…
“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!”
It would be desirable to dissolve into nothingness or if God had not made it against his will to kill one’s self.
Yes, Hamlet goes on in the speech goes on to explore the why of such feelings, but when we come to the end of the speech, he concludes with…
“But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.”
If we make his actual beating heart the target of the thought, then Hamlet is pleading with his heart to stop and thus die.
Later, after learning from his father’s ghost about the dark secret of his uncle’s nature, Hamlet targets his heart again (and the tissues holding him together), but with a very different purpose…
“Hold, hold, my heart,
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up.”
What a struggle for anyone to engage in. Life and death. Two targets to be feared as well as respected.