Once More, Different
once more is walking in the hall,
Hamlet once more, different in the hall,
And as he walks, he’s thinking for us all.
—from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited by Eli Siegel
Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio
in the graveyard
On a Sunday afternoon
in September 1963, at a Time Enough Poetry Class, I heard Eli Siegel
read the first act of Hamlet. It was an important experience in
theatre. Without smoke and dim lights, supernatural sounds or eerie
music, there was the platform at Elsinore, with Bernardo,
Marcellus, and Horatio waiting. There was the mystery and wonder with
the feeling of cold night; there was the poetry and the life of it.
January 20th I had been performing in Eli Siegel’s critical
masterpiece Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited at the
Terrain Gallery and the Gramercy Arts Theatre. What a time it had been!
New York City had become aware of a new Hamlet. As the opening sentence
of the Prologue tells:
It is a new Hamlet
because it is a Hamlet who does not care for his father entirely.
This had never been seen before by any
critic, and it affected all that happens in the play, and all that does
own work as actor had deeply benefited with the months of playing. Yet,
on this particular Sunday afternoon I found, to my actor’s joy, that
there was more to see. For in the way Mr. Siegel read the lines of Act
I—lines I knew well—there was a new mingling of the everyday and the
grand, the poetic and the ordinary, the permanent and the touchable. It
is this mingling every actor of Shakespeare looks for. This reading had
the everydayness of prose and the greatness of poetry as one thing. Eli
Siegel understood poetry, and he understood the self; what people feel
inside. He said: “The world, art, and self explain each other; each is
the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The knowledge he founded,
Aesthetic Realism, meets what actors and people are looking for.
we act in Shakespeare and the classics, we have these questions: How
can we honor the poetry and at the same time be fresh, spontaneous? How
can we be just to the music of an iambic pentameter line and to the
immediacy of the moment, the lively impulse? I had these questions when
I played Juliet for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and Hermia in A
Midsummer Night’s Dream in Central Park, and when I was the queen
in Richard II at Stratford. These questions, as always,
beautifully rage in the acting schools and on the boards of the land.
On that September day we heard a
reading that was truthful to the poetry and the humanity. Technique and
emotion were one—they were not simply present—they were one. There was
In the beginning, Mr. Siegel read the lines simply
and quietly. His pace was slower than I had heard before. In this
reading there was something artless and almost casual—almost,
but not quite.
Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself.
—These beginning lines came straight from a self that
was engaged. Within the slowness was something arresting.—
have seen nothing
—Here, a slight pause before the word nothing gave a sense of
drama in the unknown. Throughout there were new and unexpected accents
and pauses. Sometimes a word was lingered on, surprisingly. All of it
had a rightness—the choices came from a source that was sure. The room
was still. Thought was going on and thought had become dramatically
When Francisco said:
a mouse stirring
—there was delicate humor. One could almost feel that mouse,
the way the line was said. A mouse in relation to a universe, vast and
unknown, made for such comfortable lightsomeness. Surely this is a
small moment, but it was moments like this one that gave a quality of
something new, fresh, something happening that very moment. And the
humor and the mystery were of the same world. That is why a seemingly
small moment and the grander moments of terror and great poetry were of
a piece. Reality seemed to have a wonderful coherence.
We heard all the words and they made sense. In the
performances of Hamlet I have seen and heard, that is often not
the case. Words are sometimes not understood, even when you know them
by heart. Speeches are taken as if they were just that—speeches. The
nuances of life and thought seem absent. And then there is that tone—orotund,
well-trained, “cultured,” and not very human. Lines don’t come from
selves that live. (The other side of this is the
“folksy,” “just us” approach.) It is hard to be fair to poetry and to
life in the ordinary, even rough sense.
Carlos Williams said something of Eli Siegel’s work as a poet which
comments on our experience listening to Mr. Siegel read Hamlet: “The evidence is technical but it comes out at the non-technical level
as either great pleasure to the beholder, a deeper taking of the
breath, a feeling of cleanliness, which is the sign of the truly new.”* This was so as Mr. Siegel read Hamlet. It was utterly down to
earth and it soared.
The first long speech of Claudius to
the court in Scene 2 was interesting, and, of all things, funny! With
all his pomposity, Claudius was a person. Even within villainy
there was uncertainty. For the first time this scene seemed to be about
real events, not just exposition. Hamlet’s soliloquy in Scene 2 jutted
more and was less smooth than I had ever heard. How hard it is to have
the “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,” soliloquy sound
unplanned. Yet it did, even while the poetry was there.
high point was the reading of Scenes 4 and 5—the famous Ghost
Scenes—beginning with Horatio’s “Look, my lord, it comes!” This was
said with slow, grand terror, with a pause after the word look,
and another after my lord, and the voice low and ominous.
These scenes had intense
stillness. Questioning seemed to be going on at every turn—questioning
within and without. How unconventionally these scenes were—I almost
said played, they seemed played—read. There was none of the
usual “theatricality” which consists of persons talking very loud and
fast, in tones of Shakespearean urgency and reverence. Here, as
Hamlet asked his father questions—Say, why is this? wherefore? what
should we do?—there was intensity, but it came from a belief in the
A Father and Son
The scene had that
mingling of the awesome and the domestic, as Hamlet spoke to his
father, as the soldiers watched and spoke in confusion, as the Ghost
listened. There was the uncertainty of life at its greatest and most
terrifying, and life as ordinary, immediate, embarrassingly domestic.
A thing that struck me was this:
These Ghost scenes were read completely differently from anything I had
imagined. They were ever so much slower and they were quiet—again there
was the feeling of almost casual.
There was a sense, through the way Mr. Siegel read the lines, of things
creeping up on you and taking hold of you without your knowing just
what was happening. Words, lines unfolded—with a wonderful awkwardness
and ease—and they seemed to come at that very moment, with no plan, no dramatic
idea in mind, no theatrical moment thought of. And none of it
spilled over, either.
Since that Sunday, Eli
Siegel has read the whole of Hamlet, and his reading has been
recorded. Its newness remains. It will be studied by persons in the
theatre of today and in the theatre of the future. Honesty in a great
field is to be cared for and learned from.
I mention some high points:
In Act II, Scene 2, in the
scene with Polonius and Hamlet, there was a quietly mournful humor,
instead of the usual brittle sarcasm—
Hamlet. Words, words, words.
Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet. Between who?
mean, the matter you read, my lord.
—Polonius—a person at last—was affected
by Hamlet, even as he spied on him.
In the Closet Scene, when Hamlet sees the Ghost,
there was tremendous emotion and great control. There was the sadness
of people who are close but who do not understand each other, and
perhaps never will. As Hamlet said:
him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
—there was the quiet of infinite sadness. There was no shouting, no
rant, no hollow elocution.
when the Queen told of the death of Ophelia:
is a willow grows aslant a brook
—one had the feeling that, indeed, Ophelia had just drowned. The Queen
was real and the situation was.
And Scene I of Act V at Ophelia’s grave had all the
pretense in grief that has ever been shown beside a grave, and all the
anger that has ever been felt in seeing this pretense. ’Swounds! the
scene was great! The lines:
is I, Hamlet, the Dane!
were naked in power. When Hamlet and
Laertes grappled in the grave, they grappled. The forces of
good and evil in the universe fought as these two fought, and the
battle was beautiful.
Hamlet’s thoughtfulness, his deep gaiety and charm, his care for people
were present. In the last act, we felt Hamlet’s tiredness, his
weariness. Hamlet became tangible.
Sir, I will walk here in
the hall; if it please his Majesty, ’tis the
breathing time of day
with me. . .
Edwin Booth as Hamlet, in 1887
knew that Hamlet was going to die in the fencing match, and that
nothing could prevent it, and it was like knowing this about someone
dear to us. Hamlet was a person, not only a character in a play. Isn’t
this how Shakespeare meant it to be? Didn’t he mean us to feel that
Hamlet lived and died, and that his living and dying is of us, of our
Hamlet matters to humanity and the whole world. Through
this reading by Eli Siegel, we who heard it understood better why
Hamlet matters so much, and why we care for him as we do. So I am
grateful to William Shakespeare for giving the world Hamlet, and I am
grateful to Eli Siegel for showing the world Hamlet, as he was
meant to be.