'Playing Bit Parts in Shakespeare' by M.M. Mahood



What’s perhaps unique about Hamlet amongst all of Shakespeare’s plays is that despite very much having a central role, the preponderance of smaller roles means that should the director choose to, it can appear as much of an ensemble piece as some of the comedy or history plays. Most stagings however, especially in the theatre, to bring the play down to a ‘manageable’ length, generally cut many of these parts, either handing off some of their dialogue to other characters or omitting their contributions entirely.

Mahmood’s book doesn’t feature a chapter dedicated to the play, but a general thesis does emerge from the few examples included that a director cuts there ‘bit parts’ at his peril and that despite appearances many of them carry rather more narrative or thematic resonance than they’re given credit for. In other words, Hamlet doesn’t really work as ghost story unless Barnado's fear introduces some much needed atmosphere up front.

The most interesting discussion is in relation to Fortinbras. I can’t think of a production I’ve loved which hasn’t included the Norwegian’s presence; as Mahood notes, without Fortinbras it becomes a different play -- a family drama, almost a claustrophobic chamber piece lacking the grand arena of international politics and ironic ticking clock of the impending invasion at the close. I also think you lose extra emotional drag that both of these sons are dealing with the choices of their father with Fortinbras arguably holding the better hand.

The role Osric plays in the final scene is also looked at, and in particular whether he’s the fop he’s most commonly portrayed as. Quite rightly, the author – with help from the likes of Dover Wilson suggests that he could be as duplicitous as Claudius, since its under his guidance that Hamlet agrees to the duel and it’s as sword master that the poisoned weapon makes it into Laertes hands. I’m not so sure – I’ve always thought that Hamlet fights because he’s recognised that he’s reached the end game and this will hasten the inevitable – to think otherwise weakens him somehow.

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