My knowledge of Shakespeare is sadly sparse. Until yesterday I had never seen the entire production of Hamlet. This changed thanks to the efforts of the Muse of Fire theater company.
For the last seven years, Evanston-based Muse of Fire has offered free productions of Shakespeare's works in the City. Usually these productions are outdoors, in a park behind the Civic Center. For the last two years, Muse of Fire has also offered productions inside the Main branch of the Evanston Public Library. These productions occur during hours when the library would normally be closed.
Last night I attended the final library production of Hamlet for this season. The acting was strong and engaging, and I am sure the outdoor production is marvelous. But I am so happy that I attended the library production, as it made full and effective use of the second and third floors of the building.
A party scene took place in a large conference room. Polonius's speech to Laertes and Ophelia was adjacent to the Information Desk. Hamlet's confrontation with Queen Gertrude took place among the CDs. And the final climactic confrontation occurred in the entrance of the library, with the audience looking down from the flights of stairs above.
This took some work, requiring audience movement; on Facebook I called it a mixture of "drama and calisthenics." The effort was very much worth it, though, as the locations for each different segment perfectly fit the scale and import of that scene. It was a demonstration that any space can be turned into a stage, with enough effort, brio and ingenuity. Or, if you like, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."
This line, of course, comes from Hamlet. And that's why we now say, "There's a madness to my method." I knew the origin, I think, but had never seen it uttered in context. It's when Polonius first realizes that Hamlet is being deliberately difficult for reasons only Hamlet knows.
Same goes for, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Here is Hamlet admonishing his old friend Horatio for his rigid rationality, right after Horatio has observed Hamlet conversing with his dead father's ghost. Here's another phrase that has entered common parlance, as a reminder to be open to the supernatural.
And we cannot possibly forget, "To thine own self be true." This maxim, one I have used often, speaks to the need for authenticity. Or does it? As the culmination of Polonius's long list of bromides in his speech to Laertes and Ophelia, perhaps this is mere grand-standing. Or even a nudge toward complacency and shallowness, as Nicholas Clairmont argues in the BigThink. Make of the phrase what you will, it is now part of a shared frame of reference. For that matter every phrase I've quoted could be understood in multiple ways.
This endless mutability of interpretation is why Harold Bloom calls Hamlet the "poem unlimited." (His book by that title was helpfully displayed mere feet from where Polonius gives his speech.) It is why we care about literature in the first place. In the case of the theater, this innovative production is a reminder that the world is a "stage unlimited" too. As we know, all's the world a stage (that comes from As You Like It).