On small characters and alternative acting choices
As much as Shakespeare was an innovator, he excelled at taking established conventions and mining them for every bit of storytelling he could manage. Compleat Works jokingly refers to him as a formula writer, and there is quite a bit of truth to that statement. In addition to using a few dozen of his era's best story forms, Shakespeare was a master at using character types that his audiences would have recognized: the righteous virgin (Juliet, Desdemona, Miranda, Isabella), the unrepentant villain (Iago, Richard III, Aaron), the hothead (Mercutio, Hotspur) various clowns and heroes, cousins and fathers and brothers (not so many mothers). On paper, a lot of these characters seem interchangeable, which is why it's good that Shakespeare wrote for the stage, for our stage in particular, where personal interpretation is such an integral part of the creation of performance.
The character type that draws my attention today is that of the loyal companion. We see him in the form of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, Kent in King Lear, Antonio in Twelfth Night, and to a certain degree in Lear's Edgar, R&J's Nurse, Othello's Cassio, and As You Like It's Adam. The loyal companion is generally male and often a contemporary of the more principal protagonist. In many cases, he seems to have no agenda of his own, existing to support the main character and to serve as a sounding-board for monologues. He is always of a lower status than the friend he follows, establishing a master-servant pattern wherein the servant performs his role out of love and filial obligation to his social superior.
This is probably the detail that we have the hardest time wrapping our heads around in the 21st century. The loyal companion loves, serves and cares for his lord simply because he is his lord. There is no consideration of getting a better gig. It is no exaggeration to say that in the order of the Elizabethan universe Antonio's loving service for the shipwrecked Sebastian is a love that can be described as holy. That can be difficult for modern audiences and theatre practitioners to access.
Which brings me to Hamlet, opening October 17, in which I play the role of Horatio, the prototypical Shakespearean loyal companion. Horatio provides information to Hamlet, tries to protect him from the Ghost, obeys his commands, and basically follows him around like a puppy dog. Only a handful of times does Horatio disagree with Hamlet, notably trying to restrain him from going off with the Ghost and apparently disapproving of the prince's actions regarding Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (spoiler alert: they die). Horatio even goes so far as to attempt to drink poison to follow Hamlet beyond the living world. Hamlet stops him, and Horatio obeys his prince's final command to tell the world his story. All in all, a role that on paper lacks a lot of conflict or contradiction. Actually, it pretty much lacks any contradiction whatsoever.
I was talking with Liz Blake, no stranger to tackling the challenge of a potentially standard role, about the character a few days after we started rehearsal. I shared the thought that a female Horatio would be very interesting, particularly if she had long-standing unrequited affections for Hamlet. This would give an actor a lot of material for both internal and external conflicts, as well as a much richer emotional and strategic palate with which to play.
"You know, Andrew," Liz smiled, "Horatio doesn't have to be a girl to do all those things."
Liz has the uncanny ability to cheerfully make me feel like a blithering idiot at least twice a week.
Well shucks, the thought of Horatio being gay just hadn't crossed my mind. And it should have; there's plenty of textual support for it. Particularly interesting is Hamlet's line, "thou art e'en as just a man as ere my conversation coped withall," in the context that "conversation" and "coped" are common Shakespearean code words for sex. There are multiple references to the two men holding each other in their hearts, and Hamlet signs a letter "He that thou knowest thine, Hamlet." In the text, Hamlet confides with one person only: Horatio, whose affection is such that he can't seem to stop calling Hamlet "my lord," "my good lord," "my dear lord," and once "my sweet lord" slips out. It is only after Hamlet has died that he can speak his own secret name for his love: "sweet prince."
In researching queer Hamlets, I've been surprised to see that this angle, a rich vein for exploration by alternative and university theatres in particular, has not been nearly as frequently explored as I expected. In fact, the Oedipal Hamlet is the much more common interpretation, one I really just can't find a stitch of textual support for.
None of this is to say that this is a "gay Hamlet." There's nothing going on between Hamlet and Horatio; Horatio is simply in love with his prince, and has been for years. It's not even a matter of Horatio having the label "gay" placed on him, it's entirely the personal focus of him being deep in unrequited love. He doesn't love men, he loves Hamlet. There are no overt references to it, it doesn't change the production's theme and staging. It's something for me to play with, and for Jeff (Hamlet) to decide whether or not he knew about. (And how could he not? If Horatio is nearly as emotionally naked as the actor playing him, there's no real hiding it.) But it changes every moment of the play for me, gives me an immediate and accessible goal. It gives me some very powerful substitutions, and juicy double-meanings in my scenes with Hamlet. It provides some unexpected conflict when Ophelia (a perfectly nice girl who obviously makes Hamlet so very happy, damn her eyes) is in the scene. It's a hearty piece of meat for the actor, and it's anything to avoid playing Horatio as what the Washington Blade referred to in a 2007 review as "Hamlet's true and trusted sidekick."
Horatio needs to transcend the loyal follower type for Hamlet to achieve its best success. After all it is Horatio, not any of the larger characters who dominates the play's opening and closing moments, setting up our first and final impressions of the story. (In their defense, all of the principals are dead for the play's denouement.) But that's all just "words, words, words." Really, I just needed an objective to sink my teeth into, something that both transcends and supports the loyal servant role Shakespeare so lovingly wrote.
Horatio is a character who is felt less in the text than in the performance; his often-silent presence in witness to Hamlet's drama speaking louder than lines. It's a lot more interesting to stand silently in the presence of the man you're in love with--who just happens to be your lord.
Hamlet runs from October 17 - November 9. Go to www.richmondshakespeare.com for tickets.