Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet

Happy Birthday Benedict Cumberbatch! 

This is a great year for him, and especially exciting with all the Shakespeare he has been doing.

It appears as if his work as Richard III for the Hollow Crown TV series is completed. Now we just have to try and be patient until the shows come out on TV.

But he has also just begun rehearsals for Hamlet!

Some photographs of these rehearsals have already leaked online:

I am thrilled that he has plunged into Shakespeare feet first with two of the greatest of the Bard’s plays, and I do hope that these experiences will compel him to return to Shakespeare over and over again over the course of his career. There are so many great roles for him to play, and I hope that he does them all. I believe that he could become as famous for his work with Shakespeare, over time, as his excellent work in film and TV.

As far as his Richard III, we shall wait and see. But for TV, there are fewer options for him as an actor, whereas for Hamlet on stage, he can explore so many ways to express Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark.

I hope he explores Hamlet as fully as possible. I have every reason to expect that his Hamlet will be great, and remembered for a long time.

But I hope that he takes some risks with the role, and makes a Hamlet that is more than just great, and would be remembered as a defining moment in the history of the performance of that unparalleled role.

The one single thing I hope is that Benedict tries to connect with the audience. I mean really speaks to them, makes eye contact with them, and involves them in the play. 

This is the way that Shakespeare wrote his plays, for the actors to speak with the audience, not speak at them. For far too long, actors mistakenly perform without seeing or acknowledging the audience. If Shakespeare came back and saw a performance of his play today, he would be bewildered, and confused at how silent the audiences are.

At the end of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy “To be, or not to be” Hamlet says “Soft you now! The fair Ophelia!” as Ophelia enters the stage.

What does “Soft you now!” mean? It means “shush” or “be quiet.”

Is Hamlet telling himself to be quiet? Is he shushing Ophelia? Of course not. 

He is telling the audience to be quiet. Hamlet has been debating whether to kill himself or not, and the audience has been loudly pleading with him to continue to fight against Claudius.

In fact, if you consider all of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, you will see that they are not soliloquies at all. They are colloquies — conversations. They are a dialogue with the audience, in which Shakespeare does not only hope the audience responds, and speaks aloud to the actor.

No, Shakespeare wrote these “soliloquies” to actually elicit responses from the audience.

“To be, or not to be” is the question posed to the audience, and Hamlet wants to hear the audience. In a sense, the voices from the audience become the thoughts and impulses in his brain, helping him to chart a course, and come to a decision.

I recently wrote about Mark Rylance, who is arguably the greatest Shakespearean stage actor. In an interview he discussed how as he performed Shakespeare over the years, the audience sometimes would say things aloud.

This was at The Globe, where he was the first Artistic Director. Performing at The Globe, a reconstruction of the playing space as Shakespeare knew it, the actors discovered how Shakespeare’s plays were written for that space, with natural lighting where the actors could see the audience, for example.

So, over the years, Rylance was discovering Shakespeare’s plays in a way that arguably no other actor had ever known, at least since Shakespeare worked as an actor himself. And one of the greatest insights Rylance had was that the audience will sometimes speak aloud, whether to criticize the play, or because they are so caught up in the drama that they feel compelled to speak.

Rylance and his actors began to anticipate such outbursts, and did everything they could to manage such audience interaction. (Also, whenever he performs on any stage other than The Globe, he insists that the houselights be turned on, so he can see the audience.)

But what Rylance and his actors failed to do was not just to anticipate the outbursts, but to actually evoke them, wrest them out of the minds and mouths of the people in the audience. And not just sometimes, or occasionally, make the audience respond — but to make them respond over and over again. 

Had he done such a thing, I think it would have made history. It would have revolutionised how actors perform Shakespeare.

I hope that Benedict Cumberbatch might make such history. It’s his for the taking.


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