Towards a Research Question: Hamlet and Cultural Usurpation.

I am taking the advice of The Craft of Research team and, instead of reading in order to find a question, I am forcing myself to think of a question to guide my reading.  Because I am entering an area so far out of my previous knowledge, I suppose that this question will inevitably change.  To be honest, I am still not really sure what a research question is.  I keep thinking I have one (I have dozens of questions) but they appear to be, at best, textual questions, or at worse, just questions.  What was de Grazia’s research question? ‘Is there a Hamlet if you ignore Hamlet?’?

As I read about Hamlet outside of the Anglo-American tradition, it seems that the play is frequently interpreted as being less about the individual and more about the political context of its audience (Kennedy, 1993).  And Hamlet is once again being interpreted as a political play in Britain, too.  Olivier’s film was the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind, and this was echoed much less successfully by the doomed National Theatre production I saw when I was an undergraduate at UCL (perhaps around 1990). It was the one that Daniel Day Lewis withdrew from after beginning to see the ghost of his father on the stage.  (I’m not sure if that story is true, but it has entered Hamlet legend.)  I was terribly disappointed, firstly because Day Lewis, understandably if he was in the middle of a collapse from nervous exhaustion, was dreadful (he was still best known then for playing Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette, a life-changing film for me as a teenager on my ‘80s small-town housing estate in the middle of white, right-wing military Salisbury Plain), but more so because the whole production was so traditional and therefore so predictable. In contrast, I remember being energised, entertained, stimulated and shocked by the Phoenix (?) production from around the same time.  It was directed by Derek Jacobi, I think, and Hamlet was played by Kenneth Branagh.  If I remember rightly, much of the production was quite jolly, with Hamlet and his sidekick Horatio goofing around and satirizing the court at Elsinore.  I even seem to remember that the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene was played as a flirtation between Hamlet and Ophelia, but I might have made this up and redirected this in my imagination!  Either way, the ending was truly chilling, when Fortinbras marched on in 1930s military style clothing and had Horatio escorted off-stage, followed immediately by the sound of rifles being fired, suggesting his summary execution not a gun-salute. It was this sense of Hamlet being about the fate of a whole society rather than that of one man and his immediate family, that came across so strongly to me in Lin’s appropriation. Even from that opening scene of the two gravediggers as urban Beijing workers up to their necks in a muddy ditch there was a no doubt that this was about the here and now, the here being China, the now being the moment of the transformational economic reforms that were about to make it the new Superpower.  For this was a sight familiar along every roadside in the rapidly developing Chinese capital, and any other city, the workmen laying pipes and cables instead of excavating graves, of course.  But for many, this image was not only representative of the birth of a new China, it was also foreshadowing a dying: after all, the construction of high-rises and department stores were burying forever the old hutong courtyard dwellings and the communities that lived in those crowded alleyways where they were located.  (Although one shouldn’t get too sentimental – many of my Chinese friends who get misty-eyed and nostalgic about their childhoods would be the first to admit that they would never leave their centrally-heated modern apartments, with running water and flushing toilets, to return to their foundationless hutongs and the shared public squat toilets at the end of the street.)

So how can I make a compelling research question based on these images and musings?

As I have said previously, what has struck me about Shakespeare/Hamlet in both Chinese and Arab cultures is how they have been linked to modernisation and nationalism, or at least, with the expression of a national identity.  China first started embracing Western ideas and culture after it unexpectedly lost the Sino-Japanese war in the late 19C (Dolby, 1976).  It associated Japan’s sudden rise and military strength with its willingness to embrace the West for its own purposes.  Chinese reformers urged the same, rejecting the centuries old policies of keeping itself culturally and linguistically separate (Bolton, 2000?).  Shakespeare helped shape a brand new genre of drama – huaju or speech drama – that strange foreign concept of having a bunch of actors stand about on stage talking.  This new style was obviously particularly appropriate to address contemporary political events, and Hamlet was particularly conducive to speaking of the Chinese situation – see LaoShe’s prose novel New Hamlet (Huang 2009) and the wartime performance in a Confucian Temple in Sichuan, put on in defiance of the Japanese (Li, 2003 and Huang, 2009). 

It could be that this story resonates so strongly with the Chinese because filial piety is central in Confucian culture (Judy Ick, BSA conference, 2009), but it could also be to do with its themes of usurpation and invasion. Just as these themes spoke to early 20C Chinese anxieties, it is interesting to see how later theatre and film practitioners have returned to this play in time of China’s rise and increasing dominance. To what extent are these outright appropriations, bearing in mind that Shakespeare is seen by Eastern cultures as representative of Western culture, perhaps a type of usurpation or even invasion (and there might be something interesting to say about the decline of Shakespeare studies and performance in the West – although I am not sure how true this is – and its rise in the East.  In thirty years time will the bulk of interest in Shakespeare have relocated to Taiwan, China etc?).  Is this why Chinese artists use the most canonical of Shakespeare’s plays, traditionally the ultimate expression of the Western concept of individualism, as a way to assert a sense of national identity that is fundamentally different?  This play is no longer yours, we have taken it over and made it ours?  These are now not your values, your visionings, your stories, but ours? Is this process completed when a Western audience sees themselves reflected back unrecognisable?

Are these research questions?!

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