Hamlet in White

I knew I had something to return to: the mini-Shakespeare, Peele and Performance Conference at the University of York on November 2nd, and visiting speaker Michael Dobson’s surprised exclamation: ‘Hamlet in white!?!’ He was referring to the moment on his trip to China a few years previously, when he had been shown some pictures of a Chinese Hamlet. Was he talking about my Chinese Hamlet, I wondered? After all, Hamlet (Pu Cunxin) wore black jeans/trousers and an off-white hessian top in Lin’s production. And of course, in a western production Hamlet should have been wearing black – or at least should have according to Shakespeare’s script, although not according to Gertrude. ‘Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,’ she commands or begs in I.II. There are two reasons why I think Lin may have dispensed with this tradition. Firstly, it seemed to me when I watched Lin’s play that Pu’s contemporary western clothing was referencing Olivier’s loose white shirt in his film, which was widely shown in China at communal film-showings (Zhang). It was interesting to hear Judith Buchanan talk about the tradition of Hamletian clothing and editions being literally passed on from actor to actor in her talk at this conference. In this context, Hamlet is being aligned with a cinematic image that represents most of the target audiences initial contact with the play. However, even more significantly, this white shirt in Lin’s production makes sense of the meaning of Gertrude’s words in the local culture: i.e. ‘It is time to stop dressing in mourning for your father, son.’  For white is the colour of death in China, traditionally worn at funerals.

Dennis Kennedy explores this in his chapter on ‘Shakespeare and the Visual’ in Looking at Shakespeare (1993).  He argues that:

‘No visual element can have an absolute or fixed signification, since meaning depends upon shifting cultural perceptions’ (14). Thus, ‘A Hamlet set in contemporary Berlin is a different play than one set in medieval Elsinore or in Elizabethan London, yet all three have some legitimacy and even some Shakespeare authorization. To put it as simply as possible, how Hamlet is dressed reveals as much about the style and intention of  the performance as anything he says, and may well influence a spectator more  than Shakespeare’s poetry’ (15).

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