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Silent Hamlet

Many have had a go at explaining the madness of Hamlet, not least generations of high school and college students faced with faking their way through that perennial exam essay question: Is the prince’s insanity real or is it feigned?  Freud claimed the young Dane suffered from a complex he named after another King’s son, Oedipus. The royal kids from the mythic Thebes and rotten Denmark shared many of the same neuroses, but in the intervening years society had vigorously developed its systems of repression, thus giving different forms to the expression of madness.

Among the legion of academics and amateurs who have tackled the problem of the moody Dane’s behavior, was the nineteenth-century railroad executive and book collector, Edward Payson Vining.   His theory was far more radical than that of his contemporary Freud. In his Mystery of Hamlet of 1881, Vining proposed an alluring thesis: Hamlet was a woman, her gender hidden by her parents in order to ensure the male succession to the Danish throne.

Vining had a penchant for provocative claims. The slender Hamlet volume of one-hundred pages was followed by a weighty 1885 book eight times longer and sporting a title that hardly boosted faith in the railroad man’s first literary effort nor in his own control over his intellectual faculties: Inglorious Columbus; Or, Evidence that a Party of Buddhist Monks from Hui Shwan Afghanistan Discovered America in the Fifth Century A. D.  Sandwiched between these studies was 1884’s The Necessity for a Classification of Freight and the Principles Upon Which It is Based, a rather less fanciful publication that may have been aimed at bolstering the idea that Vining was not off his rocker. It was clear where Vining’s interests lay.  The railroad tract was a pamphlet of just ten pages.

Vining understood that his historical and literary ideas might be frowned upon. There must have been more than a little whispering that he, not Hamlet, was the one who should be sent to the booby hatch. Vining himself struck a defensive tone at the very outset of his Hamlet book: “The views set forth in this little work suffer not only from the lack of literary experience upon the part of him by whom they are presented, but they are in themselves so different from those which have usually been held in relation to the character of Hamlet, that but little favor can be hoped for them.”

This fear proved to be fabulously false, though not in the way Vining might have expected. Indeed, Vining did not live to see the extent of his theory’s eventual fame. The year after his death in 1920, a film version of his theories hit world cinemas with the Danish actress Asta Nielsen in the lead role.  Nielsen was the first global movie star, the best paid and the most highly acclaimed.

The list of women who played Hamlet before Nielsen was itself long and illustrious, beginning in the late eighteenth century with the celebrated English actress Sara Siddons and extending into Vining’s own day, most brightly with Sarah Bernhardt, whose performance was decried by critics for being extravagantly feminine. Nielsen added the final somersault to these gender inversions with the help of a vigorous push from Vining’s theory; the 1921 German production cites him in the opening credits, burnishing his legitimacy by preceding his name with the title “Professor.”

This milestone in the history of silent film and Shakespeare interpretation was long feared lost, but a tinted print was rediscovered in 2005 and restored by the German Film Institute in its original sepia and blue tones. The reddish brown exteriors exude history and fate: Norwegian forces on horseback; traveling dramatic troupes, and castle interiors that pulse with antic melancholy, Ophelia pulled from the brook, her white dress turned the color of damp straw. The gloomy interiors throb with foreboding. One can almost smell mead and moss in the auditorium air as if wafting synaesthetically from the screen. Never was Hamlet’s inky cloak inkier. Nielsen’s hair and eyes shine equally as blackly.  Her slender hands dance whitely against her dark robes. Her long face with its once-world-famous cheekbones is splendid in its pallor in the midst of which her large dark eyes scheme and love.

That love is directed at Horatio—much more than simply a friend of the manic prince. The film adds many scenes to the original, pursuing rampant liberties with the alleged sanction of Vining’s treatise. Hamlet falls for Horatio during their student days at the University of Wittenberg. But as it turns out Horatio secretly loves Ophelia, though surprisingly doesn’t seem to blame Hamlet for his mistreatment of the young woman. There are longing glances in which Nielsen’s expressiveness excels, and nimble avoidance of embraces that might reveal her womanly features. This female Hamlet’s true feelings remain unrequited except for a fleeting posthumous kiss by Horatio and his simultaneous discovery of her right breast after the final deadly duel with Laertes. In the run-up to this fateful encounter Nielsen begins increasingly to emerge from her courtly costume while her acting becomes freer—ever more animated and deranged as if madness really does overtake. Hamlet wails to her mother Gertrude, and the inter-title translation of her plaint reads: “I am not a man, but am not allowed to be a woman.” An end to the long-suffered lie can only be around the next dank castle corner and but a few screen minutes away.

These repressions and revelations were aided and abetted in a performance in Sage Chapel on the Cornell campus by the Filmharmonia duo led by the pioneering silent film musician, organist Dennis James. Over the past forty years, James has been indefatigable his performances and research, and through his music-making brought many important films (among them Lilian Gish’s 1926 masterpiece, La Bohème) back to life.

On the occasion of the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616 the National Gallery of Art commissioned a soundtrack from James. He then joined forces with international expert in historic keyboards Michael Tsalka, a musician of fertile imagination and dauntingly facile fingers, unseen by the movie audience but no less expressive than Nielsen’s.

James and Tsalka developed their material by drawing almost exclusively on the works of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons, all of whom were to varying degrees both inspired and oppressed by the legacy—or do I mean ghost?—of their domineering father. Since Nielsen’s Hamlet is a fantasy on the original, and it was fitting that the Filmharmonia score was a sprawling Bachian tapestry of soul-searching keyboard monologues by the older two brothers—Wilhelm Friedemann (a disappointment to history and probably to himself) and second son Carl Philipp Emanuel, the most famous Bach of the eighteenth-century; these harrowing fugues interleaved with swerving flights of fancy were leavened by lighter fare from the youngest son, Johann Christian. This unashamedly superficial music was enlisted for the frolics of Hamlet’s student days and his clever forgery that cost Rosencrantz and Guildenstern their heads.

The most famous fantasy of them all was composed by Carl Philipp Emanuel in 1753 soon after the death of his father, and was promptly kitted-out by a contemporary poet with a translation of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Singing the embedded soprano line added to this most famous musical fantasy as well as another sepulchral, much simpler song by C. P. E. Bach, was Marija Bosnar, whose voice matched the range of Hamlet’s rampant emotions, from touching purity to fiery outrage. C. P. E. Bach’s Hamlet Fantasy, one of the most famous keyboard pieces of the second half of the eighteenth century, lurches from defiant outbursts to the most sentimental melodies, and is the very sonic image of Hamlet’s madness. It reappeared to lurk and rave, ghostlike, as the drama took its unlikely course.  The Bach sons lived at a time when Germany had become obsessed with the restive—some claimed unorganized—genius of the Bard, and the Filmharmonia duo score, with James at the brooding chapel organ and Tsalka on harpsichord and early piano of the kind known to the Bachs made for an unexampled trans-historical mash-up that both complicated and complemented Nielsen’s newly animated reimagining of Hamlet as the Princess of Elsinore. Last night’s screening inside the suitably Gothic interior of the nineteenth-century chapel in whose crypt are laid the university’s founders, and in whose rafters flies a bat apparently fond of these ongoing silver screen exhumations, showed again that these are not really silent films at all, but rather works that have inspired, and indeed demand, creations of musical sound that in turn make Nielsen’s onscreen madness even more magical and mysterious.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

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