The Problems With Hamlet and Czar Alexander III

Still from Wadja’s 1960 production of Hamlet, Teatr Wybrzeże – Gdańsk. Institute Teatralny.

The Polish director Andrzej Wajda writes in his little memoir about movie making, Double Vision, that once he started directing Hamlet and realized that the whimsical, arbitrary quality of the plot, the hardest thing was to relate onstage the sequence of events in proper order, from Hamlet’s first meeting with his mother and the king to Fortinbras’s victorious entrance in the final scene. That sequence of events would have been different if:

1. Hamlet had come to terms with his uncle, the king.
2. He had refused to believe his father’s ghost.
3. He had succumbed to Ophelia’s charms.
4. He had succeeded in killing the king while he was at prayer.
5. He had not killed Polonius by mistake, thinking he was the king.

Plus a whole lot of other “ifs.”

And yet, Wajda goes on, “We have to admit that Hamlet has a steel-like logic.” One thing just inevitably leads to the other.

As with art, so with life. If in 1881 Alexander III, new Czar of all the Russias, had not made life even harder for the Jews, then the family of Louis B. Mayer would not have left Lithuania; Louis Zelznick (later Selznick) would maybe have stayed in Kiev and William Fuchs (later Fox) in Tulcheva, Hungary; the Warner family might have stayed loyal to Krasnashiltz, Poland; Adolph Zukor to Ricse, Hungary; Carl Laemmle to Wurtemberg; and Schmuel Gelbfiisz (later Sam Goldwyn) to Warsaw. But Alexander III did not care for the Jews, so the whole gang listed above, born within a 500-mile radius of Warsaw, saw the writing on the wall as did about 1.5 million other Jews in the same period, and headed west.

You could say that Alexander III founded Hollywood. He hanged Lenin’s older brother, too, and so maybe there would have been no Russian Revolution either. This Czar made the world the way it is today.

Wajda also tells a good story about that happened the day the French left Algiers. People took to the streets and, in the course of events, still in a state of euphoria, arrived at the television studios. The gaping, empty studios, the television cameras and equipment scattered here and there, did not in the minds of the surging crowd seem to have any connection with what they conceived as television–that is, at least until the moment that someone in the know plugged in the cameras. Suddenly the blank screens of the monitors lit up and the demonstrators saw their own faces and bodies on-screen. At first they were amused. Then they were emboldened. Hey, we’re on TV! They realized if they could see themselves on the monitors, the rest of the population could also see them on sets across the city. Maybe even farther. They began to sing, dance, recite. The result was an uninterrupted television show that was for once completely authentic. It finally ended, as do all such spontaneous demonstrations with the arrival of the police and armed forces.

All the same, Dr. Johnson differed with Wajda on Hamlet’s “steel-like logic.” “The poet may be charged with equal neglect of poetic probability. The Apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he demands is not obtained but by the death of him that was required to take it; and the gratification which would arise from the destruction of a usurper and a murderer, is abated by the untimely death of Ophelia,, the young, the beautiful, the harmless and the pious.”

– February 18, 1989

This is excerpted from The Golden Age is In Us.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.