First off, a confession: although I love Shakespeare and consider myself an avid Shakespearean scholar and reader, Hamlet has always been one of my least favorite Shakespeare plays. After all, it lacks the lusty bloodletting of Macbeth, the utterly tragic pathos of King Lear, or the gender bending sexual dissidence of comedies such as As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For me, Hamlet, despite its numerous psychoanalytic contortions and oft-repeated soliloquies, remains one of Shakespeare’s snoozers.
Fortunately, Myrlin A. Hermes’s deft, witty, and eye-opening Hamlet “prequel,” The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet (Harper Perennial), may force me to rethink my opinion.
In her novel, Hermes—perhaps best known for her debut novel, the weepy Southern historical yarn Careful What You Wish For (Simon & Schuster) — introduces readers to a Hamlet we’ve probably never imagined, despite having “seen” him portrayed by such luminaries as Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson, just to name a few. Hermes’s Hamlet is variously described as a beautiful, sexually ambiguous (not to mention sexually voracious) “angel or an airy sprite,” a “well-formed youth—slender yet, but with shapely calves and thighs,” and an “Adonis.”
In short, this Hamlet is not the morose, brooding character of yore; he is decidedly hot, at least according to the novel’s other, familiar characters including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (portrayed as a pair of middle-aged, gossiping, social climbing queens), Adriane (the mysterious “Dark Lady” made famous in Shakespeare’s sonnets), and of course Horatio, the novel’s wan, tormented narrator.
Generally speaking, Hermes’s strategy of allowing Horatio to become the “leading player” in order to tell Hamlet’s back-story works well. Horatio, initially hired on by Baron de Maricourt, Adriane’s nouveau riche but illiterate husband, to “translate” his fanciful ideas for a play into something that can actually be staged, meets, befriends, and quickly becomes enamored with Hamlet.
This affection becomes Horatio’s impetus not only for recreating the Baron’s play (not subtly modeled on As You Like It, complete with characters such as Jaques and Gandymede and containing a “Seven Ages of Man” speech) as a starring vehicle for Hamlet, but also for provoking in Horatio an outpouring of romantic sonnets. These sonnets, nor surprisingly, also have a familiar, passionate ring to them (Horatio, for example, composes “Time shall never cut from memory, my sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life.
His beauty shall in these black lines…,” lines which closely resemble the penultimate verse of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 63). The same passion that Horatio pours into these sonnets soon attracts the attention and attraction of Adriane, who not only initiates a clandestine affair with him, but also uses this evident love for his “master-mistress” in order to insinuate herself with Hamlet.
However, this lover’s triangle becomes increasingly complicated, a complication only exacerbated by the arrival of a mysterious rival poet/playwright whose prowess both on the written page and in the bedroom soon has Horatio, Adriane, and Hamlet at cross purposes. Hermes, in an evident nod to the ongoing “who is Shakespeare?” controversy, gives many enticing, clever, and often “punny” hints as to the identity of this mysterious writer while never actually making a full disclosure.
A typical example of Hermes’s hints include an exchange between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and an unseen Horatio) who collectively spy on Hamlet and “Will Shake-spear” engaging in some rather raucous buggery. While Guildenstern speculates repeatedly on the identity of Master Will, Rosencrantz is more preoccupied with eating:
There was another long silence, while we watched the lovers’ shadows—Hamlet lying back
helplessly against the window, groaning while the poet’s head bobbed in and out of view.
“What about bacon?” said Rosencrantz suddenly.
I groaned with Guildenstern. By now I was just as annoyed as he with his companion’s talk of food.
Shakespeare aficionados will instantly recognize that Rosencrantz’s seemingly offhand remark about bacon is a punning reference to Sir Francis Bacon, the renowned Renaissance poet and philosopher and one of the main candidates for who might really be Shakespeare.
Yet these “groaning puns,” along with the numerous, overlapping storylines, ultimately detract from the real story of how Hamlet became the famously conflicted, tortured character familiar to most readers. In fact, Hermes allots surprisingly little space to illustrating this progression, other than hinting that Hamlet has “daddy issues” stemming from King Hamlet’s disappointment over his effeminate, decidedly non-soldierly son.
Even less mention is given to Hamlet’s conflicts with his mother Gertrude and her “affair” with Claudius (which John Updike illuminated masterfully and which, indeed, forms an important part of Hamlet’s morose mental state). In short, while The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet showcases Hermes’s evident knowledge of the play Hamlet, it does little to help readers further understand the complex who’s, what’s, and why’s of Hamlet. And that is indeed a tragedy.
—— THE LUNATIC, THE LOVER, AND THE POET
by Myrlin A. Hermes Harper Perennial
Paperback, $13.99, 365p