(Boyd Tonkin’s article appeared in the Independent, 7/31; via Patricia N. Saffran.)
"Remember me!" At midnight, on the battlements of Elsinore, his father's restless spirit transfixes Hamlet with that command. "Remember thee!" Hamlet reflects: "Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat/ In this distracted globe." Summoned to vengeance, the Prince of Denmark decides that in order to fulfil his mission, he must clear out his memory-banks. He should erase all the knowledge installed by an elite Renaissance education: "I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,/ All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,/ That youth and observation copied there".
The duty of revenge means unlearning all that Hamlet knows by heart – a big deal, around 1600. In the second act, memorisation again becomes a plot-pivot. Hamlet writes a speech for the First Player which, he hopes, will terrify stepfather Claudius into admitting guilt: "You could, for a need,/ study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which/ I would set down and insert in't, could you not?" A cinch. In the London theatre Shakespeare knew, star performers had to commit bulky parts to memory within days. Richard Burbage, for whom he probably wrote Hamlet, was a legend for his repertoire of supersized roles.
Stage Voices Publishing for archived posts and sign up for free e-mail updates: http 2015:// www.stagevoices.com/ . If you would like to contribute a review, monologue, or other work related to theatre, please write to Bob Shuman at Bobjshuman@gmail.com.