Hamlet, two ways

A couple of years ago I went to see a production of Hamlet starring Michael Sheen. And since I often find that I appreciate Shakespeare performances most when I am already familiar with the play, I decided to refresh my memory on the details.

What I stumbled across was this: Franco Moretti, a literary scholar, fed the text of Hamlet into a database, and using a complex algorithm charted the interactions of the various characters. He then produced an analysis of the play, based around the networking of the key characters. You can read the 31-page study here, if you wish. And below is my rendering of one of his diagrams, describing the interaction of the characters.


Now, the production I saw was decent. A little controversial. It received some criticism for a few of its artistic choices, which caused it to deviate from Shakespeare’s original text. But it was enjoyable and moving nonetheless.

So consider these questions:

Which ‘Hamlet’ was most accurate? Moretti’s or Sheen’s?

Arguably it’s Moretti’s. His work can tell me a good deal about the play from a literary-critical perspective. Everything is charted with pinpoint accuracy. No unexpected creative deviations have taken place. To all intents and purposes it presents a flawless rendition of Hamlet.

Which ‘Hamlet’ was most beautiful? Moretti’s or Sheen’s?

The answer to this is equally clear. Moretti’s Hamlet will never draw a tear, evoke wonder, or cause the viewer to tremble with terror. Its accuracy undermines its aesthetic appeal, and an embodied performance, even one which treats the text slightly less rigidly, may in a strange way we more faithful to the spirit of the text.

A third question.

Is our preaching more like the chart or the play?

Have you ever heard or delivered a sermon which prizes pinpoint accuracy over heart-change and in-the-seat experience? How about one which throws the text out the window and presents an experience-heavy piece of art, but which shows no fidelity to the author’s instructions?

Life’s too short for mediocrity, and we don’t have time for sermons, books, blogs and the like which are beautiful, creative, evocative, compelling, heart-wrenching, but vacuous or downright heretical. And how can we expect people to find material compelling if it is accurate and thoughtful, with every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed, but fundamentally boring?

I’m tired of monochrome orthodoxy and beautiful heresy. I want truth that sings and draws me to itself. The cry of my heart – and I think the heart of our generation – is: “Oh, for Truthful Beauty and Beautiful Truth!”

Image: Hamlet by marcos c., used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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