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Guest Thinkers

Mel Gibson’s Not Hamlet

It’s not Shakespearean. It’s not eloquent. It may not even be meaningful as anything other than today’s shallow distraction. Yet Gibson’s hate-laced phone porn has captured our attention. Is it because we love having our worst fears performed charming celebrities? Or is it because we want to see what results when extreme success meets extreme weakness. The story is that classic tabloid staple, the train-wreck: gilded and sparkly and bloodied and wrong.

Gibson was a compelling Hamlet; consider this. But Hamlet’s madness resulted in an inability to act. Hamlet could not move forward in life, could not move forward with his lover; the meaning and consequences of his inaction fill myriad Ivay libraries. For Shakespeare, the relationship between madness and indecision is implied; the the irony of Hamlet’s–let’s call it–“sickness” is that it enhanced the hero’s philosophical stance against action in inverse proportion to driving ever deeper his ambitions. Gibson’s sickness simply destroyed his self-possession (if he ever had it). There is no more art left for this prince.

Unlike Hamlet, Gibson seems unable to edit his thoughts and—allegedly—his actions. Hamlet possessed a firm moral compass, but the same slippage of confidence Shakespeare placed in his prince is now in evidence in the actor who so well portrayed him.

It’s hard not to remember Gibson’s Hamlet now. It was a deeply passionate interpretation of the role and of the play. Gibson tore up the language and in particular, tore up “to be or not to be.” It was noted at the time of the film’s release that Gibson was chosen for the role after the Franco Zeferelli saw his performance in Lethal Weapon. He could do unhinged beautifully.

Other actors (Edward Norton comes to mind) have played madness well, but still seem to lead quiet, sane lives. It is the indivisibility between the Mel of horrid voicemails and the Mel of Hamlet’s madness that is somehow additionally upsetting, exploding our ideas about actors who inhabit their roles, then release them and come back down to Eart, “Just Like Us.”

We have never asked our artists to be angels, but in our age of everyone knowing everything, of everyone talking and writing about everything and sharing—and over-sharing—everything with “friends,” the price of failing to be angelic is specific and tough. We cannot monetize privacy, but we might monetize disgust: it is newsstand sales of tabloids, and an the absence of box office returns.

The rest is silence. Could Gibson be forced to provide copies of Hamlet for every child entering high school next year? In this, at least, he could link a contemporary legacy of meaningless madness to an historical tradition, one from which we might learn. There’s the respect.


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