My husband and I recently enjoyed an overnight retreat in Stratford Ontario where we had the privilege to attend this year’s performance of Hamlet. It was such an amazing performance that truly showcased the power of character acting to rise above the physical attributes of performers to engage us, an audience, in a moral or point of a story. Of course, there are several morals or points to Hamlet. Many of you have probably forgotten what you learned about Hamlet in high school. Similar to all Shakespearean plays, Hamlet deals with themes of love, vengeance, madness, loyalty, friendship, death, misjudgment, human error, and more. The very beauty of the performative arts is this freedom to decide what moral or point of the story you wish to explore, or reflect upon, or simply enjoy.
This year’s rendition of Hamlet in Stratford, Ontario modernized the performance by replacing handwritten letters in the play with mobile phones, texts, selfies, voice recordings, and photographs. Hamlet encourages his friend to video record the ghostly appearance of his dead father when he returns to warn his son of the evil doings of his brother who had killed him in order to marry his wife, the queen. This recording is shared by cellphone throughout the play, and the mostly senior audience laughed wholeheartedly when the phone was introduced as a theatrical prop. I felt this move to integrate a cell as a moment of ingenuity.
The entire play was riveting this year. Although the audience was strongly encouraged to wear a medical mask throughout the performance, many, such as ourselves decided otherwise, as the main threat to Covid and its lethality was demonstratively weakened in the scientific research. We appreciated having this choice to wear the mask or not at this late juncture of the pandemic, and to choose according to our own interpretation of the medical science without any real risk to people around us. Like most Ontarians, my husband and I had been strictly compliant to all of the public health regulations, restrictions, and lockdown procedures as mandated by the municipal, provincial, and federal governments. So, we believed that the science was now clear for life to slowly resume back to regular social activities without masks, gloves, or face shields.
Character acting is sometimes used in Performative Expressive Arts Therapy where participants are encouraged to perform an emotion or feeling that is beyond their reach in everyday life. It has been shown to be an effective method to help some individuals to access “feelings” and “emotions” related to events for which language fails them. The imperfect content of the mind that results from overwhelmingly traumatizing events such as a death of a loved one like the murder of Hamlet’s father can lead to madness. It is at first unclear if Hamlet’s dad was actually murdered as he dies suddenly, similar to a major cardiac event. Yet, Hamlet begins to see the ghost of his dead father who tells him that his own brother poisoned him. In this light, Hamlet’s delusional thinking results from intense loss and bereavement. The imperfect content of his mind is triggered by sudden death that results in extremely irrational thinking and behaviour.
Without the opportunity to process grief and trauma as we do today in counselling psychotherapy, “madness” does result in Hamlet. He grows increasingly paranoid about his uncle’s behaviour and rejects his mother’s affections and care as well. He sees the two of them as murderous betrayers and Hamlet begins to plot his revenge with plans to kill his uncle. Tragically, Hamlet kills the father of his beloved Ophelia instead by accident. His desire to avenge the death of his father outweighs even the passionate love he has for his beloved, which results in her death by suicide. The play demonstrates what can happen when strong negative feelings and emotions are left unchecked. Hamlet is a human tragedy wherein everyone dies including the main character.
Watching this play unfold offers spectators the opportunity to engage dispassionately in somewhat familiar human emotions without any threat to self or other. It transposes the audience into strong human emotions and experiences without insult, injury, or offense. Character acting in particular demonstrates the power of the play to engage people into a story where the character played is quite different from the actor or actress. This stark and intentional difference purposefully demarcates the play itself from the attributes of the actors on stage, thereby explaining the brilliance behind a quote in Hamlet, “the play’s the thing”. In other words, the story is bigger than the people in it, much like life itself.
Healing trauma involves a performative aspect so that individuals can in fact begin to bring into words distressing events that have happened to them directly or were witnessed by them. This unfolding of trauma-based language is always dysfluent, choppy, chaotic sounding, unusual in cadence, and confusing. Trauma language reflects and perhaps contains the distressing emotions in the words themselves. At this point in my career, I have an ear for trauma and can hear distress in people’s words and stories as they share with me in session. This trauma is not only described in the story itself, but in the telling of the story. Human distress and trauma has a particular sound. The sound of human trauma does not seem to change depending on the types of distressing events experienced. Human trauma sounds the same in all people who suffer mental anguish caused by situations, or events witnessed or experienced firsthand.
Hamlet reminded me as therapist to underscore our shared ethical responsibility we have to one another to do no harm, and to change events or situations that we knowingly cause harm at a societal level. As the Covid fog lifts and we more clearly understand what happened to all of us directly or by witness, skilled and credentialed trauma-informed therapists will be required to support healing and recovery.