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The Merits of Length In a World Bent on Brevity

You couldn't call ``Hamlet'' an overhasty play. A current production of the Shakespeare tragedy in London takes all but four hours (though this includes an interval for recuperation). I know someone who went to it with a friend who ``isn't really into Shakespeare.'' This friend's summing-up was twofold:

``Why did they all die at the end?'' he asked.

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And: ``Why did it last so long?''

These are the sort of practical questions my mother would probably have raised. Her time would have been better spent planting nemesia.

Actually, both questions are perfectly reasonable.

A tragedy does not have to finish with the demise of almost everyone on stage, as ``Hamlet'' seems to, although a disastrous conclusion is usual. Actually, at least four other characters in ``Hamlet'' have come to sticky ends earlier - if you count the predeceased king (Hamlet's dad) and the jester, alas poor Yorick. The other two are Prince Hamlet's intended, a girl called Ophelia with a fondness for flowers, and her fussy but basically harmless old dad, Polonius, a courtier brimful of wise saws whom the prince knifes mistakenly through a tapestry with scant respect for the high cost of such hangings. Oh, and then - I forgot them - there are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who, the toadies, also get their comeuppance well before the last scene.

As for the play's incredible length, my friend's friend actually hit on not just an aspect of the work, but its quintessence.

Quite simply, ``Hamlet'' has to take a great deal of time, or it would not (to borrow a Polonius-ism) ``to its own self be true.'' This is a play about the length of time it takes for a man to find it in him to avenge his father's murder by killing the uncle who did it. If it were all to be over in a minute or two, the whole point would be lost (as it was, pretty much, in a half-hour cartoon version we saw the other day on TV). The audience must experience Hamlet's procrastination, the inner struggles with his conscience, scruples, and fears that lead to his inaction.

Perhaps Shakespeare wrote the play in a hurry. Short plays take longer to write than long ones. Same with books. J.R.R. Tolkien reckoned, when he finished ``The Lord of the Rings,'' that it had grown into ``a monster'' of some 600,000 words. But he found ``words beget words.'' He said he had only rarely achieved ``the laconic'' in his work, and that was by cutting ``3/4 or more'' of what he had written. So writing briefly is ``more time-taking and laborious than `free length,' '' he concluded.

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It is sometimes pointed out that to listen to ``Hamlet'' is to listen to a dictionary of quotations. Much of it has found its way into common parlance. Polonius (and what would Hamlet be without Polonius?) is responsible for more than a few such sayings. Two come to mind.

It is he who says: ``Brevity is the soul of wit.''

And it is he who mutters, ``This is too long,'' as one of the band of players who had just come to perform at the Danish Court recites a speech at Hamlet's request. The prince tells the actor to continue and treats Polonius to a rejoinder aimed at all who fail to appreciate the lengthy speeches in many classic plays. He says that Polonius is ``for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps.'' Ouch.

The immediate irony is that Polonius is not, himself, briefly spoken. He is one of those people who can never say anything to the point if he can find a way of saying it in five acts: the conversationalist who never takes a breath in case someone interrupts his flow. If you asked him the time, he would treat you to a history of the Swiss watch.

The larger irony, is, I feel sure, Shakespeare laughing at himself - or at least at his ``monster'' play, ``Hamlet.''

But there are times when gigantic concepts do require gigantic scale. Cut versions of ``Hamlet'' too often emphasize heroic energy at the expense of troubled lethargy (the otherwise admirable Zeffirelli film version with Mel Gibson is a case in point). ``Hamlet,'' anyway, disproves Polonius by being a terribly long play nevertheless shot through with wit.

Sometimes brevity is just the soul of - brevity. It can even distort truth by gross oversimplification. It happens on TV news programs all the time. Sometimes brevity means an imperfect depiction.

But at least Shakespeare edited out Polonius in Act III, Scene 4.

Otherwise, ``Hamlet'' probably would have lasted a good six hours.

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