Orson Scott Card
Subterranean ($35)

by William Alexander

Orson Scott Card has rewritten Hamlet. The back of this slim novella boasts that once we have read this "revelatory version of the Hamlet story, Shakespeare's play will be much more fun to watch—because now you'll know what's really going on." The author has previously updated other Shakespearean plays, rendering them more intelligible to modern audiences while supposedly retaining the “flavor” of the originals.

Thomas and Harriet Bowdler did similar editorial work in 1818—mostly by removing any and all references to sex. (They had to avoid Measure for Measure entirely.) From them we get the word bowdlerize: "to remove material that is considered improper or offensive from a text or account, esp. with the result that it becomes weaker or less effective." Card himself makes the comparison in an introduction to his "translation" of The Taming of the Shrew, and answers the implicit accusation that he is producing Diet Shakespeare through prurient censorship:

It seems to me that we might rather lose our contempt for Bowdler’s attempt to make Shakespeare watchable to the audience of his time, and realize that the standards of taste and decorum change from age to age, and it is not at all unreasonable to make such temporary changes in the script as will allow a play to continue to find an audience—as long as the original remains available, so it can be restored to public view when tastes change again. See intro here

Fair enough. Every new performance of the Bard is also an act of interpretation, sometimes a drastic and transformative one. We still have authoritative versions of the scripts afterwards, to be reedited and reinterpreted. However, Card's essay concludes with the following:

The purpose is to present Taming of the Shrew in a way that recovers, not the original text of Shakespeare’s play, but the original experience of it—a fast-moving, instantly comprehensible, pun- and bawdy-filled, ironic, self-parodying comedy with a legitimate moral lesson about the relationship between man and woman in marriage.

Note that he considers it a virtue for a text to be "instantly comprehensible," as though it were a very bad thing to confront an audience with something they don't already know, understand, and believe. Also note the troubling idea that The Taming of the Shrew carries a "legitimate moral lesson" about gender roles.

Such troubling undercurrents become gale force winds in Hamlet’s Father. In this adaptation, Hamlet was never close to his father. The prince is unfazed and emotionally indifferent to the old king's death, feels no sense of betrayal when his mother speedily remarries, and thinks that Claudius will make a perfectly good monarch. Hamlet is also secure in his religious faith, with absolute and unshakable beliefs about the nature of death and the afterlife. He isn't particularly hung up on Ophelia, either. Throughout the novella, Prince Hamlet displays the emotional depth of a blank sheet of paper.

Card has completely removed the dramatic stakes and haunting questions posed by the play, and the threadbare result is a failure of narrative craft on every level. Only one question remains: Is the ghost of Hamlet's father really a ghost, or is it instead a demonic liar? (Both, as it turns out.) But most of the novella is filled with pedantic moralizing, made all the more bland by Hamlet's smug and uncomplicated certainty. "Some acts are always right," he insists. "And some are always wrong."

This much is sure: The spirits of the righteous do not walk the earth. They are caught up into heaven, and look no more upon this poor land of shadows, having beheld the light that can be seen only by the pure in heart. My father is here because he was a wicked man. Now he is an angry spirit, and mine are the hands that he has chosen to act out his rage. And yet by justice and ancient law, my hands do belong to him, until his murder be avenged.

This Hamlet will never refer to death as an undiscovered country or wonder what dreams may come in death's sleep. He will never suggest that there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. He is "instantly comprehensible," and instantly forgettable.

Neither does Card’s prose retain the flavor of Elizabethan English—or any other kind of flavor. These words taste like saltines without salt:

Horatio brought him his sword. "Laertes is looking for you," he said.
"I don't have time for Laertes. He must know I didn't mean to kill his father," Hamlet said.
"It's not his father," said Horatio. "It's his sister."
"Ophelia? I didn't touch her."
"She killed herself. Walked out into the sea, dressed in her heaviest gown. A funeral gown. Two soldiers went in after her, and a boat was launched, but when they brought her body back, she was dead."
"And for that he wants to kill me?"

In case you missed it, this is the moment when Hamlet first learns about Ophelia's death, and this is the extent of his emotional shock. Card's prince won't be jumping in Ophelia's open grave or daring Laertes to trump his grief.

The extent of the novella's failure is surprising—and embarrassing, given that Card is a skilled veteran novelist and Subterranean a well-respected press. The most polite thing for us to do would be to walk away and quietly forget the whole painful exercise. But Card does not deserve our polite amnesia. His failures should be known and remembered, because the revelation in his "revelatory new version" turns out to be a nightmare of vitriolic homophobia.

Here's the punch line: Old King Hamlet was an inadequate king because he was gay, an evil person because he was gay, and, ultimately, a demonic and ghostly father of lies who convinces young Hamlet to exact imaginary revenge on innocent people. The old king was actually murdered by Horatio, in revenge for molesting him as a young boy—along with Laertes, and Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, thereby turning all of them gay. We learn that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are now "as fusty and peculiar as an old married couple. I pity the woman who tries to wed her way into that house."

Hamlet is damned for all the needless death he inflicts, and Dead Gay Dad will now do gay things to him for the rest of eternity: "Welcome to Hell, my beautiful son. At last we'll be together as I always longed for us to be."

All of this is as horrifying as it is ridiculous. It is not, however, surprising that Orson Scott Card's primary purpose is to slander ten percent of the human race. He recently joined the board of the National Organization for Marriage, an institution which exists solely to crush gay civil rights wherever they emerge. Card has publicly stated that homosexuals will destroy America:

There is a myth that homosexuals are "born that way," and we are pounded with this idea so thoroughly that many people think that somebody, somewhere, must have proved it . . . The dark secret of homosexual society—the one that dares not speak its name—is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.” See speech here

The neurologist Simon LeVay did, in fact, demonstrate that homosexuals are "born that way" in 1991. Ivanka Savic proved it conclusively in 2008. These are rigorous scientific investigations of human neurobiology. Card's fantasy of abuse, stated outright in his editorial and dramatized—badly—inHamlet's Father, has no factual basis. This should make the slander easy to dismiss, but it is painfully difficult to prove the absence of anything—or to refute someone who presumes to speak for your own unconscious wish.

This kind of psychological violence is easy to inflict. Let's play the same game with Card's portrayal of the Danish prince, and suppose the Hamlet of Hamlet's Father is gay. After all, the prince shows tenderness for Horatio, and only for Horatio. He is physically shocked when, at one point, Ophelia tries to kiss him. Afterwards, he only notices her beauty in the abstract: "She had been a sweet girl, when he knew her years ago; she was a pretty woman now, and though he had no particular desire for any of her tribe, he knew it was wrong to trifle with her." Tribe meaning women here, it’s clear that women delight not Hamlet. Only Horatio delights Hamlet. What's more, the prince was born this way; the book assures us that Gertrude was able to protect her son's innocence from the old king's appetites, and the boy turned out to be gay regardless.

Unable to live happily ever after with Horatio, Hamlet goes half-mad. He hallucinates the ghost of his dead father just to have someone to blame for what he perceives as a hell-bound condition. The tragedy here is that no one gave him an "It's okay to be Takei" button or insisted that he watch Hal Duncan's "It Gets Better" video when he first started thinking about suicide. Shakespeare himself was probably queer. (Go read sonnet #20 if you doubt me.) Hamlet, as re-imagined by Orson Scott Card, is certainly queer. Unfortunately, the prince's literary stepfather is both a bigot and a bowdlerizer. If aught of wonder you would see, look elsewhere.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011