Hamlet: Discerning the Real Tragedy

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is often considered the quintessential Elizabethan revenge tragedy, a victim’s quest for retribution against the villain who committed foul play, most popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. We typically expect the protagonist to go through obstacles in the planning and execution of revenge, securing the means and opportunity which develop as the plot thickens. However, Shakespeare does not dwell on this aspect as much as he does on Hamlet’s spiritual or existential crisis. The only planning Hamlet sees to fruition is the determination of his uncle’s guilt and that the Ghost (of his late father) is an honest one. With opportunities for action, Hamlet instead is immersed in his philosophy, including his own observation that he is delaying in revenge and he himself doesn’t know why – “I do not know why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’, since I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do ’t.” And it is my contention that, despite the deaths of eight characters during the course of the play (three of them offstage), the only true tragedy is Ophelia’s madness and her subsequent suicide (or a death she passively accepted due to an unhinged mind), described by Gertrude in detail:

Sir John Everett Millais

There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Each of the other deaths, regardless of where on the spectrum one places the diabolical planning and violence, was a result that must include factors of the victim’s own conscience. It was karmic consequence; in other words their fates were their own doing. Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म ) means action, work, or deed. Poor Ophelia was oppressed by her father, slightly less by her brother, and spurned and emotionally abused (if not traumatized) by her lover, Hamlet. She knowingly allowed her father to spy on her and Hamlet, and lied about it to Hamlet; yet this was merely in obedience of her father’s commands. Circumstances beyond her control took her brother away to France and then her father’s life. One could imagine the final straw being that her mad lover was the one that killed her father.

The play does end with what one could construe as act of revenge in Hamlet bringing about the death of the King, Claudius. Yet, I believe that between the time Hamlet was sent under guard to England (a trip interrupted by pirates) and his return, he reached a new level of awareness, a certain illumination that elevated his spirit beyond the existential crisis that was burgeoning since his father’s death. While he doesn’t speak of the Ghost again, there is one last vestige of the spirit of revenge which I contend is merely a rhetorical remark to Horatio:

“Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon—
He that hath killed my king and whored my mother,
Popped in between th’ election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage—is ’t not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is ’t not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?”

While he seems no longer prompted to revenge, he does fear the King’s plans, that the fencing match against Laertes may be a trap.

HORATIO You will lose, my lord.
HAMLET I do not think so. Since he went into France, I have been in continual practice. I shall win at the odds; but thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart. But it is no matter.

But he will meet it to whatever end. And when Horatio offers to call off the bout, Hamlet says, “…we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be. “

When Hamlet finds out from the dying Laertes that the anointed rapier and poisoned cup was the Kings idea, Hamlet rages against the king, effectively killing him twice”. He runs him through with the rapier so that he may feel “the venom,” and in addition pours the remains of the poisoned cup down his throat, saying “follow my mother.” It seems to say, “This is for me (stab) and this is for my mother (pour).” At no time at this point does he address the King’s crime of the murder of his father; it wasn’t on his mind. Thus, it is my contention that after all that was said and done, Hamlet did not ultimately avenge his father’s death, i.e. he did not fulfill the ghost’s request for vengeance in the spirit with which he was originally incited.

If Hamlet did not die, would his worldview have been like that of a nihilist, existence in a cosmos void of meaning? I truly believe we can never know from Shakespeare’s text. He accepts that there is “a certain providence in the fall of a sparrow” and “a divinity that shapes our ends rough hew them how we will.” However, this would not preclude him from assigning virtue or creating meaning to his own actions in the future. Alas, he did not live long enough for this second phase of the existential crisis.

From Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” we read,

“In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no–true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.”

Hamlet reveals his understanding of this, that his “action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things,” in his final private colloquy with Horatio at the start of the last scene in Act V, Scene ii. And had he survived, Nietzsche leaves us with a glimpse of a possible future for Hamlet if he had survived.

“Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live: these are the sublime as the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic as the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity.”

To consider Hamlet’s alternative future would be speculative. But for the author of this essay, art is indeed the saving sorceress, the sole possessor of alchemical secrets capable of transforming the horror and absurdity of human existence into a tolerable life.

Hamlet: Plot Revealed Early in the First Quarto (1603)

If you have read and/or know the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you will have no doubt wondered whether or not Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, knew any of the villainy committed by her new husband, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. Questions such as “was she complicit” or “did she even know that Claudius killed her late husband, the elder Hamlet” make for good literary criticism and broaden the dramatic range an actor may explore when playing her part. Decisions have to be made to justify words and actions for all characters.

Regardless of the publisher and edition of the play you’ve read, it is most likely that you will recall a sequence of events that follows the killing of Polonius, and it goes something like this: Hamlet is sent to England under the supervision of his school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ; they are given a sealed written commission to the King of England by the King of Denmark (Claudius) whereby Hamlet is to be executed upon arrival; Hamlet suspecting as much secretly discovers the commission, alters it to instead have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed and reseals the commission with his father’s seal which he had with him; and by happenstance, Hamlet was able to escape the ship by sneaking aboard a pirate ship that had overtaken them on the way. Upon his Return Hamlet shares this only with Horatio and sends a letter to the King by way of a messenger, not Horatio himself, requesting leave to see his “kingly eyes” and to “recount the occasion” of his “sudden and more strange return.” I will stop here at the end of Act IV. Of all the published editions of Hamlet in modern times this is the story as we know it. HOWEVER, if you were to go by the First Quarto, the copy of the play first published in 1603, you would have a very different scenario and there is a problematic arc of the story that doesn’t get resolved.

The First Quarto (1603) differs from all the subsequent Quartos (1604, 1605, 1611, 1622) – as well as the First Folio edition of 1623 – in a few ways. It is roughly half the length and much of the dialogue is, frankly for Shakespeare, quite bad. It has often been called the “Bad” Quarto. It is actually very useful in studying the play, but it would clearly be a “bad” version to perform. When considering the whole of the text, it reads as though it were copied from the memory of a minor actor who had performed the play (perhaps someone who played Marcellus) or, perhaps, a prompter who had attended as many performances. A few scenes resemble the other editions, but much is quite different. For example, the famous soliloquy that begins, “To be, or not to be, that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, is nauseatingly paraphrased as follows: “To be, or not to be, Ay there’s the point, / To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all: / No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes,” to which I must ask – what…the…hell…is…that??? It’s neither indicative of Shakespeare’s poetic genius nor the incredible memory of an actor that played the role of Hamlet.

What follows is the brief scene that not only reveals to Gertrude the King’s plot to kill Hamlet whilst in England, but it also reveals that Hamlet rewrote and resealed the order to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed upon their arrival in England. Despite appearing to accept this information as fact, Gertrude’s behavior towards the King and Hamlet does not seem to differ from the other editions.

Enter Horatio and the Queene.

HoratioMadame, your son is safe arrived in Denmark.
This letter I even now received of him,
Whereas he writes how he escaped the danger,
And subtle treason that the king had plotted,
Being crossed by the contention of the winds,
He found the packet sent to the king of England ,
Wherein he saw himself betrayed to death,
As at his next conversation with your grace,
He will relate the circumstance at full.

Queen: Then I perceive there’s treason in his looks
That seemed to sugar o’re his villainy:
But I will soothe and please him for a time,
For murderous minds are always jealous,
But know not you Horatio where he is?

Horatio: Yes Madame, and he hath appointed me
To meet him on the east side of the city
Tomorrow morning.

QueenO fail not, good Horatio , and withal, commend me
A mothers care to him, bid him a while
Be wary of his presence, lest that he
Fail in that he goes about.

Horatio:Madam, never make doubt of that:
I think by this the news be come to court:
He is arrived, observe the king, and you shall
Quickly find, Hamlet being here,
Things fell not to his mind.

Queen: But what became of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz ?

Horatio: He being set ashore, they went for England ,
And in the packet there writ down that doom
To be performed on them pointed for him:
And by great chance he had his father’s seal,
So all was done without discovery.

Queen: Thanks be to heaven for blessing of the prince,
Horatio once again I take my leave,
With thousand mothers blessings to my son.

Horatio:. Madam adieu.

So, what do you think of this undeveloped arc? In all likelihood it was a confused and poorly remembered scene on the part of whoever supplied the publisher with the manuscript. But could this short scene be a remnant (it never appears in print again) of another version of Hamlet with an alternate ending? It is a point of deviation whereby one could stage a slightly less tragic finale in terms of body count, and perhaps our protagonist could actually live to tell his own tale.

For me, this is fascinating and a prompt for more research.

In the Eye of a Wasp

I’ve recognized that when I’m reading my mind occasionally leaps ahead of my eyes to anticipate what words may follow. Am I alone in this? Is it impatience? I don’t know. It’s clearly possible to read something and misinterpret the intended meaning. I also find that the results can be fairly creative if not provocative.

Knowing the Orcas Island Shakespeare Society would be reading William Shakespeare’s play, The Comedy of Errors, I was re-familiarizing myself with the text beforehand when I came across an interesting metaphor.

In Act II, scene ii, lines 216-217, the character Adriana speaks with the man she believes to be her husband: I read,

Come, come, no longer will I be a fool, 
To put the finger in the eye of a wasp

I stopped reading, looked up from the page and attempted to bridge the context of Adriana’s speech with what Shakespeare might have meant. I thought by “in the eye of a wasp” he might mean something akin to “poking or stirring a hornet’s nest”, but even more particular, with cleverly adding the hue of futility one would find in actually trying to poke or point to something so small as a wasp’s eye. It seemed a fool’s errand to me. Shakespeare never ceases to amaze me! But, then I thought, “Let me read this again more slowly.” And so I did.

Come,   come,   no   longer   will   I   be   a   fool,
To   put   the   finger   in   the   eye   and   weep

To put the finger in the eye AND WEEP!

Where in hell did the WASP go?

‘Twas ne’er in mine eye’s sight,
And e’er in my mind’s eye.

Revisiting Rothko

For many years I never cared for the works of Mark Rothko ( 1903-1970). While I have a strong affinity for abstract art, I never considered his work to qualify as art anymore than fabric swatches or Pantone color cards. Granted – art is subjective and its value can only be assigned by the observer. But, I balked for reading that someone paid $86.9 million dollars in 2012 for a few shades of orange paint on canvas (Rothko’s 1961 painting, “Orange, red, yellow”)

Google “Rothko” and the results show the images that come to mind when I hear his name. Over the years, I would walk briskly through museum rooms in which his work hung. I admit it is possible to look at an egg yolk and see a chicken. However, my imagination is enough; I do not need to look at the yolk with my eyes and certainly cannot conceive of paying more money for one than would be necessary to save a small country from bankruptcy after a natural disaster.

But I never studied Rothko from the perspective of art history, and never considered the fact that, like most artists, he went through various periods – perhaps crucibles. Furthermore I cannot blame a single artist for what collectors are willing to pay for their work.

Today, for the second time this year, I discovered an early Rothko work that I found arresting, beautiful and full of something extraordinary – I could study it for hours. Both times it happened to be the same painting, the “Rites of Lilith” created in 1945, and that is why I’ve decided that it is important enough to document it now.

Rites of Lilith Photo
Rites of Lilith, 1945 by Mark Rothko

It seems one has to become an art historian to appreciate the genius often dulled or obscured by an artist’s exposure to life’s tribulations and the passage of time. The first time I saw this image, it was accompanied by a quote of Rothko’s which I will include here:

“In art, as in biology, there is a phenomenon that can be described as mutation, in which appearances radically change at a tempo much more rapid than that at which they normally proceed. As in the case of biology, we have no means to determine the process by which this radical change occurs. Yet we do know that it is a reaction to a form of congestion. It is a desperate change due to the arrival at a point where the corollaries to a situation are exhausted, when the stimulus to additional growth is sluggish and a rapid rejuvenation is needed so that art, through disuse, does not atrophy in much the same way as an unused human organ. Here art must attain a new start if it is to survive. Then, assiduously, it renews its traditions by marriage with alien traditions, by the reexamination of its own processes, and by those means reestablishes contact again with its own roots. It is in this way that new plastic worlds are born. For art, like a race, cannot inbreed very long without losing its incentives to continue; it needs the rejuvenation of new experiences and new blood. These mutations, it must be clear, however, do not constitute a change in properties, or mean that art has discarded its past. On the contrary, mutation involves a more conscious evaluation of art’s inheritance and the redirection of that inheritance into channels where it can be continued with greater force.”
― Mark Rothko, The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art

It is hard for me to envisage the chain of mutations leading one from works like “Rites of Lilith” to those like “Orange, red, yellow”, which appear to be a banishment of dynamic geometry in favor of plain and vibrant color textures that seem to carry a much simpler message. The later work of Rothko seems to be no longer a complex product of alchemical processing, but a mere question: “what is it that you think you see here?” It’s hard to imagine the progression, but the National Gallery of Art gives us a brief look at the brilliance of Rothko’s early years.

[See https://www.nga.gov/features/mark-rothko-introduction/mark-rothko-early-years.html]

I suppose I am now a Rothko fan.

Dramatis Personae: 7.5 Billion and Increasing

Otto Dix
Masks As Ruins (1946)

The work of Otto Dix has always fascinated me. But, this one which I had never seen before is astoundingly beautiful to me. I do tend to favor the surreal, dark, eerie, disturbing and macabre (as most of the few who are reading this already know). And I suspect that the majority of people will indeed find this disturbing and nightmarish. But, it is the masks of the masses that causes my nightmares. Remember that the word person comes from the Latin word, persona, meaning “an actor’s mask.” Recall also how Alan Watts reminds us that to be a “real person” is to be a “genuine fake.”

All the world’s a stage as Shakespeare says in As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII. Let’s take a look at that:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

With 7.5+ billion players in this world (and ‘play’rs gonna play!’), there are way too many masks for my liking. Oh, how we change them often and even in front of our own bathroom mirrors. If you want real, show your vulnerability and be brave enough to receive another’s. Real and raw is what is beautiful, not the glamour of illusion. The magic will always happen outside of your comfort zone in the realm where masks dissolve.

I hope others just may also find this Otto Dix as – not just “interesting” – but, beautiful. Find it. It’s there. But, you may have to take off your mask and costume, because you must see it also with the heart and soul, not your eyeballs (incidentally a word invented by William Shakespeare)!

© 2019 Michael Armenia

A Streetcar Named Napoleon – Part Deux

[ UPDATE: A slightly shorter version of the script below was accepted for Playfest 2019 at the Grange. The revised version can be viewed as a PDF here. ]

On my two days off from performing a Streetcar Named Desire, I wrote and submitted a ten-minute play for possible production at Playfest 2019 at the Grange.

Now…NOW…at last Pablo has catharsis. Only by working with such a talented group of actors in the Orcas Center production have I seen the depths and hues to this play by Tennessee Williams. The words on the page were black and white, but the cast, especially Kate Wlaysewski who plays Blanche, showed me the rainbow on such an otherwise depressing cloud.

As written by Williams, Pablo is an unsatisfying character – a fourth for poker night that no one, especially Stanley gives a s–t about. Well, I had to give him redeeming qualities and answer a question a playgoer asked me on opening night: why does Pablo hang out with someone like Stanley?

Real life does NOT always have a Hollywood ending. For me, the bright side is found in the fact that I spend 99% of my time living in my imagination: it’s a far more awesome and forgiving universe. So, here’s my Disney ending; now Pablo can – I can – finally let go.

Here’s the play script formatted for easy ( I hope) blog reading. Enjoy!

a short play
by Michael Armenia

Pablo Gonzalez:  Man, approx. 35-50 years old,
born in New Orleans, descendant
of Spanish soldier stationed in
Cuba during the Civil War

Maria Gonzalez:  Woman, approx. 25-50 years old, a
nurse, married to Pablo

Isabella Delacroix:  Woman, approx. 35-50 years old,
married to Eugene

Eugene Delacroix:  Man, approx. 35-50 years old,
married to Isabella

Streetcar Operator:  Man (no lines)

Passenger(s):  Extras, men or women (no lines)

Various places in New Orleans

20th century, Post World War II

(Suppertime. The kitchen of Pablo and Maria
Gonzalez. Maria comes home from her job as
a nurse at a nearby hospital. Tired, she
quietly enters apartment. Pablo, who has
been at home cooking dinner, comes from the
kitchen wearing an apron and surprises

What are you doing home so early, mi tesoro?

Cooking dinner for you.

(She puts down her purse and greets him with a kiss.)
I fell asleep before you came home last night and I missed you this morning.

I didn’t come home last night.

What do you mean?

I got home after two this morning.

Well, you were playing at Stanley’s, right? You boys tend to stay a bit too long at his house…at least that’s what his wife says.

Yeah. Well, I don’t think that will happen again.

I find that hard to believe.

Well, when I tell you what happened, you’ll ask me not to go there again. 
(he walks away from the dining area into the kitchen to fetch the dinner plates)

(louder now, talking across rooms)
Why? What happened, Pablo? Tell me.

I’ve told you Stanley’s sister-n-law, Blanche, has been staying there with Stanley and Stella for months now.


(Pablo returns with two plates and sits down at the table. Maria also sits. They talk at normal levels.) 
After months of his typical abusive behavior aimed at Blanche – you know how he is with Stella – it turns out that Stanley finally had his way with Blanche…against her will. And as if that wasn’t traumatic enough, he and Stella had her committed afterwards.

What? Noooh!

They had some doctor from the mental hospital come and collect her during the game last night. It was awful to me. I’ve listened to yelling in that household, but…that poor thing just broke my heart. I don’t know anything about her other than what Stanley told me. But, dammit…if that woman is dangerous to herself or anyone else, then I’m the
devil! Sure she was a vulnerable woman of questionable morality,and supposedly a maker of fantasy and lies…but, God! This was all Stanley’s doing and I know it now.

But Stanley’s your friend. Don’t you owe it to him to…(Pablo interrupts).

He’s not my friend, Maria! When all this happened I had to ask myself ‘why was I hangin’ round the likes of Stanley Kowalski?’ In fact, I left the poker game early last night to take a walk…that’s why I got back late. And after a few hours of sitting on the bank of the Big Muddy, it finally came to me. The truth, I mean.

What’s that?

You know…having lost my dad at age fifteen, I clung to anything that reminded me of him. My mom never remarried and then she died. Some time passed and then all of sudden there’s this guy at work – Stanley – who drinks too much and abuses his wife in quite the same way dad did to mom. Although we are around the same age, I believe I subconsciously took Stanley as a sort-of – father-figure, an authority. I’ve been so vulnerable and weak. After this ordeal last night…and sitting at the poker table afterwards…I just felt…disgusted. I’m not going to play poker with him and his boys anymore and I really want nothing to do with him.

Well, you won’t get an argument from me. I never liked Stanley. (pause)
So, why are you home from work so early today?

I quit.


I quit the plant. I never did like the job. I can’t stand running into Stanley as often as I do. I’m tired of going to work only to make money that just goes to other people – if it’s not the government or bills, it’s poker losses.

You could just quit poker, you know!
(he looks at her, glaringly)
Spend more time at home.
(he continues looking at her)
So, what are you going to do now?

Well, you know we’ve been talking casually about my opening a restaurant. You love my cooking and I love to cook and play host. And there isn’t a decent Cuban restaurant in this part of New Orleans. It’s high-time at my age that I follow my dream, and the circumstances seems right. The only problem is finding a location and maybe an investor. We can’t afford to rent a commercial building and I don’t think we’re gonna get a bank loan for a restaurant on top of this place.

Pablo…Pablo! I’ve got it!


Your restaurant! The building. It’s perfect.

What’s perfect?

My cousin, Isabella…

Your cousin Isabella is perfect?

No. No. No. Listen. Her husband is Eugene Delacroix. You’ve met him. He owns a building that’s been in his family for generations. It’s owned and paid for. There’s no mortgage. He’s rented it out in the past and I know from Isabella that it’s now vacant. Someone wanted to rent it…to turn it into a law office or something. Eugene hates lawyers even though he uses one. Anyway, we should talk with them. I know if I ask Isabella, she would be able to convince Eugene to go into business with you, saving you rent in exchange for a portion of the profits.

(excited) Maravillosa suerte! Really? It can’t be this easy. When can we talk with them?

I will invite them over tomorrow evening for some dessert. We will present this to them.

I could kiss you!

What’s stopping you?


(The next evening. Pablo and Maria’s living
room. They are having coffee with Isabella
and Eugene Delacroix.)

Cream and sugar, Eugene?

No, thank you. Can’t stand café au lait. Or anything in my coffee for that matter.

So, would you be joining Pablo in this venture, Maria?

No, I am happy as a nurse…though I find it exhausting. This is Pablo’s dream. He’s the one with talent in the kitchen.

What do you think, Eugene?

Frankly, I don’t think I’ve got anything to lose. Don’t see why we can’t try it. What percentage are you thinking in exchange for the rent, Pablo?

I’ve no problem with 50% of the profits.

Well, that’s awfully generous. But, we’re not talking about an invention or something with a large profit margin. You’ll have some startup costs and utilities and you are the one doing the hard work. Why don’t we start with 20% of profits for the first six months? Then, if you are making a good profit, we can fix a reasonable rent instead.

That’s fine with me! It’s gracious, in fact. Thank you.

It’s not too far uptown. A little too far to walk. After we finish this coffee, why don’t I drive you up there to take a look.

Sounds great! Let me go make a pit stop in the water closet and get out of my house shoes. Excuse me for a few minutes. (Pablo leaves the room.)

No problem.

Pablo doesn’t drive – they don’t have a car – how’s he going to get there every day?

He can ride the streetcar. He’d take the Napoleon line about twenty blocks up and then walk a few blocks to Cadiz St.

Oh no!

What’s wrong?

Pablo has what he used to call his  ‘Napoleon complex’ but he hasn’t talked about it for years.

He doesn’t seem short to me! Is he compensating for something?

No. (chuckle) When Pablo was fifteen, his father was struck and killed by a streetcar named Napoleon. The man was the village drunk which is embarrassing enough, but one night he tumbled out of a tavern all boozed up, crossed the line and…well, just like that he was gone. Pablo has not only never taken to the bottle, but he has since then refused to ride the Napoleon. To him the streetcar is a demon.

I suppose he could take several of the other lines and change a few times, but that could take an hour or two.

Or walk it? But that’s still a lot of wasted time, isn’t it?

With his night-blindness, he won’t walk more than a dozen blocks away from home at night. No, if he’s to do this, he will have to face that demon. But, let’s not tell him at this moment. Show him the place, Eugene. Let him see his vision more clearly. Maybe the excitement will inspire him…help him overcome his fear. Nothing good comes easy – and when it does it should make you stop and think a moment.

The most productive level for human achievement is situated somewhere between comfort and danger. (pause) Well, OK, then. One thing at a time. Let’s show him the place.

(Pablo returns.)

Let’s go! Are you ladies coming along for the ride?

(Maria and Isabella look at each other.)

Sure. (They all leave the apartment.)


(A little later at the site for the
proposed restaurant. They are all inside
looking at the place. It is mostly barren
except for one table and some chairs in the
main room.)

Wow! This is better than I imagined. Too good to be true.

This large area was once a living room, a doctor’s office and at another time a restaurant.

That den over there would be a nice grotto for large parties.

There’s one other room, an old bedroom, that makes a great office. The kitchen is through those french doors. (Eugene points to the doors, which lead off stage and Pablo walks through them. After a brief moment, he returns with his mouth agape.)

I think I’m going to cry, Maria. It is as you said…PERFECT!

Now,the kitchen is not equipped for a restaurant. You will have to buy a commercial oven and stove. And refrigerator for that matter. Those may set you back at first.

Let me think for a moment if you don’t mind.

Sure. Look around.

(Pablo begins to circle the restaurant envisioning how it will all look and what obstacles he may have to overcome. Maria, Isabella, and Eugene sit down at a table in the room and talk quietly. Pablo goes to the entrance and turns around, framing the room with his hands. Then he goes outside, down the steps of the porch and turns around to consider painting outside and signage, again framing with this hands. He slowly walks backward away from the steps and, in the revery, in the music of future success that he hears in his imagination, he forgets himself. He accidentally steps off the curb and enters the street, just as the Napoleon zips by nearly hitting him. He turns around just in time to see the end of the streetcar pass in front of him. He steps back and makes the sign of the cross, a vestige of his Catholic upbringing. His heart is racing. From inside the others see this through the window and rush to check on him.)

Are you OK?

(Frightened and trying to find the breath to talk.) Yeah!

Now, Pablo, you do need to realize that to make this work, you will have to ride that streetcar.

Oh! (He goes from frightened to puzzled.)
OH NO! Not… (pause)
(He can barely whisper the name.)
…the Napoleon. Well, I could take other lines
(loudly now)
Mi suerte está maldita.
(He goes from puzzled to sullen and almost sick to his stomach and angry at the same
time. He drops angrily to sit on the porch step and begins to have second thoughts
about the whole thing.)

Calm down, Pablo.
(She goes over to Pablo, sits next to him and puts her hand on his shoulder)
Don’t worry about the future just yet.

(joining Maria in comforting Pablo)
Dear Pablo, my husband often says: somewhere between your comfort level and a present danger, lies a nursery for magic.

Something like that…but that is quite poetic, my bride. You do listen to me!

Once in awhile!

No. No. This is a sign. It is a sign that I should not do it. That streetcar is an omen to be heeded! (He stares out at the tracks.)

Pablo, look at me. Look at me!
(He turns around and she takes his hands in
You have been so superstitious all your life allowing your fears to make your decisions for you. Yes, everything is a sign when you think about it. But, it is you who gives a sign its meaning. You define it. Your father – God love him – was a drunk, in the wrong place at the wrong time. The streetcar that hit him and the operator that drove it meant no harm. These things happen all the time. You know that. We are not what happens to us, Pablo. We are the person that comes out of what happens to us and that’s a choice we make. We are…our choices. That’s who we become.

That may be so. But, it doesn’t mean that we should ignore the signs.

Of course not. See them. Look at them. Interpret them, but don’t let fear be the translator. The right choice in a given situation is often not the easy one or the one that looks the safest. Pablo, you many never have this opportunity again.

Maybe not.

Look. Stanley Kowalski has more demons in him than this streetcar line. Don’t you forget that! And you walked away from that bad relationship despite a strong psychological bond. You quit the poker group and left your job – all of that took courage and I think it was the right thing to do. This restaurant is in your future and if riding this streetcar line is what it takes to make it a success, I don’t think it will take any more courage than what was needed to walk away from that abusive and brutal man. You
can do this!

You think so?

Stanley was a demon. The Napoleon is an opportunity. Can you see that now?

You know what? I think I can.


(A month later, early morning, a few blocks
from the Gonzales house where the Napoleon
stops. There are traffic sounds and Pablo
and Maria are standing on the corner
waiting for the streetcar.)

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.

You will be fine. Is Eugene meeting you there?

Yes. And the men I’ve hired to re-paint the place. The kitchen equipment is coming tomorrow.

With any luck, you’ll be open before Mardi Gras.

You know what I found out?


There’s a Chinese place a few blocks away. I know I’ll be cooking in my own restaurant soon enough, but I do love chop suey!

Yes, I know you do. I’d rather see you spend your newly hard-earned money on chop suey than poker losses.
(He first glares at her, then smiles. The streetcar approaches and she kisses him goodbye for the day.)
Have a wonderful day, mi tesoro.

You, too, love.
(Pablo climbs aboard the streetcar, sits
next to a window and blows a kiss to Maria.
She waves as the car rides off.)


 © 2019 Michael Armenia

Pith and Moment: Why Hamlet? Why now?

‘Twas 37 years ago when I was smitten by the BBC production of Hamlet starring Derek Jacobi as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius. I was only a high-school sophomore. With time on my hands – several hours after school each day waiting for my father to pick me up at the end of his work day – I began to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquies. By the time I was a senior, I was determined to produce the play and with the support of the English department, I cast the major players and we began rehearsals. Then, Ophelia broke her leg quite badly. While we gave up the production, the attempt was immortalized in our yearbook.

For some time afterward, I fantasized playing that role. Alas, time got the better of me. In my mind, the character of Hamlet should be around 25 years old, give or take. Depending on youthful exuberance, the actual actor’s age could range perhaps between 20-35 years. I don’t want to see a 40-year old prince pining for young Ophelia. Those two characters, especially, should be young, naive, and inexperienced to be countered by the sagacity of older parental influences such as Polonius, Gertrude and, dare I include him (yes), Claudius. All the more their youth makes their untimely ends even more tragic. And now, as I, 52 years old, look in the mirror at my balding head and gray hair, I realize that I will never, never be Hamlet.

Another thing I now realize is that I had not only wanted to be Hamlet, but I had wanted to share my vision of the play as a director. And just as I founded the Orcas Island Shakespeare Society at the beginning of this year, it came to me: the inaugural play we produce will be Hamlet. “Wait,” I thought. “There is something better than a production of Hamletan all-female production of Hamlet!”

In Shakespeare’s times and for years after his death, all of the roles in his plays were performed by men. Female characters were often played by younger male actors. Let us recall some of the acting companies of the period. As Peter Akroyd writes in his biography, Shakespeare, “In the seasons from 1583-1586, at least eight sets of players performed in the guildhall at Stratford – among them the Earl of Oxford’s Men, Lord Berkely’s Men, Lord Chando’s Men, the Earl of Worcester’s Men, and the Earls of Essex’s Men.” The boldface is my emphasis and it should be evident why. Much of the world today remains patriarchal. However, in more than 400 years since those days of all-male players, the intelligent people of the world have awakened to the notion that one’s power and abilities lie not in the sex of the individual, but in the will to bring an internal passion to the external world. (The modern term “gender equality” just doesn’t sit well with me semantically. I prefer an “egalitarian society” in which chromosome composition does not present a bias. Of course, men and women are different biologically, chemically, and emotionally; male and female genders are not equal, but both sexes do have (should have) equality in opportunity. ) I can only imagine what is was like to watch all men, in play after play, portray both sexes. Surely the story, Shakespeare’s poetry and prose, may be conveyed in earnest and received by a captive audience. What was the synergy of an all-male cast performing Shakespeare? Enough. I’m directing an all-female cast not to counter the sexism of the past or present, but for the singularly amazing opportunity to see what the synergy of an all-female cast can bring to the dark and tragic tale of the Prince of Denmark as told by William Shakespeare. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I resonate more with women than men. If anything, it should make directing it easier. (PS: The prop skull of “poor Yorick” will, alas, be modeled from a female human skull! )

In embarking on this journey, I have had a resounding personal breakthrough. The reality that I have been living as Hamlet for over 37 years has crystallized. We share the same fatal flaw: inaction, or more accurately, thinking to the detriment of resolution. I overthink everything, examining both pros and cons. This is a good attribute when there is a high risk of value loss, say life or limb. However, over-thinking and, even worse, anticipatory anxiety that results from mulling over the possible negative results and subsequent reactions, can just suck the marrow out of life. It leads to depression.

“And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”
– Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

“Well,” I say, “I am Hamlet no more! “ With this enterprise of directing an all-female Hamlet, I am shattering that crystal and finding catharsis. The currents of my pith and moment will not turn awry. Nothing will diminish my internal passion. This product of unabated alchemy will be an epic experience for Orcas Island and the Orcas Island Shakespeare Society.

It is often said: don’t think, just do!

Let us commence!

OISS, a nonprofit is born on Orcas!

In the fall of 1981, I was smitten by the BBC production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Derek Jacobi as the Prince of Denmark and Patrick Stewart as Claudius, so much so that I began memorizing Act I immediately in the hopes of producing the play before I left high school. In the fall of 1983, it was becoming a reality as I had cast most of the major players and the English department was behind my production. Well, Ophelia broke her leg fairly badly and would be on crutches for awhile. That and other factors which I cannot now recall led to the play’s cancellation.

Aside from taking a college course in Shakespeare in the Spring of 1985, it would be some time later before the Bard would have me in his grip again. Even then, I often skipped classes and rarely did the necessary readings for the course because I was spending more time writing music or acting with the college theater department. Shakespeare didn’t really fit in then. In fact, it was strange to find such a subject-specific literature course at an engineering college. It had fairly recently (in the year I matriculated, 1984) gone from Clarkson College of Technology to Clarkson University. So, it finally had a substantial offering in the humanities. As usual, I have digressed…

My interest in Shakespeare was rekindled when I was strong-armed, roped, hoodwinked, asked to be involved in the Orcas Island Shakespeare Festival, not an official festival per se, but rather a week of Shakespearean activities produced by a committee of the local Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber had been given a five-year grant which was to be applied to boosting local businesses and attracting tourists in the shoulder season in the month of April. I participated in its last two years as an actor and in the final year I also served on the planning committee. I was excited that the theme for this annual (albeit limited to a term of five years) business event was centered around Shakespeare, a theme for which I had an affinity. And when it was over, I thought someone should consider starting a non-profit organization which could see to an annual festival, a celebration that would become part of our local heritage. Moreover, it would be great to infuse Shakespeare’s works, life and times into other community programs, i.e. talks, classes, performances in schools, at the library, and other places. In other words, give the subject a permanent presence here for those who wish to be entertained or educated, or to do the entertaining and educating. “Let’s explore Shakespeare together as a community”, I thought.

On January 1, 2019, I officially founded the Orcas Island Shakespeare Society as a nonprofit organization in Washington State. As said in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Act III, Scene III – “Huzza!”

Now, I’m too old to play Hamlet. That’s regrettable. I no longer entertain that idea in the least. But, I can vicariously live through something as remarkable – even better!  I’ve decided that while we have a lot of planning and organizing to do in terms of programming, the Society’s own (yet-to-be-formed) company of actors will perform an all-female production of Hamlet. Huzzah (my preferred spelling)! There have been productions of Hamlet with an all-female cast and I suppose I will try to see some of those that have been recorded. They will not, however, have any bearing on my direction. This will neither be an abridged production nor a gender-bended modern adaptation. Not until many years after Shakespeare’s death did female actors take the stage in his works. In his lifetime, all of the actors were men. I can’t imagine how this seemed, especially in the more serious plays of tragedies and histories. But, if a gander can portray a goose, then a goose can portray a gander. A stage with only female actors will be, to my mind, an extraordinary experience. Those who know me well, know there are more women in my life than men; I am just drawn to feminine energy. Thus, directing a female troupe will be nothing less than sheer joy!

2019 is the year for planning: building a society and an acting company. You can expect to see the OISS production of Hamlet hopefully in the summer of 2020 or 2021.

In the meantime, stay tuned in to www.orcasislandshakespeare.org and like us on Facebook, for now the only social media platform I will personally manage. (Other members may take on Twitter, Instagram, etc.) If you are local, consider joining us. We will have weekly meetings at the library starting in Spring 2019.


An Acting Imperative

I was recently reminded of a quote by Kurt Vonnegut: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” Well, I don’t think I’m a monster, but I if I don’t write often enough I feel my soul will fly up and I wouldn’t want to be around what is left behind. I haven’t been writing and I find myself philosophizing to the point of losing sleep at night. Last night a question was running around in my mind – how accurate should an actor be reciting his or her lines for it to do justice to the intent of the playwright? I’m writing this essay to alleviate my anxiety so that I stand a chance of sleeping well tonight.

A brief note of why this is important to me is in order. I’ve been working on my magnum opus for nearly six years now and studying language has been an important adjunct. In particular, I’m in my fifth year of a Latin course, classes of which only occur once each week. And despite the fact that English has Germanic roots, the extensive focus on Latin grammar consistently over the years has revealed a lot of English grammar that I don’t recall learning in high school or college. The grammar rules may have been there, but applying those rules had not been. Now I find myself seeing the power and magic of words more than ever. And the subject of my concern is the potential (power) held in the voice and mood of language.

I am not a scholar of Tennessee Williams and his work and aside from watching “The Glass Menagerie” performed live once over twenty years ago, I have only read “A Streetcar Named Desire” once. So, I have to make the assumption that he was deliberate in his words and cognizant of how his words may be construed or misconstrued. And recalling the question at hand, I conclude that his words must stand alone in portraying, text and sub-text, implicit mood and explicit emotion. Thus, an actor should strive as always to recite the lines verbatim, with little variation.

The example that got me thinking of this is as follows. In Scene Three of “Streetcar”, Blanche asks Mitch if he has any cigarettes. The lines follow:

Mitch:  Sure.
Blanche:  What kind are they?
Mitch:  Luckies.
Blanche :  Oh, good. What a pretty case. Silver?
Mitch:  Yes. Yes; read the inscription.
Blanche:  Oh, is there an inscription? I can’t make it out.

Let’s suppose instead of Mitch saying “Yes. Yes; read the inscription,”
we hear “Yes. There’s an inscription.”

Two things happen here. First, Mitch’s mood has changed from the imperative to the indicative, a rather active command, becomes a passive statement. This can be (but may not be in every case) extremely important in conveying a character’s personality. For example, an overconfident macho pack leader such as Stanley Kowalski would come across more “in command” if he were to use the imperative mood. However, using the indicative mood as well as a passive voice would weaken his machismo.  But, in this example this is Mitch we are talking about so, there’s a decision to be made: how much of a boss should Mitch be? I won’t answer that question here. Only I wish to import that diction is very significant in a performance.

The second effect is more subtle. The exchange lacks virility. Notice in the case of the actual text:

Mitch: “Read the inscription.” (imperative and active)  Let’s call this voice/mood experience, A.

Blanche: “Oh, there’s an inscription?” (indicative and passive) Let’s call this voice/mood experience, B.

The dynamic of the dialog is lively going from A to B.

In the case of the following deviation:

Mitch: “Yes. There’s an inscription.” (indicative and passive)

Blanche “Oh, there’s an inscription?”  (indicative and passive)

The dynamic in this case is, well, static, B to B; there’s no change. The voice/mood is stagnant.

Of course, there’s no reason to consider that one is better than the other.  Sometimes an exchange should be static rather than dynamic. There is something subtle here.

Being true to the script is an homage to the playwright. Then again, plays are usually written for the zeitgeist of the period. Revivals are therefore anachronistic. This is what makes them potentially fascinating because there is an opportunity to play with the language, to explore a story and vary portrayals.

Enough said. I think I can sleep tonight.