Hey guys! I’m happy to have Michelle Ray, author of Falling for Hamlet, here on the blog. Today, she’ll be talking about how Hamlet inspired her to write her novel. Enjoy!
I love Hamlet. I love its complexity and its humanity. There are people who watch the play who want Hamlet to take action and stop brooding already, but I’ve always connected with his uncertainty and his fears. And everyone in the play gives him reason to wonder who he can trust. Is the ghost lying to him? Is his mother? Is his uncle guilty? Are his friends there to spy or to help? Tough questions that could drive a guy nuts.
There were two modern versions of Hamlet that made me see how current the story is: the film with Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles, and a stage production I saw at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. Both used the modern setting to enhance the story, not as a gimmick. The jeans, cars, and cell phones pointed out the timelessness of the story. Hamlet doesn’t need codpieces and tights to make sense or to move an audience.
So I was watching the Ophelia at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and thinking she was stupid to go crazy and kill herself over a boy! And then I wondered, “What if she didn’t die? Oh. What if she didn’t die!” Well, by the time I’d gotten to the subway after the show, I had some answers in place and the beginnings of my novel.
I hate the way Ophelia’s story plays out in Hamlet. The versions that make the most sense are set from the 1800s and earlier because women’s roles were so much more prescribed. Ophelia in the original would not have had a choice about who to marry, where to live or travel, or have been able to tell her father “no” about anything. I began to wonder how a modern Ophelia could make the same tough choices of the original if those chains were lifted, and what would make her life feel out of control. Then I wanted to know how she would grow or change as a result of being pushed to the brink by those she was supposed to love and trust the most. I thought would be wounded and wary, but stronger, too.
As for my process, I kept the play in hand every day of the first draft, and referred to it repeatedly in subsequent drafts. Funny enough, it was my copy from high school, so it had my notes in the margins about theories of his madness, her madness, motivations, and symbolism. Good stuff! My goal was to stick closely to the original. I was doing line-by-line translations, then I filled in scenes that would make the characters’ lives more real, current, and deep. The biggest challenge was getting Ophelia, who’s not in most of the play(!), to be a witness to key scenes. That’s where technology and creative license came in. Adding her in helped build tension in places, like when Hamlet drags Ophelia with him to speak with his mother since Gertrude is not that fond of Ophelia to begin with.
I was able to work pretty much everything I wanted in, and it gave me permission to cut or abbreviate some parts that I wasn’t entirely fond of. What I hated was cutting some of the soliloquies and making the language so plain. For instance, Ophelia and her brother are arguing over her morality and his hypocrisy, and she says, “Whilst, like a puff’d and reckless libertine/Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,” which turned into “Don’t tell me you’ve never screwed around.” Not nearly as lovely, but necessarily simplified. Actually, a few sentences later, I got her to say, “Primrose path of dalliance,” as a joke because I loved the words so much.
Three things I love: 1) that readers tell me how sad a story it is, 2) that they understand Ophelia or like Hamlet better, and 3) that they have sought out Hamlet in stage, written or film versions. I’m glad readers see the complexities of the characters and that they are experiencing the magnificence of the original. I’m not trying to be Shakespeare, but my hope was to bring even more appreciation and connections to the original masterpiece.
Purchase: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository
Michelle Ray is a sixth grade English teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland who spends a great deal of time trying to convince people that Shakespeare is not scary, both in her professional and personal life. Falling for Hamlet is her first novel.