Friday, June 16, 2017


The story Shakespeare didn't tell

A novel by Mick Foster
first published 2017

The title recalls that old German joke –
Q: Why did Herr Hörner name his son 'Hamlet'? A: Sein oder nicht sein …
And that's the thing about Shakespeare's tragedy of the Prince of Denmark. Everybody knows it, at least a little. Maybe that's why it's been so popular for parody, pastiche and para-literature. On stage, we have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and the lesser-known but just as funny Wittenberg by David Davalos. And Fortinbras, an American wise-cracking comedy in which most of the play's characters return as ghosts. On the page, there's McEwan's much-acclaimed Nutshell, or Ophelia, in which our heroine is only pretending to be mad, and survives, or, just this year, Saving Hamlet, in which a sophomore girl falls through the trapdoor into the original production at the Globe.
Mick Foster's novel has its genesis in a production of the play he co-directed in 2013.
It was an intelligent, original reading. One of the ideas which emerged concerned the differing ways of looking at the central character. His nobility seems as odds with the awful way he treats those around him. So, instead of literary criticism, Foster turns to fiction to set the record straight.
The bastard of the title is Mattias [Noonesson]. We meet him first slipping in to a performance of The Murder of Gonzago with his elder brother Anders; his feckless father is there too, with a woman. As the dénouement plays out – the entire royal family dead, and no obvious successor – the adolescent Mattias is increasingly curious about his own identity. His blond hair gives rise to rumour and speculation. He learns the truth, but swears not to tell. He encounters the ghost of Gertrude – a strongly drawn character – who encourages him to write her history and talk to the survivors. And so a series of interviews is woven into the action. He seeks out Marcellus in the tavern; he meets the First Player – in this alternative universe the poet behind the great tragic play – the spymaster Reynaldo and the tiresome Polonius “cold as the castle walls in winter”. A cloud of witnesses, all offering new insights and fresh speculation to colour the story we thought we knew. Politics mingle with private lives, Osric describes the fatal duel – a very vivid passage, this. Must other duels be fought to determine the future of the state of Denmark and the son of its Prince ?
Mattias brings together his explosive findings in a book, whose fate, too, hangs in the balance. Gertrude's ghost finds it “adequate”. “You tell a plain tale simply”. She feels that, like Judas perhaps, they were all caught in a story that had to happen so that it could be told.
In Chapter 29 - “Endings”, loose ends are tied up and the fate of the characters is revealed. Horatio, for instance, returns to Wittenberg, the Player to the stage. Mattias achieves greatness, giving Denmark a few years of peace and prosperity. Like Fortinbras, he has no monument. Unlike Fortinbras, he does not achieve even fictional immortality.
Mick Foster sets that omission right, and much else besides, in an ingeniously worked novel which manages to combine a coming-of-age story, suspense, insight and original thought.

Photograph from a 2007 production of Fortinbras, by Joliet Junior College

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