The 2021 Words Matter Lecture reviewed by Adam Kirkbride: Dr Saffron Vickers Walkling on Hamlet.

Adam Kirkbride, postgraduate student on our MA in Contemporary Literature, reflects on our annual departmental Words Matter Lecture. There is a link to the lecture recording at the bottom of this post.

Since coming to York St John, the Words Matter lecture has been something that I look forward to every year without fail. For those who may not be aware, the Words Matter lecture is a staple of the autumn term, an evening of wine, literature, and inspiration where we watch one of the English Literature team deliver a lecture on their current area of research.

People holidaying in Tiananmen Square
Beijing 1993 (c) Saffron Vickers Walkling

This year’s Words Matter lecture was delivered by Dr Saffron Vickers Walkling on the topic of “Hamlet and the Legacy of 1989”. I must confess that before this lecture I was something of a Hamlet-phobe (as Dr Vickers Walkling pointed out, “Hamlet talks about revenging his father for nearly four hours”). Nevertheless, through the magic of the Words Matter lecture, I emerged from the lecture theatre with a newfound appreciation for Shakespeare’s moodiest protagonist.

Dr Vickers Walkling’s interest in political adaptations of Hamlet began in Japan in 1995, when they watched a modern dress, Mandarin Chinese appropriation of Hamlet. This appropriation, first performed five years prior in a period of major political events and economic change, was the beginning of a fascination with politically charged, iconoclastic adaptations of Shakespeare’s most famous play. Across the course of the lecture, Dr Vickers Walkling discussed three adaptations of Hamlet, Lin Zhaohua’s Mandarin Chinese appropriation (1990/1995), Jan Klata’s “H.” (2004/2006), and Sulayman Al Bassam’s “The Al-Hamlet Summit” (2002/2004).

Hamlet has been described by Marvin A. Carlson as “that most haunted of western

Gates at Gdansk Shipyard
Gdansk Shipyards Gates in 2012, formerly the Lenin Shipyards. (c) Saffron Vickers Walkling

dramas”, beginning with a ghost and ending with multiple deaths. However, in these three productions, it is not the literal ghosts that the directors wish to highlight, but “the other types of ghosts; the ghosts of a nation, and the ghosts of collective memory” as Dr Vickers Walkling points out. In the wake of 1989 (the “end of history” as Francis Fukuyama claimed), the world faced many socio-political changes, and these changes sent ghosts of what the world could be, and what it never will be again, rippling out into the cultural consciousnesses of the globe.

Of course, anyone with a vague awareness of global history will know that 1989 was a landmark year for many reasons, but the question remains, why use Hamlet to explore and exorcise these ghosts of cultural consciousness? What does Hamlet offer that King Lear or Othello does not? As theorists have previously pointed out, Hamlet is a uniquely modern play, and is by far Shakespeare’s most well-known play, cited by great thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, and Coleridge. One does not have to be a literature scholar to know Hamlet and its philosophical importance.

Book of Al Hamlet Summit, Hamlet and oranges
Hamlet as the palimpsest for The Al Hamlet Summit (c) Saffron Vickers Walkling

This philosophical importance makes Hamlet an ideal vessel for social critique, “producers are sometimes tempted to make the classics into coded images about the present: Shakespeare thus became a secret agent under deep cover” Dennis Kennedy suggests. Hamlet is metatheatrical, one of its key moments being the play within the play. As Dr Vickers Walkling suggests, “by appropriating, for his personal and political allegory, a work already well-known and already in repertoire, Hamlet is playing the same game as his creative descendants will 400 years later when theatre makers use Hamlet to speak to their specific moment of history.”

Shakespeare’s original text suggests that “the purpose of playing […] is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to Nature, and to show Virtue her feature, Scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. To hold up a mirror to nature (human or otherwise) is no small feat, especially when one takes into account the often-complex geo-political conditions that these three directors often find themselves in. “Hence the utility of our friend, William Shakespeare, you know?” Al-Bassam notes in an interview, “It’s William Shakespeare who’s saying this, not us.” A useful distinction indeed. “Because of its place in constructions of modernity, Hamlet is uniquely placed to act as a mirror held up to nature,” as Dr Vickers Walkling sums up, “Particularly in relation to societies in flux at times of political change.”

As always, the work of our academics presented at the Words Matter lecture fascinates, inspires and enthralls us mere mortals sat in the seats of the DeGrey lecture theatre. But there is something special going on here, and not only in Dr Vickers Walkling convincing me that Hamlet is not so bad after all! At a time where global society is in a state of turmoil, and basic human freedoms are at risk across the globe, it is comforting to know that we will always find a way to speak out through the media of art, literature, and drama. In summary, words really do matter.

This year’s Words Matter lecture was delivered by Dr Saffron Vickers Walkling, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at York St John University.