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Sunday, February 23, 2020

They Talk Lots Funnier in Comedies

One of the critical elements of both farce and satire is the use of pseudo-naturalistic dialogue--dialogue that sounds completely apropos for the specific world in which the play is created, but specifically designed to remind the audience that the action on stage is in the realm of the absurd. A classic example of this is Ben Elton’s comedic dark tragedy Gasping. Gasping uses this device extensively to bring hilarity to what is essentially a morality tale about the end of the world.

Gasping’s story follows a supreme corporate toady, Philip, as he slimes his way up the corporate ladder. Much like corporate sycophants everywhere who only look at the next quarterly earnings, Philip never stops to consider the ramifications of his brilliant new idea: selling recycled/ processed oxygen. His “designer air” campaign takes off like a moon shot and soon everyone who can afford it is buying into the idea of breathing air that has been sucked from exotic locations. 

Designer air (not cleaned air) is of course an absurd concept, but something that is totally believable because someone is always coming out with some bit of psychotic nonsense, selling it to an unsuspecting, uninformed, and distracted public. But what starts out as a silly idea quickly turns into a disaster of global proportions.
Elton’s way of keeping this terra-ble death spiral comedic is to load the dialogue with absurdist speeches, mainly between Philip and his boss, the Chief. At first it is a fairly benign element, coaxing the audience into the tone of the play:
Philip: Our corporate hemline is showing plenty of thigh. If this keeps up we’re going to have to move into a very much bigger pair of corporate trousers. Possibly Switzerland.
As the play progresses, becoming more and more alarmist, Elton keeps the dialogue coming swiftly, loaded with scathing social commentary:
Philip: Wine glasses the size of buckets…portions so small you think you’ve got a dirty plate and it turns out to be your main course…the very best in executive dining....His muesli is so coarse it could prize open the buttocks of a concrete elephant.

Philip’s love interest, Kirsten, is another character who has no concept of social responsibility. Her interest is purely what other people see in her; she rails against a dinner guest who she claims has over-breathed her specially obtained air one night:
Kirsten: I’m sure he could discipline himself to take smaller breaths, I mean it’s just rude, it’s not as if the stuff just grows on trees. I was blowing some really terrific stuff tonight, Sicilian sucked on the north face of Mount Etna, completely wasted on him, of course.

The company has managed to buy the rights for local and foreign areas of oxygen farming, claiming rights to the gas, then selling it back to the local residents, forcing everyone to buy in. (Exactly like what some actual companies are doing with our water supplies as we speak.) In both the Chief and Kirsten’s minds it’s just good business; in fact they are Elton’s (and society’s) worst nightmare, people who have no social conscience whatsoever and are only interested in profits and prestige.

What eventually happens is that competition arises from other firms and everyone is forced to harvest all the oxygen they can. Soon all of the Earth’s oxygen has been appropriated and millions begin to suffocate, unable to pay the price to breathe. On the corporate level, only Philip seems to be aware of it. The Chief explains the situation and Elton’s thrust of the play in one speech:
Chief: Have you any idea how much grain was destroyed in the eighties? While people starved, how much milk was poured away while babies screamed with want? Nobody likes it Philip, but you can’t just give the stuff away; that way lies financial anarchy.

This speech is so exactly where Elton wants the play to be: deep within the horribly absurd (for those with a social conscience, of course) and thereby darkly comedic because of the unthinkable concept of such a situation. Elton makes use of a real event, the destruction of surplus milk and grain by mega-companies in the 1980s, directly in the face of hunger and starvation, merely for the all-consuming sake of monetary profit. In the end when everyone faces death and the world is entirely without oxygen, Philip decides his only move left is to kill the Chief. Just before they both suffocate:
Chief: …you’re going to realize what a hugely detrimental career decision it is to try and kill your employer.
Philip: It wasn’t made lightly, Chief, and I was so unsure I nearly rang my accountant.

Both men are acutely aware of the colossal destruction, the irreversible tragedy that is claiming all oxygen-breathing life on Earth, and they still cannot think outside their corporate box. It is only Elton's use of absurdist humor is that makes this nightmarish play palatable.

Friday, January 17, 2020


Step one: Have a great idea. Hilarious. Suspenseful. Brilliant! Can't wait to start putting words to parchment—Yay!
Step two: Got the amazing opening monologue down completely, end-to-end in one session. Requires remarkably little editing; came out perfectly. I live for days like this! Writing is wonderful!
Step three: Bash out first scene just as planned. This is gonna be a good one. All characters, individual and clear and fully formed, just jump off the page.
Step four: Character 3 surprises me with an unexpected tactic. It's a good one. Forces me to rethink the next batch of forward movement, but the play as a whole looks better.
Step five: Character 4 suddenly—out of nowhere—suddenly morphs into a completely different character (one from a previous, directly related  play—hello, excuse me, why are you here?) making it necessary to incorporate two more previously written entities. A strange turnabout indeed, but you gotta love the surprises in this game.
Step six: Realizing now that I have these repeat characters, the original ending will have to change. That's okay; it was a little fuzzy to start with. So, like the intrepid explorer Stanley, I place the pith helmet of my creativity squarely on the crown of my purpose and set boldly off into the jungle of the unknown.
Step seven: Realize now that my original first character, the one the play has been named after, has suddenly been relegated to a tertiary position. I wonder how much of my original scribblings I can keep. I had a whole series of utterly brilliant comedic running gags serving as plot tactics written down in my Notes for Play file. I’m sure I can salvage most of them.
Step eight: Hmmm. Is it possible to make the play about a different character and still keep the original title and premise?
Step nine: Finish first scene. Yep--it's now a completely different play. The words are still coming like an open faucet, but I'm not sure where it's leading anymore.
Step ten: Hey—no worries! I'm back on track because of Character Two's sudden reveal. Whew!
Step eleven: …which forces two other characters to get killed. Did not see that coming. Also did not see Character Four doing the dirty work. This...ummm...enriches...the play...?
Step twelve: Realize that the play is now a one-act and that because of the loss of two characters and that unexpected sentence that Character One just spewed out, the original planned Act Two is no longer viable. Hmmm. I have to think about this.
Step thirteen. Still thinking.
Step fourteen. Original two-act full-length play may actually be only a ten-minute play.
Step fifteen. Realize the opening monologue no longer fits. Maybe I can use it on its own. With some tweaking.
Step sixteen. Character 2 reveals she is now (and has always been, really, I just never knew it) female.
Step seventeen: Have to change the title (originally Surfing With Pasquale), as Character 1 is now in a coma. Coma-ing With Pasquale just doesn't have that snap.
Step eighteen: I think it's finished. Character 3 just suddenly ended their arc. I have nothing left. Pasquale still in a coma.
Step nineteen: Decide this is the last time I try to write a YA play.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Asking for 10-page samples

Having had to negotiate reading 50+ submissions at a time (on more than a few occasions), I favor asking for 10-page samples. This is not a wholly favorable practice; it frequently provokes pointed questions about the legitimacy of vetting scripts.
And of course I have had ethical issues with this. Does my asking for an abbreviated version of your play cheat us both by not having the full product at hand to judge in its entirety?
But, as one who has 50+ full-length plays to wade through, and as someone with little to no assistance in reading the aforementioned 50+ plays, does it make my jobs as literary manager and producer easier?
I've weighed the pros and cons of abbreviated samples, with fairness as the primary criterion:
By asking for the first 10 pages, I get the beginning of your play, and thus I should know two things:
• The specific importance of your inciting moment, what I call the Passover Factor: What is making this day/moment in time special? Why does this play need to exist? And;
• Is what is happening indeed interesting enough to get me through 10 pages of dramatic action?
Play readers need to judge as best we can what our audiences might think were this text inflicted upon them. It's not enough for me, the initial arbiter, to like it, although that's a definite plus because I will favor its further consideration for production. And to assume that my judgment is of a critical and professional proficiency to instantly and infallibly detect all Scripts of Unusual Caliber is self-righteous poppycock. But if I have the first 10 pages I can make a fair assumption about (again) two things:
• The efficacy of the opening of the play, and;
• The remainder of the work, which I can reasonably expect to be equally compelling. If your first 10 pages kick my ass, I'll gladly ask you for and read through the rest, waiting for the grand payoff. If your first 10 pages don't grab me, then I can safely deduce that the rest will similarly glaze my eyes over.
Remember, I have 50+ plays to read and judge to the best of my ability. And “to the best of my ability” means just that. Few folks admit to play-reading fatigue. One person can read only so many plays before they get tired and lose the energy needed to fairly critique each successive play. If I have to read 50+ complete plays, all ranging from 45 to 95 pages, I'm going to lose my shit.
But if I have to read only 10 pages, I can not only process the bulk faster, leaving me more time to coach my actors, design the posters, sell tickets, and clean the theatre's toilets, but convince myself that I am judging fairly every play on my desk. The job is easier, and my time is better spent.
And as I read those ten pages, I have to imagine the audience experiencing those 10 minutes of performed script. That’s a long time to wait before the play shows its power.
Before we go any further, let me state for the record that, as an eternally hopeful scribbler of dramatic material, I want everyone to read my entire play through. Why? Because they are damn good, and I want literary managers to have the whole things to judge. (Yes, I see the contradiction here.)
Theatres, in order to achieve their noble goals of Producing Killer Art For The Masses, spend an inordinate amount of their time asking for money so they can stay open, have electricity, pay their taxes and rents, maintain heating and cooling systems, pay directors and (we hope) the actors, and keep the artistic director brimmed with skinny double soy lattes and Ramen noodles. All these items are highest on the “Necessities We Absolutely, Positively Need to Pay For” list 
What's far down said list is “People to Read All These Damn Submissions.” That is, people who know how to read plays. People with experience who know how to read plays. We've all seen the opp line: “Give us six months to a year to get back to you.” It could be they have only one or two people to read every play submitted. It could mean they really want to dedicate time to making sure they find the best work. Most of the time, I think, it means both.
And as long as I'm ranting, let me briefly discuss opps that ask for a second option: “Send us your best 10 pages,” or more commonly, “a 10-page representative selection of your play.”
Why is this different from asking for the first 10 pages? Simply because reading the first 10 pages takes us chronologically into your magnum opus, the same as the thousands of future sold-out audiences will experience. That's important. But if the playwright cherry-picks an arbitrary section of the work, the reader cannot reasonably extrapolate the assets and liabilities of the whole work. We're getting what the playwright feels is the best part of the play. I don't want that. If this is the best 10 pages, then I have to think the rest of the play is less compelling.
So why not just ask for the whole play and stop reading after 10 pages? Seems like the perfect answer, no? I remember someone telling me to “just get through the first one hundred pages” of this particular novel, and then “It will all pay off.” Granted, the second hundred pages were thrilling, but if I had not been urged to stick with it, I would have set the book down for lack of interest. Likewise, theatres can't have someone push you back into your seat through the first act waiting for act two to spark joy or other emotion. We all want your work to be fantastic, and sometimes we carry on reading counting on that glimmer of hope you showed in the first 10 pages, waiting for the worthy payoff that many times, sadly, does not come. For us, that's precious time spent. 
In this society which undervalues, or in some cases, negatively values the need for art to flourish and creativity to stir up the coagulated Zeigeist Soup, theatres have one overarching job: survival. The need to do whatever they can to pay the rent and the staff, keep the grid functioning, and find 30-foot hamster wheels for their ex-lover's surrogate father's updated version of Hamlet, now set in a steampunk Habit-Trail. They need plays that are sure winners. And they need to make sure they accrue those sure winners as efficiently and as fairly as they can. It behooves every dramatic writer to make those 10 pages count.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Mutual of Central Park's Wild Kingdom


Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away...
...I was a photographer. I carried a Canon AE1 and spare rolls of film everywhere. Wanted to be the next Ansel Adams. Would have settled for Weegee.
March, 1984, Central Park, NYC. I'm at the Bethesda Fountain photo-zooming a post-wedding photo session. About twenty people, all dressed to the nuptial nines, fulgent with joy and effervescence, circling the bride and groom. I'm off to the side about fifty feet, sitting midway along the long curved concrete benches that form the barrier wall between the grand portico and the lake, clad in an outsized leather biker's jacket. Lotsa pockets and very warm.
All of a sudden my attention is redirected. I'm disturbingly aware that...something...something playing on my right side. As I look down I see the rear end of a furry mammal. A furry mammal about the size of a juvenile house cat. I say the “rear end” because the “front end” is now under the edge of my jacket. I can feel FEET—that is FEET with CLAWS—pressing into my hip. The rest of the mammal—that is the biting business endis now completely under my jacket and moving FORWARD.
Holy shipyards, Batman, it's a flippin' RAT. I have a RAT under my jacket. I freeze like I'm in Madame Tussaud's. The RAT continues its under-coat journey and in two seconds I am the new home for the RAT, who, I can detect, is now CURLING UP.
As I weigh my options—all one of them (stay the fuck still and hope it goes away then run like hell for a rabies shot)--the RAT pokes its head out of the front of my not-zippered jacket and looks up at me.
Weird thought of the month, March, 1984: this is by far the cutest rat I have ever seen. It's adorable. As soon as it has left my jacket and I've stomped it to death, I wanna take it home and feed it.
“Frisco!” I hear a man yell. “Get outta that man's jacket!”
“Frisco,” busted, slowly crawls out. Okay. Maybe it's not a rat. But it sure as hell looks like one, albeit streamlined and somewhat mink-ish.
“Frisco's” owner hurries over and scoops up the...what the hell is that, anyway?
“It's a ferret, man,” the guy says, nose-nuzzling the rodent. “You don't know ferrets?”
Man, I've seen rats in the subway that could eat a German Shepherd. I've never seen a ferret before.
The man apologizes profusely. “He got away for like two seconds, man. He's fast, you know?” Then he adds, as an afterthought, “He ain't gonna hurt you. He's real friendly.” And then, before I can politely refuse the offer, he dumps Frisco the Ferret into my lap. “You can pet him. Go ahead, man.”
Frisco's adowwable face looks up at me. Tentatively, I stroke his head. Like a cat, he pushes back against my hand. Okay, so rat + cat = ferret. This is not so bad.
Frisco's less-than-watchful owner and I talk for a bit, I snap a few pix, try to remember if I soiled myself, and then Frisco and owner stroll off.
Later that day I saw Andy Warhol crossing the street. New York City, you know?

Saturday, August 3, 2019


Was reminded of this yesterday:
A number of years ago I was delivering a folder of background reportage to the apartment home of a Newsweek editor. It was a fairly tony West Side, just-off-the-park building, probably a dozen stories tall. I entered the elevator and as the doors began to close I saw a man approach. We both reached for the doors and the man entered, and gave me a curt nod of thanks.
So there's only one man I've ever seen that wore white sideburns in that particular fashion--and carried it off. He looked smaller than I'd imagined. If you live or work in Manhattan, you inevitably have at least one star sighting. And I was standing in an elevator all alone with Isaac Asimov.
It took me eight floors but I finally managed to ask (somewhat timidly, knowing his reputation), “Excuse me. Are you Isaac Asimov?”
He turned to me. “I am.”
I just finished reading your Black Widower series," I said. "And I've read many of your other works." Then not having any idea where to go after this, I said, “You're a genius.”
The smallest of smiles. As the elevator doors opened, he said “Yes. I am.” And then he walked out.
It could not have been a more perfect moment.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Coffee Table of Essential Reading, Part One

We live in troubled times.
But as Sean Connery once opined, “The empire ish alwaysh in shome kind of peril,” a statement some folks may see as a warning against all sorts of Foreign Intrigue Hatefully Directed Against “Our Freedoms.” I take it to mean “We just don't know how to leave well enough alone. And now look at where we are.”
Our species, through the centuries, in order to escape the frightening realities of our failed political policies, has created dream worlds. We have imagined societies that function prosperously, peacefully, and embrace all of its (to be fair, usually selected) citizens with fairness and equality. Despite the attractive brochures, many actual places around the globe come much closer than the United States in achieving such Utopian realities. One might reason that it would be an easy thing to steal the best of those ideas and incorporate them into our own society, but in the current dominant paradigm our wide-eyed jingocentrism teaches that “ours” is the only “true” dream.
I say again: We live in troubled times. Actually, they never seem to end. The Empire is always in some kind of peril.
To wit: the words “only” and “true” have arguably done more to separate us from each other than all other words combined. “Only”: the solitary viable option, all others choices being incorrect, negligible, insufficient. And “True”: that which exists completely without falsity. That which is to be wholly believed, heart and soul, mind and body--without question.
Because to question something is to cast doubt on it, to take it from its proclaimed unassailable pedestal of ultimate perfection, to pull the curtain aside, to reveal the impurities and untruths, and ultimately destroy cherished dreams. When you destroy dreams, you destroy hope. And hope, bless its cancerous little heart, is what keeps the dream machine well-oiled.
Which brings me (finally) to the crux of this screed's biscuit: Since the dawn of writing, people have been inscribing their ideas and viewpoints for consumption by others. Books by the thoughtful and prescient past and present of this rapidly dying planet that explicate, comment on, praise, decry, and render in cold harsh words their views of the effects of our presence here on this criminally abused mother-organism. I've read a bunch that have refused to leave my brain over the years, and it occurred to me to consider what books I would recommend and believed were the best at telling future generations a necessary and essential truth about ourselves as humans on planet Earth. What critical lessons should we pass on? What shared experiences are the most important to be kept alive as lessons or celebrations?
So of course I made a list. It starts immediately below and will follow with subsequent posts. The books are in no certain order, no ranking of importance. I consider each to be critically valuable in shedding a ray of illumination upon ourselves as we have so far evolved (or not). I would say they all have one thing in common: they represent a danger to some part of someone's dominant paradigm merely by fostering that most heretical of crimes, critical examination.
I begin with Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that has been said over and over to encompass all that can be said about the average soldier's experience of war. Wars are inaugurated and set in motion not by average people, but by politicians and global money brokers. Let me clarify: wars are not inaugurated by the ones who will actually fight them.
What All Quiet on the Western Front tells us about the hell experienced by the average soldier is painful and terrifying: The minute by minute fear of injury and death; the heightened, fevered desire to grasp what may be left of the joys of life; the fights with nature and fellow soldiers for morsels of food. What pressures can come to bear to turn a caring young man into someone who visits his hospitalized comrade mainly to see if he can be there at the unfortunate's moment of death in order to take the man's boots, which are in so much better condition than his own?
But the most frightening part of the book for me now that I have seen the run-ups to several wars instigated by my own country is the level of manipulation involved, the ceaseless lies and senseless exhortations that convince healthy, dream-filled young men and women to sign up.
In All Quiet there is a character, Kantorek, a schoolmaster, a respected figure of authority, who exhorts the young men of the village to sign up and fulfill their patriotic duties. While he, of course, does not. (He is later forced to enlist, which he does reluctantly. But not before sending dozens of glory-eyed students ahead of him.)
This Kantorek represents those three of the worst citizens imaginable. First he exemplifies the propogandists, who, throughout history, have passionately preached the righteous glory of war while rabidly extolling nationalistic fervor. They are the hysterical doomsayers who paint the Foreign as direct threats to our “freedoms,” who distort and disregard geopolitical realities and conjure up devils in kaffias or sombreros in order to pursue various economic and political agendas.
Secondly they are the cowards who, while sitting pretty in their own protected nests of luxury, have claimed exception to military service by reason of “bone spurs” or having “other priorities.”
Thirdly, the sideline flag-wavers, such as political mouthpieces masquerading as “news” services who turn the indescribable horrors of war into colorful video game-like displays of technoglitz, showing the fearsome tools of mass destruction as ultracool toys to play with. All you need is a joystick and you can graduate from the Call of Duty killing of virtual enemies on your laptop to virtual murder on the battlefield.
The major lesson to take away from All Quiet on the Western Front, aside from the description of the horrors of war, is this: from whom do you take your information, and why? Who do you trust to tell you the truth? And most importantly, why do you trust others to feed you the information you need? Why do you not seek your own truths, carry your own set of scales and blindfold, and weigh what factors you can find at your disposal?
Last thing: All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the first books banned and burned in 1933 by the rising National Socialist Party in Germany. Clearly, it was a danger to someone.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Hamlet’s Hamartia

So--theoretically-- if somebody whacked my beloved old man then proceeded to wed and bed my mom I'd resolutely be set on the path to complete, ultimate, and dare I venture--Biblical--revenge. The revenge story is almost always a gripping read. William Shakespeare, no slaggard at using whatever was lying around, employed this theme in many fashions, as in Romeo’s hot-blooded slaying of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and Prospero’s agonizing treatment of his brother Antonio in The Tempest. However, nowhere in his esteemed canon does revenge figure so dramatically as in Hamlet.
But there's a twist: unlike many other revenge procedurals where we watch the protagonist embark on a nonstop program of retribution, our woefully incapable prince dithers and procrastinates, dragging out the patience of both his co-characters and his audience as he struggles with the issue of intellectualism versus politics.
Basically, Hamlet’s problem is his ceaseless attempts to rationalize what he has been taught at a very progressive university against what he has been raised with: the traditionally violent course of action. For many other characters whose near and dear were ruthlessly murdered it might be a simple choice to enact revenge (one need only look at Malcolm and Macduff), but for the troubled Prince of Denmark, it is a tortuous and soul-searching process. Neither Malcolm not Macduff (as far as we know) were the recipients of a newfangled Enlightenment education stressing thought and rationality over knee-jerk lethal retribution. I argue that, Hamlet's moral, ethical, and political confusion, is his scholastic training that renders the prince hamstrung and confused.
Shakespeare could have had Hamlet educated anywhere in western Europe, (for instance, Hamburg) but he deliberately puts him at Wittenberg. George Bernard Shaw wrote that “Hamlet as a prehistoric Dane is morally bound to kill his uncle, politically as rightful heir to the usurped throne, and filially as ‘the son of a dear father murdered’ and a mother seduced by an incestuous adulterer” (Wilson 79). Seems like a pretty sound reason for revenge, I’d say. But the influence of Wittenberg’s neoclassical/Protestant training, Hamlet finds himself totally incapable of reconciling what he feels he must do to retain honor and salvage the future of Denmark—which is kill Claudius and avenge his father’s murder—and the impulse to constrain nature’s basest behavioral level through a rational, modern, progressive mindset, not to mention coupled with the threat of eternal damnation for murder.
To wit: Wittenberg was the home of Martin Luther, whose teachings destroyed the homogenous rule of Roman Catholicism. As Luther reacted so angrily to the excess and corruption that he found in Rome, so also did his adherents attempt to prohibit similar faults in their own religious lives, and instead of bowing to numerous intermediaries between themselves and God, cut out the thousands of earthly middlemen between themselves and their deity.
Shakespeare mirrors this rejection of excess and rejection through Hamlet, who sees his uncle (named a regicide by a spirit in the shape of his deceased father, but we'll get to that in a minute) carrying on late into the night, drinking and carousing: “The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse/Keeps wassail and the swag’ring upscale reels/And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,/The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out/The triumph of his pledge” (Shakespeare I.iv.9). Hamlet plainly sees a direct corollary to what Luther railed against: the debauchment and moral diminishment of one who should have been respected and revered.
It is important to note that Hamlet only objects to his uncle’s (and now step-father’s) Bohemian habits and ignores—or is hampered in his ability to denigrate—Claudius’s abilities as king. In fact Claudius does indeed conduct himself quite ably as Denmark’s monarch, especially hammering out solutions to tricky situations such as hamstringing the impending attack of the Norwegian hothead Fortinbras in act II, scene ii, and later on when he handles Laertes deftly, both in act IV, scene v when Laertes comes to Claudius looking for blood to match his father’s spilled blood (and incidentally finds his beloved sister Ophelia gone mad from Hamlet's coarse abandonment), and in act V, scene vii, when he puts the grief-stricken youth in a position to “accidentally” kill Hamlet through a rigged fencing match. Claudius' ability to judge and negotiate a difficult situation and sway others to his point of view makes him a man who should be in power. He's no dummy.
Hamlet's situation would be more than enough for most any other victim to bear, and these others might not think twice about setting the matter straight and immediately and without a second thoght putting the usurper’s head on a stick. But Shakespeare set up his Hobson’s Choice well: Although Claudius is utterly odious to Hamlet, the Prince is held back from killing him by his newfound Protestant religious beliefs which include both a more strict reading of the Bible and the elimination of church intermediaries between the supplicant and God, putting the supplicant face-to-face with the Almighty. Both of these practices effectively serve to keep Hamlet from enacting bloody revenge.
The Bible clearly states that “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and even though Hamlet ignores this in times of hot blood, causing the death of Polonius, he does, I believe, bear the weight of this commandment in mind throughout the play. It would be illogical for Hamlet, in times of sobering thought, to ignore what is possibly the best-known single line from the Bible, especially when he knows that being in a one-to-one relationship with The Almighty leaves absolutely no wiggle room. Hamlet has mused on the prohibition of wrongful death—in the form of suicide—before, when he bemoans “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (I.ii.135). This commandment effectively prohibits the one course that Hamlet could pursue to quell his moral outrage. (There's a reason why barbarians don't go to college.)
So it is his intellectuality that ultimately stops him from killing Claudius outright, and here lies another paradox that tortures the prince. Wittenberg, considered a radical university for its time, taught neoclassicism. It is this neoclassicism that fills Hamlet with florid tales of antiquity, many of them overflowing with murder and revenge. If Hamlet was not confused before, he receives no help here. These sanguinely gushing tales seal the fate of the prince, who was (by his tendency to lean away from bloodshed in the first place) obviously of a nonviolent nature to begin with, by allowing him to avoid the realm of physical action and dwell solely in the realm of the intellect.
Neoclassicism, like Lutheranism, lays down strict rules. Accented are structure, reasoning, and a focus on humankind; art should be a mirror to the image of man. Shakespeare clearly illustrates this through Hamlet’s exhortations to the players:
“For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III.ii.20-26).
In modern terms...don't ham it up.
Hamlet’s classical training would have instilled in him the idea that literature was an art perfected by the Greeks and Romans and could only be achieved by prolonged study—a philosophical indoctrination. Hamlet’s adherence to this mode of thought further crippled his ability to “think on his feet”, or be able to act with relative quickness and surety. His slowness to action exacerbates the already tense situation, driving everyone around him nuts, and when he hamfistedly does break into quick action, people drop like flies, as evidenced by the impassioned slaying of Polonius and the “brilliant idea" of forging the letter that get Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed.
As mentioned above, the other side of the Classical paradox is the subject material to which Hamlet would have been exposed, one that Shakespeare himself mined throughout his career for all it was worth. Many are the tales of murder and revenge that Hamlet would have encountered, especially those of ancients such as Homer and Seneca. Seneca figures importantly in Hamlet because Shakespeare modeled Hamlet—directly or indirectly—on Senecan tragedy, emphasizing melodrama, bloodshed and revenge. Particularly Senecan is the use of a wronged ghost to introduce the vengeance theme. It is obvious that Hamlet has absorbed the writings of the ancients because at nearly every instance he invokes their literature and mythologies. By my count, there are no less than 38 instances of conjuring up the worlds of the Greeks and Romans—most notably in the speech about Pyhrrus and Priam. He also frequently invokes the Christian god, seemingly without any more intent than dramatic effect. This attests to the prince’s confusion between reality and theory; if he cannot separate the two theologies in thought or speech, how much weight does he give to either?
Hamlet’s hamartia is his inability to decide between his duty and his philosophy. C.J. Sisson writes that Hamlet is “a man of urbane intellectuality and immune from...crude passions” (Sisson 53). In the 1948 Laurence Olivier-directed movie of Hamlet, Olivier subtitles the film “The Prince Who Couldn’t Make Up His Mind.” Both are correct. Hamlet is a man of the mind; thus neither kingship nor any other physical, ruthless vocation is for him.
And as if all this weren’t confusing enough for the poor kid, Shakespeare further turns up the paradox theme by introducing the father-ghost. Given the doctrine of Protestantism, which denies Purgatory and effectively closes out any transportation to or from either Heaven or Hell, it is therefore impossible that the ghost should be able to appear at all. Hamlet himself acknowledges this when he admits that death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” (Shakespeare III.i.87). So how can the ghost of his father appear to him when liturgical teachings absolutely forswear this phenomenon? The only other possibility is that the apparition is a demon sent by the devil to bring wrack and ruin to Hamlet and Denmark. The ghost is real, remember: Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus have also witnessed it.
But this is Shakespeare again messing with not only Hamlet’s, but the audience’s minds as well (which is ultimately the playwright’s job). It is not ultimately important whether the ghost is the real thing because the play deals not with the ghost's legitimacy but Hamlet’s subsequent journey to decision. In any event, the ghost’s accusation is eventually proven correct by Claudius’s own confession in the chapel, thereby validating at least the original impetus for Hamlet’s troubles.
In the end, Hamlet never really does decide what to do. He constantly waffles among laying traps, playing insane, spreading disinformation, and blustering through ragings promising blood. At one point he asks himself, “Am I a coward?”, and at another he claims to be “Heaven’s scourge and minister.” What it takes to make Hamlet act is a series of events that push him along towards an inevitable conclusion. Shaw writes:
“He finds to his bewilderment that he cannot kill his uncle deliberately. In a sudden flash of rage he can and does stab at him through the arras, only to find that he has killed poor old Polonius by mistake. In a later transport, when the unlucky uncle poisons not only Hamlet’s mother, but his own accomplice and Hamlet himself, Hamlet actually does at last kill his enemy on the spur of the moment” (Wilson 80).
Shaw then goes on to add that “This is no solution to the problem: it cuts the Gordian knot instead of untying it” (80). Shakespeare knew his audiences and their taste for action and shed blood, so ending the play this way was most likely more satisfying than just offing Claudius (especially after five whole acts). The Bard's instincts were wholly on target, creating possibly the most famous work for stage until, say, oh...Hamilton?

Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Pocket Books. 1992. New York
Sisson, C.J. Shakespeare’s Tragic Justice. Metheun and Co. Ltd. London, England.
Wilson, Edwin. Shaw on Shakespeare: An Anthology of Bernard Shaw’s Writings on the Plays and Production of Shakespeare. E.P. Dutton and Co. Ed. Edwin Wilson. 1961. New York.
Young, Karl. The Shakespeare Skeptics. The Century Co. 1925. New York