Is Hamlet a coward?

By Ali Al-Ahmadani

Is Hamlet a coward? Robert Icke, an English director, also known as “the great hope for British theatre,” raises the question in his play Hamlet. In a time of the war in Ukraine, the economic crisis in Lebanon, and the missile attacks on Gaza, we watch millions of innocent people suffer against injustice. Performed in the Park Avenue Armory Theatre, Hamlet asks if he is a coward until one of the audience members shouts “yes.”

While this particular audience member was brave enough to shout the answer, most of the audience was silent – which was odd, considering how the director was trying to involve the audience. Icke used character placement and stage lighting to immerse us, the audience, emotionally with the characters. In the play within a play scene, the main characters are placed in the front row with us when Hamlet directs a performance imitating the King’s crime. By doing so, Hamlet and his family became spectators just like us, shifting our focus toward the performed play. The character’s position creates an illusion tricking the mind into believing the King is a real person, which blurs the line between imagination and reality.

Rather than taking us deep into the story, Icke brought fiction into our world. The lights are turned on in every Hamlet monologue, breaking the play’s illusion. Being under the spotlight makes us feel pressured to act, which imitates Hamlet’s hesitation. Hamlet goes further in his last monologue, accusing us of being mute throughout the play and redirecting the opening question toward us.

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