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Literary Blog: Hamlet At Wittenberg, A

Literary Blog: Hamlet At Wittenberg, A

The latest New York Review of Books has a review article about imitations, forgeries, and parodies of Shakespeare. This inspires me to dredge out of obscurity--that is, my collected literary works, where it has (I believe) pretty much gone unnoticed--a Shakespeare/Marlowe spin-off of my own titled Hamlet At Wittenberg. The first half of it is below; the second half will be attached to the next blog, posted in a few days. (You can wait with bated breath, whatever that is, in between.) I wrote this for reading in a faculty group that Dorothy and I belonged to, the Drama Group, which met monthly to watch a reading and semi-staging of a play prepared by one of us, with helpers. I did several--I remember especially doing Jonathan Swift’s very funny The Life and Death of Tom Thumb, which has some great lines. This one of mine was written to be inserted into a playlet by W. S. Gilbert entitled “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern” (decades before Tom Stoppard wrote another one about them)--it isn’t all that funny, but it suited my purpose. This was 1971, when the Free Speech Movement was still on everybody’s minds. And I had this good idea: Why hasn’t anybody ever realized that Hamlet and Faustus could have been at Wittenberg U. at the same time, more or less, H. as student, F. as professor? And since Shakespeare’s play about one of them and Marlowe’s about the other were special favorites of mine, from which I could quote long passages, I ran them together in a way that you will see below. So, here it is, Part I of Hamlet At Wittenberg. (Special prize to anyone who catches a T.S. Eliot echo.)


(Bottom of p. 79 of W. S. Gilbert playlet, Guildenstern's speech to Ophelia, replace with:)


Guild. We knew him once

In school at Wittenberg. What's he like now?


(P. 80, from end of Ophelia's second speech):


Oph. . . . with lucid intervals of lunacy.

You say you knew him once in Wittenberg;

That, I suppose, was in his student years.


Ros. (nodding) Which ended with his most precipitous

Return to Denmark.


Oph. Ah, it was the news

Of Hamlet his dear father's sudden death

That drew him back.


Ros. Not so—even before

That news reached Germany, it was ordained.

The truth is that young Hamlet was expelled.


Oph. Expelled! But the account that he gave us

Of why he left before matriculating

Spoke of disgust at the irrelevance

Of education there at Wittenberg.

Tell me the truth, what really was the cause?

Perhaps it will explain his present state.


Ros. Indeed it may; for, as you know him now,

Moody, rebellious, ineffectual

Imagine then our Hamlet as a student!


Oph. My mind reels at the thought, but I will try.


Ros. And to fill out your fancy's imagery

We'll now employ the flashback formula

(A stage convention yet to be invented)

Transporting us at once to Wittenberg

Five years ago. You'll e'en participate

(The dearth of players requiring that you do.)

Come, Guildenstern and I shall play ourselves,

Gertrude and you his classmates, Claudius

His new professor of astronomy

In whose first lecture we now find ourselves.


(Lights out, chairs moved; these five are found seated as lights come up.

Enter Claudius as Professor.)


Prof. Good morning, students; welcome to you all.

I trust you've had a pleasant Quarter break.

This class, Astronomy 6B, for which

6A is the prerequisite, will deal

With ordained motions of the heavenly bodies.


Ham. But tell us first, professor, how you come

To give this course, in place of our revered

Professor Faustus, whom we had last Quarter?


Prof. Faustus has left the University.

Inquire not after him. Let us proceed.

In this first lecture, which is very short,

I shall outline the questions we'll pursue.

Are there many heavens above the moon?

Are all celestial bodies but one globe

As is the substance of this centric earth?

Leading authorities maintain 'tis so,

And it is not our place to question them.

As are the elements, such are the spheres,

Mutually folded in each other's orb;

All jointly move upon one axletree,

Whose terminus is term'd the world's wide pole.

Nor are the names of Saturn, Mars, or Jupiter

Feign'd, but are erring stars. So much today;

We meet on Wednesday, here, at this same hour.

By then you should have purchased copies of

The new edition of Ptolemy (sound the P to make meter right)

(Available in low-cost paperback.)

Please read the first three chapters. So, farewell. (Exit)


Ham. (leaping up) So, Rosencranz and gentle Guildenstern,

Tell me what has transpired while I've been gone.

What has become of Faustus, our dear prof,

Who taught us all that we desired to know

Of sweet rebellion "gainst the established Church,

Who served as Faculty Advisor to

The movement or which I'm the President—

I mean the S.H.S., or Students for

Heretical Society? I do fear

There's something rotten here in Wittenberg.


Guild. Have you not heard? The Regents have dismissed him,

With full approval of th'Administration

And the Academic Senate Committee

On Inquisitions.


Ham. Oh, my prophetic soul!


Ros. He's charged, they say, with having sold his soul

To Lucifer.


Ham. So what then if he did?

Where's academic freedom, if a man

Cannot sell his own soul to whom he chooses?

How like those tools of the Establishment

To prate of freedom, only to deny it

To anyone who ventures out beyond

The confines of their narrow orthodoxy!

God has a host of advocates among

The faculty; so why not one for Satan?


Guild. They also say he's run off with a girl,

One of his students, who, in his delusion,

He thinks is Helen of Troy.


Ham. Why, then, she is!

Pythagoras's metampsychosis, were that true,

Could surely change a student into Helen,

Or Helen to a student. No, my friends,

'Tis obvious a foul conspiracy

Against our Faustus seeks to besmirch his name.

We must prevent it, get him reinstated!

The first thing we must do is learn the truth,

And only Faust himself can tell us that.


Guild. You mean that we should go and seek him out?


Ham. No—conjure him to us! I wisely kept

A Xerox of his magic diagram. (produces it)

Within this circle is Jehovah's name

Forward and backward anagrammatiz'd

The breviated names of holy saints

Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,

And characters of signs and erring stars

By which the spirits are enjoined to rise.

I'll skip the incantation—that's in Latin,

A subject I was always rather bad in.

Faustus, I charge thee, wheresoer'er thou art,

To fly at once, appearing now to us!


(Lights down, then up again; Faustus on stage)


Faust. Why have you brought me here? I was engaged

In dalliance with my sweet Helena.

(to Guild.) Were you the one who interrupted me?

I think your name is—Hamlet, is it not?


Guid. I'm not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.

My name is Alexander Guildenstern.


Faust I never could remember students' names.


Ham. I'm Hamlet; it was I who brought you here

To learn from your own lips the truth about

These charges brought against you. Is it true

You've signed a contract with old Lucifer?


Faust So what then if I have? Professors sign

Worse contracts all the time. Why, just last month

Professor Kissingerus took a job

As chief advisor to young Fortinbras

On strategies to overthrow the Poles,

Teaching him new and more efficient ways

To smite the sledded Polack on the ice.

If he can sell his soul, why shouldn't I?


Ham. A fair reply; we'll use it in our handouts.

But what of Hell? Have you had glimpses of it?


Faust (warmly) I have; Lucifer took me on a tour,

And as I had suspected, all one hears

Is foul distortions of a biased press.

There may be certain deprivations now

Imposed on the inhabitants, but these

Are only temporary sacrifices

Which all must make toward the achieving of

A better, healthier society.

They say that in five years they will surpass

Heaven in producing milk and honey—

It's true, technical problems yet remain

In cooling it, and managing to hide

A certain taste of brimstone; but they'll do it!

They're working hard, one has to give them that.


Ham. Your words strike to my soul—by which I mean

You tell me what I'm predisposed to credit.

Your motives, then, were lofty—you intend

To fearlessly expose the propaganda

Of the established Church, and spread the truth!


Faust Something like that indeed was in my thoughts;

But mainly I intended to escape

The dullness of the academic life—

I think I always was a secret swinger.

And then when Lucifer held out to me

Those honey'd promises of far-out sex,

Even beyond th' imaginations of

The sleazy makers of X-rated films,

And the recapture of my wasted youth,

What could I do but sign? And so I signed.

But now you must excuse me—Helen's waiting.

Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me.


(Lights out, then up; Faustus is gone.)


Come back in a few days for the thrilling conclusion of

Hamlet At Wittenberg.

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