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Hamlet at the Harold Pinter

Hamlet at the Harold Pinter

Hamlet at the Harold Pinter

Starring Andrew Scott

Directed by Robert Icke

This is a scene by scene review/commentary.

In case you plan to see the play, or have a chance of doing so, please skip the review and head to West End. It is not to be missed. Get thee to the play. Seriously! In case you just cannot catch it, then make do with this. I have tried to capture my experience of the play, it is hardly comparable to being there, but I had to write this long commentary so that I don’t forget what it felt like to watch this amazing performance, and so that I preserve for myself the thoughts and feelings that were evoked through it.

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A spartan set greets the audience, which in addition to the lack of anything royal about it, also has a few unexpected elements. A large sofa to one corner, two-three steel chairs to either side, and what looks like a steam-punk console of some sorts to one corner.

* * * *

Act 1 Scene 1

To the immediate surprise of the spectators, the play opens with large flat TV screens switching on all around them with weird footages playing in them.

Instead of a guard platform we get a CCTV observation room. The guards look flustered and soon, of course, Horatio enters (in some style I must say, much more casual in attire compared to the stiff suited guards).

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Marcellus and Barnardo resume their attempts to convince Horatio (one is to assume somehow the CCTVs could not record the supernatural stuff, I guess) of what they have seen when all of a sudden horrific static erupts in the theater and the dead King appears on-screen, ominous and really really spooky. A collective gasp from the audience at this. It was pretty effective – considering the Dane had only come on screen yet – the audience has not been introduced to the real ghost yet. I wondered if all ghost scenes would be thorough CCTVs… that would be a pity even if it went pretty splendidly this time. After all how would the father-son equation, which is the core of the play, play out through CCTVs? In any case, even as Scholar Horatio tries to hail the Ghost (who is in military attire, as a modern parallel to the armor worn by the original), there is a minor explosion at the console and the Ghost had disappeared from the screens as abruptly as it had appeared.

Before the scene concludes Horatio quickly updates the soldiers about what is happening in the kingdom and why security is so tight these days: The old King killed his rival King of Norway, Fortinbras, and conquered his territories. Now his (Norway’s) son, in revenge, is attempting to take back his territories with a small band of rag-tag outlaws he had gathered. Mark that from this it doesn’t feel like Fortinbras had any chance of defeating Denmark, but then an internal revenge drama will facilitate the external revenge drama. Pretty sweet, right? This is something that is often overlooked I guess, but maybe there was a poetic symmetry to this as well.

The Ghost makes another abrupt appearance, throwing the guards and Horatio into another frenzy. More frantic fiddling of the dials, etc. ensue (to be honesty this time it felt a bit comic, the reactions).

Ghost exits. It faded on the crowing of the cock – the guards quickly trying to explain away the unknown with the presumed known, finding some comfort in their astute understanding of how the supernatural world is supposed to function. We have to make everything conform to rules, absurd rules may it be.

They decide that they have to inform Hamlet of what has been happening here.

Scene closes to some stunning music and the stage goes pitch black. Obviously some stage rearrangement was underway in the darkness, though I am unsure how they manage to do so in that darkness. Must take some deft hands.

Act 1, Scene 2

The shady guard-room is transformed now into a stunning Titanic-movie-ball-room like atmosphere with golden draperies, sliding glass doors, elegant women with wine glasses, and fine music in the background. For a moment Denmark doesn’t feel like a place of omens and forebodings, but like a late evening at the Buckingham Palace (sans all the chinese tourists).

Claudius looks stately and kingly dealing with the matter of Fortinbras in very efficient style, and at this point no one could clearly have imagined that Denmark could be under any threat under such efficient management.

This is the moment when it hits you that the play is not going to bowl you over with the visual spectacle of medieval costumes and regalia. It feels more like a very elegant boardroom or a modern Lord’s mansion than the royal court in which you would have imagined these scenes playing out normally. This means that this play has to transport you all on itself, without much help from the visuals – which is quite apart from the normal theater or movie-going experience nowadays. I have a slight pang of regret that I am missing out on the costumes, but it is not as if we have a shortage of medieval costumes on TV these days.

And then, and then… A thin school boyish young man in what looks like a well-worn black tee traipses across the stage, a small ottoman in hand, and plants himself in one corner. The audience leans as one trying to get a glance at this moody, almost “emo” (forgive me) presence. Hamlet had entered he building folks, and it was electric. He had not uttered a word yet but he had captured the stage, he had filled the whole of it just by being in one corner of it. I knew then that this was going to be awesome. There were goosebumps. And just to clarify I was not a fan of Moriarty, or of what I had seen till then of Stewart’s acting. In fact I was skeptical that he can pull off a Hamlet after what I deemed as definite overacting as far as Moriarty was concerned, especially in the later episodes (Miss me? Miss me? Oh, just get the heck off!). But there was something about the entrance that immediately threw all my doubts out of the window.

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Claudius tries to introduce his son with some lame humor, but Andrew with the first quip, about being too-much-in-the-sun gets a too-much-in-the-rain British audience going immediately. It is really easy with the British, when it comes to weather jokes of course. Of course, the original joke about cloud-sun-son-cousin-son is also not lost in this, and the audience cheerfully laugh for both the original and the modern joke. This sort of personalization of dialogues is what Scott pulls off throughout the play – he never fiddles with the dialogues, and not a word is out-of-place (as he has to advice later against ad-libbing, this is only appropriate – this is one play you can never ad-lib!), but just by looking at the audience or half-smiling at the audience he makes them see other meanings in those words and react exactly as he wants. A master conductor of the audience he was throughout, and the way he conducted the audience (including this willing participant) was the true spectacle at the Harold Pinter that night.

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Gertrude’s first foray is to ask Hamlet to cut short his grief and the exchange really rubs in the fact that Hamlet feels his raw grief cannot be so easily cast aside, while Gertrude is insistent in asking him to do exactly that. Scott later says suppressed grief is for him one of the keys to the play, so this takes on special significance for me in hindsight. Claudius also  pitches in with some ineffectual self-help wisdom about how all living things die and blah blah blah – as this Hamlet wouldn’t hesitate to characterize it.

In any case Hamlet is convinced to stay back in court, albeit probably still in Black. A quick royal photo shoot before they disperse.

And then comes the first monologue – I was looking forward to this – Scott had proven he can use humor, especially dark humor, effectively to play the audience and establish himself, but a true Hamlet lives and dies by his monologues – and I was eager to see how this one would go, especially since this monologue is what will introduce the audience to the inner workings of Hamlet’s mind, to the anguish that torments him and again, to the extent of the grief that he is being asked to curtail.

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I leaned forward with the rest of the audience as Hamlet moved to the front of the stage and looked up at us to confide in us, to let us overhear his thoughts, to use Bloom’s terminology. The theater descended into silence as if we had entered another theater – the solemn one inside Hamlet’s mind – and after a long pause Scott’s voice gently started essaying. No firm utterances, almost a whisper, as if he was slowly constructing these thoughts, as if they were coming to him then and there. Stuttering, half-audible, the words came, and I felt as if at least a few in audience would surely tip over now, straining to catch the words. The tension was being built up, and I could see that Scott was the master of this too. He was showing us how monologues are nothing but thoughts – Hamlet was not delivering a monologue, he was just alone and thinking just like any of us. An everyday occurrence. The mighty, formidable monologues of Shakespeare had been tamed right in front of us, mysterious no more – they were going to be easy and accessible today in Scott’s hands. It was a relief as well as a mild let down – grandeur was not on stage today, reality was. Mirror to nature, indeed.

Gradually the muttered tirade about sullied flesh and unweeded garden rose to an audible pitch and the worried audience could finally make sense of what was being half-whispered. They leaned back a bit as they entered familiar territory with Hamlet talking about what a man his father was, about how his mother doted on him. And then, and then… within a month of his passing, Hamlet appeals to us, as if to a close friend… and turns away from the thought, breaking our hearts.

Now comes the first famous quote – I was on the lookout for this too – will Scott bombastically stress the famous quotations – because that will always engage the audience since they would recognize it and feel good about themselves… An easy win for a Shakespearean actor. I wanted to see how the famous Shakespearisms (?) would be handled.

Frailty, thy name is woman! Hamlet cries out in frustration. Within a month he says, couldn’t you have mourned longer? Within a month – married  my uncle… and here Scott pauses in the midst of this anguished cry of Hamlet, steps out from Hamlet’s skin and becomes himself for a second, just part of the audience. This was a moment of unquestionable genius for me – a moment when Scott brought in a cultural reference, made the play supremely accessible and also eased any worries of his audience by proving that he is completely on their side; just another bloke like them who enjoys the same type of stuff that they do. He effectively told them I am just one of you and we are going to have a ball with Hamlet – which is nothing to be scared of, but is in fact super-duper fun.

How did he do that?

Again, after saying she married my uncle, he paused, stepped out of character and gave a mischievous look to the audience before uttering the next line with a lot of emphasis – My father’s brother.

The audience exploded into laughter as we realized what he meant – uncle, yes, but not My mother’s brother folks, this is not Game of Thrones! – that is what the look conveyed. And Scott waited patiently for the laughter and relief of the audience to die down before picking up on his monologue/thoughts. From that moment onwards Scott had achieved what Shakespeare probably did back in the day – getting the audience thoroughly comfortable in the idea of actually enjoying a masterpiece instead of getting caught up in venerating it.

To me this was genius, especially because of the risk involved – to attempt laughter in the midst of the monologue that basically sets up the Hamlet character… it was a tightrope, but Scott was the perfect maestro again – he got us tense, he got us light and laughing, and from the next moment got us fully back into Hamlet and his grief again, and had us all feeling the foreboding as he concluded that it cannot come to good…

I think I forgot to breathe for a few minutes.

Horatio interrupts at the right time, to the relief of everyone including the audience and perhaps Hamlet himself. They embrace and laugh and the audience is made aware that this chap Horatio is a chap they can also trust. We are not going to question Hamlet on these matters, not tonight.

Another moment of mirth for the audience as Hamlet says I think I see my father, and Horatio and Marcello jerks in genuine comic fright. Horatio then begins the painful task of telling Hamlet that he had indeed seen his father… Hamlet seems to take Horatio at his word on this and agrees to come and see for himself at the observatory.

Act 1, Scene 3

Ophelia is introduced to the audience, along with her brother Laertes, as well as her father a bit down the line. Come to think of it, the whole family is pretty much introduced and established in this one scene. And it is my duty to report that the scene and much of the play was henceforth stolen and made his own by Polonius. Peter Wight, as Polonius, was brilliant and held the play together, truly.

Perhaps as an invention, here the scene opens with Hamlet and Ophelia making out before Laertes interrupts them, forcing Hamlet to hide behind the couch – which means that Hamlet is present, hidden away but visible to audience, for the rest of the scene.

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Laertes, packing to go for France, gets on the bad side of the audience very early as he is intent on advising Ophelia to not mess around with Hamlet.

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Laertes had earlier asked the King’s permission to go to France, was granted the same, and thus his very small initial role rapidly approaches its end… This is when Polonius, the light of this show, shines brightly and establishes himself as the audience favorite!

Polonius comes in to hurry Laertes on his way, but not before the pithy man has given his share of self-help tips. The spate of avuncular advises are delivered in a masterly way by Wight, and has the audience in splits throughout – though the audience is also, along with Laertes, earnestly hoping for the commonplaces to end. Laertes turns to depart three times, but is pulled back by Polonius to hear more about being neither a lender nor a borrower, a whole rendition of Kipling’s If, etc. (I exaggerate, of course).

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Then Polonius, having lost Laertes turns his advising prowess upon Ophelia’s love-life. Trying hard to summarize his own words multiple times, finally he sums it all up by asking Ophelia to not spend her leisure with Hamlet. Ophelia agrees with a wink to the audience and the audience is thrilled in having such a lovable villain in Polonius to troll for the rest of the evening.

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The scene ends very agreeably for the audience. Things are going very nicely and there is a lively energy buzzing across the theater. Nice music too. Clearly, we are in for a lot of Bob Dylan tonight.

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Act 1, Scene 4

However, the audience is immediately spooked mightily by the sudden descent of pitch darkness and eerie music. It is the graveyard shift. Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are visible now; we are back in the guard platform and it is Scooby-Doo time, everyone!

Cue eerie music, static on the speakers, and the CCTV screens start acting up. The royal Dane appears and Hamlet entreats speech. The king in the screen motions to Hamlet to approach. Hamlet goes closer. Marcellus utters the classic lines “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and follows with Horatio.

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And then…

The stage goes dark again and then starts alternating between light and dark, as if lightning was striking repeatedly. Loud static and spooky sounds fill the theater, the dead King’s face comes closer and closer and fills all the TV screens on stage, and then in one blinding flash the Ghost appears, in the flesh, in front of Hamlet – the effect was scintillating, since until now we had the image and now we had the thing. Hamlet touches the ghost and is able to touch. The father and son in the flesh, together. All the build-up was worth it for this one moment.

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The royal Dane preps Hamlet with the backstory and informs him that from now on art thou for revenge. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. Yes, murder! Murder most foul!

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown.

I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand

Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched

And most importantly he was killed with no chance to repent for his sins, and hence he now roams as a ghost, plotting revenge. After importuning Hamlet to revenge his Murder, in another glorious spectacle the Dane vanishes.

Hamlet extracts a very strict promise (again and again!) from his friends to never repeat to anyone what happened there (presumably this promise is revoked at the end when Hamlet releases Horatio from the silence). This was an important scene as Scott clearly meant this to be an introduction to the audience to Hamlet’s dawning madness – after all, in one interpretation the madness might even have struck before the ghost appeared… In any case, his manner towards his friends have changed markedly, he is more frantic in speech, with more puns and hidden entendres in everything he says. The notebook also makes its appearance, as he notes down that it is possible to smile, smile and still be a villain.

Horatio utters his cue about how things are wondrous strange and I had my first let down as Hamlet said hurriedly, without any bravado –

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

I was expecting that with the dawning of madness being depicted there was license to give full flourish and bombast to this – as if to say that from here on out Horatio and the rest of the cast are being thrown into a new reality that is beyond ever dreamt by any of them.

However, Scott for some reason decided to downplay this awesome Shakespearism and hurried through it… and hurried on to extracting another sworn oath to secrecy that no matter how much stranger things get Horatio will never utter a word about the night. The ghost also joins in with a “Swear!” and Hamlet hurries his friends out, muttering “The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite, That ever I was born to set it right!” This time it was done better and the fear and a comic frustration reached through to the audience, who laughed nervously.

* * * *

Act 2, Scene 1

Another scene for Polonius to shine with his comic genius, as he schemes with Reynaldo on how to find out the true state of affairs with Laertes in Paris. The pride with which he devices his little scheme and the care with which he details it has the audience in splits throughout. I missed a few of the dialogues since the laughs drowned them out…

Then Ophelia comes in flustered about Hamlet’s changed behavior towards her. Polonius in all his wisdom connects the dots and concludes that Hamlet is crazy in love with Ophelia, and the thwarted love (since he was in opposition to it and had strictly instructed his daughter against it, who would never go against his word) was the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior. “The very ecstasy of love”, indeed. Polonius decides to pronto go to the king and bring his majesty up to speed on the matter.

Act 2, Scene 2

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make their entrance! I was looking for some serious comic relief from them, but as it turns out I was to be a bit muted in my laughs for them, and consequently not so devastated to learn of their deaths later as I should have been. That is why the double act of these two had to be pulled off just right.

Claudius and Gertrude welcomes R & G and it immediately strikes the audience that one of the two is female (turns out to be G)! Now in my surprise, I forgot to notice if they changed Gertrude’s address which goes “Good gentlemen, he hath much talked of you.” I am pretty sure they must have… for the play acknowledged the femaleness of Guildenstern, and extracts some mild humor out of that as well whenever Hamlet seems to prefer G over R in his overtures. I wonder why this was done though, for part of the crucial thing about R & G was their interchangeability and some of the comedy comes from how the other characters never seem to know who is who. This made R & G blend into each other and become one – they had no individuality and one could not exist without the other.

In any case, I didn’t think it was a particularly great idea and felt it was a needless distraction – R & G would have worked better as a homogenous mass of sycophancy for me. This was one of the questions I would have liked to clarify with the cast and the director, given an opportunity (hint, hint!). In such a well thought out production, this can’t have been introduced without purpose. The purpose, if there was one, was unfortunately lost on me though.

R & G are escorted out and taken to Hamlet to begin their spying duties.

Polonius comes in with news of ambassadors from Norway and quickly launches into his more important news – about his discovery of the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.

The ambassadors talk to the King over teleconference and appears only on-screen. Heh, ya I thought it was pretty cool. Norway conveyed that Fortinbras will not be threatening Denmark but requested passage for him through Denmark to march across and attack Poland (to keep hothead Fortinbras occupied, one would assume). Claudius switches off the screen and turns to Polonius, it is time to discuss Hamlet.

And at this point Polonius delivers his master speech, a gem of brevity and perfection, the very paragon of the art of speaking to the point.

POLONIUS

This business is well ended.

My liege and madam, to expostulate

What majesty should be, what duty is,

Why day is day, night night, and time is time,

(Wight stretches these already tedious dialogues to their limits, teasing the audience with every pompous word)

Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time.

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief: your noble son is mad.

Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,

What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad? But let that go.

GERTRUDE

More matter, with less art.

Polonius goes on for a while longer, reveling in his own words and finally gets round to reading out Hamlet’s letter.

He confides that he asked Ophelia to turn Hamlet away and from unreciprocated love poor Hamlet is now on the brink of lunacy. That is all, really. Nothing about his father’s death, or his Mother’s marriage in Polonius’ philosophy of Hamlet.

Gertrude, understandably, is skeptical if this can be the only cause…

So confident is Polonius that he goes on to say:

(points to his head and shoulders)

Take this from this if this be otherwise.

Polonius staked his life on his theory, and yes, he will pay with the same later… Bombastic to the end.

Polonius tries to engage Hamlet in conversation as he wanders in with a book, and from here on every encounter between Polonius and Hamlet is something to be cherished, and the audience laughed their head off every single time. Hamlet trolls Polonius mercilessly throughout, and Polonius in his earnestness rises above his sycophancy and shallowness – and we come to love him.

The rest of the scene is a riot. The Scott-Wight duo was magnificent, I am still laughing at their exchanges, reminds me of Jon Snow and Ser Davos, really. Forgive me, but really.

Meanwhile Polonius progresses from “He is far gone, far gone” to “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.” And as soon as he leaves Hamlet turns to us, the audience, comments on how tedious the fool was and laughs with us at Polonius. Ah, good times, good times.

Right on cue, the next set of tedious fools enter – R & G. Again, I forgot to check if they modified the “Good lads, how do you both?” to account for the female Guildenstern. Post a bit of inappropriate jesting about Lady Luck’s private parts, Hamlet delivers one of my favorite lines “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” R & G try to keep up with Hamlet’s skill with words, but Hamlet keeps soaring higher and higher, a king of infinite space. And suddenly after getting them all philosophical he tries to take them off-guard by interrogating them on what brings them to Elsinore. G finally admits they were sent for by Claudius and did not come of their own initiative.

Now this one scene is what I had imagined the most before going for the play. In a Guardian review I had read that the play employed CCTV cameras. Here is what I had imagined after reading that: I thought Hamlet had hacked access to CCTV cameras across the castle and hence knew most of the things going on, and were privy to most conversations. That to me explained his preternatural omniscience on display in these few scenes where Hamlet seems to be a step ahead of everyone else. Of course, it is because of his superior understanding of human nature and how people behave, but CCTV access to everyone would have been pretty cool too. Turns out my theory was wrong. Hamlet just knew, even in the era with technology. Oh well.

Once confirmed that his friends are there to betray him, Hamlet gives his ironic “What a piece of work is a man!” speech to R & G.

Somehow the conversation slips from that to the actors in the city and it immediately distracts Hamlet from his morbid thoughts about humanity. A bit of commentary about theater life follows.

Set of players enter.

Scott as Hamlet goes into seeming throes of ecstasy in meeting the players and I for a moment felt it was perhaps a bit too much acting there? But then who can question when a mad prince might choose to exhibit his mad genius. Maybe he had to convince R & G that he was crazy about the theater, crazy enough to get seriously involved with them for days on end.

Hamlet trolls Polonius a bit more as he comes in, entertains the audience further, and then turns his attentions back to the newly arrived actors.

The player launched into his long song about Pyrrhus, Hecuba and Priam, and as always at this point in the play, I zoned out for a bit and reflected on the acting and the presentation, etc, for once agreeing with Polonius as he objected that this is going a tad too long…

Then, towards the end of it, comes the moment of enlightenment for Hamlet, and Scott made sure that just in case the audience’s attention had wandered, it was brought back to focus intently on this moment. I salute him for this, for it allowed me to understand the significance of this moment and the song a lot better, after this.

As the player narrated Hecuba’s terrible cry on seeing her husband cut down, his eyes filled with tears and he flushed with the full strength of those emotions welling from Hecuba through to him. After asking if Murder of Gonzago can be played, Hamlet takes leave of everyone – clearly a plan is formed. And in a quick overhearing he lets us into the plan – He wonders how this player could force such emotions out of himself for nothing, for Hecuba – who is Hecuba to him?

What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba

That he should weep for her? What would he do

Had he the motive and the cue for passion

That I have?

He berates himself (reminiscent of a later self-beration much later in the play, that time comparing himself to soldiers getting ready for action for much smaller purposes) that he can’t summon enough anger for a real wrong when the player can summon so much for an imagined scene. In any case, soon we come to the crux of the thought – that “guilty creatures sitting at a play” (here Scott smiles and points at the audience, evoking nervous laughter from us, all guilty) if struck to the soul can be driven to confess their crimes, at least in their expression.

Hamlet decides to enact a play that will probe his Uncle’s conscience and see if he flinches. That will be the test.

In a flourish Scott exclaims,

The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

With the audience thrilled by the prospect, with goosebumps at that last delivery, the light comes on for a short break, leaving us to savor the way the plot had been hatched in his mind. Isn’t it just wonderful that our Hamlet doesn’t take the Ghost at his word and decides to confirm it for himself? The Ghost might think Hamlet is one equivocating weakling of a son, and even hamlet might berate himself for hesitating and procrastinating, but Hamlet is a modern man – he will not stand for “fake news” he will find out for himself, yeah? I kept repeating to myself: The play’s the thing , Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king; The play’s the thing , Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king; The play’s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. A earworm. Great.

* * * *

Act 3, Scene 1

A crowded stage. Claudius and Gertrude interrogating R & G. Polonius, Ophelia also present. It is a bit funny to see actors sitting around waiting for their turn to speak. Ophelia does some nice emo poses to pass the time. Claudius and Gertrude are informed about the play being planned by Hamlet and seem interested to attend.

Then Claudius asks the rest to leave for a bit of play acting of their own – as he and Polonius planned to have Hamlet run into Ophelia and look on to observe and see how Hamlet is coming along in his love-lunacy.

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet walks in with the iconic words, and as one the audience leans all the way into the stage, eager to not miss this one monologue, even at the risk of an architectural calamity.

After expressing disgust with himself and berating himself as a vile creature for being too cowardly, Hamlet seems to have gone further in his thoughts. Now he is questioning his own existence and worth. He wonders if it is worth the struggle that is life, isn’t it better to sleep, to die? But then what dreams may come in that sleep of death. That is when death gives us pause – when we wonder what will come after. And so choosing the known devil over the unknown, we shuffle on with our one long calamity of a life.

Scott utters this deliberately, slowly, giving us time to digest it. Remember, he had banished our fears of Shakespeare long ago, he had gotten us familiar, and now the investment is paying off. No one is afraid to engage with the full depth of the monologue – we let it seep into us, we feel the full morbidity and helplessness of the thought – To be, or not to be?, it is a question we all consider and conclude with Hamlet that to To not be is too scary, we too should plod along and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (including some petty outrages like inefficient legal system, Bangalore traffic and British food). Perhaps for the first time, the famous monologue feels like just another passing thought within us, something we can fully comprehend and then attach back to the play; a fully relatable thought. In place with the rest of the play. The couple next to me seemed to be completely taken aback that they got the whole thing at one go. We whispered to each other that this is some special kind of sorcery at work here.

To be, or not to be? That is the question—

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—

No more—and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished!

To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. There’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

Hamlet notices Ophelia and hushes himself, before he got too deep for his now well comprehending audience. Hamlet denies the letters and the gifts, again betraying omniscience (and CCTV hacking skills).

The conversation progresses through wordplay to hit on two strong notes:

I did love you once.

&

I loved you not.

And then crescendos in Get thee to a nunnery!

Scott screeches this, Hamlet has lost control and almost madly angry with himself tries to get this over with. I have never fully understood why Hamlet had to do this, and even this play couldn’t explain it to me. If there was true love here, was this necessary? I don’t think I have dreamt up enough philosophy to grasp what made this necessary, why Ophelia had to be driven to madness too. I suspect it is extreme paranoia that drives this or complete disillusionment with the world, either way two hearts are broken irredeemably in this one mad repeated scream.

I would have liked to ask the cast about their opinion on this as well – what drove Hamlet to this? (Hint, Hint)

What Claudius gets out of all this though is that Hamlet’s madness is nothing innocent like love-sickness, it is dangerous – and he decides to get him to England so that he cannot plot any further harm here in court. Polonius however sticks to his theory and proposes one more spying act, this time of an encounter of Hamlet and Mum. He had put his head on the line, and he is not lazy about proving his theory at exactly that cost.

Act 3, Scene 2

Hamlet/Shakespeare’s great education to the artists and players of his time and to posterity.

Scott does this with a lot of sincerity and with a hint of self-deprecation. This must be a difficult scene for any actor to pull off – presumption on display, having to instruct all actors ever on how to act, must take guts.

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.

Overall I must report that this performance stuck well to Shakespeare’s maxims, and would merit his pleasure.

Horatio returns to stage after a long gap. Hamlet goes on to praise Horatio as the best man he knows and expresses his implicit trust in him. Again, this has always thrown me off – why not give the same credit to Ophelia? Is it because she “conspired” with the King and Polonius, and Hamlet somehow came to know a part of that? Is Horatio really the only one Hamlet felt worthy of trust (and eventually worthy of life…)? If Hamlet did indeed feel Ophelia betrayed him, I would have to disagree. Ophelia was clearly caught between her family and Hamlet and tried t keep both happy, alienating Hamlet in the process perhaps – but she never deliberately meant to cause him any harm. She was noncommittal to the plots of Polonius but she still went ahead with them, if only for show, and that was perhaps her mistake. Unfortunately, girls would do that – a best friend like Horatio might have been able to ignore his father for his friend, if placed in a similar situation.

Hamlet lets Horatio in on his plan to expose his uncle, to catch his conscience with the Play: Horatio and Hamlet will be watching Claudius closely during the Mousetrap and comparing notes thereafter. In this performance this ‘comparison of notes’ turns out in a nice manner, as we will see later.

Stage fills up again and then empties as quickly – this confuses me a bit since in my memory this should be one of the packed scenes of the play – with the full cast in attendance along with the players of the play-within-the-play. I always wondered how they pulled off such a packed stage with so much happening. In this particular performance an ingenious solution is presented:

The King and company go off the stage and are seated with us the audience (well, not exactly, but that is the representation) and all of us watch the play-within-the-play together. On stage thus we have only the Play that is being enacted and those players. The courtly audience remains off stage, thus freeing up space on stage.

However, everything key to the actual play happens then off stage, right? We have to observe the reactions of the courtly audience to the play that is being put on to expose them. For this what has been done is that the whole play has been made into a televised courtly performance – imagine the Oscars if you will, where the cameras keep alternating between the stage where the presenters are and the audience, trying to show us the expressions of the important members. In the same manner, here the play is going on, but the cameras keep coming to the audience, i.e. to the King, the Queen, Hamlet and the rest. And the camera visuals are available to us on the giant TV screens across the theater. So just as we watch the Mousetrap we can also see the royal mouses watching it.

Hamlet, of course, has got the video camera trained on Claudius for the bulk of the play.

Hamlet 3

For me this was a bit excruciating – I had to every moment make a choice between keeping my eyes on the play going on on-stage and the expressions displayed on the monitors of the off-stage actors. I tried flicking my eyes repeatedly between the two, but eventually gave up and let the play guide me. In spite of this I still admit that it was a great way to present this scene.

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The pantomime prologue-summary begins, to the accompaniment of music.

Gonzago is the Duke’s name (played by David Rintoul, who also plays the Ghost, for added effect!), and his wife is Baptista. The villain of the piece kills the king in exactly the way the Ghost had told Hamlet he was murdered. Polonius turns pale, stops the play and exits. The camera follows him down a flight of stairs. The actors on stage seem to be in a tableau as the king walks on to the stage, looks at the audience and announces that we will now have a 15 minute break. We all laugh and head out for refreshments, amused at Claudius himself announcing this momentous break. It also amused me that they took the interval in the midst of a scene, and the scene will resume after the interval. Risky, but nice. Applause.

* * * *

INTERVAL

After the break, we open to the sight of Hamlet and Horatio examining the King’s reactions to the play – they have access to the recorded footage of the King’s reactions – so they can “compare notes” a lot more easily than in olden times. Hamlet concludes that his visage is a portrait of guilt.

R & G arrive to inform Hamlet that the King and his Mother are upset, and his Mum wants to talk to him about his behavior. Hamlet chastises them for trying to manipulate him.

Polonius also arrives with the same purpose and is immediately subjected to more trolling, much to our pleasure.

Act 3, Scene 3

Claudius tells R & G that Hamlet is to be sent to England with them, this time with a lot more conviction and with some serious steel in his voice. Audience is clearly being allowed to guess at what it means to be sent to England here…

As Hamlet goes to his mother, Polonius is planning to hide behind the curtains and listen in. After informing the same to Claudius, Polonius leaves, leaving Claudius alone on stage. This is one of the rare moments the audience gets to see Claudius by himself, and immediately we are given access to his thoughts, not through a monologue but through a prayer, which is in effect another form of thought – addressed outwards, not inwards being the  difference.

In Macbethian fashion, Claudius laments the blood on his hands and wonders how to pray for his sins, probably the after-effect of being confronted with his own evil deed so publicly.

On stage is also Hamlet, who had never exited from his own last scene. He has a gun in his hand which he is pointing at Claudius throughout the scene, but always hesitating to shoot. Taking mad steps forward and then retracing. This is another innovation in the production, like with Hamlet being on stage during the Polonius-Ophelia talks. Here it seems as if Claudius and Hamlet can see each other, but not really – perhaps both imagine the other? I cannot be sure. Once Claudius’ monologue is over, Hamlet lets us know why he is not ending it all there. It is because his father went unrepentant, to hell, and he cannot allow Claudius to go to heaven, being killed in the act of repentance for his sins. It wouldn’t be revenge proper. No. He will kill him in the act of something horrible, like incest. Or, it was just more dilly-dallying. Take it as you please.

Act 3, Scene 4

Polonius hides, Hamlet enters to meet Gertrude in the great Freudian Oedipal scene. I sat tensed, wondering how this scene is going to work itself out. Another crucial make or break moment had arrived for Scott. Will he follow the maxim of using calm voices here also, or will Hamlet burst into a rage of sound and fury? Will it be quiet malice or mad rage, or perhaps violent assault? Possibilities for this scene are endless, and the version chosen affects the whole play more than anything else.

In the back and forth Hamlet yanks Gertrude sharply down to the bed to make her sit and also draws his pistol at the same time. At this Gertrude gasps out for Help and Polonius bursts out valiantly from the tapestries and is immediately shot dead. He collapses, to shocked silence from the audience. We had truly grown fond of the pompous fool. It felt like a moment of true tragedy, and we couldn’t forgive Hamlet for that, just as he himself wouldn’t.

Hamlet justifies his deed, and alienates the audience just that bit further:

A bloody deed? Almost as bad, good mother,

As kill a king and marry with his brother.

He then says he is going to wring his mothers heart with the truth and sets off on it. Hamlet shows the portraits of the two brothers and exhorts his mother how she could chose the lesser over the better. By this time Hamlet is like a child throwing a tantrum, his words on the edge of being incomprehensible, a boy who is so angry with his mother that he can hardly articulate. The audience smile nervously at each other at this performance, they are scared to see this version of Hamlet…

What devil possessed you to do it he shouts, pointing his gun at her, throwing her to the ground.

Nay, but to live

In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,

Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love

MAKING LOVE he shouts, uncontrollably, and in a fit of petulance he mounts his mother, enacting the humping that he could not get out of his imagination, and getting the Oedipal moment out of the way – potent enough to draw gasps but not central enough to overshadow the rest of the scene.

Gertrude pushes him and slides away, begging him to stop, aghast at his madness. Hamlet continues on about how the King was killed, and for a moment it felt like Gertrude started to believe her son, if for nothing else but due to the intensity of his emotion and conviction.

And then the Ghost enters in another flash of spectacular brilliance. Hamlet starts speaking to him unaware only he can see him, and Gertrude is now fully convinced that Hamlet is off his rocker and scared stiff herself.

I always liked to think that the Ghost appearing at this moment, perhaps in his imagination, is what stopped Hamlet from either killing his mother or going full Oedipal. And that is why the Ghost had to enter at that precise moment with his mother begging for mercy. But that psychological angle is not explored here, and that is okay, it is not my play.

A slightly calmer Hamlet forbids Gertrude from sharing Claudius’ bed tonight and exits dragging Polonius’ bloody body behind him, leaving bloodstains on the floor.

Short break for the audience after this harrowing scene while they get the blood stains out, music cues and soon the next Act begins.

* * * *

Act 4, Scene 1

Gertrude tells Claudius of Polonius’ death and Claudius clearly want to use this as justification for his England plans with R & G as Hamlet is now not only mad but violent and dangerous.

Act 4, Scene 2

Action progresses faster now, R & G try to get info about the corpse from Hamlet. Hamlet avoids, some humor even here by Scott.

Act 4, Scene 3

Another well executed scene with the highlight being when Hamlet replies that Polonius is at dinner when asked where he is – dinner of worms – Not where he eats, but where he is eaten! Morbid gallows humor plenty here.

R & G to carry Hamlet to England with a letter instructing his execution.

Act 4, Scene 4

Fortinbras asks permission for troop movement through Denmark via teleconf link. Small conversation between Hamlet and Norwegian captain about the pointlessness of war interjected. Hamlet also asks R & G to start without him, he will be there shortly (duh).

Hamlet looks at the spectacle of the army marching for a pointless piece of Polish land and exhorts himself to action too in another classic monologue:

He berates himself for his procrastination, wondering why it is that he says ‘I have to do this’ instead of having finished say “I have done it”. When men can rouse themselves to war and action over matters so trivial as a piece of land in the middle of nowhere, how can he not take action when he has such good cause – a father murdered and a mother defiled?

Hamlet’s pitch and anger rises as the monologue continues, reaching the fever pitch of earlier again… And again a nervous audience looks on at this spectacle of a man becoming a beast.

He says he has motive, means and the ability, yet he look on as men march to action, for a mere fantasy.

And then he roars out to us:

Oh, from this time forth,

My thoughts be bloody!

A chill passes down our collective spines as we ready ourselves for the blood bath that awaits us.

Act 4, Scene 5

Ophelia’s madness. Somehow I couldn’t connect with this much. I always liked Ophelia, but her madness after her lover rejects her and her father dies was just not real enough for me. I am heartless. And to don the critic’s hat, I don’t think Jessica Findlay quite carried it on this day. However, the songs did tug a bit at the old heartstrings, especially when she sang of Valentine’s day.

Meanwhile, Laertes, accusing Claudius of the murder of his father, comes like the flooding ocean to the court, leading a revolution of some sort? Where did a revolution spring from all of sudden, I always wonder? Did Shakespeare expect us to imagine in the space of five lines the impact upon the populace of all the workings of this mad family and that they would naturally want to overthrow such a regime? Polonius’ mysterious death with no funeral, etc. must have added fuel to this discontent… In any case, the rebellion remains incidental.

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Another son come to revenge his father’s foul murder on Claudius. Claudius was looking pretty tired of this, but he also knew he had a new instrument in his hands…

Ophelia enters and flings herself at Laertes and Laertes again looses himself in grief. Too much overt grief for the audience – could have been toned down a little for more effect – less art – I felt.

Claudius vows to Laertes that he will show him who is guilty of the murder and that the guilty party will be punished by death – i.e. Hamlet is going down.

Act 4, Scene 6

Hamlet’s letter reaches Horatio. Could have been a Facetime call really, I felt – maybe wi-fi on a pirate ship was too much to ask for.

Act 4, Scene 7

Laertes is convinced about the agent of his father’s murder. Letter from Hamlet arrives, and the play makes a point of showing us Gertrude’s expression noting the king’s surprise at receiving a letter from Hamlet. Claudius recruits Laertes as his pawn – in a new murder that is supposed to look like an accident. Laertes being a master at fencing, Claudius plans to arrange a fencing match between them with a sword with sharpened point dabbed with poison being used by Laertes. And a cup of poisoned drink as plan C just in case. A fool-proof plan, if ever there was one.

Gertrude brings more bad news for Laertes – Ophelia is drowned.

* * * *

Act 5, Scene 1

The gravediggers! I was super pumped for this scene and for Yorick’s introduction. It disappointed a teeny bit, I have to report. Some more spooky music, darkness and bingo a big hole has appeared in the middle of the stage. Gravediggers are inside the hole, chit chatting about some casual morbid stuff. Gravediggers seem to be singing quite a bit which I don’t remember from the play – and it also seems like a few dialogues have been cut from this scene, but I can’t be certain. Hamlet and Horatio somehow wander in, though I have never figured out why they ended up there. Hamlet approaches the grave and the gravedigger inside who is singing and causally throwing or breaking skulls. Hamlet engages in a bit more banter about death, his fav topic.

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Then, funnily enough, Hamlet meets his match in wordplay in the gravedigger – goes to show that being Hamlet is all about how morbid your humor can get and how casual your outlook on life is consequently. The literal gravedigger throws Hamlet further off stride, much to the delight of the audience. A mild joke at the expense of the English here as Hamlet asks why Hamlet was sent to England if he is mad (the gravedigger knows not who he speaks to) and the Gravedigger says it is because in England everyone is as mad as Hamlet is – waves of laughter from a delighted audience, for once I didn’t join in.

Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester’s skull, comes out for display!

The royal company enters the grave putting an end to Hamlet’s ruminations on Alexander and Caesar and their parallels with Yorick’s skull.

Ophelia is buried. Laertes  jumps into the grave to hug her one last time and at that point Hamlet comes forward. Immediate fighting breaks out between them. Horatio tries to separate them but Hamlet, still mad, shouts this is an issue he can settle only by a fight to the finish. Which issue?

I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers

Could not with all their quantity of love

Make up my sum.

That is the issue. That is how much he loved the girl he drove to suicide. Somehow that touched me – this mad boy is tortured and lost. Scott brings this home with this one line. Hamlet however makes a getaway before he can be captured. Claudius exhorts Laertes to stick to the plan they had hatched and be patient.

Act 5, Scene 2

We are winding to the close now, the audience is fully into it. The play is fully established, every character has been developed, there is not much scope for anything to go wrong now. I have fully settled into it, at ease with the play, ready to enjoy the gory climax as much as possible. Though I have misgivings that in a world with guns, swords wont be as terrifying…

The next famous line is about to be delivered: Hamlet advises Horatio that sometimes acting rashly and on impulse works out better than well laid plans,

and that should teach us

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will

What prompted this? Hamlet’s accidental discovery of the letter carried by R & G, on the way to England. Hamlet glibly tells of how he wrote a new letter to England, stating: He should the bearers put to sudden death.

That was it, the rest was implied. The bearers R & G thus perish. Audience might have felt a pang, but I feel it was more a pang for Hamlet than for R & G – for Hamlet to be doing such deeds, to have reached a point where he is capable of it with such efficiency. The emo boy we saw has come a long way, and it pains us.

Horatio says Claudius will find out soon of this, but Hamlet has the interim to do what he can about this evil king that casts a shadow over Denmark. At this moment Osric arrives to inform Hamlet of the betting match upon the fencing match and to invite him for the farce. After getting trolled for a bit he manages to deliver his message. Hamlet seems to agree to the match, perhaps not taking it too seriously?

Horatio is worried Hamlet can’t stand up to skilled Laertes. Andrew Scott looks at the audience with a smile as he says that I do not think so. Since he went into France, I have been in continual practice. The audience laughs aloud as they realize how absurd that sounds. Hamlet gets a sinking feeling about the match, but contrary to his speech earlier about instincts and a divinity that shapes our ends he chooses to ignore it. So the scene has a symmetry to it overall.

But this leads to another favorite line of mine, this time against superstitions:

If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

Now the stage descends into darkness, with heraldic music playing loudly. When light comes back on we see the two contestants getting into fencing clothes and cameramen descending on them just like at an Olympic arena, zooming in on theirs and their teams’ expressions. The big TV screens showcase the nervous countenances in full detail.

After a quick gentlemanly, though slightly rubber tongued apology from Hamlet, the match is about to get underway. Claudius’ plan is that if Hamlet is getting ahead he will feed him some poisoned wine to even the odds in his own favor.

The match starts and the TV screens now display the scoreline boldly 0-0! This is fun I thought, and got ready to enjoy the show. As a bonus, we had more Dylan to take us through the fencing match, sometimes even rising above the dialogues.

Hamlet 1 – Laertes 0. Claudius tries to get Hamlet to take some poisoned wine…

Hamlet says he will drink after the round.

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Hamlet 2 – Laertes 0!

Gertrude comes forward to wipe Hamlet’s brow and then picks up the poisoned goblet to drink to his health. The quasi-dance of all the characters moving across the stage is well choreographed and unlike the earlier population dense scene this time all the actors are on stage, sharing it, hence requiring some delicate acting.

Claudius frantically tries to get Gertrude to not drink from it. But it was too late, she had drunk the poison!

In this production, Hamlet retires to his corner and the match was in pause when Laertes reaches out illegally and slashes Hamlet’s hand and draws blood with his poisoned blade. Hamlet ends up with Laertes’s rapier after a scuffle and wounds him as well. Both poisoned now.

Effective score? Hamlet 1 – Laertes 1. Ha!

Laertes collapses, Gertrude faints crying out the drink was poisoned – clearly in her dying moment she realized everything, understood her mistakes and wanted to save Hamlet at least. Icke fully absolves Gertrude of any potential guilt here, possibly robbing the play of some worthy possibilities… Laertes confesses to the whole plan and outs the King – The king, the king’s to blame.

HAMLET: The blade poisoned! Then get to work, poison!

And he stabs Claudius with the poisoned blade as well. Then forces him to drink from the same cup as his mother. End of the evil Dane.

Laertes also dies.

And now things get a bit weird for me – I regret to report that the ending really didn’t work for me. Let me try to describe its best I can:

Probably this dialogue of Hamlet is taken literally by the director:

HAMLET

Heaven make thee free of it. I follow thee.—

I am dead, Horatio.

Before Hamlet dies the backside of the stage opens and is revealed to be Heaven, with dancing angels, etc. Each of the dead actors are raised up into heaven (including Claudius mind you, there was no space for a Hell on the stage really) – they graciously flutter to their respective posts and occupy their positions in the heaven that has opened up there. Even Ophelia, Polonius, et al are also there.

This is set up slowly before Hamlet can deliver his dying lines so there is a long pause where the audience has to wait for Heaven to arrange itself, with slight unease, wondering if it was really necessary.

Hamlet asks Horatio to stay on in this harsh world for a while more to tell his story and to clear his memory, while he. having resolved his own to be or not to be, moves on to heaven. Horatio is left the last man standing.

The rest is silence. (Dies).

Heaven closes around Hamlet and then the audience is treated to the rude TV footage of Fortinbras announcing his plans for Denmark and for Hamlet’s honorary burial.

It was almost perfect, but the ending could have been a bit more tragic. A stage full of bodies over which the curtain descends seem a more fitting end to Denmark than a well populated Heaven with chorus singing as it closes gently. But the audience is more than willing to forgive this lack of such devastating tragedy as the play closes. Scattered applause starts to erupt, and as the cast comes out in their heavenly clothing to receive the applause it soon becomes a torrent of applause raining down on them. Then, a few seconds later, Andrew Scott joins them and the torrent becomes thunder as every single member of audience rises from their seat to make known their roaring appreciation. Scott soaks it all in like a gladiator in the midst of a great Roman arena. In a few choreographed movements the cast acknowledge us again and again, giving us a chance to sate our unending appetite for raining down applause.

Once it finally dies down, but not before one final eruption for Scott who takes the stage alone, we all collect ourselves and sit down, whispering to each other adjectives that barely described the play. As the audience prepares to leave, Horatio comes out and requests for a moment of our attention, which is gladly given. An announcement is made that the cast will come down in a few minutes for a 15 minute Q & A session and interested members can stay back. Half the audience immediately sits back down and settles in for a slightly longer night. The play had been almost 4 hours in the playing, an epic by any means, and we were game to discuss it late into the night if need be.

* * * *

Q & A Session with the Cast

One by one the cast comes back on stage and occupies the chairs placed for them and Horatio takes up the role of show manager. He asks us to raise our hands to ask questions, and to ask only if picked by him.

The first lucky member of the audience manages to thrill across the first question:

Disclaimer: Questions and answers are nowhere near verbatim and is closer to what I got out of the exchange than what might have actually gone down. Given I am penning this down a few days after the performance night, we need to allow room for some memory lapses as well.

Q 1. Given that your two popular performances, one as Moriarty and one as Hamlet, are both of tortured, genius, mad men, how would you compare the two? (Or something along these lines, I hope the audience member who asked the question would pardon if I missed out on parts of it)

A: Question being directed to Scott, he pretty much directly gets into the core differences between Moriarty and Hamlet and in doing so provides the audience with a key to interpreting the performance he had just given us. He explains that Moriarty comes to him as a fully formed character with certain traits – of madness, genius and a tendency to chaos, perhaps – he just has to stay true to these traits.

Whereas in Hamlet the traits has to develop internally and believably so. He has to go from sad brilliant man to a brilliant genius to a mad genius to a mad blood-thirsty genius, and various combinations in between. Throw into the mix – passionate lover, dedicated son, loyal friend, disillusioned friend, etc. and the range of emotions to be expressed is vast and very very challenging. Through all this, for Andrew, it is one aspect that is key to the changes in Hamlet’s character (Andrew seems to accept that Hamlet is indeed mad and is not feigning madness): The madness is a result of grief that is not allowed full sway. A young man not allowed to grieve slips into madness, and it is the grief that forges the various elements of Hamlet that we see henceforth. The early court scenes take special significance in the light of this discussion. Scott might have spoken about a few more things but these are the points that stayed most with me. All in all, there really is no comparison. Ha, am I glad of this answer!

Q 2. If I recollect correctly the second question was basically whether the actors have any favorite scenes in a play full of so many outstanding scenes. There might also have been an aspect of the question about the use of technology on stage and how/whether that impacted certain key scenes, and if so how?

A: A few of the cast members pitched in with their favorite scenes, but what stayed with me was Andrew’s discussion about why they decided to fully humanize the Ghost. Hamlet could touch him, feel him, and hold his hands when they spoke. He says they wanted to make the father-son aspect fully realized and allowing direct contact and a personal moment between the two seemed the best way to do it. The technology medium adapted might have stood in the way of this, so the Ghost goes beyond all of that and manifests as flesh in front of Hamlet. When you add in the fact that in this production Hamlet is indeed assumed mad, then this also shows the extent of his hallucinations and his grief…

Q 3. A lot of you have long breaks in between two scenes sometimes, during the course of which you have to go off stage. What do you guys do off stage as the drama progresses? Do you stay in character, do you try to relax a bit, or do you netflix and chill, especially when it is such a long production?

A: The entire cast got pretty interested in this question. I was also pretty interested since if answered by a few of them this would give us a real glimpse behind the curtains. I thanked silently whoever asked the question (A shout-out to you, kind soul), and started following the conversation amongst the cast in response.

Horatio jokingly immediately pointed at Laertes who leaves court and the stage in Act 1 Scene 3 and does not return till Act 4 Scene 5 towards the end of the play, hours later, and says Laertes might be the best one to answer that since he has maximum time off-stage. The whole cast laughed, there was even a quo that in the time he had off-stage he could actually have gone to France and come back! Laertes finally got a say: no he cant stay in character that long, instead he tries to relax and just stay in touch with the action on stage. Someone else from the cast also joined in and said that yes, they can’t stay in character outside for too long since that would make it too tense. They have to get off character once off the stage, but stay ready.

Laertes came up with a good metaphor – he said, imagine you are going on a long distance flight – you wont be aware of the flight all the while, you might sleep watch a movie listen to music and then become aware of the flying itself only occasionally. But throughout you are in the flight – you never stop flying! Then Andrew pitched in by saying it is important to keep things a bit light, you can’t get too serious. “Without life and liveliness there is no tragedy, there has to be plenty of life on stage” – and the only way to have liveliness and life on stage is to preserve energy especially mental energy off stage by saying relaxed. Wight also acknowledged the same – there was another funny metaphor I believe, but it skips my mind. Gertrude pitched in that in any case every player has an audio piece or something so they are following the play off stage at all times. Overall it was an interesting discussion. The audience as well as the cast seemed to truly enjoy it.

Q 4. I believe this question was along the lines of how important is a play like this to you guys on a personal level. The questioner said the question is an open one – i.e. any of the cast can answer it.

A: The cast looked at each other waiting for a volunteer. Finally Ophelia started off. It was a touching moment. She talked about how she had been struggling with an eating disorder and depression. She talked about how the play helped her find herself during a crucial time. About how it filled with meaning so many empty areas inside her. We could see in retrospect how much she poured into her role as we talked and all we could do to acknowledge was some meager applause when she finished. But it was an intimate and brave moment.

We had exceeded the 15 minutes, but everyone was having a good time so Horatio said he will take one more question. From the hundreds of hands, including mine, he decided to pick one, this time from the Balcony. Thank you, the lady blurted out as if she had given up hope and was very pleasantly surprised to be called on. She took a moment to collect herself and asked a fantastic final question, to Andrew Scott again. Yes, we as an audience was biased, but I am sure the rest of the cast will forgive us for being dreamy-eyed fan boys of Scott for one night.

Q 5. The question went like this: We noticed that at moments of great rage, as during the confrontation with his mother, you seem to be throwing a tantrum, almost child-like in its intensity and lack of self-control. Those scenes reminded me of how my child behaves towards me when in a fit of rage. Was that deliberate? Were you trying to show that due to the circumstances and perhaps the madness a regression to the child had happened within Hamlet and all normal reservations that keep us behaving properly had fallen off? Andrew didn’t get the second part of the question, and she repeated if what Andrew was trying to show was that a combination of madness, grief and the presence of his mother, caused a regression to a child….

A: Andrew got it this time and asked whether she meant that at those moments filters were not there: that is, we were seeing Hamlet without the normal social filters that preserve the inner I from being exposed. She nodded and he continued with his answer. Clearly he was thinking through it, it was a good question since it addressed the few scenes which the audience would have been most uncomfortable with, and those which a bad critic could easily dismiss as overacting. But this question forced us to reexamine any impressions we had of those scenes of rage and “overacting” – there might be a method to the madness after all.

In fact it was such a good question that it required acknowledgment more than explanation. Andrew acknowledged it, touched upon the grief-madness connection once again, but finally accepted that yes, the grief and the madness had made Hamlet behave like a child. He also says that once this was let out and the grief had an outlet through this raw expression, Hamlet calms down a little, a bit of the madness has fallen away… The venting was crucial, just like it is for children.

He goes on to say that, in fact, a characteristic of most mad people is this loss of filters – they become too raw, too real for the rest of society. The layers of custom that makes us look like safe & rational beings, which we are far from being, comes off in such people, which is why they evoke fear. Hamlet does both – he becomes a feral force, but the filters coming off exposes his humanity and also his genius and as we wonder looking at him ‘What a piece of work is a man’ we learn a lot about what each of us is without filters. We fear hamlet, we love hamlet, we know Hamlet is doomed, just as we know about ourselves. A mirror up to nature, even in a scene that is mostly on the brink of being out of control.

The Q & A ends.

One final round of applause, adoring looks at the cast members, and then we were clambering off, hoping to catch the last trains and tubes back home so that we can get some time to savor the experience further, before sleep and perchance dreams engulf us.

Curtains.

Book your Hamlet tickets, playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2nd September 2017.

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2017 in Book Reviews, Books, Movies, Theater Reviews

 

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Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldThe Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

Ferguson contends that today’s financial world is the result of four millennia of economic evolution. It is very important to the aims of this book that this metaphor is accepted. Ferguson looks at this evolution of money into the complicated financial ecosystem of today. He explores how money mutated into new tools/organisms and acquired characteristics that allowed it to meet the needs of its users/demands of its environment better. The tools that helped men make even more money or harness their own energies more efficiently were selected for as ‘fittest’ and soon took over the monetary environment.

This happened in fits and starts:

First came the invention of money itself, which is not given much attention to, probably because it is too shrouded in the mists of time (and also because the West has no unique claim on it, at any of its stages – even the more advanced forms). Then it started mutating into its various forms, conquering and occupying various niches according to functionality.

And according to Ferguson, the civilizations who had access to these new and more efficient tools were hugely benefitted and in many cases were at a decisive advantage, down to our day.

The Evolutionary Stages

1. Banks

Money, once it allowed quantification of the value of transactions soon led naturally to delayed payments and then to the institutions of lending and borrowing. These slowly grew to become banks, clearing houses for ever larger aggregations of borrowing and lending.

2. Bonds

The rulers and the lords were the biggest customers of the banks. In time governments that figured out how to utilize the credit market best thrived and their innovations led to government bonds and securitization of streams of interest payments. This matured into full-fledged bond markets by the 13th century. The rulers had great incentive to protect and regulate this amazing new source of funding! This led those governments most dependent on these markets to institute regulated public markets so as to maintain stability and security of transaction, which was in their own best interests. Transaction and discovery costs reduced drastically and areas with such markets proved extremely useful to their rulers, who could no raise money for wars much more effectively. Battles were now to be won and lost in the bond markets.

3. Stock Markets

By the seventeenth century, corporations started aping the states, a process that was not limited to only financial matters, and started to raise equity through share markets. This could only develop first in areas with already well developed bond markets and public markets and thus gave them a further advantage — the advantage derived from the financial tools now extended from wars to trade and industry. The West was rising buoyed by its financial innovations, in Ferguson’s view.

4. Insurance

With the institutions of bonds and shares prospering, the next step was to use the market to spread risk out. insurance funds and then pension funds exploited economies of scale and the laws of averages to provide financial protection against calculable risk. The corporations now had another decisive advantage in being able to have access to protection against risk and in a world where financial risk was the biggest danger any advantage there could prove world-conquering. The accumulation of financial innovations had already tipped the balance for the West and was now on its way to helping them conquer the world.

5. Real Estate

With the rise of more innovative instruments such as futures, options and other derivatives, it was now possible to increase leverage, not only for governments and corporations, but also for individual households. With government encouragement they soon increased their leverage and used that to invest more and more in real estate. This helped the western countries to have a larger and larger propertied class helping them to transition the into property-owning democracies, which, according to Ferguson, are the most robust sort.

6. Imperialism and Globalization: The Justified Culmination

Now we come to the crux of the narrative — Economies that combined all these institutional innovations – banks, bond markets, stock markets, insurance and property-owning democracy – performed better over the long run than those that did not, because financial intermediation generally permits a more efficient allocation of resources than, say, feudalism or central planning. The financial ecosystem evolved in the West was the best suited for governance and for human civilization in general. And it is for this reason that the Western financial model tended to spread around the world, first in the guise of imperialism, then in the guise of globalization, and has been vital for all sorts of progress achieved around the world — from the advance of science, the spread of law, mankind’s escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap.

Ferguson has narrated the history of money as a financial evolution and thus given it the air of inevitable complexity and of progress. This makes it seem like the adoption of the ‘evolved’ financial system first by the West and them by the Rest is but a logical and inevitable choice that is for the best of the world at large.

It is noteworthy that Ferguson makes a point of using elaborate evolutionary metaphors to project the history of financial institutions in a Darwinian light.

Why?

According to this interpretation, financial history is essentially the result of institutional mutation and natural selection: Random ‘drift’ (innovations/ mutations that are not promoted by natural selection, but just happen) and ‘flow’ (innovations/mutations that are caused when, say, American practices are adopted by Chinese banks) play a part. There can also be ‘co-evolution’, when different financial species work and adapt together (like hedge funds and their prime brokers).

But market selection is the main driver. Financial organisms are in competition with one another for finite resources. At certain times and in certain places, certain species may become dominant. But innovations by competitor species, or the emergence of altogether new species, prevent any permanent hierarchy or monoculture from emerging. Broadly speaking, the law of the survival of the fittest applies. Institutions with a ‘selfish gene’ that is good at self-replication and self-perpetuation will tend to proliferate and endure.

As we can see there are certain key themes here:

a. That the survived institutions have to accepted as ‘fittest’ under Ferguson’s interpretation, and

b. That ‘selfishness’ of institutions/genes are rewarding for the species/humanity in the long run. So we should encourage the selfish imperialism of countries/the globalization of corporations today.

These are specious themes that are present in this book with a specific agenda, trying to escape notice by being presented in pseudoscientific light. And as we have seen from our discussion of how Ferguson uses the history of finance to show us how Imperialism was a good thing for the rest of the world, we can safely slot this book as another among Ferguson’s life-long attempts to come up with innovative apologetics for Empire.

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Posted by on June 7, 2015 in Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Thoughts

 

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I, Hegel: A Poem

I, Hegel
*
*
I, Hegel, wrote an essay today
Comparing Jesus,
And his disciples
With Socrates,
And his.
Jesus emerges from my comparison
As decidedly the inferior teacher
Of ethics.
What does that say
About my Religion?

*

I, Hegel, had a dream today
In which Napoleon
Was offered
One of two paths
In a cold subterranean dungeon:
One of which led to untold riches
And the other to a lost work of Aristotle.
He took the first
Without hesitation.
What does that say
About my Hero?

*

I, Hegel, went on a walk today
When I heard
Two villagers arguing
About metaphysics,
And epistemology.
They talked of Jesus and of Zeus,
Of Mary and of Vampires!
But not a word was told of Kant,
Yet they reached (and easily)
The very same conclusions!
What does that say
About my Teacher?

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2015 in Books, Creative, Philosophy, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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INTERSTELLAR: Do Not Go Humble Into That Good Night

The Science of InterstellarThe Science of Interstellar by Kip S. Thorne

My Rating★★★★☆


DO NOT GO HUMBLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

 

The book discusses the movie, so it is only fair that I use most of the space to discuss the movie as well. I will discuss the book itself in one of the sections below. To get a better understanding, we can break our discussion it up into three overlapping sections —
The Three aspects of the movie that has to be examined to get at its core Premise:

1. The Future

2. The Science

3. The Dreams

Book Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads); Movie Rating: 9/10 (IMDB)


Caution: Spoilers Ahead; Spoilers Abound

“The overriding question, ‘What might we build tomorrow?’
blinds us to questions of our ongoing responsibilities
for what we built yesterday.”
~ Paul Dourish


THE FUTURE


Scenario

Interstellar is about mankind’s future and about the options we face. It challenges us to think about how we should react to that future.

It starts from the premise that the Earth has been wrecked.

We have become a largely agrarian society, struggling to feed and shelter ourselves. But ours is not a dystopia. Life is still tolerable and in some ways pleasant, with little amenities such as baseball continuing. However, we no longer think big. We no longer aspire to great things. We aspire to little more than just keeping life going.

Humans have coped with their sudden tragedy by shutting down technology, engineering, research and all the marvels of science. This was the only option left to them.

But why this extreme reaction by a species that was not frightened even by Frankenstein’s monster? Presumably science/progress had something to do with unleashing the blight? My guess would be too much monoculture.

Most of them seem to think that the catastrophes are finished, that we humans are securing ourselves in this new world and things may start improving. But in reality the blight is so lethal, and leaps so quickly from crop to crop (there is also a bit of unscientific nonsense about Nitrogen versus Oxygen, but let us not be too critical), that the human race is doomed within the lifetime of Cooper’s grandchildren. The only hope is to start dreaming again. To get back on the Science Bandwagon.

And (thankfully?) there are dreamers, who refuse to give up to this sub-par, non-imaginative existence.

We are explorers, we are adventurers. Humanity is not meant to give up like this, Nolan tells us. And uses Dylan to drive the point home (too many times!).

The prevailing attitude of stopping progress and just focussing on ‘surviving’ is seen to be a regressive step by our intrepid explorers.

Instead our heroes decide to risk it all on a cross-galaxy exploration. To find a new home for humanity, out among the stars.

In the process Nolan also attempts to reverse the message of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey and portray technology as a friend to humanity (TARS), instead of an unknown and volatile threat (as embodied by HAL).


Commentary

This is an eminently plausible future. It is also an eminent plausible reaction to such a future. In face it is very close to what Naomi Oreskes  imagines in her own Near-future scenario: Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. A dictatorial regime, community-based (communist, in fact), strictly controlled, paranoid. We have seen these things before in history, during the dark ages. It is one of our worst nightmares.

A totalitarian govt is pretty much what would be in store in such a future. Freedom comes with trade-offs — the more we can indulge now, the more we restrict humanity later.

The only problem is that by the time we have had time to degrade so much, to feel the hopelessness, to tighten control over a society so much with so less technology, it would probably be too late to be even thinking of interstellar travel.

And that is where the Future that is shown to us breaks down. It shows us an agrarian world that is still capable of inter-planetary travel. That would require a very fast breakdown of things. Fast enough to not let the technology or the knowledge wither away. One bad generation would enough to lose the skills that were required for the Exodus. The plot had to assume an almost impossible fast degeneration and a lot of coincidental happenings in that very small window allowed even in such a world. That is not very realistic.

Lucky we had a miracle to bail us out.

See high-res Here: http://goo.gl/x0eoa


THE SCIENCE


Soft Science

This is where science comes in. Under what scientific capacity we have, and with what technology we can reasonably expect in the near future, we cannot really travel inter-galactic distances in a time span that is remotely realistic, at least for current generations. Nor do we have the cryopreservation methods to take any live humans across such time spans.

And if we were capable of sacrificing our present for the future generations…? Well. Umm. We wouldn’t be in a fix in the first place, would we?

The nearest star (other than our Sun) thought to have a habitable planet is Tau Ceti, 11.9 light-years from Earth, so traveling at light speed you would need 11.9 years to reach it. If there are any habitable planets closer than that, they can’t be much closer.

Voyager 1 is traveling out of the solar system at 17 kilometers per second, having been boosted by gravitational slingshots around Jupiter and Saturn. In Interstellar, the Endurance travels from Earth to Saturn in two years, at an average speed of about 20 kilometers per second.

Even if we imagine an extreme 300 kilometers per second, we would need 5000 years to reach Proxima Centauri (nearest star to earth) and 13,000 years to reach Tau Ceti. Not a pleasant prospect!

Using twenty-first-century technology, we are stuck with thousands of years to reach other solar systems. The only hope (an exceedingly faint hope) for faster interstellar travel, in the event of an earthly disaster, is a wormhole like that in Interstellar, or some other extreme form of spacetime warp.

So a major inter-galactic, centuries-spanning exploration is out of the question.

What then?

Luckily we have the Gods helping us (well, 5 dimensional beings – “them” for short) out.

They make our job a lot easier with a strategically placed wormhole – not too near to rip earth apart, but not so far that we don’t notice it, or will have to spend too much time reaching it. And it takes us to a place with multiple earth-like planets. And we go there on LAZARUS missions (Get it? Christ will walk amongst us at The End of Days — as Technology!). Resurrection itself, no less, is on display here!

Talk about miracles.

“And whoever They are, They appear to be looking out for us. That wormhole lets us travel to other stars. It came along right as we needed it.”

Well, what do you know, we are a lucky species.


Hard Science

I have heard a lot of people criticizing the science behind the movie. To me that is the most acceptable part in the movie. The science mostly makes good sense, except for a few artistic liberties here and there. Also the story was written first and the science was made-to-order. But despite that, it hangs together well.

The movie is exclusively based on a String Theory interpretation of the universe. Most of it won’t make sense unless you accept all the premises required under String Theory.

So we live in a “Brane” inside a “Bulk”. Our universe is the Brane and the Bulk Beings live in higher dimension, in the Bulk. The movie simplifies matters a bit by assuming the Bulk to be in only 1 dimension more than ours, while String Theorists tend to assume 5-6 extra dimensions in the Bulk. Also they are supposed to be curled-up microscopic dimensions, certainly not big enough for Cooper to be floating around in. Nolan didn’t want to confuse a mass audience. Let us accept that as fair.

All this is beautifully explained in the book and reading it will make you respect the rigor and faithfulness to scientific principles that is on view in the movie. Everything (including all those stunning visuals) is modeled based on equations and backed by scientific possibility (speculation at best). The movie allows us to visualize what a wormhole, black-hole, accretion disks, tesseract, world-tubes, etc. would look like IF they were real. And they allow us to do so with scientific rigor. Nolan brings String Theory to spectacular life. So this movie sets a pretty high standard as far as fidelity to science is concerned. Let us give full points for that.

I am wiling to defend most of the science on display in the movie. Please feel free to fire away in the comment section.

They even use realistic equations in the movie. Gotta give points for that too.

Even when the equation is attempting to “solve gravity”. *chuckles*

In short, it is easy to be skeptical of the science, but this companion book does a good job of shooting down most objections you might have and proves how well-founded most o the exotic stuff in the movie is. The really exotic things turn out to be closer to home, in the Future that is depicted and in the Dreams we are being asked to nurture! I started this book being very critical of the movie, looking for weapons to bludgeon it with, but the constant doses of science has softened me up. Reading this book will probably make you respect the movie much more too. Highly recommended.


Artistic Licences

That said, Nolan does take many liberties with science in the movie, but mostly they are for visual effect.

As Kip says, If Chris had followed the dictates of Einstein’s laws, it would have spoiled his movie. So Chris consciously invoked artistic license at some points. Although I’m a scientist and aspire to science accuracy in science fiction, I can’t blame Chris at all. I would have done the same, had I been making the decision. And you’d have thanked me for it.


Truth, Educated Guesses, and Speculations

The science of Interstellar lies in all four domains: Newtonian, relativistic, quantum, and quantum gravity. Correspondingly, some of the science is known to be true, some is an educated guess, and some is speculation.

That is why throughout this book, when discussing the science of Interstellar, Kip has to explain the status of that science—truth, educated guess, or speculation—and he label it so at the beginning of a chapter or section with a symbol:


TO SUM UP

The thing is that a wormhole cant work (they are just not stable enough to be traversable, even if they actually exist — admitted freely in the book, in fact Kip goes so far as to almost admit that Wormholes are the most impossible outrageous idea in the book, and he was also the one responsible for introducing a wormhole into Contact and thus into mass consciousness!), time can’t be fixed, and if you have enough energy/tech to make a new planet habitable, you will definitely have enough to make earth re-habitable!

So we will never actually face a choice — either we will be capable of saving the earth AND colonizing a new planet. Or we will be incapable of both. And if the earth is in a bad enough condition it is unlikely that a true centuries-spanning mission is going to get funding anyway. And if we can fix the planet, how can we choose to leave all the other species behind? (Diversity being so important, as mentioned in the movie — and true genetic diversity should also include species diversity.)

The Science in the Movie DOES NOT matter. Because it is not a question of what is possible, but of what we want to believe in.


Cooper = Christ

This movie is about Miracles & Dreams, not of Science. And, to drive it home, religious hints litter the movie, as pointed out with the Lazarus missions above.

We thus have Cooper in a double role, as a Christ figure who brings God’s message to a Prophet, and also as an Apostle-Prime, who alone has experienced divinity, who is convinced that the miracles are being performed by The Children of Men. That men will become Gods one day, capable of miracles. Get it? The Bulk-beings, the 5-Dimensional Gods are nothing but the Children of Men, conceived immaculately through a Technology-Mary)

“Not yet,” Cooper says, “but one day. Not you and me but people, people who’ve evolved beyond the four dimensions we know.”

Traditionally, when you fall into a black hole, you should get pulled apart, instead the movie itself gets pulled apart by its seams. It was a plot necessity. Of course, our new understanding of singularities allow a slim chance of survival, but certainly not for the Nolan-esque climax. It’s a brave plunge, either way.


THE DREAMS

The real message of the movie might very well be to show how difficult it would be to find an inhabitable planet and get to it, even with plenty of miraculous deus ex machinas thrown in. And we still need to have in source of energy — gravity itself — to have any shot at a humane solution (of transporting everyone instead of having to deal with the rough job of choosing WHO gets to go!)

In the move, it all ends in an optimistic note in COOPER STATION, but what of the Earth? Kip admits in the book that to “harness gravity” to get off the earth would probably require a complete destruction of the planet (through extreme compression).

If they had access to enormous energy, through “solving gravity”, then surely they could have fixed Earth instead? Given the choice between a beautiful Earth and an artificially recreated station (limited by man’s imagination, even if by the imagination of the most brilliant among us), where would you choose to live? What would you choose for your child? Even today, would you rather stay in a magnificently designed IT park imitation or actually go and visit the original? And what of the history, architecture and ecology we have to leave behind? I know what choice I will make. I might make a visit, but I would want come back to earth.


A Cut-And-Run Theme

As an article puts it:

At first glance, Interstellar does seem to have a green message, warning that climate change could make the world uninhabitable for humans (and, presumably, other species). Yet there’s an odd twist. The tag line for the film is, “The end of the Earth will not be the end of us.” And the lead scientist, played by Michael Caine (no longer Alfred the Butler), says at one point: “We are not meant to save the world. We are meant to leave it.” In other words, if humans do trash the planet, don’t worry, some super-smart folks will help us make a nice get-away somewhere else in this swell and expanding universe. Given that Grinspoon researches life and planetary development, I wondered what he thought of this cut-and-run theme.

Once we cut out all the fantasy elements, Interstellar has this dire projection for us:

1. We are ruining the planet

2. We need to look for options to save ourselves.

Now, I have no objection to Humans leaving the Planet. Best case might even be that Humans leave the Planet to save the Planet.

3. But, whatever solutions we want to imagine/implement, we need to do it before it is too late.

By the time it is too late for the planet, it is bound to be too late for our technology too.

Cut-And-Run is not a feasible option. Deus Ex Machina happens only in movies.

As I have repeated many times by now The Science of Interstellar is the least questionable aspect of the movie. Its core premise (the Future & The Dreams) is what is really questionable.

Interstellar operates from a premise that it is never too late as long we keep the flame of exploration and technology alive. It ignores the ethical dilemmas of leaving a planet and most of its inhabitants (including humans) to die. It also ignores the more present question of how to avert a cut-and-run scenario from ever manifesting itself. That is the real question in front of humanity today. By skipping ahead and showing us an imaginary solution to present day problems, Nolan is indulging in a sort of escapism.

Let us just deal with it:

The right dream to have might just be of saving the planet and thus ourselves, and not of leaving it.

The movie was good entertainment and the book does a wonderful job of backing it up scientifically. But having the right dream is important too, to direct Science, which is merely a tool.

Humanity was not meant to die on Earth.
Earth was not meant to die of Humanity either.


VERDICT: THE SCIENCE IS SOLID. THE FUTURE IS SHAKY. AND THE DREAM IS JUST PLAIN STUPID.

Arthur C. Clarke took us on a similar journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he asked us uncomfortable questions: Where are we headed? Are we ready to rely on Technology? What hidden dangers lurk in the Highway of Progress?

Nolan instead chooses to allay most of those uncomfortable questions and leaves us with a too simple an answer: Trust in technology, keep the spirit alive and everything will be fine.

I am not sure that is the right message for our times. It needs to be examined, and hence the review. I have done a shoddy job of it, but it is something.

All this is not to indulge in technology-bashing. Our scientific knowledge and our capacity for improvement are still our best bets to continuing survival. But “Solutionism” is not the answer.

This is how “Solutionism” is defined:

“‘Solutionism’ interprets issues as puzzles to which there is a solution, rather than problems to which there may be a response.”
~ Gilles Paquet

We should be optimistic, but only cautiously so. We should not ride headlong into a future we don’t want, expecting a miracle at the end of the lane to bail us out. We should respect science and trust in it, and expect it to not only be a miracle, but also a path-finder. Science should show us the way, it should show us the means to avoid the unwanted future. It should be a companion, not a god-of-last-resort, to which we turn only once we have ruined ourselves by ignoring it.

Let us use science to chart the best course. Let us respect what our scientists tell us instead of allowing our politicians and our run-away consumerist economy to take us to a cliff from which even Science cannot be expected to work a Miracle.

Even though the movie was supposed to be a powerful message about Man’s power, in the end it turns out to be about man’s desperate need for miracles, for easy answers. That is its failure.

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Wishing Yourself A Good Night

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of SleepDreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall

My Rating★★★☆☆

Wishing Yourself A Good Night

What do you do when you really don’t have much to tell on a subject, especially when you care a lot about it? You tell anecdotes and try to keep it interesting. Most neuroscience books these days tend to be packed with anecdotes that are weird, but on which there is no scientific consensus. The reader is left to his/her own devices on what to make of all the stories. This book is not much different. It starts with an admission that we know next to nothing about sleep – the activity that occupies 1/3rd of our lives.

The author sets off an a quest to discover more about his own sleep conditions and finds that he has fallen into a strange rabbit hole that exists just on the other side the pillow, and which most of are never aware of.

Once I started really thinking about sleep for the first time, the questions came in waves. Do men sleep differently than women? Why do we dream? Why is getting children to fall asleep one of the hardest parts of becoming a new parent, and is it this hard for everyone around the world? How come some people snore and others don’t? And what makes my body start sleepwalking, and why can’t I tell it to stop? Asking friends and family about sleep elicited a long string of “I don’t knows,” followed by looks of consternation, like the expressions you see on students who don’t know the answers to a pop quiz. Sleep, the universal element of our lives, was the great unknown. And frankly, that makes no sense.

A few take aways:

1. The Need for sleep:

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. We don’t know about sleep, and the book opens with the most obvious question of all—why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

Here we hear many horror stories of sleep-deprivation: Within the first twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation, the blood pressure starts to increase. Not long afterward, the metabolism levels go haywire, giving a person an uncontrollable craving for carbohydrates. The body temperature drops and the immune system gets weaker. If this goes on for too long, there is a good chance that the mind will turn against itself, making a person experience visions and hear phantom sounds akin to a bad acid trip. At the same time, the ability to make simple decisions or recall obvious facts drops off severely. It is bound to end in severe consequences – including death. It is a bizarre downward spiral that is all the more peculiar because it can be stopped completely, and all of its effects will vanish, simply by sleeping for a couple of hours.

2. The Amount of sleep:

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

3. The Stages of Sleep:

Researchers now say that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last stop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this type of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

4. The Ideal Pattern of Sleep (that you are not following):

Natural light is the way to go. Artificial light messes up your sleep patterns and the body pays for it in the long run. Post-Edison world has come close to banishing the night, but our bodies still live in a world where sun is the only source of light, and have all sorts of troubles processing artificial light induced sleep patters. More and more health problems are being tied to unnatural sleep patterns and Light Pollution.

Example: Electric light at night disrupts your circadian clock, the name given to the natural rhythms that the human body developed over time. When you see enough bright light at night, your brain interprets this as sunlight because it doesn’t know any better. The lux scale, a measure of the brightness of light, illustrates this point. One lux is equal to the light from a candle ten feet away. A standard 100-watt lightbulb shines at 190 lux, while the lighting in an average office building is 300 lux. The body’s clock can be reset by any lights stronger than 180 lux, meaning that the hours you spend in your office directly impact your body’s ability to fall asleep later. That’s because your body reacts to bright light the same way it does to sunshine, sending out signals to try to keep itself awake and delay the nightly maintenance of cleanup and rebuilding of cells that it does while you are asleep. Too much artificial light can stop the body from releasing melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep.

Poor sleep is just one symptom of an unwound body clock. Circadian rhythms are thought to control as many as 15 percent of our genes. When those genes don’t function as they should because of the by-products of artificial light, the effects are a rogue’s gallery of health disorders. Studies have linked depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and even cancer to overexposure to light at night. Researchers know this, in part, from studying nurses who have spent years working the graveyard shift. One study of 120,000 nurses found that those who worked night shifts were the most likely to develop breast cancer. Another found that nurses who worked at least three night shifts a month for fifteen years had a 35 percent greater chance of developing colon cancer. The increased disease rates could not be explained as a by-product of working in a hospital.

In one of the most intriguing studies, researchers in Israel used satellite photos to chart the level of electric light at night in 147 communities. Then, they placed the satellite photos over maps that showed the distribution of breast cancer cases. Even after controlling for population density, affluence, and other factors that can influence health, there was a significant correlation between exposure to artificial light at night and the number of women who developed the disease. If a woman lived in a place where it was bright enough outside to read a book at midnight, she had a 73 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than a peer who lived in a neighborhood that remained dark after the sun went down. Researchers think that the increased risk is a result of lower levels of melatonin, which may affect the body’s production of estrogen.

There could be more discoveries on the horizon that show detrimental health effects caused by artificial light. Researchers are interested in how lights have made us less connected to the changing of the seasons. “We’ve deseasonalized ourselves,” Wehr, the sleep researcher, said. “We are living in an experiment that is finding out what happens if you expose humans to constant summer day lengths.”

5. What Should Be Your Sleep Schedule?

In the Canterbury Tales, one of the characters in “The Squire’s Tale” wakes up in the early morning following her “first sleep” and then goes back to bed. A fifteenth-century medical book, meanwhile, advised readers to spend the “first sleep” on the right side and after that to lie on their left. And a scholar in England wrote that the time between the “first sleep” and the “second sleep” was the best time for serious study. Sleep, it seems, wasn’t always the one long block that we consider it today.

This natural mode of sleep sounds weird to the post-Edison world of artificial lights and 6 hour sleep cycles. But it was a fact of life that was once as common as eating breakfast.

For most of human history, every night, people fell asleep not long after the sun went down and stayed that way until sometime after midnight. This was the “first sleep” that kept popping up in the old tales. Once a person woke up, he or she would stay that way for an hour or so before going back to sleep until morning—the so-called second sleep. The time between the two bouts of sleep was a natural and expected part of the night and, depending on your needs, was spent praying, reading, contemplating your dreams, urinating, or having sex. The last one was perhaps the most popular.

Experiments confirm this tendency: Thomas Wehr, who worked for the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was struck by the idea that the ubiquitous artificial light we see every day could have some unknown effect on our sleep habits. On a whim, he deprived subjects of artificial light for up to fourteen hours a day in hopes of re-creating the lighting conditions common to early humans. Without lightbulbs, televisions, or street lamps, the subjects in his study initially did little more at night than sleep. They spent the first few weeks of the experiment like kids in a candy store, making up for all of the lost sleep that had accumulated from staying out late at night or showing up at work early in the morning. After a few weeks, the subjects were better rested than perhaps at any other time in their lives.

That was when the experiment took a strange turn. Soon, the subjects began to stir a little after midnight, lie awake in bed for an hour or so, and then fall back asleep again. It was the same sort of segmented sleep that Ekirch found in the historical records. While sequestered from artificial light, subjects were shedding the sleep habits they had formed over a lifetime. It was as if their bodies were exercising a muscle they never knew they had. The experiment revealed the innate wiring in the brain, unearthed only after the body was sheltered from modern life. Not long after Wehr published a paper about the study, Ekirch contacted him and revealed his own research findings.

Numerous other studies have shown that splitting sleep into two roughly equal halves is something that our bodies will do if we give them a chance. In places of the world where there isn’t artificial light—and all the things that go with it, like computers, movies, and bad reality TV shows—people still sleep this way. In the mid-1960s, anthropologists studying the Tiv culture in central Nigeria found that group members not only practiced segmented sleep, but also used roughly the same terms of first sleep and second sleep.

6. Sleep & Performance

The places where most of the cutting edge research happens and great places to understand the importance of sleep is the Military and Sports fields – areas where human excellence, endurance and performance is pushed to the limits. It stands to reason that these fields notice the effects of sleep problems first. Many sports teams now take great trouble to make sure Light is adjusted to natural cycles, athletes get the full quota of sleep, etc. It s only a matter of time before rest of popular culture catches on – just like many health ides, diets, exercises etc.

7. Sleep Timings Change with Age:

The three basic stages of adulthood—teenage, middle age, old age—have drastically different sleep structures. Teenagers going through puberty find it impossible to fall asleep early and would naturally sleep past ten in the morning if given the choice. Their grandparents often fall asleep early in the night, but then find that they can’t stay that way for more than three or four hours at a time. Middle-aged adults typically fall between the middle of these two extremes, content to fall asleep early when circumstances allow it, yet able to pull an all-nighter when a work project calls for it. These overlapping shifts could be a way to ensure that someone in the family is always awake and keeping watch, or at least close to it. In this ancient system, it makes sense that older adults who are unable to move as fast as the rest of the family are naturally jumpy, never staying in deep sleep for long, simply because they were the most vulnerable to the unknown.

The other stage – babyhood is a time with no sleep structure at all. They sleep and wake up independent of the light/circadian rhythms. To the eternal consternation of all parents!

So human society is biologically designed to live in different time zones?!

Biology’s cruel joke goes something like this: As a teenage body goes through puberty, its circadian rhythm essentially shifts three hours backward. Suddenly, going to bed at nine or ten o’clock at night isn’t just a drag, but close to a biological impossibility. Studies of teenagers around the globe have found that adolescent brains do not start releasing melatonin until around eleven o’clock at night and keep pumping out the hormone well past sunrise. Adults, meanwhile, have little-to-no melatonin in their bodies when they wake up. With all that melatonin surging through their bloodstream, teenagers who are forced to be awake before eight in the morning are often barely alert and want nothing more than to give in to their body’s demands and fall back asleep. Because of the shift in their circadian rhythm, asking a teenager to perform well in a classroom during the early morning is like asking him or her to fly across the country and instantly adjust to the new time zone—and then do the same thing every night, for four years. If professional football players had to do that, they would be lucky to win one game.

8. What Sort of Bed Should You Choose?

The biggest question—whether a bed should be hard or soft—has a long and confusing history. In 2008, the medical journal Spine seemed to settle the question of firmness. It found that there was little difference in back pain between those who slept on hard mattresses and those who slept on softer ones. How hard a person likes his or her bed is a personal preference and nothing more.

In fact, the bed that you find the most comfortable will most likely be the one that you are already sleeping on.

9. Forget The Bed – Sleep Hygiene Is What You Need

While a comfortable mattress may have little impact when it comes to sleep quality, there are several other aspects of the bedroom that do. Taken together, they form what specialists call sleep hygiene. Most are common sense.

– No coffee before bed / in the evening

Nor is drinking alcohol before bedtime a smart move. Alcohol may help speed the onset of sleep, but it begins to take its toll during the second half of the night. As the body breaks down the liquid, the alcohol in the bloodstream often leads to an increase in the number of times a person briefly wakes up. This continues until the blood alcohol level returns to zero, thereby preventing the body from getting a full, deep, restorative sleep.

Developing a few habits with the circadian rhythm in mind will most likely make sleep easier. Adequate exposure to natural light, for instance, will help keep the body’s clock in sync with the day-night cycle and prime the brain to increase the level of melatonin in the bloodstream, which will then bring on sleepiness around ten o’clock each night.

By the same token, bright lights—including the blue-and-white light that comes from a computer monitor or a television screen—can deceive the brain, which registers it as daylight. Lying in bed watching a movie on an iPad may be relaxing, but the constant bright light from the screen can make it more difficult for some people to fall asleep afterward.

– Walk around your house and switch off all bright lights half an hour before you sleep, including the TV, the iPad and the laptop.

Recent studies have shown that body temperature also plays an outsized role in getting decent sleep. Takes steps to have a comfortable temperature: Take a cold shower, etc.

– Even a small increase in the amount of exercise a person gets leads to measurable improvements in the time that it takes to fall asleep and stay that way. This is particularly true for older adults.

10. The Effort Is Worth Your Time

But, though its effects were subtle, devoting extra time and attention to this most basic of human needs impacted nearly every minute of my day. Because I was improving my sleep, I was improving my life. And all it took was treating sleep with the same respect that I already gave other aspects of my health. Just as I wouldn’t eat a plate of chili-cheese fries every day and expect to continue to fit into my pants, I structured my life around the idea that I couldn’t get only a few hours of sleep and expect to function properly. If there was one thing that I took away from my talks with experts more than any other, it is that getting a good night’s sleep takes work.

And that work is worth it. Health, sex, relationships, creativity, memories—all of these things that make us who we are depend on the hours we spend each night with our heads on the pillow. By ignoring something that every animal requires, we are left turning to pills that we may not need, experiencing health problems that could be tamed, and pushing our children into sleep-deprived lives that make the already tough years of adolescence more difficult. And yet sleep continues to be forgotten, overlooked, and postponed. Any step—whether it comes in the form of exercise, therapy, or simply reading a book like this one—that helps us to realize the importance of sleep inevitably pushes us toward a better, stronger, and more creative life.

Sleep, in short, makes us the people we want to be. All you have to do is close your eyes.

In addition to all the sleep advice, the best part of the book was the full-fledged dissing of poor Freud: Far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, scientists could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. – “None of Freud’s claims are true by any of our standards today,” Domhoff said, dipping his spoon into his yogurt. “If you look at dreams—if you really look at them like we have—then you see that it’s all there, out in the open. You don’t need any of these symbols.” He went on. “Freudians got all caught up in the idea that there were hidden meanings to our dreams. But their interpretations only worked because we share a system of figurative language and metaphor.”

The Short Summary

Too Lengthy for your tastes? Would reading such a big review eat into your sleep quota for today? Here is a Quick Summary:

1. Sleep for eight hours. Sleep is the natural repair mechanism of the body. If we mess with it, we are bound to have repair related diseases – such as cancer.
2. Follow the natural cycle and your circadian Rhythms. Dont live in perpetual jet lag conditions.
3. Sleep by around 8-9 and wake up at around 12, go back to sleep by 1 and wake by around 4-5 (add 2 hours if possible on either side)
– if you are older, you will need to sleep earlier to be able to fill your quota. it will be almost impossible to sleep late into the day as you age.
4. Avoid artificial lights while sleeping, make sure you are exposed to natural light
5. Relax yourself before sleep, make sure you get some exercise every day.
6. Don’t indulge in dangerous/delicate activities when sleep deprived. Sleep well for high performance.
7. Sleep properly to be more healthy in general – it affects all sorts of things in your body.
8. Don’t impose your sleep patterns on the rest of your family, esp when they are of another age. Dont impose adult sleep patters on kids.
9. Make sure your naps are always 90 minutes or longer. Take naps before important activities, or when stressed.

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Posted by on September 18, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Shakespeare: The Obscure & The Elusive (A Biography)

Shakespeare: The Biography

 

Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

My Rating★★★☆☆

 

“Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare. 


So far from Shakespeare’s being the least known, he is the one person in all modern history fully known to us.”

~ Emerson

The Obscure & The Elusive

This ‘biography’ that Ackroyd strings together is mostly tedious, though it has a few really good moments and it has to be admitted that it presents most of the facts that is known of the great Bard. In spite of this, I think it is a mistake to pick up this bio unless one is familiar with ALL the plays of Shakespeare, including the controversially attributed ones – since Ackroyd constructs the bio mostly through the plays and the lines and extrapolating form them, tying together with some skill the fragmentary traces Shakespeare left in the world outside the stage.

The fact that whatever is pieced together from outside plays is from the patchy legal records of Shakespeare’s land dealings, taxes paid, borrowings/lendings, cases filed, and so on, should give an idea of the tedium involved. The saving grace is when Shakespeare’s contemporary critics step in to spice it up by naive statements that posterity was destined to have hearty laughs at.

Also, Ackroyd tries to do it both ways – understand the life through the plays and then understand the plays through the life. Which makes a bit of a mess in figuring out where the circle closes. Also, Ackroyd seems to lean towards reading the life into the work when the life can be read out of the work.

Maybe, much of Shakespeare’s existence was the very construction of his plays, and these in turn might tell us more about him than can the set of random anecdotes that have escaped the distortions of history and Shakespeare’s own efforts to maintain a private life, that Ackroyd tires so hard to dig out. If Ackroyd had stuck to a consistent plan either way, we might have had a much more coherent work.

In the end, the ‘bio’ is definitely useful in understanding Shakespeare’s London (which included the audiences, stage, limitations of the stage, audience expectations), what is known of his life (with shadings of childhood influences, dramatic/poetic progress, worldly progress, family troubles/tragedies/ambitions), and the London Stage itself (including economic conditions and preoccupations, major rivals, the dramatic scene of the time, the actors, the interaction b/w actors and characters).

This is all very admirable, but the question is how much of all this information is needed for understanding his plays – especially when his greatest genius was apparently in being conspicuous by his absence in his works! Ackroyd asserts this himself and thus nullifies his entire effort, in one fell swoop. (if you detect a contradiction in the review here, it is intended to show the same contradiction apparent in the book)

In addition Ackroyd is known to present speculation as concluded fact and reader has to keep his guard up throughout the book, which is very tiring to be honest, and not quite worth the effort.

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Posted by on May 22, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Arthashastra: The Science Of Good Governance

The ArthashastraThe Arthashastra by Kautilya

My Rating★★★★★

THE SCIENCE OF GOOD GOVERNANCE

The Arthashastra is the most comprehensive treatise of statecraft of classical times, and perhaps of all time.

The Arthashastra is written mainly in prose but also incorporates 380 shlokas, which adds a vital poetic flourish to this otherwise down-to-earth classic. The text of this extraordinarily detailed manual contains fifteen books which cover numerous topics viz., the King; a complete code of law; foreign policy; secret services; civic responsibilities, and so on.

In trying to understand Kautilya‘s analysis, we have to keep in mind the fact that in the Kautilyan view, the king encapsulates all the constituents of a state, he has expounded the theory in terms of the king – any king. In other words, what Kautilya calls the ‘interest of the king’ would nowadays be termed ‘National Interest’.

A Note About The Translation

This translation by Rangarajan is a good reference book if you are coming back to Arthashastra for reference, but not particularly good for a first reading. It is too well catalogued and too practical for that. The verses should be read in the order Kautilya arrayed them rather than in this re-arranged fashion that helps to make much better sense of it, but somehow takes away the spirit.

The translation also contains a useful Index of Verses (By Textual Order) — it is meant to assist in finding out in which Part and Section a particular verse of the text has been included.


The Branches Of Knowledge

Traditionally, in classical Indian texts, the four branches of knowledge are considered to be:

1) Philosophy,
2) The Three Vedas,
3) Economics, and
4) The Science of Government

Kautilya tells us that these are, indeed, the four fundamental branches of knowledge because one can know from these four branches of study all that is to be learnt about Dharma [spiritual welfare] and Artha [material well-being]. {1.2.8-9}

Artha, literally wealth, is thus one of four supreme aims prescribed by Classical Indian tradition. However, it has a much wider significance and the material well-being of individuals is just a part of it. The ‘Artha’ of Arthashastra is an all-embracing word with a variety of meanings.  In accordance with this, Kautilya’s Arthashastra maintains that the state or government of a country has a vital role to play in maintaining the material status of both the nation and its people.

The Arthashastra is thus ‘the science of politics’ with a significant part dedicated to the science of economics. It is the art of government in its widest sense — the maintenance of law and order as also of an efficient administrative machinery The subjects covered include: administration; law order and justice; taxation, revenue and expenditure; foreign policy; defense and war. Its three objectives follow one from the other: promotion of the welfare of the subjects leads to acquisition of wealth which, in turn, makes it possible to enlarge the territory by conquest.


The Instruction Manual

The Arthashastra is essentially a treatise on the art of government and is, by nature, instructional. It seeks to instruct all kings and is meant to be useful at all times wherever dharma is held to be pre­eminent. And because it is instructional, it is basis is the practice of government. The majority of the treatise is a Manual of Instruction for kings and officers of the state.

There are three distinct parts in this manual:

1. The Manual of Admi­nistration
describes the organization of the apparatus of the state and prescribes the duties and responsibilities of every key official, either for maintaining order or for collecting revenue. There are, naturally, parts devoted to budgetary control, enforcement of civil service dis­cipline and the public’s civic responsibility.

2. The Code of Law and Justice
covers both civil and criminal law and is, basically, a Penal Code; the extensive and graded penalties and fines prescribed in it have the twin aims of deterring transgressions and collecting revenue for the state.

3. The third part is a Manual of Foreign Policy, the pri­mary aim of which is acquisition of territory by conquest.

These three manuals correspond to the three objectives of the state – wealth, jus­tice and expansion — A stable and prosperous state, which only a just administration can secure, is a prerequisite for accumulation of wealth which is then used to augment the territory.

Justice —> Wealth —> Expansion —> More Wealth, and so on

… as long as Justice is not compromised. Which is why the prime focus of The Arthashastra is good administration that ensures the perpetuation of justice and posterity in the kingdom.


Against Reductionist Arguments

Before we move on, we should face the unfortunate fact that both Kautilya the author and his masterwork the Arthashastra are much misunderstood. Popularly known as Chanakya, he is maligned and often ridiculed as a teacher of unethical, not to say immoral, practices and as an advocate of the theory that ‘the ends justify the means.’ ‘Chanakyan’ has entered Indian vocabulary as the equivalent of ‘Machiavellian’.

Most people know little of what Kautilya actually said in the Arthashastra. The only thing they can recall is the superficial aspects of the ‘mandala’ theory, based on the principles: ‘Every neighboring state is an enemy and the enemy’s enemy is a friend.’ This is, no doubt, almost always valid. Nevertheless, to reduce Kautilya’s theory on foreign policy to just these two observations is to do him a grave injus­tice. Indeed, the theory deals with not just three states, but with a twelve. Here is a sample of how much more nuanced that simple understanding could be, with a little effort:

This popular view is not only simplistic but untrue. A through reading of the treatise is required to appreciate the range and depth of the Arthashastra. It is a pioneering work on statecraft in all its aspects, written at least one thousand five hundred years ago.

Even the condemnation of Kautilya as an unethi­cal teacher and the equivalence established with Machiavelli (itself based on gravely erroneous conception of that great master!) is based on ignorance of his work.

Kautilya’s is always a sane, moderate and balanced view. He placed great emphasis on the welfare of the people. His practical advice is rooted in dharma. But, as a teacher of practical statecraft, he advocated unethical methods in the furtherance of national interest, but always with very strict qualification. But these are often ignored or just plain unknown to the majority.

Just as Kautilya’s important qualifications to his advocacy of unethical methods is often ignored, so is the voluminous evidence in the Arthashastra of his emphasis on welfare, not only of human beings but also of animals. Welfare in the Arthashastra is not just an abstract concept. It covers maintenance of social order, increasing economic activity, protection of livelihood, protection of the weaker sections of the population, prevention of harassment of the subjects, consumer protection and even welfare of slaves and prisoners.

In short, the Arthashastra is a mixture of both what we applaud today and what we consider to be reprehensible. Kautilya has a great deal to say about civic responsibility; the obligation of every householder to take precautions against fire is mentioned; so is a prohibition on cutting trees in public parks. Consumer protection and vigilance against ex­ploitation of the people by government servants are aspects which we consider good. Equally, some of Kautilya’s suggestions will be seen by us as unethical. What is essential is that we understand both aspects and use them to learn history as well as to apply to the modern situations.


The Kautilyan Conception of The State

Dr. Kangle, in his magisterial work on Kautilya, notes that ‘the kind of state control over the economy Arthashastra presupposes is not possible without an efficient administra­tion. We, therefore, find in it a description of an elaborate administra­tive machinery.’

A ruler’s duties in the internal administration of the country are three-fold: raksha or protection of the state from external aggression, palana or maintenance of law and order within the state, and yoga­kshema or safeguarding the welfare of the people. These duties also meant that the King needed an elaborate support system.

The highly centralized Kautilyan state was to be regulated by an elaborate and intricate system as laid out by Kautilya. While at first glance we might think that this high centralization is repulsive, we should also appreciate the difficulties of the time. Most of the empires of the world relied on tight centralization to ensure some degree of success. Also, in Kautilya’s eyes, everything was in the service of one goal: Justice.

The extensive responsibilities of the state for promoting economic wellbeing and preserving law and order demand an equally extensive administrative machinery.  Any text on Arthashastra thus has to contain details of the organization of the civil service as well as the duties and responsibilities of individual officials.

Thus we can see how The Arthashastra was bound to be an elaborate manual that dealt with every minute aspect of administration and daily life.

The Arthashastra is a through discussion on the science of living, along with being a valuable historical document on the conduct of administration. It is thus supremely valuable for the historian but also for a modern political scientist or sociologist or economist or administrator.


A Modern Kautilya

All this shows us how close to modern life and administration the Kautilyan ideas come. Reading ancient books is the best way to rid ourselves of modernist fantasies — except for communication and transport, in the basic institutions, we are still where we were. and it is these two things (advance in communication & transport) that has made our institutions slightly more efficient, but also a lot more complex and thus just as bad at dealing with real things, while giving the illusion of a lot of activity.

The same thing can be said of the role of technology in daily life as well. We can get more things done because we can, but precisely because we can, there are always more things to do.

The Red Queen’s laugh reverberates through our modern lives and modern states.


Reality And The Ideal

The picture of the ideal Kautilyan state that emerges from our discussion above is one of a well-run state, prosperous and bustling with activity. But if we are to comprehend clearly Kautilya’s teachings and apply them judiciously to the modern world, we also have to be aware of the essential characteristics of the work. The treatise is about an ideal state – not that such a state actually ever existed or is even likely to exist now or in the future. To the extent any of the six constituent elements of a state – the ruler, the ministers, the urban and the rural population, the economic power and the military might – differ from the ideals Kautilya has set out, to that extent the advice given by him has to be modified.

I cannot imagine that much would change if a modern Kautilya were to write an Arthashastra today, except that he would have a broader, faster reach, and a better chance of enforcing things. But the basics of what he wants to do would not change much, nor would the how, only the means/instruments of effecting them would be easier., But unless those means are not available to the people, their range also increases, and hence real control would remain as difficult today as it was then.


The Illusion of Governance?

This realization should lead us to wonder why Kautilya attempted such an elaborately and minutely planned state architecture — we should consider the possibility that perhaps this level of intrusion into daily life was required, at least at the planning level, precisely because real control was so impossibly difficult? Maybe the Plan was needed for any semblance of governance? This reminds me strongly of Kafka’s Castle administration and their reliance on the awe of the villagers. Maybe the illusion of minute micro-managed and all-pervasive governance can cover up for the inability to really govern?

Isn’t it the same today?


The Best in the Market

We have seen that the Arthashastra is an exhaustive and detailed inventory of everything a state should do and everything every minor official should do. A more detailed secular constitution of governance and daily life cannot be imagined. With this legacy, it is no wonder that the much less ambitious Indian Constitution is still the longest in the world, the most detailed and most concerned with trying to micro manage the nuts and bolts of administration.

We have also seen how the problems that Kautilya tried to tackle are more or less the same as what modern states fail spectacularly at, even when aided by more gee-whiz technology. And this immutability of problems and of solutions is precisely why the level of detail that Kautilya goes into is still valuable for government officials, administrators and citizens.

A better guidebook has not hit the market yet.

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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