In my senior year of college, I wrote, directed, and acted in an adaptation of Hamlet set to the music of Nine Inch Nails. After the final performance, while being grilled by my professors, I realized that, with no intention of doing so, I’d created a misogynistic piece of art. (For those of you unfamiliar with Shakespeare, there are two female roles in Hamlet: Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and Ophelia, his girlfriend. Neither of them fare terribly well in Shakespeare’s script). In my desire to keep the play’s story intact and get inside Hamlet’s head, I had consigned Getrude and Ophelia to their tropey fates and validated the tired Madonna/whore complex that Hamlet uses to reduce them to caricatures. This would have been understandable if I were staging a more traditional Hamlet. But somehow, even though I was bringing in projections and smoke machines and rewriting the entire script and replacing huge chunks of it with sordid industrial rock numbers, there was some part of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that was sacred to me, that I couldn’t bring myself to reshape or discard: the fundamental arc of its story. I was blind to two things at the time:
- That story uses the death of women as plot points to amplify the desires of men to kill each other, and if I was comitted 100% to telling that precise story, I could not escape that crappy trope, and
- If rearranging, recontextualizing, or completely destroying the plot of Shakespeare’s masterwork was going to offend anyone, I was probably going to lose those people right around my version of Act I Scene 2, where Claudius lip-synchs “Big Man With A Gun” accompanied by lasers and lots of gyrating pelvises. No one who remained would be upset if I gave the women more agency and depth.
So, yeah, that’s how I put about two years of mental energy and weeks and weeks of blood, sweat, and tears into a piece of art that betrayed my principles. All of which is to say, let’s talk about intent of the artist vs. message of the work.