Hamletmachine: Dramaturgy

Eleven Echoes of Autumn (1965) by George Crumb

Ancient Voices of Children (1970) by George Crumb

Black Angels (1970) by George Crumb, an American composer.

A 1977 German movie directed by Wolfgang Petersen, based on the 1975 novel by Swiss author Alexander Ziegler. The movie has a pederastic (adult-male/adolescent-boy relationship) theme. It has been called “one of the best ’70s gay dramas.”


"they string up a dozen henchmen of the rulers by their heels" (IV, 147-148)

"I string up my uniformed flesh by my own heels." (IV, 159)

Although Aaron C. Thomas discusses neither of his lines in his “Hamletmachine Glossary by Line Number,” I believe that they are both references to Oedipus.

A prophet warned Jocasta and Laius that their son was going to grow up to kill his father, so they pierced his ankles and exposed him on Mount Kithairon. The name Oedipus means “swollen foot.”

Exposure of infants was fairly standard practice in ancient Greece. By simply leaving the child - who technically has a chance of being rescued by a god or passerby - the parent is absolved of any murder.

Foundlings are common characters in Classical mythology. Romulus and Remus, for example, thrown into the Tiber River, raised by wolves, and then went on to found the city of Rome. These rescued infants tend to be the children of royalty (because almost all characters in Classical myth are either divine or royal). They are usually reunited with (and/or kill) their birth-family, and take up their rightful inheritance or throne. A foundling that survives can be taken as a clear example of divine will. That and the capacity for surprise make them useful and provocative mythological figures.

The piercing of Oedipus’ heels is what Mueller specifically references in these lines. This was not standard practice in ancient Greece. Piercing the heels of an already helpless and doomed newborn is overkill. I can’t remember exactly what classics scholars believe this symbolizes, but I also don’t think it’s something that anyone knows with any certainty. My feeling is that Jocasta pierces Oedipus’ heels in an attempt to ward off the curse on the infant. There’s some sense that by restricting the infants ability to walk, one can restrict the power and range of the malicious spirit it might become. It is also a nice plot device, allowing Oedipus to be recognized later.

In lines 147-148, in his depiction of the revolution, Mueller describes the mob stringing up the secret police by their heels. This image may be emphasizing the complete role reversal between mob and rulers. The rulers are now infants not healthy enough to be allowed to live; pretty much the least powerful person imaginable.

In line 159, still during the revolution, The Actor Playing Hamlet (who seems to be a policeman) stringing himself up by his heels. This is part of section in which he switches roles or points of view - between mob and police - several times, but in this sentence he is in both groups simultaneously. He humiliate’s himself, he reduces himself to the status of a deformed newborn. If we buy that this is an Oedipus reference, however, TAPH is also guaranteeing himself a future of greatness and/or fame and/or a terrible destiny (like the adult Oediups).

Now that I think about it, these lines may also be suggesting the image of hunters tying the heels of their game over branchs to transport them. This gives the Hamletmachine references an added dimension of cannibalism and genocide. It’s possible that Mueller is only evoking this meaning, but I doubt it. I don’t think a playwright with his interest in academia coul write a line about stringing people up by their heels without hearing a reference to Oedipus. Even if it isn’t the forefront meaning of the sentence, it doesn’t contradict the meaning either.

The scherzo from Hans Werner Henze’s “Symphoney No. 10.” Henze is a German composer born in 1926, best known for “his consistent cultivation of music for the theatre throughout his life” (according to Guy Rickards). He began composing around 1945.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Sympony 5 Movement 2.” One of Shostakovich’s most popular works.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Scherzo from “Prelude and Scherzo.” Shostakovich, a Russian composer, died in 1975, two years before Heiner Mueller published Hamletmachine. His music is characterized by sharp contrasts and elements of the grotesque.

Line 63 (weird tenses)

"I knew you’re an actor. I am too, I’m playing Hamlet."

= “I knew (simple past tense) you are (present) an actor. I am (present) too, I am playing (present progressive) Hamlet.”
- present progressive: expresses incomplete action in progress; non-habitual

The first sentence should be: “I knew you were an actor” or “I know you are an actor.” Even though “were” in the first sentence is in the past tense, the sentence still allows for Horatio Polonius to continue to be an actor in the present.

The original grammar of the first sentence implies that while Hamlet used to know that Horatio Polonius was an actor, he doesn’t anymore. This suggests that perhaps Hamlet and the actor playing Hamlet really see Horatio Polonius exclusively as the character (and not the actor) despite what he says.

The only difference between this and Denis Redmond’s translation is in the second sentence, which he renders as: “I play Hamlet.” This version implies that the actor plays Hamlet continuously and habitually over a long period of time (possibly forever). “I am playing” suggests that this role is a one time thing (which is the way a play that doesn’t have a years-long run works). German does not have a progressive present tense, so this difference is purely the choice of the translator; neither option is more correct than the other.

"Ich wusste, dass du ein Schauspielet bist. Ich bin es auch, ich spiele Hamlet."

"wusste" is the praeteritum (preterite/past) of the verb "wissen".
Wissen means “to know (a fact)”, as opposed to the verb “kennen”, which means “to be familiar with (a person, a subject”. The use of “wissen” here is typical.

The preterite is the simple past tense (simple here merely applies to the fact that it isn’t a compound verb form). Generally, the verb has a perfective aspect, meaning that it applies to a situation viewed as a complete whole. I the past tense, perfectiveness implies that the action is complete (non-habitual and non-continuous).

So, the German form of the first sentence is parallel to the translations. It supports the idea that Hamlet knew and no longer knows.

wissen = know, realize, tell, remember

-> “I realized you were an actor” “I remembered you were an actor”: Neither of these alternative translations are particularly enlightening.

Line 55

"Confidant of the my thoughts so full of blood/ since the morning is curtained by the empty sky."

Line 54 is clear.

Line 55: Is it possibly that he is simply evoking the image of a cloudless morning?

My knowledge of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is limited, but isn’t there a scene between Hamlet and Horatio after a night of watching for the ghost of Hamlet’s father? Perhaps he’s referencing the fact that the ghost hasn’t appeared or has disappeared.

"seit der Morgen/ verha[umlaut]ngt ist mit dem leeren Himmel"

"seit der Morgen" is just "since the morning"
verhangt = verhangen = v. overcast
leeren = v. empty, clear, drain
Himmel = n. heaven, sky, canopy, blue, roof-lining

For once the German is enlightening! The first definition of “Himmel” is “heaven,” not “sky.” So maybe Mueller is references not an empty sky but an empty heaven; a godless world. God could have been forgotten or abandoned by Hamlet and the people of his world, or perhaps God has abandoned them. Maybe the horrors depicted in Hamletmachine are evidence that God no longer cares about the world.