Let’s talk about The Lunatic, The Lover, and The Poet by Myrlin A. Hermes, because this book blew my mind. Be warned there may be SPOILERS in this post.
I learned about it from this post:
I couldn’t get it out of my head. Books that have well-rounded bisexual characters are few and far between anyway, and this novel’s locating its 2011 Lambda Literary Award-winning bisexual character within an exceedingly thorough re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet made this a must-have inside my greedy little brain.
Hermes gives us a love triangle between Hamlet, Horatio, and her original character Adriane, Baroness of Maricourt. It’s not a love vee, in which Hamlet and Horatio are each separately in love with Adriane. Horatio is in love with Hamlet, Hamlet is in love with Horatio, Horatio is also in love with Adriane, and Adriane is using them both in an intricate chess game for her own literary and personal ends.
Adriane. Oh, Adriane. She’s a difficult woman, and she tries extremely hard to turn Hamlet and Horatio against each other (at the same time she’s trying to make their love immortal in poetry), but you can’t end up hating her. Like Lady Macbeth before her, she has to do what a woman has to do for her ambition’s sake. Unlike Lady Macbeth, she won’t have to live to regret it, and she won’t be punished by the author for it.
Recognizable lines from Macbeth are woven into the dialogue and narration of this novel, as are lines from a number of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets and other plays. Sometimes they’re consciously created by the characters as they’re creating art within the context of the novel, and sometimes they come up in more organic ways from the plot. Sometimes Shakespeare feeds Myrlin A. Hermes a straight line and she turns it into a dirty joke, in the same way that Shakespeare plays with his characters.
That’s some of the beauty and brilliance of Hermes’ writing. Although it’s written in prose, the whole thing feels like poetry in blank verse. This is astounding work.
Ophelia still gets the short end of the stick, alas.* She doesn’t drown, and she does live long enough to marry Hamlet and become Denmark’s queen. She even produces an heir, although the little boy dies from an accidental wound. It’s implied he may have hemophilia, which of course is something that historically affected the real royal houses of Europe, after too many centuries of intermarriage between cousins.
Incest is a creeping theme throughout the novel. Hamlet is rumored to have an incestuous relationship with his own mother, although Hermes never gives the reader any reason to believe this is true. Gertrude is certainly unsure which brother is Hamlet’s biological father – Hamlet the Elder or Claudius – although this doesn’t make any genetic difference, since they’re identical twins. The cheeky undertaker at the end of the novel tells Horatio, in unnecessarily vague terms, that the king is marrying his sister – what he means is that King Claudius is marrying his sister-in-law.
Yet it may actually be the case when Hamlet marries Ophelia that he is marrying his own half-sister. A small portion of this novel is told by Polonius talking to Laertes. Polonius – whose name literally means that he is a Polish guy – tells his son that he, Polonius, was a minor prince in his native land, although he was the youngest son who was never going to inherit any kind of throne. When Hamlet the Elder conquered Poland, not only did his men kill all of Polonius’s older brothers on the battlefield, but Hamlet the Elder also took Polonius’s wife, Aphelia. Polonius and Aphelia were married but, because she was still a young teenager, their marriage wasn’t consummated. Aphelia became Hamlet’s concubine, and it’s possible Laertes and his sister Ophelia are both Hamlet the Elder’s biological children.
Hamlet the Younger marrying his bio sister? Sounds like an acting job for Benedict Cumberbatch, who has both played Hamlet on stage and, as a character in the film version of August: Osage County, has unknowingly had a sexual affair with probable his half sister. (And not even in a bad way. Ivy and Little Charles and two of the only humane characters in that grim Tracy Letts play. ‘Tis pity they are whores*.)
Someday I’ll discover why Letts keeps setting his plays in the Plains States, which he is from and seems to hate.
Hamlet isn’t my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies – I understand and enjoy Macbeth better. (I recently saw the 2015 film adaptation with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. I thought she was gorgeous and brilliant as Lady Macbeth, but I didn’t want Duncan to die, not only because he doesn’t deserve it but also because he was David Thewlis, the actor who played Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies. I still have issues with Remus and Tonks’ sad deaths.) That said, I found myself heavily invested in the romantic relationship between Hamlet and Horatio. I’m glad they got to be together long after Ophelia’s unprocessed grief over her child’s death sent her to a nunnery for long-term mental health care.
At first Horatio is conflicted about his own bisexuality. He’s wildly attracted to Hamlet when Hamlet dresses as a female character in the play Horatio has written, but rejects Hamlet’s amorous advances out of deference to his upbringing in the church, even though Horatio is not a religious man. Later, when he believes Hamlet has drugged them both with belladonna and intends to kill them both, sex becomes a lifeline for them. Horatio eventually has to admit he loves Adriane physically, but the lifelong commitment of his heart he reserves exclusively for the Danish prince. Lady Adriane is Horatio’s first love, but Hamlet is his true love. Hamlet, surprisingly (for he is infamously fickle with Ophelia, including in this version), reciprocates the depth of Horatio’s feeling.
Get that: They are two bisexual men who commit themselves to each other, and neither one of them has to be killed off violently and tragically. See, TV? Writers can do that. It’s possible to let same-sex lovers grow old together and die of natural causes.
This is a beautiful, poetic, and sexy book, with complicated characters we think we know exposed from entirely new angles.
The titular allusion, by the way, is to a line spoken by Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
*That’s supposed to be remedied in a film starring the English actress Daisy Ridley, who stars in the most recently released Star Wars film.
*I'm not really judging them. That’s me showing off that I know the plot of the 17th-century John Ford play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore includes a brother-sister pair who commit intentional incest. In August: Osage County, only Ivy knows her cousin is probably also her brother.
John Ford is probably not related to Ford Madox Ford, the English poet, novelist, and critic who wrote Parade’s End, a novel series turned into a Downton Abbey-esque drama for British television. The protagonist, Christopher (“Chrissie”) Tietjans, marries a monumentally inconsiderate woman who is pregnant with a child that may or may not be his, then falls in love with a saucy Women’s Suffragist. It’s an Edwardian disaster and possibly semi-autobiographical. I’ve been watching it in small doses.
Because Benedict Cumberbatch.