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James Tadd Adcox's Denmark: Variations

Andrew Farkas

Denmark: Variations
James Tadd Adcox
Hem Press, 2023


illiam Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1601) is supposed to be a timeless investigation into human existence, a work that contains everything, a play so universal absolutely anyone can identify with at least parts of it. Granted, Tom Stoppard called some of this into question with his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966). For Stoppard, Hamlet is too much in control, too much the center of his world; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on the other hand, very much are not. The mere fact that Hamlet knows which questions to ask, even if he can’t answer them, proves he isn’t like us. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are called to do a job they don’t understand and are ill-equipped for, who don’t realize they’re minor characters in a play, who are (spoiler alert for either a fifty-eight year old play, or a 423 year old play) sentenced to death for no reason other than the fact that all people die, who don’t even know their own names (and by implication don’t really know their own identities), all of this proves they are very much like us.

After Stoppard, there was really only one question I had for Hamlet: why does he never examine the concept of revenge? Yes, he asks why there is something instead of nothing, why we should do something instead of nothing. But unlike the countless times that Law & Order brings up and dismisses revenge, it never crosses Hamlet’s mind. I consequently thought the only other direction I could take Shakespeare’s play in would be to write The Tragicomedy of Lennie Briscoe, Senior Detective of the New York City Police Department, a mash-up of the tragedy and the Law & Order episodes about revenge. When I was finished, I assumed, we’d be done with Hamlet.

Enter James Tadd Adcox.

In Denmark: Variations (Hem Press 2023), Adcox gives us copious examples of how to push on the outer boundaries of Hamlet so it can expand and expand accreting many, many concepts the original play and its playwright never could’ve imagined. Denmark: Variations, after all, is a collection of performance directions, manuscript preparations, and constraints that morph Shakespeare’s work into something quite different.

Some of my favorites: “Version of Hamlet in which the ghost is as goofy and artificial a ghost as possible: an old bed sheet, tag visible, with holes cut out for eyes, which the ghost is constantly adjusting, never quite able to get them to line up” (19); “Version of Hamlet in which the prince is old, fat, worn-out looking; the ghost, when it appears, is quite obviously several years younger than his son. We come to realize too much time has passed since the old king’s death” (69); “Version of Hamlet in which the prince refuses to take on the responsibility of his father’s revenge” (60); a version where Hamlet kills every single character the way he kills Polonius (46); a version where none of the characters are who they claim to be (11); and, perhaps my absolute favorite, a version where all of the non-Hamlet characters are played by corpses; when Hamlet dies, then he too is a corpse on top of whom (possibly) lands the lobbed corpse of Fortinbras (22). Via these constraints, Adcox transforms Denmark into a territory that can be explored anew, where the Dane and his crew are used to ponder more contemporary ideas of mental health, aging, the experience of literature, the production of literature (where an AI version of the Infinite Monkeys theorem appears), the experience of live performances (in theatres and many other spaces) and their echoes through the rest of our lives (the variation where Hamlet is retold by someone who doesn’t remember the original all that well is especially heartbreaking), violence, vengeance, gender identity, and so many other concepts we come to realize that whereas Shakespeare’s Denmark is vast, in far fewer words, Adcox creates a Borgesian space of the country.

If some of the variations sound impractical, undoable, however, the introduction to the book takes up that idea by offering the reader a purposefully perplexing koan: “Some of the variations that follow may appear to be impossible, whether for legal, moral, or pragmatic reasons. In such cases cast and director must ask: Do we will the impossible” (5)? In the fine tradition of Hamlet, how we interpret that question, rather than how we answer it is what’s important. Does willing the impossible mean to bring about that which is extremely difficult (as Harold Pinter did in writing scripts for supposedly unfilmable books)? Or does it mean that we shrink from challenges by declaring them unfeasible (that’s impossible, so I don’t have to think about it anymore)? Could it mean that we are drawn to the impossible, meaning we seek it out wherever we can? Might we cling to the notion of the impossible because we revere the original work too much and therefore refuse the idea that it could be expanded? And, finally (but not really), the ever-present paranoia when dealing with Zen: are there possible interpretations to this question I haven’t discovered yet?

If you find yourself wanting answers, needing guidance, there are endnotes that provide academic explanations (oh, glorious explanations!) at the back of the book. Of course, since instead of page numbers, each endnote has a kind of sigil that connects to nothing at all in the rest of the text, you are free to attach those explanations to anything you want, or to nothing, reading them as their own work. Much like a scholarly version of Raymond Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961), you can reread Denmark: Variations differently each time by reinterpreting the Zen-like question at the beginning, by attaching the endnotes to different passages, even sometimes to multiple passages.

Denmark: Variations is mind-blowing and hilarious, my two favorite artistic traits. In fact, it is so mind-blowing, so hilarious, that one can walk away feeling inadequate to continue on in the zone of literary art. But then Shakespeare and Hamlet have certainly made writers feel that way throughout time. The genius of Adcox, then, is not only producing such an awe-inspiring literary performance, but showing us how all texts can be expanded, how for him (and perhaps for you) the term “world-building” is far too small, too quaint. What Adcox gives us, then, and what we need, is universe-building—a space so enormous we can never truly exhaust it.

Now, go out and will the impossible however you see fit.


Andrew Farkas