Catching the conscience of a Kim
“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of a king”, says Hamlet, the eponymous Prince of Denmark in Shakespeare’s immortal play. In the 450th year since the ‘Bard’ was born, that appears to be part of a plan hatched by the Globe theatre.
Aptly enough, the Globe is embarking on a global tour – visiting every country to perform the tale of the tortured protagonist wrestling with how to avenge the murder of his father. One of the countries the Globe plans to visit is North Korea.
It hardly needs to be pointed out that there is a particular irony in visiting North Korea with a play in which the central plot involves a character plotting to kill his own uncle after his father was deposed.
Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, reportedly dispatched his own uncle in a most brutal fashion a few months ago. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet uses the device of performing a play to try to provoke a guilty reaction from his uncle and even calls the play-within-a-play ‘The Mousetrap’. The action and characters in that play mirror some of the events from the play Hamlet itself and, in turn, the suspicion and murder of Hamlet, the play here presumably mirrors the paranoia and brutality of Kim Jong-un – it’s one big prophetic circle.
Whether or not the Globe’s performance will prick the conscience of the North Korean leader remains to be seen – but I suspect not. There has been little sign of tortured morality from him so far.
Last week Kim Jong-un clinched his first parliamentary election with a mere 100% of the vote – a victory which reflects the “absolute support” of the people in the country, according to state media.
Then yesterday the UN’s report on the grim state of human rights in North Korea was presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. It documents the horrific conditions to which the population are subjected, including: mass malnutrition; the industrial-scale use of prison camps where people are starved, tortured or worked to death; and the complete isolation of the population who are left to suffer – the authors liken the country to Nazi Germany. The findings, however, were swiftly dismissed by China who said they found the report implausible. Hard to argue with that.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Front Row last week, the Globe’s Artistic Director, Dominic Dromgoole, defended the theatre’s plans to take the play to North Korea, saying that they hoped by putting it in the ‘air and ears’ of that country it might have a benevolent and civilising effect. Indeed it might. Amnesty never advocates boycotts and we are fully aware that North Korea is not the only rotten state on the Globe’s itinerary. But it’s our job to provide some context when it’s requested. This is what we said:
“If the Globe goes to North Korea, they should read up on the reality of the country before they get there.
“North Korea is a country where the horrors inflicted on people who fall out of favour are worse than any fiction.
“No tragic play could come close to the misery that the 100,000 people trapped in the country’s prison camps endure – where torture, rape, starvation and execution are everyday occurrences.
“There’s a dark irony in the fact that Hamlet focuses on a prince wrestling with his conscience. Kim Jong-un is no Hamlet. Sadly he shows no sign of wrestling with his.”
Shakespeare wrote the play for a paranoid and politically-repressive court at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, before James I came to the throne. It’s hardly the first time it would be subject to the censors, or the first time the performers would be aware of the tightrope they are walking between fact and fiction.
Hamlet is a play concerned not only with the personal torment of a nephew who suspects his uncle and mother of murder and incest, but it is very much a play about the state and its relationship to its leader. A great number of characters in Hamlet make an explicit connection between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of the nation with Denmark frequently described as a physical body made ill by moral corruption. In contrast Hamlet is a prince whose peace-loving nature makes him abhor the duty of bloodshed thrust upon him.
There are undoubtedly subtleties in the play that may well find an audience who are receptive to messages about the questioning of motivation and how one should be wary of obsessive suspicion. Who knows? Throughout history plays have been vehicles for provoking empathy and prompting radical thought. It might at first seem an absurdity to attempt to take a play which so closely relates to real-world events to a country so hostile and unpredictable. But then again – it might be the most sensible play to take - precisely for that reason. Perhaps, “though this be madness, yet there is method in't.”
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