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Get Thee To A Nunnery!

Last night over pizza Romana at Forio’s La Tinaia, I had an engaging conversation with vacationing English writer Jeremy Trafford about his novel, “Ophelia,” which he explained is a “prelude” to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

He said that too many just blindly accept some of the play’s premises as valid, and they don’t bother to question the portrayal of Hamlet’s girlfriend, which in fact is rather sketchy. In the play she, of course, goes mad. But what led her to it? Shakespeare provides no real insight into the question or indeed to her character, and one of the purposes of his book, he said, is to fill in the blanks.

“Now, revenge is utterly immoral, there is simply no justification for it,” Jeremy said. “And here is Hamlet, thrown into a frenzy because he’s unable to bring himself to avenge the murder of his father. Shakespeare simply accepts the notion that the biblical ‘eye for an eye’ is moral. Which has always deeply troubled me.”

Jeremy read philosophy and history at Cambridge in the 60s, which explains his emphasis on the play’s moral dimension. I asked him how he handles Ophelia's father, Polonius, inasmuch as some interpretations present the character as a wise man, while in others he’s seen as a bumbling fool.

“I treat Polonius as a serious figure,” Jeremy said. “I don’t agree that he’s a buffoon. After all, how could such an important appointed court official, as he was, be entrusted with such great responsibility?”

“But wait,” I said. “I don’t find it at all surprising that a moron could be elevated to high office. Look at the current American president for God’s sake.”

Jeremy laughed. “Well, yes. But I still feel there is sufficient evidence to support my view of the man. Besides, it’s a novel!”

Is it written in Shakespearean style? “No,” Jeremy replied, it’s in standard English, but I have taken care to keep the language and scenes consisent with the period of the play. It's essentially a story of relationships. Between Hamlet and Ophelia, between Hamlet and his father, and between Man and whatever people may think of as their idea of God.

"Perhaps the central focus of the novel is Ophelia's love for two people - Svendborg and Hamlet. And then we have Hamlet, who is in love with Ophelia against his father's wishes. So one strand of the book is about Authority and the questioning of Authority. Obedience to the prevailing moral code versus the rights of the individual.”

We went on to discuss some of the versions of the play we’ve enjoyed. We spoke of Paul Scofield’s marvelous recordings, of Mel Gibson's effort, and the excellent film directed by Kenneth Branagh, who starred with Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams, and Kate Winslet.

“I love this production,” Jeremy said. “Most especially because it’s so rare. Not a single word has been cut!”

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Sounds like a fascinating book and conversation.

Several times during this meeting I thought how utterly GOOD it is being here!

The book sounds fabulous, the meeting of two writers in a cafe in Italy sounds marvelous. *sigh*

Indeed it was, and we'll resume the discussion when I see him again tomorrow...

And here is Hamlet, thrown into a frenzy because he’s unable to bring himself to avenge the murder of his father. Shakespeare simply accepts the notion that the biblical ‘eye for an eye.’ is moral. Which has always deeply troubled me.

One of the several different interpretations of the play, much accepted in the 1960's (particularly after the release of the 1963 Russian film version starring the extraordinary actor Innokenti Smoktunovsky), is that Hamlet was using the biblical "eye for an eye" as an instrument to achieve social justice. According to this interpretation, his uncle had the makings of a tyrant, a procto-dictator who, ultimately, had promoted a coup d'etat. Hamlet could then be understood as a revolutionary leader engaged in fighting a totalitarian regime. In order to achieve what he was striving for, he might have considered it a useful instrument, in the beginning at any rate, to let people think he wants "to bring himself to avenge the murder of his father."

I don't agree or disagree with this interpretation. What I like best about the great plays is that they can be read in a myriad of ways. Some time ago I chanced to see an article (in Vanity Fair, believe it or not!) about the great number of existing interpretations of Hamlet. Most of them I knew. But they were so many that there were quite a few that I had never heard of. Some were ludicrous (Hamlet being a crazy fag sadistically driving Ophelia mad out of contempt for not being able to consummate his burning desire for her brother? Give me a break!). Yet, there were several varying interpretations that sounded equally plausible. That's what I think is so exciting about plays.

I've got the name. Jeremy Trafford. Has Ophelia been published?. I'm going to check. I became very interested.

Yes, it has, and can be found on


I'll be seeing Jeremy tomorrow, and I'll pass on your comments. I'm sure he will appreciate them.

On the same subject - the bit about morality - that strikes a wrong note with me.

I mean, if Trafford admits that there's a "prevailing moral code" then how can it be "utterly immoral" to follow it? Furthermore, it's not the code of 'an eye for an eye' so much as the concept of masculine honour and filial devotion. Hamlet has to avenge his father's ghost because it's his father; this is made abundantly clear. WS is also pretty hot on 'restoring natural order' and so the removal of an usurper would fit in with that as well. It's simply not as lawless or biblical as it sounds above.

When I see Jeremy later today or tomorrow, I'll pass along your comments and maybe he'll want to respond.

Speaking for myself regarding prevailing moral codes, I think of the American south before the Civil War. In those days slavery was hardly ever questioned on moral grounds. I agree with Jeremy that revenge can't be justified. Also, as he says, he's writing a novel not a history!

I thought slavery was supported on moral grounds? It certainly was in Britain. One person's "moral" is another person's "immoral". Personally I agree with you and Jeremy; but still I don't think it's fair to hold Hamlet to the same ethics as oneself and to thus claim that it wasn't addressed in the play.

It sounds like a fascinating novel!

though pizza is cosidered an Italian food I thought it was bascially American.. does Italian pizza differ greatly from American pizza.. just curious!!

Oh, yes. Here are excerpts from an article in an English-language Italian website.

THE thing about Neapolitan pizza, one axiom goes, is that the higher the grade of the olive oil, the better the thread-count of the proprietor's clothes.

So while a new national law mandates what can authentically be called Neapolitan pizza, the legislation also exposes a deeper, ages-old rift about whether pizza is best served to the masses or the classes.

Italian pizza makers, politicians and the modern-day proletariat had set aside a century's worth of squabbling over tomatoes, basil, cheese and oil to focus on a larger topic that threatened them all: Neapolitan pizza was under attack, facing impostors worldwide.

As one local pizza maker, Alfonso Cucciniello, put it: "Everyone in the world is trying to do this type of pizza. In Japan, in China, in the United States, in Miami."

"Pizza with pineapples?" he asked. "That's a cake."

At the behest of the Association of Real Neapolitan Pizza, a group with 2,500 members worldwide, lawmakers and officials of the administration of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently acted to put some political weight behind an ancient dish made with green, red and white ingredients, the colors of the Italian flag. A law was passed in May. A nation of pizza makers gave thanks.

The European Union may follow suit. As the continent is homogenized, the new law is a marketing tool to brand Naples forever as the cradle of pizza. Pizzerias that serve the approved brand are now stamped official.

Then details of the new national standards slowly started to be digested.

Under them, the pizza

Under them, the pizza must be round, no more than 35 centimeters (13.8 inches) in diameter. The crust cannot be too high. The dough must be kneaded by hand. Only certain flour, salt and yeast can be used. Extra virgin olive oil is a must, as are tomatoes from the Mount Vesuvius region and bufala mozzarella. For cooking the classic pizza Margherita, only mozzarella from the southern Apennine Mountains is allowed.
* * *
Perhaps more than you wanted to know!

Oh, and one more thing. At La Tinaia, they follow all of the above and the pizza is baked in a stone oven that uses wood, not gas. I ordered a "Pizza Romana con doppio mozzerella e acciughe," which has double the cheese and anchovies. Mmmmmmmm. Molto bello e squisito

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I can not stand anchovies.. one of the few pizza toppings i really dislike!!



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