Pnininizing Hamlet: Nabokov & Shakespeare in the Park

By Rachel Wagner

And just at the top of the fifth act with Ophelia acting all crazy singing and sobbing and slopping all over the floor, they yell cut. HOLD. And everyone stops. Ophelia stays glued to her seat, leaned back mid-writhing. The voice on the intercom says the lightning is back so they have to stop the show. Grey clouds threatened from above the open air theater off and on all night. Immediately I’m like, damn now I have to explain the whole ending to my eight-year-old who was dying to see what would happen. I also thought of the people a few rows back who screamed out in shock when Hamlet stabbed Polonius through the curtain. This was some people’s first time and they were getting a very alternative ending.

It was a rainy morning but it looked like it was going to clear up, so I ventured out early in the morning to go sit in Central Park to wait for free Shakespeare in the Park tickets. I laid in the grass on a hoodie with Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. I don’t know what made me pick up that book except that I knew I had it and didn’t really understand it the first time around years ago. It begins with Pnin, an oddball Russian professor, getting on the wrong train, as I almost just did. The track in Newark switched but I just stood there unknowingly until someone who worked told me it moved. So I hurried over there and continued on. No other problems getting there. I was at the front of the line for tickets. Only about 20 people were ahead of me which is unheard of at 9am, but okay. It was a beautiful day after the rain cleared. Sunny, warm. Only drops of water occasionally dripped on me from leaves above. I had time to eat and drink and go back to Jersey to get my son and come back to New York in time to walk around the park before the show started.

Pnin’s initial trip also works out just fine. He gets his luggage back and makes it to his lecture after all. The narrative, a doctor who has known him since childhood, comments on how anti-climactic it was:

Some people—and I am one of them—hate happy endings. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above a cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival to Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next. Actually, however he not only arrived safely but was in time for dinner. (25-6)

It is suspicious when things right themselves like that. In this novel, complete tragedy is withheld. Pnin carries on with his day not even knowing he’s being watched by the narrator—or being made fun of by others in throughout the story. He has a big body, small legs. Particular with historical accuracy. Interested in exact language. Super strong accent. People act like he’s lame for being, I don’t know, too Russian. But you read about him and love him. Well I do.

That’s how I felt about Hamlet later that night too. He’s a younger guy on a quest to right the wrongs in his life. He needs to avenge his father’s death even though everyone else wants to just move on. Hamlet walks in his purpose despite this judgement from others. His pain is palpable and people don’t feel him. I think that’s true of Pnin too. They don’t see him as cool and American so he’s just a caricature to them. Meanwhile, he’s having panic attacks and emotional moments that make you wish it would rain. Like when his dumbass ex-wife comes around looking for him to give her son some financial support after all the BS she did (leave him, get pregnant, come back, then leave him again while pregnant). After she leaves, “Pnin, his head on his arm, started to beat the table with him loosely clenched fist. ‘I haf nofing,’ wailed Pnin between loud, damp, sniffs, ‘I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!’” (61).

The dishwashing scene is the other one that comes to mind. This is right after a party he hosts. Pnin just learned he would be fired after teaching for years and almost buying a house in town after years of being on the move from country to country, school to school. The guy tells him the news and leaves. Pnin goes in the kitchen, methodically does the dishes and you’re like, dude how are you doing a mundane task right now? Then he sits down to write a letter, “‘Dear Hagen,’ he wrote in his clear firm hand, ‘permit me to recapitulate (crossed out) recapitulate the conversation we had tonight. It, I must confess, someone astonished me. If I had the honor to correctly understand you, you said —’” (173). God, I’ve been there. The repetition. The misunderstanding. He is crushed, still seeking clarification, certainty, reality. I feel him.

This was my first time watching Hamlet in real life. I’d read it a few times in college and taught it a couple times and tutored papers about it. I always loved how over the top Hamlet is. Cloaked in black, yelling at a ghost, jumping in graves. Him and his girlfriend Ophelia are both so extra. And Shakespeare’s words are so delicious. I lay alone on the grass pleased knowing that ten hours later I’d be experiencing them. I have a similar feeling with Nabokov’s writing, where you have to read every word to really know what’s going on. Nabokov’s use of English is insane. Tightly packed phrases, clever lines. I almost like reading Shakespeare better because I can appreciate the words more. Watching a performance of his is like go go go. “Foolish prating knave,” “Bloody bawdy villain.” Great phrases like those come and go.

Wording was something especially important to Pnin. Don’t say it’s unknown what day Anna Karenin begins around him because Pnin read close enough into the words on the newspaper to know. He even recalls Hamlet in the book right at a moment when I was sitting there waiting for tickets. Anyway Pnin is doing research in the library one night, copying down a section about a pagan ritual. In it, women made wreathes and eventually floated down a river with them doing some chanting. It takes him a page, but he remembers finally what it sounded like: the scene in Hamlet with Ophelia dying in the river. This translation from Russian to English is what he remembers:

                        … plila I pela, pela i plila…

                        … she floated and she sang, she sang and floated… (Nabokov 79)

As someone who doesn’t know Russian, you can only look and imagine how those p’s would sound together. One can only imagine how the other line sounded too because we never got to this scene with Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, explaining Ophelia’s death. Either way, we never really see her in the river at all. We can only hear about it. Immediately the painting by John Everette Millais comes to mind. There is something romantic about floating away. That desire or heartbreak does make you feel otherworldly. Uniquely hurt, very there. And there is something musical about a river’s path—that you would want to join a body of water in that way.

In this version of the play, directed by Kenny Leon, Hamlet very literally embodies his dad’s ghost in the first act. A big voice on the speaker and a bright light act as the ghost. As he’s saying how his brother killed him, Hamlet is basically possessed by him during the speech. He lip-sings his lines, talking like a monster with the light flashing against his face and projecting the shadow of his profile onto the house behind him. When the ghost is done talking, the spirit jolts out of him, leaving Hamlet kind of out of breath on the floor for a second. It was awesome and had a nice mirror moment to that night’s end of the play. At the top of the fifth act, Ophelia is dealing with her father’s death and Hamlet’s meanness. She’s in front of us on stage writhing around spilling water and crawling through it. She’s grabbed and put on a chair. She’s leaning back almost seductively, almost spellbound, but it’s supposed to seem like she is just dreamy and crazy.

The abrupt stop to the show ends right there. Like this, the play is almost more about Ophelia’s relationship problems. Family all hovering over her, a guy being a dick. And at the end she has lost her mind over it (relate). Hamlet is banished, and everyone now wants her to move on. Don’t be in your feelings. Don’t be possessed by your hurt or someone else’s hurt. Be cool. But she can’t. She won’t. Then—hold! And then the embodiment of Ophelia leaves the actresses body and she gets up to walk backstage.

And my son and I travel back to Jersey in the pouring rain.

Rachel Wagner is a writer from New Jersey, currently living in Newark with her son. She teaches at Seton Hall University and runs an online bookstore called Ten Dollar Books. More of her work can be found at