Deconstructing Layne Staley and… Hamlet?

Striking similarities! Kenneth Branagh in 1996’s Hamlet and Alice in Chains front man Layne Staley.

Staley

In 1993, Alice in Chain‘s magnum opus — Dirt — was released amid the other bellowing grunge albums of the era.  Lyrically it was a heavy album, in song after song front-man Layne Staley questioned existence and confronted his addiction, which consumed him until his death:

Into the flood again
Same old trip it was back then
So I made a big mistake
Try to see it once my way

-Would? Alice in Chains. Dirt.

Musically Jerry Cantrell’s guitar and Sean Kinney’s punctuating drums clarified the peaks in Staley’s singing:

Ain’t found a way to kill me yet
Eyes burn with stinging sweat
Seems every path leads me to nowhere

-Rooster. Alice in Chains. Dirt

Two years after Dirt was released, Alice in Chain’s introspection became more nuanced in their penultimate offering (of the Layne Staley era), Jar of Flies.  It’s a refreshingly quiet album considering the high pitch of not only Dirt, but the rock soundscape at the time, where derivative bands such as Stone Temple Pilots and Foo Fighters were leading the transition into the radio friendly post-grunge era.

Staley’s final album with the group was released in 1995 and the group appeared together one last time on MTV’s Unplugged.  Soon after, Layne Staley retreated into isolation and passed away in 2002 after years of substance abuse.

Hamlet

Thrust into circumstances beyond his control, Prince Hamlet reflects on his situation through a series of soliloquies interspersed throughout the play.  Here we see a series of arguments between life and death, action and inaction.  The intimacy and revelations in these moments are ineffable because Hamlet, much like Staley, is speaking directly to the audience and himself, not other characters in the play.

As Hamlet’s mother and uncle — who has murdered his father in order to enthrone himself as King of Denmark  —  attempt to console the young Hamlet, he immediately questions, like Staley, his mortality:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

-Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2

In Act III, Hamlet’s “love”, Ophelia, at the urging of her father — the King’s closest friend — confronts Hamlet and returns their letters and ‘remembrances’.  As he scorns her for this, I can’t help but think of Staley’s lyric:

Is she ready to know my frustration?
What she slippin’ inside, slow castration
I’m a riddle so strong, you can’t break me
Did she come here to try, try to take me?

Rain When I Die.  Alice in Chains.  Dirt.

Here we see a question and response within four lines of song lyrics…  To be, or not to be?  As we all know, Hamlet dies young along with most of the characters in the play.  He’s remembered, much like Staley, as seeking to find respite in the midst of unfortunate circumstances.  In Staley’s case it was self-inflicted, in Hamlet’s it was forced upon him.

But they were both, metaphorically, in a nutshell:

O God, I could be bounded in a

nutshell and count myself a king

of infinite space, were it not that

I have bad dreams.

-Hamlet

We chase misprinted lies
We face the path of time
And yet I fight
This battle all alone
No one to cry to
No place to call home

-Nutshell. Alice in Chains.  Jar of Flies.