There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Here we have it. The greatest play ever written. The single most famous line Shakespeare ever wrote. The most iconic and mistaken image in the history of theatre. Nothing is more recognisable as Shakespeare than Hamlet, and nothing is more “visually quoted” (if that’s an expression) than it – the skull, the dagger, the cemetery, the ruff collar, and the ghost of the father are all used as a sort of shorthand for both Shakespeare in particular and for theatre in general. Writing anything about this play is like trying to re-invent the wheel. I cannot pretend to say anything that hasn’t already been said, many times over, and throughout this project have dreaded the moment I must take on this particular play. It rather feels like I have climbed the mountain, and this is the top from which I can coast down.
King Hamlet of Denmark is dead, and his brother Claudius has assumed the throne and married his widow, Queen Gertrude. Left at a loose end is the late King’s son, moody, sulky teenage Prince Hamlet, who feels wronged by both his uncle and his mother, so soon remarried to her “brother”. Hamlet one night sees his father’s ghost, who reveals that he was murdered by Claudius. As the ghost fades away, it bids Hamlet to remember him, and so he goes on a quest to find out the truth about his father’s death.
He is feverish, as if he has become mad, consumed by this quest for revenge, and it does not go unnoticed – Claudius and Gertrude hire Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him, while Polonius, a lord and courtier to Claudius, blames Hamlet’s love to his daughter, Ophelia, for this madness. Hamlet himself is trying to make sense of the situation he is in – throughout the play he is almost incapable of taking action, as he is constantly stalled by his need to think through and over-analyse everything. weight the pros and cons.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.
A band of actors has come to Elsinore, and Hamlet asks for a particular play, inserting a speech written by himself into it, to bring out his uncle’s feelings of guilt. This plot works – the thinly disguised reenactment of King Hamlet’s murder unsettles Claudius, confirming his guilt to Hamlet. Afterwards Hamlet is called to talk to his mother, and he accuses her of infidelity, expressing his disgust at the thought of the Queen rolling in sweaty sheets with her dead husband’s brother. Polonius has come to eavesdrop on this conversation, and Hamlet accidentally stabs him through the curtain behind which he is hiding; when he realises that he has killed Polonius, Hamlet expresses genuine horror and regret for killing the man. During this meeting with Gertude, the King’s ghost appears to Hamlet again, reminding him of his mission of revenge.
Claudius knows he’s in danger by Hamlet, and decides to send him to England, out of his way. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern again are tasked with taking him there, and are given a letter they must deliver to the King of England – they don’t know it, but this letter contains instructions that Hamlet should be killed on arrival. Hamlet finds this letter and changes it to say that Rosencrantz and Guildernstern must be killed instead. Before any of this can happen though, their ship is captured by pirates (deus ex machina much?) and he escapes back to Denmark, leaving his companions to their fate.
Back in Elsinore, Ophelia has gone mad following her father’s death, and her brother Laertes has returned from France. Claudius spins the facts a bit, making Laertes to believe that Hamlet murdered Polonius on purpose, knowing that he will kill Hamlet. Ophelia drowns herself, inspiring all the pre-Raphaelites to go grab their brushes and paints.
On his way back to the court, Hamlet passes a cemetery and finds out about her death. He reveals himself to her funeral procession, and a grim denouement follows – Laertes duels Hamlet over Polonius’ death, unaware that Claudius has poisoned the edge of his sword. Gertrude drinks from Hamlet’s poisoned cup and dies. Hamlet and Laertes are both cut by the sword, and the dying Laertes reveals Claudius’ guilt, prompting Hamlet to kill his uncles before he too dies. As they all lie dead, the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras arrives, on his mission to purge Denmark of corruption.
There’s a whole book (heck, there are probably enough books to fill a library) called What happens in Hamlet?, and this is certainly one, if not the most complex of Shakespeare’s works. Hamlet is perhaps most closely related to Julius Caesar and Macbeth (even sharing such elements as a ghost); all three plays discuss power – who has it, who wants it, how it is achieved, and at what price/justification. Shakespeare vets the youthfully earnest prince with his acute sense of righteousness and desire for justice against the ruthless king Claudius, who has already proven that he will stop at nothing to achieve what he wants. Hamlet calls Denmark a prison, and there is a strong sense of isolation and claustrophobia here – there are guards and spies, people eavesdropping and watching, the system defending itself against the one element that could bring its demise, the rather unpredictable Prince Hamlet. Hamlet’s madness isn’t entirely convincing to me – it seems more the sort of a self-inflicted temporary insanity, a useful tool. It puts Claudius off guard and protects Hamlet.
Again, the historical context must be considered, the England in which Shakespeare lived and worked. Queen Elizabeth’s final years were marked by similar paranoia, her network of spies holding the nation in a dreadful sort of grip. Shakespeare wouldn’t have dared to criticise her openly, but the corrupt, rotten Denmark passes for a metaphor of the later Elizabethan rule.
There are two women in the play – Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, Hamlet’s one-time girlfriend. Laertes has warned his sister about investing her heart on Hamlet, and so Ophelia (who genuinely is in love with him) has pulled back a bit, with this act revealing cruelly that Hamlet indeed doesn’t return her feelings – he treats he with cold, mocking disdain, and (accidentally) kills her father, driving her into genuine madness and suicide. It is only after Hamlet discovers that she’s dead that he can summon genuine feeling for her, but pity and affection rather than romantic love.
If Hamlet’s relationship with his presumed fiancee is detached, it is the relationship he has with his mother that is juicy (or meaty) – Hamlet is usually seen as being obsessed with incestuous lust towards her, but I think an equally (if not more) pertinent reading is that he’s simply a son disgusted by his mother’s actions, and too blinded by grief/rage to see that Gertrude has made a choice that is politically perhaps the only wise one she could have given the situation – refusing Claudius would surely have come with a terrible price. We must remember that King Hamlet has been dead for only two months – most children would probably lose all respect for a parent who married so soon after their spouse’s death. Still, Gertude is a bit of shitty mother in her refusal to understand or acknowledge why her only son might be so offended by the situation, and in her general refusal to take his side. The obsession with Hamlet’s relationship with his mother (the whole obsession coming literally from one line (“in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love“) has often by the lead to comical castings – directors unable to digest the idea of an older woman still being sexually alluring have chosen actresses ridiculously close in age to Hamlet, sometimes even younger, to play her – for example, in Franco Zeffirelli’s film she’s played by Glenn Close, who is only 9 years older than Mel Gibson who played Hamlet, and in the 2015 Barbican production by Anastasia Hille, who is about ten years older than Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.
Is it any good?
As said, Hamlet tops almost every poll about the best Shakespeare play. The books and artwork created about it vastly outnumber the rest. It is the play that brings all the boys to the yard, so to speak. It hasn’t come to be in this position for nothing – it is all that, and then some.
What say thou?
Hamlet is full of famous quotes. Here’s a few:
Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
Listen to many, speak to a few.
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.
I must be cruel only to be kind; Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.
If we are true to ourselves, we can not be false to anyone.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
The rest, is silence.
The Devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape.
The Play’s the Thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice; Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Denmark’s a prison.
Frailty, thy name is woman.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
Murder most foul.
My favourite is Hamlet’s love letter to Ophelia, read by Polonius or occasionally by the girl herself). It expresses the ambiguity of his relationship with her – a poetic, beautiful start, quickly swindling into trying too hard to convince.
‘Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
‘O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to reckon my groans: but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
‘Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, HAMLET.’
There’s no contest really, tho I’ll name Queen Gertrude as the runner up because:
Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre’s production from 2014, with Maxine Peake as Hamlet – not as a female Hamlet but simply as a woman actor in the role. Peake as Hamlet works, but making Polonius a woman (“Polonia”) somehow less so, especially in the scene with Laertes; his voice is perhaps more specifically that of an older man. It is good, but not particularly exciting, being a bog-standard, minimalistic, modern-dress production with cursory props and no sets, instead relying on lights, sound effects and – on Peake’s part – highly physical acting.
Artwork: Featured image – Ophelia by John Everett Millais, Hamlet with the ghost of his father by Pedro Americo, Hamlet and Gertrude with the ghost of King Hamlet by Henry Fuseli, Ophelia by George Hughes and twice by John William Waterhouse.