Presenting . . .

the Guthrie's Final Production on Vineland Place . . .

Shakespeare's Hamlet

Here is the website for the Hamlet Study Guide!  Lots of great stuff!  Check it out!

Here are some pictures from rehearsals:

the costumes!

Hamlet       Hamlet


Polonius    Ophelia           

   Ghost        Gertrude         Claudius


In the spring of 2006 Hamlet will be the final Guthrie play to be performed on Vineland Place. It will mark the completion of a full circle: The closing night of this production will take place on May 7, 2006, 43 years to the date after the theater’s 1963 inauguration with Hamlet, directed by Tyrone Guthrie. 

Here are some pictures from past productions of Hamlet:

Tyrone Guthrie (center front) and George Grizzard (left front) in rehearsal for Hamlet, 1963.

Ellen Geer as Ophelia and Nick Coster as Laertes in Hamlet, 1963 (Marty Nordstrum).

George Grizzard as Hamlet and Jessica Tandy as Gertrude in Hamlet, 1963 (Marty Nordstrum).

Don R. Fallbeck as the Ghost and Randall Duk Kim as Hamlet in Hamlet, 1978 (Boyd Hagen).

Randall Duk Kim as Hamlet, Stephen Lang as Horatio and Oliver Cliff as the gravedigger in Hamlet, 1978 (Boyd Hagen).

Cast of Hamlet, 1988 (Michal Daniel).

Zeljko Ivanek as Hamlet and Julianne Moore as Ophelia in Hamlet, 1988 (Michal Daniel).

Julianne Moore as Ophelia, Curzon Dobell as Laertes and Richard S. Iglewski as Polonius in Hamlet, 1988 (Michal Daniel).

Read this very cool article!

Note reference to "serendipity" and Wally!

It Felt Serendipitous: A Conversation between Joe Dowling and Sheila Livingston

Editors’ Note. Director of Community Relationships Sheila Livingston sat down with Artistic Director Joe Dowling on November 28, 2005, to ask him a number of questions about the Guthrie’s upcoming production of Hamlet.

Sheila Livingston: I’ll start with the question that everyone is asking: why are you doing Hamlet as the last play on Vineland Place?

Joe Dowling: The flippant answer is because I didn’t want it to be the first play in the new building. I’ve wanted to do Hamlet for a long time but I didn’t have a sense of what I wanted to do with it. The idea of doing it here as the final show came together at the same time as I thought, “Well, I’m going to do it with a very young actor.” There’s a certain symmetry in allowing us to begin and end here with the same play. All that felt serendipitous. So it was the desire to do the play combined with what felt like a good opportunity to honor the founding of the theater.

SL: How are you going to do it? Where is the production set?

JD: We’re going to set it in the middle of the century in Europe, around 1948 or ’49. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to draw too many parallels with post-World War II. It will be contemporary but at the same time it doesn’t draw attention to things like cell phones and iPods. But I like the idea of making it modern, and it’s also a very elegant period. In that kind of period you have the opportunity to do a modern version but not to draw all those questions about why they didn’t just pick up the phone.


SL: The other thing you said was that you wanted to do it with a young Hamlet.

JD: The more I examined the play, the more difficult it became to think of somebody in his 30s playing it. Depending on what version of it you read, Hamlet is 30. But then there’s also an argument that it may be the Gravedigger who is 30 not Hamlet. It’s generally accepted that Hamlet is 30 in the play, but somebody in his 30s really would have a different lesson to teach us. When both Claudius and Gertrude say, “You know, Hamlet, parents die and you’ve got to get over it and you’ve got to get on with life,” it actually rings true. Whereas if it’s a very young person straight out of school, it absolutely accords with that sense of unease about the future when you are a young person left on your own to make choices. That sense of unease, the sense of how do I face the future, what kind of future will it be? Then of course comes the dreadful news that his uncle murdered his father. The play is the dilemma of a very young person trying to come to terms with huge life-and-death issues. He’s an extremely bright young man, clearly a very good student at Wittenberg, now facing the worst possible crisis. It’s no longer an academic issue, this matter of life and death. It’s an actual practical one that he has to deal with. It’s a different kind of dilemma to tackle these issues when you come face to face with them as a very young person. I’ve seen a number of productions where Hamlet is older, but it’s almost impossible to believe that at age 40 and so on that Hamlet wouldn’t have come to some other conclusions than the character does.

SL: Do you think that it is in fact because Hamlet is a young man struggling with issues we all face that Hamlet has become a universal play that endures so strongly through generation to generation?

JD: The play’s universality is because of that central character. He’s often noted for his procrastination, that he can’t make up his mind. But I think that what people also see in Hamlet is a very intelligent man, placing before himself a series of different options and not being able to decide among those options. How many of us deal with that kind of dilemma: there are these options, we can do this, we can go this way, we could do that, we could go that way. Somehow the tragedy of Hamlet is that he doesn’t have the capacity, because of his youth and inexperience, to make certain decisions. Another of the great universal things about Hamlet of course is the language of the play. People are familiar with the text – someone said long ago “Hamlet is full of quotes.” So many words and phrases that have become part of our common language started with this great play. People are intrigued by how Shakespeare works out big philosophical issues. How the characters interact with each other – mother-son, even the friendship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the terrible terrible doomed love affair with Ophelia – are seminal and parallel to people’s lives, even though not all of us are princes of Denmark and have the kind of life that Hamlet had.



SL: Your comment prompts me to remember that Linda Wallenberg, a teacher in Eden Prairie, encourages her students to buy a copy of Hamlet to keep all their lives. Even though the words on the page remain the same, they will be different at each time in their lives that they go back to it. Does that resonate with you?

JD: Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare wasn’t a writer for an age but for all time. No matter what Shakespeare play you do, you always find parallels with the present age, you always find something that resonates, either philosophically, politically or in terms of human relations, with the world around you. Shakespeare was and is the greatest living dramatist. Most people regard Shakespeare as a kind of classic writer; I think of him as a living writer. His plays live within whatever time you do them; they always feel immediate and fresh.

SL: How old were you when you first saw Hamlet?

JD: I first saw it at 8 years of age and was totally blown away. I saw it in Dublin with Cyril Cusack, who was a very distinguished actor. I can still remember it to this day, almost half a century later. I can remember the impact that it made. I went home after seeing it and for days after that I wouldn’t say “you,” I would only say “thou” and “thee.” I would say things to my brothers like, “Wilt thou pass me the salt,” which generally tended to get a thump. They didn’t appreciate the finer points of literary conversation. It was the first Shakespeare I ever saw, and then I saw The Tempest shortly after that at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. A lifelong love affair with the Bard started with that production. I worked with Cyril Cusack many years later – he played Shylock for me in The Merchant of Venice and we did a couple of other plays together – and I remember asking him about that production and saying it just changed my life. And he said, “Oh, I got such awful notices for that. Oh dear, I was just lambasted for that production, they all thought I was dreadful.” And I nearly fainted, I couldn’t believe it. So he gave me the reviews to read and he was right, he got terrible reviews.

SL: Would you recommend that children, say 8 years up, come to see Hamlet?

JD: Absolutely, it’s a great story! Apart from its great language and poetry, the images, the characters, it’s a great story. It’s got a lot of stuff in it that’s not just about the indecision of a monarch in waiting. It’s also a kind of adventure story.

SL: Should people read Hamlet before they come to see it or do you think they should just experience the play?

JD: I’m always in favor of people reading it in advance. Shakespeare’s hard if you’re just listening to it for the first time. Sometimes your ear doesn’t attune to the language, to the way in which he articulates things because some of the words have gone out of our vocabularies. It really does make sense for people to read the play in advance. There are also good movies out there that people could have a look at and then come and see ours.

SL: I know that teachers out there are really preparing their students to come and see it. I like the way you talk about all the various ingredients in the play – it’s a love story, about friends, good friends, insincere friends, family relations – all things that all of us actually go through. I’d like to go back to your choice of young actor Santino Fontana to play Hamlet. I imagine that’s a very rewarding choice for you in many ways.

JD: We made it very clear that we wanted a young actor, that there was a certain age range we were looking at. And there were a lot of other really good people around the country. But Santino had a vision and understanding of the role, he brought an intelligence to it, and he’s exactly the right age for what I was looking for. And he had the added advantage, as we finally made our assessment, of having come through the B.F.A. program here at the University of Minnesota. All things being equal, I would like to promote one of our graduates. The B.F.A. program is a very important part of who we are now over the last couple of years. There are four graduates of the B.F.A. program in Hamlet. We are serious about training young actors for the future of the Guthrie. We said when we started this program, that that what was it was about, and we’re putting our money where our mouth is.

SL: And in a way that is so powerful, I think, in making those kinds of choices, because once you choose your Hamlet, I imagine that really informs a lot of the other choices that you make in casting.

JD: I didn’t cast anything until Hamlet was cast. With a young Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude are younger, for instance. Polonius will be Peter Michael Goetz, who, of course, is part of Guthrie history and one of my favorite actors in the entire world. I’m very happy that Peter will be part of that last production, as will some of our most distinguished actors, like Sally Wingert, Isabell Monk O’Connor, Richard Iglewski, Richard Ooms, Nat Fuller and Steve Yoakam. They will all be part of this last production because they’ve given so much over the years to the Guthrie. So the combination of these people, whose lives have been bound up with this building and this organization, along with newcomers who’ve come through our program and others, of course, makes this kind of balance of a cast really exciting. It’s exciting to have that balance between the experienced and the new.

SL: In planning to talk to you today I did some reading myself and I never realized that Horatio has within his name “oratio,” the teller of stories. So when you talked in the very beginning about wanting to retell this wonderful story, I was struck by how at the end it does feel like the play will start again. What other parts of the play really grab you?

JD: The play within the play. “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”: the notion that theater by its very nature can actually make the guilty conscious of their crime or make people aware of their own humanity. It’s not just those guilty of crimes who find our common humanity in the theater. It’s true of Hamlet as it’s true of many of Shakespeare’s plays – that constant recognition of the power of theater to both change us and inform us. The play within a play has been done so many different ways. But no matter how often I see it or how many different ways it’s done, I find myself drawn to that notion that theater changes people. I am somebody who was changed by exposure to theater at a young age. It informed and created my life, and I believe it can do the same for others. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about educational work within theater because if you reach out to even one person in an audience and make them aware of the potential of their lives or make them understand some of the difficulties that they’re going through are shared and they’re not alone, you can actually have a huge impact on our world.

SL: I also want to ask you about your artistic team. Who will be working with you on this production and would you like to talk a little bit about your choices?

JD: Richard Hoover is going to design the set. Richard and I have done two shows together, Twelfth Night, which we set in the 1920s, and Death of a Salesman. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota, one of the original drama department people there. I think him a remarkable designer, and in Salesman particularly he found the heart of the play visually that helped us enormously to realize it, both here and in Dublin. He’s a fabulous designer and great person to work with. Paul Tazewell, the costume designer, is a kind of genius. He can create clothes that actors can wear and feel natural to them yet look magnificent. He’s just one of those rare artists who, when we get the opportunity to work with him, we take it. He’s someone whom our costume shop have come to love to work with because he’s so clear in what he wants and he knows how to inspire people. Matt Reinert will do the lights. Matt and I have worked together a number of times, most recently on As You Like It. I always look forward to working with him because he has lots of ideas.

SL: How do you think you’re going to feel on May 7, 2006, when they take the final curtain call on Vineland Place?

JD: I could ask you the same question. You’ve been associated with the theater for 36 years more than I! How people are going to feel about that last curtain call here is much bigger than just how I will personally feel. I suppose I will feel as I always do at the end of a show, a sense of sadness. But I will also feel a sense of completion and excitement that the first chapter, well, the first volume, of this theater’s history has been written with distinction. And because of the work that we’ve all done over the last number of years, there is a second volume that will be brighter and bigger and better. I think people who will come that night will have a sense that part of their lives is about to go away. But I hope people don’t feel that it’s the end of something, but rather that it’s the beginning of something else


 More Websites to visit about Shakespeare

 Folger Shakespeare Library

The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference

MIT Shakespeare – Complete Works Online

PBS Shakespeare Special

Royal Shakespeare Company, London

Shakespeare Online

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London

“Best of the Web” Websites on Shakespeare


 Some other cool quotes, articles, etc., from the Study Guide:

Famous People’s Quotations about Hamlet

Guthrie Study Guide 2006

Editors’ Note. In four centuries, the comments made about Hamlet are virtually without end. The following selection browses through a range of stimulating, contradictory, insightful and diverse viewpoints and ideas expressed about the play and its enduring vitality.

The tragedy of Hamlet is a coarse and barbarous piece, which would not be tolerated by the basest rabble in France or Italy. Hamlet goes mad in the second act, and his mistress goes mad in the third; the prince kills his mistress’s father, supposing him to be a rat, and the heroine throws herself in the river. Her grave is dug on the stage; gravediggers utter gibes appropriate to their calling, holding skulls in their hands; Prince Hamlet replies to their gross language with jests not less disgusting. During this time, one of the actors is conquering Poland. Hamlet, his mother, and his step-father tipple together on stage; people sing, squabble, fight among themselves and kill each other; one would think that this work was the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage.
Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire
From “Dissertation on Ancient and Modern Tragedy” (Introduction to his tragedy Semiramis), 1748

Of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears to be no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity. He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.
      Hamlet is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an agent. After he has, by the stratagem of the play, convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish him, and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet has no part in producing.
Dr. Samuel Johnson
From the Preface to his Edition of Shakespeare's Plays, 1765

To me it is clear that Shakespeare meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it. … A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds, and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils; is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his piece of mind.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
From Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1795-6

Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth, that action is the chief end of existence – that no facilities of intellect, however brilliant, can be considered valuable, or indeed otherwise than as misfortunes, if they withdraw us from, or render us repugnant to action, and lead us to think and think of doing until the time has elapsed when we can do anything effectually. In enforcing this moral truth, Shakespeare has shown the fullness and force of his powers: all that is amiable and excellent in nature is combined in Hamlet, with the exception of one quality. He is a man living in mediation, called upon to act by every motive human and divine, but the great object of his life is defeated by continually resolving to do, yet doing nothing but resolve.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
From The Lectures of 1811-12

And who can read this play without the profoundest emotion? And yet what is it but a colossal enigma? We love Hamlet even as we love ourselves. Yet consider his character, and where is either goodness or greatness? The tragic poet of course deals not with your good-boy characters. But neither is he, as Richard is, a hero, a man of mighty strength of mind. He is, according to his own admission, as ‘unlike Hercules’ as possible.
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
From “Byron and Shelley on the character of Hamlet,” an unsigned dialogue, 1830.

On the one side stand the Hamlets – reflective, conscientious, often all-comprehensive, but as often also useless and doomed to immobility; and on the other the half-crazy Don Quixotes, who help and influence mankind only to the extent that they see but a single point – often nonexistent in the form they see it. Unwillingly the questions arise: Must one really be a lunatic to believe in the truth? And must the mind that has obtained control of itself lose, therefore, all its power?
Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev
From Hamlet and Don Quixote, 1860

Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing “Oh my offense is rank” surpasses that commencing, “To be or not to be.” But pardon this small attempt at criticism
Abraham Lincoln
From a letter to James H. Hackett, August 17, 1863

We are all of us made out of the same stuff. In Falstaff there is something of Hamlet, in Hamlet there is not a little of Falstaff. The fat knight has his moods of melancholy, and the young prince his moments of coarse humour.
Oscar Wilde
From The Decay of Lying, 1889

The favourite theory’s somewhat like this:
Hamlet is idiotically sane
With lucid intervals of lunacy.
W. S. Gilbert
From Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, 1895

Hamlet is not a man in whom “common humanity” is raised by great vital energy to a heroic pitch. On the contrary, he is a man in whom the common personal passions are so superseded by wider and rarer interests, and so discouraged by a degree of critical self-consciousness which makes the practical efficiency of the instinctive man on the lower plane impossible to him, and he finds the duties dictated by conventional revenge and ambition as disagreeable a burden as commerce is to a poet.
George Bernard Shaw
From his comment on “Hamlet,” 1897

Had … plays been made to be seen, we should find them incomplete when we read them. Now no one will say that they find Hamlet dull or incomplete when they read it, yet there are many who will be sorry after witnessing a performance of the play, saying, “No that is not Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” … When no future addition can be made so as to better a work of art, it can be spoken of as “finished” – it is complete. Hamlet was finished – was complete – when Shakespeare wrote the last word of his blank verse.
Edward Gordon Craig
From The Art of the Theatre, the First Dialogue, 1905

Suppose you were to describe the plot of Hamlet to a person quite ignorant of the play, and suppose you were careful to tell your hearer nothing about Hamlet’s character, what impression would your sketch make on him? Would he not exclaim: “What a sensational story! Why, here are some eight violent deaths, not to speak of adultery, a ghost, a mad woman, and a fight in a grave! If I did not know that the play was Shakespeare’s, I should have thought it must have been one of those early tragedies of blood and horror from which he is said to have redeemed the stage?” And would he not then go on to ask: “But why in the world did not Hamlet obey the Ghost at once, and so save seven of those eight lives?” This exclamation and this question both show the same thing, that the whole story turns upon the peculiar character of the hero. For without this character the story would appear sensational and horrible; and yet the actual Hamlet … certainly has been the subject of more discussion, than any other in the whole literature of the world.
A. C. Bradley
From Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904

Few critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. And Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art. The kind of criticism that Goethe and Coleridge produced, in writing of Hamlet, is the most misleading kind possible. …
      The “madness” of Hamlet … is less than madness and more than feigned. [His] levity, his repetition of phrase, his puns, are not part of a deliberate plan of dissimulation, but a form of emotional relief. In the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action. The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known; it … often occurs in adolescence.
T.S. Eliot
From Hamlet and His Problems, 1919

There are some of us who would like to see “Hamlet” played ... freshly, who fairly yearn to see the sweet prince embodied by a young actor, a man in his thirties and unabashed by the memory and impress of Booth and Irving and Forbes-Roberston, ignorant of all the long accumulated trappings of interpretation with which the play by now is weighted down and swathed to suffocation. He would say, “Why, here’s a darned good role” and would be drawn to it for the spiritual wonder that is in it. He might not know what the phrase about “the mobled queen” meant, and it is just possible he would not care. ...
      The tragedy is, of course, the more moving if you realize that Hamlet is a young fellow, that, when he is summoned from school by his dear father’s death, not so many years have passed since Yorick bore him packaback about the halls of Elsinore. It is infinitely the more poignant if, from time to time, it is borne in upon you what a gay and charming Prince is that for whom – O, cursed spite! – the times are out of joint, what an insatiable curiosity, relish for life, and capacity for dalliance reveal themselves even in the hours of his greatest woe and irresolution. When you and Fortinbras look your last upon him, it must come over you with a rush that here lies one for whom Fate has perversely ruined and cut short a life that would have been most beautiful could it have gone its unmolested way at Wittenberg.
Alexander Woollcott
From “Second Thoughts on First Nights,” The New York Times, October 26, 1919

An eminent modern critic [J. Dover Wilson] is … certain that Hamlet was a “hero whom Shakespeare loved above all other creatures of his brain”; though to an objective reader what is certain is that, in so far as Shakespeare was capable of love – a fascinating topic in itself – he loved Claudius and Polonius, indeed Osric, exactly as much as he did Hamlet.
Salvador de Madariaga
From On Hamlet, 1948

The first thing that strikes us, or should strike us, when we contemplate the play is that it ends in complete destruction. … Are these disasters casual by-products of ‘the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind’? Or are they necessary parts of a firm structure?
      Time after time, either in some significant patterning or with some phrase pregnant with irony, [Shakespeare] makes us see that these people are partners in disaster, all of them borne down on the ‘massy wheel’ to ‘boisterous ruin.’
G.D.F. Kitto
From Form and Meaning in Drama, 1956

It is true that Shakespeare asks us to sympathize with Hamlet, but his greatness lies precisely in that he asks us to sympathize with every single man and woman in the play, not excluding the clown [gravedigger] in the churchyard. The historical fact to which we can turn is that Shakespeare did not invent the plot of Hamlet. He chose, presumably because it in some way appealed to his imagination, to remake an older play. And, although this older play no longer exists, there exist other plays on the same kind of subject. A study of these, … [may help] trying to understand the masterpiece which Shakespeare created in this genre. … The essence of any tragedy of revenge is that its hero has not created the situation in which he finds himself and out of which the tragedy arises.
Helen Gardner
From “The Historical Approach to Hamlet” in The Business of Criticism, 1959

Hamlet is … like a sponge. Unless produced in a stylized or antiquarian fashion, it immediately absorbs all the problems of our time. It is the strangest play ever written, … a great scenario, in which every character has a more or less tragic and cruel part to play, and has magnificent things to say. Every character has an irrevocable task to fulfill, a task imposed by the author.
Jan Kott
From Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 1964

His characters may express more highbrow views, notably Hamlet, but then Hamlet, unlike his creator, is both a minor poet and a university wit.
Northrop Frye
From A Natural Perspective, 1965

With both [gift and technique of a dramatist] he was able to create Hamlet, but – and this is my contention – he no more consciously planned this great piece of poetic, psychological, theatrical and philosophic design than a nightingale plans the melody, rhythm and color of those notes which ravish the summer darkness.
Tyrone Guthrie
From In Various Directions. Portraits, Tributes, Trends: a View of Theatre, 1965

Acted out in a confined world of rituals and conventions – court politics, revenge, a clock that records time always passing – the tragedy of Hamlet gives the deep if quizzical solace of all games and puzzles. Its hero, an undergraduate, … makes the work what it is, the world’s most sheerly entertaining tragedy, the cleverest, perhaps even the funniest. …
      The tragedy is, … self-evidently great. But this is not just because it is entertaining: or rather, it has managed to stay so for four hundred years because the human mind, which is entertainable in a large variety of ways, is always discovering ‘a hunger in itself to be more serious.’… Shakespeare’s tragedy matters. It means something.
      Hamlet is sometimes described as the first tragedy in Europe for two thousand years. The achievement perhaps owes something to Shakespeare’s unique mastery of ends hard not to state as opposites: the power to entertain and the power to mean. The bridging of the two in the writer’s work gives some sense of his giant reticent power of mind. … The tragedy seems to have been one of the world’s great successes, producing – we can tell from the profusion of admiring, amused and envious contemporary references, quotations and parodies – a kind of matching madness in its audiences. It may be that this was the response of human beings to a literary work that went deeper, not just entertainingly wider but truthful, deeper, than any aesthetic work of their experience: deep in a way that was slightly out of their control.
Barbara Everett
From “Hamlet: Growing” in London Review of Books, March 31, 1988

The play is huge: uncut, it is nearly four thousand lines, and it is rarely acted in its (more or less) complete form. … Hamlet appears too immense a consciousness for Hamlet; a revenge tragedy does not afford the scope for the leading Western representation of an intellectual. But Hamlet is scarcely the revenge tragedy that it only pretends to be. …
      Even at its darkest, Hamlet’s grief has something tentative in it. “Hesitant mourning” is almost an oxymoron; still, Hamlet’s quintessence is never to be wholly committed to any stance or attitude, any mission, or, indeed, to anything at all. His language reveals this throughout; no other character in all of literature changes his verbal decorum so rapidly.
Harold Bloom
From Shakespeare – The Invention of the Human, 1998

Although Hamlet is an extremely active, indeed feverishly energetic play, it does move forward slowly; notoriously, it is not only Hamlet but his play that delays. But in this respect also the movement of the play – or rather its variety of movements, sometimes speeding along, sometimes apparently dawdling – imitates and depends on the varying movements of the language. Indeed, the doubling in Hamlet can obviously be a means of slowing down the action as well as the language of the play, while all, paradoxically, remains, as it were, seething with sense and menace.
Frank Kermode
From Shakespeare’s Language, 2000

Watching or reading Hamlet for the first time or the twentieth, an observer cannot help being struck, I think, by how much of the play has passed into our common language. Indeed, as many commentators have observed, the experience of Hamlet is almost always that of recognition, of recalling, remembering, or identifying some already-known phrase or image. It could be said that in the context of modern culture – global culture as well as Anglophone culture – one never does encounter Hamlet “for the first time.”
Marjorie Garber
From Shakespeare After All, 2004

The crucial breakthrough in Hamlet did not involve developing new themes or learning how to construct a shapelier, tighter plot; it had to do rather with an intense representation of inwardness called forth by a new technique of radical excision. He had rethought how to put a tragedy together – specifically, he had rethought the amount of causal explanation a tragic plot needed to function effectively and the amount of explicit psychological rationale a character needed to be compelling. Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that has been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations. …
      With Hamlet, … the key is not simply the creation of opacity, for by itself that would only create a baffling or incoherent play. Rather, Shakespeare came increasingly to rely on the inward logic, the poetic coherence that his genius and his immensely hard work had long enabled him to confer on his plays. Tearing away the structure of superficial meanings, he fashioned an inner structure through the resonant echoing of key terms, the subtle development of images, the brilliant orchestration of scenes, the complex unfolding of ideas, the intertwining of parallel plots, the uncovering of psychological obsessions.
Stephen Greenblatt
From Will in the World, 2004

The purists insists that the less than perfect text of Hamlet is “corrupted” by actors’ reports or faulty shorthand reporting; and that the second edition was Shakespeare’s attempt to supplant a botched job. Other scholars believe that the first text was a version of Shakespeare’s early work, hasty and jejune as it may sometimes be, and that the second version is evidence of Shakespeare’s habit of revision. One image is of Shakespeare as perfectionist, producing more or less the orthodox canon of the plays as printed in “good” quartos. The other image is of Shakespeare in a continuous state of evolution, moving between early versions and revised versions, short versions and long versions. The latter alternative seems more plausible.
Peter Ackroyd
From Shakespeare: The Biography, 2005

There are moments in some older works that sound as if they had been written today – not just because the diction is contemporary but because the mind behind the dialogue seems struck with the thought patterns and emotional sets of our day. This happens from time to time in Hamlet, especially in the prince’s lines. Obviously I don’t imply that occasionally Shakespeare breaks free of Elizabethan shackles and writes something that sounds fresh. But now and then Hamlet has a line that slices in a contemporary way – in a key different from the magnificence of the rest of the play.
      Recall, first, that much of Hamlet is in prose, whose flexibility lends itself more readily to these verbal stabs. Observe, too, that the touches which may strike us as modern are almost always couched in wit – not always humorous but always the elixir of a sense of the ridiculous. As often as not, those lines are defensive-aggressive. Mark Van Doren says of Hamlet, “His repartee is pistol-swift, whipped out by one forever abnormally on guard against real or imagined enemies.” For all the profundities that Hamlet plumbs, he always has in him this nimble pungency. …
      The paradox that crowns this whole subject is that the “pistol-swift” lines … help to confirm the play’s tragic magnitude. Hamlet’s inky cloak shadows the play, but it is worth noting – yet again – that the greatest drama in the English language is not about a Faust, whose previous years have been spent on the periphery of life, but about a man brimming with all the experience possible at his age, with vital intelligence, with knowledge of human instability, who confronts his fate with everything at his command, including wit. And that wit has a timeless quality that our time and future times can call modern.
Stanley Kauffmann
From the “Hamlet’s Wit” posted on, Hunter College on-line theater review, November 2005

The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul
by Archibald I. Leyasmeyer - Part 1

Immediately after the Mousetrap performance, to catch the conscience of the rodent king, and the quick conversation with Horatio, Hamlet repeatedly calls, “Come, some music!” Instead, Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Earlier in the play, when they arrive at Elsinore, Gertrude comments, “Good gentlemen, he hath much talked of you, / And sure I am, two men there is not living / To whom he more adheres.” When Hamlet first greets them, he is joyous: “My excellent good friends! How dost thou, Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do you both?” But that was then, this is now. Things have changed. His friends are now complicit with Claudius, part of that ever larger company, directed by the King, who spy upon Hamlet, play with him, play upon him, try to seek out his secrets. In the third line of the play Francisco demands, “Stand and unfold [reveal] yourself.” In many ways this is the great challenge of the play—discovering the true essence under all the appearances, pretenses, costumes, masks, performances, deceptions. The reality, of course, is that the readily accommodating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, those eager to please innocents, looking to “receive such thanks / As fits a king’s remembrance,” sadly ignorant of just about every major development or motive, have easily sold out. Hamlet feels betrayed and is disgusted with them.

When the musicians finally arrive, Hamlet takes a recorder and offers it to Guildenstern, “Will you play upon this pipe?” “My lord, I cannot.” “I pray you.” “Believe me, I cannot.” “I pray you.” “Believe me, I cannot.” “I do beseech you.” “I know no touch of it, my lord.” “Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass,” Hamlet tells him. “’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.”

Enter the crafty and platitudinous Polonius. “My lord, the Queen would speak with you,” he announces, and then adds in an admonishing tone, “and presently.” Hamlet turns to him and asks, “Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in the shape of a camel?” In the Globe theater, open to the skies, Richard Burbage, playing Hamlet, undoubtedly pointed to the clouds above. “By th’ mass and ‘tis, like a camel indeed,” Polonius readily agrees. “Methinks it is like a weasel,” Hamlet responds. “It is backed like a weasel.” “Or like a whale.” “Very like a whale.” It is so easy to play with words and meanings, so hard to find out the essences and mysteries. Neither character knows that in just a few minutes Hamlet will kill the Lord Chamberlain, hiding behind the tapestry in the Queen’s private room, eagerly spying on the Prince. “How now? A rat?” Hamlet will shout, believing it is the King. “Dead for a ducat, dead!” As with clouds, so with Hamlet the play and Hamlet the Prince—always shifting, changing, full of contradictions, discontinuities, uncertainties. Hamlet is a majestic, intimidating and challenging iceberg play, vast, jagged, powerful, dangerous, reaching down to the depths of hidden mysteries. Often, the part that does not show matters the most.

A Shakespeare sonnet, a Hemingway short story, a Jane Austen novel—these are all self-contained, self-sufficient, complete, ready to engage with the reader. The text of a play, by contrast, is a challenging and inviting blueprint, waiting to be brought to life. A play like Hamlet, in fact, has a complex four-fold existence: text, productions and their history, critical commentary, and its extensive presence in our culture. On July 26, 1602, in an attempt to copyright the material, an entry was made in the Stationers’ Register, “A book called The Revenge of Hamlet Prince of Denmark as it was lately acted by the Lord Chamberlain his servants.” In Shakespeare’s day copyright protection was flimsy. Just a year later, 1603, appeared the Quarto 1 text of Hamlet, as played “by his Highness Servants in the City of London, as also in the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere.” Q 1 is clearly a pirated text, brief, mangled, sometimes incoherent, but it has numerous stage directions and some 240 lines which do not appear anywhere else. The general view is that the actor who played Marcellus (and some other minor parts) probably recreated the play from memory. A year later, 1604, Quarto 2 was published, “The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare.” It is twice as long as Q 1, and the title page affirms that this material is, “Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy.” It is quite likely that Q 2 was printed from Shakespeare’s manuscript in an attempt to establish a good text. After all, reputation matters. Unfortunately, the printer seems to have had trouble reading the handwriting, because all kinds of mistakes were made. And then the Folio of 1623 prints Hamlet with some 90 additional lines, but also cuts some 200 lines that appear in Q 2. Hamlet was a popular play, and it is likely that over the years it was both re-written and modified. The Folio text starts out with Actus Primus with three scenes, followed by Actus Secundus and Scena Secunda, and then rushes on in continuous action, speeding up, with no pauses or divisions, sharpening the juxtaposition of scenes, incidents, ironies.

Choices: From Text to Performance

We do not have a definite text of Hamlet, but rather different versions. Editors usually integrate the texts of Q 2 and the Folio, making adjustments and cleaning up the obvious mistakes. But ultimately, of course, with a play the performance matters more than the blueprint of a text. In a very real sense, each production of Hamlet gives us a different interpretation. The directors, concepts, emphases, and lead actors are different, and it matters whether the Prince is played by Kenneth Branagh, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Richard Burton, one of the many actresses from Sarah Siddons in 1775 to Sarah Bernhardt and beyond, or the notorious child actors of the 19th century. The fact is that Hamlet, or any other play for that matter, is created in performance. Shakespeare was an actor himself, and his plays have few stage directions since he was directly involved in the staging process. In reading a play we can avoid making decisions about interpretation, but for a performance decisions are made about every detail, every gesture. How do the characters look, move, speak? How are they dressed? In Shakespeare’s days it would have been contemporary clothing, as it was largely till the 19th century when it became fashionable to revert to earlier styles from the past. How is Hamlet to be staged today—Elizabethan costumes or modern dress, as a period piece or as a contemporary play? Or something in between? Critics can provide totally irreconcilable interpretations, but for a performance it cannot be a camel and a weasel and a whale. Choices have to be made.

Two examples. Polonius is often played as a foolish old man, sententious, pretentious, garrulous, celebrating clichés as great wisdom. Yet he is the Lord Chamberlain, quite successful and the King and Queen trust him, acknowledge his know-how, and honor him after his death by attending the awkward funeral of his daughter. He cannot be comically insignificant. In fact, he is also wily and smooth and powerful and mean and dangerous, a natural politician. He is the constant observer, the spy in love with spying, spying even on his own son and daughter. Hamlet calls him a “fishmonger,” for he is always fishing for secrets and information. He sends Reynaldo to Paris with money for Laertes, and detailed instructions on how to spy on him. Lie about him to his friends to see what reactions you get, Polonius tells Reynaldo, but don’t go too far so as not to dishonor him. Gaming is a good charge, “or drinking, fencing, swearing, quarreling, / Drabbing [whoring]. You may go so far.” “My lord, that would dishonor him,” exclaims Reynaldo. “Faith, no,” insists Polonius. He recognizes that things do get “a little soiled i’ th’ working,” but this “bait of falsehood” should lead to good information. “You have me, have you not?” he demands. Soon he tells the King that Hamlet “walks four hours together / Here in the lobby,” and that “At such a time I’ll loose my daughter to him. / Be you and I behind an arras then. / Mark the encounter.” It will be a reality play with an audience of voyeurs, as Polonius eagerly offers his young daughter as sexual bait. By the way, the language of “loose my daughter to him” is vile. It comes from farm animal breeding. So, how do you play Polonius?

Or, how do you play Ophelia, that tragically wasted flower girl, ultimately betrayed by father, brother, the young Hamlet, the man she loves? Of course, she is young, very young. She is obedient. “I shall obey my lord,” she tells her father. And later, “as you did command, / I did repel his letters and denied / His access to me,” just when Hamlet needs her most. But in the nunnery scene she lies to Hamlet about her father. How knowing and aware is she? Polonius calls her a “green girl,” and treats her as a child, but also uses her as bait. Is she naïve, pious, weak? In the 19th century beautiful Ophelia, with loose hair, white dress, flowers everywhere, becomes a celebrated poster girl for fascinating and exotic female madness. In the late 20th century some critics have seen her as quite a sensuous creature, sexually active, actually enjoying Hamlet’s wild Mousetrap behavior. We hear that Hamlet has reached out to her “In honorable fashion,” but in the recent Kenneth Branagh film, in the flashback scenes Hamlet and Ophelia are passionate lovers. How do we play her? And is her death a suicide or a sad accident? This is another mystery in this play of so many mysteries. What do we hint?

While all plays are shaped and sculpted for a production, with Hamlet we face an additional challenge—its length. It is Shakespeare’s longest play, almost 4,000 lines, twice as long as Macbeth, almost too long to be played in its entirety (five hours?), and thus, across the centuries, the full text has been cut, adapted, rewritten, often mutilated. Some have even wondered whether it was commonly acted full-length in Shakespeare’s own day. Today even the London National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company make cuts, and thus every such production becomes an abbreviated and reshaped Hamlet. Sometimes the shaping becomes overwhelmed by critical traditions (the melancholy, moping, romantic Hamlet of the 19th century, or Olivier’s 20th century Hamlet obsessed by Freudian Oedipal urges), sometimes by changing aesthetic tastes. In the 18th century Garrick eliminated the Gravediggers and Osric, the Claudius/Laertes plot, and Hamlet’s offing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Quite often the Fortinbras material is eliminated, the play ends with the “flights of angels” speech, and we lose the whole larger dimension of Denmark at risk, frantically preparing for war, facing an invasion. The basic fact is that as soon as even one cut is made, the play is being reshaped. To eliminate certain plot lines or material means to diminish the richness of the play; to trim throughout, means the loss of texture and complexity.

Hamlet is a dazzlingly vast play, with a swirl of characters – sentries, soldiers, scholars, lovers, princes and kings, murderers, spies, ambassadors, courtiers, actors, gravediggers, attendant lords, musicians, even a pirate, and, of course, an arrogantly insistent and rude ghost. We hear of 11th century Viking military actions and 16th century academic learning at Wittenberg and Paris. We see ambassadors coming and going, learn of letters dispatched and forged. We observe a great variety of court scenes, traveling players bringing to life the tragedy of Hecuba, gravediggers at work in the graveyard, playing with words and skulls, a young woman gone mad, a frantic and deadly duel. The play is a murder mystery involving three families and the fate of two countries. It is a play about power – political and military. It is a family drama. It is a play about fathers and sons – four sets of them, two of the sons carrying the added burden of having their fathers’ name. The Stationers’ Register entry identifies it as a revenge play. It is an exploration into madness and the meaning of things. It is a play about playing, pretending, and performing. It is also a series of love stories, all with tragic endings. One can go on…

And yet in a successful production, out of all this striking diversity must come some sense of integrated unity. Not any easy answers, for this is a play of never ending mystery, but a recognition that this demandingly questioning, probing play has a majestic wholeness, a vastness of vision. I am sure a thousand different ways of staging Hamlet are possible, probably more, and most of them are quite right. We are dealing with material that is old, very old, basic, almost mythic, reaching back to the first murder in the Bible, and many are the ways in which it can be presented. “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven,” Claudius knows full well. “It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder.”

Cultural Context, Broad Familiarity

The vastness of the critical commentary and the cultural familiarity represent two other challenges. No play has ever been as extensively nor as fully discussed, and one can drown in all the commentary. Whatever one might say about Hamlet, one knows it has probably been said before, or its exact opposite. I recall Oscar Wilde’s comment about Hamlet, “Are the critics mad or only pretending to be so?” We find ourselves in an echo chamber of familiar words, phrases, observations. But much of this can be simply ignored. More daunting is the impossibility of approaching Hamlet without expectations and preconceptions. After all the academic introductions, all the stage productions, some 30 film versions, adaptations, parodies, we simply know the play too well – the situation, the characters, the lines, from “To be or not to be,” to “Alas, poor Yorick,” and thus we have lost the possibility of experiencing genuine shock, surprise, or awe.

I think of Richard Burton playing Hamlet with Winston Churchill sitting in the first row, audibly reciting the speeches along with the actor, line by line. Whether Burton speeded up or slowed down, Churchill was right there with him. All evening long. Quite regularly audiences seem to wait for the by now familiar soliloquies as if they were operatic arias, to be savored in themselves, without the defining context, while the actor delivering them often, quite desperately, seeks to understate their importance. Still, this majestic play is regularly able to transcend all these impediments.

As with most of the plays, we lack the exact date of Hamlet, but it was certainly sometime in 1600 or early 1601. A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, one Francis Meres, a writer early in his career before he became a rural minister and schoolmaster, published in 1598 Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, a collection of philosophical and literary observations. In them he praises Shakespeare as the greatest playwright in England, in both comedy and tragedy, and lists twelve titles of his excellent plays. Hamlet is not one of them, so this very popular play, must not yet have been performed. As mentioned earlier, it was entered in the Stationers’ Registry in July of 1602, with the claim that it had been “lately acted.” Hamlet has echoes from Julius Caesar (also concerned with murder and revenge matters), which we know was performed in September of 1599, and John Marston’s Antonia’s Revenge, performed in late 1600, seems to have echoes from Hamlet.

In 1600, the likeliest date for Hamlet, William Shakespeare was 36 years old, at the midpoint of his remarkable career. He had had a marvelously successful decade. In an age where plays were enjoyed but poetry respected, he had built a strong reputation as a poet with Venus and Adonis (1593), the Rape of Lucrece (1594), and the fabulous 154 Sonnets. He was a principal actor—in both comic and tragic roles—with England’s leading acting company which had obtained the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain, one of the three great officers of the royal household, and thus were the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, privileged in a variety of ways, including being regularly invited to perform at court. Shakespeare had recently become part owner of the company’s new theater—the Globe, and in 1597 he had bought a splendid house in Stratford. With Christopher Marlowe killed in a tavern fight in 1593, Shakespeare, ironically born in the same year as Marlowe, clearly had established himself as the most successful dramatist in England in all of the major forms of playwriting – histories, comedies, and tragedies. But in his personal life he suffered loss. He and his wife (who remained in Stratford) had had twins, Judith and Hamnet (named after a neighbor couple), and Hamnet died in 1596. Shakespeare’s father died five years later, on September 8, 1601.

In 1597 and 1598 Shakespeare had written the two Henry IV plays and created the most famous comic character in English literature—the sensuous and pragmatic Sir John Falstaff, grossly overweight, in love with food and drink, lecherous and cowardly who is, as he himself proclaims, “not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men,” possessing a vitality that far transcends the specific plays. Soon after came the glorious and complex Henry V, with the battle of Agincourt and the great St. Crispin Day speech (quoted even by Snoopy nowadays), possibly the first play performed in the newly opened Globe Theater, the “wooden O” of the Prologue. With Julius Caesar (many argue this was the first Globe production), performed in 1599, we see Shakespeare’s movement into the world of tragedy. Legend has it (supported by some evidence) that at this time he also hastily wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor in response to the Queen’s request to see Sir Falstaff in love.

Thus between 1597 and 1601 we have five major plays that take us from Falstaff to Hamlet. During this extraordinary period of artistic activity, he also wrote the three marvelous comedies – Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, or, What You Will. Thus, in less than five years we have eight plays that are among the best in the English language! But then Hamlet takes us to another level, far beyond anything known before. The English stage had not seen anything like it, nor had any of the world’s stages. It is the very best of Shakespeare’s dramatic art, the most comprehensive, extensive, brilliant, challenging exploration into the basics of our existence.

In his prefatory verses to the First Folio, Ben Jonson made the famous observation that “He was not of an age, but for all time.” The reference is to Shakespeare, but the same can be said for Hamlet, which seems to transcend all boundaries, as each age, each culture redefines and reinterprets it. Stephen Greenblatt observes that with this play Shakespeare has perfected the means to represent the inner life of a character, and obviously, in this play we find a strikingly new kind of psychological depth and complexity, revealed in the numerous, varied, and memorable soliloquies, as well as in the more general sense of intimacy, a shared experience of Hamlet’s private thoughts and emotional responses. Each age seems to have recognized Hamlet as a contemporary character possessing great psychological depth.

Interrogative Mood

Maynard Mack, who has taught us all so much, observed that “Hamlet’s world is pre-eminently in the interrogative mood. It reverberates with questions, anguished, meditative, alarmed.” Hamlet is drama as philosophical inquiry, dealing with questions of identity, reality, morality, sanity. It starts with the famous opening line which reverberates throughout the play – “Who’s there?” The variations follow: “Who is there?” “What art thou?” “What! Has this thing appear’d again tonight?” “Is it not like the King?” “Saw? Who?” “Armed, say you?” “But where was this?” “Stayed it long?” “Who is’t that can inform me?” “Do you see nothing there?” Consistently the questions have few answers, almost no clear ones. Eventually the questions enlarge, transcending the immediate particulars, touching on the larger challenges of how to live, not just survive, in an evil, fallen world, how to act in it responsibly, honorably, without dirtying oneself “Say, why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?” “What does this mean, my lord?” “Must I remember?” “Am I a coward?” ”Whither wilt thou lead me?” “What is’t, Laertes?” “What is it, Ophelia?” “What’s Hecuba to him?” “To be or not to be, that is the question.” “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,…and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Harry Levin points out that in the Folio text each of the statements Hamlet makes in this speech (“how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals”), is punctuated with a question mark. The Folio text in all likelihood was an acting version, and it might be valuable to revisit this speech with question marks in mind. If the quintessence of dust defines all, “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” “What is a man, / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed?” “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” After all, “We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.” But then what or whom do we believe? Polonius demands of Ophelia, “What is between you? Give me up the truth,” but what is truth when most everyone misrepresents, deceives, lies?

Early in the play Hamlet confidently declares, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems,’” but, of course, he will discover all too quickly that he exists and must perform in a world of challenging uncertainty where few things are what they seem to be. He will have to learn to deal with “seems.” In the closet scene with his mother, Hamlet sees the Ghost, she does not. “Do you see nothing there?” Hamlet demands. “Nothing at all; yet all that is I see,” Gertrude responds. “This is the very coinage of your brain,” she patiently explains. Hamlet starts with the familiar ending of comedies – marriage, continuity, a new and capable king, a general celebration. But, of course, the whole thing is a huge fraud, and in this post-lapsarian, fallen, evil world the comic patterns of life disintegrate, the moral order of things falls apart, and tragedy embraces everything. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to be the familiar good friends, but Hamlet knows that he will trust them “as I will adders fanged.”

This is a play in which much is shown, performed, stated, but little is explained. John Dover Wilson wrote that “Hamlet is a dramatic essay in mystery; that is to say, it is so constructed that the more it is examined, the more there is to discover.” Every production is an attempt at a partial answer or interpretation, but the essential mysteries, of course, remain, as they must. After all, Hamlet warns us against trying to “pluck the heart out of my mystery.” Our assured understandings extend only so far, and the ambiguities and uncertainties remain, continuing to challenge us. Polonius consistently believes that he can discover truth (“I will find / Where truth is hid”), and readily manage it (“tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral,” and so on), but we and Hamlet know much better. What is the nature of the Ghost? Why does Hamlet see it, but not Gertrude? How complicit is she in the murder of old Hamlet? Was she an adulteress before the murder? What is the truth of Ophelia’s “doubtful” death? Why does Hamlet act so strange?

In Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz, practicing to meet with Prince Hamlet, eventually arrives at the telling question: “To sum up: your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?” “I can’t imagine!” replies Guildenstern. And this is before a weird Ghost tells Hamlet that it is the spirit of his father, that he was the victim of a foul murder, and that Hamlet is now responsible for revenging the killing. Given the essential mystery of the play, it is not surprising that so regularly commentators have decided to re-write it in their own image. Hamlet has become the best known mirror in theatrical history in which each age has found a reflection of itself, thus demonstrating that the seductive mirror on the wall, with its “Thou art the fairest of them all” promise, continues to be tantalizingly successful.

Dramatic Fiction, not Documentary History

To a considerable degree the mystery of things is created by Shakespeare’s practice of mixing a great variety of historical and cultural materials; he is writing popular plays, not historical documentaries. The original story of Hamlet, as it appears in the documents, is set in the middle of the 11th century, in Denmark. It is a pagan, pre-Christian period, governed by a strong warrior code. But Shakespeare gives us a scholar and courtier, a Renaissance Prince. In the 11th century succession would have been by election by the nobles (who is best able to lead and protect us?), but in Shakespeare’s day the public would have expected an automatic succession of the oldest son or nearest relative. Hamlet has no clear claim to the throne in terms of 11th century practices but a very significant one in terms of 16th century conventions. Revenge in a pre-Christian world operated essentially in terms of a basic honor code. Within the Christian context, revenge becomes problematic. “Thou shalt not kill,” we read. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. Elizabethan law in Shakespeare’s time simply forbade private revenge. But then, again, Shakespeare is writing a popular revenge play, not an examination of what revenge is state sanctioned and approved. Private revenge is illegal now, but we still vastly enjoy the dramatic revenge characters portrayed by Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Historically, Hamlet is set in the pre-Christian era, but Hamlet seems to be a student at the University of Wittenberg, which was not even founded till 1502, some 350 years after the events of the story unfolding in the play. After Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the church door and transformed Christianity, Wittenberg eventually became the center of the Protestant movement, and so it seems we have moved from a pre-Christian, essentially pagan setting to a 1600 respectable Protestant Christian one, with all the references to doomsday, the damnation or salvation of souls, the Garden with the serpent, angels, offered grace. In the first scene of the play Marcellus reports that “Some say that ever ’gainst [just before] that season comes / Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated, / This bird of dawning singeth all night long, / And then they say, no spirit dare stir abroad, / The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, / No fairy takes [bewitches], nor witch hath power to charm: / So hallowed and so gracious is that time.” This is a long way from the 11th century pre-Christian, warrior culture of Denmark. And to complicate matters even further, the Ghost talks passionately about purgatory. In Protestant belief Purgatory did not exist, and so in this play of ca. 1600, in staunch Protestant England, we not only have the realities of 11th century pagan Denmark, but also elements from pre-Reformation Catholic Christianity, making for swirling and often conflicting value systems.

But then the material of Hamlet is old, very old, indeed mythic, transcending all ages, all belief systems. To kill the king, to kill the brother, to possess the desired wife of the victim, to gain the throne—these are familiar elements in folk-lore narratives. More formally, Hamlet is strikingly similar to Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia by Aeschylus—the king is killed, the wife marries the murderer, the son carries the burden of revenge, ultimately realizing that he is damned no matter what he does. With the specific Hamlet story, we start with the colorfully named Saxo Grammaticus, a poet and historian, who in the late12th century collected existing information about Danish history (he did not creatively invent it), and then published it, in Latin, in the Historiae Danicae, ca, 1200. In Books III and IV we read how one Horwendil kills the King of Norway and marries Gerutha, daughter of the King of Denmark, and they have a son named Amleth. Horwendil is then murdered by his brutish brother Feng (in these narratives murder is obligatory), who then marries Gerutha (and in these narratives the women seem to have little say about what happens). The young Amleth pretends to be mad (today we might say retarded), to be perceived as a fool, an idiot, totally non- threatening and after many dramatic incidents, most of them echoed in Shakespeare’s play, Amleth kills Feng and gains the throne, and all celebrate. In the original stories everyone knows that Feng is a murderer, but in Shakespeare’s version it is a secret of a dark and misty night, narrated by a weird ghost, held by the troubled mind of a young man.

Then some 400 years later, Francois de Belleforest incorporated the Amleth story in his Histoires Tragiques, 1576. He apologizes for the rudeness of the story (actually, he cleans it up a good deal), but then, it is an old tale, from long ago, a pre-Christian story, and all that, but obviously exciting, for why else use it? Still, in the French manner he narrates that Queen Gerutha had an affair with Feng before their marriage. The Histoires Tragiques was widely popular in Europe, but not translated into English till1608. And in the 1590s a popular play was presented in London, which was clearly based on the Amleth/Hamlet story. Scholars refer to it as the Ur Hamlet (Ur = original), and generally attribute it to Thomas Kyd, the playwright of The Spanish Tragedy, in those days a widely popular example of the revenge tragedy, indeed a standard for it. Thus, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is another version of a familiar story, set within the revenge tradition, but taken dramatically further, made into a play of universal meaning far beyond its sources.

The brilliance of the opening scene of Hamlet (175 lines, moving from midnight to dawn) has been widely admired. T.S. Eliot noted that Shakespeare had worked for so many years in the theater and had written many splendid plays before reaching the point where he could write those stunning 22 opening lines. The play starts with soldiers, just as it will end with soldiers, a multitude of them, when Fortinbras commands, “Bear Hamlet like a soldier,” while “The soldiers’ music and the rite of war / Speak loudly for him.” This is a play of deadly conflict on many levels, and warfare seems to be the norm. The question we hear in the first line – “Who’s there?” envelops the play, resonates repeatedly, expands in our consciousness. Ironically, it is asked not by the sentry, but by the arriving fearful replacement. In an afternoon performance at the Globe we enter a midnight world of darkness, apprehension, fear, tension. It is midnight (“’Tis now struck twelve”), cold (“’Tis bitter cold“), a gloomy, eerie, and frightening setting. We hear voices in the night, whispers, rumors, reports, observe scared sentries, with nervous cries, “Who is there?” “Stand and unfold.” “Who hath reliev’d you?” Barnardo’s cry of “Long live the king!” sounds frightened, and soon we will ask which king? One has been murdered, the other is a usurper, a fraud, a player-king. Then Marcellus asks, “hath this thing appeared again tonight?” “Again” becomes a frightening word. Elsinore is being visited repeatedly by a strange intruder in the night. It has come before, it appears twice in the first scene, fully dressed in battle armor, fierce, angry. When Horatio demands, “By heaven, I charge thee, speak,” this “thing,” this “dreaded sight,” this “apparition,” angrily stalks away. “This bodes some strange eruption to our state,” Horatio reflects, recalling how Rome was visited by strange omens before “the mightiest Julius fell,” and the civil wars started. Things are not right. When this “illusion” reappears, Horatio demands again, “If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, …O speak!” But then the cock crows, and “’Tis here,” “’Tis here,” “’Tis gone.” Just like that.

Soon we hear one of the major reasons for the soldiers’ fear – Denmark is in danger of being invaded. Young Fortinbras of Norway, “Of unimproved mettle hot and full,” has raised a vast outlaw army and is ready to march on Elsinore. Vulnerable Denmark is frantically getting ready for war, the workers in “sweaty haste” are being forced to toil around the clock, the preparations “Doth make the night joint-laborer with the day,” and the work “Does not divide the Sunday from the week.” The “daily cast of brazen cannon” continues, the “implements of war” are being purchased. Thirty years ago, old Hamlet defeated old Fortinbras, and now the young Fortinbras is ready to settle old scores. In this play far more scores are to be settled than one suspects.

Much of the first scene is basic and important exposition. When “this dreaded sight” appears, Barnardo asks, “Looks ‘a not like the king?” Soon Horatio demands, “What art thou that usurp’st this time of night / Together with that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometime march?” No name has yet been given, but obviously the king of Denmark is dead. Soon we hear about “our last king” and then the name, “our valiant Hamlet.” We now know that King Hamlet is dead and buried, young Fortinbras with his army threatens to invade Denmark which is desperately trying to get ready for war, and that this strange thing, illusion, apparition in the dark night, dressed in war-like armor, looks very much like the late king. The cock’s crowing announces the coming of the dawn. “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad / Walks o’er the dew on yon high eastward hill,” Horatio eagerly greets the new day. The dark night with its strange apparitions is gone. But, of course, the play is just getting ready to move into the darkness of the soul, into the true heart of tragedy. Horatio suggests, “Let us impart what we have seen tonight / Unto young Hamlet, for upon my life / This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.” This is the first mention of young Hamlet, dramatically delayed.

Formality and Splendor at the Royal Court

In Shakespeare’s seamless transition, we quickly move from a fearful and bitterly cold night, holding scared sentries, ghosts in the night, to a scene of formal stability, glittering splendor, political control, assured confidence. But instead of the young Hamlet, in whom so recently Horatio and the others were placing their trust, we see a very different leader, impressively effective. “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death / The memory be green,” Claudius starts; his language flows, polished, brilliant, assured. Therefore, he announces, “our sometime sister [sister-in-law], now our Queen, / Th’ imperial jointress [partner] to this warlike state, / Have we … Taken to wife.” We commonly overlook how daring and powerful these words are. The marriage of Claudius and Gertrude would have been regarded in Shakespeare’s time, by both canon law and cultural traditions, as incest, and Claudius highlights what he has done, and no surprise, because the marriage validates and legitimizes his position as the new Danish king, and also effectively excludes the young Hamlet.

Gertrude is a challenging character to interpret, partially because the many unknowns. She is very clearly aware of the larger realities. When Claudius questions the reasons for Hamlet’s “distempers,” she responds directly, “I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage.” Is she in any way involved in the murder of old Hamlet? The Ghost implies she is not. In the bad First Quarto she declares, “I never knew of this most horrid murder.” Has she had an affair with Claudius before the murder? In Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, that is the case. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet things are much less certain. But I am convinced that Gertrude must be an alluring, sensuous, highly sexual, immensely desirable woman, not a plain middle-aged matron as so often she is played. Both the old and young Hamlet talk of her in such highly sensual terms, as does Claudius.

Why does she marry Claudius and so stunningly quickly? A political necessity to insure some political stability when Denmark faces war? Possibly. Personal appeal, sexual attraction to and love for Claudius? Quite probably. As we eventually learn, the apparition, this “thing” in the night, the probable ghost of Hamlet’s father, is a surprisingly arrogant, proud, condescending, belittling entity; apparently he was often away on wars. Claudius, the younger brother, by contrast, is smooth, effective, always present, a superb actor, with an actor’s erotic associations. Why should she not be attracted to him? And he evidently, genuinely loves her. “She is so conjunctive [closely united] to my life and soul, / That, as a star moves not but in his sphere, / I could not but by her,” Claudius openly admits, using striking cosmic comparisons. Later in the play, when Laertes threatens to kill Claudius, Gertrude jumps in and physically protects him, and this is after the revelatory closet scene with Hamlet.

After the self-congratulatory comments about his new wife Gertrude, the King thanks the court advisors, generously recognizing their “better wisdoms.” Then, regarding the threat of young Fortinbras, who believes that “by our late dear brother’s death / Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,” and thus most vulnerable, the new leader sends Cornelius and Voltemand to the old ruler of Norway with very explicit directions, giving the messenger ambassadors “no further personal power / To business with the King” than the enclosed articles allow. The messengers depart. As for Fortinbras, we hear the assured and disdainful “So much for him.” Next, “And now, Laertes, what’s the news with you?” Claudius, benevolent, embraces and practically makes love to Laertes’ name with the repeated mentions. “What wouldst thou beg, Laertes, / That shall not be my offer, not thy asking?” A return to Paris? Go with my blessings, as long as your father approves. Only then, finally, he turns to the next item on the agenda – so long delayed a recognition of that dramatic, insulting, unavoidable, visually somber, image amidst the glitter of the court’s splendor – young Hamlet, till now knowingly kept marginalized. “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son…”

Hamlet, dressed in black, has in a sense, clearly and deliberately insulted Claudius, Gertrude, and the entire celebratory event, and Claudius will quickly put him in his place. Claudius has the position, power, queen, and stage. Hamlet with his black costume and personal grief is a dangerous nuisance. “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Claudius asks, almost tauntingly. In the comic pattern marriages trump funerals, and wedding celebrations promise not just continuity of life, but also new beginnings, new strength. The king is dead, but Denmark has a new king. On many levels we see an affirmation of life, political stability in a time of impending war. “Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,” his mother counsels. Life must go on, even fathers die, and “Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity.” “Ay, madam, it is common,” is Hamlet’s offensive response. Claudius picks up, almost in a parody, the consolation of philosophy theme in matters of death, so common in Renaissance writings, especially in times of the plague. “’Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, / To give these mourning duties to your father, / But you must know your father lost a father, / That father lost, lost his,” and so on. Then, the direct public chastizing. To “persever / In obstinate condolement is a course / Of impious stubbornness. ’Tis unmanly grief. / It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, / A heart unfortified, a mind impatient, / An understanding simple and unschooled.” “Fie, ’tis a fault to heaven, / A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, / To reason most absurd, whose common theme / Is death of fathers,” Claudius continues. And then the apparently loving trap, ever so patronizing: “let the world take note / You are the most immediate to our throne,” and as for “your intent / In going back to school in Wittenberg, / It is most retrograde [contrary] to our desire. / And we beseech you, bend you to remain / Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye,/ Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.”Gertrude echoes the request, “I pray thee, stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.” This is not reassuring. Let Laertes go back to Paris, but Hamlet must remain where Claudius can keep an eye on him. The public announcement that Hamlet stands next in line is shrewd. Any attack Hamlet makes on Claudius risks making him look too ambitious, too eager, too self-serving.

It is essential to recognize what a powerful presence Claudius is in this play. He is a ruler in the vein of a Machiavellian-type prince, shrewd, calculating, charming, erotic, conniving, determined, effective. One needs only to reflect on how brilliantly he subdues the enraged Laertes later in the play and so quickly turns him into a murdering tool. He wears the mask of charm and eternal smiles, loves the beautiful Gertrude and good drink. Elsinore admires him. He is strikingly aware, intelligent, practical, pragmatic, ready to shuffle, manipulate, deceive. He uses spies, makes others do his dirty work, regularly falls back on treachery and poison. He is a catalyst for wide-spread chaos, the carrier of spiritual and moral infection and disease. He is a dealer in death. He personally kills old Hamlet, and because of him four young men die—Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, and Hamlet. So does the Queen. Claudius is also a usurper, liar, cheat, “a vice of kings,” without the black humor of an Iago, a player king, with stolen robes and a stolen queen, a consummate actor. Interesting consideration: at this point in its history, is Denmark better off with Claudius or Hamlet as its ruler?

Even though Claudius and Hamlet interact directly only a few times, the conflict between them, those “mighty opposites,” defines much of the play. From the beginning, even before meeting with the apparition in the night, Hamlet detests this smooth and smiling uncle who now rules the council chamber and the royal bed with his willing mother in it. Claudius suspects Hamlet, as he should, aware that the people like and admire him. We observe between these intense antagonists a continuing series of complex conflicts, full of suspicion, plots, and traps. They are both in grave danger. This is a conflict to the death. They can not co-exist. Claudius is guilty of primeval sin; Hamlet feels the primeval burden to revenge his father’s murder. They both wear masks, of smiles and antic dispositions. The play becomes a deadly chess game with move and countermove. Claudius has killed and is willing to kill again. Hamlet will not to Wittenberg. For Hamlet the questions are what to do, when, how? For Claudius it is how best to handle this dangerous Prince with the least risk to himself. Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will spy on Hamlet; Hamlet baits the Mousetrap. Who knows what? Who suspects what? How to know? How reliable the information? As so often in Shakespeare’s plays, we know far more than the characters. Claudius knows he has murdered and usurped, Hamlet thinks he knows, Horatio has some information, Gertrude might suspect, but Denmark overall operates as if Claudius were the legitimate king who must be respected, obeyed, supported, especially in a time of threatening war.

After the council scene Hamlet’s pent up emotions burst forth in the “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me the uses of this world” speech. “Fie on’t, ah, fie, ’tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely [entirely].” Things are grossly wrong, and no one seems to care. Life goes on, the noisy celebrations continue. Enter Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo. Hamlet greets them warmly, asks Horatio, “What is your affair in Elsinore?” “My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.” “I prithee, do not mock me, fellow student,” Hamlet replies, “I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.” After all, “The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” Elsinore is thrifty. Hamlet recalls his lost father, the goodly king, ”’A was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again.” Horatio then says softly, “My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.” After a series of frantic questions about the apparition, Hamlet declares, “I will watch tonight. / Perchance ’twill walk again.” “If it assume my noble father’s person, / I’ll speak to it though hell itself should gape / And bid me hold my peace.” He suspects “some foul play,” and observes that clearly “All is not well.”

The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul
by Archibald I. Leyasmeyer - Part 2

I believe that in this play of complex and intertwined mysteries, the three central ones are the Ghost, Hamlet himself, and the question of revenge. The Ghost is a creature of the dark night, a ‘thing’ that looks like the late king. It is not a hard presence. “’Tis here,” “’Tis here,” “’Tis gone.” The soldiers know not what to call it: “this thing,” “dreaded sight,” “this apparition,” “illusion.”

Hamlet is a play rich with illusions of all kinds. In the closet scene Hamlet sees the Ghost (“Why, look you there! Look how it steals away!”), Gertrude does not see it, and dismisses the whole thing “as the very coinage of your brain.” Marcellus states that “Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy.” Young Hamlet will give it names: “I’ll call thee Hamlet,/ King, father, royal Dane.” But called by whatever name, finally, what is this thing? The Ghost declares, “I am thy father’s spirit,” repeatedly returning after death to speak to Hamlet. But in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy death is described as that “undiscovered country, from whose bourn [region] / No traveler returns.” In the graveyard scene Hamlet recognizes that “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust,” and that is how it goes. So who or what is this strange and angry entity in the night, who in all probability was played by Shakespeare himself? A quick look at some historical background information is important.

In the 16th century, within just a few generations, England underwent a wrenching, painful, and often violent religious transformation. After the ecclesiastical changes instituted by Henry VIII and his successor Edward VI, England became a Protestant country. Then Mary Tudor, a devout and zealous Catholic, became queen in 1553, and during the five years of her reign did her best to reinstate Catholicism as the state religion. She met great resistance and started a severe, indeed brutal persecution of Protestants, earning the name of “Bloody Mary.” Many were executed, the best known being the Protestant clergymen Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley who in 1555 were burned at the stake as heretics in Oxford. John Foxe provides an account of the horrible and slow burning in his Acts and Monuments, commonly known as the Book of Martyrs. This immensely popular work about the persecution and martyrdom of English Protestants under Queen Mary became almost a companion volume to the Bible, for centuries, and by law churches were required to have copies available for worshippers. Shakespeare draws upon its material for three of his plays. As Foxe reports about Nicholas Ridley, the fire “burned clean all his nether parts before it once touched the upper. And that made him leap up and down under the faggots, and often desire them to let the fire come unto him, saying, ’I cannot burn,’ which indeed appeared well. For after his legs were consumed by reason of his struggling with the pain … he showed that side toward us clean, shirt and all untouched with the flame. Yet in all this torment he forgot not to call upon God still, having in his mouth, ‘ Lord have mercy upon me,’ intermeddling this cry, ‘Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn.” Much later, eventually, it did, and he finally burned. Foxe reports that the sight of the burning “moved hundreds to tears, to behold the terrible sight.” At any time he could have recanted his Protestant beliefs and could have been saved from the torturous flames. This was a time when religious beliefs and practices mattered a great deal, even unto a public and most torturous death.

When Elizabeth, Mary’s half-sister, became queen in 1558, she saw a country that was close to a civil war, a religious civil war, which are the nastiest. She led England back to Anglican Protestantism. With impressive brilliance and pragmatism she guided England through the bitter debates about religious practices, beliefs, observances, balancing as much as possible, but the Act of Uniformity, 1559, directly forbade the practice of Catholicism and required all to attend an Anglican service each Sunday or be fined. In 1570 Pope Pius VI excommunicated Elizabeth, and his successor, Pope Gregory XIII, urged all true Catholics to murder this heretic queen, promising immediate absolution for such a righteous act. The stakes were high. In 1587, Mary, the Catholic Queen of Scots, was dramatically executed after being convicted of plotting to murder Elizabeth, her relative. In 1588 the failed Spanish Armada attempted to conquer England not only as an economic prize but also to bring it back to the Mother Church. Catholic spies, missionaries, instigators from the Continent, evidently regularly tried to enter England. Catholic practices were severely suppressed: saying the mass, for example, carried the sentence of a huge fine and a year in prison. By the end of the century Catholicism in England was essentially a surreptitious underground religion, with hardly any priests left to conduct services and administer the sacraments. Still, a variety of zealous anti-Catholic Protestant extremists regularly called for even more restrictive and punitive measures, and expressing Catholic beliefs was clearly dangerous, but in Hamlet we have them, at the very heart of the play.

As noted earlier, in Hamlet Shakespeare works with 11th century material (where spirits in the night would not have been uncommon), but he places it within a clear Christian context. While Catholics accepted the possibility of ghosts and the spirits of the dead returning, the Protestants rejected it entirely. In 1599, just a year before Hamlet, the then King James VI of Scotland (son of the executed Mary, Queen of Scots), who in 1603, after Queen Elizabeth’s death became James I, King of England, published a major study of evil, Daemonology, a study of demons and witches in which he is absolute on this point, as were so many others. If ghosts appear, the argument goes, they have to be demonic presences, attempting to lead us astray, into wickedness and damnation. Shakespeare’s contemporaries, almost universally believing in the reality of devils and demonic powers, regularly prayed from The Prayer Book, “from the crafts and assaults of the devil,” “Good Lord, deliver us.” After all, as the Apostle Peter cautioned, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8). Evil spirits, fallen angels, after all, are mighty, subtle, powerful, devious, determined, and dangerous. The Ghost is doubted by Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio, who observes that “it started like a guilty thing.” When the Ghost appears again at the witching hour, Hamlet exclaims, “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Later he adds later, this is “the time of night, / When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out / Contagion to this world.” The Ghost beckons, and Marcellus shouts, “do not go with it,” and Horatio advises, “No, by no means,” “Do not, my lord.” The thing may “assume some other horrible form, / Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason / And draw you into madness,” as has happened before to many. Hamlet’s first words to the Ghost are, “Whither wilt thou lead me?” After meeting with the Ghost, Hamlet requests all present, “Never make known what you have seen tonight.” He does so repeatedly, over and over, indeed five times. The risks of this deadly situation are incredibly high, and absolute secrecy is essential. And then, grotesquely, the Ghost is heard again, shouting, “Swear,” repeatedly, and loudly, four times. Hamlet calls him the “old mole,” refers to him as “this fellow in the cellarage.” The stage directions indicate, Ghost cries under the stage. In the Globe theater the stage represents the world, the canopy above the heavens, and below the stage, mostly hell. This is all very weird. After the meeting with the Ghost, Hamlet reassures Horatio, “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you,” but later he recognizes the grave uncertainty. At the end of the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy, Hamlet knows that “The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil, and the devil hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits, / Abuses me to damn me.” How does one know? What Mousetrap enables one to tell absolutely?

As we hear in the prayer scene, the Ghost has spoken true – Claudius indeed has murdered his brother, but so what? As Banquo indicates in Macbeth (set in the same historical period as Hamlet), “oftentimes to win us to our harm / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles to betray’s / In deepest consequence.” We hear in The Merchant of Venice that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

The Ghost’s identity is a soul-size question for Hamlet, in a time when the fate of one’s soul clearly mattered. I am convinced that Shakespeare did not place Hamlet as a student at Wittenberg, that center of Protestantism, by accident. The title character of Christopher Marlowe’s vividly memorable Dr. Faustus, a highly popular theatrical and cultural figure in Shakespeare’s age, was also a student at Wittenberg (where one “profits in divinity… / In heavenly matters of theology”) before he damned himself by making what the politically correct viewpoint today might call “poor choices.” At the end of that play, an absolutely stunning passage, he knows full well that he will be “damned perpetually,” that “Faustus must be damned.” Desperately, memorably, he struggles (“O I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down? / See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! / One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah my Christ. …”), but, despite the pleas (“Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while! / Ugly hell gape not! Come not Lucifer!”), he will be damned. Will be. Absolutely. Eternally. And this is a probable fate of Hamlet if he follows the Ghost’s directives to revenge. Later in the play, when Laertes insists that he will “be revenged / Most thoroughly for my father,” he recognizes that “I dare damnation.”

Incestuous Lust and Murder Demand Revenge

The Ghost is a weird and angry presence, but then, apparently, for many good reasons. Old Hamlet was, while sleeping in the orchard, “by a brother’s hand / Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched.” “O my prophetic soul! / My uncle?” is Hamlet’s response to the news about the murder and the usurpation. He has intuited as much. Today, if asked how one would wish to die, what would be a good death, I am sure that most would say, peacefully in my sleep. In Shakespeare’s day such a death was intensely feared, because the individual would have had no time to put one’s spiritual life in order to insure salvation. As it is, the Ghost comes from “sulf’rous and tormenting flames,” “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” Because he died without the last rites, the sacrament of communion, a death-bed confession and absolution, he now suffers in purgatory. And this presents another problem of interpretation: Protestant beliefs totally denied the existence of a purgatory, and so what are we to make of this Ghost of an 11th century pre-Christian warrior king talking about the terrors of a Catholic purgatory to a 16th century Renaissance prince, a scholar and intellectual, in 1600, and in wild melodramatic terms? “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, / Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,” the Ghost insists, “And each particular hair to stand an end / Like quills upon the fearful porpentine,” but he can not give any details because “I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison house.” Lovely and convenient.

Many comment on the essential dignity and grandeur of the Ghost, but I see and hear a rude, intrusive, impatient, demanding, self-sure, arrogant presence. If we did not respond with a special reverence for ghosts, we might say that this thing is an almost clownish presence. “So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear,” he declares. No questions asked. He is manipulative: “If thou didst ever thy dear father love…Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” and insulting: “duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed / That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf / Wouldst thou not stir in this.” The Ghost is in armor, war-like, fierce, a theatrical figure. Old Hamlet slew old Fortinbras in heroic combat, smote the sledded Polacks on the ice, and now the Ghost demands equally direct action from young Hamlet. It is furious that Claudius, “that incestuous, that adulterate beast,” his sad younger brother, “won to his shameful lust / The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen. / O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there, / From me,” an angelic presence, to “a wretch whose natural gifts were poor.” Of course, we have already seen in the council scene a Claudius who is quite effective and impressive. The Ghost seems to be more angry about Gertrude in Claudius’ bed than the murder and the loss of the throne. It is lust, shameful lust, that “Will sate itself in a celestial bed / And prey on garbage.” The Ghost’s speech is full of excess, such emotional emphases: “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest.”

The Ghost’s command to revenge “the foul and most unnatural murder,” is most problematic. For Hamlet to kill Claudius is essentially an act of suicide. Even if Claudius is a murderer, usurper, villain, as he himself will admit in the prayer scene, he is still the elected king. At the end of the play, even after the public poisoning of the Queen (“The drink, the drink!”), and Laertes’ confession (“The King, the King’s to blame”), when Hamlet stabs Claudius, all shout, “Treason! Treason!” To kill a king just because a weird Ghost in the dark night shouted some horrible accusations, becomes an act of madness. The Ghost demands revenge but also cautions not to “let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven,” as if it were possible to kill Claudius and not trouble Gertrude. Revenge, it says, but stay pure, and “Taint not thy mind,” a clear impossibility. “Remember thee?” Hamlet asks, “Ay thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe,” with a triple pun on the last word—his head, the Globe theater, and the globe of the world we inhabit. “Remember thee?” Indeed Hamlet will wipe from his memory (as if he, poor son, could) everything, “And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain, / Unmixed with baser matter.” This is a play that deals with the remembrance and attempted repression of the past. In the closet scene the Ghost appears and admonishes Hamlet, “Do not forget.” Ophelia offers “rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” Hamlet holds the skull of old Yorrick and remembers so much. Eventually, he asks Horatio to remember and tell his story. Exile can be caused by forgetfulness, but sometimes memory, in which so many things echo and reverberate, becomes the determined and ceaseless tormentor.

“O God,” Hamlet observes, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams,” and the bad memories and recollections. Hamlet is often described as a strikingly modern play, and indeed one can characterize most of modern drama in terms of the small spaces of entrapment and the torment of recollections. From Ghosts and A Doll’s House (indeed, much of Ibsen) to The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, from No Exit through The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman to The Caretaker and Endgame, we confront the nutshell, the small room, a limited space of some significance. The imagination, another word for absolute power, should be able to provide the inhabitants a sense of infinite space (and time, I suppose), but so many of them have bad dreams and bad memories, dealing with questions of identities and responsibilities, the very nature of perceptions and understandings.

Both in Hamlet and many modern dramas, the characters are not free to act, they are trapped by the past, by antecedent action. We learn about the pressure to remember, to look backwards, to confront the past. Just as in Hamlet, the characters focus on language and how it can be used, they obsess over past events and experiences, they are held ever so tightly by the special places they inhabit. Beckett insisted that the most significant line in Endgame was, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” In a successful production, Hamlet, quite often must be wildly funny.

Confrontations in a Family Drama

Hamlet is a generational play about the young (Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia, young Fortinbras, Horatio, etc.) and the old (Polonius, the old Hamlet, the old Fortinbras, etc.), in the context of tragic family dramas. In many ways it is a play about the mythic relationship between fathers and sons who are expected to become their fathers and thus are not entirely free to be themselves. The fathers have had their time, have done their deeds, and now the sons are being pulled backwards to deal with the results. In this play four sons (young Hamlet, young Fortinbras, Laertes, and in the player’s narration, Pyrrhus) have lost their fathers and bear the burden of avenging their deaths. (In addition, Laertes has Claudius as a surrogate father, guiding and manipulating him.) Hamlet and Fortinbras also carry the emotional weight of having the same names as their fathers. In reality, the fathers are mortal, like all of us, but to the sons, who adore them, they are giants, no matter what. “’A was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again,” Hamlet says passionately. The old Hamlet was like Mars, Jove, Hyperion, the sun god. Claudius, by contrast, is a satyr, a sex fiend, a villain. Of course, we have seen both the Ghost and King Claudius and have our own impressions.

After the traumatic meeting with the Ghost Hamlet observes, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” This is a righteous complaint. Why me? What did I do? Frankly, nothing. He does not initiate the developments. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern emphasize that they were sent for, but so, in a sense is Hamlet. The father is dead, a new king is on the throne (and most happily in bed with Hamlet’s cheerful mother), a royal summons, then the Ghost makes his demands “In the dead vast and middle of the night.” It is enough that your name is Hamlet. That is what tragedy means – unexpected inheritances. He tells his companions, “Nay, come, let’s go together.” They depart together, but Hamlet is essentially alone. Throughout the play, he is regularly present in the bustle of the court, but almost totally isolated, absorbed by and cultivating his spiritual solitudes. The secret of the night isolates him. Whom can he trust? How far? Horatio is the dear, trusted friend, but overall, even he sees and knows so little (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”). The young woman Hamlet loves passionately, rejects him in his time of greatest need, returns his gifts, lies in his face. After the council scene Hamlet is so alone (largely by his own choosing), confused, bitter. Now he almost defines himself as the external observer. So suddenly he has, in effect, lost both of his parents. Old Hamlet is dead and Gertrude eagerly shares the royal bed with the new, smiling, efficient King, and Hamlet is the orphan Prince, basically held under palace arrest.

The title of the play is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and the reference “prince of Denmark,” rare in Shakespeare, is significant. Hamlet is not a private person; as Laertes tells Ophelia, “his will is not his own. / For he himself is subject to his birth,” and “on his choice depends / The safety and health of this whole state.” This is both a domestic and a highly charged political play. A Prince has major public duties and responsibilities. Laertes can go to Paris, but Hamlet must stay. Claudius keeps close watch on him, “Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye.” (In Shakespeare’s time one needed permission to travel abroad.) Denmark is at grave risk, both from within and without, and Hamlet can not overlook either threat. Claudius, Polonius, Laertes all speak of Hamlet as the heir apparent, and how can he kill an elected king, a stepfather, an uncle, and not endanger the stability of the state, especially since he has been identified as being next in line? And so Hamlet, Prince and Renaissance scholar from Wittenberg, insultingly, is held in Elsinore, that corrupt court of duplicity, intrigue, masquerade, spying, murder, unable to leave, unable to speak openly.

Hamlet is a dramatically long play, but almost all of the action is anchored in Elsinore. We have a strong awareness of geographical expanses, of journeys in all directions, ambassadors, messengers, students, players, coming and going, but until sent on his journey to England (to face a covert death sentence) Hamlet is neatly trapped at Elsinore (“I pray thee, stay with us, go not to Wittenberg”). On Shakespeare’s un-localized stage action could easily move, instantaneously, from place to place as, for example, in the vast Antony and Cleopatra. Here Shakespeare wants to keep both Hamlet and, even more importantly, us anchored and grounded at Elsinore. It is a place full of secrets, ghosts, bad memories and dreams, rumors and talk of murder most foul, people hiding behind drapes, watching, spying, listening, observing, even a father using his ever-so-young daughter as sexual bait.

The play opens with sentries nervously watching in the bitterly cold night. Horatio, the scholar, with his supposed special insight, watches too. Then, “I will watch tonight,” Hamlet declares. Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on his son in Paris. Claudius and Polonius watch both Ophelia and Hamlet. Hamlet watches Claudius at prayers. Polonius watches in the Queen’s closet. Before the play within the play, Hamlet requests that Horatio, “Observe my uncle.” In the Mousetrap scene we have watchers watching the watchers, and we, in the audience, observe them all. “Follow her close,” Claudius tells Gertrude about Ophelia, “give her good watch, I pray you.” After the graveyard scene Claudius tells Gertrude, “set some watch over your son.” In Elsinore someone is always watching someone or something. The court watch and take part in the formal celebratory council scene (I,2). They watch Hamlet’s aborted Mousetrap performance. They watch the fascinating fencing match between the praised Prince and the highly lauded Laertes, a match which turns out to be a deadly fraud, an occasion for murder and the elimination of the entire Danish leadership.

Language of Watching and Performing

Elsinore is a dramatic place for watching because so much of what goes on is performance, deliberate playing, pretense, on a public stage, on so many levels. Daily activities provide a dense and consummate self-conscious theatrical awareness, of life as play, of existence as acting, playing, performing, of individual events as a play within a larger play. Maynard Mack writes that in this play everyone plays, “every major personage in the tragedy is a player in some sense, and every major episode a play.” Hamlet has a vivid sense of self-awareness, as does Claudius, a great actor, who plays so well at being the rightful king. Polonius has been an actor, and continues to play as long as he can, and so do Laertes and Ophelia. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can not play a pipe, but they will repeatedly try to play on Hamlet, who, eventually, will play upon them. The appearance of the ghost is a play-within-the play, as is the Mousetrap performance, an astonishingly complex and revealing event. The Ophelia conversation with Hamlet is a performance. The king at prayer is empty play, for he is neither praying nor repenting. The fencing match is supposed to be a sporting “play,” but the play swords are killing swords. Hamlet himself behaves a self-consciously, deliberately defined theatrical creature, regularly perceiving himself as an actor. His first appearance, dressed in his “inky cloak,” a public sign of a young man’s rebellion, is basically costuming. He loves the theater, has attended it, knows it, loves it, recites a long speech about Pyrrhus from memory impressively and effectively (Polonius, the ever-ready critic, bursts out, ‘Fore God, my lord, well spoken, with good accent, and good discretion”), he writes lines for the player, directs their performance, provides critical commentary, puts on the “antic disposition,” and eventually plays many parts. He also knows, with full theatrical awareness, that “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” With Hamlet the continual challenge is to try to decide when he is acting and when he might be himself, whatever that mystery might be.

A most important and significant dimension of the play is, of course, its language. In Hamlet, the English language, so vivid, complex, copious, surprising, rich in its essence, seems to explode and radiate out to all kinds of new possibilities, providing us with a feast of words. Scholars inform us that in Hamlet we hear some 170 words used for the first time in the English language, some 600 words used by Shakespeare for the first time here. Hamlet is dramatically in love with words, wild and whirling words, savoring them, playing with them. He writes them, evidently reads them extensively, savors the multiple uses of language, both straight and ironically. Polonius asks him, “What do you read, my lord?” and the response is the direct, “words, words, words,” but as we know, words to the ear can have such multiple meanings. In this play of mystery, so much is provided through the interplay of words, the battle of language, read, shouted, declaimed. Hamlet offers a virtuosic display of the power and variety of language. We hear the private and personal Hamlet, in his many different voices, as well as the “mad” one for the court (“…I essentially am not in madness,/ But mad in craft.” We hear the remarkably smooth and effective Claudius, like all of Shakespeare’s great villains, a master of rhetorical manipulation of language, to both persuade and seduce. We hear sententious Polonius, dispensing advise as witticism, and the predictable language of the typical avenger – “I will drink blood.”

But ultimately, we find that in this play, Just like Denmark, language too becomes infected, corrupted, contaminated. It is twisted, distorted, manipulated. Appropriately, as called for in the plot, it lacks clarity, crispness, precision. Often, it does not mean, does not signify. False words are dangerous, for they are, as Plato noted, not just evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. Claudius admits it: “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” We also have too much talk of all kinds. I think of T.S.Eliot, “Where shall the word be found, where will the word Resound?/ Not here, there is not enough silence.” When the play comes to its completion Hamlet embraces silence, but is overwhelmed by shouts, speeches, cannon fire.

A Contaminated, Sick Place

Elsinore is a contaminated place for a play of any kind. At the beginning, Francisco, that “honest” soldier, declares, “I am sick at heart.” So are many. End of the play Hamlet tells Horatio, “Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart.” In Denmark, things are decadent and “rotten,” as Marcellus describes it. The practices are sordid, corrupt, devious. The events we see and hear about are dramatically foul, foul murders and foul practices. Claudius confesses that “my offense is rank, it smells to heaven”, and he is the king, defining the nation. Eventually, the gravedigger, that ultimate normative figure, in discussing how long it takes a body to decay, makes mention of the “many pocky corses nowadays that will scarce hold the laying in,” and these are the bodies of those infected with the “pox.” For centuries, the perceived major health threat (apart from the plague), was the pox, small and great. Far more people died from the small pox in the 20th century than in all the wars combined, and its almost complete eradication was the greatest public health success of the century. The “Great Pox,” that notoriously wide-spread venereal disease, continues, of course, to plague the world, and the Denmark of Hamlet seems to have more than its share of those infected.

Denmark is presented as polluted and sick, and within it, poisoning of all kinds seems to be widespread. The play essentially begins with a report of a royal death by poison, ends with multiple deaths by poison, with poison on the sword and in the cup. In the middle of the play, in the Mousetrap scene, we see a vivid re-enactment of death by poison – “they do but jest, poison in jest” – but in this play little is done purely in jest, especially poisoning. Claudius, of course, is the chief poisoner. Both, Hamlet’s father and Gertrude, die of Claudius’poison. Claudius poisons not only them, but also Laerte’s mind, language, his very being. Through that king eventually the whole kingdom seems to have become contaminated and infected.

For Hamlet, so much of this corruption is grounded in sexuality, in mere lust, as he perceives it, public, extravagant, embarrassing. Like a pained and frustrated teen-ager, Hamlet lashes out against his mother’s remarriage, done with “wicked speed,” “such dexterity to incestuous sheets.” Old Hamlet is hardly dead, body still warm, and the prince’s mother, aflame with lust, as he perceives it, has married again, and with despicable, unctuous uncle Claudius! Old Hamlet’s younger brother! “O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason / Would have mourned longer,” he complains. “Within a month,” “a little month,” dear God! “Honor thy father and thy mother,” the Lord God sayeth, but in Hamlet’s mind this remarriage is a stinking whirlwind of lust, sexual passion, incest, adultery. His mother, in bed with slimy, smiling uncle Claudius, that “damned villain”. “O most pernicious woman,” he complains, “in the rank sweat of an unseamed bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty – .” The emotional coloring is vivid – sweaty bodies in a semen filled bed, stewing in corruption, making physical love over a sty – a pen for pigs.

Young Hamlet does have a vivid, colorful imagination. But sadly, in rejecting life as he sees it – contaminated, corrupted and infected, and with sex as the driving force, and marriage as the institution for continuation – he also rejects young Ophelia and intimacy with a loved young woman. In the graveyard scene he screams, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum,” but to her he lies, “I loved you not.” Life is nasty, nasty, nasty, and “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” “Get thee to a nunnery,” he tells her, and the double meaning of “nunnery,” a convent for nuns or a brothel, captures the two extreme possibilities for escaping from a hypocritical, corrupted life. Whatever his reasons, Hamlet’s behavior with Ophelia is quite abominable.

The awareness that things in Denmark have gone terribly wrong is introduced early in the play. “O Hamlet, what a falling off was there,” wails the Ghost. “From me” to “garbage.” Despite the obvious self-interest, the falling-off is increasingly apparent. Instead of the grizzled old warrior-king Denmark is ruled by “a king of shreds and patches,” “a vice of kings, / A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,” a smooth and false player rodent king. Hamlet’s glorification of his late father is understandably excessive (“See what a grace was seated on this brow: / Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself, / An eye like Mars to threaten and command,” etc.), but Claudius clearly is a villain, a murderer, a seducer, a treacherous serpent in the garden. In the opening scene Horatio narrates how old Hamlet, challenged by the proud Fortinbras, “Did slay this Fortinbras,” but in honorable open combat, “Well ratified by law and heraldry,” recognized by all. Now Denmark has a king who works with hidden schemes, smiling secret agents everywhere, and ultimately poison. The Queen, with startling haste, has leapt into a most public incestuous marriage. Nightly the court drinks and carouses. Hamlet himself, playing roles, wearing masks, trying to deal with an incredibly complex and stressful situation, behaves strangely, badly, wildly, at times becoming the public fool and mad. “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” Ophelia sadly remarks. “The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,” and so much more, are all “quite, quite down!” is “noble and most sovereign reason” now seems “Like sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh.” Ophelia herself will soon fall into genuine madness. Laertes is so quickly and easily seduced, and he descends into a world of treachery, lies, and poison, eager “To cut his [Hamlet’s] throat i’ th’ church!” Yorrick – “I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” Hamlet exclaims. But, “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?” That was then; now we have a smelly, rotting skull. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” we read in the Bible. Language is sacred, a bedrock foundation for civilization and human discourse, a means of poetic celebration, but here we see and hear the betrayers of language, the perverters of language, and in the lengthy last scene Oscric, that foppish, ridiculous waterfly, a grotesque mangler of words, is also the King’s messenger and the referee for the fencing match. Hard to imagine old Hamlet having such a twit anywhere nearby.

In his first soliloquy, right after the council scene, Hamlet sees the world around him as “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed,” and where “Things rank and gross in nature” possess it entirely, and this is before he even meets the Ghost and hears of the murder. The archetypal pastoral setting, the Garden of Eden, that splendid place, repeatedly declared “good” by God, has been betrayed and lost. The garden now is infected, full of fat weeds. Denmark too seems to have been a good place, but now is sadly fallen, with a killing serpent in the garden, and as the Ghost declares, “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown.” And beds his wife. Claudius is fully aware that he is guilty of a brother’s murder, that has the “primal eldest curse” upon it, that this murder of lust and usurpation has strong mythic overtones. The reality, of course, is that we all live in a fallen, post-lapsarian world, where evil is deep-seated and extensive, and the memory of Eden distant. Hamlet knows that even such figures as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be trusted only as “adders fanged.”

I think of that ever wise Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s loyal companion in Cervantes’ classic book: “We are all as God made us, but many of us much worse.” The gravedigger points out that Adam was the first gardener, but now he himself seems to be gardener of the time, singing and planting the bodies as they come. Despite all the flower imagery in this play, the graveyard becomes in many ways the normative pastoral place.

Hamlet – The Dominating Figure

Within the world of fallen Elsinore the enigmatic and fascinating Hamlet dominates. (He has some 40% of the lines in this play.) He mocks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for attempting to “pluck out the heart of my mystery” while continuing to wrap himself in layers of mystery. The subtitle identifies him as “Prince of Denmark,” with profound responsibilities for the safety and stability of the state. In the graveyard scene Hamlet publicly takes on his father’s royal title – “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane.” To his mother Hamlet calls himself heaven’s “scourge and minister,” the Biblical overtones suggesting the hammer of God in action. In the Mousetrap scene, Ophelia remarks to the frenzied Hamlet, “You are merry, my lord.” “Who, I?” “Ay, my lord.” “O God, your only [the very best] jig-maker.” It is a striking self-description. The jig was the lively dance, typically performed by the fools and clowns, which followed the serious play, and the Prince knows how to become the very best court fool, the jester of the universe, a self-determined outcast, playing and riddling with words, roles and masks, shifting appearances, making much of the play a comedy, even a farce.

His identity seems to be constantly shifting. This young man in black can be melancholy and mad, or merry, witty, and sarcastic. He is strikingly complex and intelligent, deeply aware of the situation, the issues, the conflicts, the multiple possibilities. He is the avenger who reads books, who thinks and reflects, drawing upon a wealth of sources, from pagan and tribal attitudes, medieval values and codes, Renaissance humanism. He is the Renaissance Prince, a courtier, soldier, scholar. He commands the resources of language, reads, writes, recites speeches, works as an actor, director, playwright, on stage and in life, orders actors, plays with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and eventually, literally, writes them out of the play. He is also an intensely self-focused teen-ager, passionate, idealistic, frustrated (depressed even before the Ghost’s message—“How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!”), devastated to find out that the world is corrupt and his mother a highly charged sexual creature.

What to make of Hamlet is the never-ending challenge for everyone. Claudius is justified in his deep suspicions of Hamlet’s dangerous and disruptive presence. Polonius sees powerful love sickness at work. Gertrude is much more perceptive; Hamlet’s “distemper” is caused by “His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage.” Ophelia sees the tragedy of a noble mind “o’erthrown,” but ironically, Hamlet at this point is intensely focused, ready to move.

Viewpoints and Interpretations

Through the centuries Hamlet has been heroic, intellectual, melancholic, hesitant, mad, poetic, courteous, brutal, dynamic, rebellious, bawdy, a thousand different kinds of Fortune’s Fool. The Romantics, from Goethe, Coleridge, Hazlitt, and beyond, overlooking the rash, passionate, cruel Hamlet saw him as the sweet melancholy prince, with delicacy of feelings, a moral nature, too good for the ugly world in which he finds himself, a delicate flower, a frail beauty. Some stressed his indecision, others his thoroughness in verifying facts in pursuit of the truth. As I have noted, every production of this play is a reinterpretation of this mysterious character.

We can not even agree on certain basics. How old is Hamlet, for example? Everything in the play suggests a very young man, still in school (Laertes warns his sister about Hamlet’s youthful trifling). Then, in the graveyard scene the gravedigger refers to Yorick, the King’s jester, whom Hamlet knew well; Yorick has lain in the ground “three and twenty years.” In the Mousetrap scene, echoing current events, the Player King and Queen have seen 30 years pass “Since love our hearts, and Hymen did our hands, / Unite commutual in most sacred bands.” Something seems confusing, if not wrong here. Hamlet’s behavior fits a very young man: a thirty-year old in Shakespeare’s day would have been a middle-aged man. Among Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights, for example, Marlowe was killed at 29, Kyd died at 36, Nashe at 34, Beaumont at 36, Fletcher at 46. For a Hamlet of 30 to talk dirty to the teen-age Ophelia sets up strange overtones, as does his passion about sexuality in the talk with his mother. It is true that in performance we respond to the flow of the action, and logical details are not something that we immediately examine, but some decision about Hamlet’s age must be made.

Of course, what complicates things further is that, in the production history of the play, in many cases the actor, almost inevitably, has been anything but a young man. The original Hamlet was played by Richard Burbage who was in his thirties, but through the ages leading actors, Garrick, Macready, Edwin Booth, etc., played Hamlet till they retired, and Thomas Betterton in the Restoration was admired as a superb Hamlet when he was in his seventies. And what is Hamlet’s appearance? In the dueling scene, Gertrude notes, “He’s fat, and scant of breath.” Editors point out that fat could mean sweaty (“Here Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows”), and fencing indeed will make one sweat, but it is interesting to note that when Burbage played Hamlet he weighed some 240 pounds, hardly the melancholy wisp of the romantics. In the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy Hamlet asks, who “Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?” When is the last we have seen a Hamlet with a beard?

Appearance questions aside, which in any case are largely resolved by casting decisions, Hamlet’s shifting identities seem to me to be directly related to his ongoing struggle to define himself as an intelligent, responsible, effective, noble, moral human being in an uncertain world filled with intrigue, betrayal, evil, even a royal murder. “What is a man,” he asks, “If his chief good and market [profit] of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast no more.” If not a beast, then what? According to the common thought of the time, man was created little lower than God, in His own image, crowned with glory, then because of free will and deliberate disobedience, man fell, became a slave to sin and death, and now stands between grace and renewal in righteousness and corruption and damnation.

“What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” Hamlet demands. Polonius’ advice to his son, “This above all, to thine own self be true,” is profoundly important. Polonius thinks little about what being true to oneself means; Hamlet can not stop thinking about it. “To be or not to be” is usually considered narrowly in terms of existence; I see the question applied much more broadly to a series of choices, to be what? A Wittenberg Renaissance scholar? A royal Prince living a life of luxury under Claudius’ watchful eye? A lover? A writer/actor? The Ghost out of the past demands that Hamlet revenge the foul murder, right the world’s wrongs. Eventually, of course, all roles lead but to the graveyard, where Alexander and Caesar and court jesters and lawyers and lovers meet, but in the meantime, how does one live so that it can be said, “This was a man!”?

The demand for revenge in the context of this play becomes incredibly complicated. The cause for revenge is undeniable (“a father killed, a mother stained”), and Claudius, “He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother, / Popped in between th’ election, and my hopes,” is evil and must be eliminated. In the “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy, Hamlet, now alone, able to unburden, thinking of Claudius, bursts out, “Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless [unnatural] villain! / O, vengeance!” But the killing must have a significance, a meaning, the death must reveal the evil done. A mere accident will not suffice. And what proof does Hamlet have? The voice of a most dubious and weird Ghost in the night. For this you kill an elected king? Even after the Mousetrap performance, all Hamlet has is that the King was upset by it. After the prayer scene we know Claudius’ guilt; Hamlet only suspects. Still, he is emotionally trapped. As Anne Barton observes, “Hamlet can neither kill Claudius in cold blood nor decide to ignore his father’s injunction without violating something in his innermost nature.” We see a violent juxtaposition of different codes, values, beliefs. The revenge genre is essentially amoral, direct, decisive, active, simplistic, bloody, violent. A Renaissance Prince comes from a world of intellect, reason, awareness of complexity and consequences. And Hamlet, the Wittenberg scholar, largely because of that mysterious ghost in the night, has been given the role of the bloody avenger – “O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right.”

The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul
by Archibald I. Leyasmeyer - Part 3

What Is Revenge For?

But more importantly we are made to confront the basic questions of revenge’s place in a civilized society. “Eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” we read in Exodus. Eye for an eye, not a hundred for one. By the time Matthew records the teachings of Jesus, we hear, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” In the Western Judeo-Christian world personal revenge has been outlawed, replaced by justice, and, as has been discussed, Shakespeare sets the 11th century pre-Christian Hamlet tale directly within a Renaissance Christian context. Similarly, in the classical Greek tradition, as we see in the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, bloody revenge cycles on and on, blood will have blood, generation after generation, until Athena eventually establishes a new law of mercy and transforms the avenging Furies into the Eumenides, the protectors of all supplicants for mercy. Civilizations must transcend personal revenge, must depend on justice and the rule of law. Personal revenge becomes both illegal and a mortal sin, basically, a murder, destroying the villain as well as the revenger. But what to do if the murderer is the king himself, the upholder of law and justice, and the very health of the state is at stake?

The revenge tragedy, from Seneca to Kyd and beyond has been wildly popular, and in Shakespeare’s day these bloody, emotional, intense presentations, with murders, ghosts, screaming voices, extravagant language, had the popularity of today’s horror films. One thinks of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1587), John Webster’s The White Devil (1612), The Duchess of Malfi (1613). Shakespeare’s early Titus Andronicus is a revenge play, and so in a sense are Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and even Romeo and Juliet. Revenge on the stage or screen can seem attractively direct and clean and pure; in real life it becomes increasingly messy and complicated. Hamlet strikes through the tapestry, assuming that Claudius is there, kills poor Polonius, essentially an innocent, and the reverberations start—Ophelia goes mad, Laertes comes back from Paris, the wild-eyed revenger, willing “To cut his throat i’ th’ church,” to commit sacrilege, to dare damnation, eventually to murder most treacherously. “Revenge should have no bounds,” smooth Claudius urges him on with a comment that violates all codes of behavior.

But finally the past is essentially irredeemable; the damage has been done. As Hamlet discovers, to oppose evil means eventually to partake of it, and it is difficult to be an aware, thinking avenger. A crime is revenged by another crime, and one becomes “a little soiled i’ th’ working,” to use Polonius’ marvelous phrase.

Some years ago Clint Eastwood, who made his reputation playing memorable revenger roles, directed and starred in the brilliant film Unforgiven, in which his character, Will Munny, re-learns and teaches us that revenge is a brutal and messy business, starting with the murder of a man sitting in an outhouse, that the past can never be overcome, that the cinematic revenge myths misrepresent so badly. Steven Spielberg’s current film, Munich, about the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes during the l972 Olympics by Palestinian killers, has created an intense controversy. Israel’s response was, “the world must see that killing Jews is an expensive proposition,” as it sent out the assassination squads. The Prime Minister character, Golda Meir, states, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Spielberg makes the Israeli assassins question what they are doing, and the audience reactions rage on.

Why not pure, absolute, bloody revenge? The cause is just. What is the problem? Or, why become complicit in never-ending bloody killings? Are we not lowering ourselves to the level of the Palestinian murderers? These are not merely abstract or ancient questions. We deal with them on a daily basis, and as Helen Gardner observes, “Hamlet’s agony of mind and indecision are precisely the things which differentiate him from that smooth, swift plotter Claudius, and from the coarse, unthinking Laertes.”

In the revenge tradition, the more one simplifies, the cleaner and more direct everything becomes. The information is correct, the messengers are true, one’s perceptions are accurate, the killings are good and clean. In the delicious film, The Princess Bride, the wonderful Mandy Patinkin character announces, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Pure, direct, perfect, just as we like it, just as it should be. In the l993 film, The Last Action Hero (promising premise, poor execution), Danny, a teenager in love with screen action heroes, especially Jack Slater (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, doing a parody of the Terminator figure), finds himself in an High-School English class where Hamlet is taught, ironically by Joan Plowright, Lawrence Olivier’s widow. She shows film clips from Olivier’s famous Hamlet, and the kid looks at the screen, his bored classmates, and mentally pleads, “Don’t talk, just do it!” The film immediately moves into a fantasy trailer for Hamlet as Danny would have it. Arnold as Hamlet, growls, “You killed my father. Big mistake,” and all kinds of mayhem follow in Elsinore. He throws Claudius through a stained-glass window, violently strikes out in all directions, totally wrecks the place, even uses Yorrick’s skull as a weapon. “Stay thy hand fair prince,” is the plea, and his response is the curt, “Who said I’m fair?” He starts the “To be or not to be” speech, lights a cigar, declares, “not to be,” touches a wire with the cigar, and all of Elsinore explodes in flamboyant flames. The voice over announces, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and “Hamlet is taking out the trash.” Seductive indeed.

Layers of Complexity

But Hamlet operates on another level of complexity altogether, and Shakespeare, as always, mirrors and multiplies the crucial developments. In this play three young men seek revenge for the deaths of their fathers. Hamlet has “a father killed, a mother stained,” and Claudius is responsible for the foul murder. The death of Polonius was an accident, and Ophelia’s madness a tragic development, but impulsive Laertes burns to have his revenge on Hamlet, even to the point of damnation. Young Fortinbras lurks about with his outlaw army, seeking to revenge his father, slain by old Hamlet. He has the least cause for revenge, for old Hamlet slew old Fortinbras in honorable combat, “Well ratified by law and heraldry.”

But so often overlooked in discussions of the revenge theme in this play is the profoundly important tale of another revenger, Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, who was killed by Paris. According to the classical legends, after the devastating destruction of great Troy, the few survivors dispersed, seeking refuge in far off places. Aeneas, a significant Trojan warrior, married to a daughter of King Priam, escaped the burning Troy carrying his father Anchises on his back and settled in Carthage, a powerful, major city in North Africa, and became the lover of Dido, the famous Carthage Queen. (Historically, the Trojan war took place ca. 1,200 BC, and Dido ruled ca. 800 BC, but in the world of legends historical time often matters little.) Virgil in the Aeneid narrates his escapes, travels, adventures.

According to the legends, eventually the gods command Aeneas to go to Italy, where his adventures continue, and he becomes the father of Roman emperors, but the abandoned and distraught Dido has a funeral pyre built on the shore and dies amidst the flames while gazing on the departing ship. The story of Pyrrhus and the murder of Priam, the King of Troy, is narrated by Aeneas for Dido, reporting on what he has seen and survived. This dramatic material of the fall of Troy and the adventures of the survivors was most familiar in Shakespeare’s age, partially because it was widely believed that Englishmen were descended from Trojan refugees who settled in England. The stories permeated the literature of the day, and Shakespeare himself wrote the Rape of Lucrece (1594), a narrative poem of 1855 lines, in which Lucrece sees Troy destroyed, and “she despairing Hecuba beheld, / Staring on Priam’s wounds with her old eyes, / Which bleeding under Pyrrhus proud foot lies.” “Lo, here weeps Hecuba, here Priam dies, / Here manly Hector faints, here Troilus swounds, / Here friend by friend in bloody channel lies,” and so on. Priam was the aged King of Troy, with some 50 sons and 12 daughters, and Hecuba, who becomes almost an emblem of terrible suffering, was his second wife and the mother of Troilus, Hector, Paris, Cassandra.

Traveling Players and the “Mousetrap”

When the Players arrive, Hamlet demands “a passionate speech.” “What speech, my good lord?” What Hamlet wants is “Aeneas’ tale to Dido…especially when he speaks of Priam’s slaughter,” full of the concentrated imagery of revenge savagery. The play he had so enjoyed at Wittenberg, now impacts on his own situation, and is so much more than merely impressive theatrical art. Hamlet is so eager that he actually delivers a fourth of the speech himself, using epic language and narrative, intensely vivid emotional coloring, getting the first line wrong, trying to associate the “Rugged Pyrrhus” with a predatory tiger. The description of Pyrrhus Hamlet gives is startling. Instead of a warrior in armor, we see a savage figure in the dark night, smeared in black, covered with gore and dried blood, “With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,” just crawled out of the treacherous Trojan horse, a cinematic monster, a figure straight out of Apocalypse Now. “Roasted in wrath and fire, / And thus o’ersized [smeared over] with coagulate gore, / With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus / Old grandsire Priam seeks.” This is a ravaging relentless avenger from hell, a picture of black and red, with the burning Troy in the background.

Then the Player picks up Aeneas’ tale to Dido and makes it memorably theatrical, full of vivid visual details. (Harry Levin suggests that Shakespeare, who almost certainly played the Ghost, quite possibly also played the First Player—the two parts often are done by the same actor—in which case we have a fascinating demonstration by Shakespeare of the power of his craft.) When the Greeks came out from the horse at night, and general slaughter started, Priam and Hecuba fled to the altar of Zeus where Pyrrhus finds them. Priam’s “antique sword, / Rebellious to his arm, lies where it falls,” and the old king is defenseless. “Pyrrhus at Priam drives, in rage strikes wide, / But with the whiff and wind of his fell sword / Th’ unnerved father falls.” Pyrrhus strikes, then “his sword, / Which was declining on the milky head / Of reverend Priam, seemed i’ th’ air to stick,” and we get a frozen cinematic image: “as a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood, / And like a neutral to his will and matter / Did nothing.” But the pause is momentary, and then Pyrrhus’ “bleeding sword / Now falls on Priam.” And falls and falls. Hecuba the aged queen, barefoot, a rag on her head, wrapped in a blanket, weeps and wails in the night while Pyrrhus makes “malicious sport / In mincing with his sword her husband’s limbs.” We have a picture of hellish brutality, as Shakespeare takes the description of Priam’s slaughter far beyond what is in the sources.

Obviously, Hamlet wants an emotional story of revenge in action to stir him, and after the Player’s speech Hamlet delivers the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy in which he violently berates himself—“Yet I , / A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak / Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, / And can say nothing.” Nor do anything. “Am I a coward?” Hamlet sees himself like the image of Pyrrhus with sword raised, ready to act but frozen. But what is striking about the Pyrrhus narrative is that revenge is portrayed as hellish, savage butchery, and we sympathize with the old, unarmed, white-haired Priam, lying on the ground helpless, being cut to pieces, with the tragic Hecuba, running “barefoot up and down,” wrapped in a blanket, weeping and lamenting in the night. We are moved by the vast slaughter and suffering, the “fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,” brutally killed, by the fall of Troy, the fall of a city, a civilization. Pyrrhus is a monster. The gods care not, pity not, but the Player does and weeps. “For Hecuba!” Hamlet exclaims. “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?” The question obviously points to the power of the imagination (after all, what is Hamlet to us, or Harry Potter, Willy Loman, the Lord of the Rings characters, the Corleone clan, or even Tinkerbelle?), but within the context what is striking that the Player is moved by pity, by human sympathy. The hellish Pyrrhus is hardly the inspirational model Hamlet seeks. At the end of the soliloquy Hamlet realizes full well “The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil, and the devil hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits, / Abuses me to damn me.” This is dangerous territory for Hamlet, and he knows it. Revenge also almost immediately isolates Hamlet from his larger community. The revenger’s world is, by definition, secretive, solitary, given to reflection and introspection, meditation on justice, the meaning of things, the significance of actions taken or not taken. It is a very lonely existence in a cold and cruel world.

Laertes, passionate, impulsive, is a sad and tragic avenger. He returns from Paris in haste, gets his information wrong, with his riotous rabble breaks down the palace doors, threatens to kill the King. “I’ll not be juggled with,” he screams to Claudius, who of course, smoothly, coolly, brilliantly juggles him and quickly seduces him into treachery. Laertes knows little, feels intensely, is ready to act immediately. “To hell allegiance, vows to the blackest devil, / Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit! / I dare damnation,” is his devastating declaration. So quickly he is false to himself, his values, his honor. He cheats, lies, stabs Hamlet from the back. Claudius suggests using the killing sword, Laertes putting poison on the tip. He is even willing “To cut his throat i’ th’ church!”, and the surprised Claudius observes that, “Revenge should have no bounds,” a frightening position indeed.

Fortinbras, the third avenger, the ambitious military man (his name means “strong in arms”), is mentioned often, but seen only two times and briefly. He is an opportunist, a predator with his outlaw army, “lawless resolutes.” He actually has little to avenge. His father, old Fortinbras, challenged old Hamlet, the combat was agreed on, lawful, honorable as these things go, and old Fortinbras lost. But young Fortinbras wants the Danish lands, the military victory, the reputation. His uncle, the king of Norway (paid off by Claudius), forbids him to invade Denmark, and gives him money to go and fight the poor Poles over a worthless piece of land. He is willing to lose thousands of men just for the military glory—“no profit but the name.” Hamlet in his misery admires this decisive man of action, “Witness this army of such mass and charge, / Led by a delicate and tender prince,” he observes, but Fortinbras is anything but delicate and tender. He is the superficial action hero, shallow, dangerous. He defies his King of Norway, the invalid uncle, violates his father’s honorable agreement, casually is willing to accept “The imminent death of twenty thousand men,” and for nothing, “a little patch of ground,” worth no more than an eggshell, just to gain a reputation. He hardly is a fit inspiration for Hamlet or a model for righteous revenge, but he is the hard and alien leader who will rule Denmark.

What emerges from the play’s extensive and varied considerations of revenge, from Pyrrhus to Fortinbras, is a deep awareness that revenge in this fallen world is a pretty nasty business. Revenge means killing, murder, the risk of damnation. Revenge is so appealing in abstract, but in reality it can be soul-destroying. The revenger has to enter the world of the wrong-doer, descend to that level, dirty oneself, become “a little soiled i’ th’ working.” Hamlet tries so hard to do what is right, but then discovers that by mistake he has killed an innocent man, destroyed an innocent Ophelia, and the evils multiply.

At the end of Act I Hamlet knows that “the time is out of joint,” that it is a “cursed spite” that he “was born to set it right,” that he desperately needs to buy time, and so the decision is “To put an antic disposition on,” which becomes both a protective device and an effective delaying tactic. The “antic disposition” becomes a mask, a masquerade, an empowering move. He can run the show, as he does with the Mousetrap performance, behave wildly and rudely, make everyone try to figure out what are the causes, the motives. In many ways he himself becomes a mousetrap.

Madness as Self-protection

Hamlet mad is much more free to act, to speak openly, sarcastically, daringly, like the court fool. Madness also becomes quite protective; one does not readily kill a madman, especially when he is the Prince. Pyrrhus hides in the Trojan horse (briefly), Hamlet behind his mask of madness and both of them plot revenge. The Romantic Age was attracted to and emphasized Hamlet’s madness, and often he was played as truly raving mad, but as he tells Gertrude, “I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft.” Claudius suspects him throughout, and the shrewd Polonius concludes that “though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

Playing a role, wearing a mask, even a naked mask, both liberates and limits. The mask hides, protects, permits all kinds of new possibilities, which is why so many of us regularly pray, “Give us this day our daily mask.” But the mask can also entrap, and ever so quickly. Marcel Marceau, the great French mime, regularly presented a skit, “The Maskmaker.” Voicelessly, a table was indicated, on it a series of imagined masks. He would pick up one, a warrior mask, and with great pleasure heroically strut about. The mimed mask came off, blank face, then a coy maiden’s mask, then two or three more. Finally, a clown’s mask, big, exaggerated grin, exaggerated movements. Then he tried to take the mask off, but it would not budge. Frantically he would tear at it, but no movement, and the audience would perceive a dramatic juxtaposition between the body (at first surprised, then terror-stricken) and the grinning, frozen face of a clown’s face. Eventually Marceau would be on the floor, writhing about in absolute panic, the masked face grinning, then blackout. We so regularly put on masks and embrace roles, believing that we can readily discard them at will, but does the mask not have its unexpected impact and shaping influence?

The Player narrating Aeneas’ tragic tale to Dido weeps. What’s Hecuba to him, indeed? Hamlet plays mad for a long time, and is he completely unaffected by the role? In the duel scene he asks Laertes, “Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong,” but then continues, claiming that the reason “was madness.” “If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away, / And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes, / Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. / Who does it then? His madness.” No surprise then that such a tragic sadness surrounds the Prince.

With the arrival of the Players at Elsinore, the action of the play speeds up dramatically. In quick succession we have the vivid account of Priam’s slaughter by the hellish Pyrrhus, participate in the complex Mousetrap performance, hear Hamlet mock Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius, see him observe the King at false prayers, visit his mother in her private chamber, rashly kill Polonius, become the hunted killer (“Hide fox, and all after!”), and then be shipped off to England. Events rush on so quickly that the story of Hamlet’s sea-voyage, the discovery of the letters, the brilliant forgery that dooms Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the sea fight with the pirates, the escape on the pirate ship, the return to Denmark, a marvelous picaresque adventure worthy of an Errol Flynn film, of necessity, is telescoped and merely given in a brief summary.

As mentioned, Hamlet is a play of deep philosophical inquiry, operating consistently in the interrogative mode, but at the same time it is an exuberant adventure story, violent, loud, full of the sounds of carousing, trumpets, drums, cannons. A lawless mob breaks down the palace doors, swords flash everywhere, Laertes and Hamlet fight in the graveyard. In the popular perception, partially as a result of the Romantic and later 19th century traditions (the Goethe/Coleridge influence has remained surprisingly powerful), Hamlet is often thought of as a soft, slight, delicate, even feminine figure, alone on the stage, sorrowfully reflecting on life and death. In fact, this is a dramatically physical play, down to the last fight scene, and Hamlet is a vigorous, intense, passionate, muscular figure, possessed of fiery quickness. We hear an energetic, dynamic, even dangerous playing with words and thoughts. He demands of the Player a “passionate speech.” We also see a Hamlet who in the last scene turns out to be a stunningly superior swordsman to the highly praised Laertes. “My lord, I’ll hit him now,” the desperate Laertes promises, and Claudius can only remark sadly, “I do not think’t.”

Gertrude reports that Hamlet, “hearing something stir, / Whips out his rapier, cries, ‘A rat, a rat!’ / And…kills,” which is the behavior of an action hero. Later he tells Gertrude, “I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room. / Mother, good night,” and off he goes to hide the body in a cupboard. When confronted by the King, “Now Hamlet, where’s Polonius?”, he can play with black humor, “At supper.” “At supper? Where?” “Not where he eats, but where ‘a is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him.” This is much closer to the world of Quentin Tarantino than that of the musing Romantics. Daringly Hamlet confronts the Ghost, despite all the warnings, daringly he stages the very public, insulting, and dangerous Mousetrap performance, on the ship, daringly he goes at night to steal and forge the letters, to jump to the pirate ship. In the scene with Gertrude, Hamlet promises that as for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he will “blow them at the moon.” Their deaths are not accidental.

Delays in Taking Action?

An absurd amount of critical attention has been given to Hamlet’s supposed irresponsible delay in executing the demanded revenge, his supposed paralysis of will. I know that the Ghost accuses Hamlet of delaying (“This visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose”), and that Hamlet in his fits of passion regularly flagellates himself for not having acted, but I do not see this as a major issue. Delay is built into the very fabric of this play. The Ghost appears repeatedly but will not speak till Hamlet comes. Hamlet’s meeting with the Ghost is long delayed. The resolution of the Fortinbras sub-plot is delayed till the last minute. In the play, apart from the Ghost and Hamlet himself, no one ever complains about his delaying, and at the end we hear only praise for him. The supposed delay is not even much of an issue till the 19th century. Now so many commentators seem to want a Zorro figure acting dramatically quickly. As I have tried to indicate, this is profoundly complex play, with major challenges all along, and Hamlet’s delays are because of external reasons and not personal weakness. Who or what is the Ghost, and why should it be trusted? Can one risk the nation to avenge what is primarily a personal wrong? The King is (and should be in a good performance) constantly protected. To kill the King at prayer defeats the whole purpose of revenge. Hamlet, after all, is a thinking avenger, unlike Laertes, who in his “impiteous haste,” makes for treacherous, dishonorable, devastating tragedy.

The Mousetrap performance is Hamlet’s attempt to get evidence to verify the Ghost’s accusation and his own powerful suspicions. He is the joyous, eager producer, director, contributing playwright, actor in so many senses, critic, and even a significant audience member. The court, including the King and Queen, indulge the Prince by attending. Hamlet is the antic master of ceremonies, a bawdy jester, grotesque, hyper in word and action. His behavior becomes outrageous. In this most public event, with the entire court present, his mother, the Queen, invites her son, the producer of the entertainment, “Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me.” “No, good mother,” the Prince responds, “Here’s metal more attractive,” as he moves towards Ophelia. The spotlight now clearly is on her. “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” the Prince asks seductively. “No, my lord,” is the timid response. “I mean, my head upon your lap?” “Ay, my lord.” “Do you think I meant country matters?” One should pronounce the first syllable and then pause, to get the intended obscene effect. “I think nothing, my lord,” responds poor Ophelia. Fair enough. “That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs,” aggressively, insultingly, Hamlet keeps pushing it with the entire court observing. “What is, my lord?” “Nothing.” “You are merry, my lord.” It helps to understand the dynamics here to know that “nothing” in Shakespeare’s day was a familiar term for the vagina (nothing=zero= circle=vagina).

The substance of the Mousetrap is a grave insult to both the King and the Queen, dealing as it does with the suggestion of murder and poisoning, and with the question of remarriage. It also becomes a not-so-veiled warning to the King: the Murder of Gonzago is done by Luciannus, a nephew to the king, as Hamlet eagerly points out, while everyone, of course, knows that so is Hamlet. Claudius stops the performance by rising. Polonius calls out, “Give o’er the play,” Claudius himself says, “Give me some light. Away!” This scene is almost always played as if Claudius rises in a panic, frantic to get away, desperate to escape. Such a reading strikes me as false and much too melodramatic. I rather see the shrewd, pragmatic, politic Claudius, a great actor, rising in righteous anger, disgusted, signaling to all that he has had enough of this nonsense and this offensive, ungrateful teen-age student Prince. Later, Hamlet is emotionally overwhelmed, filled with wild excitement. “’Tis now the very witching time of night, / When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out contagion to the world,” he recognizes full well, but still he embraces the Senecan revenger role, “Now could I drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on.” Night, churchyards, hell, contagion, blood—all this brings Hamlet close to a Black Mass setting. “Now could I drink hot blood”—this is the practice of wild pagan warriors, human monsters, drinking the blood of their victims. Hamlet believes that he and Horatio now know, but who else does? What have they gained? Claudius knows that Hamlet knows, he has the dominant position, and this efficient King will act quickly. So very soon Hamlet will be off to England on his intended death journey.

Great Tragic Ironies

Suddenly we see the situation from Claudius’ perspective. We hear him in the prayer scene but Hamlet does not; he merely sees the performance. It is a scene of a stunning duet of a double soliloquy, with Claudius taking the lead. “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven; / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,” Claudius admits, and we immediately know so much more than Hamlet or any other character. After Cain killed Abel, the Lord God declared, “And now art thou cursed from the earth.” So, of course, is Claudius, and he knows it. The prayer scene is magnificent theater. He knows he has done evil, knows his deed smells to heaven, but he cannot repent. He moves toward repentance, following the classical Christian steps – contrition confession, repentance, change—but he can not manage the last two. He acknowledges his guilt, he is full of regret, but he cannot accept grace, for it comes with a price he is not willing to pay. He likes what he has gained far too much, and thus the whole scene becomes a frightening one of total self-damnation. God’s mercy is available, but he is not willing to partake of it, which in the Bible is the unforgivable sin. “O wretched state!” he recognizes. “O bosom black as death! / O limed [caught] soul that struggles to be free / Art more engaged [ensnared]. Help angels!” Claudius is another Dr. Faustus figure, tragically damned, and this shrewd, aware man knows it.

The great irony is that with Claudius in a theatrical repentance scene, obstinate in sin, this is the perfect time for Hamlet to kill him, but Hamlet believes that to kill Claudius now means to send his soul to heaven, while his father suffers in purgatory. Hardly seems just. But more than this, Hamlet desires to kill Claudius in a perfect setting, when drunk or “in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed,” to make sure that his soul is “damned and black/ As hell, whereto it goes.” Sweet Hamlet not only wants to kill Claudius but also to insure eternal damnation, which seems quite reprehensible. The great Christian humanist, Sam Johnson, found Hamlet’s position “too horrible to be read or to be uttered,” and I suspect that we might do well to respect Johnson’s concerns. This is not merely revenge, but the desire for absolute, complete, total damnation of the soul.

Immediately after, Hamlet confronts his mother in her “closet”—a private royal room, as opposed to a public one. It is not her bedroom. They start out verbally battling, then Hamlet kills Polonius, and Gertrude is seriously frightened. Her son is wildly out of control. Ironically, Hamlet berates his mother for permitting her blood to overwhelm her judgment, immediately after impulsively killing Polonius. He talks to her not about moral, ethical, political issues, but about lust, sweatiness, incestuous sheets, gross, disgusting sexuality. This is a teen-ager fascinated and horrified by the entire landscape of complex adult sexuality, finding the thought of a “bloat King tempt you again to bed, / Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,” and “for a pair of reechy [foul] kisses,” gross and disgusting. He is so moralistic, self-righteous, self-confident, as the young so often can be. “You cannot call it love,” he shouts, “for at your age / The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,” and so on, in a startlingly condescending manner. The Ghost appears, and we could have a sweet family reunion, isolated from everything else, but what we see is total separation. Gertrude can not even see the apparition, the Ghost accuses Hamlet, he, after so much, including a murder, desperately tries to manage things. He tells his mother not to share Claudius’ bed. Does she do so? An entire interpretation of the latter part of this play depends on how one answers this question. At the end of this scene, ‘tis “Mother, good night.” Then, “Good night, Mother.” Soon we will hear the tragically mad Ophelia say, “Good night, ladies, good night. / Sweet ladies, good night, good night.” And then the always true Horatio, “Good night, sweet Prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” In this play the good-nights are frequent, but pleasing dreams and sweet sleeps rarely follow.

The unexpected killing of Polonius changes everything. Polonius might have been a “wretched, rash, intruding fool,” but Hamlet now has lost any potential moral ground, any sympathy and support. Legally he is guilty, obviously, he is impulsive, mad, dangerous. Further, Claudius is not stupid and knows very well what has happened, and he does act, quickly and decisively. Any advantage that Hamlet might have had, has now passed to the King. Claudius has suggested all along that Hamlet is dangerous, and the proof is self-evident. From the insulting behavior at the council scene to the outrageous behavior at the Mousetrap performance, we have seen a wild Prince out of control. “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go,” Claudius declares, seeking “the present death of Hamlet.” “I like him not, nor stands it safe with us / To let his madness range,” he tells the ever accommodating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and “he to England shall along with you.”“The sun no sooner shall the mountains touch / But we will ship him hence,” he tells Gertrude. After all, as Claudius explains, “The terms [conditions] of our estate may not endure / Hazard so near’s [near us] as doth hourly grow / Out of his brows.” And so mad Hamlet will be off to England, where all the people are just as mad as he. This is an intended death journey, and Hamlet becomes totally isolated.

The voyage across the seas, from which the hero eventually returns victorious, is of course, a familiar thematic rebirth element in many mythic patterns. The journey leads to a dangerous exile, a symbolic death, before a return with a newly discovered selfhood. Hamlet returns, after a great sea change, to a graveyard setting, with a new identification, a new title (“This is I, / Hamlet the Dane”), and a new sense of balance and serenity. On this sea voyage, Hamlet also effectively eliminates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He has no regrets. They might have been sent for, easily seduced, but ultimately, “Why, man, they did make love to this employment./ They are not near my conscience.” What surprises is that in the forged letters Hamlet asks that the English leaders “should those bearers put to sudden death, / No shriving time allowed.” Shriving time is repentance time. This Hamlet is a profoundly mean revenger. He wants not only to kill Claudius but also to damn his soul. He wants not only to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, but also to prevent them from repenting. He wants to damn his enemies. Eternally.

In the mythic pattern, the underground, the place of death, is the traditional last stop for the hero before the final return, and next we see Hamlet is in the graveyard. The basic absolutes in our human existence are simple: birth is the beginning and death the end. The graveyard is the place where all eventually meet, kings and clowns, emperors and warriors, court jesters and courtiers, lovers and fools. Social status, wealth and power, the skills of acting, mean nothing where death is the great leveler. What Claudius said early in the play, “Thou know’st ‘tis common—all that lives must die,” is now made physically evident. The graveyard is the bedrock reality for our common mortality. As Ecclesiastes states, “All go unto one place, all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” The gravedigger is a singing workman, joking and bantering, because he knows that all will come to him eventually. Let “her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come.” Alexander, Caesar, lawyers and land speculators—mere dust, able to “stop a hole to keep the wind away.” The Gravedigger also indicates that he has been at work since the day old Hamlet defeated old Fortinbras, and young Hamlet was born. Life, death, and revenge all seem to be tightly intertwined, and so directly anchored in the graveyard.

Life, Mortality, the Dominion of Death

Hamlet is a play framed by death, from first to last, starting with the cold and scared sentries confronting in the night the illusion of a king who has died, and who soon will make deadly demands of his son. We see the accidental deaths of Polonius and Gertrude, the “in-play” death in the Mousetrap, the “in-play” fencing match, which actually is a complex murder scheme, eventually killing Hamlet, Laertes, and Claudius. We hear of the deliberate deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the uncertain death of Ophelia, the “imminent death of twenty thousand men,” as Fortinbras marches to fight the Poles for a worthless piece of land. In Hamlet, death is not the soft “perchance to sleep, to dream” possibility, but the dead and the decaying, rotting in the earth, food for the worms. Death here holds little dignity. As Hamlet mockingly tells Claudius after killing Polonius, “Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service [different courses]” for the convocation of worms. “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.” In this world the final emperor is the worm. In the graveyard the many skulls appear out of years past, some casually knocked about “with a dirty shovel.” Hamlet knows “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once.” And ”This fellow might be in’s time a great buyer of land,” and another a great lawyer or lover, and so on. And this was Yorrick, “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” who was “wont to set the table on a roar,” but now is so silent. “Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft,’ but now the smell is such that Hamlet is ready to vomit – “My gorge rises at it.”

And then, after all those anonymous skulls being knocked about, all the abstract commentary on mortality, all the grotesque jokes and word play, the emotional pain of losing a loved one is made dramatically vivid. Ophelia’s body is brought in. The King, Queen, Laertes, some Lords are there, but these are “maimed rites,” few are there, the funeral service is brief and truncated, for, as the Priest says, “Her death was doubtful.” When Laertes protests, the Priest replies, “No more be done. / We should profane the service of the dead / To sing a requiem and such rest to her / As to peace-parted souls.” Possible suicides get little sympathy. Laertes mourns his sister theatrically, as he even “Leaps in the grave.” Hamlet steps forth, shouts, “I loved Ophelia,” and the two of them, foreshadowing the final duel, grotesquely fight in the graveyard by Ophelia’s grave and body. Laertes has been embracing the Senecan revenger role, and Hamlet easily outdoes him, parodies the excessive behavior and language, “I’ll rant as well as thou.” Gertrude quietly strews flowers on the grave, the only one to observe the decorum of mourning. And in just a matter of hours, they all, will return here as cold bodies to their own graves.

But this dramatic emphasis on the graveyard and our common physical mortality makes it easy to overlook Hamlet’s and the play’s intense concern with the condition of the soul. Bodies die and decay, but the soul lives on, in reward or punishment, forever. Old Hamlet is dead, but his spirit returns, talking of purgatory. Having heard of the Ghost’s appearance, Hamlet observes, “All is not well. / I doubt [suspect] some foul play. Would the night were come! / Till then sit still my soul,” but soon he will find himself in the uncertain and dark night of the soul. The Ghost tells Hamlet, “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul,” and when it describes the murder in the orchard, Hamlet exclaims, “O my prophetic soul!” The Ghost’s directive is, “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught.” Still, he will set up for his mother “a glass [mirror] / Where you may see the inmost part of you,” and he does it effectively enough that Gertrude cries out, “O Hamlet, speak no more, / Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul….” The Player can “force his soul,” through the power of the imagination, into great passion, but Hamlet, knowing the stakes, is much more wary. He is readily willing to damn Claudius’ soul, to damn the souls of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but so much more careful about his own. Impulsively, Laertes is readily willing to risk damnation, but Hamlet is regularly aware that a man shall have little profit if he gains all he desires but loses his immortal soul.

After the graveyard scene we see a changed Hamlet. He is not furious, frantic, and angry, but firm, serene and accepting, ready to confront anything. “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” he tells Horatio, quoting the Bible, which affirms the workings of God’s larger design. In a world of ignorance, confusion, frailty, “The readiness is all.” Milton, some fifty years later, will make the same point, in the memorable line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Not sit, or sleep, but stand, at the ready, trusting in Providence to provide and lead. Hamlet’s speech ends with the simple, “Let be,” echoing “Thy will be done.” Hamlet notes, “thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart. But it is no matter.” Let it be. In his death speech, Hamlet indicates, “O, I could tell you-- / But let it be.” As many have noted, the “readiness is all” wisdom here parallels Edgar’s comment in King Lear: “Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither: / Ripeness is all.”

The final fencing match, actually is a foul practice, orchestrated by Claudius to get rid of Hamlet once and for all. It is a triple trap, with the unbated sword, the poison on the tip, the poison in the cup. In the past, old Hamlet, challenged by old Fortinbras, fought in honorable combat, “well ratified by law and heraldry,” but now we see treachery, betrayal, dishonor, deceit. Fencing is gentlemanly play with strict rules and a code of honor, all of which Laertes, readily violates. Hamlet apologizes to Laertes, who smoothly lies, “I do receive your offered love like love, / And will not wrong it,” as he prepares to do exactly that. Hamlet tells Horatio, “I shall win at the odds,” but sadly, he knows little of the situation nor that the odds have been badly stacked against him. Ironically, Claudius has bet on Hamlet, cheers him on, and so in this fixed fight Hamlet is fighting for Claudius, who bizarrely defines the match in near cosmic terms: “let the kettle [kettledrum] to the trumpet speak, / The trumpet to the cannoneer without, / The cannons to the heavens, the heaven to earth, / ’Now the King drinks to Hamlet.’ Come begin.”

Once the fencing match begins, things move incredibly quickly. Hamlet wins the first two tries, and Gertrude celebrates, “The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet,” and picks up the poisoned cup. “Gertrude, do not drink,” Claudius frantically pleads, but she declares, “I will, my lord,” and does. “It is the poisoned cup; it is too late,” Claudius knows. He could stop her, but does not, for it would mean to expose himself. Hamlet and Laertes fence, “In scuffling they change rapiers,” both are wounded. The shouting begins. “Look to the Queen there, ho!” “They bleed on both sides. How is it my lord?” “How is’t, Laertes?” Gertrude collapses, crying, “No, no, the drink, the drink! O my dear Hamlet! / The drink, the drink! I am poisoned.” Hamlet shouts, “O villainy! Ho! Let the door be locked. / Treachery!” Laertes goes into his confessional speech, “Hamlet, Hamlet, thou art slain; / No med’cine in the world can do thee good,” and now “The foul practice / Hath turned itself on me. Lo, here I lie, / Never to rise again.” And then, the direct accusation, “The King, the King’s to blame.” Hamlet stabs Claudius, and all, despite everything heard and seen, still cry, “Treason! Treason!” Hamlet then forces the poisoned drink down Claudius’ throat, “Here, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane, / Drink of this potion.” Claudius poisoned Hamlet’s father and mother; at the end he is, appropriately enough, poisoned twice. Public execution, after all, is treason’s epilogue. As so often in Shakesapeare’s tragedies, evil finally destroys itself. The dying Laertes declares, “I am justly killed with mine own treachery.” Claudius dies because of his own treachery, his poison, which kills Gertrude, Hamlet, Laertes, and himself. Laertes and Hamlet forgive each other before they die, but at the end the stage is full of corpses. Death has its dominion.

In this play of many mysteries, appropriately enough, Hamlet dies with a major secret. “Had I but time,” he says, “O, I could tell you-- / But let it be.” He dies concerned about his reputation, his “wounded name.” He asks Horatio, “in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story.” Across the centuries, by now we all have taken on the responsibility of trying to tell the story. “O, I die, Horatio,” Hamlet says. His last thought is about Denmark, and curiously he supports the man of action, Fortinbras. “He has my dying voice, / So tell him,” he asks Horatio, and then his last words are, “the rest is silence.” In the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, we read, “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die,” and in the ongoing list we come to “a time to keep silence.” After all the fighting, shouting, killing, torrents of words, all of which operate in time, we badly need the infinitude of silence that is part of eternity, the silence of the starry skies in the hour before the dawn. It is almost a Biblical request, “Let all the earth keep silence,” but Hamlet is badly cheated. “Why does the drum come hither?” Horatio demands, as Fortinbras and his army sweep in along with the ambassadors from England.

The ending of this mysterious play is surprisingly complex. Instead of the lyrical “flights of angels” singing Hamlet to his rest, we hear the noises of warfare, see soldiers marching. The wicked king is dead, so many are dead, and a foreign military man now rules Denmark. That clown of a courtier, of a man, Osric, is left to explain, “Young Fortinbras, with conquest comes from Poland.” The opportunist predator has won—“I embrace my fortune,” he declares. On the day Hamlet was born, old Fortinbras lost his lands to old Hamlet; on the day of young Hamlet’s death, young Fortinbras gets them back and much more. Horatio asks to “speak to th’ yet unknowing world / How these things came about.” He promises, “So shall you hear / Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,” and so on, but even though he asserts, “All this can I / Truly deliver,” I am left full of doubts.

Horatio’s quick summary seems so insufficient in terms of what we have seen. How much of the complex truth can he “Truly deliver”? And then Fortinbras takes over. “Let four captains / Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,” he commands, and declares “The soldiers’ music and the rite of war speak loudly for him,” as he celebrates Hamlet as a copy of himself. “Take up the bodies,” and “Go, bid the soldiers shoot.” We see the corpses removed, hear trumpets and cannons, the sound of soldiers shooting. The stage is empty. No one is left to avenge. But, of course, soon enough, there will be.

Archibald Leyasmeyer is Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of English, Emeritus, University of Minnesota. This essay has been written especially for the study guide of the 2006 Guthrie



















































Brief Notes about Productions of Hamlet at the Guthrie

Guthrie Study Guide 2006

Few plays in the western canon fit the definition of “a classic” better than Hamlet. It has been read and re-read, researched, studied, analyzed, adapted, and seen time and time again in countless memorable performances (on stage, film, video or television). Some of the world’s greatest actors viewed playing this role as their major ambition and achievement. Over a span of more than 400 years since it first came into the world, Shakespeare’s play has captured the imagination of many generations. And it will do the same in the future, always appearing as directly and immediately relevant as a contemporary work.

In 1947 the poet W.H. Auden observed that the central character of the play “is intensely self-absorbed” yet his soliloquies “are detachable” to suit a wide range of individual difficulties and dilemmas over taking a decision. More recently, the literary historian and scholar Harold Bloom made a case that Hamlet corresponds to “the invention of the human.” Indeed it remains as lively and fresh today as any supreme accomplishment in our heritage of theatrical masterpieces. The tragedy of the “sweet prince” of Denmark springs from the depths of English Renaissance worldview, yet it reverberates with immediate and gripping preoccupations that can define our own time; as any major classic masterwork it belongs “here and now” every time it is performed on stage.

The Guthrie Theater first production of the play was in 1963 when Tyrone Guthrie opened the theater’s inaugural season with Hamlet in a memorable “modern dress” interpretation. The cast was lead by George Grizzard (Hamlet), Jessica Tandy (Gertrude), and Hume Cronyn (Polonius). Fifteen years later the tragedy returned to our thrust stage under the direction of Stephen Kanee, with Randall Duk Kim playing the lead; the cast included Tara Loevenstern as Ophelia, Patricia Fraser as Gertrude, Oliver Cliff, Peter MacNicol and W. H. Macy. Next, in 1988, Garland Wright directed Hamlet casting Zeljko Ivanek in the title role, with Julianne Moore as Ophelia, and Richard S. Iglewski as Polonius. Our upcoming production will be the fourth staging of the play.

In the tragedy Hamlet agonizes over the baffling death of his father – was he indeed a victim of a foul murder? – and seeks both vengeance and justice in a relentless pursuit of the truth. Shakespeare shows him piecing facts together, testing out assumptions, pretending to be mad, contemplating suicide, puzzling over dark suspicions and devising a play of his own, “The Mousetrap,” “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” But this isn’t just a formulaic piece fitting the conventions of the “revenge tragedy” genre. Its plot reveals to us (and to Hamlet) a complex web of uncertainties regarding key relationships which matter most in one’s life: his mother Gertrude, his friends and schoolmates, Ophelia – the young woman he loves – and so on. Nothing escapes his thorough scrutiny while he descends inescapably into the agony and dread of his hellish predicament and ultimately encounters death, “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns.”

In the spring of 2006 Hamlet will be the final Guthrie play to be performed on Vineland Place. It will mark the completion of a full circle: The closing night of this production will take place on May 7, 2006, 43 years to the date after the theater’s 1963 inauguration with Hamlet, directed by Tyrone Guthrie.


Tyrone Guthrie (center front) and George Grizzard (left front) in rehearsal for Hamlet, 1963.

Ellen Geer as Ophelia and Nick Coster as Laertes in Hamlet, 1963 (Marty Nordstrum).

George Grizzard as Hamlet and Jessica Tandy as Gertrude in Hamlet, 1963 (Marty Nordstrum).

Don R. Fallbeck as the Ghost and Randall Duk Kim as Hamlet in Hamlet, 1978 (Boyd Hagen).

Randall Duk Kim as Hamlet, Stephen Lang as Horatio and Oliver Cliff as the gravedigger in Hamlet, 1978 (Boyd Hagen).

Cast of Hamlet, 1988 (Michal Daniel).

Zeljko Ivanek as Hamlet and Julianne Moore as Ophelia in Hamlet, 1988 (Michal Daniel).

Julianne Moore as Ophelia, Curzon Dobell as Laertes and Richard S. Iglewski as Polonius in Hamlet, 1988 (Michal Daniel).
























Websites to visit about Shakespeare


Folger Shakespeare Library

The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference

MIT Shakespeare – Complete Works Online

PBS Shakespeare Special

Royal Shakespeare Company, London

Shakespeare Online

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London

“Best of the Web” Websites on Shakespeare











Where to Find Will? Guesses, Hints, Suggestions, Viewpoints

Editors’ Note. Passions have been raging in the attempt to establish the “true” identity of the person who authored the Shakespearean canon. The Stratfordians stand by their contention that the man who came to London, embraced an acting career, and become part of the company of players known as the Chamberlain’s Men is the person who wrote the plays. Yet their view clashes with the claim of the Oxfordians, who argue that the “real” author was the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Others ascribe authorship to prominent figures of Elizabethan England such as the dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), the scholar and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) or William Stanley the Sixth Earl of Derby (1561-1642). So far no case strong enough has been made that someone else penned Shakespeare’s work. Leaving the controversy aside, here we have selected quotes from diverse sources addressing the question best stated by Harold Bloom: “Where shall Shakespeare be found in Shakespeare?”

      Thy name in fame’s immortal book have placed,
      Live ever you, at least in fame live ever.
      Well may the body die, but fame dies never.
Richard Barnfield
From A Remembrance of Some English Poets, 1598




This Figure, that thou here seest put,
      It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,
Wherein the Graver had a strife
      With Nature, to out-doo the life:
O, could he but have drawne his wit
      As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face; the Print would then surpasse
      All, that was ever writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
      Not on his Picture, but his Booke.
B. I.
Ben Jonson
From Dedicatory poem printed in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, 1623

The man who of all Modern, and perhaps Ancient Poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the Images of Nature were present to him, and he drew them, not laboriously, but luckily; when he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature; he looked inwards and found her there.
John Dryden
From Essay of Dramatic Poesy, 1668

It seems as though nature had delighted in mingling in Shakespeare’s mind whatever one can imagine as most powerful and grandiose with silly vulgarity at its lowest and most detestable.
Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire
From “Dissertation on Ancient and Modern Tragedy” (Introduction to his tragedy Semiramis), 1748

      The dramatic poet is not a historian. He represents not what was formerly believed to have happened, but he lets what happened happen again before our eyes … not for the sake of mere historical truth, but with another and higher view; historical truth is not his aim, but only the means to his end. …
      Such a poet is Shakespeare, and Shakespeare almost singly and alone.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
From an essay dated June 5, 1767, in Hamburg Dramaturgy, 1767-1769

      One of Shakespeare’s younger brothers, who lived to a good old age, … after the restoration of K. Charles II., would in his younger days come to London to visit his brother Will, as he called him, and be a spectator of him as an actor in some of his own plays. …
      All that could be recollected from him of his brother Will … was, the faint, general, and almost lost ideas he had of having once seen him act a part in one of his own comedies, wherein being to personate a decrepit old man, he wore a long beard, and appeared so weak and drooping and unable to walk, that he was forced to be supported and carried by another person to a table, at which he was seated among some company, who were eating, and one of them sung a song.
George Steevens
From a comment in Shakespeare’s Plays co-edited with Samuel Johnson, 1778

What is he? You might almost answer, he is the earth … the globe … existence. …
      In Shakespeare the birds sing, the rushes are clothed with green, hearts love, souls suffer, the cloud wanders, it is hot, it is cold, night falls, time passes, forests and multitudes speak, the vast eternal dream hovers over all. Sap and blood, all forms of the multiple reality, actions and ideas, man and humanity, the living and the life, solitudes, cities, religions, diamonds and pearls, dunghills and charnel houses, the ebb and flow of beings, the steps of comers and goers, all, all are of Shakespeare and in Shakespeare.
Victor Hugo
From William Shakespeare, 1864

Many an unscholarly lover of Shakespeare [is] a far better critic than many a Shakespeare scholar. Such lovers read a play more or less as if they were actors who had to study all the parts. They … want to realize fully and exactly the inner movements which produced these words and no other, these deeds and no other, at each particular moment. This, carried through a drama, is the right way to read the dramatist Shakespeare, and the prime requisite here is therefore a vivid and intent imagination.
A.C. Bradley
From Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904

One likes to think that Shakespeare never became at heart a Londoner.
E. K. Chambers
From the Red Letter Edition of As You Like It, c. 1905

Shakespeare should not be put in the hands of the young without the warning that the foolish things in his plays were written to please the foolish, the filthy for the filthy, and the brutal for the brutal
Robert Bridges
From On the Influence of the Audience, 1907

Shakespeare never fails to give us a sort of meditative counterpoint, a subtle row of concepts on which our understanding rests. … [They reveal] the last phase of his inspiration, like very delicate tracings which guide our eyes while we pass through the fantastic forest of his poetry. In a greater or lesser degree Shakespeare always explains himself.
José Ortega y Gasset, 1914
From Meditations on Quixote. English translation published 1957

In the soliloquy beginning ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ Shakespear described [a] moral bewilderment as a fact (he must have learnt it from his own personal development); but he did not explain it, though the explanation was staring him in the face as it stares in mine.
George Bernard Shaw
From the1945 “Postscript” to Back to Methuselah (1921)

Shakespeare’s stagecraft concentrates, and inevitably, upon opportunity for the actor. We think now of the plays themselves; their first public knew them by their acting; and the development of the actor’s art … was a factor in the drama’s triumph that we now too often ignore. Shakespeare himself, intent more and more upon plucking out the heart of the human mystery, stimulated his actors to a poignancy and intimacy of emotional expression – still can stimulate them to it – as no other playwright has quite learned to do.
Harley Granville-Barker
From Prefaces to Shakespeare (volume I), 1946



He was absolutely impartial and created “heroes” and “criminals” for the stage with as much serenity as the Sprit creates them for the world. For, in fact, neither Shakespeare nor the Spirit creates heroes or criminals; since “nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare’s creatures are alive precisely because they evade all labels.
Salvador de Madariaga
From On Hamlet, 1948

He belongs, of course, ultimately, to a secret society, a conspiracy, of which there is only one member: himself. In that sense, and in a number of others too, he is a malefactor; a lunatic; a deserter; a conscientious objector; a guttersnipe; a social menace and an Anti-Christ.
Harold Pinter
From “A Note on Shakespeare” (1950) in Various Voices – Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1998

The view that Hamlet “is Shakespeare,” or at least more like him than his other characters, … has a basic truth, because he was drawing on his experience as actor and playwright; these professions often do puzzle their practitioners about what is theatrical and what is not, as their friends and audiences can easily recognize; but [he] was only using what the theme required. To have to give posterity, let alone the immediate audiences, a picture of himself would have struck him as laying a farcical extra burden on an already difficult assignment. I think he did feel he was giving a good hand to actors in general, though with decent obscurity, when he worked up so much praise for Hamlet at the end. …
William Empson
From “Hamlet When New,” 1953

He did not write for the benefit of a small handful of scholars and specialists. He wrote to provide entertainment for an assorted crowd of noisy, eager, demanding, and far from affluent citizens. He was, is, and will remain a people’s playwright. … He was used to a theater where everybody did everything from sheer love of the job and pride in their mastery of it.
Margaret Webster
From Shakespeare Without Tears, 1955






There was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made him feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. …
      Before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: “I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.” The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: “Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.”
Jorge Luis Borges
From “Everything and Nothing” in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, 1962

Only one thing seems strangely certain: that no other writer will surpass Shakespeare. To say that Shakespeare is not only the greatest writer who has ever lived, but who will ever live, is a perfectly rational statement. But it is, in the deepest sense, a shocking statement. It outrages the instinctive forward motion of human expectation. … We do him honor, … if we recognize how heavy is the burden of his glory.
George Steiner
From Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman, 1964

Any author must put into the creation of a very long, complex, fictional character, like Hamlet, a great deal of himself – not merely the astute observations of a good journalist, not merely the conscious views of an experienced man of the world, nor the reflections of a wise philosopher, but his deepest feelings and intuitions (rather than rational reflections) about man’s predicament in this mysterious and often apparently hostile universe.
      Shakespeare was not only an experienced man of the world, a brilliant journalist and a wise philosopher, he not only had a range of feeling and sympathy far, far beyond the ordinary – he was a poet. This means that instinctively his thoughts and feelings were not only expressed with clarity and simplicity but also in a memorable and musical form. …
Tyrone Guthrie
From In Various Directions. Portraits, Tributes, Trends: a View of Theatre, 1965

It is consistent with Shakespeare’s perfect objectivity that he should show no signs of wanting to improve his audience’s tastes, or to address the more instructed members of it with a particular intimacy. His chief motive in writing, apparently, was to make money, which is the best motive for writing ever discovered, as it creates the right blend of detachment and concern. … He seems never to have addressed his audience with any other attitude than that expressed in the last line of Twelfth Night: “We’ll strive to please you every day.”
Northrop Frye
From A Natural Perspective, 1965

The high point of the [1976 Washington World Shakespeare] congress … was a lecture by Jorge Luis Borges. He had come especially to address the convention. … Two men helped Borges to the podium. They … positioned him in front of the microphone. Everyone in the hall stood up; the ovation lasted many minutes. Borges did not move. Finally the clapping stopped. Borges started moving his lips. Only a vague humming noise was heard from the speakers. From this monotonous humming one could distinguish only with greatest pains a single word which kept returning like a repeated cry from a faraway ship, drowned out by the sea: “Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare…”
      The microphone was placed too high. But no one in the room had the courage to walk up and lower the microphone in front of the old blind writer. Borges’ lecture was entitled: “The Riddle of Shakespeare.” Like the Orator in Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs, he was called upon to solve the riddle. And like the Orator in The Chairs, who could produce only incomprehensible sounds from his throat, Borges solved the riddle: “Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare….”
Jan Kott
From The Theater of Essence, 1984

In Shakespeare our traditions, both the modern and the Elizabethan, come together. I believe our tradition actually derives from him. In a sense Shakespeare himself invented it, with his teeming gift for characterization and his frequent use of naturalistic language, though he didn’t of course know that he was doing so at the time. That’s why I believe we’ll find that the problem of how to marry the two traditions in fact doesn’t exist once you get to know how Shakespeare’s text works.
John Barton
From Playing Shakespeare, 1984

The years following the baptism of his children and preceding Shakespeare’s emergence as a figure in the theatrical world of London [1585-1591] are called the ‘lost’ years. Theories abound: Shakespeare might have worked as a schoolmaster, have trained for the law, have gone for a soldier, have traveled in Europe in the train of some great man, have been arrested for stealing deer and fled to London. … As a successful actor, Shakespeare may well have turned to the university wits for additional material and felt perfectly free to revise what they provided. … Shakespeare was not a propagandist; he did not write plays as vehicles for his own ideas.
Germaine Greer
From Past Masters: Shakespeare, 1986





It’s not for nothing that scholars who have tried so hard to find autobiographical traces in Shakespeare have had so little success. It doesn’t matter in fact who wrote the plays and what biographical traces there are. The fact is that there is singularly little of the author’s point of view – and his personality seems to be very hard to seize – throughout thirty-seven or thirty-eight plays.
      If one takes those thirty-seven plays with all the radar lines of the different viewpoints of the different characters, one comes out with a field of incredible density and complexity; and eventually one goes a step further, and one finds that what happened, what passed through this man called Shakespeare and came into existence on sheets of paper, is something quite different from any other author’s work. It’s not Shakespeare’s view of the world, it’s something which actually resembles reality. A sign of this is that any single word, line, character or event has not only a large number of interpretations, but an unlimited number. Which is the characteristic of reality.
Peter Brook
From The Shifting Point, 1987

To search for Shakespeare himself in his work can only be speculative, and usually not proper scholarly business. … For me, the artist is perhaps loosening his tongue enough to tell, among other disillusions, of a young man … [who] discovers in himself a genius with words for poetry and drama. … A “commoner,” he becomes aware of how far his mind, spirit, and talent out-rank those of any “nobles” who by accident of birth and acquisitive greed are raised high among the mighty. He thinks of death, and adapts a play about a dead father and son, that includes a graveyard scene where the shame of privilege is articulated. Heretically he wonders if such God-given verities as good and bad are only what we think them. … So he will do Hamlet.
Marvin Rosenberg
From The Masks of Hamlet, 1992

Emptiness in the theater allows the imagination to fill the gaps. Paradoxically, the less one gives the imagination, the happier it is, because it is a muscle that enjoys playing games. … In an empty space… all conventions are imaginable. … Shakespeare was writing theater for an infinite space within undefined time.
Peter Brook
From The Open Door. Thoughts on Acting and Theatre, 1993

As my old office mate used to say, Shakespeare is like God, that is he seems to know everything, be everywhere and be able to do everything. Just as every person remakes God for himself or herself, so every artist remakes Shakespeare for himself or herself. … As the modern era ends, we can’t go ahead to whatever is coming next without consulting the Bard and shaking him until he gives up some answers. He is the wise one, or at least the wisest one we’ve got.
Jane Smiley
From The New York Times, December 2, 1996


Perhaps he only wrote plays, or in his earlier days bits of plays, because that was one way poor poets could make money. He might have preferred not to be a poor poet. Rather unexpectedly, the theatre made him quite rich, and demanded most of his time. It also allowed him, as he grew into it, to be far more original, far more daring, than he could possibly have been as a fashionable poet under courtly patronage. But also, in allowing him to go his own way, to be obscure and pestered with metaphors.
Frank Kermode
From “Writing About Shakespeare” in London Review of Books, 1999

What we mean, or ought to mean, by “Shakespeare” is not some semi-divine, inerrant individual but the corpus of plays we agree to call by his name. This point is worth repeating. The history of the plays as we have them includes a pretty rough passage through the theatre, where their survival could depend on a prompt copy that might, over time, deviate from the author’s manuscript, and another rough passage through the press, at the hands of compositors of varying abilities setting somewhat messy copy and subject only to rather ineffective proofing. We have to accept puzzles and uncertainties.
Frank Kermode
From Shakespeare’s Language, 2000

Perhaps, … Shakespeare’s sensitivity to the status of the dead was intensified by the death in 1596 of his son Hamnet (a name virtually interchangeable with Hamlet in the period’s public records) and still more perhaps by the death of his father John, in 1601, the most likely year for the writing of Hamlet.
Stephen Greenblatt
From Hamlet in Purgatory, 2001

Where shall Shakespeare be found in Shakespeare? We all want to find him in the Sonnets, but he is too cunning for us, and you have to be the Devil himself to find Shakespeare there. He played the Ghost in Hamlet, and old Adam the serving-man in As You Like It. … Hamlet’s development from a haunted student on to a master of theatricalism is not wholly unlike Shakespeare’s own. … You can believe, in Hamlet, that Shakespeare is everyone, and yet the Prince stands apart, and in the scenes with the actors he perhaps merges with Shakespeare quite directly.
Harold Bloom
From Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, 2002

Every age creates its own Shakespeare. … Like a portrait whose eyes seem to follow you around the room, engaging your glance from every angle, [his] plays and their characters seem always to be “modern,” always to be “us.”
Marjorie Garber
From Shakespeare After All, 2004



On the occasion of the Shakespeare Jubilee, in the summer of 1769, a painting was hung before the windows of the room where the dramatist was supposed to have been born; it displayed the image of the sun breaking through clouds. It is a wonderful emblem of birth. But it also suggests revival and return. If at a later date that sun had shone through another window of the house in Henley Street its rays would have refracted through a score of different names, where distinguished nineteenth-century visitors had scratched or scored their signatures upon the glass. Among them are Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Carlyle, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, all of them registering the fact that they were shining within the light of Shakespeare himself.
Peter Ackroyd
From Shakespeare: The Biography, 2005

Those who sever Shakespeare from his age do so because there is both too much and too little to know about the man and his time. Too much, because the richness of Shakespeare’s creative life during the quarter century from 1588 to 1613 is impossible to contain in a single volume or a single critical intelligence.
      Who can claim to fathom what’s at stake in every one of Shakespeare’s works? Nobody, surely, has ever mastered the hundreds of chronicles, plays, poems, and stories that inspired him. And the amount of information that historians have uncovered about life in Shakespeare’s England is daunting. They’ve shown that Elizabethan culture ought to matter a great deal to us, for we’ve inherited its conflicting views of everything from the nature of the self and sexuality to nationhood and empire.
      Too little, because we don’t know very much about what kind of friend or lover or person Shakespeare was. This, in turn, has opened the door to those who deny that Shakespeare wrote his plays and attribute them instead to Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon or the latest candidate, the Earl of Oxford. It’s unfortunate, because even if we don’t know much about his personality, we know a great deal about Shakespeare’s career as a writer (more than enough to persuade a reasonable skeptic that he wrote his plays himself).
James Shapiro
From A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – 1599, 2005








Magic Power Over Words

Editors’ Note. Shakespeare’s verbal imagination and invention has been always a source of admiration, bewilderment, and delight for those reading his plays or watching them performed. Below is a selection of commentaries that discuss the writer’s unmatched mastery of the English language for poetic and dramatic effect.

The sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare…
Francis Meres
From “A Comparative Discourse of our English Poets with the Greeke, Latine, and Italian Poets” in Palladis Tamia, 1598

His mind and hand went together; and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers. But it is not our province, who only gather his works and give them to you, to praise him. It is yours to read them.
John Heminge and Henry Condell
From their Prefix to the First Folio Edition of Shakespeare’s play; addressed “To the Great Variety of Readers,”1623

The Poetry of Shakespeare was Inspiration indeed: he is not so much an Imitator as an Instrument of Nature; and ’tis not so just to say that he speaks from her, as that she speaks through him.
Alexander Pope
From his Preface to The Works of Shakespeare, 1725

Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters and, in the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter. … The dialogue of this author is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.
Dr. Samuel Johnson
From the Preface to his Edition of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1765

He has a magic power over words: they come winged at his bidding; and seem to know their places. … His epithets and single phrases are like sparkles, thrown off from an imagination, fired by the whirling rapidity of its own motion.
William Hazlitt
From Lecture on the English Poets, 1818


Shakespeare imagines with copiousness and excess; he spreads metaphors profusely over all he writes; every instant abstract ideas are changed into images. … He does not labor to explain or prove; picture on picture, image on image, he is forever copying strange and splendid visions which are engendered one within another, and are heaped up within him.
Hippolyte Taine
From The History of English Literature, 1863

The passages in Shakespeare – and they are many – where the language is uncouth, vulgar, exaggerated, fantastic, obscene even, are entirely due to Life calling for an echo of her own ‘Voice,’ and rejecting the intervention of beautiful style, through which alone should life be suffered to find expression. Shakespeare is not by any means a flawless artist. He is too fond of going directly to life, and borrowing life's natural utterance.
Oscar Wilde
From The Decay of Lying, 1889

The mind tumbles and splashes among words when it is not being urged on: I mean, the mind of a very great master of words who is writing with one hand. He abounds. The lesser writers stint. … I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult. … This is not ‘writing’ at all. I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.
Virginia Woolf
From The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. III: 1925-1930

If Shakespeare is great, his greatness is displayed only in the corpus of his plays, which create their own language and world. … I do not believe that Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet. Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet?
Ludwig Wittgenstein
From manuscript notes (1950 entries) published posthumously as Culture and Value

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me,” you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare.
Bernard Levin
From Enthusiasms, 1983


No one in real life ever spoke like Shakespeare’s characters. … Anywhere from a third to half of every Shakespearean play, I conservatively estimate, will always remain under an interpretive cloud. Unfortunately this fact is obscured by the encrustations of footnotes in modern texts, which imply to the poor cowed student that if only he knew what the savants do, all would be clear as day.
Camille Paglia
From Sexual Personae, 1990

The life of [his] plays is in the language, not alongside it, or underneath it. Feelings and thoughts are released at the moment of speech. An Elizabethan audience would have responded to the pulse, the rhythms, the shapes, sounds, and above all meanings, within the consistent ten-syllable, five-stress lines of blank verse.
Richard Eyre
From Utopia and Other Places, 1993

It is necessary to state the obvious, although it is difficult to know how best to say it: that Shakespeare was a verbal prodigy? possessed of an extraordinary gift for language? amazingly sensitive to words? endowed with unparalleled poetic talent? a genius? … It is vital that we examine the origins and relations of Shakespeare’s words just as rigorously as we do the physical spaces in which he worked and the political structures in which his plays were imbricated. Only by doing so can we identify and assess his distinctive gift for language. The plays and poems are shaped by linguistic pressures that belong specifically to the historical moment and the verbal culture in which the playwright worked, … and the semantic and poetic rewards of a Shakespeare play owe much to the growth and vigor and instability of the English language around 1600.
Russ McDonald
From Shakespeare and the Arts of Language, 2001

Shakespeare possessed a profound knowledge of the language techniques of his own and previous times. Behind the apparently effortless flow of language lies a deeply practiced skill. [His work] shows Shakespeare’s love of language.
Rex Gibbons
From Cambridge Student Guide to Romeo and Juliet, 2002

Shakespeare’s language is primary to his art, and is florabundant. He had a deep drive to coin words anew, and I am always astonished that he employed more than twenty-one thousand separate words. Of these, he invented roughly one out of twelve: about eighteen hundred coinages, many of them now in common use.
Harold Bloom
From Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, 2003