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It is a fine summer afternoon in the year 1601. In the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames the crowd waits in eager anticipation to see the new tragedy, Hamlet. The noise is deafening. In the covered galleries sit the merchants, the professional classes, the students. A few nobles and court gallants are actually sitting on the apron stage itself, and if they do not care for the play they will make their displeasure known.
But the most din comes from the groundlings, standing in the body of the theatre, under the open sky. They are not easy to please, though they have their favourites among the actors and the authors. Ah. The play is about to begin. Silence falls. The sense of excitement is almost tangible now.
The Main Characters.
The ghost of King Hamlet of Denmark. The Prince Hamlet, his son. Claudius, King Hamlet’s brother, who murdered him for the crown and his widow. Gertrude, widow of the late king, now wife to Claudius. Polonius, the court chamberlain. Ophelia his daughter, who drowns herself when Hamlet rejects her. Laertes, her brother, who comes to hate Hamlet. They kill each other in the last scene. Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, and the only person truly loyal to him and whom he trusts.
The play starts promisingly. Ghosts in plays are always popular, and the audience is delighted when one appears to the Prince Hamlet of Denmark, though the charge it brings appals him. The ghost is that of his father, the late king, and it needs to be avenged, having been murdered by its brother, the present king, Claudius. Hamlet has never liked Claudius, and resents his mother marrying the man. He promises that he will kill Claudius, and ensure that his father’s ghost rest in peace. (Shakespeare himself played the ghost on occasion, and he may well have done so for the first performance).
How to kill Claudius is a problem, but eventually it is done, costing other lives in the process. The play also includes three more murders, love going wrong, the suicide of Hamlet’s former love, Ophelia, and some fierce duelling. All the ingredients are there for nearly four hours of entertainment, and the play is equally popular with the court intellectuals and the illiterate groundlings.
******* Reduced to its basics like this, it’s a simple if melodramatic story. And that is the point I want to make, for more rubbish has been written about this play than about anything else in the history of literary criticism or, I suspect, any other of mankind’s artistic endeavours. There was a great upsurge in literary criticism between the end of the first world war and the 1960s, and much of it did harm. Many critics came under the influence of Freud and, to a lesser extent Adler and Jung, and without fully understanding their ideas applied them in a cack-handed fashion to literary analysis. So it became popular to say, for instance, that part of Hamlet’s distress is because he is in love with his mother. They were not deterred by the fact that there is not a scrap of evidence in the play to support this thesis. It is always dangerous to judge a work by modern criteria, failing to put it into historical context.
Fully to understand Hamlet the play one has to look at Shakespeare and his time. He was, like Keats and Dickens, an ‘instinctive’ writer, knowing little and caring less about structure, historical accuracy and any age but his own. These men were blessed with a shining gift for language which often hides serious flaws; but they are among that very small group of writers who write at speed without polishing.
Shakespeare had no time to be ‘clever’, and he was not a scholar like his contemporaries Marlow and Jonson. He simply took old stories and turned them into plays, and most of these stories would have been known to the audience, if only by oral tradition and older plays. There are certainly other versions of Hamlet referred to by earlier authors in the previous century. All his characters are Elizabethans, and this includes the Romans, Egyptians, Venetians, and the rest. The philosophy is that of his time. (See Ulysses’ speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida for the Elizabethan view of the order of things, and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice for the belief in the harmony of the planets). And so Prince Hamlet is a young Elizabethan aristocrat, with the educational background and outlook of that class. Without understanding this we shall be misled by the play.
It’s interesting to examine some of the ludicrous statements which have been made about the play. Hamlet’s being in love with his mother is a prime example. Incest had been treated by Greek dramatists in Classical literature, but it was not a particular interest in Shakespeare’s time. It is unlikely that he had read them, for I have been unable to find that the Greek plays were available in English then, and by his own admission Shakespeare was weak in Latin and Greek. This is the theory, though, which still persists to some extent. In practice, if we look at the interchanges between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, we shall find no evidence at all of any sexual feeling. He expresses disgust that after marriage to his late father she could take up with a man like Claudius, especially as she did so barely a month after being widowed. She speaks to him as if he is a naughty teenager, while seeming to realise that she has made a mistake.
It has often been said that Hamlet is mad. He does say eccentric things to the court chamberlain, Polonius, Ophelia and others, but he does it to bemuse , and is perfectly lucid when he wishes to be. I think the best evidence of complete sanity lies in the famous soliloquy, ’To be or not to be’, where in shock at what the ghost has told him he contemplates suicide. His thinking is clear and logical : the thought of death as an escape is tempting, but who knows what could be waiting in the afterlife? He decides rather on action.
This brings us to the accusation which has been made more frequently than any other, that Hamlet is indecisive, and dithers. I have always found this absurd. In the first place, he is not naturally violent, and if you are not then committing murder in cold blood does not come easily. And though life in Shakespeare’s time was cheaper than it is now people did not murder each other lightly. Secondly, he needs to decide how to do it. The whole business is a terrible burden on him, and he begins to lose trust in almost everyone around him.
Hamlet also has a problem with regicide which no longer applies. Kings, whether good or bad, were assumed to rule by Divine Right, so to assassinate one was a direct sin against God. Shakespeare ran certain risks with portraying the murders of kings. There was some justification for getting rid of Richard II, weak and corrupt. It was probably God’s will that Richard III was slain at Bosworth, for the Elizabethans believed him to be a monster, thanks to Tudor propaganda. But the Tudors’ claim to the throne when Henry VII acceded, followed by his son Henry VIII and granddaughter Elizabeth I, was somewhat shaky, and Shakespeare was taking a gamble to have regicide as a theme. Elizabeth was now at the end of her life, a virtual recluse. I wonder if Hamlet would have been staged when she was still an enthusiastic playwatcher.
The king Claudius, by virtue of his position, is rarely alone to present an opportunity for murder. As the pressure mounts, Hamlet is in reproachful conversation with his mother one day when he sees a wall hanging move. Maddened by the thought that he is being spied on, and assuming the eavesdropper is Claudius, he stabs his dagger through the material, only to find that it is the old man Polonius whom he has killed. From that point on the thought of killing Claudius becomes easier.
Claudius realises now that Hamlet is his enemy. He is at prayer alone when Hamlet comes upon him. This seems to be his opportunity.
To understand what happens next we need to know the Elizabethan attitude to religion. Most people, whatever their station, had deep religious beliefs in which superstition was inextricably mixed. ( If you have watched the recent TV dramas about Henry VIII and Charles II you will have seen what a tremendous influence religion once had on life in England).
To pray, and genuinely to repent of sin, put one in a state of grace, forgiven until further sins were committed. Thus, in praying, and possibly repenting of his foul crime, Claudius is freed from sin and if Hamlet kills him will go to heaven. Hamlet realises this, and cannot tolerate the thought of the murderer’s soul in bliss while that of his dead father is in purgatory, an unquiet spirit. He leaves Claudius, and goes bitterly away.
The irony, known only to the audience, is that Claudius is not actually praying. Tormented by guilt and fear, he is unable to form the words of prayer, and if Hamlet had killed him he would have gone to hell.
Travelling players come to the court. Hamlet asks them to perform an old play to which he will add some extra dialogue. In it, a king is murdered in the way that Hamlet senior was killed, and he hopes to shock Claudius into an admission of guilt. It has the desired effect, and Claudius leaps to his feet in horror. But unknown to Hamlet, Claudius has plotted to kill him, with devastating results. A duel has been arranged between Hamlet and Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, and the tip of the latter’s rapier is poisoned. During the duel, after Hamlet has received a wound, they change swords, and both are fatally injured. As insurance, Claudius has also poisoned a drink set aside for Hamlet’s refreshment during the duel, but the Queen drinks it and dies before he can prevent her. As he dies, Hamlet stabs Claudius, and the scene is littered with bodies.
At the time, the Revenge Tragedy was a very popular genre, and if you are simply looking at an outline of the melodramatic plot this play is not much different from the general run. What singles it out, what makes it, to my mind at least, the greatest play of all time, is the complexity of Hamlet’s character, his moral dilemmas, and the sublime use of English. There are serious flaws in the play, as there are in all Shakespeare’s plays, but this is inevitable when a gifted non-intellectual is working under the pressure that this one was. A major flaw is the suicide of Hamlet’s former love, Ophelia. True, he rejects her rather publicly, and she is distressed. But as her ribald language (easily understood by the Elizabethan audience, if more obscure to us) shows clearly, she is no little innocent. Suicide is an improbable reaction. But the audience would have loved it, and I’ve no doubt that this is why it happens. Hamlet’s age is unclear. His mother calls him ‘fat’, which hardly adds to the romantic image. But we must remember that the scripts of a play were not protected as they are today. Actors and other writers could and did change things to suit themseleves. Three versions of this play are extant, and which is the original no-one is sure.
Back to that day in 1601. The play is a huge success, and will continue to be. We should enjoy it as they did, as an exciting story with beautiful words, and ignore the tripe which has been written about it since. Some of the tripe is written in language so overtly impressive that the student may be conned into taking it seriously. I had a quotation to include here from the 1940s pen of the then respected critic Harley Granville Barker, to illustrate just what pompous rubbish people can write. However, I found in last Saturday’s Times magazine an example of such writing so astoundingly bad that I must quote that. It has nothing at all to do with Shakespeare, but it’s a warning against truly horrible writing, and in just the sort of style which many literary critics affect.
‘The systematic binary opposition critiqued by poststructuralist thought…… is nothing to the degree of binary opposition that exists between sisters. My sibling and I have always embodied a dichotomy……’ This is appalling. For a start, it uses bombast and a pseudo-intellectual style to impress, which is forgivable in a first year undergraduate but certainly is not in a Times staff writer. All it means is ‘sisters can be very different’. Well, we all know that.
Exactly this kind of verbal diarrhoea is depressingly common in books of literary criticism, and we should ignore it. All art is there to be enjoyed, and Hamlet is easy to enjoy if you stop trying to guess the meaning of every word, just go with the flow, and enjoy the melodrama and rolling language.
Advice to A-level students. Lay off all books of criticism. Read some social history instead, and you’ll discover much, much more about the works you are studying and the people who wrote them. Advice to undergraduates. Take all criticism with a pinch of salt. The only opinion which matters is yours, and you’ll only form it by going into the text and into the time when it was written. Advice to postgraduates. Don’t add to the pile of rubbish by trying to impress. Use the texts, and social and political history as your main sources, not other people’s writing, and write as simply as the subject allows.
A last important point which teachers and scholars often overlook: plays are meant to be seen. Hamlet will seem much more accessible if you can see it performed before you start thinking deeply about it. And if you don’t want to think deeply about it, that is just fine. Shakespeare would have understood.
(No bibliography or website references, as I took my own advice and consulted nothing except the text of the play).