We have been blessed with a rich spate of Hamlets of late, a series of accounts of the title role and the play that have mined the drama and the issues it raises, and given us a wide-ranging variety of interpretations.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran and featuring David Tennant in the title role, was an affair of intelligence and verve which also gave us an Ophelia of refreshing vitality. There was delicious cheek in the moment in which she stopped her prosing and hypocritical brother in the middle of his patronising moral homily to her by flipping open his travelling case to reveal the cargo of condoms with which he had equipped himself for the better enjoyment of his proposed sojourn in Paris.

The National Theatre’s Nicholas Hytner-directed version with Rory Kinnear as the Prince gave us Elsinore as a police state. It was established brilliantly by portraying Claudius’s opening speech to his court in Act I Scene 2 as a television broadcast to the nation by a newly installed dictator. It made instant sense of Claudius’s barefaced mendacity, even while it arguably oversimplified a scene that is replete with complex undercurrents. At the Young Vic last autumn, Michael Sheen, directed by Ian Rickson, gave us a Hamlet of unrelenting neurosis, verging on psychosis, which irresistibly recalled the sensationally off-beat performance of David Warner directed by Peter Hall at Stratford in 1965.

And then, most recently, we had the visit to London from Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, elbowing their way on to the Barbican Theatre stage with Thomas Ostermeier’s brashly inventive account of the play (in German with English surtitles). A cast of six, led by the fearlessly physical Lars Eidinger as the Prince, played all the roles. This was a version of the play in which Denmark had become not just the ‘prison’ which Hamlet castigates to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II Scene 2, but a morass, both literal (in that it was played in a sea of mud) and moral. It threatened at any time to engulf the characters as the action progressed.

In each of these versions of the play, of course, something was left unexplored. Rivetting though it was, the Sheen Hamlet, with its obsession with damaged psychology, ignored the impact of events in the outer world on its protagonist, and the pervasive rottenness of Denmark, personified by the corrupt Claudius and his acolytes. The very effectiveness of the ‘political’ setting of the Hytner version, which was maintained throughout by the constant sense of ‘Big Brother’ electronic surveillance, left us, by contrast, wanting something more on the level of the personal and the emotional, especially from its Hamlet and Ophelia. Gregory Doran, while giving us an Ophelia – in Mariah Gale – who was, at the outset, admirably clear-sighted and courageous, failed to solve the problem (if soluble it is) of sustaining the character as the play progresses, particularly in the ashes of her relationship with Hamlet.

In its sheer inventiveness and energy the Schaubühne am Lehninerplatz version seemed likely to rise above criticism, if only in its being so utterly ‘different’ from anything that had gone before. (When the dust had settled, however, it could be seen, in fact, to have confronted fair and square many of the ‘big’ and ‘moral’ issues raised by the play in spite of all the mudlarking, slapstick and rock ’n’ roll.) The most consistently voiced objection was that it had turned tragedy into comedy. Such a verdict of course raises the question of whether those forms of drama are really only the same beast in different guises.

What all these productions undoubtedly did, in their very different ways, was have us asking: in what precisely, then, does the tragedy of Hamlet – or Hamlet – lie? Is this in fact the tragedy of the ineffectual ‘sweet prince’ or, as Goethe put it: ‘A lovely, pure, noble and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve that forms a hero’? August Wilhelm Schlegel, whose translations of Shakespeare into German set a benchmark for excellence and are still regarded as among the best in any foreign language, was not quite of a mind with his distinguished countryman and contemporary. He perceptively noted, rather, the co-existence in Hamlet’s character of ‘royal manners’ and ‘noble ambition’ with ‘caustic wit’ and ‘a natural inclination for crooked ways’.

Indeed, it seems that we have been dogged for far too long by Goethe’s view (enthusiastically embraced by the English Romantics) that Hamlet is merely about ‘a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it’. If we are to insist that Hamlet is simply ‘not up to’ the task of avenging his father’s death, we diminish the play; we require it to become a mere revenge tragedy rather than the profound exploration of the insidious power of evil – even over the good – that it is. We also, wilfully so it seems, ignore the powerful mechanism that is Hamlet’s mind – his courage and his ruthlessness. When he despatches Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths he does so without a backward glance.

True, he cuts a poor figure when we first come across him in Act I Scene 2, sulking in a corner, giving churlish short answers while the King’s smooth hypocrisy caresses everyone he condescends to. But the revelations of the Ghost of his father galvanise his energies. They finally crystallise for him – and the audience – the reasons for the profound sense of malaise that has hung over Elsinore almost from the opening lines of the play. As he so often does, Shakespeare has a minor character, Marcellus, articulate the truth lying at the heart of the play: ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’

Just how rotten things are someone like Marcellus can have no idea. The evil that has been unleashed in Elsinore encompasses not only its perpetrator, Claudius, but extends to Hamlet’s mother and the King’s chief counsellor, Polonius (whose folly and wickedness will, in the end, destroy his own daughter). Before the play is done not only will the evil have tainted Hamlet’s old university friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (fatally, for them), it will also have corrupted Laertes. He turns from – in Hamlet’s over-generous estimate – a ‘very noble youth’, to something little better than the ‘mountebank’ from whom he has obtained the venom with which he hopes treacherously to do Hamlet to death.

Claudius has murdered his brother and contracted with his widow a marriage that is not only unseemly in its haste and revolting to her son Hamlet but is, in the mores of the age, undoubtedly an incestuous one. His case needs no analysis in terms of the ultimate responsibility for the tragedy of Hamlet. ‘Good old’ Polonius, however, who has been commended by critics down the ages for his homely wisdom, seems to be no less rotten. It is wrong to represent him as, at worst, an engaging old fool. His advice to Laertes: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou can’st not then be false to any man,’ has been parroted so often (generally out of context) that it seems a hopeless task to urge its sheer fallaciousness. Were not Hitler and his Nazi thugs utterly true to themselves in what they thought – and what they did? Polonius is indeed so instinctively corrupt that he even manages to dupe Claudius. These are the terms of his order to Ophelia to reject Hamlet’s suit in Act I Scene 3:

Do not believe his vows. For they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,
The better to beguile.

This is addressed to a young woman who, while more than a match for Laertes’s hypocrisy, is in the innocent enjoyment of her first love. It is an attachment proffered by the heir to the throne ‘in honourable fashion’, and she is perhaps the second lady in the land. Her father’s reaction is to besmirch it in terms of the traffic of prostitution.

Yet when he reports this conversation to Claudius in Act II his admonition to his daughter has undergone a startling cosmetic alteration. Has he encouraged his daughter in any way?

No, I went round to work,
And my young mistress thus did I bespeak:
‘Lord Hamlet is a prince out of thy star.
This must not be.’


He had of course said nothing of the sort. Not only is Claudius duped and Ophelia (and by extension Hamlet, with disastrous consequences) abused by this but the lie is doubly diabolical. Gertrude is later to say, heartbroken, over the grave of Ophelia: ‘I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife.’ The only impediment to their union, then, is in the corrupt mind of Polonius. In fact, his sordid interest in the sexual lives of both his children (he earlier sends a servant to spread slanders about Laertes’s imagined brothel frequenting in Paris) is truly pathological.

It is important to be clear that Polonius’s lies are not harmless things. His deviousness is destructive of all it touches. The King’s acquiescence in his version of events leads directly to the disastrous plan to spy on Ophelia and Hamlet in Act III. The upshot is that Claudius becomes convinced that his only safety is Hamlet’s despatch to a death in England. This will cost his creatures Rosencrantz and Guildenstern their lives, and bring Hamlet back to Denmark as the King’s nemesis.

As stated above, Goethe’s analysis of the character of Hamlet and its perceived shortcomings seems to circumscribe the many-sided individual we actually encounter in the play. Certainly, Hamlet is easily the most loquacious character in Shakespeare’s dramas. He has almost half as much again to say as his creator’s next most voluble protagonist, Richard III. And Hamlet is an extraordinarily philosophical play. In speech after speech, or in down-to-earth conversations with players and gravediggers, its protagonist ranges over practical and metaphysical questions that, though absorbing in themselves, have absolutely nothing to do with advancing the action. Hamlet constantly delights in the free play of thought, roving unfettered as no other character in the play does. In the enjoyment of this mind we are scarcely inclined to resent the mechanics of delay, even when they are as obvious as ‘Now might I do it pat’ as Hamlet contemplates killing the praying and defenceless Claudius in Act III.

Why not? On a very basic level the murder of Claudius at this juncture would of course bring this marvellous play to a rather premature end. And that end (assuming Hamlet got away with it and was not arrested by Polonius and/or troops loyal to the King) would merely leave us with the dénouement of a revenge play. It would not make a tragedy. The play would have ended without our having had a chance fully to comprehend the scale and depth of the evil that Claudius had brought on the Danish state and its denizens, not merely through having killed its monarch and seduced his widow, but through his continuing inability to cease being corrupt and corrupting those around him.

Hamlet’s capacity for relishing philosophical reflection is with him to the end, even as the play’s motion towards its violent end gains tempo. He returns to Denmark with the deaths of three of the play’s characters on his head and knowing perfectly well that the King has signed his death warrant. Yet he can take ‘time out’ to spend two hundred lines in delighted discourse on life and manners with a gravedigger, a man of low degree whose opinions might not be thought to be of burning interest at this late juncture in the action. His democratic admiration of the gravedigger’s wit is in marked contrast to his earlier contempt for Polonius.

How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card,
or equivocation will undo us.
By the Lord, Horatio, I have took note of it, the age is grown
so picked that the toe
of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier that he
galls his kibe.


Hamlet’s mind is here gloriously alive. Although hemmed in with danger he is not about to abate one moment of the relish that can be extracted from the nooks and crannies of life. He has gone beyond fear for himself. When earlier he discovered that he had killed Polonius, his reaction:

For this same lord,
I do repent. But heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.

suggested consciousness of a role almost as a divine agent in the cleansing of the Augean stables that Claudius has made of Denmark. In the final scene of the play, as he prepares for the fencing match, with Horatio clucking anxiously about him, fearful for his safety, we feel that he is looking beyond the contest with Laertes to an outcome that stands outside and above mere vengeance. As Horatio continues to fuss affectionately around him, begging for his consent to have the match called off, Hamlet shrugs off the suggestion:

Not a whit. We defy augury … The readiness is all. Since no
man knows of aught
he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?
Let be.

We are reminded irresistibly of similar lines from a play as yet several years in the future as Shakespeare was completing Hamlet. They are echoed in Edgar’s admonition to his blinded father in the closing scenes of King Lear:

Men must endure
Their going hence even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all.

In both plays catastrophe is impending. But Hamlet will have finally encompassed the defeat of evil in Elsinore. Yes, the good will perish along with the wicked. But Man, the philosopher, will have studied how to die.

Hamlet is, I suppose, the most talked about play in the entire Shakespeare canon and, at more than four hours uncut, easily the longest. It is inevitable that, the economics of production being what they are (and human endurance being what it is), much of Hamlet’s metaphysical ratiocination must be cut in the interest of ‘getting on’ with the drama. Under these pressures Hamlet the Renaissance man and wit has so often given way to Hamlet the Romantic hero/victim of circumstances – an easier proposition to represent in performance.

It has often been said that ‘there are as many Hamlets as there are actors to play the part’. We might add ‘and directors to direct it’. Is this to say that in creating Hamlet Shakespeare wrote a blank cheque? I think not; but what we have seen recently demonstrates the continuing power of the play to appeal even to the rapidly evolving mindset of our times. As early as 1710 the Earl of Shaftesbury was grumbling that the play’s unusual problem was that it had ‘only ONE character’. The theatre and its audiences continue, it seems, to disagree. There appears no danger that either actors or directors will ever think that enough has been said about either Hamlet or Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, by Peter Davies, is published by Greenwich Exchange

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