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Introduction to the Play Hamlet

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“Let me entreat, and beseech, and adjure, and implore you not to write an essay on Hamlet. In the catalogue of a library which is very dear to me, there are about four hundred titles of separate editions, essays, commentaries, lectures, and criticisms of this sole tragedy, and I know that this is only the vanguard of the coming years.”

Horace Howard Furness, 1833 – 1912

By the 1990s the average number of publications on Hamlet, as recorded in the Shakespeare Quarterly Annual Bibliography was running at well over 400 p.a.

Here’s my contribution.


The writing of the play:

There is debate as to the date that Hamlet was written. There is a much earlier version of the play – a so-called Ur-Hamlet – from which the texts that we have (Q1, Q2, and First Folio) are derived. What seems clear is that the play we have is probably late-Elizabethan rather than Stuart, and if one had to put a date on it, the most likely is some time is between 1600 and 1603. The first recorded performances are in 1607 on a ship, the Red Dragon, beset by storms off the coast of modern-day Sierra Leone. No doubt there had been earlier performances in the U.K. in London, and perhaps in Oxford and/or Cambridge.



Assuming the play is Elizabethan, what aspect of that epoch most colours the play?

A major aspect of Elizabethan court life was the uncertainty and risk of violence affecting the crown. Before Elizabeth came to the throne she was at significant personal risk of execution or assassination by her sister Mary. The protestant rebellion against Mary, led by Sir Thomas Wyatt, along with rumours of Elizabeth’s involvement in the plot, led to Mary imprisoning her sister in the Tower for eight weeks.

After Mary Tudor’s death, and even once crowned in 1558, Elizabeth’s life was still at risk. Mary Queen of Scots, who had fled to England to escape the Scots, plotted against Elizabeth, with the connivance of the Spanish. The Babington plot led to her execution in 1587 leading to the Spanish Armada, an attempt to invade England by Spain in 1588.

Plots and assassination attempts continued throughout Elizabeth’s reign. In 1601, two years before the queen’s death, and around the time we think Hamlet was being written, the Earl of Essex led a rebellion against the Queen which led to his execution.

These plots and assassination attempts led to the establishment of an Intelligence service under Sir Francis Walsingham, overseeing foreign, domestic, and religious policy, and heavily influenced by the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli.

Shakespeare would be well aware of the machinations of the Elizabethan state. His contemporary and fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe was a government spy, and when he was stabbed to death in a pub, there were many who believed that he had been killed by the state. The evening before the Essex Rebellion, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the theatre company of which Shakespeare was a member) put on a performance of Richard II, which shows the deposition of a king, and his subsequent murder. This subject always made Elizabeth nervous and raised suspicions that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were involved in Essex’s rebellion. A representative of the players was questioned by the Star Chamber – a dangerous time for the whole group.

An atmosphere of suspicion and deception permeates Hamlet, and a key consideration for modern productions is how to re-create this atmosphere convincingly.

The Play:

A key operator in intrigue is Polonius. Traditionally, he is seen as a charming, but bumbling, old courtier, full of truisms and banalities. But Polonius’s charm is a front for Claudius’s spymaster-in-chief. This is particularly clear in A2S1 where he instructs his servant Reynaldo (‘the fox’) to spy on his son Laertes in Paris. When he suggests that Reynaldo run Laertes down to other Danish people living in Paris, accusing him of gambling; drinking; fencing; swearing; quarrelling; and visiting brothels, Reynaldo protests that this is going too far. Polonius’ reasoning is revealing:

“Your bait of falsehood take this carp of truth
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With Windlasses and assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out:”

This sounds like an effective spying technique, but at the expense of sullying Laertes’ reputation. This scene shows us that Polonius is not the harmless old chap he likes to make out.

In the second half of this scene, Ophelia, visibly upset, tells Polonius that Hamlet has come to her room and behaved very strangely. Polonius offers his daughter no verbal comfort, but quizzes her to find out more, and comes to the conclusion that love for Ophelia has driven Hamlet mad, and the king must be told immediately, overriding any concern for his daughter. Later he suggests that Ophelia should be used as bait to draw Hamlet into conversation, so that the king and Polonius can overhear it. Later still, he spies on a conversation between the Queen and Hamlet, with fatal consequences for himself.

Polonius acts (like Sir Francis Walshingham for Elizabeth), as head of intelligence for the king, whilst he plays the loving father to his children, a charming courtier to all, and engages Hamlet in conversation in order to discover more. Hamlet’s reaction suggests he understands Polonius’ ulterior motivation.

Two key examples of Polonius’s behaviour are worth exploring further. As Laertes prepares to leave for France, his father offers him some truisms of how to behave. This is often played as amusing for both Laertes and Ophelia, but perhaps it would be better played as a father who has nothing personal to offer his son, because he is so wrapped up in his professional work, that he can only offer him clichés.

Secondly, when he tells Claudius and Gertrude of Hamlet’s love for Ophelia, Polonius bumbles on from truism to truism, even after Gertrude asks him to get to the point:

“What majesty should be,what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time…”
“More matter with less art”
“Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he’s mad, ’tis true, ’tis pity,
And pity ’tis ’tis true: a foolish figure!
But farewell it, for I will use no art…”

Now this could be light stuff to encourage us to believe Polonius is a helpless, amusing courtier, but it can be interpreted differently. Polonius is summoning up the courage to tell the king and queen that he thinks that Hamlet loves his daughter, Ophelia. Could this be awkward for the loyal courtier who knows his (and his daughter’s) place?


“But what might you think
When I had seen this hot love on the wing – ….
If I had played the desk or table-book,
Or given my heart a working mute and dumb,
Or looked upon this love with idle sight,
What might you think? No, I went round to work
And my young mistress thus I did bespeak:
‘Lord Hamlet is a prince out of thy star.
Thus must not be.’

Here Polonius is, or plays at being, a little nervous about raising a rather delicate issue with the king and queen. Polonius hides his occupation behind a front of charm and vague incompetence. He is not what he seems.

Does the king contribute to this atmosphere of suspicion, deception, and things not being what they seem? Of course he does – not least because he has murdered the previous king, and usurped the throne from Hamlet ‘the most immediate to our throne”. He pretends to be the concerned step-father and uncle but his actions suggest otherwise: he tries to keep Hamlet under his control at Elsinore; he sets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him; and once Hamlet appears to have lost control and has murdered Polonius, he arranges for him leave the court, to reduce that risk to himself, and plans to have him murdered by the king of England. He also is not what he seems.

How does Hamlet react to this environment, and who is he?

He’s a student at Wittenberg, and seems to get on well with his peers (Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern) – at least until he discovers they are spying on him

He is a difficult son and step-son, even before he knows of the murder of his father. In A1S2: “A little more than kith, and less than kind.”; his “Seems, madam….” speech at line 75, and his soliloquy “Oh that this too, too, solid Flesh, would melt…” with its reference to suicide, disgust at the physical nature of life, and its naively idealistic view of life, all point to late adolescence.

His idealism also affects his relationship with his girlfriend Ophelia. He finds it difficult to reconcile his idealistic view of her (A2S2 “To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia”) with his physical desires (the sexually suggestiveness in A3S2 – “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” etc ).

The oppressive ambience of suspicion, spying, and deception created by Polonius and Claudius seems to confirm his disenchantment:

He has smelt out Polonius, the spymaster, and treats him with contempt: A2S2 – “… you are a fishmonger…. I would you were so honest a man… To be honest in this world is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.”;

He suspects everyone’s motives, and tests all his friends, Horatio in A1S2 and then particularly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in A2S2. Initially he greets them openly: “Good lads, how do you both?”, but their responses to his questions soon raise his suspicions: “… let me conjure you, by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love: and by what more dear a better proposer can charge you withal, be even and direct with me whether you were sent for or no”. And he discovers that they were sent for – by Claudius.

Polonius’s demand of Ophelia, that she first deny Hamlet’s advances, and then act as bait for Polonius’s and Claudius’s spying trip, leads him to suspect her, not unreasonably, of spying on him.

Is it surprising that in this oppresive atmosphere of suspicion and pretence Hamlet becomes anxious about reality? He mistrusts his father’s ghost, seen and heard by many and so confirmed as real (A3S2: “Observe my Uncle. If his occulted guilt Do not itself unkennel in one speech It is a damned ghost that we have seen”). When everything is uncertain; nothing is as it seems, how is one to act? “To be or not to be…” Hamlet’s mental state borders on paranoia.

Into this environment of pretence the players arrive, professional pretenders, and it’s a great relief. “Welcome, good friends. Oh old friend, why thy face is valanced since I saw thee last!… What my young lady and mistress! By’r Lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw thee last, by the altitude of a chopine.” And he immediately asks for a speech – a speech by Aeneas to Dido, describing Priam’s slaughter. This tells the tale of Pyrrhus’ revenge for the death of his father Achilles, by the killing of Priam, king of Troy, and indirectly responsible for Achilles’ death from an arrow shot by Paris, Priam’s son. Hamlet is moved by the emotion the Player shows (even Polonius notices it) when describing Hecuba’s (Priam’s wife) reaction to his death:

“What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and that for passion,
That I have?”

The idea comes to him of testing whether Claudius is really guilty of his father’s death (he does not trust his father’s ghost). He directs the players in a play which shows the murder of a king by the putting of poison in his ear, and then the marriage of the murderer to the dead king’s wife, to see if Claudius’ response betrays his guilt. In the world of uncertainty and seemingness, Hamlet seeks for certainty that his father has been murdered.

The players play the scene well, the king storms off angrily, and Hamlet becomes manic in the confirmation this has given him of his father’s murder. “Would not this sir, and a forest of feathers, if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me, with provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players?” .

Horatio tries to calm him down.

Before seeing how the play unfolds in Act Four and Five, let’s look closer at his relationships with Gertrude and Ophelia. As we’ve already seen, Hamlet is a very ‘open’ play. This openness can be seen in Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, Gertrude. Hamlet is having a difficult time with her. His main reproach is her re-marriage to Claudius, her husband’s brother, barely two months after her husband’s death. For Elizabethans, marrying a husband’s brother was considered incest, and this may well have coloured an Elizabethan audience’s view of Hamlet’s reaction. To a modern audience, an Oedipal interpretation seems more credible.

He accuses Gertrude of disloyalty to his father, and bad taste – “See what a grace was fronted on this brow, Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself” by accepting Claudius – “a murderer and a villain, A slave that is not twentieth part the kith of your precedent lord” as his replacement. and blames her sexuality, which disgusts him;

“Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutiny in a Matron’s bones,
To flaming youth let Virtue be as wax
And melt in her own fire.”

Whether you take a religious or a Freudian view of Hamlet and Gertrude’s relationship, Hamlet’s reaction seems over-the-top – a misogynistic cruelty born of adolescent intolerence untempered by compassion. There seems to be no evidence apart from Hamlet’s suspicion, that Gertrude has been motivated by lust. It seems more likely that she wants to continue in the role of Queen after the death of her husband.

This openness is also apparent in Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. From the start, there is no doubt that they have some sort of relationship, but is it as inncocent as Laertes and Polonius hope? Have Hamlet and she been lovers? Could Ophelia be pregnant? One can play it any way, though the lover option fits better with Ophelia’s later madness and her songs and modern customs:

“Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me
You promised me to wed.”
He answers:
“ So would I ‘ha done by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.”

It does seem clear that Ophelia is very young – ealy teens, and to an Elizabethan audience would still be very much her father’s daughter, and her mad songs refer frequently to him. Her position as a loyal subject, and daughter of a very loyal subject, would require her not to create any dynastic complications for the reigning family. Lord Hamlet was a prince out of her star.

However, Polonius first compromises her relationship with Hamlet by insisting on her giving him the cold shoulder. Ophelia then agrees to engage Hamlet in conversation whilst Polonius and Claudius spy on him. Ophelia is no Cordelia and it does not seem to occur to her that she might resist this betrayal of Hamlet. Although nothing is overtly said which demonstrates that Hamlet is aware that she is acting as her father’s bait, it is often played so, and the text suggests it: “Are you honest… are you fair” and later “Where is your father?… Let the doors be shut upon him that he play the fool nowhere but in’s own house.”

His angry rejection of her, seems driven by his justified suspicion that she has betrayed him. Certainly he is hurt because she has, in his eyes, rejected him, and now returns his gifts, and so he, in turn, rejects and hurts her.

Ophelia’s response to Hamlet’s anger is to think that he has genuinely gone mad. The death of her father at Hamlet’s hand and the absence of Laertes, leaves her abandoned and grief-stricken.

In the first three acts Hamlet appears to be an idealist, in difficulties with his family, and in an atmosphere, of suspicion and intrigue. He is aware of this atmosphere, and although he finds it difficult to know what is real, he is continually trying to find the truth he yearns for. He agonises what to do about the murder of his father. Although he plays the part of a madman to protect himself, he twice tries to let Claudius know that it’s just a game. To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he says in A2S2:

“I am but mad north-north-west.
When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

And to Gertrude (A3S4):

That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. ‘Twere good you let him know,…”

Once Claudius has reacted to the players’ piece, the tone of the play changes. The traditional view is that Hamlet doesn’t act, that he behaves like an ineffectual liberal agonising over what to do. But the facts after the Claudius’ guilty reaction do not bear this out:

  • He kills the spy behind the arras without a thought, and though disappointed that it isn’t Claudius, feels little remorse for Polonius.
  • he speedily arranges for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by replacing Claudius’ letter to the King of England
  • and leaps into Ophelia’s grave to compete with her brother’s affection for his lost sister.

This shows an impulsive actor. Admittedly, he pauses to reflect when he comes across Claudius at prayer – “Now might I do it. But now he is a’ prayer”. Perhaps the sixteenth century view of the saving power of prayer is what prevents Hamlet from avenging his father’s death, although now it reads more like a rationalization for not taking action.

Laertes also seeks revenge. He returns from Paris determined to avenge his father’s death. Claudius diverts Laertes’ vengeance away from himself and towards Hamlet, as a matador might with a charging bull. This redirection leads to the death of both Hamlet and Laertes. Laertes wonders, during the duel, whether he’s got things quite right – “And yet it is almost against my conscience.” Once wounded with the poisoned rapier, he gives the fatally wounded Hamlet enough time to take vengeance on Claudius, and this time Hamlet does not pause for thought.



C21 Performance Considerations:

The play works well with a modern audience, but there are some pitfalls:
Perhaps the biggeset of these is to ensure that the atmosphere of suspicion and spying, and ‘things not being what they seem’ is present and felt. This is frequently achieved by setting the play in a world with all the apparatus of a totalitarian state The recent definitive production at the National Theatre with Nicholoas Hytner directing and Rory Kinnear as Hamlet made extensive use of this.
To a modern audience, there is a danger of Hamlet’s attitude to Gertrude and Ophelia coming across as misogynyst in the extreme. Hamlet has reason to reject Ophelia – she has betrayed him to her father. With Gertrude his behaviour is unreasonable, but it is not outside the bounds of the behaviour of sons with their mothers. Both relationships need to be played with care. These relationships were very convincing in the BBC production directed by Rodney Bennett, with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet.
As noted in a number of places in this essay, Elizabethan religious beliefs would affect the original audience’s responses to the play. A modern audience may not respond in the same way.

Castings and Play-readings

We provide a number of playreading castings online:

Our own experience suggests that a play-reading will work best for 6 – 9 players, and so we allow these castings to be downloaded for free as epubs for use on Apple iPads and iPhones using iBooks, Windows laptops using IceCream ebook reader, and potentially Android smartphones and tablets using Google Play Books.

These downloads are available from the following links:


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3 Responses to "Introduction to the Play Hamlet"

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  • Richard Forsyth
    April 3, 2018 - 6:50 pm Reply

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