Hamlet, p.1William Shakespeare
The RSC Shakespeare
Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
Chief Associate Editor: Heloise Senechal
Associate Editors: Trey Jansen, Eleanor Lowe, Lucy Munro, Dee Anna
Phares, Jan Sewell
Textual editing: Eric Rasmussen
Introduction and "Shakespeare's Career in the Theater": Jonathan Bate
Commentary: Heloise Senechal
Scene-by-Scene Analysis: Esme Miskimmin
In Performance: Karin Brown (RSC stagings), Jan Sewell (overview),
Jonathan Bate (captions)
The Director's Cut (interviews by Jonathan Bate and Kevin Wright):
Michael Boyd, John Caird, Ron Daniels
Editorial Advisory Board
Gregory Doran, Chief Associate Artistic Director,
Royal Shakespeare Company
Jim Davis, Professor of Theatre Studies, University of Warwick, UK
Charles Edelman, Senior Lecturer, Edith Cowan University,
Lukas Erne, Professor of Modern English Literature,
Universite de Geneve, Switzerland
Maria Evans, Director of Education, Royal Shakespeare Company
Akiko Kusunoki, Tokyo Woman's Christian University, Japan
Ron Rosenbaum, author and journalist, New York, USA
James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature,
Columbia University, USA
Tiffany Stern, Fellow and Tutor in English, University of Oxford, UK
2008 Modern Library Paperback Edition Copyright (c) 2008 by The Royal Shakespeare Company All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Modern Library, an imprint of
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or registered trademarks of The Royal Shakespeare Company.
Conscience and Resolution
How Many Hamlets?
Talking About Hamlet
About the Text
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
List of Parts
Second Quarto Passages That Do Not Appear in the Folio
Hamlet in Performance: The RSC and Beyond
Four Centuries of Hamlet: An Overview
At the RSC
The Director's Cut: Michael Boyd, John Caird, and Ron Daniels
Shakespeare's Career in the Theater
The Ensemble at Work
The King's Man
Shakespeare's Works: A Chronology
Further Reading and Viewing
Acknowledgments and Picture Credits
The mood of Hamlet is set by its opening exchange: "Who's there?" "Nay, answer me...." The play creates the illusion of asking as many questions of its audience and interpreters as we may ask of it. Shakespeare won't tell us who he is or where he stands. Instead, he makes us--and our culture--reveal ourselves. That is the source of his endurance and one of the reasons why Hamlet has long been regarded as his greatest, or at least his most characteristic, play.
The Prince of Denmark himself is the most famously interrogative of all dramatic characters. He is Shakespeare's ultimate man of words. The actor who plays him has to learn over 340 speeches; the role has a higher proportion of its play's words (nearly 40 percent) than any other in Shakespeare. Hamlet's favorite intellectual move is to make an action that he witnesses--a player weeping, a skull tossed from an old grave--into the occasion for speculation: "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?," "Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?" In watching or reading the play, we are moved, like Hamlet, to ask the big questions: What should we believe? How should we act? What happens after death? In whose version of the truth should we have faith?
Horatio, the commentator who comes closest to being the voice of the audience, says that he "in part" believes stories about ghosts and portents. His qualifier is a watchword for the whole play. Humankind is in part a godlike creature, full of mental and verbal powers, "The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals." But, to take the other part, we are also "quintessence of dust"--the politician, the lawyer, the heroic man of action (Alexander the Great), and the humble clown (Yorick) all end up in the same place.
Like the wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but with tragic as opposed to comic consequences, Elsinore is a place where "everything seems double." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a double act engaged to spy on Hamlet, with the result that he has "at each ear a hearer." Hardly anyone in the play seems able to speak without producing a double epithet: "the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes," "the gross and scope of my opinion," "post-haste and rummage in the land," "the grace and blush of modesty," and so on. Stage props also come in pairs: two contrasting portraits of two brothers, a pair of rapiers (one of which is sharpened and anointed for the kill), two skulls. Entrances seem to repeat themselves: the appearances of the Ghost; Hamlet overheard in meditation, first with a book, later with his reflections on being and not being; the king and Gertrude in their respective private rooms after the trauma of the Mousetrap play; Ophelia's two mad scenes.
The story of a son seeking vengeance for his father's death is doubled after Hamlet kills Polonius: "by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his," remarks Hamlet of Laertes. The motif is redoubled in the figure of Young Fortinbras out to avenge the defeat of Old Fortinbras. A further commentary is provided by the Player's speech about Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, furiously seeking atonement for his father's loss by slaughtering old King Priam. But this might be construed as a negative example: Priam himself is an "unnerved father" and his slaughter moves a wife and mother, Hecuba, to distraction. If Hamlet were to become a killing machine like Pyrrhus, he would be diminishing himself to the inhumanity of his adversary, besides emotionally destroying his mother: that is his dilemma "bounded in a nutshell."
Hamlet is a student, a model for the perpetual students and idealists who populate later literature, especially in Germany and Russia. Like Shakespeare's other highly intellectual drama, Troilus and Cressida, this is a play that debates the great questions of epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics. "Humanism," the dominant educational theory of the sixteenth century, proposed that wisdom was to be derived from book learning. The student developed the arts of language through his rhetorical training, while collecting the wisdom of the ancients in the form of citations and sententiae
Hamlet's uncle must once have been a good student. He is a master of balanced rhetoric, the measure and decorum of his verse belying his crime against the order of nature and state:
... as 'twere with a defeated joy,
With one auspicious and one dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole.
He thinks he knows, and that everyone in the court will accept, what is the appropriate length of time to mourn the death of a brother, husband, father.
Hamlet despises such propriety. He is not interested in the "common" way of behaving. He speaks for the "particular," the individual. "Mourning duties," maintained for a set period, are to him mere outward show, the signs of a "seeming" with which he refuses to play along. He has "that within which passeth show": the solitary self is set against social custom. He has returned from university determined to "wipe away" all the customary wisdom of Stoic decorum, all that "discourse of reason" which humanist theorists regarded as the gift that set men above the beasts. He will have nothing to do with "saws of books" or the codes of behavior that "youth and observation" are supposed to copy from their humanist texts. After encountering the ghost, he vows to fill his commonplace book ("my tables") from experience instead of books.
This new way of seeing is initially regarded by his fellow students Horatio and Marcellus as no more than "wild and whirling words," madness brought on by an encounter with an evil spirit. But Hamlet knows what he is doing. He tries on his "antic disposition" as a way of testing the limits of the rational "philosophy" embodied by Horatio. Ophelia tells of how she witnessed Hamlet utter a sigh that seemed to "end his being." That end is also a beginning: the birth of a new man dedicated to the proposition that the opposite of reason is not madness, but true feeling. Later, when Ophelia is mad, she is described as "Divided from herself and her fair judgement, / Without the which we are pictures or mere beasts." When Hamlet feigns madness, by contrast, he speaks with true judgment, as even Polonius half recognizes: "A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of."
Hamlet is a political drama as well as a play about the journey of an individual self. It begins with portents betokening "some strange eruption to our state." It holds up a mirror to a world of royalty, courtiers, politicians, and ambassadors, but also ordinary people: students, actors, gravediggers, even (on the margins) an underclass of "lawless resolutes" following Fortinbras and a "rabble" who want Laertes to be king.
"Denmark's a prison": Hamlet is cabined, cribbed and confined by his princely birth, by the machinations of statecraft, and by the limitations of the material world. In his melancholy, when he complains that he has lost interest in all gentlemanly pursuits ("custom of exercise"), he points to the "canopy" over the stage. The self-conscious allusion to the architecture of the Globe Theatre hints at how he finds his freedom: in play, first by pretending to be mad, then through theater. It is the arrival of the actors that reinvigorates him. Hamlet loves plays and the players because he recognizes the power of acting to expose the feigning of public life, the fact that courtiership and rhetorical decorum are themselves but performances. He comes to the truth through "a fiction" and "a dream of passion." In this he can only be regarded as an apologist for the art of his creator.
The play was registered in 1602 "as it was lately acted by the Lord Chamberlain his servants" (Shakespeare's theater company), but a book published in 1596 refers to a ghost in a play crying "Hamlet, revenge!," and as early as 1589 Thomas Nashe mentioned "whole Hamlets--I should say handfuls--of tragical speeches." Scholars therefore suppose that Shakespeare's play was written in about 1600, but that it was a reworking of an older, now lost play, just as King Lear was a reworking of the anonymous History of King Leir, which does survive. The old Hamlet is sometimes speculatively attributed to Thomas Kyd, whose Spanish Tragedy established the late-Elizabethan vogue for blood-and-guts revenge drama. A few scholars suppose that Shakespeare himself wrote the early version and a tiny minority that the poorly printed First Quarto text of 1603 may in some way derive from it. Though there is no firm evidence as to authorship or content, we may safely assume that the old Hamlet play (sometimes known as the Ur-Hamlet) was broadly similar to The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare's early assay in this genre, Titus Andronicus, both of which achieved immense popularity with their plotting of revenge by means of feigned madness, their spectacular multiple murders, and the revenger's elaborately rhetorical outbursts of tragic passion. Hamlet's shortest soliloquy, after he has been fired up by the play-within-the-play, is very much in this style: "Now could I drink hot blood And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to look on."
Hamlet is as capable of violent action as any other revenger--witness his cruel rejection of Ophelia and his casual lugging of Polonius' guts into the neighboring room. Nor does he delay nearly so much as he tells us he is delaying: he has to establish the authenticity of the Ghost, to ensure that it is not a devil sent to tempt him into evil action, and as soon as he has done this by watching Claudius' reaction to the play he goes off to kill him. He doesn't kill him at prayer because that would be "hire and salary, not revenge," would send him to heaven not to hell. He then thinks that he has killed him in Gertrude's closet, though it turns out that he has killed Polonius instead and as a result he is packed off to England. As soon as he has tricked and dispatched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, effected his daring escape via the pirate ship and returned to Denmark, he is in a state of "readiness" and the revenge then takes place during the duel. Looked at this way, where is the delay?
But the style of the "hot blood" soliloquy is completely unlike that of the other solo speeches, which are all much longer and more introspective. It is from them that we derive our image of the character of Hamlet. In the first act, he is so disgusted by his mother's hasty remarriage that he wishes he were dead. In the second, he is moved to self-disgust by the way in which the player can work himself into a frenzy for the fictional sorrows of Hecuba, while he himself has not yet done anything about his father's murder. In the third, he meditates on the pros and cons of suicide and in the Quarto text of the fourth, he is still chiding himself when he compares his own inaction with the military activity of Fortinbras and his army ("How all occasions do inform against me / And spur my dull revenge!"). Hamlet's self-analysis has led some commentators to wonder whether his failure to kill the praying usurper might be the result of procrastination, not calculation about whether he would be sending him to heaven or hell. The soliloquies present such a convincing picture of irresolution and inaction that even when it comes to the final scene it may occur to us that the killing of the king seems to be not so much the climax of Hamlet's plans as an incidental consequence of Laertes' quest for revenge for the deaths of his father and sister.
For the Romantics such as Goethe and Coleridge, Hamlet was the archetype of the sensitive man paralized into inaction by his sheer capacity for thought--which is to say an image of themselves as poets uneasily inhabiting the public sphere. Debatable as this reading is, there can be little doubt that Shakespeare's innovation in Hamlet was to take the figure of the revenger from the old play and turn him into an intellectual, so making revenge into a moral dilemma as opposed to a practical task to be carried out through effective plotting. Hamlet's problem is that his intelligence makes him see both sides of every question, whereas in the drama of revenge there is no place for debate and half measure. Th
CONSCIENCE AND RESOLUTION
One of the paradoxes of the play is that the Ghost of Old Hamlet comes from Purgatory, where he is confined in fire "Till the foul crimes done in [his] days of nature / Are burnt and purged away," while Hamlet's speech giving his reasons for not plunging his sword into his praying uncle implies that the act of penitence can instantly purge sin away and allow even a man who has committed the most terrible crime immediate access to heaven on his death. Purgatory is a Roman Catholic doctrine, the leap to grace supposed by Hamlet a Protestant one. At several points, the play engages with the great doctrinal disputes of the Reformation and counter-Reformation. There appear, for instance, to be passing allusions to the nature of the sacrament of Holy Communion, the question of whether the bread and wine at the altar is literally or only symbolically transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.
Hamlet longs to be back at Wittenberg, the university of Martin Luther, architect of the Reformation. Wittenberg was the intellectual home of the Protestant revolution, in which the individual's relationship with God matters more than the intercession of priests, saints, and the Church. In Protestantism, authenticity of feeling is paramount and a key term is "conscience." As Hamlet says at the end of "To be, or not to be":
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all:
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn away,
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