I also saw Hamlet performed by a different RSC cast in Northampton on 3rd March 2018 starring Paapa Essiedu as the Prince. It sought to make itself distinctive with the addition of African drum music to a production featuring a mainly black cast; they updated the weaponry to pistols so Hamlet shot Polonius but you can't have that with the complicated poisoned rapier sword play bit at the end and so they used fighting sticks one of which converted into a poisoned dagger stick. Complicated. Otherwise it was a faithful rendition of the play. The lead was stunningly good and Polonius and Claudius turned in strong performances.
Literary taste has its fashions: at the moment Hamlet is regarded as Shakespeare's masterpiece. It was his longest play and is rarely performed to its full length.
It was probably written between late autumn of 1599 and early February 1601 though there were probably additions made afterwards. It was almost certainly written after Julius Caesar (late summer 1599) because there is an 'in' joke about JC.
One thing that Shakespeare was particularly brilliant at is fracturing his own verse in order to convey the fractured thoughts of the character beset by emotions. Thus Hamlet's speech in Act One Scene 5 when the Ghost has just revealed to him that his mother has killed the man (his uncle) who murdered his father is full of shortened lines, caesuras, non-sequiturs as he tries to express his anger. This reminded me of the speech in Act One of The Winter's Tale in which King Leontes decides that his wife is having an affair with his best friend.
Another dramatic device which Shakespeare uses so well is the moments of comedy to interrupt tense moments. |At the end of Act Four Claudius has laid his plans to murder Hamlet and Gertrude has announced that Ophelia has killed herself. Act Five starts with a couple of clowns cracking jokes as they dig a grave. Of course the ultimate use of this device is in Macbeth where the King has just been murdered when we hear knocking which turns out to be a knock on the Castle gate which is answered by a comic gateman, drunk and pretending to be Hell's Porter, in the only laugh in the whole play.
Yet another dramatic device that Shakespeare used to great effect (he was a half decent playwright) is the use of alternative plots to contrast with the main plot. For example: Hamlet considers suicide, Ophelia kills herself; Hamlet pretends to go mad, Ophelia actually goes mad; Hamlet seeks revenge on the man who killed his father, Laertes seeks revenge on the man who killed his father. This intertwining of the two families is like the mixing up of King Lear's personal tragedy, betrayed by daughters, with Gloucester's tragedy, betrayed by a son.
Pretending. Hamlet pretends to go mad. The King betrays himself by his reaction to a play (The Mousetrap) which is only pretence.
Equality of rank. This play ends with the death of the hero Hamlet on stage. Except that it actually ends with the news that, off stage, two bit players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. This, with the graveyard scene at the beginning of this act, seems to be Shakespeare saying, as Hamlet has already asserted, in death we are all the same.
A summary of the plot: (beware spoilers!)
Scene 1: on the castle battlements
Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio relieve Francisco from sentry duty. On previous nights B & M have seen a ghost on the battlements but H doesn’t believe them so he has come to see for himself.
The ghost enters and H recognises it as the recently deceased King Hamlet. He calls on it to speak but it stays silent. They agree to tell young Prince Hamlet.
Horatio reviews the political situation. Old King H defeated Fortinbras of Norway in battle and so claimed all his lands. Young Fortinbras has “sharked up a list of landless resolutes” (raised an army of unpropertied desperadoes) to try to win his inheritance back.
Scene 2: Claudius in court
Claudius explains that, following “our dear brother’s death” he has married the Queen. He sends ambassadors to the King of Norway, uncle to young Fortinbras, to suppress F.
Laertes asks to be allowed to return to France; Polonius his dad agrees so C approves this.
Claudius asks young Prince Hamlet why he is still so gloomy.
Gertrude points out that “all that lives must die” and asks why Hamlet seems to be upset about this. Hamlet takes the word ‘seems’ and says that his black clothes and his sighing and his crying (“the fruitful river in the eye”) and his sad face, all these are ‘seems’ but he is sad inside.
Claudius points out that all dads die. He then tells Hamlet that he isn’t allowed to return to Wittenberg. Gertrude reinforces this and Hamlet promises to obey her (by implication, not the King).
They all go. Then Hamlet, left alone on stage, delivers his first (and best?) soliloquy:
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world.
He concludes: “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue”
Horatio (a friend from Wittenberg), Marcellus, and Barnardo, arrive. Hamlet remembers his dad:
“He was a man. Take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.”
at which point Horatio says “I think I saw him yesternight” and they tell H about the Ghost and H resolves to see the Ghost “tonight”.
Scene 3: The other family
Laertes is taking his leave of his sister Ophelia. He warns her that Hamlet’s love may be but “the trifling of his favour” and that even if he is serious he can’t expect to be allowed to marry whom he pleases because he is royal. So Ophelia must take care not to become dishonoured.
“Be wary then; best safety lies in fear;
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.”
OK, says Ophelia, but don’t you, brother, be a rake:
“Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puffed and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.”
Polonius, dad to L & O arrives to send L off with a whole host of sayings encapsulating fatherly advice:
“Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.
For the apparel oft proclaims the man
Neither a borrower nor a lender be”Etc
Laertes goes and Polonius quizzes his daughter about Hamlet’s intentions, pointing out that she must be careful not to be seduced.
Scene 4: The battlements again
To the background of a party enjoyed by Claudius, Hamlet, Marcellus and Horatio meet the Ghost. The Ghost beckons Hamlet and Hamlet, despite the warnings of the other two, follows it offstage.
Scene 5: The Ghost and Hamlet
The Ghost is soon to go to Hell; Hamlet says “Alas, poor ghost!”
The Ghost tells H that he is
“Doomed for a certain time 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.”
He tells Hamlet that H must
“Revenge his [father’s] foul and most unnatural murder.”
The people were told that old Hamlet had been stung by a serpent while sleeping in his orchard but
“The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.”
He goes on to explain that Claudius poured poison in his ear while he slept.
Hamlet, speaking after the Ghost has gone, is much affected. He speaks in fractured lines, indicative of his stress:
“...Yes, yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!
My tables - meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
Horatio and Marcellus, seeking Hamlet, find him. They ask him what has happened but he replies in “wild and whirling words”. He seems to be concerned that if he tells them what the Ghost has said they will reveal it and he makes them swear upon his sword (and the Ghost cries out to them from underground “swear”) that if they see him pretending to be mad (“How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself”) they shall not give him away even by shaking their heads or pronouncing an ambiguous remark.
Scene 1: Polonius and Reynoldo
P long-windedly instructs R to go to Paris to check up on P’s son Laertes; he tells R to pretend Laertes is a bit of a wild boy to see if the friends take the bait and acknowledge L’s naughtinesses. P spying on his son will be mirrored by Claudius asking R&G to spy on Hamlet; the deception P is using will also be mirrored.
R goes and Ophelia enters and says that Hamlet has been behaving strangely. Polonius assumes that H is mad with love for O. He goes to tell the King.
Scene 2: Claudius, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern
C tells R & G that H has been behaving strangely. And, reflecting P’s address to R in the last scene, he asks them to befriend H and report back to C so that C can help to remedy the malady. They agree.
P tells C that he knows the cause of H’s strange behaviour. But first C has to talk the the ambassador back from Norway with good news: the King has pensioned Fortinbras and sent him to fight the Poles.
Now Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet is mad. Very long-windedly he explains that Hamlet has professed love for Ophelia and she has rebuffed him and this is why he is mad. To prove it he proposes that Claudius and Polonius hide behind a curtain while Hamlet is taking a walk and eavesdrop on his thinking aloud.
Now Hamlet enters and talks to Polonius. Suddenly he is talking in prose. This is a famous speech. H says things that can be interpreted as madness but can also be interpreted as profundities.
Polonius leaves and R&G enter. Hamlet continues to talk in double meanings. He persuades R&G to tell him that they were sent for by the King and he tells them that it is himself, Hamlet, who is being spied upon because he has “of late ... lost all my mirth”. “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, ... And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me ...” Which is a shame, says Rosencrantz, because they have met some actors and sent them to entertain Hamlet. Hamlet quizzes RG carefully about the actors and, when they arrive, welcomes them, but when Polonius returns Hamlet plays his madness again.
Now Hamlet barters speeches (about Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, killing Priam as Troy is being sacked; there is a parallel here with Hamlet, as son of a great warrior, killing a King) with the actors, whom he has met before (presumably in Wittenberg).
Dismissing the actors, who leave with Polonius, he detains the First Player and asks him to perform The Murder of Gonzago with an additional sixteen lines which Hamlet will write to be inserted.
Hamlet is alone. He reflects aloud on what he has been thinking. Isn’t it odd that an actor can simulate a feeling and make others feel it too?
“Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his whole conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Cheers in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing.
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?”
And, after berating himself for cowardice, continues:
“I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.”
He intends to get the players to re-enact the Ghost’s version of his murder and Hamlet will watch the King closely to see if he betrays himself. Then H will know that the Ghost spoke the truth.
Scene 1: The soliloquy!
Claudius and Gertrude are quizzing Polonius and Ophelia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about Hamlet’s “confusion” or “lunacy”. R&G can’t be sure if he is mad or cunning. They mention the proposed play and Claudius agrees to watch it. Gertrude exits and Claudius and Polonius hide so they can spy on Hamlet talking to Ophelia.
Hamlet, thinking himself alone, ponders suicide:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
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 pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
He notices Ophelia and tells himself to shut up. When she tries to return the tokens of love that he sent her before he denies he ever loved her and, with riddling arguments, suggests that all men are sinners and women should breed no more such.
He goes and Ophelia is distraught that her beloved Hamlet has gone, as she thinks, mad.
But Claudius, emerging for hiding, thinks that Hamlet is not so much mad as dangerous and proposes sending Hamlet to England so that sea air or travel might mend his brain.
Scene 2: The play
Hamlet carefully instructs the players how to enact the play. He instructs Horatio to watch Claudius carefully during the play; if Claudius does not give himself away during the speech Hamlet has inserted then the Ghost has been lying.
The court watch the play, Hamlet sitting next to Ophelia and making a number of innuendoes. Claudius does indeed give himself away.
After, as Hamlet discusses the play with Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to tell him that Gertrude wants to speak to him.
Scene 3: Claudius
Claudius is furious. He decrees that Hamlet will be sent, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to England.
Polonius tells Claudius that he will hide behind the curtain to eavesdrop on Hamlet with Gertrude.
Claudius, left alone, prays:
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t -
A brother’s murder
As he kneels Hamlet tiptoes in. He draws his sword. He could kill Claudius here and now. But if he kills C while C is praying, C will go straight to Heaven and that wouldn’t avenge his father, currently in Hell. So he leaves.
Scene 4: The stabbing of Polonius
Gertrude talks to Hamlet while Polonius hides behind the arras curtain. Gertrude, feeling threatened by her son, calls for Help and the hidden Polonius takes up the cry. Hamlet stabs the curtain and kills Polonius (although H thinks it might be Claudius).
Hamlet tells Gertrude what he knows and Gertrude is ashamed for marrying her husband;’s brother. The Ghost returns, visible only to Hamlet, and Gertrude thinks her son is mad.
But he enjoins her again not to sleep with his uncle any more and, reminding her that he has been sent to England, leaves, dragging the body of Polonius after him.
Scene 1: C & G
Most unusually, Gertrude remains on stage from the end of Act 3 to the start of Act 4. Claudius enters to ask why she is upset and where is Hamlet? And she tells him her son is:
“Mad as the sea and wind when both contend
Which is the mightier.”
which might be a way of telling (in a riddling way typical of her son) that there is a royal battle on here. Then she tells Claudius that H has killed Polonius.
Claudius realises that Hamlet is a threat (C himself might have been behind that curtain) “To you yourself, to us, to everyone” and tells R&G to find the body.
R&G ask H where the body is but he won’t say.
Claudius has a problem: Hamlet should be punished but
“He’s loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgement but their eyes”
so he has to get rid of H. He sends H to England with a secret letter telling the English to put H to death.
Scene 4: Fortinbras
Fortinbras sends a messenger to Claudius to seek safe conduct for his army.
Scene 5: Ophelia’s mad scene
Horatio is telling Gertrude that Ophelia has gone mad. And O herself crosses the strange, singing snatches of ballads, being mad.
Claudius lists their troubles. Polonius is dead and was buried in secret, which was “done but greenly”. And Laertes has come from France and got a rabble backing him.
Laertes breaks in at the head of the mob, demanding to know what happened to his father. Claudius prevaricates. Ophelia returns, singing mad songs. Laertes is distressed and Claudius promises him justice.
Scene 6: The letter about the pirates.
Sailors bring Horatio a letter in which Hamet says he has been captured by pirates.
Scene 7: C &L plot to kill H
Claudius explains himself to Laertes.
A messenger comes from Hamlet. C is surprised. Hamlet is back in Denmark.
Claudius proposes that they get Hamlet and Laertes to have a swordfight. Laertes proposes that he puts poison on the tip of his sword so that Hamlet will be killed if L even scratches him. Claudius proposes putting poison into a drink in case H escapes the scratch.
Gertrude enters with the news that Ophelia has drowned herself.
Scene 1: The graveyard
A couple of clowns, telling rubbish Shakespearean jokes, are digging Ophelia’s grave. Hamlet and Horatio arrive and Hamlet broods on death particularly when presented with Yorick’s skull. Hamlet realises that we all must die.
Ophelia’s funeral procession arrive. Hamlet, watching from the side, is shocked that Ophelia is dead.
Laertes leaps in the grave after his sister and tells them to fill it up. Hamlet leaps in after him. Laertes grabs Hamlet. Hamlet tells Laertes that his grief as boyfriend is greater than the grief of Laertes as brother.
Scene 2: Finale
Hamlet tells Horatio how, on board ship, he found the letter from Claudius to the King of England telling him to kill Hamlet. So Hamlet rewrote a new letter asking the King of England to put R&G to death. Then he escaped with the pirates.
Now Osric arrives and gives Hamlet the challenge: will he fight Laertes for a bet? Hamlet agrees though Horatio advises against.
The area is prepared for the fight.
Hamlet apologises to Laertes. But they are still going to fight.
As they are fighting Gertrude drinks out of the poisoned cup.
Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned sword. They scuffle. Rapiers are dropped and swapped. Hamlet wounds Laertes with the poisoned sword.
Gertrude faints. She tells Hamlet she has been poisoned and dies.
O, villainy! Ho! Let the door be locked.
Treachery! Seek it out.
And Laertes replies
It is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou are slain.
No med’cine in the world can do thee good.
In thee there is not half an hour of life.
And he reveals; “The King, the King’s to blame.”
Hamlet, being told that the sword point is poisoned, stabs Claudius and makes him drink from the poisoned cup. Claudius dies.
Hamlet, naming Fortinbras as his heir, dies. His last words: “the rest is silence”
The English ambassador arrives to tell everyone that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead".