By William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Eyre
Royal National Theatre
Opened in The Olivier Theatre
Daniel Day Lewis as Hamlet)
The Cast In order of speaking:
(above: alternate program cover)
Barnardo, a soldier…
Francisco, a soldier…
Marcellus, an officer…
Ghost of Hamlet’s father…
Claudius, King of
Laertes, son of Polonius…
Polonius, Lord Chamberlain…
Hamlet, Prince of
Gertrude, Queen of
Ophelia, daughter of Polonius…
Reynaldo, servant of Polonius…
Captain to Fortinbras…
Osric, a courtier…
Toby E. Byrne
Oliver Ford Davies
M. Chater, C. Spicer
Courtiers, soldiers, servants…
Christopher Armstrong, Melvin Bedford, Ciaran McIntyre, Peter Nicholas
Hamlet was first performed in 1600 (or thereabouts), a usefully firm date for the greatest classic of the English stage, Shakespeare, in his mid-thirties and at the height of his powers, was just beginning the second half of his career. The histories and comedies were behind him, the other mature tragedies followed rapidly. Hamlet has at once the freshness of a beginning and the completeness of a peak achievement.
The play’s obvious brilliance made it a wild success in its own time, and it has never been off the stage since: perhaps the most –loved, most –discussed drama in existence. And yet for a very long time, well over a century, Hamlet has been called an “enigma”, a “mystery”. Certainly it can strike readers and audiences at once strangely familiar and yet full of puzzles and perplexities.
A part of the tragedy’s richness, but also of its power to seem difficult, is the contrast between its enormous general effect and meaning, its capacity to absorb and move and trouble us, and the odd specificity of its action or plot. The central character, Hamlet himself, is a young Prince summoned by the Ghost of his father, the late King Hamlet, to avenge his murder by his brother Claudius, now reigning with the Prince’s mother Gertrude as his Queen. In short, Hamlet is a Revenge play, even if a very remarkable one, which seems to have changed the whole nature of the genre in the period.
Revenge was a popular theme in the drama of the time, as well as a serious talking-point in the world outside the theatre. A number of plays before 1600 take from this subject their sensational violence mixed with an air of moral concern. Shakespeare’s own tragedy must have been based on one of the most successful of these, an old (now lost) play of Hamlet dating back into the 1580’s: a work which we mainly know about now because its extremity of effect, its crude Ghost bellowing for Revenge, became a joke among the sophisticated.
Shakespeare’s tragedy is unusually amusing; it often makes us laugh. In a sense the culmination of all Elizabethan culture, it gathers into itself not merely the public, political insights of Shakespeare’s long sequence of histories, but the more private human entertainments of the comedies. Hamlet is full of humour and sad wit. But we laugh with it. If it has difficulties, these derive from the very factors which make it far greater than any melodramatic source-play. Shakespeare has turned a revenge-plot into a world. Because revenge tragedy revolved around the principle of honour, it was essentially a Court form. But that stagey Court of revenge tragedy transmutes in Hamlet into a history of the actual workings of power-politics. Similarly, the more or less mechanical revenger, a man defined by his plot-function, becomes in Hamlet a human being whose trapped consciousness initiates modernity.
It is the play’s very depth of realization which brings with it problems, a sense of bewilderment. Symptomatically, we don’t really know what “To be, or not to be”, the most famous speech in drama, really amounts to, or why Hamlet says it just when he does. At the climax of the play the murderer Claudius, an astute politician, is found praying. The tragedy’s two women, Gertrude and Ophelia, who call forth all the better intensity Hamlet can’t give to revenge, are in themselves oddly shadowy figures, lost in the “man’s world” of power, finally submerged by it as Ophelia herself actually drowns and is buried. The happiness Hamlet might have found in Ophelia he looks for instead from the Players, the traveling actors who wonder into the play and affect its outcome deeply yet still in a sense randomly. In such a world it makes sense that the Ghost, who begins the play, disappears half-way through it, and is never mentioned thereafter. All these things have troubled readers, critics and audiences. Yet they don’t seem meaningless; rather, they define a truth to life dense enough to elude theory.
In the opening of the play, as the sentries change on the castle battlements in the bitterly cold air of night, one of them describes the stillness by saying that there has been “Not a mouse stirring”. Classic as Hamlet is, it is never boringly monumental; it is even unpretentious. It takes its power from its extraordinary intelligence, from its verbal and theatrical skills; but also from its simple truth to life. This includes a respect for the great created world of the natural, in which even the mice stir, or do not stir. And, if Hamlet himself has become more a myth than a character, a myth that still ahs power to affect us deeply, it is for this reason. He and his father express one of the great human, indeed natural, rites of passage.
To see this, it is necessary
to understand that the Prince of Denmark is a very young man. He is, in fact, an undergraduate: and therefore can’t, by the social rules of
Shakespeare’s time, be any older than his late teens. By the end of the tragedy, however long or
short a time the action takes, he seems much older—and he is in fact said to
be thirty years old, the age which, for many centuries before Shakespeare,
categorized a man as fully adult. This
process of growing up is given its context in
Certain conditions in his time
helped the tragedy into being.
Within his tragedy, Hamlet’s
need to live brings him death. For
those who emerge tainted into the corrupt Court-world of power, growing up is
growing dead. But in another sense
Hamlet is the most living of dramatic characters. His play, which raised the theatre to a
level unknown in