I believe that in approaching the Prince of Denmark's story, one does marvell's wisely to begin with a look at the world in which Hamlet lives – such as it might really have been, such as Shakespeare's audience would have understood it, and such as we see it today. For although (at the risk of stating the obvious) the timeless quality of the Bard's works is a hallmark of their greatness – and this is true for "Hamlet" as much as for any of his other plays – I do think their full import only becomes apparent by starting from the context of their historic setting, as presumably interpreted through the eyes of the playwright himself and his contemporaries, and by proceeding from there. The best productions, regardless whether on stage or on screen, and regardless whether they are set in eras lying several centuries (or even millennia) in the past or update the plays to more modern contexts, show a clear understanding not only of the stories themselves and their impact on us living today, but also of what they probably meant to Shakespeare's own, original audience; for more often than not, therein lies the reason why he felt he needed to tell them in the first place. That he then told them in such a manner that it has as much meaning for us today as it did for audiences 400 years ago is of course a function of his greatness.
So, what kind of place is this medieval or early Renaissance Denmark under King Claudius, who came to the throne by murdering his own brother?
Well, notwithstanding all the glamour and glory of Sir Kenneth Branagh's famous adaptation, my views on which you shall see anon, to me it seems to be a pretty gloomy and austere place; and I think Shakespeare tells us very clearly that it is none other than that right from the start, where in a freezing cold winter night (but not anywhere near Christmas, "that season ... wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated," as we learn a little later in that same first scene – a time, in turn, "so hallow'd and so gracious" that no evil spirits dare walk the earth) one Sentinel relieving another at the dead stroke of midnight is greeted with the comment, "'Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart" – and this, although as that same Sentinel being relieved affirms only a moment later, he has had completely "quiet guard," indeed, "Not a mouse stirring." Thus, before we have even heard a single word about the ghost's nightly appearances, due to the setting and a few snippets of dialogue alone we have built up the anticipation that something untoward is under foot. And what is this untoward thing? Why, it is something so dreadfully unnatural that Horatio – a rational man, a scholar – who has been invited to hold the watch together with the Sentinels at first insists that their experience is "but [the unschooled soldiers'] fantasy" and he "will not let belief take hold of him;" indeed his ears are quite "fortified against [their] story," and he dismisses their fears with a soothing "Tush, tush, 'twill not appear." He has to see the apparition with "the sensible and true avouch of [his] own eyes" to believe in its existence. But when he does, "it harrows [him] with fear and wonder;" and he concludes that whatever it means, it "bodes some strange eruption to [their] state" (and Sir Laurence Olivier in his interpretation hams it even more by moving Marcellus's famous comment that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" from the end of the first act's fourth scene, where Hamlet walks off with his father's Ghost, to the end of this very first scene, thus echoing Horatio's remarks on the Ghost's appearance).
But is the Ghost himself the evil haunting the land? No; in fact, when Horatio uses the word "usurp" in his first question to him (prodded to address the Ghost by the Sentinels, who in turn feel utterly out of their depth), the Ghost backs away, appearing offended. Only when upon his reappearance Horatio pleads with him to stay and speak if there is "any good thing to be done, that may to [the Ghost] do ease, and, grace to [Horatio]," or if the Ghost is "privy to [his] country's fate," the seeds of communication seem to be planted – except that then, alas, it is too late: the cock crows, and the Ghost must "hie to his confine."
Now, obviously Shakespeare intends more with this opening scene than to scare the living daylights out of us (although if done right, it most certainly does; and oh yes, the opening of Branagh's movie most definitely qualifies in that regard). What we learn – what I think it would have meant to the Bard's contemporaries – is that we are looking at a land so profoundly in the throes of evil that not only does the spirit of the dead King (for this is who the Ghost is, after all) walk the earth to begin with – and he does so, moreover, "when yond same star that's westward from the pole had made his course" (in other words, when the Evening – or Morning – Star has come out; which is biblically synonymous both with Lucifer and Jesus Christ) – all of this, in itself already a disturbing and unusual enough thing: The Ghost also walks the earth for all good and honest men to see, indeed, not only we, the audience, and the Sentinels see him; even sceptical Horatio, the rational scholar who is not given to fancy and superstition, has to concede that his apparition is real. Contrast this with "Macbeth," where it is patently clear that the only person seeing murdered Banquo's ghost is Macbeth himself, the very man responsible for his murder. In other words, while Macbeth by the time of Banquo's death (and his imagined encounter with the dead man's ghost) is well on his way to tyranny, his Scotland is not (yet?) so profoundly in the grip of the dark forces that the undead are also communicating with the just and honest among the living; rather, their imagined apparition is merely punishment for the guilty. In King Claudius's Denmark, on the other hand, only the innocent and just are able to see the dead King's ghost; in fact, as we will learn later in the play, Gertrude, who – however much she might have shut her eyes to the truth about her new husband, and however indecorous one might consider her fast consent to marry him – at the very least probably does not know what Claudius has really done, is absolutely blind to what everybody else (her seemingly mad son as well as, in most productions of the play, we, the audience) can see when the Ghost reappears in her private chambers.
Indeed, I think it is hard to imagine a time and world more "out of joint" – as Hamlet himself calls it after his own first encounter with his father's Ghost – than this Denmark reigned by King Claudius. And there is yet another thing that comes into play here: According to medieval belief, the earth was a model of the Kingdom of Heaven; the King thus the representative of God himself on earth. This world view changed under the influence of the philosophy of Enlightenment, but without any doubt it was still very much present in the minds of Shakespeare's own audience. Thus, Claudius's crime is not only fratricide (which alone would already be sufficient to damn his soul); worse, it is also regicide: his act is the very one that has so brought the world (or literally, rather, time) "out of joint." Had he openly quarreled with his brother over the succession to the throne from the start, things might have been different: similar to duels like, for example, those featured at the beginning of Shakespeare's "Richard II" and at the end of "King Lear," civil wars like the War of Roses or the one between Empress Maud and King Stephen for the throne of England were considered legitimate feuds; their eventual victor the rightful sovereign by divine judgement. But as we also learn in this play's very first scene, the reign of Claudius's brother – Hamlet's father – was long and prosperous before he died. Thus, legitimacy nowhere even enters into the equation (and no wonder the Ghost is offended when, although innocently, Horatio uses the term "usurp" – of all words! – in first addressing him).
Now, while we may not yet be able to glean all this from the first scene alone, that scene lays the crucial groundwork for our understanding of the play – and indeed, the question who is responsible for Denmark's disturbed world order is answered immediately; not only by virtue of the fact that Claudius is the very next person at the centre of our attention but also by what we learn from the man himself: that he became sovereign upon his brother's death (which death itself, remember, we at the very least have already begun to consider suspect), that he married his dead brother's wife "though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death the memory be green" (these are the first words out of his mouth!), and that although he managed to win Gertrude for himself, he is having a hell of a time with Hamlet, who by rights should have become King in his stead upon his father's death, and who introduces himself to the world by commenting, when addressed by Claudius as "my cousin Hamlet, and my son," with one of the play's many immortal lines: "A little more than kin, and less than kind!" And for those who still have any lingering doubts as to what is going on, we next hear Gertrude herself plead with Hamlet not to cling to his father's (her own most recently-deceased husband's) memory because it is a very common thing that "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity;" and when Hamlet chides her and points out that when it comes to mourning his father, he alone in present company has "that within which passeth show," who but Claudius would rush to Gertrude's assistance and lay out a world view where a mourning period exceeding one month – "a little month!" Hamlet himself will scoff a short while later, when alone – is nothing less than "a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, a fault to nature."
Being the master playwright that he is, Shakespeare of course realises that since Hamlet was not yet present in the first scene, and has not yet seen his own father's Ghost, he (the playwright) needs to get it across to his audience in another way that the Prince has independently developed forebodings of evil at this point already; and he does so in the most proximate way, by having him comment on Gertrude's and Claudius's hasty wedding in a monologue laden with symbolism of infidelity, sin, rot and decay ("'Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely," "So excellent a King, that was to this Hyperion to a satyr," "Why, she would hang on him as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on; and yet, within a month ...," etc.) and, after a scornful "Frailty, thy name is woman!," at last sorrowfully concluding "O, most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets! It is not, nor it cannot come to good." Thus, although profoundly troubled by the news of his father's apparition that Horatio and the Sentinels then bring him, by the end of the first act's very long second scene Hamlet is mentally on exactly the same page as Horatio and the audience; and he sums up everybody's feelings when he says "All is not well. I doubt some foul play. ... Foul deeds will rise, though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes." Now, whatever we may have suspected about the nature of these "foul deeds," we of course gain certainty in Hamlet's own encounter with the Ghost, which makes even Sentinel Marcellus, although not even present during the Ghost's crucial impartments about his "murther most foul, strange, and unnatural" comment that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" – and the full extent of Claudius's sinful deed (which Hamlet dare not – yet – reveal even to his trusted Horatio, although he does warn him that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy") becomes apparent when the Ghost, to Hamlet's abject horror, explains that he was killed while sleeping, therefore without even having had a chance to make his final reckoning and prepare his soul for its passage to heaven.
Thus, by the end of the first act, the stage is set once and for all. We know that we are in a land beset by the greatest evil imaginable – quite literally, hell on earth. All that remains (although it is a lot indeed) is for us to watch how Hamlet labours under the burden of his father's commission to revenge his murder and to "set right" that time so profoundly "out of joint," and how in the process he wrestles with his own conscience ("To be, or not to be" – and who indeed, after the way the play has been set up, would symbolise his conscience but his own father, the dead King, who now himself should be a resident of that "undiscover'd country, from whose bourn no traveller returns," and yet has returned in a most unnatural and disquieting fashion to seek out his son); how Claudius, for his part, is brought face to face with his fundamental inability to repent and pray (another sure sign of his irredeemable damnation); how Hamlet drives home to Gertrude that her offence is not, as she believes, merely an act of indecorum (an "o'erhasty marriage") but in fact, the sanctioning of both regicide and fratricide by disgracing the very sacrament of marriage (to "kill a King, and marry with his brother"), consummated "in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty"; how Ophelia, Cassandra-like and driven into madness not least by Hamlet himself, utters truths about the state of the kingdom and those living in it that nobody wants to hear, let alone understand; how Claudius finally corrupts even noble, but hot-headed Laertes (who goes so far as to offer to "cut [Hamlet's] throat i' th' church;" which would be yet another act of sacrilege – not only murder but murder on sacred ground – and even comes perilously close to acting it out when he almost strangles Hamlet over Ophelia's grave, not without yelling "The devil take thy soul!"); how Hamlet, and indeed all those that live to see the final act, are at last brought to confront their own mortality; and how Fortinbras – yes, he whose character is routinely the first to be sacrificed in most abridged adaptations of the play – finally comes upon the devastating last scene, heir to a throne and a fortune he embraces but "with sorrow."
"Eeeewwww," can I hear my audience make. "All probably pretty potent stuff at one time, but rather musty these days, don'tcha think? Besides, what about the Branagh adaptation that you profess to admire so much – looks like he pretty sharply disagrees with the notion of all that gloom and doom you're reading into the play, doesn't it?"
Oh well, yes ... Branagh. Alright, so let's look at his movie; or rather, his extravaganza. For of course it's true: in general setting and approach, his version is pretty much exactly the opposite of what I would do – an audacious, lavish, magnificent celebration of the Prince of Denmark's story and of the man portraying him; Hamlet deluxe with whipped cream on top, challenging all assumed notions about the play and its title character, boldly updated (though not to a 20th century context), complete with fencing acrobatics outdoing even those of Sir Laurence Olivier, as well as sumptuous costumes, cinematography and set decoration, leaving no doubt about the physical nature of Hamlet's and Ophelia's relationship, and turning the Prince into a detective who has to unravel the goings-on behind his father's murder, and Claudius and Gertrude into the kind of beautiful royal couple which, these days, would be apt to grace the covers of women's magazines.
"And you gotta admit that his movie looks darned great," a guy in his thirties leaning against the stage platform a little to the side comments. "Besides, I mean, who, other than the most extreme religious conservatives and neo-cons, still buys into the world view you seem to be ascribing to Shakespeare in the first place? Never mind who or what people pray to if or when they go to church these days at all, what about modern doctrines such as the separation of church and state? Haven't we left all that gloomy stuff behind?"
Umm ... not necessarily, I'm afraid.
As a matter fact, the story doesn't really have to have anything to do with religion at all – in that respect I do very much agree with Sir Kenneth. That's merely part and parcel of the context that Shakespeare gave it, because it was the context that his audience understood. But, to restate the obvious, his plays wouldn't have survived until today if they had any such limited meaning in the first place; and in the case of "Hamlet," multi-layered and interesting as the title character himself is already, the play's importance goes far beyond the Prince's person and the conflicts traditionally associated with him. Because in Shakespeare's times, a stage was as much a model of the world as the world's political and social structure was itself considered a model of the Kingdom of Heaven: the stage's roof was quite literally referred to as "heaven" and the area below stage as "hell," which is, inter alia, why we hear the Ghost crying from just there at the end of Act 1, Scene 5 (which in turn is clear although neither of the play's two primary textual sources, the 1604 Second Quarto and the 1623 "First Folio", contain express stage directions to that effect: there cannot have been the slightest doubt in any audience member's mind where to look for Hamlet's father at that very moment).
Thus, for all the complexities of the Prince's character, "Hamlet" is in its most basic conception also a story of Good versus Evil: not, of course, the two-dimensional tale of a white knight in shining armour battling some sort of 15th, 16th or early 17th century version of Darth Vader, but that of a profoundly flawed human being – the Prince – bound by his own conscience (speaking through his father's voice) to stand against Claudius, the new King: the one individual who should represent the State, not merely as the holder of a position of formal authority but as a representative of the law, and of public order; the one person who should both formally and substantively uphold the peace of the land, not corrupt authority and effectively do away with justice.
So, does that make "Hamlet" a political play, much in the way as "Richard II" and "Macbeth" are commonly seen, today more than ever?
Yes and no.
Surely, one of the most remarkable things about this play's premise is that although even in the Middle Ages (and certainly in the late 16th or early 17th century, when "Hamlet" was written) European society had left behind, however imperfectly from today's point of view, the notion that crimes could be prosecuted by private vengeance instead of a system of law and order instituted and upheld by the State, and although you would thus expect a tragedy as expressly dealing with the concepts of justice and vengeance as this one to address this particular issue in some fashion or other – the question, that is, of Hamlet's justification for taking the law into his own hands in the first place – the play takes this point entirely for granted. And this is all the more surprising as even the hero of the play's source material, Saxo Grammaticus's Amleth, who after all does live in a tribal society held together by ties of family, blood, marriage, and personal servitude (not allegiance to an abstract entity, the State, which merely finds its personal representation in its royal souvereign) – even this Amleth living in a society which thus considers vengeance not only an individual's personal right but even his personal duty – even he feels compelled to justify his act before an assembly of his people, albeit only after the fact. Moreover, Shakespeare quite obviously and expressly conceived this particular play as a counterpoint to his era's often much bloodthirstier revenge tragedies (notably including his own "Titus Andronicus"): not only are we dealing with a hero who is reluctant to execute the revenge he has been charged with in the first place; heck, even the First Murderer, Claudius, each and every time poisons his vicitms instead of openly using violence against them (and indeed, what else could his preferred method of murder possibly be?), right down to the cataclysmic final scene where, despite the fact that it centers around a duel, the ill effects of his murderous plot are not primarily brought about by any open blade's implicit capacity to draw blood and to cause serious harm that way, but – well – by an "unbated and envenom'd" sword and a poisoned pearl.
Yet, for all that, does Hamlet ever so much as contemplate the building of alliances with influential courtiers or other noblemen or, for what it's worth, seek popular support to depose the King and bring him to justice (as Bolingbroke – Henry IV to-be – and Laertes do, respectively, in "Richard II" and in this very play); or does he, for that matter, seek to build alliances with foreign powers, as Malcolm and Macduff do in the "Scottish Play," as well as Richmond (the future King Henry VII) in "Richard III," and Cordelia in "King Lear"? No: all we have to go on, for the better part of this tragedy, is the admonition of Hamlet's father, the Ghost (i.e., the voice of the Prince's own conscience) to "revenge his [father's] foul and most unnatural murther," and not to let "the royal bed of Denmark be a couch for luxury and damned incest;" echoed, towards the very end, by Hamlet's own justification vis-à-vis Horatio, to whom the Prince explains that after Claudius has committed both fratricide and regicide, has stained Gertrude by involving her in an incestuous marriage, has sidelined Hamlet's own succession rights, and has plotted against his very life as well, he – the Prince – considers "such coz'nage ... perfect conscience to quit him with this arm" (i.e., kill him) that indeed, Claudius's acts not only justify but compel Hamlet to take action – personally.
In part, I think, this approach simply has to do with the different focus of "Hamlet," as opposed to the above-mentioned other plays, which are in no small part concerned with ambition ("Macbeth"), loyalty overcoming blind, vain folly ("King Lear"), the reduction of a man from a position of omnipotence to abject humiliation ("Richard II"); and even the play most obviously dealing with Evil personified, "Richard III," shines its spotlight almost exclusively on the man embodying that Evil, the King himself, whereas Richmond emerges as a powerful antagonist only towards the end. Hamlet and Claudius, on the other hand, are pitted against each other virtually from the get-go. Obviously, this enhances the emphasis on their respective personalities: we come to see them as individuals first and foremost, and given the multiple layers of Hamlet's character alone, that is plenty to chew on already. However, one cannot help but wonder – and maybe even more so, just because of that personal focus on the Prince in particular – whether we are not also given to understand, at least implicitly, that if you are standing against lawlessness and crime in such a way that it is the supreme upholder of the law himself who is currupted, you don't necessarliy have to rely on others to bring him to justice, or wait until a suitable tribunal before which to accuse him has been created, or until a forum has opened up in which to publicise his crimes and seek redress and retribution for them. – Are we, in other words, to understand Shakespeare as saying that, in such an extreme situation, you may be in your right (or even compelled) to act on your own as well?
"Now, wait a minute," I hear someone wondering. "This all sounds darned much like the stuff that revolutions are made of. But do you really believe that Shakespeare was a rebel at heart ... that he was maybe even inspired by the Essex Rebellion in writing this play?"
I'll grant you: given Shakespeare's close friendship with, and patronage by, one of Essex's chief supporters, Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southhampton, given that "Hamlet," moreover, was quite obviously not jotted down in a matter of days or weeks but is the the result of a long, drawn-out, and extremely painstaking writing process, and given that the play most likely first saw the light of day in the Globe Theatre's round some time between 1600 and 1602 (i.e., in approximately the same time frame as the Essex Rebellion), it doesn't sound like a far-fetched idea at all to make that kind of connection. But, no – when it comes down to it, I wouldn't feel comfortable in going quite that far myself. To expostulate:
Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex was a young nobleman raised in the household of Elizabeth I's long-time Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil. By all accounts, he grew up to become a rather flamboyant courtier who quickly rose through the ranks and eventually gained the aging Queen's favour (and apparently, to some extent or other, her heart), and whom she eventually appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1599, with the commission to suppress an uprising underway at that time, the so-called Tyrone Rebellion (named for the rebel leader, the Earl of Tyrone). Now, Ireland had already been the undoing of Devereux's own father, a brilliant strategist. Thus, both on the grounds of his family's history and in light of the Queen's trust in his personal abilities, the younger Devereux arguably had every reason to give his best in the new venture. Yet, his extensive preparations all went to naught in an ineffectual campaign, which reached its shameful end when Tyrone's men managed to waylay Devereux's forces, and the rebel leader subsequently talked the earl into signing an unauthorized truce and, even worse, parley his, the Irishman's conditions before the English government. Already disgraced, Essex compounded his sovereign's ill-will by abandoning his troops in Ireland and returning to England alone. Though he survived a first trial conducted immedieately after his return in October 1599, in the summer of 1600 he was stripped off his titles, and, after subsequently having conspired against the Queen and having led a party of men from York House against the royal palace, finally arrested and executed for treason in February 1601.
Due to his connection with Essex's ally Wriothesley, William Shakespeare certainly was closer to these events than the average Englishman of his time would have been. Indeed, on at least one occasion the Lord Chamberlain's Men sailed particularly dangerous waters when, on the eve of the rebels' February 1601 march on the Queen's palace, they committed the most suspicious folly of performing the long-out-of-fashion "Richard II," of all plays in their repertoire, before a group of the rebellion's key participants: a decision prompted, as their spokesman shamefacedly later testified, by the extraordinarily high reward they had been promised for undusting the piece. But whether that testimony was the simple truth or, while not altogether false, also the only explanation not fraught with any greater peril than that of appearing greedy, the episode itself also seems to suggest that those who had ordered the play either could not or would not see the lessons about the dangers of revolution embedded in the play's conclusion; namely, the idea that revolutions in the end only tend to eat their own children – a lesson which Shakespeare had subsequently rammed even further down his audience's throats in the two-part history of Henry IV, which in modern parlance might fairly be called "Richard II"'s sequel(s), and also a lesson which he had taken up yet again with ever greater skill and subtlety only a year or two before "Hamlet," in the "play without a hero or a villain," "Julius Caesar," which sees Brutus, for all his clinging to the belief that he has acted out of the noblest of motives – the good of Rome – still haunted by the murdered Caesar's ghost in the night before the decisive battle at Philippi, and facing defeat, has him ultimately committing suicide with the words, "Caesar, now be still; I kill'd not thee with half so good a will." (And since the creation of this latter play likewise coincides with the events leading up to Essex's fateful rebellion, who is to say that it, rather than "Hamlet," does not express Shakespeare's response to those events – or at least that it doesn't express that response to as great an extent as the Prince of Denmark's tragedy?)
Yet, even apart from the legacy of the four above-mentioned plays (i.e., "Richard II," "Henry IV" Parts 1 and 2, and "Julius Caesar"), I ultimately don't see "Hamlet" as a clandestine celebration of the Essex uprising. For one thing, Shakespeare's and the Lord Chamberlain's Men's fortune depended on the Queen's support more than on that of Wriothesley; if bad came to worst, they might have been able to afford losing the favour of the latter, but under no circumstances that of their sovereign. Next, Elizabeth I was, for all her contemporaries' discomfort over a female ruler – and for all the questions revolving around her succession towards the end of her reign – a widely respected monarch: she was certainly not seen as a tyrant or a force of darkness, the way that Claudius is portrayed here (and I think but for their sex, we can safely also rule out any material commonalities between the real-life Queen of England and her fictional Danish counterpart Gertrude). Next, the sequence of events in this play which actually does seem bear some similarities to Essex's story does not directly revolve around Hamlet at all (nor, for that matter, around Fortinbras of Norway, who abandons his attempt to forcefully gain ground in Denmark and eventually inherits the Danish crown legitimately, by default, and only "with sorrow"). Rather, those events center on Laertes's return from France: it is him, not the (at that time) banished Prince Hamlet (nor Fortinbras, who is then still in the process of browbeating the Polish) whom vox populi calls lord; and, as the world were now but to begin ... they cry 'Choose we! Laertes shall be King!' Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the clouds, 'Laertes shall be King! Laertes King!'. Moreover, Laertes's unhappy fate ultimately mandates against a too literal equation of the plot of "Hamlet" with the events of the Essex Rebellion as strongly as does a close reading of "Richard II," as well as both parts of "Henry IV," which show the essentially self-proclaimed King Henry IV not only wrangling with rebellions against his own rule but also with intense feelings of guilt over the deposition and death of his predecessor. (Indeed, even his son Henry V, who would so valiantly come to lead the English forces to victory at Agincourt and win the crown of France, in the Bard's take on his prayer for victory before that all-important battle makes reference to the many acts of penance he himself has already done for Richard's death, and the yet more acts of penance he promises to do in the event of a victory at Agincourt.) – Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there are the in-your-face lessons from "Macbeth," which leave no doubt whatsoever that anyone committing regicide is utterly, invariably, and irrevocably doomed, however virtuous he may have been until then.
The "Scottish Play" was Shakespeare's reaction to the Gunpowder Plot against Parliament and the fairly-recently-crowned King James I; a plot on whose periphery the Bard's own name kept cropping up yet again, not only because of his own assumed Catholic leanings but also because his native Stratford lay squat in the middle of the homes of some of the chief conspirators: in fact, the father of their leader Robert Catesby (William Catesby) and the Bard's own father John Shakespaere seem to have entertained at least a casual acquaintance, and quite conceivably William Shakespeare himself knew Robert Catesby and some of his associates as well, if not through their Warwickshire connections then through Wriothesley; for like the Bard's patron, several of the 1605 conspirators had also participated in the Essex Rebellion (notably so, besides Robert Catesby himself, Francis Tresham, John and Christopher Wright, John Grant, and Stephen Littleton's relative John Littleton.) Obviously, therefore, our playwright felt the need to make a rather strong statement with "Macbeth;" much stronger than those he had made in "Richard II," the two parts of "Henry IV," and even "Julius Caesar." This is understandable insofar as the 1605 plotters had, indeed, conspired not only for the King's death but also for that of all or most of the members of Parliament, and also in light of the fact that the Bard's personal standing may directly have been put at risk by their conspiracy. And more generally speaking, it is certainly also true that in the political climate of the day, a forceful condemnation of regicide and rebellion was far easier to stage than a display of support for any, even the most high-spirited resistance against a country's souvereign: an undertaking which could only have engendered rejection at the censoring hands of the almighty Master of the Revels, Sir Edmund Tylney. For proof, one need look no further than Henry Chettle's attempt to dramatise the story of Sir Thomas More, the eminent scholar and lawyer who had gone from Lord Chancellor and the King's close confidant to conscientious objecter, and who had eventually (literally) lost his head over his refusal to accept Henry VIII's newly adopted role as head of the Church of England following that church's separation from Rome, prompted in turn by the Pope's refusal to accept the English King's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and grant a dispensation for his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the mother of the future Queen Elizabeth I. And quite conceivably, Chettle's play wasn't even rejected primarily because it touched on the then-current sovereign's legitimacy; in fact, Elizabeth herself made a point of only referring to her own person as "King Harry's daughter;" both for purposes of identification with a male role model and predecessor and in order to minimise the potential blemish on her birth and thus, on her right to the throne. But while it is probably not a coincidence, either, that Shakespeare's own take on the fateful Tudor love triangle (significantly, originally titled "All Is True" and showing a most virtuously unbending Catherine of Aragon) was first produced well into the reign of Elizabeth's successor James I, Chettle's "Book of Thomas More" didn't make it onto the stage even then. The simple reason for this was that in a time and a country still wrecked with religious strife (hence, after all, the Gunpowder Plot), merely revisiting the life of a man who had set such a powerful example in standing up for his convictions in the not so distant past, and over the very question that was still threatening the peace of the realm, could very well have proven to be the one spark that would reignite barrels of powder in all the wrong places. In light of that, even a scene that had More appeasing an angry crowd – inserted in the course of the editing process, quite conceivably by William Shakespeare who, alongside with fellow playwrights Thomas Dekker and (probably) Thomas Heywood, had agreed to help revising the play – could not save the production.
Yet, there is no reason to think that Shakespeare's standing was put into peril any less by the Essex Rebellion than by the Gunpowder Plot: His name probably showed up with equal persistance at the periphery of either, and possibly with even greater force in the context of the 1601 uprising; if for no other reasons than, firstly, the Lord Chamberlain's Men's performance of "Richard II" on the very eve of the February 1601 march on the royal palace, and secondly, the fact that the Bard's patron Wriothesley stood firmly by Essex's side in 1601 (and initially, was even condemned to death as a result), whereas he was later pardoned by James I and kept his peace during the Gunpowder Plot. Thus, if anything, one should have expected a stong statement reassuring the sovereign of William Shakespeare's loyalty, first and foremost, after the events of 1601 – Shakespeare arguably had at least as much, if not more reason to distance himself from the Essex rebellion than from the Gundpowder Plot. (And by the same token, assuming that he secretly did adhere to the Catholic faith himself, the fact that he had no qualms about writing "Macbeth" after a failed conspiracy driven by little else than the hope of a restoration of Catholicism shows that he certainly was able to put even the most sacred personal feelings and beliefs aside if he considered it necessary, so it seems doubtful to me that personal loyalty to Wriothesley alone would have compelled him to speak out for the rebels in 1601 and, negating everything he had said in "Richard II," "Henry IV Parts 1 and 2," and "Julius Caesar," suddenly even write a play clandestinely advocating rebellion as a legitimate avenue of changing succession.) Still, other than the two comedies "As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night," at about or shortly after the time of Essex's downfall, the works we find Shakespeare chiefly to have written are the two morality plays "Measure for Measure" and "Othello," according to some authors, a first, possibly more light-hearted version of the rather dismal "Troilus and Cressida" – as well as "Julius Caesar" and "Hamlet."
In terms of political statements, Brutus's and Cassius's failed conspiracy against Julius Caesar (in the play possibly written during Essex's Irish campaign, or shortly after his return to England, but very probably before his ultimate February 1601 demise) and Laertes's aborted rebellion against Claudius in "Hamlet" are by far the most obvious candidates to turn to if one wants to gauge Shakespeare's stance at the time; combined, arguably, with Fortinbras's finally legitimate, and even reluctant acceptance of the Danish crown. But if anything, these instances underscore yet again the notion that violent rebellions do not pay – not even against a despot who (like Claudius) has come to power by committing a heinous crime himself; at least not if such rebellions are born first and foremost out of personal motives and grounded "only" on popular support (i.e., in the context of a monarchic society, do not have a legitimate base at all), instead of being supported by some moral and philosophical mandate like the one burdening the shoulders of Hamlet who is, after all charged not with bringing about a change of succession but with "setting right" a time profoundly "out of joint – in other words, with restoration, not revolution; with the reinstatement of the natural order of things and a return of harmony and prosperity, rather than with a further overthrow like the one that would have been brought about by Laertes. (Hence, too, only the duly reformed Fortinbras is finally granted succession rights and the task of leading Denmark through the aftermath of Claudius's reign, after having given up his own intemperate ways.) Yet, for all the Earl of Essex's association with "recusants" (Catholics), the driving force of his rebellion was not restoration but revolution; not religion (a re-establishment of Catholicism) but ambition, sparked by his falling-out with the Queen, whom he had ceased to accept – or had possibly never truly accepted – as his infalliable sovereign. The core and crux of Essex's rebellion, openly questioning the doctrine that royal powers are invested on the sovereign by God himself, came forth in this angry outburst of the earl's during his trial for treason:
"What! Cannot princes err? Cannot subjects receive wrong? Is an earthly power or authority infinite? Pardon me, pardon me, my good Lord, I can never subscribe to these principles!"
No wonder that, in light of these words, Essex was condemned to death – and it didn't help him a jot that he actually even sought to mitigate the potentially harmful effect of the large number of Catholics among the ranks of his supporters by asserting that these had merely been paid to testify against him.
Arguably, of course, even if Shakespeare had wanted to express support for Essex, he would never have been able to do so openly. But based on the views already expressed in "Richard II" and the two "Henry IV" plays (as well as, more recently, in "Julius Caesar"), I simply doubt that he would have advocated any form of violent rebellion – and, again, why do so in 1601 if only four years later, in 1605, he did everything he could to publicly distance himself from the conspirators? Whether Shakespeare was a royalist down to the last core of his being may be open to question, as may be the issue to what extent he personally embraced the words he had given to his King Richard II a few years earlier, and which had so succinctly summed up the era's still-prevailing doctrine, making it perfectly natural for a King to chide his adversary's (Bolingbroke's) messenger (the Duke of Northumberland) for failing to kneel before him, and making that failure to kneel appear all the more outrageous (and the King's failure to swiftly act upon his words and punish Northumberland for his disobedience an all the greater indication of weakness):
We are amaz'd, and thus long have we stood
To watch the feareful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful King:
And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?
If we be not, show us the Hand of God,
That hath dismiss'd us from our Stewardship,
For well we know, no Hand of Blood and Bone
Can grip the sacred Handle of our Scepter,
Unless he do prophane, steal, or usurp.
William Shakespeare, Richard II
(Act 3, Scene 3)
But, even in the last years of the Virgin Queen's reign, and however much he may personally have felt for the fate of his friend Wriothesley, I just don't think the Bard would have felt compelled to write a play advocating, however clandestinely, any form of violent rebellion. Conversely, indeed, one may fairly wonder whether, given this play's immensely complex title character, there is room for any kind of political approach at all: the 18th and, even more so, the 19th and early 20th century interpretations certainly, with their virtually exclusive focus on the Prince's internal conflict and his moral dilemma(s), would forcefully argue against any such reading. – Undoubtedly, Shakespeare also very pointedly crystallised the external conflict faced by the Prince into the personal antagonism of the two individuals most concerned; Hamlet and Claudius. And it is not least Hamlet himself who, when listing the King's manifold misdeeds to Horatio, makes it clear that of Claudius's many crimes, those committed on a personal level stand right next to his political crimes among the Prince's reasons for seeking revenge: "He ... hath kill'd my King, and whor'd my mother; popp'd in between th' election and my hopes; thrown out his angle for my proper life" – "he has, by one single act, not only committed murder but fratricide and regicide; he has seduced my mother into an incestuous marriage, he has overridden my own claim to my father's succession, and last but not least, he has attempted to have me killed as well."
Still, it is, if nothing else, impossible to overlook the fact that "Hamlet" takes place in a court setting, not just among private citizens. On the face of it, this, like the personal conflict between Hamlet and Claudius, might be seen as merely echoing the setting of the play's most obvious source material, the Danish "Amleth" saga, but there was nothing that would have prevented Shakespeare from changing the venue along with the principal characters' makeup (all of whom, but none more so than the Prince himself, are, after all, substantially more complex than their original Danish counterparts). Even though royalty and nobility make up the majority of the characters in Shakespeare's plays as a whole – the Bard was well aware that royalty sells; in that respect, his age was certainly not different than ours, where legions of tabloids survive on a steady diet of practically nothing else – if he really had just wanted to show a man grappling with the issues involved in justified homicide, or with getting up his courage to kill for revenge, or with the meaning of life in general, he could easily have done so in a different social context and still created multi-layered, complex and entirely credible characters: not coincidentally, his plays are by far not populated by members of the nobility only; and that the Bard had as fine an ear for the plight of the common man, and even for that of social outsiders, as he did for the plight of his betters is there for everyone to see in the figure of Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice:" From a contemporary point of view one may well and truly grapple with that play's harsh conclusion(s) regarding the old Jew himself and other members of his faith, but all this notwithstanding, there is incredible depth to the old merchant's character, and his "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech has all the makings of a veritable modern civil rights address (in fact, "it's right up there with 'I have a dream,'" observed none other than Al Pacino, the Shylock of Michael Radford's 2005 cinematic adaptation).
So why a court setting then, here, after all? On the one hand, surely because – as Shakespeare also realised only too well – nobody is as lonely as those at the pinnacle of society; and loneliness, isolation and the failure to communicate play a hugely important part in this tragedy: indeed, if any two (living) members of the two principal families (the Prince's own and Polonius's), other than Claudius and Polonius as seen in tandem, had had a candid talk in time, none of the play's events would probably ever have happened. On the other hand, however, it is only the court environment which lifts the play onto a political level; only in this context is Claudius's act of fratricide compounded by regicide, only in this context do we have to think about what it means that the one person epitomising government, and law and order – the King himself – is also the one person chiefly responsible for bringing his world so out of joint," and only in this context are not merely Hamlet's and Gertrude's own souls in peril due to their association (as in Gertrude's case) or antagonism (as in Hamlet's case) with Claudius, but indeed, so is the fate of the entire country.
While Shakespeare did not, I believe in other words, intend to draw any parallels to the England in which he and his audience were actually living, he does nevertheless present us with the image of a profoundly evil ruler; a ruler not merely getting drunk on his own power and on the flatteries of his courtiers (such as the Bard's version of Richard II) but one utterly and irretrievably cruel and corrupted. And just as the members of Shakespeare's own audience would, no doubt, have been able to name past examples of such rulers, we, too, have seen plenty of them in the world's more recent history. For ultimately, in that sense, what is Denmark under King Claudius but the theatrical equivalent of Germany under Hitler? Russia under Stalin? Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge? Or, for that matter, a slave owner's plantation ruled by the whip? Any place, that is, where that which we hold dearest and most sacred, today more than ever – democracy, justice and human rights – is ruthlessly abused and stepped on?
Yes, yes, yes, you guys in the third row there. I've heard you cough, shuffle your feet and whisper "McKellen's 'Richard III' and Polanski's 'Macbeth'" among yourselves; not to mention the post-WW II German 'Hamlet' productions starring Maximilian Schell and, at least to a certain extent after all, of course also "Julius Caesar" and "Richard II," in which the Oliviers, Gielguds, McKellens, Jacobis and Branaghs of British theatre have all made their mark in some way or another, as did more recently, in an "Old Vic" production directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, my secret long-time favourite for the role of Richard II, Kevin Spacey. And as I have said elsewhere but certainly can't repeat often enough, I love all of these productions. Dearly. Indeed, my DVD and audio CD collections would be most incomplete without them (to the extent that they have actually been immortalised in that way at least).
But, see, I think you can get all that timeless meaning across by fully exploiting this particular play's potential in a setting using the very time period in which it actually takes place. And no, I'm not thinking of bloodbaths in the tradition of Polanski's "Macbeth" or Julie Taymor's "Titus," either. In fact, whatever one may think of the appropriateness of lavishly splashed-about film blood in any other Shakespeare adaptation, I'd consider any such thing a complete and total travesty in "Hamlet." Again: the Bard very obviously and expressly intended this play as a counterpoint to his era's bloodthirstier revenge tragedies, and I think that intention would be fatally countermanded if one were to turn it into some sort of "Titus Andronicus Does Denmark" or "Claudius, the Thane of Cawdor," or whathaveyou. – And while we're at it, let me also emphasize that I would find it an equally great travesty to add or amplify a single line of dialogue. It's all there, in Shakespeare's own words, which call for our attention, not our verbal embellishment (however much one might want to visually embellish them if one is called Kenneth Branagh). Nor would I want to show any more deaths than those we already see as per the Bard's own express conception of the play; not even that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, although it's a certain fact that we at least hear about.
In short: What I am thinking of is a medieval (or early Renaissance) Denmark in the grip of an unholy, thoroughly evil and corrupted King, as an allegory on despotism in whatever form it appears. And no, I don't believe I am usurping a play so obviously concerned with its protagonist's inner development, either; certainly not any more than Sir Laurence Olivier did by usurping a play written at the dawn of the 17th century by interpreting it in the light of psychological theories and discoveries made at the dawn of the 20th century. In fact, as set forth on Hamlet's character page, as well as on the pages dealing with Hamlet's response to the Player King's recitation of the Pyrrhus and Hecuba monologue, with "To be, or not to be," and with the Prince's reflections upon (almost) encountering Fortinbras, I do agree very strongly that the play's introspective aspects, and first and foremost Hamlet's own inner development, cannot possibly be overrated. All I am thus attempting to do is to link that inner development with an external dimension which the play itself, I strongly believe, creates, which Shakespeare's original audience might well have seen and understood, but which has not necessarily continued to be so apparent in the play's subsequent theatrical and cinematic reception, although it might well serve to complement Hamlet's character and enhance that character's (and the entire tragedy's) timeless relevance. Nor do I, as also explained on the Prince's character page, want to join the ranks of those who, having come up with their own interpretation of this play and its title character – and unquestionably so, with much greater authority than myself – believe(d) their approach to be based on the only true and correct reading in the first place: in fact, far be it from me to ever even come near such an attitude, which in my case at least could only stem from the most extreme degree of arrogance and foolhardiness. I do believe, however, that notwithstanding all the great Shakespeare adaptations we have seen in recent years, and in part also precisely because an approach such as mine would establish certain contrasts to those adaptations here and there, it would still very much be able to claim a place of its own.
Copyright 2002 – 2009: Ulrike Böhm, all rights reserved.