About Hamlet


Both Kyd and Shakespeare would have read Saxo Grammaticus' Historia Danica, an anthology of legends and myths from the Norselands, translated and popularized in French by Belleforest in 1570. Thomas Pavier issued an English translation of Belleforest's version of the story of Hamlet in 1608 under the title The Hystorie of Hamblet.

In Belleforest's retelling of the old story, which takes place in the days before Christianity found its way to either Denmark or England, the public knows of King Hamlet's murder, and the new king claims he killed King Hamlet while acting in defense of the queen. Hamlet is a youngster who can only pretend to take care of himself. Although he admires truth, he cannot see beyond his vindictive spirit and exhibits exceeding cruelty. In this version, Hamlet goes to Britain where he marries and stays with his wife, the daughter of the English king, for a full year. News of Hamlet's death reaches the King of Denmark, and he throws a party to celebrate, but Hamlet appears as the party gets under way. This early Hamlet takes immediate action: he gets the court drunk and sets fire to the palace, immediately killing the King.

The play on which Shakespeare based Hamlet was a bloody tale full of sound and fury with crude and savage overtones. Though the bloodshed remains in Shakespeare's version, he refined the play, making it poetic and full of thought-provoking ruminations on the meaning of life, death, eternity, relationships, hypocrisy, truth, the existence of God and almost anything else that concerns mankind. However, the fact that the Shakespearean character of Hamlet is more refined creates a problem for those who would interpret the play.

Shakespeare wrote the standard revenge play, but in an entirely new form. Revenge tragedy was hugely popular in Shakespeare's day. The revenge play revolved around a hero who was bound to avenge a wrong. Like their models in the Roman tragedy of Seneca, the heroes and villains were dramatically mad, melancholy, violent. The plays were graphic, bloody. Shakespeare, being an original thinker, placed refinements in his work, creating new tensions and increasing some of the old questions.

Were the play a true revenge play, Hamlet would act sooner. He would dispatch the King at the start, with the rest of the play elaborating upon what transpires after Claudius' death. By not acting more promptly, Hamlet leaves us pondering his true motivation. Hamlet has every opportunity to kill the unguarded king, yet Claudius lives. Shakespeare's Hamlet's obstacles are not physical, and within this fact lies the first rub for critics and interpreters. Hamlet's actual obstacles depend largely on the culture from which the interpreter comes; obstacles that seem obvious to modern readers/audiences never occurred to readers/audiences of the 16th century.

The fact that people need CliffsNotes to understand Shakespeare's work would undoubtedly appall him. Shakespeare wrote for a popular, vibrant theater that attracted people because of its energy and its raw entertainment value. The same audience who attended bearbaiting or public executions went to see Shakespeare's plays. They were not a highbrow crowd; they just wanted to hear a protagonist agonize with pretty words and sexual innuendo over the human dilemma, and they went to see blood and destruction manifest on stage.

The English crowd loved gore. Though they seem to have enjoyed the sight of dogs mauling bears to death and executioners drawing and quartering traitors, they especially enjoyed staged mayhem. They loved the techniques Shakespeare's technical experts used to simulate blood gushing from stabbed characters; they loved the way a good showman could make battles or love scenes or illnesses seem absolutely real even though the audience could leave assured that what they had just seen was fiction. Shakespeare's theatrical offerings were as popular in his day as television is today; Shakespeare's theater was the television of its day.

Continued on next page...

Back to Top