A short introduction to the Shakespeare play Hamlet, in the form of five interesting facts
1. In the first printed copy, the play’s most famous line was somewhat different. Most editions of Hamlet which we read nowadays are slightly different from each other: there is no definitive text of Hamlet. This is because we have several sources for the original play-text: two quarto texts (a ‘quarto’ was a large sheet of paper folded into quarters, hence the name) published in the early 1600s, and the ‘Folio’ text, from the 1623 First Folio, the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays. There are significant differences between, say, the first quarto (known as the ‘bad quarto’, which wasn’t rediscovered until 1823) and the Folio text, and Hamlet’s celebrated line, ‘To be or not to be: that is the question‘, which begins his famous soliloquy in which he muses on the point of life and contemplates suicide, is rendered quite differently – as ‘To be or not to be, I there’s the point’. It also appears at a different point in the play, just after Polonius – who is called ‘Corambis’ in this version – has hatched the plot to arrange a meeting between Hamlet and Polonius’ (sorry, Corambis‘) daughter, Ophelia.
2. Hamlet was based on an earlier play, which has sadly been lost. Although it’s often assumed that there must be some link between Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (who died aged 11, in 1596) and the playwright’s decision to write a play called Hamlet, it may in fact be nothing more than coincidence: Hamnet was a relatively common name at the time (Shakespeare had in fact named his son after a neighbour), he didn’t write Hamlet until a few years later, and there had already been at least one play about a character called Hamlet performed on the London stage some years earlier. This earlier play called Hamlet, which is referred to in letters and records from the time, was probably not written by Shakespeare but by one of his great forerunners, Thomas Kyd, master of the English revenge tragedy, whose The Spanish Tragedy had had audiences on the edge of their seats in the late 1580s. Unfortunately, no copy of this proto-Hamlet has survived. T. S. Eliot argued in 1919 that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was ‘an artistic failure’ because the Bard was working with someone else’s material but attempting to do something too different with the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude.
3. This earlier play was itself based on an older legend. In the original story, a thirteenth-century chronicle written by Saxo Grammaticus, Hamlet is Amleth and is only a little boy – and it’s common knowledge that his uncle has killed his father. Because Danish tradition expects the son to avenge his father’s death, the uncle starts to keep a close eye on little Amleth. To avert suspicion and make his uncle believe that he, little Amleth, has no plans to seek revenge, Amleth pretends to be mad – the ‘antic disposition’ which Shakespeare’s Hamlet will also put on. In his riveting biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt suggests that Hamlet marks an interesting development in Shakespeare’s art: Hamlet is the play where Shakespeare embarks on a new approach to character in his writing. Because the ‘antic disposition’ no longer makes as much sense to the plot in Shakespeare’s version – why would Hamlet’s uncle have to watch his back when he murdered Hamlet’s father in secret and Hamlet surely has no idea that he’s the murderer? – Hamlet becomes a more complex and interesting character than he had been in the source material. There is not as clear a reason for Hamlet to ‘put an antic disposition on’ as there had been in the source material, where pretending to be slow-witted or mad could save young Amleth’s life. It is part of the interesting ‘removal of motive’ which we see in Othello, King Lear, and many of Shakespeare’s ‘mature’ tragedies which Jonathan Bate has also noted. (See our pick of the best books about Shakespeare for more about this.)
Hamlet is a terrific play, but there are way too many quotations in it. – Hugh Leonard
4. The play has given us a whole host of famous phrases. Shakespeare is often celebrated for the number of phrases which he either invented or popularised, which have since passed into everyday speech. But Hamlet in particular is full of them: ‘to the manner born’, ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘the primrose path’, ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’, ‘something is rotten’, ‘more things in heaven and earth’, ‘the time is out of joint’, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, ‘this mortal coil’, ‘hoist with one’s own petard’ – and Gertrude’s line, ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’.
5. Hamlet has been translated into Klingon. The Klingon Hamlet, whose full title is The Tragedy of Khamlet, Son of the Emperor of Qo’noS, was translated by Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader of the ‘Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project’, using the fictional language from the television series Star Trek. Hamlet has proved hugely adaptable to different settings and new generations: actors who have played Hamlet over the years have included Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Sarah Bernhardt (one of many women to portray the Prince of Denmark), Ethan Hawke, Keanu Reeves, and even John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Eighteenth-century actor David Garrick had a special wig that made Hamlet’s hair stand on end when the ghost of his father appeared. Kenneth Branagh is another celebrated Shakespearean actor to play the black-clad prince: Branagh was nominated for an Oscar for his 1996 screenplay of Hamlet, even though he hadn’t changed a word of Shakespeare’s original play.
Image: David Garrick as Hamlet, Wikimedia Commons.