I went to see the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet at Thornden Hall in October 2015 with Janet Williams and her son Ben.
Benedict Cumberbatch was superb in the title role.
I love the idea of being able to watch West End productions without having the hassle of going there. I’ve never been to a West End production and if I had the time to go there, possibly with an overnight stay, I should imagine that would be a wonderful experience.
In the meantime being able to watch such productions locally is a brilliant idea. You watch a film of a live stage performance yet still experience all the atmosphere of a live performance. I loved it but I thought I’d look at the story of Hamlet for this post as it is one of the great tales. I think it is Shakespeare’s finest work.
If Shakespeare had only ever written this play, his name would still be celebrated now as our greatest playwright.
The fact he wrote so many others and sonnets etc just confirms that greatness. With Charles Dickens, if he had only written A Christmas Carol, he would still be remembered and celebrated. There are few writers where you could take just one of their works and that would be enough to convey greatness on them. It usually takes a whole body of work.
Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1602 and every emotion is in it, including some bawdy humour the Lord Chamberlain’s Office would almost certainly have cut before the role of “editor” for what was deemed suitable for the stage was abolished.
Shakespeare is renowned for basing many of his plays, especially the histories, on the works of previous authors (an encouragement to all writers who despair of ever producing anything truly original). Hamlet is thought to be based on the Danish legend of Amleth.
The infamous Hampshire link to Shakespeare
The infamous local link to Shakespeare is almost certainly Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was one of his patrons. Sadly he was caught up in the Earl of Essex’s plot against Queen Elizabeth 1, fell out of favour due to it (understandably from her viewpoint!) and spent the rest of her reign in the Tower of London.
Henry Wriothesley was released by James I (and VI of Scotland) and resumed supporting Shakespeare. Naturally Shakespeare’s most famous patron was the Queen and it is thanks to her influence the Puritans, towards the end of her reign, did not succeed in closing theatres. They had to wait for Oliver Cromwell for that.
I’m not going into details of the plot of Hamlet, despite it being so well known, but I wanted to review the story from a writing viewpoint. To come up with a play with such depth is amazing and especially so in the days when everything was handwritten and copies were produced manually (how many millions would have been lost to this country had Shakespeare lost his works?!).
Descent into madness
To also write a play showing descent into madness was a brave thing to do given the taboos that surround mental illness even now. Shakespeare would also have been aware of the controversies in Queen Elizabeth’s family. Her father did not exactly act rationally at times.
As for the corruption absolute power brings about, how many would have thought back to old King Henry? If ever there was a candidate for absolute power corrupting absolutely, he is it. Also how popular a message would that have been with Queen Elizabeth’s own government?
Who’s the real tragic victim in Hamlet?
I think the real tragic victim in Hamlet is Ophelia rather than the lead himself.
Looking at character motivations, I cannot understand why Gertrude acted the way she did and my sympathy is totally with Hamlet.
Shakespeare set that up deliberately and I can imagine the gasps as the play was first performed. The story is brutal, tragic, there’s no happy ending here and it is clear fairly early on there cannot be one, yet it remains one of the Bard of Avon’s most popular works.
Decoding Elizabethan English
What I found interesting was that the Elizabethan English was generally easy enough to follow but where it wasn’t I picked up the meaning from the way the actors, particularly Benedict Cumberbatch, portrayed the words. I could “feel” the meaning.
I am assuming that was the effect Shakespeare was after. He could have had no idea how long his works would last after him but so many of those going to his plays would be semi-literate (by our standards) at best so getting the meaning across in more than one way would have been important. It also had to be entertaining at the same time, not an easy balance to achieve.
Hamlet then is a ghost story, a murder story, a usurpation and corruption of power story and a descent into madness story. For all that to be in one play is amazing. Any of these plots are strong enough in themselves to make one play but to combine the lot… no wonder the play is Shakespeare’s longest! Though I found the three hours sped by…
I wonder just how many drafts did Shakespeare produce for Hamlet? There is no way he could’ve produced such a story in one go, even when based on a Danish legend, and the fact the play is thought to have been written within a three year span confirms this.
He would have had to flesh the story out to make it his own. That takes time (so I’m not surprised at the three year span given, if anything I’m surprised it wasn’t longer).
Shakespeare “selling” the idea of madness
I also can’t imagine Hamlet being an easy “sell” when the play was ready.
The comedies, yes – everyone likes a laugh. The tragedies – like sad songs, people like the blues sometimes. But a look at madness – how on earth did Shakespeare persuade people to “stick with this, the story is everything” school of thought, which to my mind would’ve been the best way of selling this play.
How much did writing Hamlet take out of Shakespeare himself? It’s not the play to leave you feeling good about yourself. And was he tempted to go for a happier ending (it would’ve been far easier to sell the play if he had)?
Looking at the cast list for the Thornden Hall production there are 23 roles specifically listed and casted. To have a play where all these roles are necessary and the characters fleshed out enough to justify their presence in the story would’ve taken considerable effort on Shakespeare’s part.
It is not unknown for modern writers to use things like character cards/biographies to keep on track with their creations, especially when writing longer fiction works, but it is highly unlikely the Bard did this. He would have rewritten Hamlet extensively and I think William’s hard work here is rewarded by the brilliance of his words.
Not one word is out of place. There is a famous quote for would-be writers to “cut the boring bits people skip” but there is none of that with Hamlet.
The intensity in Hamlet is incredible and that was from the writer’s viewpoint. It is a great story then but there was a magnificent story teller behind it, even if he did use a Danish legend to base it on.
When David Tennant took the lead role a few years ago, he brought the crowds in as he’d not long left his Doctor Who role. This would inevitably have introduced some people at least to Shakespeare for the first time.
I expect Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in Hamlet will have achieved the same thing by bringing in his fans from Sherlock and, in my case, from his radio work in Cabin Pressure. And it all helps keep the play (and theatre ultimately) alive.
What would really annoy Shakespeare?
The two things that would really annoy Shakespeare?
Firstly any thought he did not write the works credited to him.
Secondly he was a working writer.
Can you imagine the royalties he’d be earning now? And that’s just from this play alone.
No, sadly, Shakespeare’s reward is immortality in writing, not financial. He might not appreciate that but it is a rare achievement matched in my view by Dickens, Austen and Wodehouse.
So what is your favourite Shakespeare play and why?
Note: Don’t miss Allison’s next post on Friday 22nd January 2015.
Visit Allison Symes’ website: Fairytales with Bite
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