Shakespeare, William: Hamlet

We began with a brief discussion of different productions of Hamlet that we had seen – acknowledging that we were talking about a text designed for performance rather than private reading.  However, it was noted that one literary critic remarked that Shakespeare was for reading, not watching.  Comparisons were drawn between various interpreters of the main role – David Tenant, Derek Jacobi. Lawrence Olivier, and we looked forward to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch if we could. The proposer said that it was the 1964 Russian film adaptation, directed by Grigori Kozintsev that had first captured his imagination, and that the play became one of his favourite books as an adolescent.  Coming back to the play carrying a few more years, he still finds it powerful and fascinating emotionally, but has some reservations about his earlier enthusiasm.  We speculated on whether the angst-ridden hero was a figure more likely to appeal to more angst-prone younger audiences and readers.

We had read the play in different editions, and moved on to discuss the academic ‘industry’ devoted to producing a ‘definitive’ text.  Quarto 2 is considered by Arden as the nearest to the version Shakespeare would have produced on stage, but it is likely that he kept tinkering with it.  Editors can pick and choose their favourite versions of the lines, or transpose them between Hamlet and Horatio for example.  A fullest version would take up to five hours to stage.  (The 242 minutes of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film adaptation was mentioned in this context).  Sometimes we noted that actors had ‘gabbled’ in productions we’d seen in order to get so much of the text in.

We moved on to discuss the central character of the play.  Hamlet has become a complex symbol for all kinds of things over the centuries – for example a byword for dithering and hesitation.

The critic Terry Eagleton said jokingly that Shakespeare would appear to be familiar with the works of Freud and Marx.  (In, presumably, an even lighter vein, it was proposed that Hibs footballers were all Hamlets, unable to put the finishing touch to their manoeuvres.)

Hamlet, like life itself, is full of ambiguities, and we wondered about what Shakespeare might have suggested to his main player, Burbage, to either clarify or leave more open what some lines might be taken to mean.  One of our group mentioned Peter Hall’s 2009 book ‘Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players’ as being very illuminating about how Shakespeare might have wanted his work performed.  Another book was also praised as giving insight into the historical context of Shakespeare’s work and life: ‘1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare’ by James Shapiro.  (A year that included the writing of Hamlet).

We discussed the language of the characters  – for example the language used by Claudius seemed very forced and artificial.  It was suggested that this was because he was consciously ‘playing the role’ of king.  We noted that Hamlet has more words to speak than any other Shakespearian character.  In spite of this plethora of “Words, words, words” (as Hamlet himself says), it was remarked by one reader that frequently the characters fail to understand each other.  One of us indeed saw some of the characters as being on the autistic spectrum, especially Ophelia.  The critic L.C. Knights argued that Shakespeare’s plays are about themes, not real people – although he himself also falls into the approach of earlier critics like Bradley of analysing the characters.   We also felt that the plot seemed of much less interest to Shakespeare than the philosophical content, and the musings on life and death of Hamlet in particular.  Indeed, the plot’s culmination in the fight between Hamlet and Laertes showed a cavalier disregard for plausibility.  There were also some discrepancies in the treatment of the ghost – he is presented as ‘real’, but then why can Hamlet hear him and Gertrude cannot?  One could only assume that these were unimportant issues for Shakespeare.

Horatio and the Gravedigger were seen by some as the only likeable characters in the play.  Hamlet himself was defended as ‘likeable’ by one of our group, but dismissed as essentially ‘frustrating’ by another.  Another among us found him an unpleasant individual, a ditherer, and considered his treatment of Ophelia appalling.  He said he met people like Hamlet all the time.  We wondered uncomfortably who he had in mind.

One of our readers brought up the debt Shakespeare owed to his sources – an earlier version of the story was popular in the 1580s and 1590s, perhaps written by Thomas Kyd, although no printed version survives.  This itself derived from earlier Scandinavian sources.  Shakespeare’s version, however brilliant and original in many ways, does arrive circuitously at the conventional endpoint of the revenge tragedy genre, which it shares with the tragedies of ancient Greece – i.e. pretty much everyone has to end up dead.

We discussed how a key theme of the play is the conflict between a pagan concept of revenge and the Christian concept of forgiveness.  Hamlet wants his revenge on Claudius to go beyond the grave – he won’t kill him while he’s praying, because he wants to send him to Hell.

A question was raised as to whether or not Elizabethans would understand Shakespeare relatively easily, as we might understand, say, The Archers.  Groundlings would have enjoyed knockabout humour and sword fights more than the subtleties of the language presumably.  Many references that are now obscure however would have been much more accessible to contemporary audiences. On the other hand, it was suggested, much of the difficulty of Elizabethan language falls away when delivered by a skillful actor.  One reader commented on how Shakespeare’s language is so concise that any attempt at explication always entails the use of far more words than he used himself.  There is a beautiful precision about his use of words, and this is evidenced by the extent to which his phrases have passed into common use – or gone ‘viral’ in contemporary parlance!

We moved on to discuss how Hamlet, in common with Shakespeare’s other plays, is reinterpreted in different places at different times.  For example there was an Eastern European view of the play as highly political, all about the difficulty of acting effectively against a repressive regime.  The proposer drew attention to historicist approaches to Shakespeare’s plays, with Elizabeth being near end of her life, and the possibility of James coming to the throne – a ruler from another country.  Also mentioned were more recent feminist approaches to Shakespeare, in their turn influenced by Freudianism. 

Finally, one of our group mentioned a visit to Girvan Library, where he failed to find any work by Shakespeare.  We wondered if knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays was in danger of fading away, and if schools were moving more and more towards the study of exclusively modern literature.  The proposer was congratulated for his ‘bravery’ in bringing Hamlet into our midst.  We had enjoyed re-reading it and discussing it, although we felt that perhaps after four hundred and odd years most things that could be said about it had already been said!