Can a horror story convey the meaning of human existence? Perhaps one can, but not just any ordinary horror or revenge story. Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, has not only become Shakespeare's signature play; but the longest and most challenging role for any actor, male or female; a crowd favorite and a cottage literary industry and it all began from a simple tale of revenge and murder. The revenge story has often been a crowd pleaser as a wronged person getting even with those who screwed them over. The same was true when Shakespeare first began his acting and writing career. At the time, the scene was dominated by such groundbreaking works as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine, that made the career for these playwrights. Shakespeare was no different as he tried his own hand at the genre and had a watershed success with Titus Andronicus. Its from this tradition that Hamlet first was conceived and most of what we know today was based on an earlier version of the play known as the Ur-Hamlet that was perhaps written by Kyd or as some scholars have speculated a young Shakespeare. The story took on a far deeper resonance though as Shakespeare wrote about a bookish, theatrically minded son coming to a morally dubious task of avenging the death of his distant and legendary warrior father. The task set on by his father's supposed ghost to kill his brother his supposed murder. Though Hamlet has no love loss for his uncle Claudius who is now married to his mother, Gertrude, he cannot bring himself immediately to take on such as fateful task.
The play's title page in the First Folio of 1623
Two palace guards, Marcellus and Bernardo, have seen a thing they cannot explain, a stern ghostly apparition in the guise of the recently deceased King. They bring the learned Horatio to see this vision so that he can tell them what to do with it. The ghost appears and disappears before the stunned trio. Horatio feels they must impart this news to his best friend Prince Hamlet, for he may know the significance of this appearance. At the wedding reception of the newly crowned King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, Claudius dispatches ambassadors to their warring neighbor of Norway, imploring an old enemy to keep his ambitious nephew Fortinbras in check. The king and queen also seek to bring the ever mourning Hamlet back into the royal fold and implore him not to return to university. A reluctant Hamlet agrees seeing no choice in his circumstances - vilely accepting what he considers an ungrateful mother now married to a man not half of his father. Horatio arrives with news of the vision on and Hamlet seeks to see for himself. In the meantime, Laertes, son of the Prime Minister, Polonius, bids farewell to his sister Ophelia as he prepares to return to school in France. While he and Polonius suspect that Ophelia has interests in Hamlet and vice versa, they implore her to stay clear of someone who has more duty than love on his plate, which would be good advice, if she weren't involved with him already.
The group gather and witness the apparition who then leads Hamlet aside and tells the tale of his murder. He is Hamlet's father murdered by his brother for his crown and wife and seeks Hamlet to avenge his death. Hamlet accepts, but then ponders his task. Is this vision really his father? He must find out. To not arouse suspicion and find out about Claudius, Hamlet pretends to be crazy. He sets his plan in motion first with Ophelia, to get his love out of the way. Claudius and Gertrude summon two other school friends of Hamlet's, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out what is wrong and a group of players that Hamlet was fond to see. With the sudden arrival of his two friends, Hamlet knows the game's afoot, but sees an opportunity to prove once and for all if the ghost is telling the truth. He asks the players to enact a short work that mirrors his father's murder and then he see witness his uncle's reaction.
The title page of the "good quarto" of Hamlet.
With his only ally Horatio watching the king as well, Claudius is horrified by what he sees which drives him to a chapel and Hamlet on to his task. Though he could have taken him in the chapel, Hamlet wants to wait until he's in a less redeeming place so Claudius' soul will go to hell. In the interim he sees his mother who scolds her son at his behavior during the play and then he scolds her with her behavior in disgracing her first husband's memory. In the process the over protective and secretive Polonius is killed by Hamlet and Hamlet's father makes a return appearance. The emotional onslaught makes the two confide in each other. Claudius gets rid of Hamlet by sending him off to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in tow and orders for him to be killed on arrival. However, Hamlet switches the orders so that it is the pair that will be killed when they reach England. Hamlet escapes and rejoins Horatio and try to sneak back into the palace. They come across a funeral procession of Hamlet's love Ophelia, who went after hearing of how her father died and apparently committed suicide in the interim. Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel to avenge his father and Claudius tries to dispatch Hamlet once again. Though all goes horribly wrong as Gertrude is killed by Claudius' attempt and he, Laertes and Hamlet all die in the end. Though Hamlet has achieved his father's revenge his resigned to the fact that this was his fate and dies peacefully. Denmark then winds up in the hands of the war like Fortinbras as the closest heir to the throne.
On the surface, Hamlet takes on a story of revenge and being consumed by that revenge. It deviates only when Hamlet stops and ponders what it means to take his revenge. His thought process leads to him to question life, existence here and the hereafter, truly what it means to be human. Through tragedy and circumstance Hamlet pondered deep questions about himself and what started out as a conflicted young man in the end matures into a resolute, serene figure. What drove Shakespeare to create such a monumental character is a single minded framework. While we may never know his true motives, it's interesting that a father/son conflict followed on the heals of three history plays that dealt with similar father/son duty vs. desire debates. Henry V was the play that preceeded Hamlet and was perhaps following a logical conclusion as Shakespeare was trying to work out the loss of his own son Hamnet. Both Hamnet and Hamlet are variations on the same root name of the Danish Amleth. In the play Hamlet glorifies his dead father who is very different from himself. In life they seemed more distant than close, similar to Henry IV and Hal and like Hal, Hamlet finds a more agreeable paternal figure in Yorick, the court jester. Was Shakespeare trying imbibe a known story with what he felt his son would have been like as an adult and finally peacefully letting him go? Whatever the case the story of Hamlet seemed to have consumer Shakespeare for nearly two years as Hamlet seems to have been written first in 1600 and then redone a year later with no other play than Twelfth Night being produced in this period, whereas previously to 1600, he wrote more voraciously.
Hamlet is based on the Danish myth of Amleth set down by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus Historiae Danicae and the Ur-Hamlet mentioned above. Though a case from Shakespeare's child hood may have influenced Ophelia's death. In 1579, a women named Katherine Hamlett drowned in the Avon river under mysterious circumstances in a nearly town and though though a suicide, it was later ruled accidental. The show has been popular ever since its premiere and was the subject of a strange pirated quarto the year in 1603 which featured an interesting take on "To be or not to be". The play is Shakespeare's most famous play and along with To be, contains several of his better known phrases such as "To thine ownself be true", "Hoisted on his own petard", and "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark". The play is also notable since it contains one two parts that Shakespeare was said to have portrayed in his own shows. A reference by the first Shakespeare biographer, Nicholas Rowe, stated that Shakespeare played the Ghost of Hamlet's father. An interesting turn if it was his son Hamnet that was influencing the character of Hamlet. The role is the larges of all of Shakespeare' characters and is a major challenge to both male and female actors. Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the most famous actress of the 19th century, started the trend of prominent female actors portraying the melancholy dane. Major actors from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh have portrayed him on screen almost since the medium was first invented and today the play remains one of Shakespeare's most popular and most studied.
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