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February 2013 Message from Dan –
Who’s There?” Appreciating Hamlet

Dear Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

The Mayans were wrong about the world ending in December, 2012 – damn it! – so we all have to face 2013 with its endless political insanities, ongoing domestic cultural shocks, endless international insults, and high-priced mass-entertainment atrocities. So it goes. At such times, you might not be surprised to hear that my thoughts and attention return, as they do so often these days, to . . . Shakespeare.

So buckle into the WayBack Machine with me and prepare for our trip back to 1601 to see – and sort out – William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

I. The Globe Theater, Autumn, 1601

It’s a beautiful day and you arrive at the Globe Theater early enough before the new play’s three p.m. starting time that you can peek into the crowded “tiring house” backstage area where the actors are preparing before you head up to  your seat. Let’s assume that you’ve time-traveled back to become a contemporary of 1601 William Shakespeare and that you’re a person of means, so you won’t be spending the play standing in the pit where the groundlings jostle for room on a “floor” made of broken walnut shells pressed into dirt. You not only get a plank-bench seat up there on one of the three tiers of seating in this large and high three-storey space, but you’ve also paid an extra ha’penny to rent a beat-up cushion.

The Globe Theater: it’s been more than two years since Richard Burbage, with the help of his (and William Shakespeare’s) troupe now called the Chamberlain’s Men, tore down Richard’s late father James Burbage’s old theater in Shoreditch, called the “Theatre”, and, in the winter of 1598-99 “borrowed” the lumber, although many say “stole” the lumber, since while the Burbages owned the physical theater outright, they’d been paying rent to landlord Giles Allen, who’d announced in 1598 that the physical Theatre was his after the lease expired. Then in the spring of ‘99  The Chamberlain’s Men moved it across the Thames into the Liberty of the Clink, and rebuilt it on marshy land only a hundred yards or so from the river – using the original timber but getting a larger structure out of it – a 20-sided polygon that most of the Globe’s patrons think of as a circle.

Evidently the Chamberlain’s Men also think of the polygon as a circle; you were here for the first play staged in the Globe in the summer of 1599, two years ago, Shakespeare’s Henry V, and one of the inside-jokes in that play had the Chorus referring somewhat disparagingly about the inadequacy of the world and the armies in the historical play’s actions having to be crammed into such a small “wooden O”.

Before checking on the actors in the tiring room, you look around and decide that the Globe isn’t so small as the Chorus had suggested. On a busy afternoon such as this, 3,000 people can cram into the theater. The acoustics are good; all but the gentle folk in the highest tiers can hear even a whispered soliloquy (and word is that Will Shakespeare is into soliloquies in this new play of his.) The roof covers the patrons – save for the groundlings, and they won’t mind a little rain or snow or hail as they drink and belch and scratch and guffaw their way through the play – but is open in the center to allow in sunlight and fresh air. The stage is also open to the sky, save for the rear part that is covered by “the heavens”, a solid canopy with clouds and sky painted on it that also boasts a trap door so that intrepid actors can descend from the “sky” on ropes or rigged in special harnesses. (The heavens and those rigs were used quite a bit at the old Theatre across the river in late fall of 1598 when this same troupe staged Shakespeare’s weird – but very funny and oddly memorable – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairies flying everywhere.)

It’s a good-sized stage, about 43 feet deep and 27 feet wide – big enough for the huge crowd and royal banquet scenes required in these history plays, even large enough for the symbolic armies of France and England to battle on in Henry V, a play which you enjoyed despite the fact that the better-educated-than-Shakespeare rival playwright Ben Jonson has repeatedly mocked Will Shakespeare’s supposed “realism” since, Jonson says, you can’t really get an army onto a stage. Perhaps that’s why Will S. had his Chorus talk about the inadequacy of his Wooden O.

Globe Theatre

As is the case in most of the new theaters in town, there’s an “apron stage” here in the Globe that sticks out into the middle of the open-air yard, so that in some scenes – such as the “Who’s there?” night-watchmen scene that will open Hamlet – the actors are all but surrounded by groundlings gawping up at them. (The stage level is 5 feet above the groundlings’ walnut-mud floor, just high enough to allow the Ghost in this remake of a remake of the popular Hamlet revenge drama – played by Will Shakespeare is the word on the street – to disappear through a trap door into the “cellarage” and then megaphone his Ghost’s lines up through the floor.)

The rear of the stage where you are now has a couple of doors for various official comings and goings and a curtained arrass that will, it’s rumored, get some violent dramatic use in this new version of Hamlet. Above that curtained alcove is a balcony where musicians can play or which can be used for . . . well . . . for balcony scenes. (You had mixed feelings about the artistic quality of Master S’s Romeo and Juliet staged back in the old Theatre in 1596, but if pressed you’d be forced to confess that you wept at the end of it.)

It’s a little before three p.m. and the official beginning of the play. You hear music on the streets as various small bands lead last-minute theater-goers from the river landings, but the official starting trumpet hasn’t blown yet and the flag indicating a play underway has climbed only halfway to the top of its shaft above the theater, so you have time to check into the tiring room and get a glimpse of the actors.

II. The Tiring Room

My God! The word on the street has been that this new version of Hamlet will have a large cast, but it looks as if everyone in The Chamberlain’s Men troupe is going to be on stage tonight. You can see at a glance that there are even extra actors here today who’ve never worked with this troupe before. (Some are secret-spy scribes, of course, hired to take down some of the new play’s better lines for pirate publications or just plain theft by other playwrights. You can see one such walk-on actor who’s brought his tablet for such purposes, but the Lord Chamberlain’s Men don’t get upset by this – they do it themselves with other playwrights’ new plays. Also, men of substance who are willing to pay the tariff are already sitting in chairs on the stage itself – right where the actors will be working – and already among them now are a few spy-scribes with their tablets at the ready.)

You see Richard Burbage all made up and wearing all-black save for his curly white ruff-collar – ruffs have fallen out of fashion, but this Hamlet is a sort-of period piece, at least set in Denmark (sort of), so the old-fashioned look on Burbage makes sense (sort of). You notice that his ruff is small – not one of the absurd, foot-wide “cartwheel ruffs” so in vogue in court circles 20 or 30 years ago; ruffs so wide and heavy that they needed a “supportasse” wire underpropper to keep them up.

Dick Burbage is getting heavier as he ages, but you know from seeing him so often – he was Henry in Shakespeare’s Henry V,  Brutus in Will’s Julius Caesar (which is still showing here at the Globe every fifth day), and in many other lead roles, not only in Will Shakespeare’s plays but in Ben Jonson’s, young George Chapman’s, Philip Henslowe’s and the Children’s of the Chapel’s productions, the late Kit Marlowe’s famous plays, Michael Drayton’s and others) – that Burbage is so graceful that once he starts moving on stage, sliding into character, he suddenly seems as slim as in his younger days.

Right now, Burbage – having finished with his own make-up (he’s an expert amongst experts in applying just the proper amount of make-up for the natural lighting of the new Globe) – is helping the boys in the troupe turn into girls and women. He’s almost done. The oldest boy is wearing a crown (she/he must be playing the Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s sluttish mother, that you’ve heard about) and the youngest and prettiest boy, in a long, curly-haired wig, is whirling around reciting nonsense lines and weird scraps of poetry. You guess that he will play a character named Ophelia who, it’s rumored, is driven nuts by a mean and manic Hamlet in Will’s new play.


People who’ve come in to watch rehearsals of this new version of Hamlet say that Dick Burbage is a stitch with his improvisations of a “manic, crazy Hamlet” – little bits of stage business such as “smoking” a quill pen as if it were a pipe and drinking from an ink horn as if it were a firkin of ale. Shakespeare and the other owners had recently fired the famous and much-loved First Clown of the troupe, Will Kemp, for his constant improvising – breaking into impromptu jigs and verbal riffs – but the playwright, in this play, will have Hamlet explain that such japeries, happening when some essential dialogue or theme of the play is being presented, hurt the play. Burbage, everyone agrees, stays in character and does his inspired (and carefully-timed) improvisations – possibly after consulting Will S. – to further our understanding of the character as created by the writer.

And speaking of firkins of ale, some are being quaffed now by nervous actors. The ale has been brought from the nearby Danskin beershop, run by some Dane named Yaughan or somesuch. You may hear “Yaughan’s” name and place mentioned in tonight’s play when Robert Armin, the new First Clown, as the Grave Digger, sends his not-too-bright assistant off from the thirsty work of grave-digging  to fetch him “a stoup of liquor”.

You see such troupe stalwarts as Jack Heminges, Gus Philips, Thomas Pope, Henry Condell, and George Bryan checking their costumes and make-up and speaking silently into the air in these last minutes before the trumpet sounds. Heminges, Philips, Pope, and Bryan – along with the now-banished Will Kemp --  helped start this group back in 1593 when the famous actor Ned Alleyn got the troupe togetyher to take culture to the provinces during a plague year when the theaters in London were all closed. Will Shakespeare wasn’t part of that effort then, since – as is his odd wont – he tends to spend plague years (such as this past bad year of plague, 1600) risking his life in London and writing while the theaters are shut down by royal decree. You can’t know it yet, but John Heminges and Henry Condell – two long-time friends and co-players with Shakespeare – will be instrumental in bringing out in print the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, seven years after Will S.’s death (and the same year that Will’s widow, Anne, will die in Stratford at the age of 67.)

But now these men are just fellow players readying for a big premiere.

Despite their costumes and make-up, you also recognize Will Sly, Jack Lowin, Nat Field, Dick Cowly, Alex Crook, Sam Cross, Sam Gilburne, Nat Field, Will Ostler, Nick Tooley, Jack Underwood, Willie Gough, Dicky Robinson (always Ben Jonson’s favorite), and Jack Shank and Johnny Rice. “Rice” is really Ap Rhys, the Welshman who was such a favorite with the crowds when he played the Welshman Fluellan in Henry V and forced Ancient Pistol to eat leeks (while he batted the Pistol over the head with other leeks). Before that, Rice was a good “Glendower” – the rebel noble who fancied himself a magus and cried "at my birth/The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes" in Henry IV, Part I. (You had loved those two parts of Henry IV because of Falstaff’s wit, but although Will Shakespeare had promised that Falstaff would return in Henry V, he’d coldly killed the wonderful fat man off – and offstage! – in the first acts of Henry V. That had been a major disappointment.)

Robert Armin – so small as to seem almost dwarfish, such a physical opposite to his predecessor, the large and muscular Will Kemp -- is sitting alone, practicing no lines, not looking at anything or anyone in particular. Just turned 30, Armin has a passel of skills that Will Kemp lacked: Armin’s already famed for his singing, mimickry and wit. Before joining the Chamberlain’s Men, Armin had been a ballad writer, a pamphleteer, and a singer-actor who’d appeared with the respected Chando’s Men and even performed alone before royal audiences. Armin also wrote his own comedies such as Two Maids of More-Clack and then starred in them. He refused to do the jigs that had made Kemp so famous – precisely the change that Will Shakespeare wanted for his troupe. Although Shakespeare had written the absurdly comic role of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing specifically for Will Kemp years ago, Armin has had no problem portraying the slapstick character in recent revivals of Much Ado.

You were in the theater to see the premiere of As You Like It and Armin in the role of the first character Will S. had written specifically for the comic – that of Touchstone. Armin has become well-known for his gift at riddling and for engaging others on stage in rapid-fire, witty, catechizing dialogue, and this appears to be precisely what Master Shakespeare wanted for his Grave Digger in this new play. Before too long, you’ll see Armin starring as the so-wise and almost supernatural Fool in the depressing and nihilistic King Lear and you’ll think that Armin’s Fool is – along with this Grave Digger – one of the most intriguing and mysterious characters ever created by this playwright.

Right now you see Robert Armin belch softly and scratch his backside through his rough Grave-Digger trousers as he sits on his stool in one corner of the tiring room.  No before-the-premiere nerves for this man.

The final actor you notice, sitting near the back of the milling mob and holding up a glass so that he can see his reflection, is William Shakespeare. He’s finishing putting on his Ghost make-up. Shakespeare’s been known – since he was a fairly young man – for playing old-man parts, and now he’s playing a dead old man. (You’re aware that Will’s father died just a couple of months ago and his son, named Hamnet, died . . . when was it? . . . in 1596, you think. You wonder if this actor playing a dead-father giving his living son commands for revenge wrote the play with any thoughts to his dead son or dying father.) Anyway, at age 37, Will is already almost gray enough in his beard and what little is left of his hair to play the Ghost of Hamlet Elder, but you see that he’s adding a little more gray and . . . ahah! . . . a little more hair on top as well. There’s a suit of very old-fashioned armor – complete with helmet and visor -- propped up next to Will and you wonder if he’ll have to clank onto stage in all that metal when his cue comes. No matter . . . if advance word is correct, a Bible’s-length of Act One dialogue gabbling goes on before the Ghost finally gets onstage and talks to Hamlet. You know that the groundlings won’t like that; they’ve come for the Ghost . . . and for the Revenge. At least that’s what they’ve audibly and visibly loved about the earlier versions of this hoary revenge-play.

Music blares. The final trumpet blows. You can see that the flag of the Globe Theater with the words Totus mundus agit histrionem – roughly translated as “All the world’s a stage” – on it in classy script is now at the top of its staff on the high tower.
You hurry past the groundlings and climb the stairs to your seat on the second tier. The trumpet sounds a final time. The outside doors are slammed closed. A hush falls over the crowded theater and two men dressed in night-watch helmets and partial armor, carrying long hallebardes, come out onto upper balcony area – peering as if the clear afternoon light is total darkness – staring out at the spectators, look directly at you, and one of them cries out – “Who’s there?”

So for the next three hours or so you’re going to see . . .

You’re going to see . . .

Well, no on earth today knows what the hell you’re going to see. Nor has anyone known for the last three centuries and more. What those first audiences of Hamlet saw is an absolute mystery. For all the scholarship and thousands of books that have been written, no one has a clue as to the shape and form and lines and specific word choices included in those first performed versions of Hamlet. Even if you – the 21st-Century “you” – have seen scores of live theatrical versions of this play and every movie adaptation ever made of it, from Olivier’s mess to Richard Burton’s turtlenecked 1960’s masterpiece through Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour-plus over-reaching to the most recent cool-dude versions of Hamlet – you’ve never seen the version of the play as Londoners and other spectators saw it that autumn of 1601.

How can this be?  How can we not know what those first performances contained? How can we be so ignorant of such a basic and important fact?

III. The First Hamlet

Looking at the origins and predecessors to William Shakespeare’s 1601 Hamlet may seem like an academic exercise . . .no, wait, all right, it is an academic exercise . . . but it’s one that can give us one heck of a better perspective on why Shakespeare’s version of this revenge-tragedy broke all molds, violated all expectations then and now, and still hasn’t been surpassed as modern, cutting-edge theater. It also helps us understand why we don’t really have a clue as to what the first stagings of Hamlet in the Globe Theater were like.

Revenge-melodramas have always been popular. They’ve been formulaic now for several thousand years (I suspect that the crippled “story-teller” told already formulaic revenge-tales around the Cro-Magnon campfires with the audience listening open-eared and wide-eyed.) Today, in the crap movies, it’s usually a former “Special Ops” guy whose family gets wiped out by the Mafia (or CIA, or Major Captialist Corporation . . . choose your bastardly villain) and the formula kicks in and he (or she these days, since it’s fashionable to have 97-lb. fashion models in high heels and cat suit kick some 230-lb. thug through the wall) “revenges” himself by slaughtering the opposition one by one. As in slasher films, the only surprises may come in new ways to kill one’s target. The groundlings liked such stuff in the 16th and very early 17th Century, but – as illiterate, filthy, and flea-bitten as those groundlings were, they were also immensely more “verbally intelligent” than today’s happy proles, their Elizabethan and early-Jacobean ears tuned to the nuances and rhythms of the quickly evolving English language. (Most language – especially English – is lost on the majority of today’s revenge-story fans. The average “educated” American has a vocabulary of fewer than 4,000 words; the illiterate groundling-peasants of Shakespeare’s day had workable vocabularies nearing the language’s limits then of more than 29,000 words. They spoke and listened well, even if they had to sign their marriage certificates and other legal documents with a scrawled “X”. What any playwright, then or now, needs most is an audience that knows how to listen well to the subtleties of well-spoken language.


The earliest Hamlet version of our basic revenge-fantasy stories came out of the oral traditions of northern Europe sometime in the Middle Ages. Saxo the Grammarian (God, I love that name!) wrote down the earliest Hamlet (“Amleth”) tale in a 12th century text and later, François de Belleforest translated the story from Latin into French in Histoires Traquiques (1570). Shakespeare may have encountered the de Belleforest version – he did read in French, despite Ben Jonson’s accusations that Will lacked all classical and useful education – but that version wouldn’t have been his (Will S.’s) template for the 1601 Hamlet, or even for earlier versions he may have attempted. (More on that possibility later.)

In the medieval version, a certain King Horwendil (read “King Hamlet, Sr.”) is killed by his brother, Feng. (Great name for a villain there, but not as good as “Dr. Rotwang” in “Metropolis”.)

Feng doesn’t murder his brother secretly – as Claudius does his brother Hamlet, Sr., by pouring a poison in his ear while Claudius naps in his garden – but just runs King Horwendil through (some versions say in a fair duel, most just a sneaky assassination). Feng’s “reason” for the assassination as told to the other nobles of old Denmark, who ran the pre-nation kingdoms in an NFL-huddle sort of consensus way -- as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, kings not ascending to the throne by virtue of birth and lineage but usually through guile and violence.  One can think of this group as a sort of early, real-world sketch for Frank Herbert’s “Landsraad” in Dune, minus the Padishah Emperor. So Feng simply explained to the Landsraad that he run his brother Horwendil through because the King had been beating up his wife Gerutha. The proto-Landsraad fellow-nobles bought it. (There was nothing new in the 12th Century or thereabouts with a brother killing his brother to grab the throne.) Nasty Feng also grabbed, besides the crown and realm, his brother’s wife Gerutha whom, Saxo tells us, Feng didn’t beat, but only boinked with great enthusiasm. Gerutha, again according to both Saxo the Grammarian and François de Belleforest, seems to have shared the post-homicide coital enthusiasm, which suggests that something may have been going on between the two before Feng ran poor Horwendil through the guts with a big sword (see John Updike’s novel Gertrude and Claudius for details.)

But . . . as is the case in so many of these revenge tales . . . Horwendil had a son. His name was Amleth and rather than being old enough to go to school at Wittenberg University ala Shakespeare’s tale (Will’s “Hamlet” seems about 20 in the early acts of the play, but in Act V the Grave Digger sets the Prince’s age at 30 – since he says that Hamlet was born in the same year that his father killed the king of Norway, Fortinbras, Sr.. ) Actually, the character Hamlet’s age is a fluid thing – he seems to have aged into his 50’s by Act V – and it’s not helped by his college buddy, Horatio, saying that he was on the expedition when Hamlet, Sr., killed the elder Fortinbras, which would make “fellow student Horatio” at least 47. Figuring chronologies in Shakespeare’s Hamlet isn’t easy, since Norway as the play begins isn’t ruled by the Old Fortinbras’s son, the young killing machine also named Fortinbras to whom the dying Hamlet will leave his entire realm (why? why?), but rather by his old uncle, who is also named “Fortinbras”. Two older brothers by the same name? Oh, well.)

Anyway, the Mafia- (or Cook County-) basic rules of fraternal assassination of the day would require Feng to kill the boy Amleth – a lad, as I mentioned, of only 9 or 10 at the time of the royal usurpation – since little sons of murdered kings always have the fantasy-tale tendency to grow up to be adult Revengers.

But young Amleth pretends to be both slow-witted and nuts. Much of the tension in the early version of this tale consists of Feng’s clever attempts to trick little Amleth into showing that he’s not a drooling nutcase. But try as he may, Feng never tricks the kid into revealing that he’s “normal”; Amleth spends his growing years drooling, giggling, being antic, and happily whittling what look to be large wooden fishhooks in front of the castle fire. Feng lets him live. Big mistake.

It might be noted here that the name “Amleth” actually meant – on the Continent and later in England – “fool” or “crazy person” or (my favorite) “someone pretending to be a fool or crazy person”. It’s interesting that Shakespeare and his wife named their only son, a fraternal twin to baby Judith, “Hamnet” which was interchangable in 1500’s England with “Hamlet” which, in turn, was interchangable with “Amleth”. But no matter since Will and Anne’s Hamnet died, still a boy, in 1596.

Amleth prevails in the old tale, of course. During all those years of drooling and whittling “wooden hooks” by the fire, he was – in a Michael Corleone way – carefully making his revenge plans. The “fish hooks” turn out to be grapples for a giant net that Amleth drops over Feng’s entire armed retinue, lifting them into the air just long enough to set a large fire beneath them. In what could have been a neat theatrical moment, all of Feng’s knights and bully-boys burn to death.

Then Amleth runs Feng through with a sword (although the broadswords of the time really weren’t made for “runnings through”), castigates his mother, and becomes the rightful-heir King. Then Amleth summons the Landsraad – the assembly of nobles – explains why he slaughtered Feng and almost every knight in the realm, and they enthusiastically endorse his new kingshipness. (It was a rough era.)

Now, as any screenwriter today could tell you, this story of a kid pretending, for ten years or more, to be nuts, even with the clever testing from Feng, will not a movie make. Nor even a workable play. It’s boring. So the trick, as Will Shakespeare and his 16th-Century Hamlet-writing predecessors figured out, was to cut to the time when Amleth – now Anglicized as “Hamlet” – was already a young man and then show a few weeks of his torment, madness-feigning, and revenge-plotting rather than a decade or more. Plus, who wants to direct (or watch) a mere “boy” in a lead role of a play? The boys in The Chamberlain’s Men troupe were there to play girls and women or the occasional young page-squire, such as the one that Prince Hal gives to Falstaff as a sort of ironic gift in Henry IV Part Two. (Falstaff doesn’t live long enough to get to France with King Henry in Henry V, but the Boy does, and offers an interesting viewpoint when he gets disgusted and finally walks away from the Ancient Pistol, Nim, and Bardolph – all cowards and thieves who’d seemed so fun and interesting in the two parts of Henry IV when Falstaff was there to lead the tavern-dwelling gaggle, but who show themselves in Henry V as . . . well . . . mere cowards and thieves).

But Shakespeare didn’t want a 2-hour-plus Hamlet with a boy in the lead role and neither did lead-actor and primary-troupe-owner Richard Burbage nor did the groundlings nor did the rest of the audiences nor would we today. (Although, personally, doing the movie script, I’d find a way to keep the netting and burning-of-the-retinue scene.)

IV.  The Ur-Hamlet and Other Earlier Hamlets:

William Shakespeare almost never came up with an original plot. About as close as he ever came was with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I discuss at length in an earlier Message from Dan –


 What Shakespeare excelled at was borrowing old stories, plays, and plots and putting his inimitable Will-Shakespeare spin on them.

As I’ve suggested, I don’t think he borrowed the Amleth/Hamlet story straight from Saxo the Grammarian via François de Belleforest because neither of their early versions had the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in it. Of course, in Amleth’s day, no ghost of a dead father was needed to spur on the warrior-son to bloody vengeance. But Shakespeare’s Hamlet is, as we’ll see, no “warrior son” – he is more a Renaissance man, sensitive, perhaps wishing to be a playwright/director himself. Murder for Will’s Hamlet, even in the name of vengeance, is not as easy as it had been for bloody-minded Amleth and his theatrical successors up until 1601.

The Ghost seemed to first appear in a formulaic and simple melodramatic English stage version of Hamlet in the early 1580’s. By 1589 the ghost and Hamlet had been around long enough to have become a cliché and such a byword that Thomas Lodge—a not-very-popular playwright whose Rosalynd had been the template for Shakespeare’s much more successful As You Like It – spoke sarcastically of a character who “walks for the most part in black under the cover of gravity, and looks as pale as the vizard of the Ghost who cried so miserably at the Theatre like an oyster wife, ‘Hamlet, revenge!’”


It might be noted that the Ghost never cries “Hamlet, revenge!” in Will Shakespeare’s version of the play.

But someone had written this English ur-Hamlet, probably in the 1580’s, and while scholar Harold Bloom builds on fellow scholar Peter Alexander’s reasoned arguments for that ur-Hamlet having been written by Shakespeare himself – as a young and uncertain journeyman playwright – I don’t find the arguments convincing. Most scholars and Shakespeare-contemporaries– most convincingly Thomas Nashe -- suggest that the Hamlet-play that Shakespeare borrowed his plot and primary elements from was written around 1590 by Thomas Kyd, whose The Spanish Tragedy revenge-play had been wildly popular with groundlings and well-educated spectators alike. In truth, most of the groundlings present on this premiere-night for Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the autumn of 1601 expect another Spanish-Tragedy-style bloody head-bashing revenge tale. They sometimes forgot how perverse Shakespeare was in that way; he never seemed to think that the shortest distance between two dramatic points was a straight line.

Whether Shakespeare had written that Ur-Hamlet more than a decade earlier and couldn’t let it go – especially after the deaths of his son and father – and kept noodling around with it through 1599 to 1601 -- or whether Dick Burbage simply pulled the old Kyd version of Hamlet out of a trunk, tossed at his writer, and said, “This old chestnut may still have some life in it, Will. See what you can do with it” – Shakespeare was faced with the intimidating task of having Hamlet being ordered by his father to kill his murderous uncle in Act I but doing nothing about it until Claudius himself forces Hamlet’s hand at the end of Act V.

For most writers, this would have led to more melodrama – with either Hamlet setting physical traps for his royal uncle and Claudius escaping them, or vice versa – but Shakespeare instinctively knew that in this direction lay garbage.

The key to Hamlet, Shakespeare discovered, was for his main character to do . . . nothing.

The weird and insightful early 20th-Century scholar William Empson, about whose “Seven Levels of Ambiguity” I’ve also written -- http://www.dansimmons.com/writing_welll/archive/2010_03.htm --
realized that Shakespeare had, in Stephen Greenblatt’s words, “rethought how to put a tragedy together – specifically, he had rethought the amount of causal explanation a tragic plot needed to function effectively and the amount of explicit psychological rationale a character needed to be compelling.” In other words, Empson (as described by Greenblatt) understood that Shakespeare had (italics below mine) “ . . . found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.”

Release an enormous amount of energy, yes. Especially in his most strategically opaque and occluded worlds – Hamlet and King Lear – which are also probably Shakespeare’s two unmatchable masterpieces. This removal of a key explanatory element released dramatic energy on the level of a 17th-Century Manhattan Project.

Shakespeare’s discovery in his most mature plays that he could leave – should leave, must leave – a gaping hole in the center of the play’s drama, psychology and motivation, evolved about the same time he learned that he could use silence on stage, frequently to greater effect than spoken dialogue. But that’s another conversation. Hamlet’s very failure to act – so inexplicable in formulaic dramatic equations – was the “black hole” at the center of everything that drove the real suspense of the play.

Stephen Greenblatt explains that Will’s new negative-capability of opacity “was shaped by his experience of the world and of his own inner life: his skepticism, his pain, his sense of broken rituals, his refusal of easy consolations.” The energetic younger Will Shakespeare-playwright of the 1580’s or early 1590’s simply could not have written Hamlet. It almost certainly took the sudden death of his son, the sad death of his father (who was a secret Catholic to the end), the murder of friends like Christopher Marlowe by the crown’s Secret Service, a near-fatal bout of venereal disease from a fouled love affair, and other painful “experiences of the world” to create the William Shakespeare capable of writing 1601’s Hamlet.

V. Shakespeare’s Wildly Different Versions of the Play:

“The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.” -- POLONIUS

Whether Shakespeare had anything to do with the earlier Ur-Hamlets or not, we know that he set to serious work on rewriting the old shouting-like-an-oyster-wife tale in late 1599, continued through 1600, and didn’t really finish it (in a playable form) until early 1601.

After Shakespeare’s death, word spread (and hung around for too many unfortunate centuries), that Will Shakespeare had been such a brilliant author that he “never blotted a line” – i.e. never had to revise a single thing he wrote in ink (“writing with feathers”, as Louis B. Mayer like to say about historical movies). That was never true – that whole “not blotting a line” thing – but it was never less true than with his Hamlet, a playwhich he kept revising and re-revising, almost constantly, for two years or more. (Or for a decade and a half if we’re to believe Mssrs. Bloom and Alexander.)

We should remember here that William Shakespeare was a consummate professional when it came to writing for the theater; the equivalent of a top screenwriter today. He could craft a play so that it worked out to the minute for the troupe’s desired running time. Regulations had the outdoor-lighted theaters like the Globe begin their shows no later than three p.m. in late spring, summer, and early autumn, no earlier than two p.m. during the winter months. Either way, audiences wouldn’t sit through plays that were much more than two hours long – two and a half hours for a few of the historical epics – and in winter, a four-hour play would have run into and after dark, making it impossible for working men to get home in time for their suppers and hard for the gentlemen to hire boats in the dark to get back across the river.

Shakespeare’s first 1599 draft of Hamlet was almost 4,000 lines long. Even if actors simply stood on the stage and declaimed – no entries or exits or pieces of non-verbal action – this would have taken from four to four-and-a-half hours to perform. In winter months, for an actual performance when the sun set around 5 p.m., the necessary sword-fight between Laertes and Hamlet in Act V would have been performed in the dark – not a safe situation for any actor on stage, much less the principles. In essence, Shakespeare’s 4,000-line Hamlet was unperformable. How could Shakespeare, the consummate pro, have made such a mistake?

In essence, he hadn’t. He’d made the decision to follow the character, story, and deeper themes of Hamlet wherever they led him.

Some have argued that Shakespeare wrote this first, unperformable version of the play – best reflected in the 3,800 lines of the Second Quarto printed version – because Will S. had finally begun to care more about how his words were read than staged. But this argument isn’t very convincing. Ben Jonson – who’d always had delusions of scholarly grandeur – had already begun having his plays, such as the popular Every Man Out of His Humour, published. (Jonson’s play-in-print became an instant bestseller, going through three editions in eight months – an astounding record for the time.)  But while Shakespeare had shown care in getting his two epic poems into print and had privately passed around his Sonnets – and most probably even authorized their printing – he showed no interest during his lifetime in getting his theater scripts into print; he didn’t even set his various or final drafts anywhere or with anyone for safekeeping.

So why did Shakespeare allow his 1599-1600 drafts of Hamlet reach unperformable lengths? (And no, it’s not what some “scholars” say that Will just let the material “get away from him”. That wasn’t his style. And he was writing the very tailored-to-time grand epic Julius Caesar about the same time.)

The correct answer is, almost certainly, that with Hamlet, Shakespeare could follow the writing – and the infinitely complex character and the new forms of language and technique he was creating for the play – anywhere they led him. For the first time by 1599, and alone among the leading playwrights of the day (including condescending “educated” Ben Jonson who was pouring out crapola in exchange for pay), Will had the freedom to write something as long, complicated, and unrestrained as he wished.

The “Poem unlimited” line in the Polonius quotation with which I started this section, doesn’t refer to some poem or play without understood human limits; rather it was the common term in those days for some play that didn’t conform to Aristotles rules of unity: i.e. a play’s two hours should be set in one day and reflect the actual time it would take to carry out the events dramatized. Ben Jonson had criticized Henry IV (Parts I and II) and Henry V and so many of Will S.’s earlier plays for precisely that reason; they blobbed all over the place in time and space and violated Aristotles “Rule”.

But in the broader sense – of ambition, achievement, character, and strangeness – Hamlet was and remains a “poem unlimited” even by our more modern definition of something unmatched, uncontained in all ways.

In 1599-1600, Shakespeare could afford such a self-indulgence. He was perhaps the most popular playwright in England, and he got a share of each day’s gate. More than that, he was a shareholder in the company and got a good cut of the profits from any play they performed – even Thomas Kyd’s or that smug Ben Jonson’s (whom Shakespeare liked, evidently despite the constant jabs.) During the period right before his father died, Shakespeare tried to fulfill his father’s lifelong dream (and perhaps Will’s) of convincing the College of Heralds to grant the Shakespeares a coat of arms. When it was finally “approved” (not “granted”, a small semantic difference but a huge difference in whether the men in a family are truly to be treated as “gentlemen”), the Shakespeare crest – its design modified and simplified, perhaps to put distance between Will S. and his claimed family connections to the “Ardens” (Catholics all, who did not claim Will and his father), the motto on the crest was Non Sans Droit, "not without right."  In his Every Man in His Humour, Jonson gave his character Sogliardo in III,1, whose crest features a " boar without a head, rampant - A boar without a head, that's very rare!" and the motto "Not without mustard."

At any rate, in 1599-1601 Shakespeare had the time – especially with the Plague shutting down theaters in 1600 – and the money (since he was also speculating in and hoarding grain and malt back in Stratford, to see at outrageous prices during the next drought and ale shortages) – to write whatever he wanted and to take as long as he wanted.

But by the last months of 1600, Burbage and the rest of the shareholders and acting troupe were clamoring for this  new play he’d been tweaking for more than a year now. As he wrote out a fresh copy for them, he did something not so usual for Will Shakespeare – he made at least 1,000 more revisions in the text, some of them large, many of them subtle, but all of them important.

Burbage and the others were now expecting a performance-ready script; what they received was a revised and “cut down” manuscript that had been reduced from 4,000 lines by only 230 removed lines. Then, in a real Dan-Simmons-style act of “cutting” a MS, Shakespeare added 90 new lines. (The result would still have run about 4 hours on stage – or 3 ½ hours if they cut out such little things as the poisoning and sword fight at the end and just announced that everyone but Horatio was dead on stage.)

Both Shakespeare’s first and second-drafts have survived and looking at them carefully gives a would-be writer a graduate-level course in Will Shakespeare’s way of thinking and writing. We’ll look briefly at those revisions in a section down the way here, but for now suffice it to say that he still had a whole lotta cuttin’ to do if he was going to get this Hamlet ready for actual performance in 1601.

(Dan’s side note here: almost all experts insist that the first, 4-hour version of Hamlet, which we can read today, was never performed. I don’t accept that. I don’t think that they can know. We do know that some of Shakespeare’s plays were performed at Cambridge and Oxford, to very learnéd and patient audiences there, and my guess is that they would have lapped up the 4-hour Hamlet with a spoon, complete with its missing and brilliant final soliloquy (more on that later, too). Also, those who point out merely that the Long Form Hamlet couldn’t have been produced at the Globe Theater because of the problems of natural lighting and the groundlings’ attention spans, forget that in his last years, Shakespeare invested in part-ownership in the Blackfriars – a much smaller, indoor, all-weather, lighted by lanterns and candles, catering to upper-class audiences theater. (He even bought, after he’d moved to Stratford for most of the year, the only piece of property he ever owned in London, a pied-à-terre, near the Blackfriars.)

At any rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if the 4-hour version of Hamlet was presented somewhere, at sometime, between 1600 and the end of his life.

But that still leaves Dick Burbage, Jack Heminges, Robert Armin, and all the rest of The Chamberlain’s Men without a Hamlet to play in the Globe that year.

As was so uncharacteristic of this playwright, Will kept tinkering with the manuscript, always improving it – right up to the point, we’ll soon see, where he’d written the Hamlet-character and the plot right into a wonderful philosphical-epistemological beyond-melodrama corner from which neither the character nor play could escape. It was brilliant – this before-radical-cutting revised 3,800+-line early 1601 version of Hamlet – but it wouldn’t have “satisfied” anyone in the theater: not the groundlings, not the learned merchant folk in the ha-penny cushion seats, not even the players.

Then, as we’ll see, Shakespeare realized that the most obvious fatal step in his brilliant play was the seventh and final and most brilliant and beautiful soliloquy in the play – the one beginning “How all occasions do inform against me/And spur my dull revenge” – better even than the infinitely more famous “To be or not to be”. We’ll see why that soliloquy – and the ironies and conclusions in it – just launched right beyond the theater-spectator’s/reader’s philosophical event horizon and showed Shakespeare what to do with the too-long play.

So suddenly, before the spring of 1601, Shakespeare cut out that soliloquy, cut out most of young Fortinbras’ symbolic and actual importance in the play, and essentially cut out much of the heart of the amazing revelations that Hamlet’s ever-expanding-consciousness had brought to that play and theater in general.

But his beautiful revised version still had to be cut to a more-playable length of fewer than 3,000 lines. It’s quite possible—although hard to believe today – that Will didn’t even make those final (and major) cuts himself. Part of the tradition in his day was to hand the finished play over to the troupe and to allow the individual actors to modify, rewrite, and hack away at their roles. In major cuts such as this, Richard Burbage (and possibly even Robert Armin, who, as the Grave Digger, got some of the best lines in the play – and in the entire history of English-speaking theater) – may have helped bring shears to cut it down to final playing-version size. Shakespeare had done what he wanted to with the earlier version(s) of Hamlet and he no longer seemed to care that much about the final staged version.

As Samuel Coleridge put it – in the end, Shakespeare didn’t write “as if from another world.” He wrote for the Globe Theater.


VI. Will’s Revisions:

Even though we lack two of the most important early script-versions of Will S.’s Hamlet, we do see a lot of his revisions (before the players and others had at it with their shears). I’ll touch on just a few of them because they’re not only revealing of Shakespeare’s thinking as he wrestled with this script, as mentioned, they also can serve as a graduate-course to us writers-in-training that are attempting to revise our own work. Revisions must always serve a purpose – oftentimes more than one purpose at a time.

One change that is important to me, personally, is Shakespeare’s shift – as he has Hamlet marveling that the “First Player” could get so emotionally worked up as he recited the overblown Hecuba speech from the Pyrrhus Play (which Shakespeare almost certainly wrote) as an example of old-fashioned speechifying:

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her?

That’s just wrong to my ear. The first time I ever saw Hamlet – the first time I ever saw any Shakespeare play – was at a film/TV broadcast of Richard Burton’s Hamlet, when I was in high school. I left the theater with scores of lines rattling around in my head, but high among them was Will’s more mellifluous revision of the line above, to –

What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba? (2.2.559)

Then there was the odd explosion of Hamlet where he insults Ophelia – whose only real crime was obeying her father, Polonius, beyond the point and age she should have – until she’s driven to suicide. A lot of scholarly sweat has gone into researching and debating what feels like the overstated fury of this “Get thee to a nunnery, go!” conversation: some scholars feel that Hamlet is simply equating Ophelia with his incestuous mother, Gertrude, and thus furious-beyond-reason at any female; others feel that it was just the fact of Ophelia’s betrayal here – she had, after all, turned over to her father and to his blood-enemy, Claudius, Hamlet’s former love letters. Ophelia was also acting out her meeting with Hamlet in this scene to prove his madness while knowing that both her father and Claudius were eavesdropping; but some simply point to old King Lear’s even less-explicable rants about all women being “centaurs above, but Hell below” – a common referent to the carriers of venereal disease – and suggest that Will S. was simply recovering from a terrible dose of the clap when he allowed both of his finest and most enigmatic characters, Hamlet and Lear, lose their minds while verbally abusing women.

At any rate, in his earlier draft, Shakespeare had Hamlet confront Ophelia thusly:

I have heard of your paintings well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another; you jig and amble, and you list, you nickname God’s creatures, and make wantonness ignorance.

“You list?” Well, adolescent girls and grown-up coquettes do make endless lists. But in his revisions, Shakespeare redid those lines while shifting the basis for the attacks even while sharpening the staccato rhythm of the passage:

I have heard of your prattling too well enough. God has given you one pace, and you make yourself another; you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance.

Now Will S. has unified the metaphors by continuing the comparison of how Ophelia speaks and moves – prattling and lisping (while replacing “face” with “pace”, and connecting all that with “jig” and “amble”.)

In other spots, Shakespeare had caught (and revised) his prose where it had flown into sheer metaphorical or rhetorical incomprehensibility that served neither the play-plot nor his character speaking. One example was Claudius, who is the best “speaker” in the play after Hamlet and the Grave Digger, who gets carried away in the earlier draft while he’s planning to send Hamlet (escorted by his “friends” Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern) to his death by hanging in England, and says –

. . . we’ll call up our wisest friends,
And let them know both what we mean to do
And what’s untimely done. (So envious slander]
Whose whisper o’er the world’s diameter,
As level as the cannon to his blank,
Transports his poisoned shot, may miss our name,
And hit the wordless air. O, come away
My soul is full of discord and dismay.
(4.I. 38-45)

I beg your pardon? Poisonous cannonballs hitting the worldless air? Murderer Claudius worrying aloud about “envious slander”? What the hell is this about?

Not much, decided Shakespeare, so he revised that passage to the infinitely more straightforward end to Act 4:

 . . . we’ll call up our wisest friends
To let them know both what we mean to do
And what’s untimely done. O, come away,
My soul is full of discord and dismay.

Finally, a glimpse not of revision, per se, but the difference, as Mark Twain said, between lightning and the lightning bug.

After Shakespeare’s much-pared-down script version of Hamlet first appeared at the Globe Theater, there came a more-abridged version of the play for the production that toured the hinterlands. That script – like the first Globe version – has been lost, but we know that within three years Hamlet had gone through five versions, each shorter than the last. In 1603, a reconstructed attempt at the touring version of the script saw print and we even know the role of the actor in the troop – Marcellus the night guard – who “reconstructed” it. We know it was “Marcellus” because his recollection of his own lines matches up with later and more definitive versions of the play. So in 1603, buyers eager to find Hamlet in print were able to find The Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark (“by William Shakespeare”) in their London book bins. This version seems to be a combination of scribe-spy slate scribbles, hearsay, and fragments of the original oyster-wife-Ghost-screaming Hamlet that had been in production for more than a decade (whether it was Shakespeare’s journeyman 1580’s work or not isn’t terribly relevant, save for the ‘improvement’ that the actual version shows us.) In this garbled version, Polonius – the pompous old fool – is still named Corambis, Reynaldo is called Montano, and the most memorable dialogue and soliloquys are a mess.

Here’s one that – in previous eras of American and British education – you would have been required to memorize by heart (albeit in a slightly different form.)

To be or not to be. Ay, that’s the point.
To die, to sleep, is that all? Aye, all.
No, to sleep, to dream, aye, marry, there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne again before an everlasting judge,
From whence no passenger has ever returned,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damned.
But for this, the joyful hope of this,
Who’d beat the scorns and flattery of the world
Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor?

This pirated edition is called the First Quarto – often called the Bad Quarto (for reasons of accuracy, not just lack of quality) – but it was immensely popular in its day. Even at the universities, it was read until the friction of elbows rubbed the words off the pages. Only fragments of this First Quarto survived the centuries and the existence of it wasn’t rediscovered and the fragments reassembled – after a fashion – until 1823. Whether this was just a garble of Shakespeare’s 1600-1601 masterpiece or – as the confused names for Polonius and Reynaldo suggest, parts of the Ur-Hamlet that Shakespeare had to work with in his rewrite, it shows the real challenge he faced.

Try looking at the “To be or not to be . . .” soliloquy above and then compare it to the “authorized version” – the long first-draft version of 1599 – that the Chamblerlain’s men turned over for publication that would be published as the “definitive” Second Quarto of 1604/1605.

Note: there’s a compelling question of why the Chamberlain’s Men decided to have printed the longest extant version of Hamlet, the 3,800-line version that was simply too long to be played in any sunlight-lighted city theater. The probable answer makes me smile: the printed Second Quarto version was too long to perform! So there, you rival acting troupes and theaters! (I can see Will Shakespeare smiling at this elegant solution to a very real theatrical-piracy problem.)

Anyway, here’s the beginning of the Second Quarto version for you to compare with the start of the First Quarto version above. (It would be an interesting session with a group of real writers dissecting exactly why this version sings and flies while the first one lisps and drags its crippled leg across a rough and uneven floor.)

To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them; to die, to sleep
No more, and by a sleep, to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.



Note that as a “you” playgoer in the audience at the Globe that warm autumn evening in 1601 you probably would have enjoyed the beauty and depth of this soliloquy much as we do today, but you also almost certainly would have heard groundlings (and others) crying aloud the equivalent of “The hell??” at the bolded continued parts below . . .

Aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor's wrong, the proud man's Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns

“The country from which no traveler returns???” What the hell? Or, rather, what the Purgatory? Hadn’t this same Hamlet just seen the walking, talking Ghost of his father come back from the dead just a night or two earlier? How can he talk about Death as being the undiscovered Country from whose bourn no Traveller returns? His Dad obviously did! What’s going on here?

A couple of things are, not the least of which being that the Hamlet-on-stage wasn’t yet certain that the Ghost he’d seen was really his father. After all, according to Catholic-Christianity up until Henry VIII’s Anglican revolution that turned all good Englishmen into Protestants, ghosts were supposed to be returning from Purgatory, not Heaven or Hell (where their souls were then fixed forever). To help the spirits of one’s departed loved ones get through the cleansing fires of Purgatory as quickly as possible, the families paid for masses to be said for the departed (but still not in-Heaven) soul and paid to light votive candles. For those trying to pay their way out of the full sentence of Purgatory ahead of time, there were always dispensations to be bought (one of the primary reasons for Luther’s Reformation, and now a banned practice in England.)

There was no Purgatory, thus no ghosts, thus the Ghost of Hamlet’s father – by the official rules of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England – couldn’t have been the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. What it could have been, according to the new orthodoxy, was the Devil (or a demon sent by same) since, as Hamlet says after he has met with the players to arrange the play-within-the-play that shall “ . . . catch the conscience of the King!”:

The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,

Abuses me to damn me.

Maybe so. Therefore Hamlet, for five acts, has to lay clever traps not only for King Claudius but to ascertain whether the Ghost of his father was a tormented spirit asking his son to seek revenge, or the Devil.

VII. Montaigne, Soul, and Soliloquy:

Let’s return for a moment to your experience as the 1601-playgoer-“you” this autumn evening.

You know that you’re seeing something that is – to use a phrase older than the Elizabethan Age – beyond your ken. There are surprises (linguistic, motivational, ambiguous, psychological, dramatic, and . . . other) in almost every line of this damned play.

Most of all, you have been knocked out of your pointed non-differentiated boots by the character of Hamlet. He’s not only taken over this retread of an old revenge-play, he’s transcended it. You realize that everyone in the theater is waiting – whenever Hamlet is offstage – for him to return. His presence is like a drug. And it must be so for the other characters strutting around on the stage, since every time Hamlet is offstage – with the exception of Polonius’s old-fool-windbag penny wisdoms to his son and daughter – they’re talking about Hamlet, musing about Hamlet, and trying to understand (as you and 3,000 other spectators are) Hamlet’s odd behavior and invisible motivations.

A fellow named John Florio had translated Michel de Montaigne’s amazing personal essays – an entire new form of non-fiction prose – during Shakespeare’s lifetime and we know that Will had read Montaigne since he quotes almost verbatim from the Essays in King Lear, The Tempest, and elsewhere.

What Montaigne had achieved with his seemingly “unstructured” essays -- (in truth, while they read like a man chatting casually, the Essays are carefully and beautifully structured, ideas wandering from the main theme into different “fingers” but those fingers coming together perfectly when the two hands of the discussion are joined) – was the first reading experience where we felt as if we had full access to a brilliant man’s mind and musings, almost as if overhearing them as they happened.

Shakespeare had taken it as his personal and professional challenge in Hamlet to find a theatrical equivalent to Montaigne’s startling and profound essays. He did so by a radically new use of the soliloquy.

Those teachers who tell their students that the soliloquy was new to Shakespeare in Hamlet do their learners a profound disservice. Soliloquys – a character speaking his or her thoughts aloud – had been around since the beginnings of theater. Indeed, for the Greeks, soliloquies more or less predated the dramatic-action part of live theater.


But up to Hamlet, almost all soliloquies, whether written for characters by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, George Chapman, or Will’s most immediate influence – Christopher Marlowe – simply had characters saying their thoughts out loud in compliance with the fixed character and personality they’d already been given by the playwright.

Thus when Marlowe’s Barabas the Jew has a soliloquy about his evil – killing babies and poisoning wells in the night – he tells us nothing new about himself. Ditto when younger Shakespeare’s Aaron the Moor (a Barabas the Jew ripoff) launches his unrepentant soliloquy, it might as well have been a speech given by one of Dante’s figures in Hell, fixed and unchanging forever. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the younger – pre-Montaigne – Will was experimenting with Richard’s soliloquy in his tent the night before the final battle, with Richard feeling not only fear but some remorse for his heretofore perfectly unremorseful evil. (To add to the melodrama of that brief “remorse”, Will marches the ghosts of various of Richard’s murders into the tent to confront the cowering usurper.)

This isn’t psychologically subtle or helpful stuff.

But in Hamlet (and in Hamlet), as Harold Bloom points out at every chance he gets, we have perhaps the most finely honed consciousness (“conscience” in the “conscience does make cowards of us all” part of the “To Be or Not to Be” speech means, in Will’s day, “consciousness” – awareness, including self-awareness and our ethical self) in the history of our literature and theater overhears himself thinking at each step of Hamlet. And in that very “overhearing”, Hamlet synthesizes what he’s learning by tapping into his own thoughts and changes them – and his plans and behavior.

Will softened up the audience at the Globe for these into-Hamlet’s-soul soliloquies first by tearing down much of the usual wall between the play and the spectators.

Remember that the first line of the play, in all versions, is the night-guard Barnardo aiming his pike and stare straight out into the darkness, directly at the audience, directly at you, and demanding – Who’s there?

Not only does that become Hamlet’s own epistemological question to solve during the play, but from that first confrontation on, the audience is never safe – as an audience. Hamlet, the play, is overflowing with people waiting and watching others, spying on others, (the audience included) – Hamlet, Horatio, Barnardo, and Marcellus staring out at the audience waiting for the Ghost’s first appearance, Claudius and Polonius hiding themselves away and spying on Hamlet’s interaction with Ophelia; Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern’s clumsy spying on Hamlet while trying to spy on Hamlet’s motives and plans . . .

Hamlet to the two pissants:

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me. You would seem to know my stops. You would pluck out the heart of my mystery. You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

This game of being a spectator is dangerous. Old friends Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern will be hanged in England. Polonius – the penultimate snoop in the palace – is run through by Hamlet as he hides and eavesdrops from behind the curtain in Gertrude’s “closet”. (Hamlet doesn’t even care who’s hiding there – Claudius has hardly had time to rush up to Gertrude’s chamber since the prince saw him last. In his fury, Hamlet is ready and willing to murder anyone spying on him, including a member of the audience if they’ve wandered into the arrass.

But at least Hamlet shows the proper remorse when he discovers that he’s run-through the faithful old family advisor, on the job since Hamlet’s father was a young man.

I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room.
Mother, good night. Indeed this counselor
Is now most still, most secret, and most grave.
Who was in life a foolish prating knave.
Come, sir, to draw toward an end to with you.
(lugging the guts out of Gertrude’s bedroom and leaving a smeary trail)
Good night, mother.

The first time Hamlet saw the ghost and heard his commands – which were not “Revenge, Hamlet!” but, rather, “Remember me!”, the prince responds this way . .

Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!

And you notice, sitting there in the audience as you are, that when Hamlet says “distracted globe”, he pauses and his gaze flows over the entire Globe theater with all its tiers, gawking groundlings, and suddenly included spectators. Everyone watching seems to be a part of this play, and after a while none of you feel any safer than did poor Polonius a second or two before he felt the cold steel thrust through his spying guts.

When Hamlet is berating his mother in her chamber for marrying again so soon, you hear the prince cry out –

Why she, even she—
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer!—married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules.

And 3,000 minds in the audience recall that outside the Globe Theater, one must pass it to enter, there is the sculpture of Hercules carrying the entire world on his shoulders.

But it is Hamlet’s soliloquies – the true sound of an exceptional human consciousness overhearing itself  -- in which the audience is most intimate with Hamlet. (In the mass bloodletting at the end, with everyone of any name dead on the stage – King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Laertes,even the courier-fop Osric (played rather well by Robin Williams in the Kenneth Branagh film version), and Hamlet himself dying – saying he is done for and then going on for 200 more lines of prose – Horatio, Hamlet’s dearest friend, tries to kill himself by drinking the last of the poison in the cup meant for Hamlet -- (but which killed the Queen by accident and whose contents were poured down Claudius’s gullet by the prince) -- but Hamlet stops his hand, telling Horatio –

As thou'rt a man,
Give me the cup. Let go! By heaven, I’ll have ’t.
(takes cup from HORATIO)
O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.

In other words, Hamlet doesn’t stop Horatio from suicide out of love for his old friend, but only so that Horatio can “tell his story” and thus mend his “wounded name”.

As Hamlet dies and the head-basher Fortinbras (Jr.) marches in to take over, Horatio declares to the Norwegian conquerors filling the room –

And let me speak to th' yet-unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on th' inventors' heads. All this can I
Truly deliver.

But poor Horatio can’t truly deliver. He doesn’t know the true story. He’s seen many of the events, but can’t figure out their causes or importance. He’s heard what his friend Hamlet has said aloud, but can’t figure out his dead friend’s deeper meanings. Only you sitting in the audience were privy to Hamlet’s most private thoughts and philosophical wrestlings with self. Only you, the spectators, had spied on Hamlet overhearing his own thoughts and then changing his mental direction in an instant. Hamlet isn’t a play, as Horatio thinks it was or should be, about “accidental judgments, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause”, but is a play about a human consciousness expanded to the maximum limit that any human mind and self-consciousness can achieve.

Because of the Montagne-essay-like soliloquies, only you know that. Only you, the audience, knows the real story. So be careful there behind that arrass curtain.

VIII. Polonius:

Around Christmas-time I found myself watching a PBS compilation-compendium of old Charlie Rose interview-shows where his guests were all Shakespeare directors, heads of the Royal Shakespeare Company, actors, scholars, etc.. It was interesting to me because some of the guests were scholars whom I’ve enjoyed reading (but never hearing from directly) over the years such as Stephen Greenblatt and Harold Bloom (who certainly wasn’t at his best in the 2000 interview).

But I also had to notice how determinedly dim-witted Charlie Rose, the PBS “intellectual” interviewer was.

In one cut, Rose was interviewing a Shakespearean director and the conversation went something like this (I don’t have an actual transcript);

Rose:  And then, in Hamlet, there’s the character of Polonius
Director:  Uh-huh.
Rose:  Some people say that Polonius is a foolish old man . . .
Director: (smiles slightly)
Rose: . . . but Shakespeare gives him the most important line in the play, in Hamlet.
Director: . . . . uh . . . the most important line in the . . .???
Rose: Yeah, the, you know, the immortal line, the . . . To your own self . . . uh . . .
Director:  Oh, yes . . . This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Rose: One of the wisest . . . one of the central things . . . in the play . . .
Director:  . . . uh . . . yes. Some people believe so.

Duh. This and Polonius’s other ponderosities have been read into the Congressional Record again and again – i.e. “As Shakespeare said, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be . . .’”

Actually, of course, Shakespeare didn’t say it; the babbling old windbag Polonius said it. And so much more.  And his profound “wisdom” could be in penny-books for the barely literate and in the “common wisdom” of Shakespeare’s day – embarrassing clichés even then.


Shakespeare has old Polonius –whose blather gets so tiresome that at one critical point Queen Gertrude interrupts with “More matter, with less art!” – unload this stuff on his son Laertes, who’s heading back to college, and then we have to listen to Laertes – a chip off the prattling old block – unleash another two dozen common-wisdom homilies on poor Ophelia before he leaves.

But even though he’s been preaching such true-isms at poor Laertes since his son’s birth, Polonius doesn’t trust him; Polonius orders Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris and deliberately trap him by deceit 'and there put on him what forgeries you please'. Polonius tells Reynaldo that he is especially interested in learning about his son’s comings and goings from what Robin Williams’s Popeye called “houses of ill repuke.”

Marjorie Garber points out that Hamlet, Claudius, and Polonius are all trying to act as spectators, playwrights, directors, and actors in Hamlet, but by the time the poor fool Polonius moves from spectator to actor, he’s a corpse.

Still, Polonius is good for a few laughs through the play, although today’s audiences may not catch all of them. The 1601-playgoing “you” would have laughed along with the groundlings when Polinius, when the acting troupe from the city has arrived, tells Hamlet that he, old Polonius, had “played once i’th’ university” and that “I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’th’ capitol.”

It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there,” double-puns Hamlet.

But the audience you’re in this autumn afternoon of 1601 is already laughing with appreciation even before Hamlet’s line. They get the in-joke. The actor playing Polonius this day is the same one who played Caesar in Shakespeare’s Juliet Caesar – shown just a week earlier and alternating in the Globe with Hamlet next week – and “the brute” assassin, Brutus, in the other play was played by the lead actor, Dick Burbage, who – as Hamlet – will soon run the Polonius-actor through again, although in Gertrude’s closet this time, not i’th’ capitol.

But until that fatal running-through of the old counselor in Act IV, Scene 2, and the sentimental hauling of the guts into another room, don’t fall – as Charlie Rose and so many of our senators and congressmen and women have – for the idea that Polonius (and his ha’penny maxims) were “wise”. Polonius was a thick-skulled nattering old ass.

IX. Doubling and Hendiadys:

One theme in Hamlet is “doubling” – everyone seems to have a double, as does every thing. There’s a play-within-a-play at the center of the play. (In truth, there are many plays-within-a-play, including a ‘repetitiously redundant” dumb-show within the play-within-a-play that’s set to catch the conscience of a king.) Characters are doubled. Hamlet’s the young avenger who’s father’s been murdered, but then so is Fortinbras and so is Laertes (after Hamlet stabs his father, Polonius, through the curtain). Hamlet gets furious at his sexy, passionate mother and takes it out on her “double” – who’s not like her at all – poor Ophelia.

There are unnecessary pairs of characters: the two ambassadors in the early (and briefly later) scenes,  Cornelius and Votletmand who, together, speak a total of 10 lines. There are the indistinguishable Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern (indistinguishable to King Claudius and others, who get them mixed up, and, in the brilliant modern Tom Stoppard spin-off play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, R & D are often indistinguishable to themselves). The guards are double in the opening scene and then Horatio’s and Bernardo’s interactions doubly bracket the doubling. The Ghost appears twice the first time.


Events are doubled. Laertes has a double departure and gets a double blessing by his father. Poor Ophelia gets reamed out once by a half-crazy Hamlet and then, in the same extended scene, gets reamed out a second time for no apparent reason (other than Hamlet may have heard her father and Claudius spying on them). The Queen is poisoned and then Hamlet forces the poison down Claudius’s throat. Hamlet and Laertes are poisoned from the same poison blade. And so the doubling goes. And goes again.

But mostly – and most interestingly – it’s in the language that the doubling occurs.

Shakespeare did more with language in Hamlet than in any previous play and – in some ways, despite his later stylistic apogees – more than in any other of his plays.

As Polonius gabbles on in his second sermon-blessing-leave-taking to the bored Laertes:

And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
So by my former lecture and advice
Shall you my son. You have me, have you not?

Will introduced in Hamlet around 600 words that he’d never used before: two-thirds of which he’d never use again. Itemizer Alfred Hart has added up that there are 170 words and phrases that Shakespeare either coined or used in entirely new ways while writing Hamlet.

He used the formal language skills he’d learned in Stratford-Upon-Avon “grammar school” – possibly better than a Harvard degree today -- to beautiful and subtle effect throughout Hamlet. The Ghost spoke in a disappearing English dialect – “Wouldst thou”, “But know thou, noble youth”, “but soft, methinks . . .”, and use of the style of tricolon that was no longer in rhetorical style – “Adieu, adieu, adieu” and “O, horrible! O, horrible. Most horrible!” As with the Ghost’s massive sword and heavy armor – ancient forms of fighting steel that seemed centuries behind Hamlet’s slim dueling rapier and the modern weapons (and words) in Claudius’s court – the Ghost, a father who’d died only weeks earlier, seemed from a distant past century. And Shakespeare’s language from and about the Ghost helped create that feeling.

But for his greatest effect, Will chose the doubling theme in his use of hendiadys.

Hendiadys is a verbal trick coming from the Greek meaning “two out of one”. We may not be used to the term any longer – it certainly isn’t taught in schools as it was to Will Shakespeare when he was 7 or 8 years old, along with a dozen other rhetorical techniques – but fragments of hendiadys use survive even in our simpler, cruder language today: “law and order”, “house and home”, “sound and fury” (which Shakespeare coined) and so on.

The trick with good hendiadys – and both Hamlet and Claudius were pros at using the form, although Hamlet exceeded everyone’s skill with it in subtlety and wit – was not just to repeat oneself with two words, as the duller characters such as Polonius and Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern did, but to add nuance to the meaning of the sentence by slight but powerful variations in the “doubling”, such as when Hamlet talks about the “book and volume” of his mind. Obviously book and volume can mean the same thing, but “volume” can also mean size, scope. Thus Hamlet may be referring not only to the storage of memory and consciousness, but the widening size of that ability.

The hendiadys barrage begins with Claudius’s opening speech in the play and never really ceases – reaching a sort of painful crescendo with Polonius’s deliberately awkward and redundant speeches of advice to Laertes and Ophelia. (And then Laertes again.)

James Shapiro points out that something happened to Will Shakespeare in 1599 that made him love the use of hendiadys, starting with Henry V and As You Like It and continuing for at least five years, through some of the finest plays he would write – including Othello, Measure for Measure, and Macbeth.

But Hamlet, for better or worse, is by far the acme and apogee of Will Shakespeare’s fascination with hendiadys. There are 66 uses of the language-doubling trick in Hamlet, or one every 60 lines (out of a more-than-3,000-line play). The next highest count will be Othello with only 28 hendiadys in use. Still audible, but not so powerfully dominant as in Hamlet.

It would be a good drinking game to toss one back every time you hear and recognize an hendiadys in use somewhere in Hamlet. But play the game at home watching a video of the play, since you’ll be crawling toward bed at the end.

We certainly won’t try to review here all the multitude of uses of hendiadys in Hamlet, but it is illuminating to see how the different characters were able to manipulate the doubling-language. Indeed, as I suggested before, we could spy out Hamlet’s genius just through his fast-speaking facility with hendiays, Claudius by his powerful but sneaky use of same, and such dimwits as Polonius and Rosenstern and Guildenkrantz (sic, sic) by their silly use of simple repetition in their failed efforts to sound hendiadys-competent.

Another rhetorical gimmick that Will learned when he was 7 or 8 was the deliberate use of paradox, and in King Claudius’s first speech, we hear this paradox – part of his devious nature – missed with oxymorons* (*”a part of speech that combines two usually contradictory terms in a compressed paradox.”)

Thus the first we hear from Claudius . . .

. . . as ‘twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious, and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole . . .

Claudius is trying to convey his “sadness” at now being King and having his brother’s wife as his own after having secretly murdered Hamlet, Sr., mixed with a “determination” to celebrate the marriage and the future (and his beloved nephew/son, the kid still draped all in black and furious because the marriage of his mother had come so quickly that the funeral meats were still good for the marriage feast). So “Defeated joy” is Claudius’s deliberate oxymoron further unfolded by the weird image of the two eyes – one auspicious, the other drooping – in the next line, that conflict further expanded upon by “mirth/dirge”) and the whole clause concluding the “Taken to wife” sentence.

Hamlet will immediately pick up Claudius’s theme – yoking funeral and marriage – but in his version, irony and fury will pour together in a combustible mixture.

Indeed, Hamlet’s first response – the first time we hear his voice – in answer to Claudius’s cloying, hypocritical speech of filial love and family devotion, ending “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son – “

Hamlet: (Aside)
A little more than kin, and less than kind!

How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun.

But I promised you hendiadys and I’ll deliver hendiadys unto you. Get your shot glasses and Glenlivet ready.

First, the idiot-sort of hendiadys use as exemplified by Polonius who gets so wrapped up in his rhetoric that neither he nor his listeners can escape.

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time . . .

Which – wasting night, day, and everyone’s time – is precisely what Polonius does every time he opens his mouth.

When King Claudius makes his proposal to whatstheirnames, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, to be spies on their school friend Hamlet, they almost burble over each other in their eagerness not only to accept but to do so in the “high language” of the court – in this case, to imitate the smooth hendiadys used by both Hamlet and his “mighty opposite”, Claudius. I won’t even comment on the absurd clumsiness of the metaphors attempted. (I’ll set the simple-minded hendiadytical repetition – which almost certainly sent the language-sensitive 1601 audience, including you and the groundlings, laughing aloud – in bold.)

Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your Majesty.

The single and peculiar life is bound
With all the strength and armor of the mind
To keep itself from noyance, but much more
That spirit upon whose weal depends and rests
The lives of many . . .
. . . it is a massy wheel.
Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortis’d and adjoin’d, which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist’rous ruin.

Laertes handles hendiadys a little better than does his tone-deaf father Polonius, but he earns his own tiresome windbag title in his long advice-speech to poor over-advised Ophelia before his (Laertes’s) departure. Here he’s just trying to tell his little sister that her getting intimate with Prince Hamlet is not going to end well – that he’s going to have his way with her but never marry her, partially due to Hamlet’s selfishness but also due to “duties of state” that will probably have Hamlet married off to Fortinbras’ sister or somesuch:

Think it no more.
For nature crescent does not grow alone.
In thews and bulk, but as this temple waxes
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal. Perhaps he loves you now,
And no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will, but you must fear,
His greatness weighed, his will is not his own.
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state.
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head.

(I confess that I’ve never figured out that “as this temple waxes” phrase, nor, quite, the idea of Hamlet not being able to “carve for himself” – unless that means that the royal servants must always cut his meat. That would fit with the general idea that “royal Hamlet”, even while currently passed over for the throne by Claudius, won’t be allowed – according to big-brother Laertes – to carve out a tender morsel such as Ophelia for his future wife.)

Meanwhile, Hamlet’s use of paradoxes, oxymorons, and hendiadys continues apace. In his “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba” rant alone he runs with clever doublings and yoked opposites – as opposite, to Hamlet’s heart, as “my father’s funeral” and “my mother’s marriage”: “the motive and the cue”, “pigeon-liver’d and lack gall” (where the second term defines the first, which Will has just made up) , “Make mad the guilty, and appall the free”, “confound-amaze”, “whore-drab”, “my weakness and my melancholy”, “dull and muddy-mettled”, “property and most dear life”, and so forth – ending in a Ghost-like rush of emotional repetition in “ Bloody, bawdy villain!/ Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!”

This reminds the spectator of parts of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be . . .” soliloquy where, in the sudden explosion of legal language and real anger at . . . something . . . one wonders if Shakespeare was talking about something in his life outside this play (angry at the tens of thousands of regulations in Obamacare, perhaps):

 . . . the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes . . .

That whole “or he to Hecuba” scene is ended with a play on the rhyming words “king” and “thing” – a repetition that will occur again later in the play:

The King is a thing –

A thing, my lord?

Of nothing.

(IV.ii 28-30)

X. A Surrendered Soliloquy and Sweet Solution
Will Shakespeare’s willingness in 1599 and 1600 to follow his unconfinable character of Hamlet and the tale of moral consciousness had led him – by the winter of 1600-1601 – into an absolute dead end.

Hamlet’s moral reasoning and internal wrestling has led him in a circle from which neither he nor his creator could escape. That final step of Hamlet’s reasoning happens in his seventh and last soliloquy (in Will’s first draft, Second Quarto version) where Hamlet, in the process of being frog-marched to a waiting ship by Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern and armed guards, to be sailed to England, there to be hanged at King Claudius’s request of his friend the English king, pauses on a hilltop to watch Fortinbras’ Norwegian army passing by. Claudius, in his finite wisdom – and not realizing when he gave Fortinbras permission “to have his army pass through Denmark” early in the play that Fortinbras really wants to repossess all of Denmark lost to Norway when Hamlet’s old man killed his old man thirty years earlier. Now watching that army of 20,000 men in the valley below him, Hamlet reflects on Fortinbras, on dictator-bullies, and on wars (as definite signs of the action he, Hamlet, has not yet been able to take) in general.


In my opinion, this final soliloquy is even more lovely and fascinating than the famous ‘To be or not to be” speech. One might sense that massive irony is afoot in this soliloquy, as surely as Fortinbras’ army, when Hamlet refers to that army of the bully-boy head-basher Fortinbras as “Led by a delicate and tender prince.”

Fortinbras was as delicate and tender as Al Capone or Saddam Hussein, and Hamlet knew it.

Here’s the last, lovely, disturbing seventh and final soliloquy in Act IV, scene iv – one which shows Hamlet (and the audience) that he’s reached a dead end; that from here, even if he were to survive his death sentence, there’s no way forward:

'How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do;'
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do't. Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!'

To me, the image alone of an army dying for a tiny piece of land too small on which to bury the soldiers killed in the fighting, is brilliant and unforgettable.

Quite a few scholars, Harold Bloom among them, argue that Hamlet is being deeply ironic throughout this final soliloquy, that he never means that his thoughts should be bloody and his actions as quick as bully-boy Fortinbras’, and those (like Bloom) argue that we should take his words “not to stir” as a double negative and read it, steeped in perhaps too much irony, as a double negative “not not to stir”.

I don’t think so. I agree with James Shapiro and others that this is a desperate attempt to avoid the terribly obvious – i.e. that Hamlet has come around to believing in the argument for bloody-minded murdering-for-honor, a culture and mindset that had pretty much been devalued by Lord Essex’s half-assed coup and execution the previous year. Essex’s/Glendower’s/Fortinbras’ eager willingness to die – and to slaughter so many others (the “imminent death of twenty thousand men”, about the same number as the Earl of Essex had lost in Ireland) was as out-of-date and useless to Renaissance-Man Hamlet as his father’s heavy armor and massive broadsword.

It’s a grim siloloquy, and a savage one, but I think there’s little doubt that Will Shakespeare wanted us to share in Hamlet’s own epistemological and moral dead end when the prince shouts “O, from this time forth,/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!'
That surrender is a dark and profoundly existential final twist to an unresolvable arc of mortality-afflicted human consciousness and would out-post-modern anything we have on the stage here in the 21st Century. It’s also the ultimate dead end to which Hamlet led Shakespeare in Hamlet.
But Will S. wasn’t going to leave it there. As mentioned earlier, he didn’t write for posterity or for the aesthetes of Cambridge – he wrote for the paying audiences of the Globe Theater.
His revision decision was shocking to any of us writers who think we’ve created a truly fine prose passage, although it follows Samuel Johnson’s advice to writers re: revision – “You must seek out your darlings and kill them.” The seventh and final soliloquy must have been among Will S.’s darlings – it’s one of the strongest passages of prose-poetry in the history of theater – but Shakespeare, in his winter 1600-1601 revision – cut it out.

By not having that final (and dead-end) soliloquy-revelation at the end of Act IV, Shakespeare could return his character to the parameters, if not all the confines, of the original revenge-play and get on with the tale. After cutting the soliloquy, he went back and rewrote a dozen or two dozen lines and passages in the earlier texts, many of them showing Laertes, no longer Fortinbras, as Hamlet’s doubled “mighty opposite” (the people of Elsinore will riot, crying for Laertes, returned from the fleshpots of Paris, presumably with the spying Reynaldo still in tow, to “become King”, but that same mob could have called for Hamlet’s more rightful ascension . . . or Fortinbras’ for that matter.)

I agree with James Shapiro, who is more outspoken about this final-soliloquy cut and the “taming of Hamlet” than almost any other biographer or Shakespeare-scholar I’ve encountered, when he wrote:

Changing how we think about Shakespeare’s greatest play means revising how we think about Shakespeare. The Romantic myth of literary genius, which has long promoted an effortless and unfathomable Shakespeare, cannot easily accommodate a model of a Shakespeare whose greatness was a product of labor as much as talent. The humbler portrait of Shakespeare presented here is of a writer who knew himself, knew his audience, and knew what worked. When Shakespeare saw that he had to wrest his play from where Hamlet had led him, he did so unflinchingly. He didn’t write Hamlet to please himself. If he had, he would have rested content with the more complicated hero of his first draft. Only an extraordinary writer of the first order could have produced that first draft; and only a greater writer than that could have sacrificed part of that creation to better show “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III, 2., 23-24).

But we should note that Shakespeare still had not whittled the character of Hamlet down to revenge-tragedy-melodrama size. Indeed, Hamlet does not return from his sea voyage -- (which had more action than anywhere in the rest of the play – the sneaking into Rosenkrantz’s and Guildenstern’s room to read his own execution order to the English king, then to rewrite it (condemning the hapless R & G) and close it with the “official seal” from his royal signet ring), then an attack by pirates and his escape back to Denmark . . . all offstage and merely related to Horatio in a throwaway sentence or two) – bloody minded or with a revenge-plan in mind. Actually, as Harold Bloom likes to note, the Hamlet who returns in Act V, the final act, is somehow a much older and wiser (and more Stoical) man than the impulsive boy-man who’s been feigning madness for most of the last four acts.

It’s telling that Will S. waits for Hamlet to shuck off his antic behavior (essentially serving as the play’s Clown) before he, Shakespeare, introduces Robert Armin as the comic-relief Grave Digger. The scene in the graveyard – almost everyone knows the phrase “Alas, poor Yorick . . .” even if they have never seen the play and have no clue as to who the character was – covers almost every dramatical emotional high and low imaginable, but the Hamlet in that scene (and in all the remaining scenes in Act V and the play) is not the Hamlet we’ve known before. Even though his confrontation with Laertes near (not in the grave, I’m convinced, despite stage directions added long after the fact) poor Ophelia’s grave is rousing (it’s the first time Hamlet refers to himself as “Hamlet the Dane”, i..e. the true King and scion of Denmark) he’s obviously come to peace with . . . something.

Didn’t Hamlet know that if he returned to Elsinore and Denmark that his days were numbered? Claudius, knowing that his have-the-English-King-hang-Hamlet plot had unraveled, will keep planning ways to kill Hamlet at home.  In the end he has Laertes using a poisoned rapier even while he, Claudius, poisons Hamlet’s cup of wine – taking no chances and doubling an event again. Hamlet must have known, when he had the pirates return him to Denmark (rather than, say, Bermuda), that it will be just a matter of time until Claudius succeeds in killing him.

So why does this “New and Stoical Hamlet” give us a passage such as this when Horatio, who knows that the “friendly fencing” duel set with Laertes is a murderous plot, somehow, and warns his friend to avoid it:

Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes. Let be.
(V.ii.  215-220)

Christian critics who want Hamlet somehow to be a “Christian play” – it’s not – seize on the New Testament sparrow reference as a sign of Hamlet’s new piety. It’s not. But it is almost blasphemously audacious of Will S. to allow Hamlet to “adopt the accents of Jesus”.

So if Hamlet is not accepting “God’s will” here, which he’s not, what is he accepting and describing to Horatio? Many critics over the centuries go back to the “To be or not to be . . .” soliloquy --  (of which Harold Bloom always warns his students and readers “This is NOT to be read as a meditation on suicide”) – and see it as Hamlet finally coming to terms with Death itself. (Freud called this final acceptance that one will inevitably die “the Reality Principle.”) But if Hamlet has done one thing successfully in the play that bears his name, it is that he creates his own reality – both for himself and others.

But Hamlet, knowing that he’s doomed in Denmark (where all things, save his friend Horatio, are truly rotten), still – in his absence from us between Acts IV and V – found his own resolution. Of something. (Perhaps just a resolution of his own moral and motivational impasse – i.e. don’t seek ways to kill the King; just let Claudius come to him with his plots and poisons.) Or perhaps Hamlet is just weary of all his alternate-reality creating – an exercise known as drama.

Either way, I agree with Bloom’s final words on the strange agedness and calmness of Hamlet in Act V -- “ For Hamlet himself, death is not tragic, but an apotheosis.”

But we still have to wonder – for a Renaissance Man who no longer believes in resurrection in any spiritual or physical sense – what kind of apotheosis?

We’ll never know. Shakespeare had cut the Act IV soliloquy and returned his character to the cramped quarters of a traditional revenge-play, but he will not follow any revenge-play formula in this final act. Hamlet is saying to Horatio that his imminent annihilation doesn’t matter – “Let be” – because we all will know nothing about anything (or anyone) we leave behind when Death claims us.

Whatever Hamlet’s apotheosis truly is – and more than four centuries of theater-goers, readers, and now movie-viewers have felt the reality of that Act V apotheosis – it is beyond our ken. But not beyond Hamlet’s.

XI. Final Thoughts on the Way Home:

The play’s over. You and some fellow theater-lovers are walking the foul streets of the Liberty of the Clink back to the river where you’ll hire one of the scores of boatmen waiting there to ferry playgoing folks back over to London.

After a silence, the comments and questions from your fellow Globe spectators come quickly:

One of your fellow walkers ask why a play set in Denmark has all these Latin-Italian sounding character names – Marcellus, Claudius, Reynaldo, Horatio, and so forth. Don’t sound too Danish to me, he says.

You’re tempted to say Well, Polonius’s two children – Laertes and Ophelia – had Greek names. But you stay silent.

Another walker answers the first: Ever since that Machiavel fellow, the groundlings think that any play with Italian-sounding names in it is going to be full of intrigue, assassinations, and sex. It’s just a way to get paying customers in the door, Ned.

One friend is of the opinion that the story made no sense – presaging T.E. Eliot’s criticism that Hamlet was an “artistic failure” because Shakespeare tried to do too much with too little. Another person walking near you opines that it wasn’t really a tragedy since Hamlet himself behaved in a beastly manner – toward Ophelia, toward Polonius, toward Laertes, toward his mother, toward poor Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern – toward almost everyone except for his friend Horatio. This argument will be repeated by Tolstoy almost three centuries hence.

Another person walking near you “liked the play, overall” but thought that it failed because Hamlet himself failed in getting his revenge, until accidentally forced to do so by Claudius’ double-poison villainy. In other words, Hamlet “was no hero”. Goethe will hold similar views in two centuries and a bit more.

You remain silent and listen as the criticisms and critical questions flow more freely.

Well, this version of a Hamlet was a clever fellow, for all his antics, says another walker. I don’t think I flatter myself if I point out that I smack a bit of Hamlet myself. Samuel Coleridge will use this same phrase centuries from now – and many ponderous (and future) critics will say something to the effect that Hamlet represents all of us – but you already know that the future critics are wrong. Almost no one then or in the future will ‘share’ Hamlet’s quickness of wit, total mastery of language, and quickly (and frighteningly) expanding consciousness and self-awareness. You sense that your fellow walker’s a fool and that we do flatter ourselves if we compare ourselves to Hamlet in any way.

Why on earth had Hamlet continued feigning madness, presses another walker – that “manic behavior” commented on by every other important character in the play, which went on from Act I almost to the end of Act IV? In the original Amleth/Feng tale, your fellow points out, the hero’s faked insanity kept him from being executed by the usurper-King as a potential avenger of his father’s murder. But in this Hamlet, the prince – not the king – should have been the stalker (indeed, Claudius didn’t walk around the palace surrounded by guards – Hamlet had a hundred opportunities just to run him through, as he did Polonius, and have done with it). The feigning-madness plot, your fellow walker says, makes no sense. It would only serve to increase the King’s suspicions, which it had, and make him try to kill Hamlet sooner, which it did.

Besides, hadn’t Claudius in his opening “auspicious and drooping eye” speech proclaimed Hamlet as the heir to his, Claudius’s, throne in the first place? Hamlet could just have waited and revealed the truth of Claudius and his mother’s perfidy after he had ascended peacefully and legally to the kingship. It was just a matter of time.

But justice would not have been served then, you think.


It’s after 6 p.m. according to the city clocks and criers. Starting at three, even this pared-down version of Shakespeare has taken three full hours to perform. The sun is still above the horizon and the early-evening autumn light is warm and rich. You realize that you;d half-expected to walk out into Danish darkness and cold when you left the Globe Theater, so immersed had you been in the doings on stage. But there’s the slightest crisp-cut of autumn in the air this evening. You’re hungry. You want to get home. After supper, you want to sit in your small private room, replete with several books, and stare into a fire and just think more about the . . . strange . . . play you’ve just seen.

Why did Hamlet advise, with his dying breath, that Fortinbras’, invading with his troops, be given the vacated-due-to-multiple-deaths kingship of Denmark, asks one of your fellows.

So that there would be a bloody royal line to bloody continue there, answers another as several of you pile into a rented boat and several more are in the boat being rowed nearby. The river smells . . . well, the way it always smells. A Londoner, you hardly notice the stench.

What happened to the Ghost? asks another man in the group. He . . . it . . . seemed so important at the beginning of the play, yet even by the end of Act One you hear Hamlet joking to the others – “You hear this fellow in the cellarage” – as if acknowledging that the Ghost’s voice was just that of Will Shakespeare shouting up from the real “cellarage”, that low space beneath the stage. Plus, he got a laugh from the groundlings in that first soliloquy by describing Death as the country from which no traveler returns . . . just hours after seeing his father’s ghost. I don’t get it.

You want to answer something to the effect that – There was soon no need for the Ghost after Act I, save to remind Hamlet of his mother’s disloyalty to his father in her chamber in Act IV. This is a new kind of play. One that goes beyond real ghosts. You want to say something like that, but you don’t. You haven’t got it all thought through and sorted out yet.

You’re approaching the docks on the London side of the river. The noise of the multitudes – this is the largest city in the world, after all – surging through the narrow, crooked lanes of the City are a familiar welcome background noise to you.

Just before stepping out of the boat, one of your fellow theater-goers says, “It’s almost as if Will Shakespeare didn’t revise this play at all. He’s getting sloppy in his old age.”

Here you do speak. With a smile (the origins of which are a mystery even to yourself),  you say, “Oh, I think he took time to revise and rewrite it, all right.”

Almost two and a half decades later, when you are old, you will read Ben Jonson’s short poem in the front of what will be called the First Folio (it was a pricely purchase, and one you certainly couldn’t have made back in 1601!). In the poem, Jonson’s directly addressing his dead friend Will Shakespeare even while putting the lie to the “hundreds of lines without ever requiring a blot” myth already building around Will S.’s name:

 . . . . . . . . .  he
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses’ anvil; turn the same,
(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame;
Or for the laurel he may gain scorn,
For a good poet’s made as well as born.
And such were thou.



Note: I’ve taken notes from scores of Shakespeare biographers, critics, and scholars – too many to list and thank here without creating a bibliography as long as this “essay unlimited”, but here are the final books piled on my desk by my computer as I finish this today:

Hamlet: The Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, edited by A.R. Braunuller, Penguin Books © 1957
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom © 1998
Hamlet: Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom, © 2003
Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess,  ©1970
Soul of The Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate © 2009
Prefaces to Shakespeare by Tony Tanner ©1992-1996
Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber ©2004
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – 1599 by James Shapiro ©2005
Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd © 2005
Shakespeare’s Language by Frank Kermode © 2000
Shakespeare – The Thinker by A.D. Nuttall © 2007
Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt © 2004

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