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Hamlet, the Last Comedy and a Lucky Escape
Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s greatest play. It is certainly the most famous. But today’s Hamlets are usually very different from each other and from the one that Shakespeare wrote about in 1600.
Goethe began this fashion 200 years ago. He said that Hamlet was a gentle young man, unable to obey his father’s command that he must revenge his murder. After that, it was easy to imagine that he was a man who could not make up his mind. But to some modern writers Hamlet is cruel and violent and not really the hero. Others have suggested that Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is the most important point in the play. It is also often difficult today to know whether the actor thinks that Hamlet is really mad or is only pretending to be.
Shakespeare had seen a play about Hamlet when he first came to London, probably written by Thomas Kyd. We only know that Kyd’s play had a ghost who called for revenge. But there was probably a scene like the one where the actors act the murder of Hamlet’s father, proving that Claudius is guilty. Kyd had a scene like this in The Spanish Tragedy. Shakespeare had also read the story in a translation from the French, and had studied a medical book. He had to show the difference between someone who really goes mad, like Ophelia, and someone like Hamlet who has suffered a shock but at times pretends to be mad to trick his enemies.
Here are a few short answers to the problems that modern directors have with Hamlet. Officially, Protestants like Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, did not believe in ghosts for religious reasons. So when the Ghost first appears, Horatio is sure that it is the Devil. Hamlet thinks that it may be the Devil, so he has to wait until he can prove that the King is guilty before taking his revenge. He sees his opportunity, halfway through the play, when he asks the actors to perform a play with a scene like his father’s murder. But even then, only he and Horatio understand why the King is shocked. If they have not read the story, the audience do not know if the Ghost is the Devil, either, until just before that scene. After that, Hamlet acts immediately, but by mistake kills the minister - Polonius, Ophelia’s father - instead of the King. He does not have another opportunity until the end of the play.
Polonius’s death is the cause of the tragedy. Ophelia goes mad and her brother, Laertes, when he returns from France, is in the same situation as Hamlet. The King blames Hamlet, and Laertes wants revenge. He is more typical of an Elizabethan gentleman than Hamlet. He does not stop to find out if the Kings story is true. He says that he will cut Hamlet’s throat in the church.
The Elizabethan audience shared Hamlets view of his mothers marriage to his uncle. For them, this was the same as a man marrying his sister. So when the King, pretending that he is Hamlet’s friend, calls him ‘my cousin [relative] and my son’, Hamlet turns away from him. He tells the audience that the King is closer than a relative but less than natural.
Elizabethan audiences were never in doubt about Hamlet’s madness. Shakespeare used different forms of language for his speeches. These showed clearly when he was shocked by his father’s death and his mother’s marriage and when he was pretending.
Most audiences admire Hamlet. But it is true that he changes during the play. We admire the Hamlet that we see at the end. Then he speaks calmly to Horatio, saying that the opportunity to revenge his father will come in time, and he will be ready. We should also recognize that the tradition in revenge plays is similar to the tradition in a Western film. The villain had to be the cause of his own death. In the same way, the bad man in a Western always reaches for his gun first, before the hero shoots him. If the hero shot first, we would not like it.
Shakespeare gives us his idea of Hamlet in the words of Ophelia. When she thinks that he is mad, she speaks of him as he was before the play began and as he is again at the end. He is the perfect Elizabethan prince, a man who knows how to behave in society, who reads books to increase his knowledge of the world, and who will fight bravely when this is necessary.
At this time, Shakespeare also wrote Twelfth Night, his last romantic comedy. It is a fine play, with wonderfully funny scenes and beautiful romantic speeches. But there is a kind of sadness about it that lasts even after the happy ending. Orsino, the hero, is in love with the idea of love, but Viola, the heroine, is really in love. She acts as Orsino’s servant for most of the play, dressed as a boy. In the end, we feel that he does not really deserve her.
At the end of Twelfth Night Feste, one of the main comic characters in the play, sings a song. Will Kempe had left the company and a different actor, Robert Armin, who could sing well, had taken his place. Shakespeare wrote the comic parts in his plays to suit him. The meaning of Feste’s song is not clear, but it may be about an actor’s life. It is a hard life. The wind blows and the rain falls every day. When Feste sings about men shutting their gates against thieves, we remember that councils disliked actors and wanted to shut them out. But at the end of the song, Feste tells the audience that they will try to please them every day.
John Manningham, a law student, kept a diary. Law students in London were fond of plays and could afford to pay the actors to put on special performances for them. Manningham saw Twelfth Night in February 1602, and the next month he wrote down a story that he had heard about Burbage and Shakespeare. Burbage had seen a good-looking woman in the audience, and arranged to meet her. But Shakespeare had heard the conversation, and when Burbage knocked on her door, Shakespeare was already making love to her. Her servant gave Burbage a message from Shakespeare, saying ‘William I (the first King of England) came before Richard III (Burbages most famous part).’
The story is almost certainly not true. It is the kind of joke that students invent about famous people. But it shows that by this time they thought of Burbage and Shakespeare as stars. Although Shakespeare did not act the hero or the villain in his plays, people knew that he was one of the main reasons for his company’s success. Students at Cambridge University had written a comedy about actors a year or two before this, and in that play the characters were Burbage, Kempe and Shakespeare.
Between writing Hamlet and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare had had a lucky escape. His company had always supported the Earl of Essex, who was popular with the ordinary people, and the Earl of Southampton was Essex’s closest friend. Essex had been a favourite at court for many years. Although he had annoyed the Queen and the government on several occasions, they gave him the command of the army when the Irish rebelled in 1599. Shakespeare included a speech in Henry V, comparing him to the hero of that play. But Essex failed. He was ordered to stay at home and keep away from the court.
Early in February 1601, one of his friends asked Shakespeare’s company to perform Richard II, a play in which the King loses the throne. Essex and his friends wanted to see it before they rode to the Queen’s palace. The actors agreed, but the next day Essex failed to get any popular support. He was sent to prison and executed a few days later. Southampton was lucky to escape with his life but stayed in prison until the Queen died in 1603.
Augustine Phillips, one of the actors, defended his friends at the trial. He said that they had only acted Richard II because they were offered more money. It is unlikely that the Queen believed him. She told one of the lords at court, ‘I am Richard II. You know that, don’t you?’ But she did not punish the actors or the man who had written the play. Perhaps she was so fond of plays that she did not want to lose the best actors in the country. Instead, she warned them of the danger. They were ordered to perform at court on the night before Essex was executed.
Troilus and Cressida was the last play that Shakespeare wrote during the old queen’s reign. It is a clever, cruel play, popular then and now with young people, and was probably first performed for the law students in London. The traditional characters, Hector and Troilus, have simple beliefs about love and war. But in the real world, Shakespeare suggests, neither love nor war is fair. In the end, people win by using force. Achilles murders Hector, and Cressida accepts Diomedes as her lover because she has never believed that love can last. The play is typical of attitudes in the last year of the old queen’s reign. People looked back at the past sadly and were not confident about the future.
Towards the end of 1601, John Shakespeare died. He had lived long enough to see his son become the most successful man in Stratford. He left his two houses to William. Joan, William’s sister, lived in one with her husband, and a man and his wife rented the other as a pub.
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