Literary sources for this seminal play include Thomas Kyd’s (1558-94). Ur-Hamlet (c. 1589) and Francois de Belleforest’s (1530-83). Histories Tragiques Book 5 (1570). Presumed to have been written from 1600-01 and registered a year later on the26th July, 1602. Further editions are in 1603 (Q1), 1604 (Q2), 1611(Q3), and in the First Folio published in 1623(F1). Charlton Ogburn suggests that the play was probably written during the trial or soon after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586) as the Earl of Oxford served on the tribunal. Portia likewise “pleads for mercy” in the Merchant of Venice. Similarly, Thomas Nashe refers in an Epistle to Robert Greene’s Menaphon to “whole hamlets of tragical speeches” suggesting that Hamlet had already been written and performed by 1589 (Cairncross). Also significant in terms of authorship is that the Earl of Oxford’s brother-in-law, Peregrine Bertie was posted abroad in Denmark and would easily have supplied the playwright with the source material for the play. Hamlet was derived from an earlier lost Elizabethan play by Thomas Kydd (1558-94), a close friend of the playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe who used the Ur-Hamlet by the playwright Thomas Kyd that was inspired by a 12th century source Historiae Danicae (Saxo Grammaticus). This is largely a mixture of folklore and history but refers to an earlier Indo-European myth of a galactic or heavenly mill that churns the heavens (Milky Way). The mythical character of Hamlet is none other than Amlodhi or Amleth, a hero of Icelandic origin who with the assistance of two giantesses (Fenja & Menja), turned the mill of celestial time that inadvertently transformed into a maelstrom of devastation and then sank back into the bottom of the sea. The Greek myth concerning the “Madness of Orestes” may have also been a good source or permeating theme, although it is Ophelia who is also consumed by a “natural madness” inspired by Hamlet’s personal trauma of rejection. An earlier play presumed to be the work of the Earl of Oxford entitled “Horestes” published in 1567 by John Pickering is currently being examined as a proto-Hamlet. The brother-in-law of Edward de Vere, Peregrine Bertie (Lord Willoughby) was the ambassador to Federick II of Denmark in 1582 and compiled a report on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. Academic researchers attempting to validate the Oxfordian argument suggest the Earl of Oxford may have had access to such a report. There are startling similarities between the character Polonius and the Danish ambassador Henrick Ramel, mentioned in Holinshed’s Chronicles. However, Hamlet is partly inspired by the subject in England of the succession to the throne in the period when Queen Elizabeth neared the end of her reign, sometime around 1600. It appeared when revenge plays were all the fashion and as a performance in 1601 with the revised manuscripts being printed successively 1602-1603 and illustrates how revenge for an injustice can best be secured. In this sense the playwright explores the potentiality of drama to reveal a hidden truth. Retrospectively it is also considered to be, at least by literary academics, the most authentic autobiographical play that William Shakespeare has ever produced running to a colossal 3,965 lines in its popular abridged form produced for the stage. The director’s cut of Hamlet, produced by Maurice Evans in 1938, which is the entire un-cut script re-assembled, ran to some 5 hours on stage and received rapturous applause from an astounded audience. This being a far longer performance than an Elizabethan audience would have tolerated let alone a contemporary one. In this play therefore we may detect something quite personal and insightful about Shakespeare, the man plagued by all manner of philosophical dilemmas, immoral spectres and in some sense thwarted spiritual aspirations.
Shakespeare’s characters often struggle to understand the mechanics of fate and the role of man in forging his own destiny, despite their shortcomings. In the tragedy Hamlet for example, the young Danish Prince learns through the ghost of his recently departed father that the King died an untimely death, was then poisoned by his brother, Claudius who sought not only his throne but also to procure the pleasures and kingdom of his widowed wife, Queen Gertrude. It reads almost like a fairy tale. His father’s spirit commands:
“If thou didst ever thy father love, Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!”
Hamlet recognises that he is ultimately duty bound, that suicide would only deny his ultimate destiny, however loathsome but like Oedipus in Greek mythology, he laments his fate and peculiar destiny. The circumstances of his own lifetime, he begins to muse, seems somewhat out of kilter:-
“O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!”
The Harbinger of Doom
Denmark is currently threatened by Fortinbras, the King of Norway whose father was tragically killed by King Hamlet, the late King. Act I opens with the ghost of Hamlet, the late-departed King of Denmark, being witnessed by the guards on watch, they are joined by Horatio, an old friend of the Prince, who fears this is an ill-omen. Prince Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude has remarried to Claudius and Horatio later decides to inform Prince Hamlet of the previous nights events. Claudius meanwhile sends emissaries to Fortinbras and his official Laertes to France and then denies the Prince the opportunity to return to his studies in Germany at Wittenburg University. Still grieving over his father’s death and still more anxious regarding his fate, Hamlet expresses his remorse that his mother decided to remarry so soon after his the demise of his father. There follows a soliloquy which is followed by Horatio’s entrance with news of the “ghost’s activities” on the battlements. Then, Laertes taking leave of his sister, Ophelia, warns her against Hamlet’s professed love and affection for her. His father Polonius similarly instructs her to reject Prince Hamlet’s advances and forbids any correspondence or meetings with him. That night hamlet goes on watch to the battlements and encounters the ghost, who informs him that his fate being sealed and it is only a matter of time before he is poisoned by Polonius. The ghost then calls upon him to revenge the lustful acquisition of the Queen, the throne of Denmark and his own neglect by killing Polonius and assuming the throne.
In Act II we witness the villainous behaviour of Polonius as he sends a spy, Reynaldo to watch over his son’s activities in France. Then Hamlet appears before Ophelia in an obvious state of distress or madness which she fearfully reports to Polonius who thinks the lad’s wits are about to leave him. He then welcomes two of Hamlets old friends, Rosencratz and Guildernstern in the hope that they might restore his sanity or give some explanation with respect to his unusual transformation. News arrives from the King’s emissaries that Fortinbras is now restrained and seeks permission to pass through Denmark in order to invade Poland. This is granted and the King soon discovers from Hamlets school buddies that his “madness” has been brought on by Ophelia’s refusal to marry him. The King goes forthwith to see Hamlet and is treated with rudeness and contempt, and then he condemns his friends for acting on the Kings behalf.
A troop of wandering players, known to Hamlet arrive at the court who he encourages with a dramatic rendition of his own regarding the murder of King Priam by Pyrrhus and then asks them to perform “The Murder of Gonzago” the following evening. Hamlet hopes that the performance of this play will expose his uncle, King Claudius who he suspects had a hand in deposing his father. In Act III we find Claudius and Polonius in hiding awaiting the arrival of Hamlet to Ophelia’s rooms, where he gives his most notable soliloquy “To be, or not to be….”. The King realises that Ophelia’s refusal of Hamlet is not at all the cause of his madness but fails to identify what exactly ails the young Prince. The King then decides to send the Prince to England, and then instructs Polonius to give Gertrude an opportunity to find out why, and on what matter he is torturing himself. Meanwhile, busily instructing the actors for the ensuing performance, Hamlet meets with Horatio and instructs him to watch the King’s reactions to the play. The play, which mimics in its entirety the unfortunate circumstances of the death of Hamlet’s father, is then performed and when the King is shown being poisoned by his brother, Polonius immediately stops the action and the Royal retinue leaves in haste. Hamlet then realises that the ghosts’ revelations were true and going to his mother’s apartments finds the King kneeling in prayer and asking forgiveness. To this he draws his sword as if to kill the King, but hearing his mother scream he turns, she points behind her to the arras and Hamlet plunges his sword through it thinking his arch foe is there. Unfortunately, he kills Polonius concealed there in an attempt to discover what the King’s next plans were. Hamlet is placed under house arrest and forthwith sent to England, while on the way he meets Fortinbras advancing troops. He realises that all has been in vain and that he will meet his fate at the hands of an assassin most likely when he arrives in England. Meanwhile at Elsinore Princess Ophelia has also lapsed into her own madness and Laertes returns from France and after hearing of his father’s murder makes claims with an armed rebellion to the throne.
Time passes, then news arrives of Hamlet’s return from England and Claudius, along with Laertes plans his murder which should be contrived as accidental death. Laertes plans to use a practice sword, dipped with poison and challenge Hamlet to a friendly sword-fencing competition. The final act brings Hamlet, along with Horatio into the vicinity of a graveyard where, unknown to the Prince, a grave is being dug for Ophelia. In jest they discuss death and Hamlet seizes one of the upturned skulls “Alas, poor Yurick, I knew him well” when suddenly the funeral procession arrives and overcome with grief at the sight Hamlet has a scuffle with Ophelia’s brother. They both retire to the castle where Hamlet makes Horatio aware of the plot of Laertes to dispose of him which he hopes will instead result in the death of his fair-weather friends/betrayers Rosencratz and Guildernstern. Finally the Royal party enters and the sword fight begins, the intrigue begins to unfold with disastrous consequences. During a break in the action, Hamlet’s cup is deliberately poisoned by the King which he knowingly declines to drink. However, his mother, the Queen then takes it instead. The fight continues with both Laertes and Hamlet receiving minor wounds. As soon as the Queen calls out sensing her cup has been poisoned Hamlet rushes headlong and kills the King, Laertes then begs Hamlet’s forgiveness before he tragically dies and then Horatio threatens to commit suicide. However, Hamlet restrains him and when hearing of the return of Fortinbras instructs him to accede to him as the new King of Denmark. Hamlet then dies leaving the kingdom under a new ruler and hopefully a new epoch.
|The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:|