What Makes Shakespeare’s Hamlet Popular?

The Enduring Popularity of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Why is Hamlet so popular? Shakespeare wrote countless masterpieces, many of which are debatably more exciting (The Tempest), momentous (Macbeth), intriguing (Othello), romantic (Romeo and Juliet) and profound (King Lear). But not only has Hamlet been produced more by the Royal Shakespeare company than any other work, it is a favourite of troupes (and audiences) around the world. From the play’s inception in 1602, up until the National Theatre’s acclaimed production in 2000 (and beyond), Hamlet has captured the imagination. A close examination of the play, along with a careful focus on its themes, will shed some light on Hamlet’s 400 year old enthrall, with a special emphasis on its relevance to a modern British audience.

Hamlet is a tale of revenge, murder and existential and spiritual angst. The title character is a young prince whose father, the King of Denmark, has unexpectedly passed away. His brother, Claudius, has inherited the throne and taken the former king’s wife as his own. Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost, who informs him that he was murdered by Claudius, and that his death needs to be avenged. Instead of instantly doing so, Hamlet attempts to first confirm his uncle’s guilt by feigning madness, and later by staging a play of the murder, to which Claudius’ reaction essentially confirms his guilt. But even with the evidence in hand, Hamlet is still unable to enact his revenge. After accidentally killing the king’s councilor Polonius, he is deported to England, and upon his return enters into a duel with Polonius’ son, Laertes. However, the fight is a setup; Laertes’s blade is poisoned, as is the wine in a goblet from which Hamlet is to drink. While Hamlet wins the duel and ends up killing Claudius, he too succumbs to the poison and dies.

In the play, Hamlet is by far the major presence: his problem is central to the plot, and his public and private exultations and speculations dominate the action (Hoy, 1991). Furthermore, the role of Hamlet is far larger than any other in all of Shakespeare’s works. While the play is filled with ambiguities, the biggest of all have to do with Hamlet’s motivations and actions (Levin, 1959). There is always more to him than the other characters in the play can figure out. Part of this has to do with the way Shakespeare crafted him – his intense pensiveness, his uncertainness, the vagaries of his actions – but part of it is Hamlet himself, who actually tells other characters that there is more to him than meets the eye, notably his mother and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In addition, when he speaks, he sounds as if there’s something important he’s not saying, maybe something even he is not aware of (Hoy, 1991).

What separates Hamlet from other revenge plays is that the action we expect to see is continually postponed (Wilson, 1951). Instead of being based on activity, the play is all about character, and really only the character of Hamlet. Many people regard Hamlet as a play about indecisiveness, but more than this, it can be seen as an examination of action itself; that is, the conditions necessary for such, and the appropriate amount required, depending on the circumstances. The question of how to act is affected not only by Hamlet’s need for certainty, but by emotional and psychological factors (Halliday, 1964). Hamlet himself appears to distrust the idea that it’s even possible to act in a controlled, rational way. For when he does act, he does so swiftly and recklessly. This extreme shift from paralysis to impulsiveness further adds to his enigmatic nature.

Without action to sustain the play, the plot instead revolves around Hamlet contemplating various questions, among them: Is the ghost what it appears to be, or is it really trying to deceive him? How can the facts about a crime be known without there being any witnesses? Can Hamlet know the intricacies of Claudius’s soul by studying his behaviour? Can we ever really know whether our actions will have the consequences we want them to have? Can we know what happens in the afterlife? (Levin, 1959).

This last question is one of the most powerful throughout the play. There are times when Hamlet seems to feel that death itself may bring the answers to his deepest concerns (Wilson, 1951). The question of his own death plagues him, and he more than once contemplates whether or not suicide is a legitimate choice in an unbearably painful world. Hamlet’s grief is such that he frequently longs for death to end his suffering, but worries that if he commits suicide, he will be suffer eternally in hell. In his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet concludes that no one would choose to endure the pain of life if they were not afraid of what will come after death, and that it is this fear which causes morality to interfere with action (Levin, 1959).

In sum, Hamlet, is ambiguous, vague and mysterious, uncertain, indecisive and pensive, self-loathing and self-reflexive, simultaneously afraid to live and afraid to die. Is it any wonder then that people can relate to him? People enjoy Hamlet because he evokes their sympathy. His character is flesh and blood. He doesn’t just act; he thinks, he questions, he feels. Hamlet is extremely philosophical and contemplative, and takes the time to analyze difficult questions that cannot be answered with any certainty. His melancholy is in many ways endearing. Though his actual age is debatable, in essence he is the quintessential teenager, afraid to grow up and take on burdens and responsibility he knows he must and yet is not ready for. His urgency is contagious. Beyond this, there are the questions he deals with, primarily those of death and the afterlife, that haunt us all. It is extremely rare to not only hear such questions so well articulated, but to hear them articulated at all. These conversations are largely relegated to our own heads. They are intimate and personal, and are seldom expressed. To see them on stage is to bear witness to our own souls.

But this only explains why the character of Hamlet is so popular. Though he dominates the course of the action (or lack thereof), there is another reason why the play itself has been so successful and so resonant, which has to do with the famous line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Hamlet, I, iv, 90). Everything is related in Hamlet, including the health of the ruling royal family and that of the nation as a whole (Hoy, 1991). Throughout the play, there are explicit connections drawn between the two. Denmark is often described as a physical body made ill by the moral corruption of Claudius. While the dead King Hamlet is portrayed as a strong, noble ruler under whose guard the state was in good health, Claudius, is regarded as wicked, corrupt and out to satisfy only his own appetites (Wilson, 1951). Throughout history, similar correlations have been made, from Stalin and Hitler to Blair and Bush. While the latter pair are perhaps far less sinister, their political decisions have similarly shaped the perceptions of the citizens of the nations they lead, as well as the perceptions of those on the outside. Our leaders are responsible for the overall “health” of the state, and the war in Iraq and other actions are doing little at the moment to paint a picture of good health. Close observers of Hamlet, no matter of what time period, sense this parallel instantly.

Modern society, specifically the UK, is still in Hamlet’s thrall. In today’s world, with so many problems and too few solutions, it is easy to feel powerless and paralyzed. There are choices to be made, and actions to take, but 1) which ones should be carried out and 2) will they even do any good? The modern person is at a crossroads, and in some ways Hamlet personifies this better than anyone else. Throw in the play’s description of the state as being deceased, and the work comes across almost as the poster child for modern malaise. This is evidenced in the 2000 production by the National Theatre, which is only one of many recent and successful incarnations of the play. The title role was played by Russell Beale, who prepared for the part by looking into himself in an attempt to bring out the “everyman quality” of Hamlet, along with his intense self-reflection and (albeit feigned) madness. To do justice to Shakespeare’s words, in this case gravitating between wit, wryness and self-reflection, Beale decided not to force emotion, but to instead “get there slowly, to get the emotional arc right, and not find too many moments of crisis” (Beale, 2000). The actor, in perhaps a bit of method, decided to try and capture Hamlet’s grief by using his own, in this case the fact that his mother died a few weeks before the performance. He also used his frustration over “not being able to feel enough” to further cement and perfect his interpretation (Beale, 2000). By all accounts he didn’t disappoint.

The Independent declared Beale’s Hamlet “not at all ‘Hamlet-like,’ and his performance “moving and crystal clear,” characterized by “an aching regret for the world that might have been rather than a seething contempt for the world that exists” (Taylor, 2000). When Hamlet returned from England, the reviewer found him emanating a “shyly gracious acceptance of the mystery of life and fate,” and in dying “moved towards the audience as if painfully and belatedly conscious of their presence, imparting an even more shattering sense of the waste of a noble life” (Taylor, 2000).

The Evening Standard wrote that the performances illuminated the text in ways that made it fresh and accessible, and Beale’s performance of “clarity, humanity and humility held the audience spellbound…they could only suffer with his confusion, grief self-loathing and doubt” (de Jongh, 2000).

The Guardian complimented Beale for being “everything one could hope for: witty, ironic, intelligent, ‘a Henry James who is also a swordsman’ to borrow Harold Bloom’s phrase,” and: “bookish, inward, reflective and intensely capable of self-scrutiny” (Billington, 2000). Furthermore, the paper admired his “capacity for surprise, moral sensitivity and parodic wit” and his ability to convey “the paralysis of the intellectual caught up in a world of realpolitik,” resulting in a “first-rate, deeply intellectual Hamlet whose weapons are primarily verbal and who understands that revenge cannot offer meaningful redress” (Billington, 2000).

In the National Theatre’s production, along with countless others over four centuries, a central theme is constantly repeated: Hamlet’s self-loathing, specifically in regards to his lack of feeling, which, as much as his lack of action, makes him guilty. This aspect of his character is perhaps more relevant today than ever. The theme of powerlessness, along with the tangible frustration and guilt that comes with it, can easily find a home in the mind of a modern audience member. In addition, Hamlet’s intensely relatable “human all too human” qualities, his probing thoughts on the afterlife and the theme of the “nation as diseased body” are so universal and timeless that they shed much light on the play’s appeal. Perhaps there will come by a day when Hamlet fails to strike a chord with audiences. But for now, Shakespeare’s masterful creation and revolutionary character study is safely ingrained in our consciousness.

Bibliography

Beale, Russell. “The Readiness is All.” National Theatre, 2000. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/?lid=2485

Billington, Michael. The Guardian, September 6, 2000.

Crystal, David, and Crystal, Ben. The Shakespeare Miscellany. Penguin: New York, 2005.

de Jongh, Nicholas. The Evening Standard, September 6, 2000.

Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964. New York: Penguin, 1964.

Hoy, Cyrus. Hamlet: An Authoritative Text, Intellectual Backgrounds, Extracts from the Sources, Essays in Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1991.

Levin, Harry. The Question of Hamlet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Braunmuller, A.R., Orgel, Stephen (Eds.). New York: Penguin Classics, 2001.

Taylor, Paul. The Independent, September 6, 2000.

Wilson, John. What Happens in Hamlet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1951.

Bill Carlson

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