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ClassicsOnline Home » SHAKESPEARE, W.: Hamlet Prince of Denmark (Unabridged)
Hamlet, which dates from 1600–1601, is the first in Shakespeare’s great series of four tragedies, the others being Othello (1603), King Lear (1605) and Macbeth (1606). In writing this extraordinary play, Shakespeare effectively reinvented tragedy after an interval of roughly two thousand years—we have to go back to the Greek dramatists of fifth-century Athens to find anything of comparable depth and maturity.
Prince of Denmark
Hamlet, which dates from 1600-1601, is the first in
Shakespeare’s great series of four tragedies, the others being Othello (1603),
King Lear (1605) and Macbeth (1606). In writing this extraordinary play, Shakespeare
effectively re-invented tragedy after an interval of roughly two thousand years
—we have to go back to the Greek dramatists of 5th century Athens to find
anything of comparable depth and maturity.
Certainly Shakespeare had already dealt with tragic themes
and situations in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, Richard II and Julius Caesar,
but in Hamlet he found himself able to fuse with complete artistic success the
conflicting concerns of the private individual and the public state of which he
is a member, or for which he may indeed be responsible—Hamlet is, after all,
Prince of Denmark. This is a quintessentially Renaissance theme: it is no
longer enough to appeal to an accepted moral or religious system, but instead
each man must find out for himself a moral path through the ‘unweeded garden’
The first known version of the Hamlet story is found in the
12th century Historia Danica by Saxo Grammaticus. Most of the main ingredients
of the story are already present, albeit in primitive form, and some of the
names, too—‘Amlethus ’ for Hamlet. In 1576 Francois de Belleforest retold the
story in his Histoires Tragiques, translated into English in 1608 and hence too
late for Shakespeare to have read—but someone, perhaps Thomas Kyd, came across the
story in the 1580’s and turned it into a play which must have been
Shakespeare’s immediate source, however radically different Shakespeare’s
version turned out to be. We know, incidentally, that the idea of a ghost
seeking revenge comes from this lost play: Thomas Lodge in 1596 writes of the
‘ghost, which cried so miserably at The Theater, like an oyster wife, “Hamlet,
Synopsis of the Play
Act 1, Scene 1: Sentinels at the castle of Elsinore have
seen the ghost
of ‘the king that’s dead’—Hamlet’s father—walking the
ramparts. Horatio, Hamlet’s closest friend, then sees it too, and decides to
tell the Prince.
Act 1, Scene 2: The new king, Claudius—Hamlet’s
uncle—addresses the court. Laertes, son of the king’s chief minister Polonius,
is given leave to return to France. Hamlet bitterly resents his mother’s recent
marriage to Claudius and only reluctantly agrees to stay in Denmark rather than
return to his studies in Wittenberg. Horatio tells Hamlet about his father’s
ghost and they agree to watch for it at midnight.
Act 1, Scene 3: Laertes bids farewell to his sister Ophelia
and warns her to take no notice of the advances Hamlet has been making to her.
Polonius in turn offers some worldly counsel to Laertes, and then reinforces
Laertes’ advice to Ophelia.
Act 1, Scene 4: The ghost beckons Hamlet to follow, which he
Act 1, Scene 5: The ghost tells Hamlet how he was poisoned
by Claudius while he slept, and orders his son to avenge the murder.
Act 2, Scene 1: Polonius sets Reynaldo to spy in Paris on
Laertes. Ophelia enters in distress to tell her father that Hamlet has come to
a disturbed state; Polonius decides that Hamlet must be mad
to tell the king.
Act 2, Scene 2: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old friends of
Hamlet, are welcomed by the king, who wishes them to spy on Hamlet to discover
what is upsetting him. News arrives of a peace with Norway. Polonius informs
the king that he believes Hamlet to be mad with unrequited love for his
daughter Ophelia. Hamlet greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but clearly
suspects that they are working for the king. They tell him that a company of
actors are about to arrive at Elsinore; Hamlet then welcomes the players and
conceives the idea of getting them to put on a play at court which will imitate
the events of his father’s murder and thus, he hopes, expose Claudius’ guilt.
Act 3, Scene 1: The king and Polonius eavesdrop on a
conversation between Ophelia and Hamlet in which the former returns to Hamlet
all love-tokens. Hamlet reacts with angry contempt. Claudius is not convinced
either that Hamlet is mad or that he is suffering from unrequited love;
Polonius suggests that the Queen should speak privately with her son to try and
ascertain the cause of his grief.
Act 3, Scene 2: The actors perform the play, as instructed
by Hamlet, and Claudius reacts with violent horror to what he sees. Polonius
asks Hamlet to see his mother in her chamber.
Act 3, Scene 3: The king decides to send Hamlet to England.
Hamlet, on the way to his mother’s room, sees Claudius at prayer and is only
prevented from killing him by the thought that he might have repented and
therefore escapes the damnation he deserves.
Act 3, Scene 4: Polonius, with the Queen’s consent, hides
behind a curtain to overhear the conversation. Hamlet tells his mother that
Claudius is in fact the murderer of her first husband—old Hamlet—and bitterly
reproaches her for what he regards as her treacherous and incestuous behavior
in marrying Claudius. Polonius, fearing for the Queen’s safety, exclaims aloud,
and is stabbed while hiding behind the curtain by Hamlet, who at first believed
him to be the king. The ghost reappears to warn Hamlet to treat his mother
leniently, but not to forget the duty of vengeance. The Queen is remorseful and
promises to help her son.
Act 4, Scene 1: The king confirms Hamlet’s instant exile to
Act 4, Scene 2: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to
discover from Hamlet the whereabouts of Polonius’ body.
Act 4, Scene 3: Hamlet is dismissed to England by Claudius,
who then in soliloquy tells us that Hamlet will be put to death by Denmark’s
Act 4, Scene 4: Hamlet, on his way to exile, sees the
Norwegian army on its way to war and envies them their capacity for decisive
Act 4, Scene 5: Ophelia has been driven mad by the death of
her father at the hand of her lover. Laertes, returning in rage, blames
Act 4, Scene 6: Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet, which
tells him that he has escaped and is on his way back to Elsinore.
Act 4, Scene 7: The king persuades Laertes that Hamlet is
his enemy. News arrives of Hamlet’s return, and Claudius outlines a treacherous
means by which Laertes may avenge his father’s death and sister’s madness. The
Queen then brings more bad news: Ophelia has drowned herself.
Act 5, Scene 1: Hamlet and Horatio come upon two
gravediggers at work. They show him the skull of Yorick, the King’s jester.
Hamlet realizes whose grave is being dug when Ophelia’s funeral procession
comes in sight. Hamlet and Laertes quarrel.
Act 5, Scene 2: Hamlet tells Horatio the story of his
escape, and of how he has sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths.
Osric brings a challenge from Laertes to a fencing bout. Hamlet and Laertes
greet each other courteously and the bout begins. Hamlet having scored two
hits, Laertes takes the poison-tipped foil and wounds Hamlet, but in the
ensuing scuffle the rapiers are exchanged and Laertes, too, is fatally wounded.
Meanwhile, the Queen has drunk of the poisoned chalice reserved for Hamlet but
names Claudius as the villain before she dies. Hamlet stabs the king and forces
him to drink off the rest of the poisoned chalice. Laertes apologizes to Hamlet
and dies. Hamlet names Fortinbras of Norway, whose arrival is imminent, as his
successor, and in turn dies himself.
The above summary of the action conveys little of the
searching poetic intensity or profound characterization of the play, but it
does suggest that Hamlet is a play rich in varied and exciting action. True
though this is, the central enigma of Hamlet in fact rests on a question about
inaction: why is the protagonist so slow to act on the ghost’s clear
instruction? To say that Hamlet’s fatal flaw (in Aristotelian terms) is
‘indecisiveness’ solves nothing: why is he so indecisive? The most convincing
answer to this question, I believe, is that Hamlet’s capacity for decisive
action has been disastrously blunted by the appalling shock to his moral system
administered by his mother’s swift remarriage: even before Hamlet discovers
that his uncle is a murderer, he is in a state of profound depression, his
idealized concept of women utterly destroyed by the blind (and incestuous)
passion his mother seems to feel for the unworthy Claudius. For Hamlet, the
world is like an ‘unweeded garden’ possessed only by ‘things rank and gross in
nature ’; sexuality is now repulsive rather than beautiful, so that even the
innocent Ophelia is corrupted in his eyes —‘frailty, thy name is woman!’ Only when Ophelia is dead and when
Hamlet has had time to come to terms with mortality—witness the gravediggers’
scene — is he able calmly to take the opportunity which providence puts in his
way: ‘the readiness is all.’
What makes Hamlet the memorable play it is, the
quintessential tragedy in many people’s eyes? First there is the complex,
loveable, infuriating character
of Hamlet himself; then there is the extraordinarily
powerful sense of family and generational conflict around which the play is
built, of suffocating emotion clamoring for a release which is only achieved in
the last scene; the play is amazingly rich, too, in variety of tone and
language, ranging from the comic (Polonius being made a fool of by Hamlet) to
the sinister (Claudius offering silver-tongued friendship to the appalled hero)
to the sublime (the great series of soliloquies given to Hamlet). How
wonderfully, too, Shakespeare is able to combine the comic with the tragic or
profound: the gravediggers jest about death, yet when Hamlet confronts the
skull of his old friend Yorick the tone shifts effortlessly into pathos—‘Alas,
poor Yorick!’—thence to physical disgust—‘my gorge rises at it’—and finally
into searing cynicism at the treacherous falseness of appearances—‘Now get you
to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor
she must come...’ The play’s range, then, is dazzling and immense: our
perception of mankind, like Hamlet’s, is compelled to the extremes of
admiration and revulsion: ‘What a piece of work is a man...the beauty of the
world; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
The Cast of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark
the Prince of Denmark Anton
Hamlet’s uncle; the new King Edward
Hamlet’s mother; The Queen Susan Engel
Laertes’ sister Emma
the King’s chief minister Peter
Hamlet’s closet friend Sean
Polonius’ son Jamie
King Geoffrey Whitehead
Barnardo/Priest/Captain David Timson
ANTON LESSER (Hamlet) has played many of the principal
Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Petruchio,
Romeo and Richard III. His other theater credits include Wild Oats and Art.
Appearances in major TV drama productions include The Mill on the Floss and The
EDWARD DE SOUZA (Claudius) is one of Britain’s leading
classical actors and has worked many seasons for the Royal Shakespeare Company,
Royal National Theatre and Old Vic. His film credits include The Thirty Nine
Steps and The Spy Who Loved Me.
SUSAN ENGEL (Gertrude) has had a varied and accomplished
career in the theater, performing on many occasions for the Royal Shakespeare
Company, and Royal National Theatre. Among her West End credits are An
Inspector Calls, Three Sisters and Hamlet. On TV she has been seen in Kavanagh
QC and Inspector Morse and her film credits include Damage and Peter Brook’s
EMMA FIELDING (Ophelia) trained at RSAMD. She has worked for
the Royal National Theatre in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and the Royal Shakespeare
Company in Twelfth Night and John Ford’s The Broken Heart, for which she won
the Dame Peggy Ashcroft Award for Best Actress. She also appeared in the world
première of Craig Raine’s 1953. Emma Fielding has appeared in numerous radio
plays and is a frequent
reader on Naxos AudioBooks.
PETER JEFFREY (Polonius) has played Ulysses in Troilus and
Cressida and Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor for the Royal Shakespeare
Company as well as numerous roles for the Royal National Theatre and the West
End. On TV he has appeared in The Prince and the Pauper, Our Friends in the
North, Middlemarch and A Village Affair.
SEAN BAKER (Horatio) has worked extensively for the Royal
Shakespeare Company in Troilus and Cressida, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and
Julius Caesar, as well as Galileo and The Oresteia for the Royal National
Theatre and other plays across the UK and in the West End.
JAMIE GLOVER (Laertes) trained at the Central School of
Speech and Drama and has since played title roles in Hamlet and Henry V and a
number of other roles in, amongst others, Tartuffe and The Rose Tattoo for Sir
Peter Hall. His TV appearances include A Dance to the Music of Time and
GEOFFREY WHITEHEAD (Ghost/Player King) has played leading
roles in Revenger’s Tragedy, The Seagull, and in Wild Honey and Body Language
for Alan Ayckbourn. His many TV credits include Z Cars, The Sweeney, War and
Remembrance, Crossing the Floor and Lord of Misrule.
GAVIN MUIR (Rosencrantz/1st Gravedigger) has worked for
various theater companies including the Boulevard Theatre in Paris, and in the
West End. His TV credits include the BAFTA-winning Our Friends in the North and
Cracker, and his voice is familiar to listeners of radio drama. He was also a
member of the singing group The Flying Pickets.
PETER YAPP (Guildenstern/2nd Gravedigger) has appeared in
plays and theaters across Britain and in the West End including Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are Dead and The Black Prince. His TV credits include House of
Elliot, Martin Chuzzlewit and Poirot.
BENJAMIN SOAMES (Marcellus/Cornelius/Player Queen) trained
at LAMDA. Since then he has appeared in the TV series Sharpe and Absolutely
Fabulous as well as the TV films Heavy Weather and England, My England. His
theater credits include Measure For Measure.
DAVID TIMSON (Barnardo/Priest/Captain) has performed in
modern and classic plays across Great Britain and abroad, including Wild Honey
for Alan Ayckbourn, Hamlet, The Man of Mode, and The Seagull. He has been seen
on TV in Nelson’s Column and Swallows and Amazons, and in the
film The Russia House.
RICHARD PEARCE (Osric/Francisco/Voltimand) has extensive
experience of radio drama, having been a member of the BBC Radio Drama Company
for many years. His theater credits include Torch Song Trilogy, Conjugal Rites,
Cider With Rosie and The Boyfriend.
PAUL PANTING (Fortinbras/Reynaldo) has performed across the
UK in plays such as Double Double, The Merchant of Venice, The Boys from
Syracuse and on TV in Wycliffe, The Bill and Sean’s Show.
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SHAKESPEARE, W.: Hamlet Prince of Denmark (Unabrid...