Shakespeare's Hamlet MOOC 2015 - resources

Links to resources on our website for students on our Shakespeare's Hamlet: Text, performance and culture MOOC starting in January 2015.


Week six - 27 February 2015 

How quickly these six weeks have gone by: as several of you have pointed out, it is impossible to do justice to a play as rich as Hamlet in such a short time, but it has been a terrific luxury to have the opportunity to discuss it with all of you across a little month and a half – on most university-level Shakespeare courses Hamlet would flash past in a week or at most two.

Since back in week 1 we had two video blogs, it would seem mean to provide any fewer than three in this final week, so here they are. First, in response to overwhelming popular demand, Ewan Fernie sets out to vindicate and explain his controversial view of Prince Hamlet as a 30-year-old virgin:

Second, Abigail Rokison (in the company of the Shakespeare Institute’s self-appointed cat, which performs its impersonation of the MGM lion at the start of this video) tells us what we can all expect from the next FutureLearn Shakespeare course, the Shakespeare Institute/ Shakespeare Birthplace Trust/Royal Shakespeare Company discussion of Much Ado About Nothing which begins on March 2nd. (As the man says, let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew, and dog will have his day…).

And thirdly, despite a biting February wind sweeping along the Avon straight into the microphone and rendering us nearly inaudible, Erin Sullivan and I visit the 1888 Ronald Gower statue of Hamlet beside the canal basin in Stratford and reflect on the course.

(Martin Wiggins, Pippa Nixon, Kate Alexander and Georgina Lucas, by the way, were too far away to appear in any of these videos, and send their apologies).

Before I go all professorial and conduct a revision session, a last pair of the customary Hamlet-related news items. I had no sooner mentioned Ian Blair’s student performance as Claudius last week than I received notice of a public conversation on the subject of Shakespeare which will be taking place at the Globe in London in April, involving not just Lord Blair but Lord Bragg too: see

Less parochially, those of you who not only can’t get to London to dine with two lords but can’t even manage to get there to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet in the autumn may have heard already that the details of its broadcast to cinemas worldwide have just been settled: see if you prefer to read about it in Russian,

And so to the promised revision – if only to reassure ourselves that we have learned something substantive about Hamlet over the last six weeks in between pursuing its contexts and its ghosts around the internet. To recap, week by week:

  1. Hamlet exists in three different early texts (the short first ‘bad’ quarto, 1603, the long second ‘good’ quarto, 1604, and the streamlined text provided in the First Folio, 1623). A play about memory which is itself remembered multiply and perhaps imperfectly in print, it has continued to generate yet more amalgams and working versions and adaptations ever since Shakespeare’s time, as successive actors, directors and writers have taken on the role of the Prince by editing, supplementing, interpreting, parodying, illustrating and extending the play. (Hamlet long ago seized the imaginations of audiences beyond the Anglophone world, too, touring to the Baltic and beyond in Shakespeare’s own lifetime – a journey recently recapitulated by the Shakespeare’s Globe production which is currently travelling to every country on the planet).
  2. Hamlet was written with the actor Richard Burbage in mind, and for an audience who already knew a now-lost, more straightforward dramatization of the same story, a version that in style was probably more like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy than it was like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The interest which Hamlet takes in the Biblical prohibition against marrying a brother’s widow would have held a certain resonance for audiences conscious that the Tudor dynasty was coming to its end: the ageing Queen Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, could only be regarded as legitimate by those who accepted the annulment of her father’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon on the grounds that Katharine’s previous marriage to Henry’s elder brother rendered their union incestuous. (Influenced itself by educational performances of classical drama, Hamlet would soon be inspiring allusive imitations, from Thomas Middleton’s professional The Revenger’s Tragedy, 1607, to Thomas Goffe’s university exercise Orestes, 1617).
  3. Many Elizabethan spectators probably tried to understand Hamlet’s feigned and Ophelia’s real madness in terms of ‘humoural’ psychology and the notion of melancholia: ever since then, the exponents of successive ideas about psychology, insanity and the nature of human consciousness have sought and found support for their theories in the play.  (Despite its disturbing subject matter, meanwhile, Hamlet has inspired a long series of comic parodies and other light-hearted spin-offs, some designed for amateur performers – so many continuations of Prince Hamlet’s own interests in comically sending people up and in non-professional theatrical declamation).
  4. This is a remarkably open play, which in both the theatre and the cinema has successfully lent itself over the last century to a wide range of different actors and a wide range of different agendas: by choosing between different textual variants and different design options, modern theatre practitioners have helped keep Hamlet perennially new and topical. (The enduring popularity of a play which was first printed as The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, moreover, has made it a key test case for all modern theories about the nature and functions of tragedy as a genre: its heavy reliance on soliloquy has also made it the key test case for all accounts of the conventions by which characters in plays address their audiences when no other members of the dramatis personae are present, and even for the cultural history of the individual’s place in relation to the public and private spheres).
  5. Despite the challenges posed by the play’s accumulated history of great and memorable previous productions and a script which many Anglophone spectators know almost by heart, actors, whether established celebrities or not, continue to relish the opportunity to play the Prince and test their intelligence, improvisatory inventiveness and sensibility against his.  The seemingly impossible task of making Hamlet’s great set-piece speeches sound new continues to attract, to challenge and to shape new generations of performers. (Given the chance to commission Shakespeare to adjust the script himself, meanwhile, many modern readers and spectators would particularly like more attention to be given to the viewpoints and experiences of Gertrude and of Ophelia).
  6. Although the play’s protagonist can seem a negative, deathly, closed-off figure, his discontented half-knowledge that he is trapped inside a revenge tragedy, coupled with his endless desire to question us as well as his fellow-characters, give him a powerful appeal to female as well as male performers.

For my own part, I think that over the last six weeks of conversations and re-readings the facet of Hamlet which has struck me anew most forcibly has been its quality of being raw, provisional and unfinished: it is easy to see why Hamlet was seized upon so passionately in the Romantic period (and we could have spent all of these 6 weeks on Hamlet and Romanticism, from Sterne through Goethe to Coleridge to Byron to Pushkin….). This implicit romanticism is not just because the play can be seen as a representation of individual consciousness aesthetically withdrawing from an unworthy and impossibly complicated outer world, but because Hamlet appears as a play to be so much more interested in the urgency of its embedded questions about knowledge, freedom and mortality than it is in being a perfected and complete work of art. (Hence in part T.S. Eliot’s unverifiable and autobiographical-looking claim that the play must have been the imperfect expression of something so personally disturbing to Shakespeare that he couldn’t quite make it into a cogent piece of drama).

As has been pointed out in comments threads again and again, the play’s text(s), without decisive editorial intervention, are full of inconsistencies, unexplained loose ends and what might well look like hasty dramaturgical shortcuts. How old is Hamlet? What historical period does he inhabit? What exactly is the normal procedure for selecting a new monarch in this half-hereditary, half-elective Denmark? How reliable is the Ghost, theatrically as well as theologically? What are we supposed to think really happened between Hamlet and Ophelia before the play’s action?  Are we supposed to guess that Gertrude committed adultery with Claudius before Old Hamlet’s murder, and if so how much did she know? Couldn’t Hamlet have been brought back to Elsinore by any means other than a lot of huddled exposition about some ridiculously convenient offstage pirates? And why didn’t Horatio warn Hamlet, before the funeral procession arrived, that the grave they were discussing was being prepared for Ophelia? The miracle is that the more gaps and unanswered circumstantial questions there are in the play, the more our own imaginations, and those of directors and actors, rush to fill them.

Those of you turning from Hamlet to Much Ado About Nothing -- two plays composed within a matter of two years of one another -- may be startled to find yourselves reading such a polished, well-planned, well-made play, not to mention one which for all its traumas and the prospect of another sword duel ends without any of its characters dying. (If you feel like a preliminary warm-up on the question of the underlying seriousness of Much Ado, by the way, try  Both within and beyond Hamlet, Shakespeare’s range was extraordinary.

Needless to say, most of us at the Shakespeare Institute will go on working on Hamlet from different perspectives long after this course ends.  (Dame Janet Suzman, one of our honorary fellows, who directed a splendid Hamlet in Johannesburg in 2006, calls it ‘a black crystal which we can’t keep from turning this way and that.’)  Our librarian Karin Brown, for instance, is working on a digital archive of Hamlet performance materials, by which researchers will be able to scroll through an on-line text of the play to which images and annotations drawn from production photographs, promptbooks and actors’ scripts will be keyed: she is particularly delighted that last year the university acquired the annotated script used by the actor and dancer Robert Helpmann when he played the Prince in Stratford in 1948.  Professor John Jowett is confronting the play’s textual complications once more as he helps to edit a wholly fresh digital and print edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, the New Oxford Shakespeare. (See Martin Wiggins is placing Hamlet into the full context of the drama of its time by publishing a minutely-detailed account of everything we know about all the plays of Shakespeare’s century, his multi-volume Catalogue of English Renaissance Drama, 1533-1642. (see 

Abigail and I, as you’ve heard, are working with Simon Russell Beale on a new set of Shakespeare editions designed to be used by performers, and Hamlet will be in the first batch: and I will be at the Shakespeare Association of America conference in Vancouver at the end of March giving a plenary lecture about Hamlet, and when I go to China on a short lecture tour in the autumn the chances of my not talking about this play are quite small.  So we will be busy on Hamlet for a good while to come, never mind being on hand as always to talk with the Royal Shakespeare Company about it next time it features in their repertory. Please do stay in touch with what is happening in Stratford – especially with all the events coming up in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, what a perfect time to go and study in Stratford! – by looking from time to time at the Institute website,, and at the website of our ever-closer friends the RSC,

As I say, six weeks is a short time, and if these have been your first six weeks of thinking about Hamlet I should warn you that they may not be your last by a long way.  I myself first got to know the play when I was cast as the priest at Ophelia’s funeral in a grammar school production in Dorset in the 1970s, and I haven’t managed to put it down since: I have by now seen it performed in many different kinds of theatre and cinema and many different styles and many different languages, and I have seen comic parodies, and an opera version with a happy ending, and Manga comics, and once within a single week I saw a Japanese Noh adaptation and a wonderfully black-comic post-modern German version, both of which left out Yorick’s skull. They all had very different takes on what mattered about Hamlet’s story and what it might mean to watch someone think aloud for half an evening and where the theatre might take us in relation to the meeting-points between life and death, and between the political and the hereafter.  If you still don’t feel after these six weeks that you have really got to the bottom of this play, don’t worry: you never will.  Hamlet may die, in that sudden complete bloodbath of a final scene, but his questions live on.  

Michael Dobson

Week five - 20 February 2015

This week’s video – filmed at the very backstage rooftop café area in which Jonathan Slinger, Pippa Nixon and the rest of the cast used to consume fruit juice {honest} in between their onstage appearances in Hamlet in 2013 – can be seen below:

(For a reminder about one of the Japanese Hamlets mentioned by Rosalind Fielding in the video, see

I want to field a couple of afterthoughts from week 5 in today’s blog, particularly on the subject of rewriting Hamlet and rewriting Ophelia, but first three quick appendices to phrases used in the course of this week’s materials. The first is a phrase casually applied as a guess about the manner in which Benedict Cumberbatch may play Hamlet, namely the notion that his performance is likely to be less bi-polar than autistic. The word ‘autistic,’ I should stress, is used here in its current colloquial sense of any behaviour that seems to betray a failure of empathy (in other words, exactly the kind of behaviour in which Cumberbatch has specialized in his screen work to date): no disrespect is intended towards anyone genuinely suffering from autism, or indeed to Mr Cumberbatch (whom I like, and whose work I admire). Those of you genuinely interested in the intersections between autism and Shakespeare should look not at Cumberbatch but at the extraordinary and deeply-researched therapeutic work of the RSC actress Kelly Hunter, work with which I am  very proud to have been associated for the last fifteen years: see her book Shakespeare’s Heartbeat, and her website.

The second of those phrases is two words from a section heading: Rival Hamlets. Those of you still curious about what happened to Hamlet between Burbage and Olivier, and especially those of you curious as to what mass-market live Shakespeare used to be like in America before the cinema took over the entertainment business and the education system co-opted the plays, may be curious to read about a mid-nineteenth-century feud over differing interpretations of the Prince which spilled over into a celebrated and ultimately fatal row about Macbeth. When the American tragedian Edwin Forrest decided that his English counterpart William Charles Macready was making Hamlet look too effeminate, things got very personal and very public, one side-effect being the only occasion of which I am aware when during act 3 the Prince was subjected to an assault from the auditorium in the form of a dead sheep flung onto the stage. The full story is told in Nigel Cliff’s excellent book The Shakespeare Riots, but for the highlights see

The third is a phrase from my interview with Jonathan Slinger: ‘recovering ex-Hamlets.’ Hamlet’s offstage identity as a Wittenberg university student, quite apart from the scope it offers for self-dramatization and sheer youthful self-indulgence, has made the role an irresistible temptation to generations of student actors, getting itself into their lives when they are at a very impressionable age and sometimes never fully leaving.

I happen to be typing this blog in the Bodleian Library (the home of the only surviving copy of the first quarto of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s most popular published work in his own lifetime), and it occurs to me that the annals of Oxford student drama alone afford some remarkable instances of the long-term effects of Hamlet on its performers. In the late 1940s, for instance, Peter Parker enjoyed a triumph as the Dane in a production directed by the young Kenneth Tynan, but while the louche Tynan never left the theatre (whether as critic, literary advisor to Laurence Olivier or impresario of Oh, Calcutta!), Parker opted for a life of administrative respectability in business, ultimately becoming chairman of British Rail. (Cf. the stage direction for Ophelia’s funeral --Enter Priest, & c. in procession; the Corpse of OPHELIA, LAERTES and Mourners following; KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, their trains, & c?) It was left to his sons to act out his unlived thespian dreams: among much else Oliver Parker directed a film of Othello (1995), with Kenneth Branagh as Iago, while Nathaniel Parker played Laertes opposite Mel Gibson in Zefirelli’s 1990 Hamlet (and was most recently seen in Stratford as Henry VIII in the RSC’s stage version of Wolf Hall).

Another notable student Hamlet took place in 1968, with Diana Quick as a lipstick-smeared Ophelia and, ultimately absenting himself from felicity to become Hamlet’s posthumous historian, the young Michael Wood as Horatio. (I hope some of you saw Michael’s documentary about Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden on February 12: for those of you within reach of BBC I-Player, it can still be watched online).  In the mid-1980s an outdoor production featured David Roberts as a rather old-fashioned, rhetorical Hamlet: he has since written the definitive scholarly biography of Thomas Betterton, the great, old-fashioned rhetorical Hamlet of the later 17th  century.  (In the earlier 1980s, an indoor student production which I as an audience member much prefer to forget featured Hughie Grant in the title role: Imogen Stubbs, later to play Gertrude for Trevor Nunn, was Ophelia). 

But perhaps the most telling piece of student Hamlet casting took place in the early 1970s. The English tutor J.I.M. Stewart always had a particular interest in Hamlet, and under his pseudonym of Michael Innes he published what remains a fascinating and provocative detective novel involving the ur-Hamlet and an ill-fated Shakespearean production at a country house, namely Hamlet, Revenge! (1937). The chief protagonist of this novel, Innes’ most famous creation, is Inspector Appleby, an Oxford-educated, poetry-loving detective who eventually becomes head of the Metropolitan Police.  In 1972 Stewart went to see one of his favourite and clearly one of his most enduringly loyal students appear in a student production of Hamlet: one Ian Blair, now Lord Blair, a devotee of poetry who eventually became head of the Metropolitan Police. Blair, though, didn’t play Hamlet: he played that notable exponent of state repression and surveillance, Claudius.

Ian Blair, however, didn’t quite appear in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the production in which he played the guilty king was of Charles Marowitz’s 1969 collage version, which cuts up and transposes the play’s text (without adding any new material) in order to expose Hamlet as an effete bourgeois aesthete unfit for true political commitment.  (For a glimpse of a recent production, one of the last shows Marowitz directed before his death, see We have already noticed how readily Hamlet, with its satirically disaffected protagonist, multiple texts and metatheatrical leanings, lends itself to rewritings, and along with a tradition of comic spin-offs and supplements it has inspired many fringe shows such as Marowitz’s radical remix, from the Wooster Group’s already classic 2005 multi-media versionin which live performers poignantly interact with video footage of the 1964 Richard Burton production, to the experimental promenade cut-up called Hamlets which next month will take over some of the extraordinary spaces of the new Library of Birmingham building (see see you there on the first night, I hope).

To judge from the comments of those of you who were prepared to imagine rewriting Hamlet yourselves, the figure from whom you most wanted to hear more, and whose fate you were most keen to revise, was Ophelia. On Ophelia in general, see Elaine Showalter’s classic 1985 essay ‘Representing Ophelia’ or a fine recent collection by Deanne Williams and Kaara Peterson, The Afterlife of Ophelia(2012): and be assured that you aren’t alone in your desire to rewrite Ophelia’s story. The most influential modern fringe version of Hamlet, for instance, the East German playwright Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine (1979: for a complete translation, see, calls its second scene ‘The Europe of the Woman,’ and it turns out to be an angry monologue by a self-liberated, un-abjected Ophelia:

[Enormous room. Ophelia. Her heart is a clock].

OPHELIA: I am Ophelia. She whom the river could not hold. The woman on the gallows The woman with the slashed arteries The woman with the overdose ON THE LIPS SNOW [the capitals denote that these words are in English even in the original German script – MD] The woman with the head in the gas-oven. Yesterday I stopped killing myself. I am alone with my breasts my thighs my lap. I rip apart the instruments of my imprisonment the Stool the Table the Bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my Home. I tear the doors off their hinges to let the wind and the cry of the World inside. I smash the Window. With my bleeding hands I tear the photographs of the men who I loved and who used me on the Bed on the Table on the Chair on the Floor. I set fire to my prison. I throw my clothes into the fire. I dig the clock which was my heart out of my breast. I go onto the street, clothed in my blood.

Muller’s successors in the emancipatory task of reimagining Ophelia have included Katie Mitchell (see and one of this course’s own FutureLearners, Sandra Sparks (see but perhaps Ophelia had already been rewritten long before these examples. Suppose that Gertrude, who in Hamlet wistfully hoped that Ophelia’s good beauties were the sole cause of Hamlet’s wildness and who hoped one day to strew her bridal bed with flowers, were for once to succeed in arranging for Polonius’s daughter to marry her son.  Suppose that just before the start of the play Ophelia’s comparatively low-born father and Hamlet’s aristocratic one had each died of natural causes instead of being killed by others, so that though their shared household might start the story in mourning, as in Hamlet, no obligations of vengeance and no paternal interference would remain to interrupt their relationship: and suppose that in this version Gertrude didn’t immediately remarry, but applied her mind to the affairs of the next generation instead. (Suppose her late husband’s favourite clown was still around too, instead of being long dead). Suppose this young Hamlet was more like Fortinbras, an aspiring warrior instead of a philosophizing student, but suppose that he still rejected and humiliated Ophelia, much as in the nunnery scene: but this time suppose that Ophelia, instead of cracking up (this time expert in flowers as herbal remedies instead of flowers as mad symbolic gifts), retained a steely determination, and that with the support of Gertrude she managed to compel Hamlet into marrying her anyway.  Change the names of Gertrude to Countess of Rossilion, Hamlet to Bertram, Yorick to Lavatch and Ophelia to Helena and you’ve got one of the plays Shakespeare went on to write soon after Hamlet, namely All’s Well That Ends Well. Just a thought.

In the same 2013 season as David Farr’s Hamlet, indeed, the RSC staged All’s Well That Ends Well too. Instead of playing Bertram, though, Jonathan Slinger played the braggart Parolles (Bertram’s dodgy Horatio?), and Pippa Nixon, instead of playing Helena as an antidote to her Ophelia, wasn’t in it at all.  Pity.  But at least Pippa did get to play Hamlet for the duration of ‘To be or not to be,’ in the last week of this course.  See you there. 

Michael Dobson

Week four - 13 February 2015

This week’s video blog – mainly on the topic of soliloquy – can be found here:

Those of you who succeeded in consulting the English Short Title catalogue on the British Library website last week and managed to look at the first two quartos of Hamlet as part of an alphabetical listing of almost everything else printed in 1603 and 1604 will remember that the play appears not under the letter H for Hamlet but under the letter T, as The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke. I thought I might consider some of the implications of that word ‘tragicall’ in this week’s blog, but first to my customary miscellaneous round-up, of items mentioned on the comments pages this week, and of news items with a bearing on the course.

An afterthought from last week’s blog on Hamlet and its comic spin-offs: one famous descendant of this play’s wandering, reflective, memory-haunted, loose structure is the most remarkable shaggy-dog story in English, Laurence Sterne’s experimental comic novel Tristram Shandy (1759-67). Far more interested in his own passing ideas and the vagaries of his own memory than in explaining his life in any sensible chronological order, the eponymous, soliloquizing narrator frequently remembers a parson called Yorick, and Sterne, himself a vicar in Yorkshire, adopted ‘Yorick’ as his nickname, not only in his own travel memoir A Sentimental Journey (1768) but when he published his sermons as The Sermons of Mr Yorick. In an apocryphal incident full of gravedigger-scene black comedy, after Sterne’s death in London his body was supposedly misappropriated by anatomists, and it was only reburied after a friend who was a Cambridge medical student recognized the shape of Sterne’s skull during a dissection. When the graveyard in which the reburial had taken place was removed to make way for development in 1969, a skull was once more identified as Sterne’s, this time by comparison to a portrait bust, and this was reburied once more, this time in ‘Parson Yorick’’s parish in Yorkshire. More on Sterne, who provides an intriguing side-route from Elsinore to stream-of-consciousness fiction, at the website maintained at Sterne’s former home, Shandy Hall, Coxwold.

The most exciting news to offer this week, from my point of view, is that various parts of the world are about to have the opportunity to see a touring production of the version of Hamlet generally known by its subtitle Der Bestrafte Brudermord (The Punishment of Fratricide) – the first ever German adaptation of Hamlet. The play has been translated back into English -- or rather, translated anew into English, since this German script includes all sorts of interpolated comic material absent from Shakespeare’s versions. Those lucky enough to get tickets to this Hamlet, moreover,will for once actually see the puppets dallying, since the company – Hidden Room Theatre -- seek to recreate the kinds of performance given in fairground booths in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. See Think Hamlet meets Punch and Judy: do have a look at the trailer below:

Hidden Room’s project draws on the research currently being carried out into Shakespeare’s engagement with the traditions of fairground drama by Tiffany Stern of Oxford University, herself a world authority on the first quarto of Hamlet. On Hamlet and Germany more generally, see the blog I posted in week 4 last year.

Speaking of the first quarto, we have all been immensely impressed by the alacrity with which many of you have not only sought out some of the optional extra reading we mentioned in week 1 but have even demanded more, and one of the new books on Hamlet which has appeared even while the course has been under way deals brilliantly with that text and the questions it raises. Zachary Lesser has just published Hamlet’ after Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text, which offers both a fascinating story about what happened when the ‘bad’ quarto first came to light (as recently as 1823) and a serious rethinking of the nature of authorship in the Elizabethan playhouse.

Lesser’s book, though eminently readable, offers a highly specialized piece of textual and cultural analysis, and I want to mention two other recent books aimed at a much wider readership. Someone on the course asked some time ago whether I could recommend a reliable beginner’s guide to Hamlet, and here it is: Ben Crystal’s Springboard Shakespeare: Hamlet(first published by Bloomsbury in 2013). Crystal (who has himself played Hamlet, in an attempted reconstruction of Elizabethan pronunciation) takes a fresh, informed theatregoer’s approach to the play. Those more interested in the verbal texture of Hamlet and the task of writing about it as literature may prefer Dympna Callaghan’s Hamlet: Language and Writing(also from Bloomsbury. This isn’t officially published until next week but I have my copy already and I can promise you that it is an excellent student guide to the play. More introductory materials on Hamlet, and more images and other details from past productions, can be found on the RSC website.

One particularly humane person on the comments pages has suggested that I should mention any work with a particular bearing on Hamlet that has been published by members of the course team. At the risk of our being accused of naked commercial self-interest (though I can assure you that despite the high retail prices of many academic books the royalties they earn, if any, are negligible), I will just quickly mention Erin Sullivan’s co-edited collection The Renaissance of Emotion: understanding affect in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Abigail Rokison’s prize-winning Shakespearean Verse Speaking(which uses many examples from Hamlet), and also Abigail’s fine study of Laurence Olivier’s career as a Shakespearean, published in Great Shakespeareans, volume XVI: Gielgud, Olivier, Ashcroft, Dench, edited by Russell Jackson. In the same series, Peter Holland’s volume II, Garrick, Kemble, Siddons, Kean,considers four of the most interesting and influential players of Hamlet of the Romantic era, and it includes my own account of the career of John Philip Kemble.

Kemble was a forbidding, vatic, self-consciously dignified actor, usually hopeless in comedy, who regarded many in his Regency audiences as ignorant groundlings: his Hamlet was one of the most high-mindedly serious incarnations of the Dane ever seen. Thomas Lawrence’s 1801 portrait of Kemble in the role, a print of which is occasionally visible in the videos on this course, records something of its tragic grandeur. Perhaps this picture has at last brought us to the question of Hamlet as a tragedy.

Thanks in part to the lasting influence of A.C. Bradley’s book Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), many of us were encouraged in school to try to assimilate what Bradley identified as Shakespeare’s four ‘great’ tragedies (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear) to a formula for describing the genre derived from the ancient Greek account of tragedy offered by Aristotle, in his Poetics. These plays, we were told, depict great individuals – ‘tragic heroes,’ of exalted rank and thus closest to the gods -- who cause their own downfalls thanks to some ‘tragic flaw’ in their natures. These stories of inevitable punishment nonetheless inspire pity and fear -- allowing their audiences to experience a sort of emotional purging, called ‘catharsis’ (or is that what the tragic characters themselves experience? Aristotle isn’t entirely clear) -- because the heroes’ sufferings seem to be worse than their flaws deserve.

There is something in this account, of course, but there are problems with it too: for one thing, although Shakespeare once mentions Aristotle as a moralist (in Troilus and Cressida), there is no evidence that he knew the Poetics, even in translation, and no European writers of his entire period seem to have had anything to say about the notion of ‘catharsis,’ which they simply ignored. The word ‘hamartia,’ moreover, which subsequent translators rendered as ‘tragic flaw,’ actually means something more like ‘tragic error’ or ‘fatal mistake.’ Aristotle’s chosen case-study of a tragedy is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, in which the hamartia, according to the critic, is Oedipus’ offstage failure, long before the action which the play shows, to recognize the obstructive Laius (with whom he quarrelled, and whom he killed) as his father. Since Oedipus had been cast out as an infant and had never met his parents, this ignorance of Laius’ identity hardly seems like an expression of Oedipus’ character. In any case for Aristotle character is always subordinate to action: we know people by what they do in the stories to which they belong, and it is they who are expressions of those stories rather than vice versa.

Hence the sort of productive and digressive mismatch which Shakespeare develops between Hamlet’s consciousness and the events in which he finds himself trapped would have been unthinkable to Aristotle. Shakespeare may refer to ‘outstretched heroes’ in Hamlet but he never mentions ‘tragic heroes’ anywhere, and while this play has much to say about tragic drama and its emotional effects – offering both a classical specimen of tragedy in the form of the Player’s recitation about the fall of Priam, and a more up-to-the-minute, drama-documentary sample in the form of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ – the fatal medical ‘purgation’ with which Hamlet punningly threatens Claudius in his dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after the play-within-the-play has nothing to do with theatre.

Shakespeare and his colleagues certainly did pick up some of their ideas about tragedy from classical writers, however, notably the idea that as the stage’s equivalent of epic – aspiring to serious subjects such as the destruction of Troy and dealing in the fortunes of kings and the destinies of nations – tragedy is the most prestigious type of drama one can write. When Heminge and Condell decided to arrange Shakespeare’s works in the folio under the successive headings of comedies, histories and tragedies, they were essentially putting the plays into an ascending neoclassical hierarchy of status. (On other aspects of the compilation and marketing of the Folio, incidentally, see, and to admire and compare two copies, do visit the website of the glorious Folger Shakespeare Library, at Throughout the Folio Heminge and Condell even promoted Shakespeare to being an honorary noble Roman by giving the plays Latin names for their act and scene divisions – Actus Primus, Scena Primaand so on.

Even when it comes to the status of his protagonists, however, Shakespeare often ignores the fundamental rules of classical tragedy (Romeo and Juliet aren’t royal, for instance, and neither is Othello), and in Hamlet he amply defies the ancients’ sense that the audiences of tragedies ought to witness their disastrous events unfold as though they were happening in real time (how many days, weeks or months do youthink elapse between a set of Danish soldiers seeing a ghost on the battlements and a set of Norwegian ones firing a funereal salute? Time in Hamlet is at once leisurely, elastic and vague, until the deadline produced by the impending news to Claudius from England that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been executed introduces some urgency into the final act). He also juxtaposes the sorrows of a prince with the gallows humour of two gravediggers. As we saw last week, one result is that some have been happy to make Hamlet into comedy, while others have felt moved to try to delete the gravediggers entirely.

Over the century since Bradley, a number of other critics have tried to describe the characteristic aims and procedures of tragedy. Here follow some of their ideas, ludicrously distilled into a set of competing truths, half-truths and provocations. If you like, re-read in particular the last section of what most editions number as act 2 scene 2, from the arrival of the players through to Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,’ and see what ideas the play itself entertains about the nature and uses of tragedy. Above all, see which of the following statements fits the whole of Hamlet as you understand it:

  • Tragedies celebrate exceptional individuals who die in the course of their self-defining struggles against malfunctioning or corrupt societies.
  • Tragedies depict the necessary expulsion and destruction of criminal and maladjusted individuals who threaten social harmony.
  • Tragedy offers a socially acceptable way of enjoying watching other people kill each other, during which we can appease our consciences by feeling that we are learning the great truths which the characters may articulate when mortally wounded.
  • While Shakespearean comedy celebrates the fact that the species breeds and hence survives, Shakespearean tragedy laments the fact that individuals fight and die. Hence fertile young women are central to the comedies but are generally the first to be killed in the male-ego-driven tragedies.
  • While in comedy children successfully defeat and supplant their parents, in tragedy children die as a result of their parents’ quarrels.
  • Shakespearean tragedy is essentially an expression of Christian morality in that it shows that certain wicked actions have fatal consequences. Its characters’ self-revelations are akin to confession or public penitence.
  • Shakespearean tragedy is essentially pagan in that it laments the loss of mortal life rather than depicting it as a mere prelude to eternity. Its characters’ self-revelations are expressions of inappropriate earthly pride and self-importance.
  • Renaissance tragedy is innately religious, since it deals with the threshold of the spirit world: it defines the playhouse as akin to a temple or oracle, where we can see ghosts and other supernatural beings.
  • Renaissance tragedy is innately secular, since it offers a searching critique of earthly political systems and their destructive failings: it defines the playhouse as akin to a parliament, in which we can see affairs of state debated in public.
  • Tragedy is innately primitive: it is the nostalgia of civilization for human sacrifice.
  • Theatre is a social artform designed to reinforce collective norms by sharing information about private behaviour in a public forum, so most plays are designed to let us eavesdrop on situations which it would be too embarrassing or taboo to witness in real life. Comedy allows us to watch simulated lovers in their privacy, so that we can learn how to court. Tragedy allows us to watch simulated deathbeds, so that we can learn how to die.
  • While watching tragedies we are distracted from our own mortality and that of our loved ones by the represented deaths of fictitious, historical or legendary characters: these imagined and to us harmless deaths even give us the pleasures of aesthetic closure. In watching tragedies we experience simulated bereavements in the hope that these will inoculate us homeopathically against real ones.
  • Tragedy is snobbish: it shows that princes are special, since their comparative freedom of action means that their deaths really say something about them as individuals.
  • Tragedy is egalitarian: it shows that princes are just mortals too.
  • Tragedy is bad for us: it exploits our morbid interest in death and makes us the callous and passive spectators of simulated murder.
  • Tragedy is good for us: it reminds us of the value and frailty of human life and teaches us how to feel for the sufferings of others.

As I say, which of these claims stands up to your own experiences of Hamlet? We’ll be hearing something of what tragedy does for and to the RSC’s most recent Hamlet, Jonathan Slinger, next week.

Michael Dobson

Week three - 6 February 2015


Two videos this week. One of them affords a glimpse of what remains of the large house which was Shakespeare’s family home at the time he wrote Hamlet, namely New Place, in the company of Professor Gordon McMullan, who as one of the general editors of the forthcoming revised Norton edition of Shakespeare’s complete works is someone professionally engaged at this very moment in making sense of the differences between the first quarto, second quarto and folio texts of the play. (I’m sorry that a bitter cold wind on the microphone obscures a few phrases in Gordon’s explanation of his editorial policy, but you will get the general idea of what happens when you ask an enthusiastic textual specialist to talk about Hamlet...).  (For more about New Place and what is currently happening there, see and

The second video discusses some of the topics learners have found particularly interesting during the first, 1600-oriented half of this MOOC and have wanted to hear more about, a feature we will repeat each week for the remainder of course.  

Before I move on to discuss Hamlet and comedy, here follows – for the many of you who seem to delight in pursuing this course’s topics around the more reliable corners of the internet – a round-up of some relevant links you may find of interest:


This last item at last brings me to the topic of Hamlet and comedy, which I offer by way of antidote to this week’s focus on melancholy.  Some learners have commented that they have been surprised at how much incidental black humour they have been finding in the play, and it’s certainly true that Hamlet himself seems to have a gift for satirical comedy. In performance his bitter witticism ‘Thrift, thrift, Horatio – the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables’ often produces the first laugh of the evening, and it is a laugh sometimes tinged with relief that the black-clad, depressive prince who has just taken us into his confidence with all the despair and sorrow of his first soliloquy ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt….’ turns out to have a sense of humour as well.  He has a kind of malicious fun at the expense of Polonius, and runs what are often hilarious rings around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he eventually kills via what is essentially a very elaborate practical joke; and in the midst of coping ably with a wisecracking gravedigger, he is suddenly confronted with the skull of a childhood friend – a court jester.  It is part of Hamlet’s tragedy that under other circumstances he clearly might have done pretty well as a comedian.

I talked briefly way back in week 1 about this play’s particular fertility as a source of other texts – texts which try to expand or repeat or explain or even partly replace the play – and it’s worth noticing that spin-offs and adaptations of Hamlet include plenty which take the prince’s anarchic sense of humour and run off with it.  Quite apart from ‘The Grave-makers’ – that mid-seventeenth-century abbreviation, a sort of edited highlight of Hamlet, that consisted solely of the dialogue with the gravediggers – the play has spawned all sorts of variously affectionate supplements and parodies.  One of them – which I am including here by way of gesture towards everything that happened to Hamlet between the Elizabethans and the moderns – sought to avenge the version of Hamlet which turned ‘The Grave-Makers’ inside out, namely David Garrick’s 1772 acting text of the play from which he cut the gravediggers entirely.  (By the time he offered this concession to those Francophile neo-classical critics who thought comic gravediggers too lowly to be allowed into high tragedy, Garrick had been playing Hamlet for thirty years and was on the eve of retirement: ‘I have produced Hamlet with alterations it was the most imprudent thing that ever I did in my life,’ he wrote in a letter, ‘but I had sworn that I would not leave the Stage until I had rescued that noble play from all the rubbish of the 5th act.’).  Garrick’s rival playwright and eventual biographer Arthur Murphy was among one of the spectators appalled by this adaptation, and he circulated a burlesque version of Shakespeare’s first act, ‘The Life of Hamlet, with Alterations,’ in which Shakespeare’s ghost, as Old Hamlet, confronts Garrick/Hamlet with his crime.  This little-known satire on Garrick’s managerial and editorial practices at Drury Lane was passed around in manuscript, and it was eventually published in a scarcely-read posthumous biography of Murphy only some forty years later. But thanks to the miracle of digitization, the curious can now read it here.

(follow the link and then click on the page number, 256).

 In more recent times, Tom Stoppard famously launched his career with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966-7), which imagines the offstage lives of Hamlet’s former college friends in the absurdist style of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but in this he was only following W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), who had written a Hamlet skit called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as early as 1874. (And by then there had long been a whole vogue for musical burlesque versions of famous Shakespeare plays, which had started with John Poole’s Hamlet Travestie in 1810).  In Gilbert’s play, Claudius is riven with shame and sorrow not for having killed a brother but merely for having written a very unsuccessful and very bad tragedy in his youth; Hamlet tactlessly and unwittingly has the Players perform it, and he gets banished to England as a result – thereby happily freeing Ophelia to marry the man who is secretly her childhood sweetheart, namely Rosencrantz.  Nicely combining the concerns of this week and next week on this course, Rosencrantz and Ophelia discuss Hamlet’s changing appearances in performance, and the range of opinions about his mental state, in their first dialogue together:

OPHELIA  Alas, I am betrothed!
 ROSENCRANTZ Betrothed? To whom?
 OPHELIA To Hamlet!
 ROSENCRANTZ Oh, incomprehensible!

Thou lovest Hamlet?

OPHELIA (Demurely) I said we were betrothed.
GUILDENSTERN And what's he like?
 OPHELIA    Alike for no two seasons at a time.
    Sometimes he's tall -- sometimes he's very short --
    Now with black hair -- now with a flaxen wig --
    Sometimes with an English accent -- then a French --
    Then English with a strong provincial "burr."
    Once an American, and once a Jew --
    But Danish never, take him how you will!
    And strange to say, whate'er his tongue may be,
    Whether he's dark or flaxen -- English -- French --
    Though we're in Denmark, A.D. ten-six-two--
    He always dresses as King James the First!
    GUILDENSTERN       Oh, he is surely mad!
                                Well, there again
    Opinion is divided. Some men hold
    That he's the sanest, far, of all sane men --
    Some that he's really sane, but shamming mad --
    Some that he's really mad, but shamming sane --
    Some that he will be mad, some that he was
    Some that he couldn't be. But on the whole
    (As far as I can make out what they mean)
    The favourite theory's somewhat like this:
    Hamlet is idiotically sane
   With lucid intervals of lunacy.


(If you would like to read the whole (short) script, a copy is available on the web, thanks to Boise State University. And if you are curious about Hamlet Travestie, it can be read here).

Gilbert’s play was performed at the Shakespeare Institute by an impromptu group of RSC actors and others last February, together with, among other things, the surreal, pre-Goon Show comic sketch version of Hamlet, called Shamlet, written and directed by David Piper (later to become director of the National Portrait Gallery, and father of the RSC designer Tom Piper) when he was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1944.  Ed Bennett (who was Laertes in the 2008 RSC Hamlet, and played Hamlet for many London performances while David Tennant recovered from a back injury) made a splendid mock-Hamlet (his rendition of Piper’s shameless nocturnal ‘To pee or not to pee’ soliloquy was especially poignant), with Katie Stephens (recently seen at the RSC as Regan and as Tamora) as Gertrude.  Piper’s Hamlet is an enthusiastic golfer, who finishes off most of the rest of the cast with his club before being himself floored with it by the Ghost: once more Ophelia is spared to marry another.  (This playlet has never been printed: I found its manuscript in the archives of the National Army Museum.  On this and other prisoner-of-war performances, see my book Shakespeare and Amateur Performance...).  Next month the Shakespeare Institute Players will be performing another short Hamlet spin-off, Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s HamletCahoot’s Macbeth,and if you happen to be within reach of Stratford do come.    

Back to rather more serious interpretations of the play next week, as Abigail Rokison looks at the changing faces of Hamlet in modern performance and the different perspectives on Gertrude made available to modern interpreters by the first and second quarto texts of the play. All this and an excursion to Elsinore – see you there   --  Michael Dobson 

Week two - 30 January 2015

With this week’s materials concentrating on Hamlet and its relation to the professional theatre repertoire of its time, I want to look briefly instead in this week’s blog at Hamlet and its connections to Renaissance educational drama. I am going to start from a little exchange in the play-within-the-play scene, act 3 scene 2, just before the Players start to perform ‘The Murder of Gonzago’: 

HAMLET: My lord, you played once i' th' university, you say?

POLONIUS: That did I, my lord, and was accounted a good actor.

HAMLET: What did you enact?

POLONIUS: I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’th’Capitol. Brutus killed me. 

In early performance, these lines may have been appreciated primarily as an in-joke – it is very likely that the actor who played Polonius had recently played Caesar in Shakespeare’s previous tragedy, Julius Caesar (1599), in which Burbage had probably played his assassin, Brutus – but they reflect, too, the extent to which Elizabethan educational culture was genuinely saturated with drama. Within the play, the Wittenberg student Hamlet is a keen theatregoer, amateur actor and adaptor, and even Polonius turns out to have a past in student drama, having performed in a university production of a play about Julius Caesar.

Hamlet itself, moreover, soon had a student following: the title page of the first quarto claims that as well as being seen in London the tragedy has been played ‘in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford,’ and around 1617 an Oxford scholar called Thomas Goffe composed a revenge play of his own called The Tragedy of Orestes.  Goffe’s shapeless, bombastic but nonetheless fascinating play retells one of the classical stories that lies behind Hamlet itself, the tale of how the Greek commander Agamemnon, on returning from the Trojan war, was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus (who at once married Clytemnestra and usurped the crown), and of how this crime was subsequently avenged by Agamemnon’s son Orestes.  The resemblance between this ancient plot and that of Shakespeare’s sensationally popular recent play was not lost on Goffe, whose tragedy is full of knowing and obvious echoes of Hamlet.  Orestes, for instance, is told that he needs to take his father’s bones to an enchantress called Canidia, who will be able to conjure spirits able to tell him who committed the murder.  On his way to see this forensic witch, in the company of his Horatio-like friend and assistant Pylades, Orestes pauses to reflect on mortality, social hierarchy and loss in terms heavily borrowed from the gravediggers’ scene and from Hamlet’s interrogation by Claudius: 

Enter Pylades & Orestes, with his arm full of a dead man’s bones and a skull.


Near to this shady grove, where never light

Appears, but when `tis forcèd with some charm,

Canidia dwells, in such a dusky place,

That the night goblins fear to come too near it.

Here let us knock.


                                 Nay, Pylades, see here.

O give me leave to descant on these bones:

This was my father’s skull; but who can know

Whether it were some subject’s skull, or no?

Where be these princely eyes, commanding face,

The brave majestic look, the kingly grace,

Where's the imperious frown, the godlike smile,

The graceful tongue, that spoke a soldier’s style?

Ha, ha, worms ate them: could no princely look,

No line of eloquence writ in this book,

Command, nor yet persuade the worms away?

Rebellious worms! could a king bear no sway?

Injurious worms! O what, could no flesh serve

But king’s for you? By heaven, you all shall starve:

Had I but known't.. what, must my father make

A feast for you? O ye devouring creatures!...

(If you want to read the whole play, which was printed in the 1630s, it has been usefully digitized by the University of Michigan. Martin Wiggins arranged a read-through of it at the Institute last term, incidentally, and it was immensely enjoyable).

Goffe’s play was written for performance by students and their tutors, and we now know that Shakespeare’s plays too were being used in educational contexts in the early seventeenth century.  In the autumn of 2014, the library of the Jesuit seminary at St Omer near Calais (to which some English Catholics sent their sons to be educated, since all English schools and colleges at home were compulsorily Protestant) turned out to include a hitherto unrecognized copy of the Shakespeare folio (1623) – incomplete (as if some plays had been removed in their entirety for use as scripts?), but with markings showing that some of the remaining plays had definitely been acted by students.  (Jesuit establishments didn’t tolerate cross-dressing, so instead of having boys play women’s roles they had to either cut those roles or turn them into male ones – in the St Omer copy of Henry IV part 1, for instance, a few strokes of a pen in each of her speech prefixes turn the Hostess into the Host).  Martin has been studying the student drama at St Omer for some time, and you can read some of what he has to say about this intriguing discovery here.

Whether at home or abroad, the educational culture of the English Renaissance particularly valued drama: sixteenth-century university colleges set aside considerable budgets for annual performances of Greek and Latin plays by students, and their tutors composed plays in English too. University graduates who became schoolmasters at grammar schools, such as the one Shakespeare attended in Stratford, took the habit to younger pupils too.  (Shakespeare himself probably first acted in Latin plays in the classroom: a particular favourite playwright of schoolmasters was Plautus, whose Menaechmi Shakespeare would later use as the basis for The Comedy of Errors).  A culture which values the ability to memorize text and to speak persuasively in public will always find it useful to make its students take part in plays – and hence one accidental by-product of an Elizabethan school system designed to produce eloquent lawyers and preachers was a splendid supply of dramatists and actors.  And hence those of us who have taken part, in whatever capacities, in school productions of Shakespeare have participated in a tradition in which Hamlet itself was involved. 

Next week: melancholy.  I’ll try to find something more cheerful for the blog, never fear. 

Michael Dobson

Week one - 23 January 2015

Welcome to the first week of this free on-line course about Hamlet. Here in Stratford it is definitely January, and so for us here at the Shakespeare Institute this course is beginning in cold and darkness, just as does the action of Hamlet.

This first instalment of the course blog, and its two accompanying videos, take off in two directions from this week’s discussion of the play’s textual history. I’m going to say a little more about the early texts of the play – including the so-called ‘Bad Quarto’ – and in the process I’m going to talk a little about the Baltic. Both come together in the second of this week’s videos, filmed while I was accompanying a production of Hamlet to Poland in the autumn.

If you want to examine the early texts of the play yourself, please do -- the British Library owns copies of all the early editions of Hamlet, and you can admire scans of them and read about them. If you want to see the play in live performance, wherever you are on the planet it either will be coming to somewhere at least in the same country as you or it already has done, since a troupe of actors from Shakespeare’s Globe in London are currently taking their Hamlet on an extended world tour which began on Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, April 23 2014. You can read all about it, follow its progress on a map and read some additional mini-essays on Hamlet contributed by scholars and theatre critics.

Although the text the Globe’s actors are using is mainly drawn from the second, ‘good’ quarto, the company asked me to write a programme note for the show discussing the first ‘bad’ quarto and the whole tradition of shortening the play for performance which it appears to have inaugurated.  As a deluxe appendix to this week’s course materials, a copy of that essay follows – enjoy…


‘How comes it that they travel?’ asks the Prince, when his fellow-students Rossencraft and Gilderstone tell him that the actors have arrived at Elsinore. ‘Do they grow resty?’  Or so the passage runs in the earliest printed edition of Hamlet, the First Quarto (1603). The much longer Second Quarto (1604) is probably closer to Shakespeare’s first draft of the play, and here, as in the more streamlined version printed in the Folio (1623), Hamlet’s interlocutors are instead called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he demands ‘How chances it they travel?’, later wondering ‘Do they grow rusty?’ Depicting as it does a whole proliferation of suspect and tinkered-with pieces of writing – from Hamlet’s cryptically-annotated table-books to the hastily-adapted The Murder of Gonzago, from his covertly-inspected love letter to Ophelia to the forged death warrant by which he deals with his escort towards England – Hamlet itself seems to predict this textual multiplicity. A play about repetition with a difference (its action prompted by a revenant, the Ghost), Hamlet has not only gone on being repeated with differences itself in print and within the global theatrical repertory ever since the First Quarto appeared, but aspects of its form and content have escaped from within the play proper and spilled out to colour, again and again, the history of its own reception.

The play’s depictions of a travelling theatre company, and of the business of remembering and altering scripts for performance, are certainly among these. By the time the First Quarto appeared, according to its title page, Hamlet had already been taken extensively on the road, having been ‘diverse times acted by his Highness servants in the City of London: as also in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere.’ This first edition’s text, indeed, probably got to the printers via the actor who played Marcellus on this early tour. This character’s lines and scenes occupy a larger percentage of the text than they do in any other early printed version of the play, and passages of action and dialogue in which he is not involved appear to have been put together from a not always reliable memory, just as Hamlet himself tries to reconstruct part of a nameless play about Dido and Aeneas when he sets about remembering its account of the death of Priam:

Let me see .
The rugged Pyrrhus, like th’Arganian beast:
No, ‘tis not so, it begins with Pyrrhus:
O I have it...

Marcellus is of course not present during Hamlet’s great soliloquies, and hence perhaps the quality of amnesia which haunts what have become the First Quarto’s most famous lines:

To be, or not to be: ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep -- is that all? Ay, all --
No, to sleep, to dream – ay, marry, there it goes --
For in that dream of death, when we awake
And borne before an everlasting judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned...

However accurately remembered in its printed incarnations, Hamlet -- which itself crucially involves a sea voyage as well as a company of players -- would soon be taken considerably further afield. In 1607 the captain of the East India Company’s galleon the Red Dragon, clearly sharing the Prince’s enthusiasm for amateur performance, must have stocked up on play quartos as well as ship’s biscuit, since when his ship was moored off what is now Sierra Leone he had his crew act Hamlet to entertain visiting local dignitaries. Professional players, meanwhile, were soon taking this play about Denmark, Norway, and Poland (several of whose characters have studied at the German university of Wittenberg) home to the Baltic. In the early seventeenth century English actors toured extensively around northern and central Europe (in 1610 Gdansk even acquired a public playhouse reminiscent of the Fortune in London), and among their scripts was certainly the first quarto of Hamlet. Years later the earliest surviving German translation of the play, Tragoedia der bestrafte Bruder-mord, oder: Prinz Hamlet aus Dännemark, was printed from a now-lost manuscript. This play probably dates from around 1630, after the publication of the Folio, but although its interpolated passages of slapstick make some of it hard to recognize, it clearly derives not from the latest but from the earliest printed text of Hamlet: the character known in the Second Quarto and the Folio as Polonius, for instance, is here called Corambis, as in the First Quarto.

So why would a group of English actors touring abroad after the appearance of the much fuller texts provided by the Second Quarto (3,800 lines) and the Folio (3,600 lines) persist in using the First Quarto (2,200 lines)?  One reason is the simple response Corambis voices to the speech relating the death of Priam: ‘Enough, my friend, ‘tis too long.’ While some actors and directors have preferred this play to be as lengthy as possible, the most central parts of its action occurring within the brooding consciousness of its protagonist as he thinks slowly and meditatively aloud, many have instead wanted their Hamlet practicably short, the pith of the play lying in the action-packed and political struggle between the Prince and his wicked uncle. Alongside an editorial tradition of combining passages from all three early texts to produce a luxuriantly ample, annotated Hamlet rendered as a very fat book, there has persisted a theatrical tradition of producing instead a very lean stage show. During the English Civil War, indeed, when the public playhouses were closed, some actors went even further than does the First Quarto, reducing the play to a single, emblematic favourite scene – ‘The Grave-Makers’, the graveyard scene, in which the Prince, though robbed of his famous soliloquies, at least got to hold his signature prop and remember knowing Yorick. Since then, from Tom Stoppard’s Doggs Hamlet to Richard Curtis’s Skinhead Hamlet, and from Sir William Davenant’s acting text in the 1660s (which concedes that much of the play is ‘Too long, to be conveniently acted’) to Laurence Olivier’s 90-minute film in the 1940s, abbreviated Hamlets have continued to travel the earth. ‘For look you where my abridgement comes,’ says Hamlet, as the touring players arrive. Four centuries later, they keep coming.

Back to Renaissance London next week, as Martin Wiggins looks at the circumstances of the play’s first production, at the revenge play tradition which it transformed, and at the actor who first played Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Richard Burbage. I hope you’ve found this first week interesting – see you again soon. 

Week 1 Video 1

Week 1 video 2


Further resources

You may also be interested in the resources page for the first run of this MOOC in Autumn 2014: Shakespeare's Hamlet: Text, performance and culture MOOC resources for January 2014

More videos from the Shakespeare Institute

Further study with the Shakespeare Institute and the University of Birmingham

Perspectives and opinion pieces

Poems and plays are for everyone, not just a tiny minority, Professor Michael Toolan (21 October 2013)

Richard III: The real king of history, or marvellous theatrical villain?, Professor Michael Dobson (7 February 2013)

Links to academic profiles

Find out more about the backgrounds and research interests of the Shakespeare Institute academics behind the course:

Social media