What’s Love Got To Do With It? Quite a lot, actually, when it comes to the key characters of Hamlet. Jeffrey R. Wilson throws light on Shakespeare’s fascinating foray into perhaps the most complex emotion of all.

What is Shakespeare’s Hamlet about? It’s a deceptively difficult question, and will elicit no consensus. Even though Hamlet is the most frequently assigned Shakespearean text in schools, and the most frequently written about in academic Shakespeare studies—or, probably, because of those facts—we have difficulty agreeing on its basic concerns. According to SparkNotes, the study aid that thousands of students turn to every day, the themes of Hamlet are “the impossibility of certainty,” “the complexity of action,” “the mystery of death,” “the nation as a diseased body,” “performance,” “madness,” and “doubt.” But what if we take ourselves—and our cliched interpretations—out of this question? What if we listen to the text itself? What if we start with some data?

The word “love” appears 84 times in the Folger edition of Hamlet. By comparison, “Father” only appears 73 times, “play” 60, “think” 55, “mother” 46, “mad” 44, “soul” 40, “God” 39, “death” 38, “act” 35, “life” 34, “nothing” 28, “son” 26, “act” 23, “honor” 21, “spirit” 19, “kill” 18, “revenge” 14, “doubt” 14, and “action” 12. Love isn’t the first theme that comes to mind when we think about Hamlet, but is surprisingly prominent. Hamlet is a play about love.

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[Photo: Johan Persson]

Prince Hamlet loves his father and mother. Claudius loves Gertrude. She loves him and her son. Hamlet loves Ophelia, as does Laertes. So what does Hamlet say about love?

Love is a many-splendored thing. It is blind. It is patient and kind, does not envy or boast, etc. Love conquers all. But, baby, sometimes love just ain’t enough. To quote another 90s jam—what is love? (Hamlet, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more). Or from the 80s—I want to know what love is; I want Hamlet to show me. Love – emotional investment in another – involves feeling for, caring for, respect, admiration; duty, obligation to; willingness to serve; confidence in; dedication to; affection for.

But love is tragic in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The bloody catastrophe at the end of the play is principally driven not by hatred or a longing for revenge, but by love. And, I’m going to suggest, that creates a significant relationship between love and one of the few substantive words that appears even more frequently in the play, “king.” What’s the relationship between love, monarchy, and tragedy? To go back again to the 80s, what’s love got to do with it?

Three kinds of love appear in Hamlet. First, there is what the ancient Greeks called philia—friendship—in the service Prince Hamlet and his friends offer each other, which they repeatedly call “love.” Hamlet’s first love, as it were, is Horatio, along with Marcellus and Barnardo, but Hamlet also refers to his relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “love.”

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[Photo: Johan Persson]

Second, we see romantic love—what the Greeks called eros—in the “hot love” of Hamlet and Ophelia (yes, that’s an actual phrase from the play). Eros also appears in Gertrude’s marriages—first to King Hamlet, then to Claudius – which are reflected upon in the extended discourse on love between the Player King and Player Queen during the play-within-the-play.

Third, we encounter familial love, which the Greeks called storge. “If thou didst ever thy dear father love,” the Ghost tells Prince Hamlet, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” This form of love also appears in the Fortinbras family and the Polonius family. Hamlet even pits his eros for Ophelia against Laertes’s storge: “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers / Could not, with all their quantity of love, / Make up my sum.” Similarly, Gertrude and Claudius’s eros challenges Gertrude and Prince Hamlet’s storge.

These three forms of love each undergo the three vicissitudes of love identified in the play. First, fortune leads love. As the play-within-the-play asks, “For ’tis a question left us yet to prove, / Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love.” Did Claudius’s love for Gertrude lead him to murder his brother, or did the death of King Hamlet lead to Gertrude and Claudius’s love? Hamlet says his mother’s “lust, though to a radiant angel link’d, / Will sate itself in a celestial bed, / And prey on garbage.”

Second, love hurts. This is what Polonius refers to as “the pangs of despised love.” Ophelia’s love for Hamlet is not returned (she feels); Hamlet’s love for Gertrude is not returned (he feels). “Truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love,” Polonius says.

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[Photo: Johan Persson]

Third, there is love’s ecstasy. It makes us do crazy things, as Polonius says of Hamlet’s madness:

This is the very ecstasy of love,
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings
As oft as any passion under heaven
That does afflict our natures.

Love turns us from cold calculating machines into living beings who make decisions based not entirely on reason but instead on emotion. Love makes us happy, but also causes us to make mistakes when emotion exerts more of a pull upon decision-making than reason. Claudius’s “shameful lust” for Gertrude motivated his political crime. Hamlet becomes “passion’s slave” after the death of his father. After Ophelia’s death, Hamlet attacks her brother’s love: “Why I will fight with him upon this theme / Until my eyelids will no longer wag.”

After King Hamlet dies, succession transfers through romantic love, not familial love. Laertes warns Ophelia that love for Hamlet must be political, not personal. Hamlet’s love for his father is the basis for his revenge. Polonius and Laertes’s love for Ophelia is the basis of their misogyny. Hamlet gets caught between his love for his father and his love for Ophelia. Ophelia’s love for Hamlet, Polonius, and Laertes is the source of her tragedy. Gertrude’s love for Claudius is the source of hers. The centerpiece of Hamlet, the play-within-the-play, is all about the inconstancy of love.

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[Photo: Johan Persson]

Shakespeare was not saying that we should not love others. He was not a Buddhist asking us to detach ourselves from worldly cares. In our everyday lives, we all love all sorts of people in all sorts of ways, and it doesn’t end in tragedy. Love is a source of joy, a feeling of togetherness, a sense of belonging. Shakespeare wrote many comedies about the joys of love working out in the end. He also wrote Romeo and Juliet, where love is not the source of tragedy as much as the sacrificial calf: love actually doesn’t conquer all.

But, in Hamlet, love causes tragedy to happen. Why? What does it mean to say that the tragedy in Hamlet happens because of love? And why would Shakespeare see love as tragic? What are the circumstances in which love is tragic?

Love is tragic in Hamlet because the governmental system in place forces family dynamics to spill over into politics: in a dynastic monarchy, small-scale family drama has large-scale social consequences. Dynastic monarchy brings the emotion that usually characterizes family drama into government, which is supposed to run on reason rather than emotion. That’s because love personalizes and makes passionate decisions that social institutions try to render impersonal and objective. Hamlet shows what happens when the dynamics that govern our private lives come to have consequences for public policy.

To say that love is tragic in Hamlet is to suggest that monarchy is doomed to collapse. To view Hamlet as a tragedy of love is to observe that the themes usually seen as central to the play—revenge, uncertainty, madness, loss, despair—do not come into existence without the precondition of love. Hamlet never seeks revenge if he doesn’t love his father so much. Ophelia never loses her mind if she doesn’t love hers so much. But these love stories only have massive social consequences because the form of government in place is heavily contingent on who and how the ruling family loves, whether it’s philiaeros, or storge.

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[Photo: Johan Persson]

This tragedy of love—where emotion and intimacy short circuit the workings of government—appears in examples ranging from the succession crisis of Elizabeth I to the pseudo-dynastic administration of Donald Trump. One would think that, if love is tragic only in the context of monarchy, then most people in the twenty-first century need not worry. Yet the tensions love creates in the petty kingdoms of our families and friends often feel like tragic love. If, as Arthur Miller insisted, contra Aristotle, there can be a tragedy of the common person—if tragedy is not exclusive to the upper echelon of society—then tragic love survives on the smaller scale of the communities, not kingdoms, we inhabit. Whenever a parent disapproves of a boyfriend, or two people grieve the loss of a loved one in different ways, tragic love is possible.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this article and would like to read more, please donate to Shakespeare Magazine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard University, where he teaches the “Why Shakespeare?” section of the university’s first-year writing course. He is the author of two books, Shakespeare and Trump and Shakespeare and Game of Thrones. This piece comes from the Essays on Hamlet project, which asks big conceptual questions about the play with the urgency of a Shakespeare lover, and answers them with the rigor of a Shakespeare scholar. His work has appeared in journals such as Modern Language Quarterly, Genre, and College Literature, and been featured in public venues including National Public Radio, Literary Hub, Zocalo Public Square, and MLA’s Profession. Find him on Twitter: @DrJeffreyWilson.

Shakespeare Reinvented or just another Tragedy of Errors? Earlier this year, we live-Tweeted our lockdown viewing of the opulent 2018 Ophelia film directed by Claire McCarthy which starred Daisy Ridley, Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. Here it is in all its irreverent glory…

Right, it’s 8.06pm UK time – let’s watch Ophelia. (Hits ‘Play’)

Creepy skull in crown logo, very Shakespearean gothic.

Quickly introducing all the main characters.

Claudius is a total rogue, played by Clive Owen.

Hamlet is just 15, which is about the right age for a student Prince in those days.

Naomi Watts as an ethereal Gertrude.

This film has absolutely gorgeous colours.

Little girl Ophelia is press-ganged into becoming a lady-in-waiting.

Now she’s grown-up Ophelia (played by Daisy Ridley), the other ladies-in-waiting think she’s common.

But her super-power is… she can read.

Daisy Ridley in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing) (02)

Gertrude mentions a sister. COULD THIS BE RELEVANT?

Ah, the Queen is getting Ophelia to read something a bit racy. Trying to figure out what it is. Boccaccio perhaps?

Hamlet has grown, and is “Every inch a king” – King Lear reference.

Hamlet and Horatio catch Ophelia having a swim.

Hang on, when she ran away she was completely dry?

Back at the castle, Ophelia tells the story of Diana and Actaeon.

I really like the way the film takes us into the castle’s nooks and crannies. Very immersive, almost 3D.

Uh-oh. Claudius is making a move on Gertrude. Hope her dangly earrings don’t get tangled in his lusty locks.

Ophelia sees all, of course.

Hamlet is suddenly madly in love with Ophelia, having spent about three minutes in her company.

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“I’m afraid I dance like a goat,” she tells him.

Great little sword-fighting scene with Claudius winding up Hamlet.

The camera moves around a lot, and tries to show us what several characters are thinking.

Next, a Romeo and Juliet-style ball scene.

Again, I’m loving the colours and immersive sense of intimacy and depth.

Oh dear, having kissed Ophelia, Hamlet is heading back to university.

And Gertrude has sent Ophelia into the forest to see a Witch…

Now Ophelia has turned into Little Red Riding Hood.

The witch lives in a luxurious 5-star hovel.

Hang on! The witch is Gertrude’s twin sister!

Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing)

She’s also Gertrude’s drug dealer.

Back at the castle, King Hamlet tells Gertrude that Claudius is quite literally a bastard. (Quite an interesting idea, actually)

Which hasn’t stopped Gertrude heading straight to the ramparts, presumably to meet Claudius.

Grown-up Laertes is played by Tom Felton.

He says that Horatio bribed a grave digger to get hold of a corpse.

HE DID WHAT?

King Hamlet is dead, bitten by a snake in the culmination of all the snake references that have already piled up in the film’s first 35 minutes.

Got to say, though, this is one of the nicest-looking films I’ve seen in a long time.

Claudius has been elected king, but Hamlet is back in time for the funeral, I mean wedding.

The film’s dialogue is a bit clunky, but Clive Owen is doing a commendable job.

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing)

Tom Felton a troubled, sensitive Laertes.

Polonius does his famous speech…

The film’s biggest problem is that the actors playing Ophelia and Hamlet don’t feel quite right for the parts.

The other problem is that Ophelia isn’t very likeable.

I feel quite sorry for all these blokes putting up with her endless snark.

The witch tells her origin story.

It involves a highly improbable Romeo and Juliet potion, what scholars of cinema would refer to as a “magical bullshit device”.

Also, if Claudius really did get her pregnant, where was her sister Gertrude during all this?

The film now seems to have turned into Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, with an obliging Friar conducting Ophelia and Hamlet’s secret marriage and tasteful firelit wedding night montage.

The mood at the castle is now paranoid.

Daisy Ridley in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing) (03)

Claudius and Gertrude are doing drugs together.

Fickle Gertrude is being cruel to Ophelia.

Claudius has decided to enlist Ophelia in his schemes.

Okay, here’s the big twist.

In the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene, Ophelia and Hamlet are play-acting for the watching Claudius and Polonius, while having an urgent whispered conversation.

The Players have arrived, but we suspect Hamlet has gone mad for real because he’s wearing eyeliner.

Turns out he really wants Ophelia to go to a nunnery, because she’ll be safe there.

“You erased me,” Ophelia tells Gertrude. CLUNK.

Ophelia wakes up to be told Hamlet has killed Polonius (Ophelia’s dad).

Wonder if this might possibly place a strain on Hamlet and Ophelia’s secret marriage…

George MacKay and Daisy Ridley in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing)

Laertes is back, in a rage.

And Ophelia is being forced to marry one of Claudius’s guards.

The bitchiest lady-in-waiting tells Ophelia she’s fat.

(Hmm, as we never see her eating anything, what could possibly be the reason for her weight gain?)

The bitchiest lady-in-waiting also tells Ophelia that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have killed Hamlet.

Ophelia contemplates suicide in various picturesque locations.

The ever-patient Horatio reckons Hamlet is still alive.

Claudius rumbles Ophelia and flings her in jail.

Resourceful Ophelia breaks out 30 seconds later.

She grabs some flowers and charges into the royal banquet, singing and pretending to be mad.

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Claudius has this “Oh God, what is that brat doing now?” expression on his face.

This film certainly isn’t dull, it’s racing along.

But there’s no time to digest anything.

Ophelia escapes (again), glugs the magic bullshit device – er, I mean potion – and proceeds to apparently drown in the style of an iconic Pre-Raphaelite painting.

But she’s not dead, and obliging amateur grave-robber Horatio has kindly dug her up.

Ophelia is looking extremely dry and well-groomed for someone who was recently fished out of a pond.

Also, her brand-new coffin is remarkably free of soil…

Gertrude’s witch sister still loves Claudius.

Oh no, now she doesn’t.

She’s gone to betray him to the invading army.

Naomi Watts in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing)

Gertrude appears in her witch sister’s lair.

This is becoming a tragedy of errors.

Hamlet is back, and about to have a sword fight with Laertes.

Ophelia has short hair, so no-one recognises her, and she’s calling herself – favourite minor Shakespearean character alert! – Osric.

But Hamlet won’t listen to her, so she dumps him.

Impressively, Ophelia has done something that characters almost never do in films – she’s got out while there’s still plenty of time.

I mean, the sword fight hasn’t even begun yet, and she’s already jumped in a boat and rowed about a mile from the castle.

Minor point, but there seems to be some confusion as to whether this scene is taking place during daytime or at night.

The sword fight is still in progress, but pregnant Ophelia has already managed to ditch her rowing boat and climb a mountain…

Ah, I see. We’re being shown Ophelia’s long journey (of self-discovery) to the nunnery as events at the castle play out in a different time scheme.

Clive Owen in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing)

She’s now piloting a horse and cart.

What next? A skateboard?

Holy Moly! Gertrude has just run Claudius through with Hamlet’s sword.

Meanwhile, Ophelia must have travelled a long way, because she’s approaching a mountain range, and one thing Denmark doesn’t have is any mountains.

It’s all kicking off at the castle.

Laertes drops dead.

Gertrude contemplates a potion overdose.

The Norwegian army comes crashing in, led by a terrifying bloke on a horse (presumably Fortinbras) and with Gertrude’s vengeful witch sister in tow.

I think this scene of slaughter would be really chilling if there was no music.

The ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’ song doesn’t really work with these visuals.

Daisy Ridley in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing) (01)

And there’s a stunning overhead shot of the aftermath, but it’s spoiled by Ophelia’s voiceover.

Ophelia’s telling us how great she is, and she seems to feel there’s this titanic, cosmic dimension to her adventure.

But all she’s really done is get pregnant and do a runner.

It’s not exactly epic.

And thus ‘Ophelia’ ends.

I like this film, but find it frustrating.

It’s touted as a feminist re-write of Shakespeare, but it still leaves most of the heavy lifting to Shakespeare.

Still, it’s visually beautiful and has a strong cast.

What did you think?

OPHELIA-Poster

Go here to buy or rent Ophelia.

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Watch Hamlet (George MacKay) take on Claudius (Clive Owen) in this Exclusive Clip from director Claire McCarthy’s new Shakespeare-inspired film OPHELIA starring Daisy Ridley in the title role, with Naomi Watts as Gertrude and Tom Felton as Laertes

OPHELIA is screening in selected UK cinemas from Friday 22 November, and will then be available on demand from Wednesday 27 November on these platforms: iTunes, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Rakuten, Chili.

A full Shakespeare Magazine review of OPHELIA will follow shortly.

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Soul-searching with Scott: Irish actor Andrew Scott delivered an “exquisite, fragile” performance in Robert Icke’s “electrifying, heart-wrenching production” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, writes Clare Petre

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Director Robert Icke’s exceptional contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s most famous play has had plenty of time to sit. Indeed, London has seen two further Hamlets (Tom Hiddleston’s and Benet Brandreth’s) since this formidable piece of theatre closed, but Andrew Scott’s is the one that seems to haunt the capital. With its soundtrack of some of Bob Dylan’s most touching songs, this electrifying, heart-wrenching production has plunged a poisoned foil into the hearts of thousands.
Andrew Scott’s exquisite, fragile Hamlet was offset beautifully by Jessica Brown-Findlay’s graceful yet physically strong Ophelia (her dance background was evident throughout), whose weakness, ironically, lay in her attempting to convince herself and the court of her strength.

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I have seen criticism of the “monotony” of Angus Wright’s Claudius, as if his performance left something to be desired. I disagree – Wright is an accomplished actor and his Claudius was cunningly crafted. He left us in no doubt as to how Derbhle Crotty’s elegant and likeable Gertrude, in the midst of her confusion and grief, was attracted to his lupine, prowling figure but saw the error of her ways so quickly in the closet scene.
Peter Wight’s Polonius was apparently succumbing to the insidious effects of dementia, but his performance lost none of the character’s levity.

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Aided by a cast of such strength, the play felt so fresh that some of its most famous and often most laboured words became unfamiliar. Icke’s daring direction served to emphasise this by giving several of the play’s best known moments entirely new readings – Laertes’ plea to use another foil as the one he has chosen is “too heavy”, for example, became a sudden second thought – a desperate and urgent cry to avoid the inevitable and perhaps use a foil untainted with poison. He became a man torn between his loyalty to the court, and his desire to forgive Hamlet and begin to define a better future. For the duel scene itself Shakespeare’s words were all but abandoned, the fight performed as a dumb-show to Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet”. Emotionally manipulative? Perhaps. Facile? Possibly. Heart-breaking? Undeniably.

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This production’s outstanding competence lay in giving its audience the opportunity to share grief and express its own, usually muted, sorrows. Shared emotion equates to shared humanity. A fully paid-up member of Generation X, I cannot remember a more (over)dramatic outpouring of love and grief than that which we witnessed after the death of Princess Diana, which has been much discussed of late, it being the 20th anniversary of the Paris crash. There was, at the time, an extraordinary and tribal response to her carefully orchestrated funeral.
With Diana, we were not mourning the death of a princess so much as celebrating the opportunity to experience human communality. So with Hamlet, while we feel acutely his pain, Ophelia’s, Gertrude’s, we mourn our own tragedies as they are reflected upon the stage. When we weep for Hamlet and his fellow characters, we are weeping for our own grief and for the sense of loss which might permeate our own lives, but using Shakespeare’s writing as a conduit. To paraphrase Gertrude, this Elsinore turned our eyes into our very souls.

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I fell in love with Hamlet 30 years ago and in that time many interpretations have come and gone. But it is Andrew Scott’s that has remained with me above all others, and which will do until usurped. I suspect I am in for a long wait.

This performance of Hamlet took place on Monday 24 July 2017 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London

It’s a dream date for lovers of Shakespeare’s words – David and Ben Crystal talking about The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary

The Crystals
Salisbury Arts Centre, 31 May 2015.

“Never has there been such a pretty book as this one,” declares David Crystal, with a proud and delighted smile at the cover of The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary on the projector screen behind him. He and his son Ben are at Salisbury Arts Centre as part of the Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival, to talk to a packed audience about Shakespeare’s world and words.

‘Talk’ is the wrong word for this event: the father and son team deliver something closer to a comedy double act, bringing their subject alive with jovial camaraderie and unshakeable delight in all things Shakespeare. Ben bounds onto the stage as if taking a curtain call, dressed in jeans with a fob watch on a chain hanging from one pocket. David combines a tweed jacket with the kindly, slightly eccentric manner of Professor Dumbledore, and enunciates words like “in-carn-a-dine” as if they were magic spells.

David Crystal has written or edited over 100 books on language and linguistics, four of which he co-wrote with actor and producer Ben. Published this year, The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary combines David’s passion for words with Ben’s knowledge of – and love of experimenting with – Shakespeare. The dictionary is aimed at students of Shakespeare of all nationalities and ages from 11 up, and covers the 12 most studied of Shakespeare’s plays, according to a poll of school teachers from around the world.

Ben Crystal by Piper Williams

Ben Crystal by Piper Williams

There are approximately one million different words in the complete works of Shakespeare (though none beginning with the letter ‘X’). But, David asserts, only around five per cent are significantly different to those we use today. The dictionary guides students through this five per cent, drawing particular attention to ‘false friends’ like ‘rehearse’ or ‘impress,’ which did not mean the same thing for Shakespeare as they do today.

Despite the book’s title, David considers it closer to an encyclopaedia than a dictionary. “Words by themselves aren’t the whole story,” he says. “More important than that is an introduction to Shakespeare’s world.”
Kate Bellamy’s bold illustrations certainly help provide this for the reader – the double page featuring 11 historically accurate illustrations of different kinds of sword is a particular highlight.

The authors hope their style will help students feel comfortable asking questions like ‘What is an arras actually like?’ or ‘Why is Hamlet surprised to find Polonius in Gertrude’s closet?’ The answer to the latter was news to me – a closet was a small antechamber off the main bedroom, containing very little besides, frequently, a large tapestry (aka arras). In Gertrude’s case, the tapestry might have covered a passage to her husband’s chamber, so Hamlet would expect to see no one but Claudius in this intimate space.

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Ben is passionate about “the idea we’re allowed to be rough with Shakespeare, to grab him by the… doublet and hose and, well, shake him about a bit.” Shaking things about is exactly what this talk does: the pair intersperse discussions of pedagogy and neologisms with a game of charades, David attempting to mime things like ‘soliloquy’ and ‘Father Chaucer,’ and Ben explaining them to the audience.

The Crystals’ engaging blend of comedy and academia has the audience laughing and enthusiastically asking questions. As their talk draws to a close Salisbury Arts Centre is buzzing with Shakespeare’s words.

Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary is in bookshops now. Or order it here.

Ben and David will be exploring Original Pronunciation (including an OP performance of Henry V) at Shakespeare’s Globe on 16 and 26 July

Go here to read a full interview with Ben Crystal in Shakespeare Magazine 06.

Even people who aren’t sure what a soliloquy is know that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is the most famous soliloquy in theatre history. There’s just one problem. It’s not actually a soliloquy.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

 

“To be or not to be…”

Spoken by the title character of Hamlet, the most famous speech in the history of theatre is 34 lines and 271 words long. Apart from providing titles for (or being quoted in) countless other plays, poems, novels, TV shows and movies, it has also appeared on posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and keyrings. It’s even been translated into Klingon (“taH pagh taHbe”). There are at least 379,000 hits on the internet for the first line alone.

This speech is many, many things. One thing it is not, however, is a soliloquy.

Maxine Peake's Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

The image of the ‘lone prince’, so endemic on the stage, duly made the transition to TV and motion pictures. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version placed Hamlet alone on a windswept tower of Elsinore. Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 version is another lone Hamlet, this time walking along the Danish shore. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film sees Hamlet alone in his father’s sepulchre. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film places Hamlet in a mirrored hall, practically alone but for Ophelia hiding out of sight. Peter Wellington’s 2003 adaptation of the speech for the series Slings & Arrows features a seated, lone Hamlet. Gregory Doran’s 2009 TV adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet has David Tennant’s Hamlet all alone, with Ophelia scurrying off immediately before the speech and tromping back on just as he finishes saying “Soft you now.”

New play 'Women Playing Hamlet' offers a fresh take on "To be or not to be" in 2015.

New play ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ offers a fresh take on “To be or not to be” in 2015.

Despite the entrenchment of the lone Hamlet on our cultural understanding of Hamlet, when we study the six quarto and three folio printings that comprise the original texts, we find the following: one, that the famous speech cannot be a soliloquy; two, that the entering Hamlet should know he is being spied upon; three, that Ophelia’s presence must be addressed; and, fourth and lastly, that Hamlet may be reading as he enters the scene.
My methodology does need some explanation. I believe in the primacy of the text: dramatic texts are the most important factor in creating a production. The words of a text are the skeleton of a play, and basing one’s interpretation on elements not in the text is problematic at best. Now, I’m not trying to say there is only one way of doing any play or moment from a play. I only distinguish between two kinds of performances – those that agree with the text and those that do not.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2007 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2007 Hamlet.

Soliloquies feature lone speakers, but all nine original Hamlet printings agree that Hamlet is not alone, as Ophelia is also onstage throughout the speech. Therefore, the classical understanding of “soliloquy” does not apply.
Further, the “To be or not to be” speech features none of the characteristics of Hamlet’s actual soliloquies. In those speeches, he follows a pattern – he speaks about Claudius, the late King Hamlet, and, usually, Gertrude. Hamlet does discuss his family with some other characters, but when he knows he is accompanied by potential spies, he stays away from the topic of his family. The “What a piece of work is a man” speech, delivered just after Hamlet discovers he cannot trust Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, is an elaborate deception. When Hamlet delivers his speech to appease his friends-turned-spies, he does not mention the circumstances of his father’s murder. He only mentions the King and Queen as the people to whom Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must report.
“I will tell you why, so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather.”

Gamut Theatre's 2015 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2015 Hamlet.

Since “To be or not to be” takes place with others on stage, and since it deviates from the patterns Shakespeare established in Hamlet’s actual soliloquies, it cannot be a soliloquy. Since the speech is not a soliloquy, it cannot be staged as a soliloquy and still be faithful to the text. Text-based stagings focus on what is written. For instance, Hamlet, entering into the scene, knows he is being observed. The original printings agree that, by this moment in the play, Hamlet has discovered that his schoolmates have been dispatched by the King to spy on him. Further, all but one of the printings agree that Hamlet enters into the scene because he has been sent for by the King. The remaining printing, the First Quarto, does not mention this at all. What happens next is a strange division; all folio printings agree that the King and Polonius hide before Hamlet enters, while all quartos state they exit after Hamlet enters.

Peter O'Toole's legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

Peter O’Toole’s legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

The quarto texts allow Hamlet to see the King and his crony hide; Hamlet would clearly know he is being spied upon. In all three folio printings, the King and Polonius exit before Hamlet enters the scene. Even if a director chooses the folio option, it is still reasonable that Hamlet knows he is being spied upon. Hamlet already suspects Claudius on some level before the action of the play, as evidenced by his response to the Ghost’s news that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father: “O my prophetic soul! / Mine uncle?”
The King has just sent for Hamlet. If, as in the folios, Hamlet enters not seeing the King and Polonius, he still has another reason to be suspicious: the King is absent, but Ophelia is directly in his path.
Brooke Hamlet Scarf
Let’s talk about Ophelia and the issue of the silent actor. In order to stage the scene, we must have a better understanding of Ophelia and her relationship with Hamlet. She has only appeared twice before, in scenes revolving around her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia speaks on this subject with her father, Polonius, saying her relationship with Hamlet is an honorable and affectionate one that has included every promise, save that of matrimony. Polonius dismisses this as Hamlet merely wanting to master her chaste treasure and commands her to never see Hamlet again.
When Ophelia is placed in Hamlet’s way, she is being used to provoke her boyfriend into showing why he is behaving so strangely. This is part of Polonius’ plan to discover if Hamlet is mad for his daughter’s love. Claudius accedes to the plan and, immediately before Hamlet’s entrance, describes his plan to Gertrude, that Hamlet should “affront” Ophelia.
The meaning of the word “affront” is crucial: “to put oneself in the way of so as to meet; to accost, address.” By strategically placing Ophelia onstage, Polonius and Claudius mean for her to come face to face with Hamlet so they can hear what follows between them. As a result, Ophelia could be Hamlet’s audience, either in part or in whole.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2001 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2001 Hamlet.

Before this passionate meeting, there is one more discovery to address: what Hamlet is doing as he enters the scene. The First Quarto offers a fascinating option. In it, before Hamlet enters for “To be or not to be”, the King says, “see where he comes poring upon a book.” This is similar to Gertrude’s statement in an earlier scene, “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading,” which appears in all other printings of the story. It may be the First Quarto misplaces Hamlet’s entrance, but this anomaly bears study. Hamlet does have a book in other scenes, so a Hamlet who enters reading can be textually valid. In fact, the book he reads may still exist.
Douce in 1839 and Hunter in 1845 noted that Girolamo Cardano’s 1576 book Comfort includes passages very similar to a portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“…saying, that [death] did not only remove sickness and all other griefs but… what should we accompt of death to be resembled to anything better then sleep… and to die is said to sleep.”
Compare all this talk of death, the easing of griefs, and sleeping to this famous portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”

Gamut Theatre's 2011 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2011 Hamlet.

A reading Hamlet opens up a new possibility to the speech. If Hamlet is reading about death, his speech might refer to the book. Shakespeare gives us a similar situation in Henry IV, Part One, where, examining a letter from a confederate, Hotspur reads a phrase and then makes a scathing response. If this formula were applied to Hamlet’s speech, “the question” may refer to ideas raised in the book itself. A staging using this reading can allow the prop to help explain why Hamlet is in this frame of mind.
Studying the original texts with a respect for their primacy reveals that the cherished long-established vision of Hamlet simply does not agree with the text. The options revealed by the text and its established circumstances are many and must be explored in a production. After studying the evidence, I staged the scene two different ways. In the first, Hamlet entered reading, responded to the book like Hotspur in Henry IV, and discussed the contents with Ophelia. In the second staging, I took Hamlet’s book away, allowed him to see Claudius and Polonius exit, and had him confess his dark thoughts to Ophelia.
The first staging was greatly intellectual. Hamlet mused about the ideas of death, sharing them on that level with Ophelia. This Hamlet is the consummate philosopher, matching wits with Ophelia and even referring to the book she is carrying. The concepts of death and release are explored with great cerebral impact, so much so that, in directing a full production, I can easily see Hamlet reading voraciously through the early stages of the play.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

The second staging focused upon the circumstances of the characters. Hamlet, knowing he is spied upon, takes refuge in the arms of his forbidden love but is unable to tell her the whole truth of his problems. Ophelia, torn by duty to her father, her King, and her love, must react to Hamlet’s considering death and suicide. This staging speaks to the troubles as written by Shakespeare and had great emotional and visceral impact. Similar to the first staging, I can see a full production of this sort of Hamlet.
These are two very different interpretations of the “To be or not to be” speech, but it is vital to remember they are both based on Shakespeare’s texts.
“So what?” you may be thinking. “Why is this important?” Well, for hundreds of years the theatre world has embraced a version of Hamlet that does not agree with the words Shakespeare wrote. Elsewhere in Hamlet, Shakespeare commands “suit the action to the word”, charging us to base our versions of his work on the words he left behind. He did the job of a playwright well, creating the skeleton of his plays. It falls to us to give that skeleton a heart, a soul, and scars.

This article originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.