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.

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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.

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

Shakespeare Magazine reader Cindy M Cohen tells us why she decided to adorn her skin with a bespoke Hamlet and Sons of Anarchy-themed tattoo

“To thine own self be true.” 

These are the words Polonius says to his departing son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

And sure, it’s very good advice, but as my old English Literature teacher pointed out back in my days as a “liceo linguistico” pupil in Italy, it reveals the man’s rather selfish attitude as well.

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This duality of the quote touched me deeply the first time I heard it. So when I decided I wanted a tattoo revolving around Shakespeare – the author who made me fall in love with the English language and whose plays I’ll never tire of seeing produced and re-envisioned – it was my first choice.

(Hamlet, if not my favourite play, is definitely in my top three)

However, given the vast popularity of the quote and its use (and misuse) in our everyday lives, I knew I didn’t want a simple basic lettering tattoo but something bigger, perhaps with a more traditional style.

Photo by Luca Braidotti

Photo by Luca Braidotti

 

One of my favourite TV shows has been Sons of Anarchy – from its very start to its Shakespeare-worthy ending.

If you’re not familiar with the show, it is Hamlet re-set in a motorcycle club.

One of the tattoos we see on the women of said club is a crow. So what better idea than to base my own tattoo on that one, to link the show to our own “upstart crow”?

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I brought the original design and my idea to Luca Braidotti at Cold Street Tattoos in Udine, Italy.

He took care of all the alterations, re-designing the crow and adding the parchment with the quote.

After about four hours, a little bit of blood, a tad of bearable pain, and a bright red and swollen inside part of my forearm, my long desired Shakespeare-themed tattoo was done.

My very own original permanent tribute to the Bard, a reminder to keep true to myself and what I believe in, and my little homage to one of my favourite TV shows.

Photo by Luca Braidotti

Photo by Luca Braidotti


Currently based in Udine, Italy, Cindy is a 23-year-old student of Arts, Music, and Entertainment.

Find her on Twitter @itsCindyC