The King of Denmark, Old Hamlet, has recently died and his brother, Claudius, has married his widow, Gertrude, and
been elected King. Prince Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father who describes how he was secretly murdered by
Claudius and swears him to remember and revenge.
To escape suspicion, Hamlet feigns madness, which the elder statesman,
Polonius, believes to be caused by love for his daughter, Ophelia, whom
the Prince had previously courted but now cruelly discards.
Hamlet's chance to verify the Ghost's story comes when a group of players
arrives at court and he has them play a scene similar to his father's
murder before his uncle, who stops the play and hurries out, deeply disturbed.
Summoned to his mother's chamber to be scolded, Hamlet hears someone spying
on them and instantly draws his sword and stabs through the curtain, killing
Polonius. Hamlet is arrested and agrees to be sent to England, not knowing
that his companions carry his death warrant.
While Hamlet is away, Ophelia goes mad and her brother Laertes, who has
returned demanding revenge for his father's death, is shocked first by
her madness and then by her death, reportedly by drowning. When letters
arrive from Hamlet announcing his return, Claudius persuades Laertes to
kill Hamlet in an arranged fencing match using a sharp, envenomed foil
while Claudius prepares a poisoned goblet, as a fallback.
Hamlet returns during Ophelia's funeral and after wrestling with Laertes
in her grave, accepts the challenge. The king's plot back-fires when Hamlet,
though fatally wounded, turns the poisoned sword on Laertes, and, after
his mother dies in agony from drinking the poisoned cup, he kills Claudius.
Finally Hamlet also dies.
Stratfordian scholars generally agree on late 1599 as the date for Shakespeare's
initial composition of Hamlet and 1601 for its completion, although
a play of the same name, which academics distinguish as the Ur-Hamlet
(and attribute to Thomas Kyd on the basis of a single piece of flimsy
evidence), is known to have existed as early as 1589. A version of Hamlet
was certainly performed in June 1594 and in 1596 Thomas Lodge described
the "ghost which cried so much at The Theatre, like an oyster-wife,
Hamlet, revenge." The Oxfordian scholar, Charlton Ogburn, argues that
the real writer wrote his first version in 1586, and revised it periodically
until he died in 1604, whereupon "the true and perfect Coppie",
the Second Quarto, was published, "enlarged to almost as much againe
as it was" from the pirated bad First Quarto of the previous year.
While the earliest reference to the legend of Hamlet occurs in an eleventh
century Icelandic poem, the earliest written version of the story appears
in Saxo Grammaticus's twelfth century Historiae Danicae, and tells
of Amleth (derived from the Old Norse word for idiot), Prince of Jutland.
When his uncle Feng murders his father and marries his mother, Amleth
escapes death himself by pretending to be a harmless fool, and after similar
adventures to our Hamlet (plus marrying the King of England's daughter),
he kills Feng, burns his palace with all of the court inside, is elected
ruler of Jutland and lives to die in battle a few years later. Francois
de Belleforest retells the story in his Histoires tragiques of
1570, and it is on this account that the play is based, although the Stratfordians
curiously attribute the structural diversions from the Belleforest version
to the more creative unknown writer of the Ur-Hamlet, reducing
their Shake-speare to a mere hack word-smith.
The first 'bad' Quarto of the Tragical Historie of Hamlet Prince of
Denmarke by William Shake-speare was published in 1603 and is generally
thought to be a pirated 'reported' text, as remembered by a journeyman
actor who had played Marcellus and Lucianus in Shakespeare's company.
The Second Quarto was hastily published the following year and while it
has some 3,800 lines compared to the First Quarto's 2,200 it also abounds
with errors. The First Folio was printed in 1623, and contains 70 lines
not in the Second Quarto and cuts 230 lines from it. Hibbard's view is
"that the Second Quarto represents Shakespeare's first draft of his
play; that the Folio text is essentially his revision to that first draft,
together with some additions to it; and that the First Quarto is a reported
version of an abridgement of this revised text." That the Folio probably
represents Shakespeare's own revisions to his first draft suggests that
it was prepared either from the prompt-book at The Globe or from a fair-copy
made by the author himself, and of the three versions it is certainly
the most actor-friendly.
'I have seen the worst. The very worst. The most worst. The utmost,
boring, uncut versions - as if there was something virtuous and nourishing
about an uncut Hamlet. All it does is to reveal the imbecility of the
director and cast and makes for a bad evening, since the uncutting implies
a wholly ingratiating attitude which will impede any real insights (i.e.
challenge, life, light, imagination) into the play.' (Steven Berkoff,
I am Hamlet, 1989, Faber & Faber).
In cutting the text, my objective was to produce a coherent version, performable, at speed, by seven actors within two
hours, while preserving as much of the original speech and narrative as possible.
Although I have studied nearly two dozen stage and screen productions,
I have followed no single authority other than my own sense of what works
and the preface to the 5th Quarto:- 'The play being too long to be
conveniently Acted, such places as might be least prejudicial to the Plot
or Sense, are left out upon the Stage.' I allow that the result of
my cutting has been to condense the flow of the narrative and that this
has reinforced my interpretation of Hamlet as a 'Man of Action', but in
this approach to the role I claim many famous precedents including Thomas
Betterton and through him Richard Burbage, the first Hamlet. With one
notable exception I have avoided reordering the text and I have made only
one deliberate interpolation, substituting a more modern oath for Hamlet's
retort to Polonius 'God's bodykins!' Generally I have favoured
the variants of the Folio (in The Oxford Shakespeare text, edited by G
R Hibbard, 1987) above the two Quartos, except where the latter are significantly
closer to present-day usage and so more intelligible to today's audiences.
Similarly, I have not insisted upon Elizabethan stress patterns or pronunciations
where to do so would have caused unnecessary problems to a modern ear.
Otherwise I have tried, both in the editing of the text and in its delivery, to preserve the integrity of the metre and meaning
of the original.
This article first appeared in the programme for George Dillon's production of Hamlet in 1995. Other pages from that programme are also available:
Interpretation of Hamlet
Quotes on Hamlet
Hamlet's Stage History
George Dillon, 1995
George Dillon's Tour Dates
(as of Wednesday, 26 June 2019)