The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the most varied, complex and exciting of Shakespeare’s plays, seems to have been a hit. It travelled far from the boards of the Globe. Two different printed versions soon appeared, and English players took the play to Germany. Hamlet is revived more often than any other play, reappearing on the stages and in the literatures of the world. Generations have read, performed, watched and quoted from Hamlet. Indeed the play has become so familiar in the Englishspeaking world that its reappearances in later literature are not always serious, as for example in Mr Wopsle’s comically inept performance in Great Expectations. In foreign literature it retains its tragic status. The poet Boris Pasternak, who translated several Shakespeare plays into Russian, ends his novel Dr Zhivago with the poems of his protagonist, the first of which is ‘Hamlet’, which in the English translation of 1958 begins, ‘The noise is stilled. I come out on to the stage’.1 Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ also inhabits other languages. The French know that Hamlet pondered the question Être ou ne pas être. Italian newspapers used to refer to Pope Paul VI, a scrupulous and cautious pontiff, much exercised by intractable problems, as troppo amletico.
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