Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

The commentary at the centre of this groundbreaking introduction alerts the reader to what happens on stage during a performance by showing what the text requires from actors and the choices they are offered. By this means, the Handbook demonstrates how an audience responds to plot and dramatic structure, what conflicts and issues are involved as the action unfolds, and the effects of developing expectation and variations of tension and pace.

Chapters complementing this core feature provide an account of the three original texts, the theatrical conditions of early performances, and the play's social, political and cultural contexts. Generous quotations are given from books that influenced the writing of the play, and notable productions and performances are described to illustrate a wide range of interpretations. A concluding chapter quotes from recent critics and offers a number of different ways in which to understand the significance of this tragedy which has proved its enduring appeal.

Table of Contents

1. The Texts and Early Performances

Abstract
No single authoritative text of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is available to us. In the early years of the sixteenth century, the play was printed three times from three different and, to some extent, independent manuscripts and what is now known about these publications must be the starting place for any attempt to discover what Shakespeare had in mind as he wrote. That task is enormously difficult, first because there are many variants between the texts, and because it quickly becomes apparent that some of the smallest differences will affect performance. A choice between numerous possibilities will often depend upon an imaginative response to the whole play as well as knowledge of many typographical and bibliographical details. The pursuit of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will always be adventurous and uncertain, even as its verbal brilliance, psychological insights, physical vitality and masterly storytelling engage our attention immediately. Although modern editions have been prepared with reference to all three early versions, readers should realize that there is no one and only record of what Shakespeare intended for performance.
John Russell Brown

2. The Play’s Sources and Cultural Context

Abstract
We know of no single account of Hamlet that Shakespeare followed with the close attention he gave to the sources of his history plays, and of Romeo and Juliet, or Julius Caesar. What we do know is that an earlier tragedy had been performed based on the same ancient Danish saga. No text was published but the brief references that have survived are sufficient to tell us that this early Hamlet — the Ur-Hamlet as it is usually called — was very different from Shakespeare’s both in story and in style. Its appeal had been crudely popular and, by following Latin models, unoriginal.
John Russell Brown

3. Commentary

Abstract
Battlements, a bitterly cold night, a clock striking twelve, challenges and recognitions, with worried and sceptical consultation about a ghost, all silenced by the entry of a commanding figure in complete armour: these details from the first scene of Hamlet have become clichés for dramatists, storytellers, poets, and film-makers. But when first brought together the effect on an audience might well have been to ‘harrow’ it with fear and wonder (l. 44), as it does Horatio, Hamlet’s fellow scholar from university.
John Russell Brown

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
The Tragedy of Hamlet has two great strengths in performance: a sensational and affecting central role and a story with several strands and unexpected developments that holds attention from its very first moments until it ends with an awesome inevitability. The result has been a succession of packed and enthusiastic audiences starting with the play’s earliest years and continuing with growing frequency until the present. It is now a reliable recourse and a constant challenge for all English-speaking theatres and for many others around the world, a staple of many repertoires and a reliable vehicle for launching new companies. After more than four hundred years, Hamlet remains a fixed star in the vast expanse of ever-changing theatrical possibilities. In more recent times, numerous films of Hamlet have been made.
John Russell Brown

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
Directors using the lens media learned to make good use of Shakespeare’s texts in films that have many echoes of theatrical space and performance. Their work has won a far wider audience than the most admired theatre productions. Although Hamlet is far more reliant on a brilliant use of words than any film script, its fast-moving and varied action has proved particularly well suited to a cinema screen. Inevitably, the dominance of visual images in a film has changed an audience’s experience but some qualities of the text are revealed that might well be missed by a reader or theatre audience. The play’s characters can be shown in close-up or given greater scope for movement and change in a wide filmic setting. While the dialogue will always be cut more or less drastically, the director’s handling of time and focus can heighten the impact of a few chosen words, which will be under greater control than in a theatre and from which an audience’s attention is less able to stray.
John Russell Brown

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
Ever since the early days of the play’s life, long before criticism became an established discourse, Hamlet has aroused curiosity and controversy. In 1661, John Evelyn ranked Hamlet among ‘the old plays [that] begin to disgust this refined age’ (Diary, 26 November) and yet its popular theatrical success remained beyond all doubt. For the aspiring dramatist George Farquhar (1667–1707), it had long been ‘the darling of the English Audience, and like to continue with the same applause, in defiance of all the criticism that were ever publish’d in Greek, and Latin’ (Discourse upon Comedy, 1702). As a tragedy, however, it was to remain morally and psychologically puzzling: its hero was not exemplary, its action neither regular nor inevitable. In his edition of 1765, Samuel Johnson identified ‘variety’ as the play’s distinguishing excellence but objected that some scenes ‘neither forward nor retard’ the action and that Hamlet is ‘rather an instrument than an agent’:
After he has, by the stratagem of the play, convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish him, and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet has no part in producing. The catastrophe is not very happily produced; the exchange of weapons is rather an expedient of necessity, than a stroke of art. The poet is accused of having shown little regard to poetical justice, and may be charged with equal neglect of poetical probability.
John Russell Brown
Additional information