The story of Hamlet was already over four centuries old when Shakespeare wrote his play. There really was a 10th-century prince of Denmark named “Amleth,” according to Saxo Grammaticus, a 12th-century historian.¹ However, Saxo’s story of Amleth was written two centuries after the prince lived, so it is likely embroidered with threads from several legends. Mentions of an unlucky Scandanavian king come with several spellings of the name (Amleth, Anlaf, Hamblet, and yes, Hamlet) as well as variations on how his life ended.
Not only was the story of a revenging prince well known in Europe, Elizabethan audiences had seen a Hamlet play just six years before Shakespeare’s debuted. Descriptions of it lead some scholars to believe it was written by Thomas Kyd, a playwright who’s Spanish Tragedy contains similar verse styling, while other scholars mention it as a possible early draft by Shakespeare himself. Regardless of author, that play is lost.
John Corbin says a French play, Hystorie of Hamblet (published in 1570 and still in print almost forty years later), inspired both the lost play and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.² He asserts that this “sustained” popularity is “of the utmost importance in judging the influence it exerted.” Like the French play, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a King murdered by his brother, who then marries the Queen; a nephew-now-stepson who feigns madness and passes tests of whether his madness is genuine; a counselor hidden in the Queen’s chamber who is killed by Hamlet; Hamlet’s trip to England and his escape from the death ordered for him; and Hamlet’s revenge of his father’s death on the uncle-King and his courtiers. In others words, the broad outline of the play resembles the French plot.
Two things set Shakespeare’s Hamlet apart from earlier ones. First is his staging. Shakespeare’s version is more tragic than comic. We know this because Shakespeare has Hamlet coach a group of newly-hired traveling actors on the way to speak lines. “Acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness,” he says. “O, it offends me to hear…a fellow tear a passion to tatters” (3.2. 5-7). Modern audiences expect a serious tone in a tragedy, but that wasn’t the case in Shakespeare’s day. Even the bloodiest of Elizabethan plays were filled with outrageously rude and slyly indecent jokes. Corbin says Elizabethan audiences regarded “insanity, torture, and the like…conventionally amusing.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet trusts the play-within-a-play to teach the audience to pay attention without exaggerated joking. He slings stinging puns and comic turns of phrase at everyone he encounters, but Hamlet’s madness shows best as true rage and thick sarcasm. At the play’s end (5.2), Hamlet banters with Laertes throughout the sword fight, but the series of tragedies occurring on the sidelines during the contest are devoid of humorous quips.
Another unique aspect of Shakespeare’s staging was his treatment of the soliloquy. Before Hamlet, the soliloquy was expository; that is, it stops the action of the story to explain actions or add in details the audience might need. Sir Frank Kermode³ says that in Hamlet, soliloquies “took on a new kind of intensity” that allowed a character to “persuade himself” while “thinking on the stage.” The soliloquies, Germaine Greer adds, became “emotional coloring.” Ideal, then, for emphasizing the tragic over the comic.
The second, and most important, reason Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not simply a recasting of the French Historie is the language. Shakespeare was an innovator who made up words and assigned new meanings for existing ones. Ever heard someone say unpack about a concept rather than about luggage? The alternate meaning that shifts unpack from a physical task to an analytical one is Shakespeare’s doing: Hamlet calls himself “an ass” for postponing his revenge because he “must…unpack [his] heart with words” (and wow!, there are a number of things in his heart bothering him).
For one reason or another, critics often mention Hamlet as the greatest play ever written, and still many students find it impenetrable. It helps to remember plays were acted, not read. Dramatic language and figured speech let playwrights guide actors. Hamlet is not a nobleman. He’s a character in a play. Hamlet did not speak the way a nobleman really would have, nor did the gravedigger speak like a serf. Instead, the characters spoke in poetic rhythms and with phrases designed for theatre, not conversation. Germaine Greer calls spoken language “intensely suggestive and extraordinarily mysterious.”³ She means that the actor’s breath and emotions will change words in some way. (Try it yourself: use various emotions and changes in breath pattern to say any curse word. Doesn’t the meaning change from offensive when said with anger to milder when said with surprise and then to almost fond when said with a small laugh?) Speaking adds layers of meaning to even unfamiliar words. So does context. Greer says that any audience will understand dramatic speech “as much and as little as you do of daily conversation.” She is referring to the reassigned meanings we use, like sweet talk or slang, and to the times we don’t understand some of what someone is saying, but we let context help us decipher it. Dramatic language exploits all the layers that a playwright’s word choice, the actors’ voicing, and the audience’s understanding of context can bring.
If the dramatic language was changed, would students continue to cringe at the idea of Shakespeare? Michael Bogdanov, a co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company, says the “education system is at fault” for students’ dread of Shakespeare.³ Teaching Shakespeare word for antiquated word to modern students sacrifices the story. He claims that when directors use 21st-century words, audiences can “take the play seriously” rather than treat it as irrelevant. If, he says, changing “one word can unlock ten, then change it.” As evidence, he mentions the stage productions in other countries where the script must first be translated out of English. Those productions are “exciting” because they are “modern, accessible.”
In your reading, pencil the modern definitions over the older language, and then try it out loud. Shakespeare himself made up new words when older words wouldn’t do, so he wouldn’t mind.
¹ Saxo Grammaticus. The First Nine Books of Danish History, Trans. Oliver Elton London.: Folk Lore Society, 1894. Web.
² Corbin, John. The Elizabethan Hamlet: a study of the Sources, and of Shakespeare’s Environment, to show that the Mad Scenes had a Comic Aspect now Ignored. London: Elkin Mathews. 1895. Web.
³ “Shakespeare’s Work.” In Our Time. Melvyn Bragg, host. BBC Radio 4, London, 11 May 2000. Web archive.