Hamlet (Shakespeare)

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
William Shakespeare, 1603 (First Quarto)
W.W. Norton & Co.
150 pp. (plus commentary)
ISBN-13: 9780393929584

In this quintessential Shakespearean tragedy, a young prince's halting pursuit of revenge for the murder of his father unfolds in a series of highly charged confrontations that have held audiences spellbound for nearly four centuries.

Those fateful exchanges, and the anguished soliloquies that precede and follow them, probe depths of human feeling rarely sounded in any art. His father is dead. Has his mother married the killer? A ghost cries out for vengeance, but has the Prince who hears the cry gone mad? A kingdom hangs in the balance, but who can be trusted? Family, politics, blood lust, betrayal, mystery, friendship and love—each plays a role in Shakespeare's great tragedy, Hamlet. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—April 26, 1564 (baptism)
Where—Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, UK
Death—April 23, 1616
Where—Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, UK
Education—Kings New School (grammar school)

William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon." His surviving works, including some collaborations, consist of about 38 plays,[nb 3] 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and several other poems. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.

Shakespeare was born and brought up in Stratford-upon-Avon. At the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children: Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith. Between 1585 and 1592, he began a successful career in London as an actor, writer, and part owner of a playing company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later known as the King's Men. He appears to have retired to Stratford around 1613 at age 49, where he died three years later. Few records of Shakespeare's private life survive, and there has been considerable speculation about such matters as his physical appearance, sexuality, religious beliefs, and whether the works attributed to him were written by others. (See Earl of Oxford theory.)

Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1589 and 1613. His early plays were mainly comedies and histories, genres he raised to the peak of sophistication and artistry by the end of the 16th century. He then wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, considered some of the finest works in the English language. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as romances, and collaborated with other playwrights.

Many of his plays were published in editions of varying quality and accuracy during his lifetime. In 1623, two of his former theatrical colleagues published the First Folio, a collected edition of his dramatic works that included all but two of the plays now recognised as Shakespeare's.

Shakespeare was a respected poet and playwright in his own day, but his reputation did not rise to its present heights until the 19th century. The Romantics, in particular, acclaimed Shakespeare's genius, and the Victorians worshipped Shakespeare with a reverence that George Bernard Shaw called "bardolatry." In the 20th century, his work was repeatedly adopted and rediscovered by new movements in scholarship and performance. His plays remain highly popular today and are constantly studied, performed, and reinterpreted in diverse cultural and political contexts throughout the world.

Early years
William Shakespeare was the son of John Shakespeare, an alderman and a successful glover originally from Snitterfield, and Mary Arden, the daughter of an affluent landowning farmer. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon and baptised there on 26 April 1564. His actual birthdate remains unknown, but is traditionally observed on 23 April, St George's Day. This date, which can be traced back to an 18th-century scholar's mistake, has proved appealing to biographers, since Shakespeare died 23 April 1616. He was the third child of eight and the eldest surviving son.

Although no attendance records for the period survive, most biographers agree that Shakespeare was probably educated at the King's New School in Stratford, a free school chartered in 1553, about a quarter-mile from his home. Grammar schools varied in quality during the Elizabethan era, but the grammar curriculum was standardised by royal decree throughout England, and the school would have provided an intensive education in Latin grammar based upon Latin classical authors.

At the age of 18, Shakespeare married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. The consistory court of the Diocese of Worcester issued a marriage licence on November 27, 1582. The next day two of Hathaway's neighbours posted bonds guaranteeing that no lawful claims impeded the marriage. The ceremony may have been arranged in some haste, since the Worcester chancellor allowed the marriage banns to be read once instead of the usual three times, and six months after the marriage Anne gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, baptised May 26, 1583. Twins, son Hamnet and daughter Judith, followed almost two years later and were baptised February 2, 1585. Hamnet died of unknown causes at the age of 11 and was buried 11 August 1596.

After the birth of the twins, Shakespeare left few historical traces until he is mentioned as part of the London theatre scene in 1592, and scholars refer to the years between 1585 and 1592 as Shakespeare's "lost years." Biographers attempting to account for this period have reported many apocryphal stories. Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare’s first biographer, recounted a Stratford legend that Shakespeare fled the town for London to escape prosecution for deer poaching in the estate of local squire Thomas Lucy. Shakespeare is also supposed to have taken his revenge on Lucy by writing a scurrilous ballad about him. Another 18th-century story has Shakespeare starting his theatrical career minding the horses of theatre patrons in London. John Aubrey reported that Shakespeare had been a country schoolmaster. Some 20th-century scholars have suggested that Shakespeare may have been employed as a schoolmaster by Alexander Hoghton of Lancashire, a Catholic landowner who named a certain "William Shakeshafte" in his will. Little evidence substantiates such stories other than hearsay collected after his death, and Shakeshafte was a common name in the Lancashire area.

Early career
It is not known exactly when Shakespeare began writing, but contemporary allusions and records of performances show that several of his plays were on the London stage by 1592. He was well enough known in London by then to be attacked in print by the playwright Robert Greene in his Groats-Worth of Wit:

[T]here is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.

Scholars differ on the exact meaning of these words, but most agree that Greene is accusing Shakespeare of reaching above his rank in trying to match university-educated writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe and Greene himself (the "university wits"). The italicised phrase parodying the line "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3, along with the pun "Shake-scene", identifies Shakespeare as Greene's target. Here Johannes Factotum—"Jack of all trades"— means a second-rate tinkerer with the work of others, rather than the more common "universal genius."

Greene's attack is the earliest surviving mention of Shakespeare’s career in the theatre. Biographers suggest that his career may have begun any time from the mid-1580s to just before Greene's remarks. From 1594, Shakespeare's plays were performed by only the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a company owned by a group of players, including Shakespeare, that soon became the leading playing company in London. After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the company was awarded a royal patent by the new king, James I, and changed its name to the King's Men.

In 1599, a partnership of company members built their own theatre on the south bank of the River Thames, which they called the Globe. In 1608, the partnership also took over the Blackfriars indoor theatre. Records of Shakespeare's property purchases and investments indicate that the company made him a wealthy man. In 1597, he bought the second-largest house in Stratford, New Place, and in 1605, he invested in a share of the parish tithes in Stratford.

Some of Shakespeare's plays were published in quarto editions from 1594. By 1598, his name had become a selling point and began to appear on the title pages. Shakespeare continued to act in his own and other plays after his success as a playwright. The 1616 edition of Ben Jonson's Works names him on the cast lists for Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Sejanus His Fall (1603). The absence of his name from the 1605 cast list for Jonson’s Volpone is taken by some scholars as a sign that his acting career was nearing its end. The First Folio of 1623, however, lists Shakespeare as one of "the Principal Actors in all these Plays," some of which were first staged after Volpone, although we cannot know for certain which roles he played. In 1610, John Davies of Hereford wrote that "good Will" played "kingly" roles. In 1709, Rowe passed down a tradition that Shakespeare played the ghost of Hamlet's father. Later traditions maintain that he also played Adam in As You Like It and the Chorus in Henry V, though scholars doubt the sources of the information.

Shakespeare divided his time between London and Stratford during his career. In 1596, the year before he bought New Place as his family home in Stratford, Shakespeare was living in the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, north of the River Thames. He moved across the river to Southwark by 1599, the year his company constructed the Globe Theatre there. By 1604, he had moved north of the river again, to an area north of St Paul's Cathedral with many fine houses. There he rented rooms from a French Huguenot named Christopher Mountjoy, a maker of ladies' wigs and other headgear.

Later years and death
Rowe was the first biographer to pass down the tradition that Shakespeare retired to Stratford some years before his death;[48] but retirement from all work was uncommon at that time,[49] and Shakespeare continued to visit London. In 1612, Shakespeare was called as a witness in Bellott v. Mountjoy, a court case concerning the marriage settlement of Mountjoy's daughter, Mary.[50] In March 1613 he bought a gatehouse in the former Blackfriars priory; and from November 1614 he was in London for several weeks with his son-in-law, John Hall.

After 1606–1607, Shakespeare wrote fewer plays, and none are attributed to him after 1613. His last three plays were collaborations, probably with John Fletcher, who succeeded him as the house playwright for the King’s Men.

Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616 and was survived by his wife and two daughters. Susanna had married a physician, John Hall, in 1607, and Judith had married Thomas Quiney, a vintner, two months before Shakespeare’s death.

In his will, Shakespeare left the bulk of his large estate to his elder daughter Susanna. The terms instructed that she pass it down intact to "the first son of her body." The Quineys had three children, all of whom died without marrying. The Halls had one child, Elizabeth, who married twice but died without children in 1670, ending Shakespeare’s direct line. Shakespeare's will scarcely mentions his wife, Anne, who was probably entitled to one third of his estate automatically. He did make a point, however, of leaving her "my second best bed," a bequest that has led to much speculation. Some scholars see the bequest as an insult to Anne, whereas others believe that the second-best bed would have been the matrimonial bed and therefore rich in significance.

Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church two days after his death. The epitaph carved into the stone slab covering his grave includes a curse against moving his bones, which was carefully avoided during restoration of the church in 2008:

Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare, (Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear)
To digg the dvst encloased heare. (To dig the dust enclosed here.)
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones, (Blessed be the man that spares these stones,)
And cvrst be he yt moves my bones. (And cursed be he that moves my bones.)

Sometime before 1623, a funerary monument was erected in his memory on the north wall, with a half-effigy of him in the act of writing. Its plaque compares him to Nestor, Socrates, and Virgil.[69] In 1623, in conjunction with the publication of the First Folio, the Droeshout engraving was published.

Shakespeare has been commemorated in many statues and memorials around the world, including funeral monuments in Southwark Cathedral and Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. (From Wikipedia. See the entire article.)

Book Reviews
(Classic works have few, if any, mainstream press reviews online. See Amazon and Barnes & Noble for helpful reader reviews.)

Hamlet is a difficult read, no getting around it. Yet it's the most thrilling drama in all of Shakespeare—some believe in all of literature. It is the story of a prince robbed of a father and of his rightful seat on the throne of Denmark. Love, revenge, betrayal, intrigue at home and abroad—and the most brilliantly complex character in all of literature—comprise the story. Add some of the most dazzling language ever written...and there you have Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Briefly told, Hamlet's father, the king of Denmark is dead. The king's brother Claudius has seized the crown and married the widowed Queen Gertrude—all done with such unseemly haste that "the funeral bak'd meats did coldly furnish forth the wedding tables." To make matters worse, Denmark is under threat of invasion from Norway.  Read more...
LitLovers Reviews (Sept. 2012)

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Hamlet:

1. In what way does the opening scene of Hamlet set the tone for the play that follows? What atmosphere is established? Why are the sentries on guard so jittery?

2. In the court scene (II.ii), is Claudius genuine in his wish to keep Hamlet at court? He permits Laertes to return to France, yet he refuses to grant similar permission to Hamlet. Why would Claudius wish to keep Hamlet near? To please Gertrude? Or for some other reason?

3. What is Gertrude's role in all this? Was her marriage to Claudius unduly hasty? Might she have married him for reasons of state—to maintain stability in the passage of power? Or were her actions less noble?

4. Read aloud Hamlet's famous speech, "O that this too too solid flesh would melt (I.ii.129-159). Trace Hamlet's mood and the way in which it changes during the speech. What is the reason for Hamlet's distress? Note also the mythical allusions...what do they signifiy?

5. Opinions differ as to Polonius. How do you see him—as a garrulous fool, an overbearing albeit wise father, an opportunist with an eye to the main chance, a valuable advisor to the king, or an obsequious courtier?

6. Follow-up to Question 5: Read aloud Polonius's advice to his son as Laertes takes leave for France, taking special note of some of the phrases that have since become common aphorisms.

7. Follow-up to Question 5 & 6: Does Polonius live up to his own advice? What do you think of the fact that he hires a spy to keep an eye on Laertes (II.i)? Keep in mind the clever way in which this scene foreshadows the other spy scenes (II.ii and III.iv).

8. Does the old king's ghost, or spirit, truly appear to Hamlet? Or is it a psychological delusion—borne of wish fulfillment, anxiety, or despair?

9. Follow-up to Question 8: If, in deed, the king's ghost is real...is it a demon bent on evil? Or is the ghost a restless spirit requiring revenge for his murder before he can attain peace? Hamlet, himself, is unsure. Scholars debate, as well. Where do you stand?

10. Follow-up to Questions 8 & 9: Hamlet is commanded to avenge his father's death. How does he accept the charge from his father? Trace the changes in his emotional reactions during the scene that follows...ending with "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right" (I.v.187).

11. Follow-up to Questions 8, 9 & 10: Initially hell-bent on revenge, Hamlet prevaricates. This is one of the central riddles of the play, which has intrigued readers and scholars for 400 years. Why do you think Hamlet waffles in fulfilling his promise to the ghost? What does it suggest about his nature? Does Hamlet have justification to delay?

12. Some modern readers overlay a Freudian Oedipal interpretation on Hamlet's relationship to his mother (see Mel Gibson's 1990 film version, which makes this approach blatantly obvious)—though certainly there is a wide divergence of opinion on the subject. What do you think—is Hamlet in love with his mother? At the very least, would you say he has an unhealthy obsession with her sex life? Yet it is also said that Hamlet is well justified in resenting his mother's physical display of fondness for her second husband—especially in that her affections come so soon after her first husband's death. What do you think?

13. One of the other central issues readers and scholars have pondered for centuries is whether or not Hamlet is mad. Is his "madness" a feint, as he tells Horatio (I.v.170-172)? Or does he slowly descend into true madness? What do you think...and why does he pretend to be insane, for what purpose (I.v.170-71)?

14. Consider Claudius, a fascinating character in his own right. Might he be viewed as a decisive ruler, perhaps wiser and steadier in dire times than a young, untested prince? (Consider the court scene in which Claudius dispatches his envoys to Norway [I.ii.33]). Or is Claudius an out and out villain?

15. Read aloud the "To be or not to be" speech—arguably the most famous lines in all of English literature. What is going on in Hamlet's mind? What is his meditation about. Trace the development of his thought and shift in mood as the speech progresses.

16. Talk about Hamlet and Ophelia. What is the nature of their relationship? Why do both Laertes and Polonius* instruct Ophelia to maintain her distance from Hamlet (I.iii.5-44 and 88-135)? What about Hamlet's treatment of her during the spy scene? Why does he tell her to "get thee to a nunnery" (III.i.90-153)? (In Shakespeare's time, a "nunnery" is both a monastery and a joking reference to a brothel.) Is Hamlet's anger toward her justified? Is she a passive or an active agent in the court's intrigue?

17. After Hamlet kills Polonius, Ophelia descends into madness. We see her pitiable state in the flower scene before her death (IV.v.145). Read the scene aloud and do some research into the language of plants in Renaissance England. What are the symbolic meanings behind the flowers that Ophelia presents to Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes? What is being said?

18. Follow-up to Question 16: Is Hamlet a misogynist? Or is his anger toward Ophelia a spill-over from his disppointment at his mother's hasty marriage? A particularly good version of the confrontation between the two is Kenneth Brannagh's Hamlet and Kate Winslet's Ophelia in the 1996 film version.

19. Follow-up to question 14: Toward the end of Hamlet's "Mousetrap" play, Claudius rushes out, clearly perturbed (III.ii.273). Why? Does it confirm his guilt? Hamlet later finds him at prayer. Read aloud Claudius's speech (III.iii.36-72 and 96-98)—what is he saying? What are your feelings about Claudius at this point? And why does Hamlet not take his revenge then and there?

20. Why do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray Hamlet? Are they willing or unwitting accomplices? What about Hamlet's switching the letters on the way to England? Are his actions fair or just? Was there any alternative?

21. Hamlet returns to Denmark after pirates have rescued him from the ship to England. He meets Horatio in the graveyard and holds up the most famous Hamlet icon of all—the skull of Ulric. Once again, Hamlet meditates on human mortality. What does he say about the passage of life and our inexorable movement toward death (V.i.189-223)?

22. Immediately following his Ulric speech, Hamlet sees the funeral cortege for Ophelia. Talk about his response to her death. Had he, in fact, loved her? Does he have a right to claim grief at her death? Laertes certainly thinks not.

23. Shakespeare creates a contrast between two sons, both set on avenging their fathers' deaths. One is resolute while one seems anything but. Talk about the difference between the two young men. Are we to admire Laertes over Hamlet because of his doggedness in pursuing his goal? Or are there flaws in Laertes's character, as well?

24. At what point...and why...does Hamlet seem to accept that he will die? What does he mean when he says to Horatio before the duel with Laertes, "there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow" (V.ii.223-224)?

25. What purpose, as a character, does Horatio serve in this drama? He initiates little or no action: what is he there for?

26. Pay particular attention to the word "remember" in this play—where it's used, how it's used, and how often it's used. In what way is Hamlet about remembrance...and why is remembrance so important?

27. In all, what do you think of Prince Hamlet? How would you describe him? Does he deserve our sympathy...or do you find him petulant and exasperating? Does he change or mature by the play's end? Most important, why has he endured as literature's most brilliant character?

28. Have some fun...go through the play and point out all the famous lines you find—the aphorisms in Polonius's advice to Laertes, the famous "sweets to the sweet" line, and the many others you've heard all your life. It's shocking, isn't it?, how familiar these phrases are to us. You could even play a game to see who comes up with the most? Or place the phrases on pieces of paper and have club members draw them, one by one, and tell who uttered the phrase...and when. Even more important, ask yourselves WHY these lines remain so firmly embedded in the English language—even after 400 years.

* Note how Polonius indulges in extended metaphors in his warning to Ophelia about Hamlet (I.iii.103-135)...but then seems to get tripped up in his own words...e.g., "tender,"  "burning" and financal language (i.e, brokers and "bawds" for bonds, et al).

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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