Bard at the Box Office

Shakespeare in the 21st Century

Hamlet: The Back Story

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The King’s Arms Pub in Oxford, the first venue outside London where “Hamlet” was performed.

    Alright, so my last post gave you the very basic outline of Hamlet, as told by Disney.  Today, I’m going to look at the back story of Hamlet as a play. Hamlet was first performed in 1602 in London. The first place that it was performed outside of London was a pub in Oxford that sat just outside the city walls of the time. 

The play itself was inspired by a text from the 13th century, called “The Life of Amleth” which detailed certain elements that Shakespeare worked into his play. Some of these elements include: feigning madness (as Hamlet does in order to make himself seem like less of a threat to his uncle), the queen marrying the man who took the throne from her late husband (this is hinted at in the Lion King, but Sarabe isn’t held to be as bad as Hamlet’s mother, given the way lion prides work), and the prince himself killing a spy.

An interesting fact about the play was that, at the time it was performed, it was put on for Queen Elizabeth. Her chief counselor and treasurer was William Cecil. It has been speculated that Cecil served as the inspiration for Polonious. However, to have ridiculed so blatantly a leading member of the court, in my opinion, does not hold true to Shakespeare’s usual political savvy. Even though Cecil was dead by the time the play was performed, everyone in England knew that he had been a favorite avisor to the queen. To mock his memory would have been potentially disastrous to Shakespeare. Polonious is regarded as an idiot, windbag, and basically, a man with a knack for making exactly the wrong decisions (not least of all working for Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle who killed his own brother for the throne). To cast such aspersions on a leading royal counselor would have the effect of casting doubt on many of Elizabeth’s own decisions, which would have been suicide.

Hamlet has been the source of debate for quite some time, likely since the time it was performed. Scholars over the ages have taken polar opposite views on some of the key elements of this play. Some of the questions asked are whether Hamlet is really feigning madness, or if he is truly mad, whether or not he truly loves Ophelia, and many others.

The beauty of this play is that it allows the reader to interpret critical questions such as these for themselves. This in turn allows for there to be almost as many interpretations as there are readers.  In my opinion, I believe that Hamlet begins by pretending to be insane, but that Ophelia’s (spoiler alert) death pushes him over the edge into actual madness. This would explain why he happily returns Ophelia’s affections in the beginning of the play, spurns them when he is pretending to be mad (which is actually quite a good rhetorical move, considering that, if he didn’t Ophelia might let it slip to her father, Polonious, that Hamlet is merely pretending to be mad, and then the jig would be up), and is actually driven mad by the thought that he caused her death by killing her father.

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