5 Things You May Not Know About Hamlet

Hamlet: a rite of passage for most high schoolers. The play, and the madness surrounding it, has become a phenomenon in the high school classroom. As a British literature teacher and a lover of all things Shakespeare, I look forward to teaching Hamlet every single semester, and I find myself disappointed if someone has already taught it to my  seniors. As Shakespeare’s longest play, it lends itself to deep complexities and interesting historical elements, many that are easily passed over or just mentioned in passing for the sake of time. Since time is irrelevant in the world of trivial information, here are five things you may (or may not) know about Hamlet.

 

  1. The story was not Shakespeare’s.

According to Dr. Marvin Hunt, author of Looking for Hamlet (and former Shakespeare professor of mine), there are several sources for the story that eventually was made famous by Shakespeare. Five hundred years before Shakespeare introduced us to the character we all recognize, Saxo Grammaticus wrote down an account of Hamlet’s story. Saxo’s characters have slightly different names, but the story proceeds down the same basic path. The major difference in the two tales is in Saxo’s account, the general population is aware of the murder; the ghost is an amendment that surfaced perhaps in the 1580s in a play edition. Saxo’s version also has an explanation for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “henchmen” to the king. The title character, Saxo’s Amleth, feigns madness to plot his revenge, and in the end, there’s an all-engulfing fire, and many more are dead than in Shakespeare’s tragedy. In addition to Saxo, others perpetuated versions of the story and set them to various outlets, especially the play houses. It’s easy to see why Shakespeare would choose this particular storyline as his masterpiece.

  1. The entirety of the plot most likely takes place over the course of around six months, beginning with the murder of old Hamlet in early September, moving to Horatio’s encounter with the ghost around November 1, to Ophelia’s burial and the concluding sword fight on February 14.

According to Shakespearean scholar and author Steve Roth, the chronology of Hamlet is clearly mapped out within the text, indicating the time frame for Hamlet’s indecisiveness was more profound than just a few days. Using references to time (“within a month,” “nay tis twice two months,” etc.), season (“ever ‘gainst that season comes / Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated”; “Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day”), and basic common sense (trip to London interrupted by subsequent pirate attack), it’s safe to say the play drags on for more than a week.

 

 

  1. Shakespeare was not a fan of child acting troupes, and he used Hamlet (as well as other plays) as his soap box.

According to Joseph Quincy, “During the autumn of 1601 Shakespeare and his fellow-players closed up their London theater, the Globe, and traveled in the country… Probably, however, not all the plays that Shakespeare and his troupe forced down the throats of the ‘country people’ were old; for it seems that one of the plays acted on this trip was the recently composed Hamlet.”

In Act II, scene ii of Hamlet, Shakespeare discusses in detail with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the fact that this troupe of actors that visits Elsinore is traveling instead of being housed for regular performances at a playhouse such as the Globe. This is most likely a direct reference to the fact that Shakespeare and his own acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were being forced to travel because they could not compete with the current theatrical climate of London. The theatrical world of London in 1600 was being inundated by a troupe of child actors (“boy singers in the Queen’s chapel”) who had basically taken over Blackfriars private playhouse.  Quincy writes, “The boys did come into request; indeed, they came into such request that the older playhouses suffered greatly. No less a person than Ben Jonson was engaged to write for the children; and the fashionable audiences that formerly patronized the public theaters, now turned to the private playhouse of Blackfriars.” With this “great innovation” as Shakespeare calls it, the children placed a strain on the already suffering reputation of adult actors, most of whom were viewed as troublemakers and often insulted by even Jonson himself: “common players, vagabonds, sturdy beggars, licentious, rogues” and other insulting phrases of Shakespearean proportions. As these children performed for more and more audiences, all the while insulting the adult performers, fewer and fewer patrons visited the “common stages” of the “common players,” essentially robbing them of their livelihoods. Shakespeare has a right to complain, and while it is relatively good natured and non-threatening, it is still a complaint.

 

  1. Hamlet’s age is arguable.
Steve Roth offers more interesting information about Hamlet’s age. According to the first quarto (also known as Q1, the first known published edition of the play published in 1603) Hamlet was most likely meant to be between the ages of 16 and 20. Granted, Q1 is also known for its atrocities of text (lack of meter, poor diction, etc), it does offer some interesting insight into the characters. Q1 “omits the gravedigger’s 30-year tenure statement entirely, and has Yorick in the ground only 12 years instead of 23 (Q1:3361)–making Hamlet 16 to 20.”  An arguable reason for aging Hamlet’s character is the principal player for the role of Hamlet was an aging Richard Burbage who was in his 30’s when Hamlet began its rounds. While the role is easily relatable to a younger actor, Burbage was known for his Hamlet and most likely played the role until his death in 1619 at the age of 51; a far cry from 16-20.

 

  1. That famous “To be, or not to be” speech? It wasn’t so great in the first round.

One nugget of fun Q1 offers is a rough draft, if you will, of the most famous speech in all of English literature. The original publication, complete with original spellings, reads almost comically in comparison to the poetic nature of the speech as we know it today (“Internet Shakespeare Editions”):

To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an euerlasting Iudge,
From whence no passenger euer retur’nd,
The vndiscouered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn’d.

This clearly isn’t the same voice in all its glory we are accustomed to reading in our classrooms. In fact, in Q1, this speech is an entire act earlier in placement. Thankfully, the First Folio gives us the eloquent Hamlet we know and love today.

While these little trivial pieces of information may not change your approach to reading Hamlet, it is important to remember just how far literature has traveled. From the original story to the polished work of Shakespeare, Hamlet will forever remain a staple of literary education.

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Sources:
Adams, Joseph Quincy. The Wake Forest Student. In The Timon Plays. Reprinted from The Journal of English
and Germanic Philosophy. Vol X. Urbana: 1910. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2011. (2014 November 19) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/theatre/inthecountry.html >.

Hunt, Marvin W. Looking for Hamlet. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

“Internet Shakespeare Editions.” Hamlet (Quarto 1, 1603) ::. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Roth, Steve. “Hamlet as The Christmas Prince: Certain Speculations on Hamlet, the Calendar, Revels, and

Misrule.” Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 5.1-89 <URL: http://www.shu.ac.uk/emls/07-3/2RothHam.htm>.