Hamlet has to act out his destiny on the sleet-spattered battlements of Elsinore, while Horatio makes regular trips back to Wittenberg for the port and walnuts and the relative safety of academic intrigue. Many a time in Fleet Street, as I’ve sat there sucking my typewriter and waiting desperately for inspiration, I’ve envied those of my contemporaries who stayed on to become academics – the Horatios. In other words, I identify with Hamlet. In my mind’s eye, he even looks a bit like me. Perhaps a couple of stone lighter, with blond hair and more of it: one of those rare Aussies who happen to fence quite well and stand first in line of succession to the throne of Denmark.
I don’t think this is mad conceit because I think all men and most women who’ve ever read or seen the play feel that its hero is a reflection of themselves. What’s more, I think Shakespeare felt the same way. All his characters in all his plays – men or women, heroes or villains – are aspects of himself because his was a universal self and he knew it inside out. Shakespeare was everybody. But Hamlet is probably the character who comes closest to reflecting Shakespeare’s whole self. When I think of what Shakespeare was like, I think of Hamlet. Shakespeare probably didn’t behave like that, and he almost certainly didn’t talk like that. Hamlet talks a great deal and Shakespeare probably spent most of his time listening. At the end of the night’s revelry in the tavern, he was probably the only one sober and the only one silent. Nor was Shakespeare famous for being indecisive. From what little we know of him, he was a practical man of affairs. But he was a practical man of affairs in the theatre, which gave unlimited scope to his imagination. He was an art prince, like Michelangelo. If he’d been the other kind of prince, his imagination would have become his enemy, the enemy of action.
In Shakespeare’s time, the biggest question of the day was how the Prince should rule. When Hamlet was being written, as the sixteenth century turned into the seventeenth, the stable reign of Queen Elizabeth, amid universal trepdiation, was drawing to its end. The Earl of Essex, ‘the glass of fashion, and the mould of form, the observed of all observers’, had dished himself through not knowing how to do what when. Essex died on the block somewhere about the time that Hamlet was being born on the page. Shakespeare was a keen student of these weighty matters. He was a keen student of everything. Not that he ever went to a university. His university was the theatre. The same has held true for a lot of our best playwrights, right down to the present day. Osborne, Pinter, Stoppard – they were all educated in the university of life. Shakespeare was a gigantic natural intellect who had no more need of a university than Einstein had, who didn’t go to one either. But Shakespeare did have a contemplative mentality. We know that much for certain because we’ve heard so little about him. Only in the theatre did Shakespeare create experience; in the outside world he was content to reflect upon it.
Shakespeare knew that he was a man of outstanding gifts. Talent of that magnitude is never modest, although it is almost always humble. He knew that he could dream up a whole kingdom and breathe so much life into it that it would live in men’s minds, perhaps for ever. But he also knew that he didn’t have what it took to rule a real kingdom for a week. He lacked the limitations. He wasn’t simple enough, and it was out of that realization that he created Hamlet, who is really a changeling. Hamlet is what would happen if a great poet grew up to be a prince. He might speak great speeches, but the native hue of resolution would be ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’.
‘To be, or not to be’ – I wish I’d said that. By now that speech has been translated into every major language on earth and most of the minor ones, and it is remarkable how the first line always seems to come out sounding the same. ‘Sein, oder nicht sein,’ runs the German version, ‘das ist die Frage,’ which perhaps lacks the fresh charm of the English subtitle in the recent Hindi film version – ‘Shall I live, or do myself in? I do not know.’ Today, Hamlet belongs to the world. He’s come a long way from Elsinore. And there’s no reason why not. After all, Shakespeare not only didn’t go to university, he didn’t go to Denmark, either.
The plot he inherited. A Scandinavian scholar called Saxo Grammaticus wrote an early version. Hamlet was called Amleth and his wicked uncle Claudius was called Feng, who sounds like the leading heavy in Flash Gordon Conquers Denmark. Saxo’s story was the basis for a later English stage version by Kyd, of Spanish Tragedy fame. Shakespeare took over the property and transformed it out of all comparison, although not out of recognition; that old warhorse of a plot is still there inside it. Shakespeare civilized it. He moved it inside the mind and inside the house. He updated Hamlet into the Elizabethan age.
One of the things that makes Shakespeare a great man of the theatre is that he knew the real thing when he saw it. He knew that power couldn’t be wished out of the world. If power were used wisely and firmly, then everyone might thrive. If it were mismanaged, corruption ensued as surely as rats brought plague, and the whole State went rotten. Shakespeare believed in order and degree. He believed in justice, too, but he didn’t think there was any hope of getting it unless the civil fabric was maintained. The idea of social breakdown was abhorrent to him. He knew that he was a kind of prince himself, but he had no illusions about how long his own kingdom would last if the real one fell into disarray. To Shakespeare, Hamlet’s tragedy was not just personal but political. Like Prince Hal in an earlier play and like Mark Antony in a later one, or even King Lear, Hamlet has responsibilities. And because Hamlet can’t meet those responsibilities he gets a lot of good people killed for nothing and loses his kingdom to the simple but determined Fortinbras.
Nowadays we tend to see Hamlet’s blond head surrounded by the flattering nimbus of nineteenth-century Romanticism, which held that Hamlet was a sensitive plant with a soul too fine for the concerns of this world. But Shakespeare was too realistic to be merely romantic. And, of course, he was too poetic to be merely realistic. He knew that there was more in this world than the mere exercise of power. He could feel it within himself – imagination, the supreme power. But even that had its place. In the wrong place it could have tragic consequences. The first reason Hamlet hesitates is dramatic. If Fortinbras were the play’s hero, it would all be over in five minutes instead of five acts, with Fortinbras heading for the throne by the direct route – over Claudius’s twitching corpse. But the second reason Hamlet hesitates is that he has puzzled his own will by thinking too precisely on the event.
Throughout history, the thoughtful onlooker has been astonished at the man of action’s empty head. Napoleon and Hitler, to take extreme examples, did the unthinkable because they lacked the imagination to realize that it couldn’t be done. With Hamlet, it’s the opposite. More than 300 years before Freud, Montaigne, a great student of the human soul, whose essays Shakespeare knew intimately, identified the imagination as the cause of impotence. Because Hamlet can’t stop thinking, he can’t start moving. Hence his melancholy. Happiness has been defined as a very small, very cheap cigar named after him, but really Hamlet is as sad as a man can be. He’s doubly sad because of his capacity for merriment. Clowns don’t want to play Hamlet half as much as Hamlet wants to play the clown, but always the laughter trails off. He loses his mirth and the whole world with it. He does this with such marvellous words that he stuns us into admiration. No actor can resist turning Hamlet’s defeat into a victory.
From the moment the part was there to be played, every important actor has looked on his own interpretation of Hamlet as defining him not just as a talent but as a human being. And every Hamlet has studied the Hamlet before him in an almost unbroken succession from that day to this. Burbage, the original Hamlet, gave way to Joseph Taylor; Taylor gave way to Betterton. Pepys saw Betterton play Hamlet in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in 1661, and said that Betterton played the Prince’s part beyond imagination, ‘the best part, I believe, that ever man played’. Pepys spent a whole afternoon learning ‘To be, or not to be’ by heart. And as the seventeenth century became the eighteenth, Betterton was still playing Hamlet in his seventieth year, when Steele saw him and said that, for action, he was perfection. Hamlet was at centre stage all over the world. In London he was at Covent Garden, he was in the Haymarket, but, above all, he was at Drury Lane, where great actor after great actor strove to convince the audience that to play Hamlet stood as far above ordinary acting as Hamlet in the play stands above the Players.
In the early eighteenth century, the great tragedian Wilks played Hamlet at Drury Lane. According to contemporary accounts, when the Ghost came on, Wilks climbed the scenery. When he climbed back down again, some time later, he used his sword not to fend off his companions who were trying to keep him from the Ghost but to attack the Ghost. And he did this while wearing a complete tragedian’s outfit – full-bottomed wig, plumes and a cape. The outfit was the only complete thing about his performance because, like most of his successors, he cut the text drastically. When Garrick came on, he came on in elevator shoes and stole one of the Ghost’s best lines. ‘O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!’ Dr Johnson thought Garrick was over the top, but most of the playgoing public concurred in the opinion that Garrick was unbeatable in the role.
As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, Kemble arrived and the romantic interpretation of Hamlet began to arrive with him. Hazlitt didn’t think much of Kemble in the role. He thought he played it with a fixed and sullen gloom, but I think we recognize that gloom as the beginning of the romantic interpretation of Hamlet which has persisted almost down to our own day. Hazlitt didn’t think much of Kean, either. He thought his performance was a succession of grand moments, but had no real human shape. Everybody else thought Kean was marvellously natural, especially in his appearance, and he looked like the Hamlet we know today – short hair, black clothes, white lace collar. And on they came - Macready, Barry Sullivan, Edwin Booth, whom some people thought was the ideal Hamlet but who had his thunder stolen by Irving – and the total effect of the nineteenth-century actor-managers was to establish Hamlet as the romantic, alienated outcast, the poet who perhaps couldn’t write poetry but could certainly speak it, the man who was just too good for this world.
As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, a truly revolutionary actor-manager arrived on the scene – Johnston Forbes-Robertson – revolutionary because he widened the focus of attention from the central character to the whole play, and never again was it possible to argue plausibly that the play was anything less than the miraculous sum of its parts. Nowadays we never think of any interpretation of the central character, no matter how brilliant – Gielgud’s vividly mental, Olivier’s vividly physical – as anything more than a contribution to the total character, just as we never think of any cut version, no matter how consistent within itself, as anything more than a contribution to the total play.
The world could go on changing unimaginably and Hamlet would still have everything to say to us. Whenever we hear of some new atrocity and wonder impotently what life is for, we always find that he got there ahead of us. Hamlet poses the eternal question of whether life is worth living. The answer that he appears to arrive at is that it isn’t, but the way he says so makes us realize that it is. Hamlet has been given the creative vitality of Shakespeare himself. Even though robbed of will, he’s still the embodiment of individuality. Hamlet is what it means to be alive. So all those actors were right, after all. Hamlet’s tragedy really is a triumph. A prince of the imagination, he inherits his kingdom in eternity, even if Fortinbras inherits it on earth.
Boris Pasternak, who translated Hamlet into Russian, also wrote a famous poem in which Hamlet faces something even worse than his own doubts – a world in which his doubts are not permitted.
Yet the order of the acts is planned,
And there is no way back from the end.
I am alone.
Pasternak wasn’t the first, and probably won’t be the last, to see Hamlet as the supreme symbol of liberty. As the doomed Prince of Denmark, Hamlet must act out his tragic fate, but as a mind he remains free. He fails in the outer world only because his inner world is so rich. Scorning necessity, he reflects upon his own existence – ‘In my mind’s eye, Horatio’. Hamlet is the human intelligence made universal, so he belongs to all of us. ‘For which of us,’ wrote Anatole France, addressing Hamlet, ‘does not resemble you in some way?’ We’re all like him because we all think, and it’s because, on top of all its other qualities, its hero incarnates the dignity of human consciousness, that Hamlet is the greatest play by the greatest writer who ever lived.
Listener, 29 May, 1980