The Question of Hamlet

AGIP/Bridgeman Images
Jean-Louis Trintignant in the role of Hamlet, at the Théâtre de la Musique, Paris, 1971

In the decades after it was first staged, probably in 1600, Hamlet seems to have been popular, though not especially so. It was performed at the Globe Theatre, in Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere, and revived at least twice at court. But editions of Hamlet were published less frequently than those of Richard III, Richard II, or even Pericles, and aside from echoes of it in the works of other dramatists, the play is mentioned by only a couple of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (one saying that it appealed to the “wiser sort,” another that it managed to “please all”). It wasn’t until 1711 that anyone wrote at length about Hamlet; the Earl of Shaftesbury spoke of it then as the Shakespeare play that “appears to have most affected English hearts” and was perhaps the most “oftenest acted,” which likely owed much to the popularity of Thomas Betterton, one of the great Hamlets.

Another century would pass before Hamlet became Shakespeare’s most celebrated play, a position from which it has yet to be dislodged. Much of the credit for this goes to Romantic writers in Germany and England who were drawn to its intense exploration of the self and who saw their own struggles reflected in Hamlet’s. Goethe’s coming-of-age novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795–1796) turned Hamlet into a model for subsequent portraits of the artist as a young man. William Hazlitt wrote that “it is we who are Hamlet…whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared: “I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so.” “We love Hamlet,” Lord Byron would add, “even as we love ourselves.”

Searching through surviving records from Stratford-upon-Avon not long before this, Edmond Malone discovered that Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (the spelling was interchangeable with Hamlet) had died at the age of eleven in 1596. Malone was the first biographer to create a chronology of Shakespeare’s works and reconstruct his life out of his plays and poems. Unsure of when to date King John, and assuming that “a man of such sensibility” as Shakespeare would not “have lost his only son…without being greatly affected by it,” Malone proposed that such heartfelt lines as “Grief fills the room up of my absent child” made it likely that King John was written in the immediate aftermath of Hamnet’s death.

But nobody much cared about King John. Biographers eventually proposed that Shakespeare’s expression of grief for his son’s untimely death was suspended for four years until it at last found a proper outlet in the aptly named Hamlet. As long as you overlooked that Hamlet is about a son mourning a father (not the other way around), that Shakespeare was rewriting an old play called Hamlet, and that he may not have…

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