From Shakespearean: On Life and Language in Times of Disruption, by Robert McCrum. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Pegasus Books.
‘To be, or not to be’ is a line that can thrill, chill or inspire. Like the tolling of a great bell, this massive interrogative will echo through the audience’s imagination. History or romance; comedy or tragedy: Shakespeare’s ‘poem unlimited’, the elusive and enigmatic summation of his genius, becomes his defining moment. To the unwitting London audiences who attended the Globe around 1600, the experience of seeing this play must have seemed like taking part in a collective nervous breakdown, made all the more acute by the slippery evasions of the playwright’s art: every observation you might make about Hamlet is true – and so is its opposite.
From the moment the play opened at the Globe, probably during 1600–1, actors and audiences alike seem to have recognized they were in the presence of something utterly and uniquely new. Shakespeare, at once deeply read and instinctively original in dramatic strategy, would have known that, in the prince of Denmark, he had created a different kind of theatrical hero. He signals this during the scene where Hamlet asks Guildenstern to play a recorder. When his college friend insists he does not know how to do this, Hamlet makes this pointed retort: ‘You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery . . . Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me [3.2.353–60].’
There are as many arguments about the date of Hamlet’s composition and first performance as about its dramatic intentions. At first, as if to anatomize the heart of the tragedy, Shakespeare opens with the challenge of the dramatic present: ‘Who’s there?’ But few answers follow. Just as the opening scene contrasts brilliant clarity with baffling opacity, so the beginnings of Hamlet, the script, are boldly set forth in two quarto editions, ‘bad’ and ‘good’, each wrapped in doubt and controversy. Almost the only certainty is that the uncut text of Shakespeare’s longest play runs to about 4,000 lines, has its origins in European folklore, and might also be a reworking of an Ur-Hamlet from the 1580s, which some scholars contend may have been one of Shakespeare’s own early drafts.
Beyond these issues, however, Hamlet is an unprecedented theatrical achievement, a primal Shakespearean masterpiece, sometimes referred to as his Mona Lisa. With a life of its own, Hamlet stands next to the work of Aeschylus, Euripides, Virgil, Dante, and Tolstoy as the worldwide symbol of the playwright’s genius. After 1600, Hamlet the universal hero will speak to successive generations as their contemporary with his own independent life and feelings. The world’s literature has few genuine turning points, but this is certainly one of them.
Hamlet is swift, allusive, and thrilling. Shakespeare’s new play demonstrated his most brilliant qualities from its opening line: for T. S. Eliot that first scene is ‘as well constructed as that of any play ever written’. From the bone-chilling shadows of Elsinore’s battlements to its bloody, chaotic, and cathartic climax, Hamlet is simultaneously of its time, and for all time: a ghost story, a revenge thriller, and an inquiry into the nature of being. It marries themes of public and private breakdown, domestic and state madness, reflecting the drama surrounding the fall of Essex as well as Shakespeare’s mid-life sensibility after the tragic loss of his eleven-year-old son Hamnet, and immediately before the death of his own father, John Shakespeare. Aptly, the play falls at the midpoint of his career. With the Globe for a theatre workshop, he was writing as the acclaimed author of Romeo and Juliet and Henry V. Later, the lessons of Hamlet would propel him towards Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Othello, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, the greatest sequence of original new plays in European theatre history.
Appropriately for such an innovative drama, Hamlet will showcase more than six hundred new words, from gibber to remorseless. Shakespeare also dazzled his audiences with those quotable lines that would pass into the mainstream of common English speech, from ‘The play’s the thing,’ and ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ to ‘More in sorrow than in anger,’ ‘Brevity is the soul of wit,’ ‘Conscience makes cowards of us all,’ ‘The lady doth protest too much,’ and ‘The rest is silence.’
Above all, Hamlet resounds to the clash of those dramatic antitheses with which Shakespeare animated his stagecraft. It is a play of noble simplicity and majestic complexity. Once he has introduced his tragic, coming-of-age protagonist, Shakespeare frames humanity’s greatest existential challenge in the English of the street, words that every theatregoer, from the groundling to the gallery, can understand:
To be, or not to be; that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them.
Sometimes Shakespeare will provoke and console in the same breath, with his extraordinary capacity for the creative resolution of opposites. This is yet another reminder that, writing at the dangerous edge, he is always making uncanny connections with our deepest hopes and fears through poetry and story, and asking the simplest, most fundamental questions in plain English: Where do I come from? Why am I here? Who am I? and, Where am I going?
In its afterlife, this play renews itself by making a unique demand upon its audience. From the groundlings in the pit to the ‘better sort’ seated in the galleries, the playgoer is invited to enter into the heart and mind – the consciousness – of the play’s protagonist. This had never happened before, to such a compelling extent, on the English stage. Thus, Hamlet becomes a demonstration of theatrical ‘inwardness’ in which the principal characters – notably Claudius and young Hamlet – express their secret thoughts and emotions in some great soliloquies, those dazzling arias of blank verse. This was the breakthrough moment towards which Shakespeare had been working since the death of Marlowe, a period described by the critic Frank Kermode as ‘unparalleled in the history of anglophone poetry’.