There can be no doubt that there once lived a man called William Shakespeare, who was an English poet and playwright. Also known as the “Bard of Avon”, he is often deemed as the greatest writer in the English language. Not only have his plays been translated into every major language, but they have been performed more than often than those of any other playwright.
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One play that seems to have been the most discussed is the tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601. The play is set in Denmark and it tells the story of how Prince Hamlet seeks revenge on his uncle Claudius, who has murdered the King, Hamlet’s father, and then married Queen Gertrude, having taken the throne of Denmark. The play explores themes of revenge, treachery, incest, as well as moral corruption. The core theme, “hero-as-fool” is widely found (there have been different legends like the Hamlet one in Italy, Spain, Byzantium, Scandinavia and Arabia), although it is believed it has Indo-European roots. In time, Hamlet has exercised a great influence upon the European theatre, not only because of the contemporary themes it is dealing with, but also because of the manner in which it has been written.
In the nineteenth century, the majority of people were highly preoccupied about who Hamlet was, and was charging Shakespeare with having written an illogical and badly constructed work of art. The range of possible responses runs from Tolstoy’s famously perverse dismissal of the play as unintelligible (Tolstoy, 1937), to the most far-reaching claims for its insight into the Nature of Cosmos. (Collins, 1994, p. 1079)
What is common in today’s beliefs is the theatrical vision. Hamlet is not about morality or philosophy, but about theatre, pure theatre, with words and sceneries. And it is ageless theatre. You can now play Hamlet with the same intensity as 300 years ago and people will not feel as if it is old-fashioned. Although written in the Middle Ages, it speaks about issues that remained very important even in our century. Politics is even now a very controversial and highly disputed subject, a common matter in our everyday lives. And there is at least one version of Hamlet focusing on this matter. Another example would be the moralist Hamlet, who cannot define the idea of right and wrong. Isn’t this what we everyday wonder about? What is right and what is wrong? Who can tell where the limits for these two very delicate matters are set? Do all these and the acceptance of the idea that the same themes of Hamlet are the themes on which our lives stand not make Hamlet our contemporary? Isn’t it then right to accept the play on the stages of our theatres, the contemporary ones? And if we accept it, do we not have to accept the influence that it has upon more recent plays?
Hamlet is one of the few theatre heroes that live even outside the text, outside the theatre (J. Kott, “Shakespeare, our contemporary”, 1969, p 61). Everyone knows his name, regardless of the fact that they may have never read Shakespeare or known anything about him at all. This is mostly due to the fact that between us, the people, and the play, there have been interposed not only the whole life of Hamlet, but also the dimensions of theatre. And theatre is, as Stella Adler said, “the place where people come to see the truth about life and the social situation.” (Stella Adler, New York Times, December 22, 1992) Hamlet cannot be performed entirely, for it would last somewhere around six hours. Scenes must be selected, the play must be shortened. This gives the actors the chance to play only one of the Hamlets in abeyance that exist in this creation: the moralist that cannot accept a clear delimitation between good and evil, the intellectual who does not manage to find the reason for acting or the philosopher for whom the existence of the world is highly questionable.
Of course, this will always mean playing less than the whole Shakesperian Hamlet but this may as well mean focusing on only one of the themes: the political one, the violence, the morality, the controversy regarding the relationship between theory and practice or maybe the one concerning the final goals and the meaning of life. What is fascinating about it is that the audience must feel every detail and understand the meaning of every single word. Thus, it is performers who must make the spectators empathise with the character is such a way as to feel and think like him. Through their mimics, intonation or movements, they must take the viewer into Hamlet’s world and dimension. There is a widespread question about this play, around those who have just read it: “Is Hamlet mad indeed, or is he just faking it?, The answer lies in the whole idea of theatre, which, with its cumulus of actions, manages to succeed where words fail in transmitting the message. Hamlet is faking insanity, he’s hiding behind the mask of madness, fully aware of his actions, in order to achieve his goals. This can be fully discovered only after the character has finished performing.
Hamlet is like a sponge. If the actor does not play it like an antiquity, it is able to absorb all the contemporanity possible (J. Kott, “Shakespeare, our contemporary, 1969, p. 66). And what better example to highlight this that the fact that Hamlet’s situation has been nothing but imposed. He accepts it but he’s against it, assuming the role but, at the same time, remaining behind the role, though he is somebody different from the role. He surpasses it and gains himself a life that changes with time and moulds according to the period during which the play is set in.
In 1902, Stanislav Wyspianski, painter, decorator and dramatic author, has referred to Hamlet as “Poor young man, with a book in his hands.” Indeed every Hamlet is holding a book in his hands. In Cracow, at the end of the autumn of 1956, Hamlet was reading nothing but newspapers. He was shouting as loud as possible that “Denmark is a prison” and he was fighting for a better world. He was an idealist who only lived to take action. In 1959, in Warsaw, Hamlet had yet again been filled with doubt; the audience saw him again as a “poor young man, with a book in his hands”. It is now quite easy to imagine him wearing a black sweater and blue jeans. He is not reading Montaigne, but Sartre, Camus or Kafka. He studied in Paris or in Brussels or even – just as the real Hamlet- in Wittenburg. He has returned to Poland for two or three years, having serious doubts about restraining the whole world to several elementary formulas. Once in a while, he frowns at the thought of the fundamental absurdity of existence. The last one, the most modern of all Hamlets, has returned to the country in a moment of tension. His father’s ghost is asking for revenge. His friends are waiting for the fight for the throne to begin. He wants to leave again but cannot. Everyone is pushing him towards politics. He has fallen into the trap and now he finds himself in a situation where he cannot do what he wishes; a situation he does not long for, but in which he found himself thrown. He searches for his inner freedom and wants to get a job. Finally, he follows the solution that has been imposed to him. He gets hired, but only for what he does and not for what he thinks. He knows that every action is designed with extreme precision, but he rejects such a limitation of his thinking, as the equality between theory and practice stands unbearable. He is starving in his inner forum. He sees life as a cause that is lost from the very beginning. He wishes he was spared the life and death game, but he obeys each and every one of the rules. Sometimes he thinks of himself as an existentialist, and sometimes as a rebel Marxist.
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Hamlet is looking for perfection. However, “perfection, as culture conceives it, is not possible while the individual remains isolated.” (Norton, 2001, p. 828) He must, then, carry others along with him in the quest for what seems unreachable. In doing so, performers in Europe, especially during the communism, have tried to make Hamlet’s mission known, not only to those who were politically oppressed, but to all those in suffer, as “finally, perfection, – as culture from a thorough disinterested study of human nature and human experience learns to conceive it,- is a harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature, and is not consistent with the over-development of any one power at the expense of the rest.” (Norton, 2001, p. 828)
And if all the above-mentioned facts do not show exactly how much Hamlet influenced contemporary European theatre, let us take into discussion the matter of Fortinbras. This character is barely presented to the audience, they know almost nothing about him, and still he is the one who decides the scenery of Hamlet. He only appears twice on stage: in the first act, when, in front of his army, he is heading towards the boundaries of Poland and in the last scene, when he arrives after the massacre. Despite his scarce appearances, his name is mentioned throughout the play every so often. Fortinbras is the one whose father killed Hamlet’s father in the duel. At some point, the viewer might lose track of the young fellow, focusing on other more imposing characters. In the prologue they find out that Fortinbras wants to attack Denmark, then he fights with the Polish, and then he is seen in Elsinore. He is the one who voices the last words of this bloody drama. But who is he? We cannot really tell; Shakespeare does not tell us that. What does he represent? Maybe, the absurdity of humankind and the world. Or, maybe, the blind faith. He might even stand for the victory of justice over all oppression. Any of these suppositions works, for it is up to the director to decide what wills this young fellow present the audience with. He could be an understudy of Hamlet, his alter-ego, as well as the heir to the throne of Denmark, the man who stopped the course of murders and revenge, the one who re-established order in Denmark. The end of the tragedy can also be put forward to interpretation. No one who wishes to settle the moral conflicts in Hamlet in a historical context, be it Renaissance or modern, can ignore the important role of Fortinbras.
Hamlet is, therefore, a complex play, a genius’ work. “The world of Hamlet is a world in which appearances sometimes deceive and sometimes speak the truth”. (Wadsworth, 2004, p. 276) Not only does it display more themes, making it the direcor’s decision on which should the audience’s focus be, whether it is the theme of politics, or the one of morality, separating good from evil, or even the subject concerning the meaning of life, but also moulds to the problems of every age or period of time. Be it the violence during a war, or peaceful thoughts which the philosophers will then turn towards the difference between good and evil or the questionable existence of life.
Hamlet is a play for every century or decade and for every human being, as it deals with common issues inasmuch as it deals with subject of international concern. It is impressive indeed how Shakespeare succeeded in combining war with deception and jealousy, madness or insanity and managed to have such a great impact on the European stage, even now, a century after his age. This all turn Shakespeare into a man of great value of all times and continent, for we cannot deny the impact he has always had on the European theatre.
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