One of Hollywood’s favorite genres is the contained thriller: its budget probably won’t involve an enactment of World War III, a city-destroying earthquake, or a meteor headed towards Baltimore, all relying on too much CGI, which gets expensive fast. But this: a bus is going to blow up if it drops below a certain speed; a man is stuck in a phone booth and if he hangs up on the caller he will be shot dead; a young woman is stuck in an underground shelter with a possibly insane John Goodman. And don’t forget Alien: within the confines of the spaceship Nostromo, in a place where no one can hear you scream, a killer is on the loose, having evolved from a small and slithery reptilian piece of belly-bursting nasty into a very large slithery reptilian thing with chrome teeth and battery acid for blood. But in Hamlet we’re in a world that isn’t so different. After all, As Hamlet himself says, “Denmark’s a prison.”
Hamlet was written somewhere around 1601, and is the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. It takes place within the walls of Elsinore Castle, an isolated, wind-swept fortress, modelled on Kronborg Castle on the isle of Zealand, across the strait from the Swedish town of Helsingborg. Outside it’s cold and damp, and in the play we only leave the castle proper to visit the royal graveyard, hardly a place to warm the heart.
For all the obvious reasons, theatre particularly lends itself to a single setting drama; it’s how conscious one is of it that matters. Pinter’s done it numerous times: The Room, The Caretaker, No Man’s Land, The Homecoming. And let’s not forget Beckett: one closed universe after another. What draws our attention to Hamlet is not just the plot, but the character of Hamlet himself. He is profoundly, and quite literally, self-conscious. He sees himself acting; he hears himself thinking; he finds himself trapped by both. As in the painting by Velasquez, Las Meninas, this is a world of mirrors, where reality is reflected by what is only pretending to be real. In this play—this universe that is Hamlet, as Josipovici points out, “at almost every stage a set of alternative possibilities hovers over it, lending it its peculiar quality of nightmare and impenetrability.” I’ve always viewed, and used to teach back in the day, Hamlet as though it all took place within a fist. As Patrick Marber writes in his play Closer, “Have you ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist, wrapped in blood.”
It’s a tale of treachery and revenge, doubt and fear, in a claustrophobic setting where no one knows what the other person is thinking, and the least predictable person there is Prince Hamlet, back home from university in Wittenberg for his father’s funeral and his mother’s wedding to her husband’s murderer a mere few weeks later (“The funeral bak’d meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables…”). One moment Hamlet’s playing word games, and the next he’s murdering a hidden Polonius, thinking it’s his father. And if you’re the king or the queen you’re not about to summon your chauffeur and get out of town. You’re stuck there. And now, within the confines of this Danish castle, a man has seemingly gone mad after the murder of his father, the king, and the hasty marriage of his mother and his father’s brother. Polonius, an old gentleman, harmlessly longwinded, has been savagely murdered. And there’s no place to hide.
What makes the character of Hamlet so unusual, so difficult to grasp or contain, so much like a spill of mercury on a tabletop, is that he’s impossible to nail down as a character out of classic theatre. He can be clever, especially when trading quips with the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Ophelia; he can be self-doubting, as we see whenever he delivers a soliloquy; or he can be a force of nature. He is wholly human, a web of contradictions, and this is one reason the play has remained alive and immediate for over 400 years: Hamlet is a mirror to the audience. He is you, and me, and all of those who sit around us in this uncertain world we inhabit. As novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici points out in his new book on the play, Hamlet Fold on Fold, Hamlet is a man of the Renaissance in a “new, confusing, socially mobile world,” where “choices have to be made, decisions taken: What do I believe in? What ruler do I support? What career should I choose? And with these come those other, modern questions: Am I up to it…? And if I feel I am not, is that my fault or the fault of circumstances, and can I overcome this by an exercise of will?” Sounds like any millennial today, doesn’t it.
Over the four-plus hours of this drama that bears his name, we the spectators are watching a man process his reality. His moods shift, sometimes instantly: are they real or is he playing those around him? As Josipovici states, the concept of play is very much a key to understanding it. In this play called Hamlet there is another play, staged by a band of travelling actors, though contrived by Hamlet himself. It’s called The Mousetrap, and by showing a version of his father’s death Hamlet wants only to see Claudius betray his guilt.
And yet…and yet…Hamlet still isn’t sure that the ghost of his father, which is seen in the very first act of the play, garbed in battle armor, is really the spirit of the late king. The Elizabethans believed in ghosts far more than we do, and they were also aware of the possibility, commonly thought then, that the Devil himself could send forth a spirit in the guise of the dead to lead the living to their own destruction. And so Hamlet is caught in another layer of doubt. And doubt is also what this play is about. He both wants proof of Claudius’s guilt, but when the opportunity presents itself for him to murder his father’s murderer, self-doubt steps in all over again and he holds back. If he kills the king while the man is at prayer, his soul will ascend to heaven, not to the hell where he belongs. It’s a debate within his own mind, this mind of a university student filled with Renaissance ideas. What we learn is that Claudius’s prayers are, in fact, worth nothing.
Hamlet was first produced at the open-air Globe Playhouse in London probably in 1602, with Richard Burbage in the title role and, it’s been assumed by some, Shakespeare himself playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father (it’s perhaps interesting to note that of Shakespeare’s three children, his only son died some seven years earlier at the age of eleven, and his name was Hamnet). Performances there began in daylight, and so that opening scene, set at the stroke of midnight, had to be augmented by the imagination of the audience. It begins much as a movie today might. A guard comes to relieve another, and immediately there’s a palpable sense of fear and suspicion, a straining of nerves. “Who’s there?” is the skittish first line, and soon afterwards, when Horatio joins them, he says, “What, has this thing appeared again tonight?” And all of a sudden we’re in Alien or Friday the 13th. This is a tale of horror and a play about revenge that builds—unfolds, as Josipovici puts it—with the utmost simplicity, though the main character is far from simple. And that’s what lends this play its timeless quality.
I’ve seen many interpretations of the play, in the theatre most notably with Derek Jacobi and Ralph Fiennes in the title role, in the movies and on TV. And yet—and I’m not alone—I’ve always rooted for Hamlet to win in the end, though I know he will die. This is the power of this character who is so like us, and who, even in his princely role, doubts and ponders and worries and fears. He is, as Jospiovici points out, a modern man, perhaps the first truly modern man in English literature, “with all the doubts and hesitations, all the awareness of possibilities that leads to the dizzying sense that his life lacks necessity and therefore meaning.” Except that Hamlet’s life does, in the end, possess meaning and necessity. With his death order is restored to Denmark by the return of the son of the Norwegian King Fortinbras, vanquished by Hamlet’s father.
There have been perhaps thousands of books on Hamlet, and Gabriel Josipovici’s is but the latest, this from an eminent critic and scholar and novelist whose past works on modernism remain essential reading. The play endures because it is so timeless or, rather, of our time, whatever age it may be. It’s about nothing, really, and for much of the play nothing much happens. But it throws up questions at almost every turn: is Hamlet mad or just pretending to be? And why is Hamlet such a static character, unable to act when act is called for? T.S. Eliot famously wrote (and it serves as one of Josipovici’s epigraphs to his book): “About anyone so great as Shakespeare, it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong.”
When I saw Ralph Fiennes in Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, just after the duel, as Hamlet was dying, an ambulance, its siren blaring, passed just outside the building’s walls, raising an uneasy laugh in the audience. But it was also oddly eerie. Someone out there may have been stabbed, possibly to death, just as on stage before our eyes a man was dying from a similar wound. Tomorrow he’ll be back for another performance, and then another and another. Every night he’ll die again, and every night we see the play we’ll hope he wins the duel.