Hamlet and the Test of Time: the enduring appeal of Shakespeare’s tragedy

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Last week, Hamlet experts including Ian McEwan and Simon Russell Beale met at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to discuss what makes the play and its protagonist so extraordinary. Was Hamlet the first truly modern character to be created? Do we love him because he reflects our own anxieties? Alexandra Coghlan runs through the theories.

Over 400 years have passed since the Prince of Denmark took his first troubled steps onto the English stage, yet Shakespeare’s tragedy has only grown in urgency and stature. Every year new productions open right across the globe, joined now by film and television adaptations, hundreds of books and articles, songs, ballets and, this summer, the premiere of a new Hamlet opera at Glyndebourne. Why?

The enduring appeal of Hamlet is as elusive a question as any that faces the hero himself. Does the answer lie with the protagonist – whose doubts and thoughts we each recognise and share? Or is it the play – a drama that celebrates the power of theatre itself, a rich human tapestry teeming with life in all its variety?

Neil Armfield, Ann Thompson, Melvyn Bragg, Barbara Hannigan, Brett Dean, Simon Russell Beale and Ian McEwan discussing Hamlet at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

As composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn prepare to premiere their opera Hamlet, we gathered together a group of experts – actor Simon Russell Beale, novelist Ian McEwan, academic Ann Thompson, producer Tom Bird, director Neil Armfield and presenter Melvyn Bragg – to explore what exactly it is that makes Hamlet so extraordinary.

‘Hamlet leaps onto the stage of world literature as a fully formed self,’ argues Ian McEwan. ‘You get glimmers of self in Homer, Chaucer and many others places, but this is a sustained presentation of what it is like to be someone else.’ The ‘glimmers’ McEwan speaks of are bright indeed, from the vivid interior struggles of Homer’s Achilles, born of wounded pride, to the wilful, self-reflexive passion of Chaucer’s Troilus, but they stop far short of the playful, conscious self-fashioning of Shakespeare’s hero.

‘Hamlet’s is one of the widest consciousnesses that literature has ever presented,’ claims McEwan, ‘an infinite field of play. He’s probably the cleverest, most intellectually complex imagined character that we have, and that’s all the more interesting when you think that he’s not actually a very good man. He drives Ophelia nuts, sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, makes a ruthless stab at an arras not knowing quite who is behind it, and yet we adore him. We forgive him in a way we don’t any other Shakespeare character.’

Allan Clayton (who plays the title role in Brett Dean’s Hamlet) in The Rape of Lucretia, Festival 2015. Photographer Robbie Jack.

Simon Russell Beale offers one explanation for the sympathy we feel for the volatile, murderous Hamlet. ‘It’s a question of shared humanity,’ he explains. ‘As an actor you have to bring part of yourself to Hamlet, but his relationship with the audience – in many ways the most important relationship he has in the play – means that we are all sharing parts of ourselves with him in any given performance.

‘Apart from Montaigne, whose fingerprints are all over this play, I don’t think we have another such foundational character of modernity. He’s full of doubt, of hesitation. He questions himself constantly; his consciousness is profoundly secular. In many ways he teaches us how to speak to our own selves.’

If Homer and Chaucer only provided Shakespeare with partial models for a fully-developed literary self, it was Michel de Montaigne – the original essayist, and arguably the Renaissance’s greatest philosopher-author – who guided his final steps. ‘I am myself the matter of my book,’ he wrote of his 20 years of collected writings, and it was these unprecedented, semi-autobiographical contemplations that first invited his fellow men to look not just around themselves, but inwards, to tease out the contradictory urges and desires at their core.

Hamlet’s modernity comes in part from his mutability. Oscar Wilde famously claimed that, ‘There is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet’. This is a role that it can absorb an infinite number of approaches, embracing Laurence Olivier’s poised, heroic Prince alongside Ben Whishaw’s snivelling adolescent, as well as the female Hamlets of Sarah Bernhardt and Maxine Peake.

Librettist Matthew Jocelyn and director Brett Dean. Photographer Sam Stephenson

For academic Ann Thompson, general editor of the Arden Shakespeare, these female Hamlets reveal something inherent in Shakespeare’s Prince. ‘The fact that so many women have played Hamlet – literally hundreds, going right back to the eighteenth century – is something that speaks to a Victorian nervousness about Hamlet as a hero. He is effeminate; he says himself more than once that he uses words where he ought to use actions.’ Curiously though, reviews of both Peake and Bernhardt’s performances draw attention not to their femininity but their ‘boyishness’ – yet another paradox in an already many-layered question of identity.

This unique fluidity of character is something Thompson attributes to the play’s multiple surviving versions – the very different First and Second Quartos, and the Folio texts. ‘The fact that there are these three texts makes it possible to put together a kind of collage of different versions of Hamlet within a single production. That keeps the energy of the whole thing going. Hamlet is not this great monument, it is mutable object.’

This mutability is something celebrated and exploited by Matthew Jocelyn in his libretto for the Glyndebourne Hamlet, which roams freely through all three texts. Multiple sources allowed Jocelyn and Dean to find their own path through the drama, drawing heavily on the ‘Bad’ First Quarto, with its unfamiliar take on familiar episodes, including the play’s most famous line, ‘To be, or not to be…’. The First Quarto has it that, ‘that is the point’, not ‘that is the question’. The action of the play is also substantially reordered, creating a work that is as much a meditation as a narrative.

Among the most important elements of Hamlet are, of course, the soliloquies – the seven speeches that punctuate the play, giving us a window into Hamlet’s extraordinary, active mind. For many, the power of the play comes down these moments, where a hero shares his inner life to an extent no theatrical character had ever done before. But for all their psychological insight, the speeches are oddly divorced from the central drama of the play. They are ‘essentially portable’, says Thompson – as many productions, which have interchanged them freely, have proved. Their insistent repetition makes them a series of variations on a theme: intricate passages of elegantly verbalised thought, but not the urgent dramatic meat of the play.

Barbara Hannigan plays Ophelia in Brett Dean’s Hamlet. Photo © Raphael Brand

There’s something in these speeches that sets them apart from the action that frames them, something essential that transcends even language. ‘I have video clips,’ says Tom Bird, producer of the Globe’s two-year, worldwide tour of Hamlet, ‘of audiences who didn’t speak English sitting there completely rapt, listening to Hamlet’s soliloquies. It’s as though there’s something extra in the architecture of those moments, something more than just plot going on.’

Which brings us back to that slipperiest of questions – the essence of the play’s power. A role is only as great as what it says of the world around it. Hamlet’s dramatic satisfactions – the quick-fire verbal thrills of his soliloquies, his mercurial moods, his violent actions – are just the theatrical gloss on a man who, when he looks in the mirror, sees not himself but all of us. The self-consciousness of contemporary life – the ceaseless self-examination of a culture of therapy-goers and selfie-takers – finds expression and analysis here as nowhere else. It dignifies our daily struggles to bridge the gap between private inner self and public outer shell, guides us as we each attempt to fashion a stable, coherent whole out of the broken shards of self.

But what of the opera? What can music possibly hope to add to a play already so richly, do densely allusive?

For Armfield it’s not a question of adding to the play, of supplementing spoken drama somehow with music. Instead he sees an operatic Hamlet is an entirely new theatrical entity, one at once familiar and unfamiliar, a work that starts a conversation with Shakespeare’s original. ‘Verdi’s Otello is a wonderful experience,’ he says. ‘And it’s great thing to have as well as Othello. Likewise, Brett Dean’s Hamlet is a great thing to have as well as Shakespeare’s play.’

For Dean it comes down to the play’s ‘irresistible’ emotional terrain, to the textual nooks and crannies he hopes to fill with, ‘eddies of swirling sound’.

‘It excites me enormously,’ he says, ‘and I hope the result is chilling and funny and heartbreaking. I just want the audience to have a thrilling night in the theatre.’

Director Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn discuss the creative process of writing their Hamlet opera in this episode of the Glyndebourne podcast:

Hamlet is on stage 11 June–6 July

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