Hamlet: a play that speaks to pandemics past and present


Mark Brenner

Elizabeth Schafer, Royal Holloway University of London

I went to the theatre for the first time in 15 months to see the Theatre Royal Windsor’s new production of Hamlet. Starring Ian McKellen and directed by Sean Mathias, it really resonates in a time of ongoing pandemic. Mckellen’s very contemporary, teenage Hamlet slouches around in a hoodie and trackie bottoms, grieving, isolated and angry.

The setting, like the original, is the city of Elsinore, Denmark. In this version, COVID funerals are disrupted and truncated. Hamlet, a latterday prince, is a bisexual university student stuck at home with mum and step-dad when he wants to be back at uni in Wittenberg, hanging out with his friends and lovers.

Mental health issues afflict those in mourning, especially royalty. Hamlet muses “to be or not to be” as his lover, Horatio, gives the prince that most precious of things in lockdown, a haircut. Characters are overwhelmed by feelings of loss. Suicidal thoughts lurk. Denmark feels, and looks, like a prison. The government is morally corrupt.

Much of the play, this modern interpretation and Shakespeare’s original, speak to the circumstances and current climate in which we live. There is much in it to relate to and also learn from as our world widens and we learn to “live with the virus”.

Pandemics past

The spectre of plague and pandemic hung over much of Shakespeare’s life. He was born in April 1564, a few months before an outbreak of bubonic plague killed a quarter of the people in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. Such pandemics would recur during his time in London in 1592, 1603, 1606 and then 1609.

When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, usually dated around 1599-1601, feelings of grief, mourning and bereavement were probably at the forefront of his mind. His parents were very elderly by contemporary standards. Shakespeare’s father, John, died in September 1601 around 70 years of age. Five years earlier, in August 1596, Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, had died aged 11, possibly of plague.

It is an uncanny coincidence that the name Hamlet is so close in sound to the name of Shakespeare’s son. The play is obsessed with fathers and sons, and how to navigate mourning a father’s death. It is full of speeches about grief and attempts to move on after bereavement. Hamlet is not alone in this as Ophelia and Laertes also suffer from unresolved grief in the play.

What galvanises Hamlet out of his emotional lockdown is theatre. When he hears travelling players are in town he leaps into action. Like so many in the audience he has really missed the theatre.

Despite the modern dress, Sean Mathias’ production eclectically evokes the theatre practices of the troupe in Hamlet. Most obviously, casting ignores age, ethnicity and gender, something which evokes the fact that Shakespeare’s stage had young men playing women. So while Jonathan Hyde is realistically cast as a plausible, efficient Claudius, the teenage Hamlet is played by an 82-year-old, while Francesca Annis who plays his elderly ghost.

Pandemic theatre

Lee Newby’s set design also encourages audiences to think of early modern playing conditions, transforming the Theatre Royal stage into a black metal, faux Globe theatre with two banks of seats on either side of the stage and a gallery at the back.

As a result, the onstage audience are clearly on display, sharing light with the performers. The mandatory face masks offer a constant reminder of COVID, while blanking out the audience’s reactions, but they also offer a reminder that Shakespeare’s playhouse had to navigate its own pandemic and often had to negotiate sudden lockdowns.

When the weekly plague death count reached 30 in Shakespeare’s time, the playhouses closed. Plague transmission was not properly understood, but it was clear that people congregating created a super-spreader event of sorts.

Shakespeare, a player, playwright and, most importantly of all, a shareholder in the Globe, seems to have seized the moment and written prolifically during plague lockdowns. In 1592 he was writing narrative poetry – Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece – as plague raged.

The years 1603 to 1604, 1606, and 1608 to 1609 were also bad for plague, and seem to have given Shakespeare space to write. For example King Lear was performed at Whitehall Palace on Boxing Day 1606 at the end of a year of plague. From 1597 on, Shakespeare could also escape to his sprawling Warwickshire country mansion, New Place, one of the largest houses for miles, with at least 20 rooms.

Illustration of the original Globe Theatre.
Globe Theatre, detail from Hollar’s View of London, 1647.
Wikimedia

By contrast, many players were desperate for any income and facing destitution. So, sometimes playhouses would reopen before the mortality rate fell to the level considered “safe”. The thought of what a “freedom day” was like in the early modern playhouse, with those standing (known as groundlings) pressed closely together in the yard, is perhaps even more daunting than watching people flood back now restrictions are lifted.

Now that so many restrictions have been lifted now in the UK since July 19, I am feeling very ambivalent about the shared experience of live theatre. The Theatre Royal created what feels like a very safe space and, personally, I could get used to having such a generous amount of leg room in front of me. In a COVID-secure theatre, there’s no need to get intimate with complete strangers while trying to squeeze through to your seat.

But after “Freedom Day”, the theatre is only insisting that masks remain mandatory for the audience onstage who are in such close proximity to the actors. The theatre will only “strongly encourage” the rest of the audience to mask up.

During the first decade of the 1600s, pandemic ravaged the country’s population and theatres were closed as often as they were open. This might be the case now too. Already productions have had to close to isolate, including London’s Shakespeare’s Globe, after positive cases among cast and crew. Maybe restrictions indoors could stave off more productions having to close. It took 30 deaths to close the playhouses in the 1600s, but now all it takes to close a theatre is one case of COVID.The Conversation

Elizabeth Schafer, Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies, Royal Holloway University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest villain



Hamlet and Ophelia by Agnes Pringle.
Chiswick Town Hall, CC BY-NC-SA

Catherine Butler, Cardiff University

Who is Shakespeare’s greatest villain? Richard III? Iago? Macbeth? They all have a claim to the title; however, the correct answer is Hamlet.

Hamlet not only behaves villainously throughout his eponymous play, but has somehow persuaded generations of audiences and critics that he is actually its hero. That is what takes his villainy to the next level.

Look at the roll call of Hamlet’s crimes.

First he kills Polonius – chief counsellor to the King and the father of Laertes and Ophelia. Hamlet skewers him when he discovers him eavesdropping from behind a tapestry. Polonius may be an “intruding fool,” as Hamlet dismissively calls him on discovering his body; but Hamlet is in no position to feel superior, having “intruded” on Claudius’s private meditations in just the previous scene. Double standards are, however, a hallmark of this play.




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To make his treatment of Polonius worse, once dead, Hamlet drags his corpse through the court, hiding it from his loved ones and leaving it to decay and rot without proper burial.

Such disrespect of Polonius in death, however, is no different from how the prince treated him in life. Using his rank, Hamlet continuously insults Polonious, ridiculing him for his age, calling him names and refusing to talk to him directly at times. Hamlet does so knowing Polonius can not answer back. Punching down is Hamlet’s usual style with social inferiors: Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Osric all experience similar treatment.

Mad, bad and dangerous to know?

Painting of Ophelia floating after she drowned in a river.
John Everett Millais’s Ophelia.
Tate, CC BY-ND

The most egregious crime is the death of Ophelia, whom Hamlet drives to madness and suicide with a campaign of misogyny, gaslighting and open sexual harassment, one moment condemning her for the crime of being female, the next degrading her in public with obscene puns.

Then there’s his casual proxy murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose only crime is to obey the king’s order to find out what is troubling their friend and then to escort him to England. Although Hamlet has no evidence that his friends know the fatal contents of the letter they carry, commanding the prince’s execution, he goes out of his way to ensure that they are not only killed but damned for eternity by being denied confession. By his own account, he never gives them another thought.




Read more:
Patriarchy’s ghosts in the light bulbs: Hamlet at The Royal Exchange


‘Never Hamlet’

Set design feature four of Hamlet's characters in a round lit by spotlights with crosses hanging above.
Set design for shakespeare’s Hamlet by Georgian artist Dimitri Tavadze.
Dimitri Tavadze/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-SA

Laertes, like Hamlet, has a murdered father, as well as a sister driven to suicide. When he takes a few lines to mourn at her graveside, Hamlet (whose self-absorbed soliloquies have already filled many pages) is outraged that the focus of attention should be on anyone else even for eight lines (“What is he whose grief/ Bears such an emphasis?”) and declares, on the basis of no evidence that we have seen, that he loved Ophelia 40,000 times more than her brother. Despite this hyperbolic protestation, he never again mentions or alludes to Ophelia from that moment on, let alone expressing regret at her death.

The usual excuse made for Hamlet is that many of these deeds are committed when he is of unsound mind. Indeed, this is his explanation to Laertes for the death of Polonius (“Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet”). That excuse would carry more weight had Hamlet not persuasively told his mother the opposite within moments of the killing:

My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time,

And makes as healthful music: it is not madness

That I have utter’d: bring me to the test,

And I the matter will re-word; which madness

Would gambol from.

By the end of the play, Hamlet has not only ruined his own life and those of his family and friends, but freely given away his country to a foreign power – the very thing his admired father had struggled so hard to prevent.

In short, Hamlet is a self-centred, entitled, manipulative, callous bully. However, he is also intensely charismatic, so much so that he has persuaded the world to share his Hamlet-centric view.

That is what makes him a villain of genius.The Conversation

Catherine Butler, Reader in English Literature, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.