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If extraterrestrials were to visit Planet Earth, we would probably put a copy of Hamlet in their welcome basket. It’s that good. Now, over 400 years after William Shakespeare wrote the play, readers and audiences are still connecting with it.
Shakespeare was a groundbreaking pioneer in his time and wrote plays that were totally different from anything the world had ever seen before. He explored the human spirit and what happens when it is challenged. He also tested the limits of language, inventing new words and phrases. (What? You want an example? How about: “eaten out of house and home” or “one fell swoop.”)
Hamlet, in particular, has a lot of “most famous” things in it. It is Shakespeare’s most famous play about Shakespeare’s most famous character (that would be Hamlet), and it contains Shakespeare’s most famous line: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
Big Willy wrote Hamlet between 1599 and 1601, and the play tells the story of Prince Hamlet. When the play opens, we discover that Hamlet’s dad (the King of Denmark) has been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle (Claudius). Not too long after the murder, Claudius married Hamlet’s mom, Gertrude. Which is all pretty messed up. Hamlet doesn’t know what to do. He’s famous for being really indecisive.
In some respects, Hamlet is like a typical weekend; basically, within the span of a five-act play, Hamlet has a ton of things to do, but just can’t figure out how to make himself do them. Think about your To Do list – it’s hard enough to accomplish the kinds of everyday tasks you probably have lined up (let’s just start with one word: laundry). Then, imagine Hamlet’s To Do list…in comparison, it’s epic. For starters, there are the obvious things: hang out with Dad’s ghost, feign madness, dump girlfriend, accuse Mom of treachery, plot the convoluted details of your elaborate revenge. Then, of course, there’s the looming task at hand: kill Uncle/Stepdad/King. Wow. And Hamlet really takes his sweet time in avenging his father’s murder. The question of why Hamlet delays taking revenge has puzzled critics for centuries.
Hamlet is a long play takes about three hours (and probably a good deal of coffee) to perform. For most actors, playing Hamlet is a dream and a huge challenge; it’s the actor equivalent of going to the Olympics. Many famous actors have dared to walk in Hamlet’s shoes. Check it out:
- Richard Burbage (the original Hamlet; part of Shakespeare’s acting crew)
- Sarah Bernhardt (Yes, a lady. She was known as the “Great Sarah” for her acting ability. You can read a review of her performance here. )
- Sir Laurence Olivier
- Ralph Fiennes (a.k.a. Voldemort)
- Sir Ian McKellen (a.k.a. Gandalf. He also plays a great King Lear.)
- Mel Gibson
- Ethan Hawke
- Jude Law (Dr. Watson!)
Scholars dig Hamlet because the play marks the beginning of a new kind of literature that focuses on the struggles and conflicts within a single individual, rather than the external conflicts between individuals. Hamlet was one of the first characters ever to have a developed and mysterious inner life. As the audience, we learn about Hamlet through his elaborate speeches (soliloquies). In other words, watching (or reading) Hamlet is like going for a roller coaster ride in the mind of one of the most psychologically complex figures in Western literature. Kind of a big deal, wouldn’t you say? The form of literature now known as the novel would later take this idea and run with it.
Though the play is definitely innovative, the story line of Hamlet is not original. Oops. (Actually, most of Shakespeare’s plots are borrowed.) The story of Hamlet is super old and dates back to at least the 9th century. It centers on “Amleth” (sound familiar?), a young man who fakes being crazy in order avenge his father’s murder. Saxo the Grammarian included the tale in a 12th century text and later, François de Belleforest translated the story from Latin into French in Histoires Traquiques (1570), which is where Shakespeare may have encountered the tale. There seems to have been an earlier play about the story of Hamlet that was staged some time before 1589. Literary scholars call this play the Ur (original)Hamlet, but we don’t know anything about the author and no copy of the play exists.
Other people have followed in Shakespeare’s footsteps and further adapted the story, including legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (in The Bad Sleep Well), Disney (inThe Lion King), The Simpsons, and tons of English students on YouTube.
Why Should I Care?
Hamlet can be considered something of a mirror. OK, a weird, funhouse mirror held at anElizabethan angle, but a mirror nonetheless. Sure, Hamlet may be around 30-years-old, but the guy is really having a teenage crisis. Imagine Hamlet on a reality show. Can you picture him in that little room where the cast has to talk into the camera? He’d say, “Let’s go, Claudius, just wait, I’m going to bring it so hard you’ll BEEP BEEP!” and then the rest of his speech is lost to censorship.
Which is really what Hamlet is, when you think about it: the talking to the camera bit. When there’s no real action, in life or in reality TV, we turn to people to narrate their feelings and it entertains us. If you think about the actual action of Hamlet, well, that doesn’t come until Act V when everyone dies. The rest of the play is soliloquies, asides, conversations, and mullings over which, far from being boring, are the real meat of the play. They’re also the real meat of people, as those of you living and breathing well know. Hamlet‘s amazing because it’s the first play to really do that. So even though Hamlet talks the talk without bringing the vengeance, at least for 30 pages or so, it’s the talk that we’re interested in anyway.
The Winter’s Tale
Written toward the end of William Shakespeare’s theatrical career, The Winter’s Tale (1609-1611) is a story of loss and redemption. In a fit of wild and unfounded jealousy, Leontes, the King of Sicily, convinces himself that his pregnant wife is carrying his best friend’s love child. Leontes’s jealousy turns to tyranny as the king proceeds to destroy his entire family and a lifelong friendship. Sixteen long years pass, and we witness one of the most astonishing endings in English literature.
The play is famous for its two-part structure, which makes The Winter’s Tale seem like two entirely different plays that are joined together at the end. The first three acts enact a mini-tragedy and occur in wintery Sicily, while the second half of the play occurs in Bohemia during the summer months and features the kind of restorative ending typical of Shakespeare’s “comedies.”
Because of its mixed genre, the play is often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” (a group that also includes Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest). To complicate matters, these works are also referred to as Shakespeare’s “romances,” which you can read more about in “Genre.”
Aside from its unique structure and Shakespeare’s experiments in genre, The Winter’s Tale is also famous for its flagrant disregard for the “classical unities” (of time, place, and action), literary rules that say all plays should have the following features: 1) the action should take place within a 24 hour time span; 2) the action should take place in one geographical place/setting; 3) the play should have one main plot and no sub-plots. Most of Shakespeare’s plays ignore the “classical unities,” but The Winter’s Tale takes it a step further by having the figure Time appear on stage at the beginning of Act 4 to announce that Shakespeare is fast-forwarding sixteen years and changing the location from Sicily to Bohemia – if anyone has a problem, they should just get over it, please.
Much of The Winter’s Tale is based on Robert Greene’s Pandosto, The Triumph of Time(published 1588), a pastoral romance about a jealous king who banishes his infant daughter and drives away his friend. Shakespeare also draws from the story of Pygmalion in Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Over the years, there’s been some speculation that The Winter’s Tale is really about King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded after being (unfairly) accused and convicted of adultery in 1536.
Why Should I Care?
So, you read Othello and you thought to yourself “Gee. Shakespeare’s tragedies are crazy brilliant, but they’re also downright depressing. Wouldn’t it be great if Big Willy had written a play that wasn’t afraid to explore weighty issues like jealousy and tyranny, but could also offer up his audience a little hope for the future?” Well, look no further, because Uncle Shakespeare totally came through when he wrote The Winter’s Tale.
In fact, the play, which was written toward the end of Shakespeare’s long career, seems to be a kind of “redo” of Othello. Both plays are a study of jealousy and its destructive effects, butThe Winter’s Tale has the kind of happily-ever-after ending that we look for in fairy tales.
In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes’s sudden and unfounded fear that his pregnant wife is sleeping with his best friend eats away at him like a disease. Same thing happens in Othello, when the Venetian general suspects his faithful wife is “making the beast with two backs” with another guy. Both Leontes and Othello manage to screw up big time. (Othello murders his faithful wife, and Leontes throws Hermione in the slammer and then orders a guy to dump off his newborn daughter in the middle of nowhere.)
The differences between the two plays, however, are pretty significant. While Othello and Leontes both abuse and destroy their families, not all of the damage done in The Winter’s Tale is permanent. With Leontes, who suffers and repents for sixteen long years and is miraculously reunited with his wife and long lost daughter, Shakespeare puts a redemptive spin on the tragic story. In The Winter’s Tale, it seems that anything is possible and, despite the horrible mistakes we might make in our lives, second chances are never out of the question. No, we’re not saying that Shakespeare condones domestic violence. What we are saying is that Shakespeare takes a story about the destructiveness of jealousy and tyranny and turns it into a fairy tale that seems to reflect a more hopeful view of humanity.