Is There Anything Left to Say, Hamlet?

“Hamlet” is a masterpiece. Many of us have read it or listened to it on audiobook. I’d never seen it acted, though, until my recent trip to London.  Did I come up with anything that hasn’t already been said? I doubt it, at least not about the play itself. I do, however, have a story to tell about my experience watching the play. Isn’t that what reading and writing is all about? Isn’t that what Shakespeare was after when he wrote the play? To have it act on each individual in a special way.

The Globe is an open air theatre. Historically, people would sit under one of the three covered levels of the theatre, but if they couldn’t afford to pay the price for a penny they could stand in the “pit” or “yard” below the stage and watch the play from there. People packed in and stood throughout the entire play. These people were called “groundlings” and there were even jokes made about them during the plays.

During the play, Hamlet actually refers to the groundlings in Act 3 Scene 2:

O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise.

During the early 17th century people would pay the penny just to get a chance to steal a purse from another “groundling” or patron. In 1599, Thomas Platter mentioned the cost of admission at contemporary London theatres in his diary:

There are separate galleries and there one stands more comfortably and moreover can sit, but one pays more for it. Thus anyone who remains on the level standing pays only one English penny: but if he wants to sit, he is let in at a farther door, and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion in the most comfortable place of all, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen then he gives yet another English penny at another door. And in the pauses of the comedy food and drink are carried round amongst the people and one can thus refresh himself at his own cost.

We went back in time, temporarily, and subjected ourselves to this “groundling” experience. It would be too noble of me to say that we did it for purely academic purposes, instead, we simply booked our tickets too late to get a seat.

It rains in London. It rained in London for our entire stay. So, my experience of seeing Hamlet is as a “groundling” on a rainy day.

It’s one thing to experience Shakespeare on the page. It’s quite another to experience Shakespeare from the ground in the rain and then be the butt of Shakespeare’s joke at the same time.

Seeing Shakespeare in this way makes me think that I don’t need to match the academics line by line in analyzing the deeper psychological implications of Hamlet’s case. I need not parse the play line by line looking for some new writerly tool or tactic. The vocabulary seems to be less important when you see the play acted out with adequate emotion. Long soliloquies become impressive shows of emotion that I can empathize with, especially being shoulder to shoulder with my fellow-man.

So, my experience with Shakespeare makes me think this: we need to spend more time reading Shakespeare out loud, preferably with a friend. Alternatively, we need to see Shakespeare acted by professional actors. Further, if you can get into out in the open air and see Shakespeare you’re probably going to see barriers to understanding lifted. If you get lucky enough to be rained on while watching Shakespeare, then real quickly you’re going to see that the Shakespeare experience was not really created to be fully had sitting in a class room parsing word by word to discover the meaning. The classroom is just the starting point, albeit a damn important one.

Photo: Alicia Murphy

17 Replies to “Is There Anything Left to Say, Hamlet?”

  1. With a snappy lead-in like this one, how could I possibly NOT chime in? (And yes, Hamlett is my real last name.)

    What I have always felt was amazing about The Bard’s work is its timelessness. Over 400 years later, his themes, settings and characters still resonate with us. They also lend themselves seamlessly to modern adaptation.

    Apparently, though, there’s at least one aspiring screenwriter out there who has interpreted the whole “public domain” issue as an invitation to unabashed plagiarism. In the context of my role as a script consultant for the film industry, I often read scripts that have more than a passing similarity to films that have already been made (i.e., beautiful young women impregnated by the Devil for a cult; little aliens that get left behind by the mother ship and make friends with kids in suburbia, etc.).

    While I’m always interested in seeing fresh and clever spins on classic literature and plays, it didn’t make me long to realize that this particular writer did a cut-and-paste of the entire text of “Hamlet,” formatted it with Final Draft software, gave it a different name – “Out For Revenge” – and then put his own name on the cover as the author.

    When I passed on this project, the writer became angry and defensive. His excuse? “It’s not stealing it if the guy who wrote it is dead!!!”

    Seriously. I don’t make these things up.

  2. Timelessness is a great way to put. I just got finished reading Looking for Hamlet by Marvin Hunt and he traces Hamlet and the interpretation of the play through movements like the Renaissance, The Victorian Era, Postmodernism, etc. It’s a great book and I think it would support your feelings 100%.

    About the screenwriter, isn’t there a special place in purgatory reserved for people like that?

  3. Wow, it sounds like the Globe theater was a great experience. I didn’t get around to seeing any theater in London, and it’s a shame….in high school when I studied Hamlet in AP English, we read aloud a lot (which was fun) and saw the Mel Gibson version of the movie (also fun). There’s a book by one of my favorite authors, Norah Labiner called “Our Sometime Sister” which seamlessly weaves quotes and scenes from “Hamlet” into her story. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. It was an awesome experience.

      I like the idea of reading it out loud and even watching a movie or listening to the audiobook. Something to get an idea of the intent that it is spoken.

      I’ll check the book out. Sounds good.

      1. It’s one of my favorites. I just now remembered I saw the Hamlet castle in Denmark. It was hilarious, too, because there was some kind of stench, and we walked around talking about “something is rotten in Denmark.”

  4. Great post Brandon! I am among this believers in the Bard who never understood any of iit until I watched a live performance. As a teacher I regularly played the Leonardo Di Caprio version of Romeo and Juliet, and the kids loved it. They commented on the language being stupid (compared to the foreign language kids speak today and cal it English), but could see and feel the story anyway. They even asked for more.

    1. Thanks! Watching it live really helped cement the idea of it in my mind. I did prepare by reading it and listening to it in audiobook format before hand.

      I hate that I missed out on seeing your performance, though! I have a video camera you can borrow!

  5. Thanks for noticing my book. I’d love to contribute a brief guest essay titled “Zombie Hamlet” to this blog.

  6. A ghost is a soul without a body, a zombie a body without a soul.
    The ghost of Hamlet’s father is a much zombie as ghost. He appears in act one first to the watches, then to Horatio and finally to Hamlet, clad in armor–a supremely durable “body.” These scenes emphatically assert a soul also, of course: The ghost/zombie Hamlet Sr shows up with his visor lifted to reveal a face.
    Tantalizingly, tradition has it that Shakespeare himself played the ghost/zombie role.
    Here it’s important to remember that zombies feed on humans. Is the physical manifestation of Hamlet Sr. a sign that he wishes not to preserve but to destroy his son?
    In 3.4 Old Hamlet appears for the last time, visible only to his son but not to his wife. This makes Hamlet seem to Gertrude patently mad. And the rest is history.
    One important detail suggests that the zombie of act one morphs into a ghost in act three, but that both are related, even conspiratorial. A stage direction in the first published edition (Q1, 1603) has, at the climax of 3.4, the dead man appearing, for the final time in the play, in his n1ght clothes. Not in hammered and layered metal–not the zombie King–but in pajamas, the “king of shreds and patches.”

    1. Wow. So this is actually the Dr. Hunt that wrote Looking for Hamlet, isnt’t it? I enjoyed it very much.

      So if the argument is that Hamlet is a zombie story, would it be the first, ever or was Shakespeare pulling from an already existing Zombie tradition?

      I’ll have to dig into this with another reading.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    1. Well, thanks for stopping by. It’s an honor. If nothing else the take away from your comment would be, yes, there’s always something more to say about Hamlet.

      Thanks for making the point.

  7. Two things. The Nigerian Tiv tribe regarded Hamlet’s ghostly father as a Zombie. I write about this in Looking for Hamlet but forgot it. Second, I have a new book out within the month: “Among the Children of the Sun.” It’s about the Bahamas.

    1. Thanks for the heads up on your book. I just purchased it and look forward to reading it.

      I had forgotten about the Tiv tribe mention in your book, too. Who among us, is in a position to challenge their reading of Hamlet? Their unique experience and background gives rise to a unique perspective.

      Have a Merry Christmas, Dr. Hunt.

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