The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare, and David Tennant on playing him


Derek Jacobi Hamlet

Derek Jacobi looking rather old for a teenage Hamlet

I found Hamlet rather difficult to follow. Few stage directions meant I couldn’t tell what the characters were supposed to be doing physically and all nuance of emotion was lost. (Earnest words or sarcasm? Genuine cruelty or pushing someone away for their own good?) About halfway through I decided to watch the BBC’s 1980 adaptation starring Patrick Stewart and Derek Jacobi on YouTube while reading at the same time.

Hamlet Patrick Stewart Claudius

Anyone else freaked out that Captain Picard has hair?

Hamlet feels overly long and I think the adaptation reflects this by regularly cutting lines which I didn’t feel were necessary. (But it was a bitch trying to figure out how much they’d skipped so I could find my place in the text again.) Still, the adaptation is three and a half hours long – longer than most films. My attention wandered now and then. Despite taking short breaks,  it was still a hard slog. Though it’s been years since I last read Shakespeare, I don’t remember it being this much of a chore.

At least Rowan Atkinson agrees with me as Shakespeare’s editor.

When pursuing revenge you have to be prepared to sacrifice everything to meet your goal. Hamlet lost his betrothed, his mother and his life in order to avenge his father’s murder. And for what? An obligation to a ghost, possibly a figment of his imagination? I didn’t really see Hamlet grieving for the loss of his father, only him noticing how fast everyone moved on from his death. How fast his mother remarried, how fast the country gained a new king – without an appropriate mourning period.

Did Gertrude even love her now dead husband? One wonders if she was having an affair with his brother Claudius before Old Hamlet died, and whether she had knowledge of or took part in his murder.

Ophelia Hamlet

Ophelia, the inspiration for all those drowning girls book covers
Image: xxaihxx

Two sets of fathers and sons appear overly concerned with the sex lives of their female relations. Neither sets approve of their women’s choice of partners. Polonius and Laertes tell Ophelia to refuse Hamlet’s affections and Hamlet and his dead father begrudge Gertrude’s sexual fulfillment.

Hamlet is cruel to both the women in his life – the very people he supposedly loves the most. Calling his mother a whore and telling his betrothed that he never loved her.

Ophelia’s repressed sexuality gains freedom when she goes mad and starts singing bawdy songs. For some reason I thought this indicated that Claudius had been trying to get under Ophelia’s skirts. I didn’t realise she’d gone mad.

I hate that the women were portrayed as delicately fragile creatures. Easily led, easily broken.

Apart from the ladies, everyone gets what they desire:

  • Claudius becomes king, marries the queen and engineers Hamlet’s death
  • Hamlet permanently puts a stop to sex between his mother and Claudius
  • Laertes and Polonius sees the break up of the relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet
  • Hamlet kills the king, successfully avenging his father’s murder
  • Laertes avenges deaths of his father and sister by killing Hamlet
  • Fortinbras avenging his father’s defeat by marching on Denmark

Fortinbras is the only one to succeed and live. He takes Denmark without a fight. A lovely twist would be if he’d sewn the seed of ambition in Claudius, inciting him to murder his brother to create chaos. Divide and conquer.

At the time Hamlet was written (1600) I suppose it was revolutionary in its originality and complexity. However, while I enjoyed coming across certain famous lines, I’m already acquainted with this play’s themes and have seen them expressed in far better ways.

Kenneth Brannagh Hamlet

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet

Perhaps watching other adaptations, like Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version, would help me appreciate the play more. Although at over four hours, I’m not anxious to endure watch it.

Extras in my edition

Click images to enlarge

I was reading along in the The RSC William Shakespeare Complete Works which has a handy introduction and a breakdown of statistics, as follows:

LINGUISTIC MEDIUM: 75% verse, 25% prose

MAJOR PARTS: (with percentage of lines/number of speeches/scenes on stage)

Hamlet (37%/341/12)
King (14%/100/11)
Polonius (9%/86/8)
Horatio (7%/105/9)
Laertes (5%/60/6)
Ophelia (4%/58/5)
Gertrude (4%/70/10)
Rosencrantz (2%/44/6)
First Player (2%/8/2)
Ghost (2%/15/2)
First Clown (2%/34/1)
Marcellus (2%/34/4)
Guildenstern (1%/29/5)
Osric (1%/19/1)


As as introspective play, Hamlet is constantly asking himself what kind of person he wants to be, asking himself questions and examining the behaviour of others.

The play creates the illusion of asking as many questions of its audience and interpreters as we may ask of it… In watching or reading the play, we are moved, like Hamlet, to ask the big questions: What should we believe? How should we act? What happens after death? Whose version of the truth should we have faith in?

Hamlet is constrained by the very nature of his royal birth, and as a prince, disdains propriety in all its forms. He craves freedom and finds it in pretending to be mad. Eventually Hamlet moves beyond agonizing over self-conscious thoughts and sentiments like ‘conscience does make cowards of us all’ to what will be will be, ready for action.

SOURCES: My edition also says the inspiration for this play is Danish prince Amleth.

…in the twelfth-century Historiae Danicae of Saxo Grammaticus, familiar to Elizabethan reads via a retelling in François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques (1570). In Belleforest, the Gertrude figure deliberately begins her affair with her husband’s brother before the murder, in which she suspected of complicity.

So I was right! Gertrude isn’t the simpering idiot she’s portrayed to be.

TEXT: There are three versions of the Hamlet text:

  1. First Quarto, also known as the Bad Quarto. Published in 1603. Thought to be cobbled together from memory. Half the length, less eloquent, but with more stage directions e.g. ‘Enter Ofelia playing on a Lute, and her hair downe singing’.
  2. Second Quarto, replaced Bad Quarto in 1604/5. Believed to be from Shakespeare’s manuscript; over 4000 words long.
  3. First Folio, put together 1623 after Shakespeare’s death. Adds 70 new lines, though 230 Quarto lines are absent. including Hamlet’s last major soliloquay, ‘How all occasions do inform against me’.

My Shakespeare: David Tennant on Hamlet

Hamlet David Tennant Patrick Stewart

Captain Picard again, sans hair. He must really love playing Claudius.

Sky Arts TV series My Shakespeare takes an actor who has played a major part of the play they’re analyzing. They talk to other actors who’ve played the roles and look at various adaptations on stage and screen.

Apparently Shakespeare’s most famous play. {I must be the last to find this out.}

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most talkative character, with an intimidating number of lines. {37% / 341 lines}

Hamlet was the name of Shakespeare’s son who died aged 11, right before he wrote this play.

Hamlet contemplates suicide in a time when it was practically a crime.

Ghosts and the supernatural were real to people at the time of writing.

Hamlet works through his issues by rationally asking questions, rather than succumbing to madness.

There are as many interpretations of Hamlet as there are actors to play him.

Tennant agrees with me that Hamlet is a bit long and dry. It could do with some editing.

It’s a psychological thriller.

Discusses the morality of revenge, of killing.

Resenting his mother, thinking her promiscuous and stupid.

A Freudian interpretation sees Hamlet confronting his mother about her sexuality in her bedroom instead of the closet, with them kissing on the lips.

The Royal Shakespeare Company possess a real human skull, that of Polish composer André Tchaikowsky who died in 1982. He donated his skull to be used in Hamlet productions to play Yorick.

David Tennant Hamlet Yorick skull

Tennant as Hamlet with Tchaikowsky’s skull a.k.a. Yorick

Horatio is Hamlet’s only true friend and is the voice of the audience.

Hamlet has no control over the events of the ending. It’s Claudius’s plot.

Hamlet bids Horatio to tell his story, therefore encouraging more productions of Hamlet.

“The rest is silence.” Hamlet’s last words. Jude Law says this is a tranquil moment for Hamlet to feel relief that it’s all over. There are no more words.


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