Many people say Hamlet is the greatest play of all time. Why is it so revered?

One of the things that Shakespeare seems to do more completely than any writer who went before him is reveal the variety of the human mind; the way that people are very complicated.

Shakespeare does that through the soliloquy – the character alone on stage talking to himself, opening up his mind – and Hamlet just does that more than any other character. So there is that psychological complexity. That’s one reason the play is revered.

Then if you combine that with simply the power of the revenge story. The primal idea of your father being killed by your uncle, and then your mother being compromised by that, she marries the man who killed your father – that’s a very powerful plot line. Combine it then with Hamlet having this task of revenge, and not being naturally suited to it. Then throw in the idea that he is a young man in love but he realises very quickly that that love affair is going to be a distraction and it has got to come to an end.

So you’ve got those two things: the psychology and then just the sheer force of the plot.

Hamlet is searching for answers throughout the play isn’t he?

Yes he is. Hamlet keeps asking questions. The play even begins with a question:

Barnardo: Who’s there?

Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

In a way, the whole of the play is [distilled] in that opening exchange. It asks questions but it refuses to answer them. It is Shakespeare’s most philosophical play in that sense; the way he asks the biggest questions about the nature of human beings.

Hamlet seems to be paralysed by all of his over-thinking. He rarely knows which way to turn.

He absolutely defines himself by inaction – a life of contemplation, a life of philosophy, the life of the mind. Then he is given this task, this enormous task of avenging his father’s death. In Hamlet, Shakespeare is especially fascinated by a task being given to someone who is not naturally suited to it and that is what leads to the tragedy. But if you think about Macbeth, who is a great man of action, if you have gave Macbeth the job of dealing with Claudius…

…it would be a short play!

It would be a very short play! Macbeth would rip Claudius “from the nave to th’ chops” before you knew it! Conversely, if you gave Hamlet the job that Macbeth has, of deciding whether or not to believe the witches, Hamlet might be a little more hesitant and ask a few more questions than Macbeth does.

The role of Hamlet is greatly coveted by actors. Why do you think that is?

It is partly the sheer size of the role. Hamlet is one of the small number of Shakespeare’s plays where there is a single part that has a huge, huge percentage of the text. So you kind of know that if you are going to play Hamlet, you are going to be at the centre of things. You are carrying so much of the play.

Then there is the fact that there are these soliloquies where you have to hold the whole theatre alone and the language is immensely rich. Then there is the range of feelings – you’ve got to feign madness, you’ve got to be angry, you’ve got to be thoughtful, you’ve got to be in love, you’ve got to be out of love, you’ve to got to decide whether Hamlet is really mad or pretending to be mad. As an actor you are always pretending, so what is the difference between acting ‘really mad’ and acting ‘pretending to be mad’? It is such a great challenge.

What makes the genre of revenge tragedy so irresistible to audiences?

There is something very primal about it. Going back to origins of western drama, to ancient Greek tragedy, those are so often about revenge and about family conflict. If you think about the Bible, the story of Cane and Abel; Hamlet alludes to that in the play – the Cain and Abel idea, the sort of primal curse of the brother killing a brother. So it really gets to the rawest human emotions imaginable.

I think the other thing about tragedy is there is a way in which seeing difficult experiences acted out in some way makes us feel better about our own lives. I always remember one of my old teachers at Cambridge, the great scholar Sir Christopher Ricks, saying: “Comedies make us feel sad because we feel life can’t be that good. Tragedies make us feel happy because we feel life can’t be that bad.”

The Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet is being staged at the Canberra Theatre Centre (13 – 24 October) and Sydney Opera House (27 October – 6 December). Details at https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/hamlet/

Sir Jonathan Bate is the author of several books about William Shakespeare and his work. Details at www.jonathanbate.com

Interview edited by Felicity McLean, freelance writer and journalist. www.felicitymclean.com @felicitymclean




In your production, how are you exploring the political drama in Hamlet?

This play is about more than just two families imploding, and Hamlet is more than just a whinging boy who can’t get over his mother’s sexuality. Shakespeare housed this domestic drama within a political framework that is far more interesting. It allows Hamlet’s consciousness to be trapped inside something bigger than just his family – it’s trapped into a way of life that he simply can’t countenance.

Norway and Denmark have been in an enormous arms race – a real Cold War – that is beautifully described at the start of the play. Horatio and Marcellus talk about how the armament factories are building night and day (“…this sweaty haste doth make the night joint-labourer with the day”) and the endless endeavours of shipwrights and so you get this powerful Cold War and the strong government focus on border control.

Besides the external threat, there’s plenty of political intrigue within the Danish court isn’t there.

Absolutely. The play begins with a guard on border control but ironically he’s not seeing an external enemy, he’s seeing a ghost. And Horatio fears the ghost might be privy to his country’s fate.

What we learned from the Cold War and what we’re learning from Australia right now or from Edward Snowden or Julian Assange is that we’re in a world where governments feel they need to protect the citizenry from powerful perceived external threats. What happens is that the citizens become heavily seduced by the need to give up their personal freedoms – their freedom of speech, their freedom of thought. Their telephones are hacked and their lives are spied upon. It’s that very East German quality, which we thought we were safe from in a country like Australia but that we’ve quickly learned that we’re not.

So the Cold War, and war more generally in the sense of an external threat, is central to the true telling of the story of Hamlet. It gives a character like Polonius the permission to sneak inside bedrooms and inside the heads of everyone in Denmark.

What do you hope audiences take from that?

The ultimate point I try to make in the production is that the essence of tragedy is simply this: We spend our lives arming ourselves against what we perceive are our external threats – the things that we think are going to come across our borders – and Australia is extremely guilty of this. We fear what will happen to us if we let the wrong people in. Yet tragedy is there to teach us that we are actually the problem and the problem is already inside the fence. We are the greatest danger to ourselves and that’s what tragedy is trying to teach us. Denmark is arming itself for a giant external political threat but the threat is actually sitting on the throne. And the only person who can stop it [Hamlet] is too much of an enemy to himself to do anything about it.

This tension between the political and the personal is everywhere in the play isn’t it. 

Yes it is. The play is about grief and suppression of grief and I think that there’s another very political thing that Shakespeare is saying. In Catholicism, funeral rites and grieving in England were very, very different. Under the Tudors, when the Church became Protestant and Catholicism was wiped out, all the rules were changed about how you were permitted to grieve. They pulled all the theatre and all of the ritual out of the grieving process. You can almost feel William Shakespeare’s anger about that in Hamlet.

The play is all about a group of young people who lose their parents, but not one of them is permitted to grieve. Hamlet’s first scene in the play has his mother and his uncle absolutely condemning him – quite brutally – for the fact that he’s still grieving his father a month after the death. Then Ophelia’s madness is entirely founded in the notion that her father disappears off the face of the earth; she had no funeral, no ritual at which she could offer her deep sadness. So her mind breaks and she conducts a funeral in her own imagination, handing out flowers and singing eulogies.

The play is a very powerful expression of how we are forced by society to bottle up our grief and not express ourselves.

The Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet is touring regional centres, before being staged at the Canberra Theatre Centre (13 – 24 October) and Sydney Opera House (27 October – 6 December). Details at https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/hamlet/

 Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist. Twitter: @1andymclean