Notes from Greenblatt, Will in the World, chapter 10 “Speaking with the Dead” pp. 288-322


1596 was an eventful year for Shakespeare and his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Their powerful patron, Henry Carey-- cousin to the queen-- died, and briefly the position fell into the hands of the new master of revels, Lord Cobham, a fierce opponent of the London stage; fortunately for Shakespeare, Cobham died within the year and the troupe came under the control of Carey’s son who obtained the chamberlain’s post. That summer Hamnet Shakespeare, the eleven year old son of William, died.  Shakespeare wrote no explicit elegies for his dead son although there are references to grieving parents in several of his plays. (See King John, The Winter’s Tale). Perhaps he had little time to let the loss sink in.


In late 1598, the company’s lease on the land in Shoreditch where their theatre (The Theatre) stood ran out, so on December 28th that winter  the company dismantled the building and hauled it to a suburb just south of the Thames called Southwerk. There, with the help of carpenter Peter Streete, they rebuilt the theatre and renamed it The Globe. Shakespeare and his partners had invested heavily in the venture. (Will wound up with 1/10th ownership of the new building.) The new theatre was launched successfully during the summer of 1599 with Shakespeare providing the company with new plays including Julius Caesar and As You Like It. The theatre was in tight competition for the contemporary theatre audience with two new boys companies at St. Paul’s Cathedral and the old Blackfriars monastery (liberties within the tightly controlled London municipality).


To draw an audience a member of Shakespeare’s company may have been suggested to him that he revive a production of Thomas Kyd’s version of Hamlet, a hit revenge drama from the late 1590’s. This production had received ridicule from two sources (Nashe and Lodge) for its melodrama and overblown spectacle. Lodge mocked a moment in the play when a devil who looked ‘as pale as the Vizard of the Ghost which cried so miserably at The Theatre, like an oyster wife, “Hamlet, revenge!”  Shakespeare had certainly seen the old Ur-Hamlet. He may have acted in it. If so, he still had the roll of paper strips containing his speeches, entrances and exits (from which comes our use of the word role).

The Hamlet story was derived from two sources. One was a story in a popular, contemporary collection by the French writer Belleforest. He had found the story in a medieval text written in Latin by the Dane Saxo Grammaticus. In Saxo’s account the old King Horwendil is murdered by his envious brother Feng, purportedly to save Horwendil’s wife, the Queen Gerutha, from abuse at the hands of her husband. In reality, though, Feng has used this reason as an excuse for a bloody seizure of power. Everyone in the kingdom knows what has happened and why.


The son of Horwendil, Amleth, is bound by the rules of ancient blood feud to avenge his father’s death, but Amleth is a mere boy. Even so, Feng must dispose of this potential rival, but Amleth does not appear to be any threat. The boy has apparently gone mad in the wake of his father’s death. For years and years, as Amleth grows to maturity, he plays the role of the court fool, mindlessly carving hooks while enduring the abuse of Feng and his co-conspirators. Only later does the audience learn that the boy is biding his time, waiting for the time to strike. That moment comes when Amleth uses the hooks he has been carving to cast a net over Feng’s retinue and then set them on fire. Amleth then dispatches Feng with a sword and assumes his rightful place as king.


Shakespeare took this story and, using some details from Belleforest’s version, transformed this medieval potboiler into a timeless tragedy. Recently, in Shakespeare’s career as a playwright, he had begun experimenting more extensively with the theatrical device of the soliloquy. In Julius Caesar, Brutus had been given great speeches which contemplated with more economy and accuracy the thought process which goes into making a difficult decision.


Brutus says,

                Between the acting of a dreadful thing
                And the first motion, all the interim is
                Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
                The genius and the mortal instruments
                Are then in counsel, and the state of man,
                Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
                The nature of an insurrection.


In Hamlet Shakespeare explores the psychology of this interim state in the central action of the play.


Revisions from Sources:

  1. Shakespeare changes Saxo’s story by beginning it at the point when Hamlet reaches maturity.
  2. Following Belleforest, Shakespeare adds the ghost of the murdered father and
  3. Shakespeare has the murder of the old King take place in secret, so the Ghost comes to divulge secret information about the real circumstances of the King’s murder.
  4. So, the whole action of the play focuses on the consciousness of the hero during this interim state between conceiving an act and carrying through on it.
  5. Shakespeare also removes all the external barriers from Hamlet’s revenge: he has full access to the unguarded Claudius and he can make his move whenever he wants.


Instead, turning his source on its head, Hamlet decides to feign madness. This choice is no longer tactical, as it was in Saxo. This choice actually works to Hamlet’s disadvantage. His madness draws the attention of everyone, including Hamlet, who cannot explain his delay even to himself. His strange behavior draws the suspicion of Claudius and his crony Polonius, alerting him to the possibility that Hamlet has somehow discovered the truth.


By excising the rationale for madness, Shakespeare reorients the focus of the tragedy on to the mysterious reasons why Hamlet delays. What is driving his behavior? Hamlet seems soul sick from the outset of the action, even before he learns from the ghost of his father’s murder. Hamlet’s madness is no longer a ruse to deceive his enemies as he bides his time waiting for the perfect moment to strike. His madness now becomes a cover he can use to hide his own disturbed condition.


Can the sadness Shakespeare experienced in his own life during the year 1601 help explain the inward heartsickness at the core of Hamlet’s delay? “To be or not to be” expresses the suicidal thoughts which lie at the heart of the tragedy. Shakespeare’s own melancholy that year may have been related to the death of his father, John Shakespeare, who was buried on September 8th 1601. The death of his father may have resurrected  Shakespeare’s grief over the loss of his son Hamnet five years before. When he returned to Stratford that summer for his son’s funeral, Shakespeare may have reacted, like Laertes does in Act V of Hamlet, to the inadequacy of the new Protestant funeral rites to offer comfort to the living. “What ceremony else?” Laertes cries as Ophelia’s body is lowered into the grave.


The Reformation in England had transformed the relationship between the living and the dead. No longer did the soul of the departed reside in a middle space between Earth and heaven. Purgatory had been banned. Prayers, alms, and special Masses for the dead had also been banned. To the Protestant reformers, the dead were simply dead: no prayers or messages can reach them. Hamnet was utterly gone: “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.” Catholics believed that after death, while wicked souls went directly to Hell and saintly souls to heaven, the vast majority of the faithful, neither completely good or bad, went to Purgatory where their sins would be burned away in agonizing fires, sometimes for centuries. Certain good works by the living could significantly ease the suffering of dead loved ones. Appearances of ghosts to relatives were accounted true. Frequently, the dead pleaded with the living to be remembered. And the living could respond and in significant ways reach out and help their loved ones by paying for prayers and masses to  be said in honor of their relative. Protestants regarded this traditional practice as a corrupt financial racket designed to enrich the Church. In England, Henry VIII had dissolved the monasteries and chantries that had been the ritual centers of the Catholic cult of the dead. Later Parliament banned all Catholic rites at hospitals, alms houses and schools.


Belief in Purgatory may have been absurd to many in this new Anglican England, but the Catholic traditions had remained  so popular through the centuries because they served vital psychological purposes for the living who must wrestle with their grief: the reciprocal bond between the living and the dead could be maintained, if only for a time. During medieval times the cult of purgatory had evolved into an elaborate form of ancestor worship. The chapels and chanceries built to honor the dead became monuments to the memory of ancestors.


Documents from the time have revealed that  Shakespeare’s family had strong ties to the recusant Catholic community in Stratford. When Anne Hathaway died in 1623, her daughter Susannah marked her gravestone with the words, “A mother’s bosom you gave, and milk and life, for such bounty, alas! I can render only stones!” Shakespeare’s father  had left a spiritual testament hidden behind the walls of his house which asked for mercy for his inability to perform the appropriate Catholic rituals in the event of his sudden death. In it he refers to the crucial importance of the banned prayers and masses to him as he navigated the afterlife. Did John Shakespeare, standing at his grandson’s grave in 1596, plead with his son William that he pay for similar prayers to be said for his son? At that moment what was Shakespeare’s choice?  Did he angrily refuse or quietly pay for clandestine masses to be said for his son’s soul? Did he say he no longer believed in the whole story of the terrible prison house poised between heaven and hell?


This crisis of mourning and memory may have been on Shakespeare’s mind as he sat down to write a play whose doomed hero bore the name of his son. This crisis might help us understand the origins of the explosive power and inwardness of Hamlet.


When the Ghost of Hamlet’s father confronts his son, his last words are not “Revenge my murder!” but “Adieu! Adieu! Remember me!”  And Hamlet vows to do just that. (According to legend the role that Shakespeare was most famous for as an actor was as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.) As it turns out Hamlet not only delays revenge but he appears to forget that the ghost ever existed. Something intereferes with his straight forward plan, an interference whose emblem is the feigned madness that makes no sense in the plot. The Ghost clearly designates his location as in Purgatory. The Ghost also makes clear that he has been taken from life suddenly, “Unhouseled (no last communion), dis-appointed (no deathbed confession), unaneled (no last unction)”, and now he is paying the full price. “O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!” Yet this ghost does not ask for masses or alms, he demands vengeance. And Hamlet worries about that. To Protestants, there are no ghosts, only demons or delusions. Hamlet acknowledges that the ghost he has seen may be the devil. His doubt and disorientation may reflect the damage which the culture had undergone to the whole ritual structure.


Torn between Catholic ritual and Protestant beliefs, Shakespeare himself may have wrestled with similar doubts, but we can be sure that he did have faith in one constant in his life: the theatre. And Shakespeare’s playwriting may have benefited from being able to tap into the great reservoir of passionate feelings that for him and his contemporaries no longer had a satisfactory outlet. We may owe the emergence of depth psychology itself to the imaginative way Shakespeare incorporated the outlawed past of Catholic England’s rituals and folk festivals into his emerging understanding of the depths of the human psyche. In Hamlet, he explores the pity, confusion and dread of death in a world of damaged rituals (the world in which most of us continue to live).