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NA412412 - SHAKESPEARE, W.: Hamlet Prince of Denmark (Unabridged)

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare


Prince of Denmark

Hamlet, which dates from 1600-1601, is the first in Shakespeare’s great series of four tragedies, the others being Othello (1603), King Lear (1605) and Macbeth (1606). In writing this extraordinary play, Shakespeare effectively re-invented tragedy after an interval of roughly two thousand years —we have to go back to the Greek dramatists of 5th century Athens to find anything of comparable depth and maturity.


Certainly Shakespeare had already dealt with tragic themes and situations in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, Richard II and Julius Caesar, but in Hamlet he found himself able to fuse with complete artistic success the conflicting concerns of the private individual and the public state of which he is a member, or for which he may indeed be responsible—Hamlet is, after all, Prince of Denmark. This is a quintessentially Renaissance theme: it is no longer enough to appeal to an accepted moral or religious system, but instead each man must find out for himself a moral path through the ‘unweeded garden’ of life.




The first known version of the Hamlet story is found in the 12th century Historia Danica by Saxo Grammaticus. Most of the main ingredients of the story are already present, albeit in primitive form, and some of the names, too—‘Amlethus ’ for Hamlet. In 1576 Francois de Belleforest retold the story in his Histoires Tragiques, translated into English in 1608 and hence too late for Shakespeare to have read—but someone, perhaps Thomas Kyd, came across the story in the 1580’s and turned it into a play which must have been Shakespeare’s immediate source, however radically different Shakespeare’s version turned out to be. We know, incidentally, that the idea of a ghost seeking revenge comes from this lost play: Thomas Lodge in 1596 writes of the ‘ghost, which cried so miserably at The Theater, like an oyster wife, “Hamlet, revenge.”’


Synopsis of the Play


Act 1, Scene 1: Sentinels at the castle of Elsinore have seen the ghost

of ‘the king that’s dead’—Hamlet’s father—walking the ramparts. Horatio, Hamlet’s closest friend, then sees it too, and decides to tell the Prince.


Act 1, Scene 2: The new king, Claudius—Hamlet’s uncle—addresses the court. Laertes, son of the king’s chief minister Polonius, is given leave to return to France. Hamlet bitterly resents his mother’s recent marriage to Claudius and only reluctantly agrees to stay in Denmark rather than return to his studies in Wittenberg. Horatio tells Hamlet about his father’s ghost and they agree to watch for it at midnight.


Act 1, Scene 3: Laertes bids farewell to his sister Ophelia and warns her to take no notice of the advances Hamlet has been making to her. Polonius in turn offers some worldly counsel to Laertes, and then reinforces Laertes’ advice to Ophelia.


Act 1, Scene 4: The ghost beckons Hamlet to follow, which he does.


Act 1, Scene 5: The ghost tells Hamlet how he was poisoned by Claudius while he slept, and orders his son to avenge the murder.


Act 2, Scene 1: Polonius sets Reynaldo to spy in Paris on Laertes. Ophelia enters in distress to tell her father that Hamlet has come to her in

a disturbed state; Polonius decides that Hamlet must be mad and resolves

to tell the king.


Act 2, Scene 2: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old friends of Hamlet, are welcomed by the king, who wishes them to spy on Hamlet to discover what is upsetting him. News arrives of a peace with Norway. Polonius informs the king that he believes Hamlet to be mad with unrequited love for his daughter Ophelia. Hamlet greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but clearly suspects that they are working for the king. They tell him that a company of actors are about to arrive at Elsinore; Hamlet then welcomes the players and conceives the idea of getting them to put on a play at court which will imitate the events of his father’s murder and thus, he hopes, expose Claudius’ guilt.


Act 3, Scene 1: The king and Polonius eavesdrop on a conversation between Ophelia and Hamlet in which the former returns to Hamlet all love-tokens. Hamlet reacts with angry contempt. Claudius is not convinced either that Hamlet is mad or that he is suffering from unrequited love; Polonius suggests that the Queen should speak privately with her son to try and ascertain the cause of his grief. 


Act 3, Scene 2: The actors perform the play, as instructed by Hamlet, and Claudius reacts with violent horror to what he sees. Polonius asks Hamlet to see his mother in her chamber.


Act 3, Scene 3: The king decides to send Hamlet to England. Hamlet, on the way to his mother’s room, sees Claudius at prayer and is only prevented from killing him by the thought that he might have repented and therefore escapes the damnation he deserves.


Act 3, Scene 4: Polonius, with the Queen’s consent, hides behind a curtain to overhear the conversation. Hamlet tells his mother that Claudius is in fact the murderer of her first husband—old Hamlet—and bitterly reproaches her for what he regards as her treacherous and incestuous behavior in marrying Claudius. Polonius, fearing for the Queen’s safety, exclaims aloud, and is stabbed while hiding behind the curtain by Hamlet, who at first believed him to be the king. The ghost reappears to warn Hamlet to treat his mother leniently, but not to forget the duty of vengeance. The Queen is remorseful and promises to help her son.


Act 4, Scene 1: The king confirms Hamlet’s instant exile to England.


Act 4, Scene 2: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to discover from Hamlet the whereabouts of Polonius’ body.


Act 4, Scene 3: Hamlet is dismissed to England by Claudius, who then in soliloquy tells us that Hamlet will be put to death by Denmark’s allies.


Act 4, Scene 4: Hamlet, on his way to exile, sees the Norwegian army on its way to war and envies them their capacity for decisive action.


Act 4, Scene 5: Ophelia has been driven mad by the death of her father at the hand of her lover. Laertes, returning in rage, blames Claudius.


Act 4, Scene 6: Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet, which tells him that he has escaped and is on his way back to Elsinore.


Act 4, Scene 7: The king persuades Laertes that Hamlet is his enemy. News arrives of Hamlet’s return, and Claudius outlines a treacherous means by which Laertes may avenge his father’s death and sister’s madness. The Queen then brings more bad news: Ophelia has drowned herself.


Act 5, Scene 1: Hamlet and Horatio come upon two gravediggers at work. They show him the skull of Yorick, the King’s jester. Hamlet realizes whose grave is being dug when Ophelia’s funeral procession comes in sight. Hamlet and Laertes quarrel.


Act 5, Scene 2: Hamlet tells Horatio the story of his escape, and of how he has sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. Osric brings a challenge from Laertes to a fencing bout. Hamlet and Laertes greet each other courteously and the bout begins. Hamlet having scored two hits, Laertes takes the poison-tipped foil and wounds Hamlet, but in the ensuing scuffle the rapiers are exchanged and Laertes, too, is fatally wounded. Meanwhile, the Queen has drunk of the poisoned chalice reserved for Hamlet but names Claudius as the villain before she dies. Hamlet stabs the king and forces him to drink off the rest of the poisoned chalice. Laertes apologizes to Hamlet and dies. Hamlet names Fortinbras of Norway, whose arrival is imminent, as his successor, and in turn dies himself.



The above summary of the action conveys little of the searching poetic intensity or profound characterization of the play, but it does suggest that Hamlet is a play rich in varied and exciting action. True though this is, the central enigma of Hamlet in fact rests on a question about inaction: why is the protagonist so slow to act on the ghost’s clear instruction? To say that Hamlet’s fatal flaw (in Aristotelian terms) is ‘indecisiveness’ solves nothing: why is he so indecisive? The most convincing answer to this question, I believe, is that Hamlet’s capacity for decisive action has been disastrously blunted by the appalling shock to his moral system administered by his mother’s swift remarriage: even before Hamlet discovers that his uncle is a murderer, he is in a state of profound depression, his idealized concept of women utterly destroyed by the blind (and incestuous) passion his mother seems to feel for the unworthy Claudius. For Hamlet, the world is like an ‘unweeded garden’ possessed only by ‘things rank and gross in nature ’; sexuality is now repulsive rather than beautiful, so that even the innocent Ophelia is corrupted in his eyes —‘frailty, thy name is woman!’  Only when Ophelia is dead and when Hamlet has had time to come to terms with mortality—witness the gravediggers’ scene — is he able calmly to take the opportunity which providence puts in his way: ‘the readiness is all.’


What makes Hamlet the memorable play it is, the quintessential tragedy in many people’s eyes? First there is the complex, loveable, infuriating character

of Hamlet himself; then there is the extraordinarily powerful sense of family and generational conflict around which the play is built, of suffocating emotion clamoring for a release which is only achieved in the last scene; the play is amazingly rich, too, in variety of tone and language, ranging from the comic (Polonius being made a fool of by Hamlet) to the sinister (Claudius offering silver-tongued friendship to the appalled hero) to the sublime (the great series of soliloquies given to Hamlet). How wonderfully, too, Shakespeare is able to combine the comic with the tragic or profound: the gravediggers jest about death, yet when Hamlet confronts the skull of his old friend Yorick the tone shifts effortlessly into pathos—‘Alas, poor Yorick!’—thence to physical disgust—‘my gorge rises at it’—and finally into searing cynicism at the treacherous falseness of appearances—‘Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come...’ The play’s range, then, is dazzling and immense: our perception of mankind, like Hamlet’s, is compelled to the extremes of admiration and revulsion: ‘What a piece of work is a man...the beauty of the world; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’


Notes by Perry Keenlyside


The Cast of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark

            Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark    Anton Lesser

            Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle; the new King            Edward de Souza

            Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother; The Queen Susan Engel

            Ophelia, Laertes’ sister     Emma Fielding

            Polonius, the King’s chief minister          Peter Jeffrey

            Horatio, Hamlet’s closet friend     Sean Baker

            Laertes, Polonius’ son       Jamie Glover

            Ghost/Player King   Geoffrey Whitehead

            Rosecrantz/1st Gravedigger         Gavin Muir

            Guildenstern/2nd Gravedigger     Peter Yapp

            Marcellus/Cornelius/Player Queen          Benjamin Soames

            Barnardo/Priest/Captain    David Timson

            Osric/Francisco/Voltimand            Richard Pearce

            Fortinbras/Reynaldo           Paul Panting


ANTON LESSER (Hamlet) has played many of the principal Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Petruchio, Romeo and Richard III. His other theater credits include Wild Oats and Art. Appearances in major TV drama productions include The Mill on the Floss and The Politician’s Wife.


EDWARD DE SOUZA (Claudius) is one of Britain’s leading classical actors and has worked many seasons for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre and Old Vic. His film credits include The Thirty Nine Steps and The Spy Who Loved Me.


SUSAN ENGEL (Gertrude) has had a varied and accomplished career in the theater, performing on many occasions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Royal National Theatre. Among her West End credits are An Inspector Calls, Three Sisters and Hamlet. On TV she has been seen in Kavanagh QC and Inspector Morse and her film credits include Damage and Peter Brook’s King Lear.


EMMA FIELDING (Ophelia) trained at RSAMD. She has worked for the Royal National Theatre in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Twelfth Night and John Ford’s The Broken Heart, for which she won the Dame Peggy Ashcroft Award for Best Actress. She also appeared in the world première of Craig Raine’s 1953. Emma Fielding has appeared in numerous radio plays and is a frequent

reader on Naxos AudioBooks.


PETER JEFFREY (Polonius) has played Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida and Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor for the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as numerous roles for the Royal National Theatre and the West End. On TV he has appeared in The Prince and the Pauper, Our Friends in the North, Middlemarch and A Village Affair.


SEAN BAKER (Horatio) has worked extensively for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Troilus and Cressida, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Julius Caesar, as well as Galileo and The Oresteia for the Royal National Theatre and other plays across the UK and in the West End.


JAMIE GLOVER (Laertes) trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and has since played title roles in Hamlet and Henry V and a number of other roles in, amongst others, Tartuffe and The Rose Tattoo for Sir Peter Hall. His TV appearances include A Dance to the Music of Time and Cadfael.


GEOFFREY WHITEHEAD (Ghost/Player King) has played leading roles in Revenger’s Tragedy, The Seagull, and in Wild Honey and Body Language for Alan Ayckbourn. His many TV credits include Z Cars, The Sweeney, War and Remembrance, Crossing the Floor and Lord of Misrule.

GAVIN MUIR (Rosencrantz/1st Gravedigger) has worked for various theater companies including the Boulevard Theatre in Paris, and in the West End. His TV credits include the BAFTA-winning Our Friends in the North and Cracker, and his voice is familiar to listeners of radio drama. He was also a member of the singing group The Flying Pickets.


PETER YAPP (Guildenstern/2nd Gravedigger) has appeared in plays and theaters across Britain and in the West End including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Black Prince. His TV credits include House of Elliot, Martin Chuzzlewit and Poirot.


BENJAMIN SOAMES (Marcellus/Cornelius/Player Queen) trained at LAMDA. Since then he has appeared in the TV series Sharpe and Absolutely Fabulous as well as the TV films Heavy Weather and England, My England. His theater credits include Measure For Measure.


DAVID TIMSON (Barnardo/Priest/Captain) has performed in modern and classic plays across Great Britain and abroad, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn, Hamlet, The Man of Mode, and The Seagull. He has been seen on TV in Nelson’s Column and Swallows and Amazons, and in the

film The Russia House.


RICHARD PEARCE (Osric/Francisco/Voltimand) has extensive experience of radio drama, having been a member of the BBC Radio Drama Company for many years. His theater credits include Torch Song Trilogy, Conjugal Rites, Cider With Rosie and The Boyfriend.


PAUL PANTING (Fortinbras/Reynaldo) has performed across the UK in plays such as Double Double, The Merchant of Venice, The Boys from Syracuse and on TV in Wycliffe, The Bill and Sean’s Show.


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