Hamlet, Design and Credible Activity in Shakespeare

Context and the contemporary metaphor:

These days one hears of female Hamlets, homosexual Hamlets, mentally ill Hamlets and so on. Nothing wrong with these ideas and their capacity to reflect the totality of human experience and diversity, other than the fact that in many cases they are the sum total of the idea: there is no metaphorical overhang, no overriding vision, and no immensity of connectivity with contemporary thought – beyond what some would describe as a gimmick or an exercise in zeitgeist tapping. It may trouble some readers for gender, sexuality, and mental illness to be associated with gimmickry. However, if Hamlet’s homosexuality, for example, is played out as an isolated feature within a contemporary adaptation, it is insufficient in the same way that arbitrarily altering the setting is insufficient, or superimposing by force the political context of the day. By all means contemporise the setting, provided that the idea is strong enough to structurally effect design, rehearsal, and all facets of the performance. Hamlet’s homosexuality, if it is to be considered, needs to ask questions that transcend sexuality itself.

Moreover, realising credible, plausible, and practical activity is an easier task if the world of the play and the world of the present are linked and supported through a sustained idea or metaphor.

A question worth asking before teaching or directing a play, particularly of this scale, is: what are the participants of the play doing that parallel the behaviour or trends of contemporary society? Such a question is designed to shape the play in a unique but universal way, to make it your investigation and, optimistically, to find something of the zeitgeist. Doing less will likely result in the performance, reading, directing, or examination of someone else’s thoughts based on another person’s production. For Hamlet, one could respond to this question in numerous ways: they are exercising power, they are trying to survive, they are engaging in a family crisis, they are attempting to make crucial decisions, they are experiencing trauma, etc. Although factually considered, these ideas are somewhat nebulous and abstract, are likely to reflect the views and values of the main players, and by extension do not present a unified idea of the whole. Drawing on a political feud, such as the Rudd/Gillard example in Australian politics to contemporise Richard II is a likely idea, but how does the superimposition of a contemporary political story treat its less prominent participants, and how are they combined with the smaller players in Shakespeare’s history? In the same way, believing that you have successfully contemporised Much Ado purely by catapulting it into the rock ‘n roll era is an equally inadequate design mentality. Bits and pieces may just work (though these highlights are probably owing to both script and performance rather than any salient design feature), but without a sustained idea or metaphor; it cannot work as a whole. Returning to Hamlet, the question at the beginning of this paragraph must therefore pertain to Claudius and Marcellus, occupants of contrasting positions on the spectrum of status, in equal measure.

Since the advent of the Internet three decades ago and with it the technology of social media, society has found itself in an age where validation and communication have become, if not, synonymous then closely paralleled. Part of the validation process involves the capturing or quantification of the experience in the first place. The capturing and holding of the experience in time has been simplified, made accessible, and accessorised through the fashionable functionality of telecommunications, the rise to blue-chip investment status of data storage companies, and the well-sold idea of their indispensability. Never before have we sought so much validation from third parties. Validation may come from checking our inbox, sending photographs of a yearlong sabbatical in Catania from iphone to work colleagues, transmitting optimistic and far-reaching party invitations to Facebook associates, zooming in on our home address through Google Earth, dropping self-serving and egotistical Linkedin posts or by posting frivolous videos on YouTube just because we can (the Internet has also turned many of us into amateur spies). In short, the business of validation is thriving, as the methods and mediums of quantifying our experiences, no matter how benign, have never been more attainable, intuitive, immediate, and irresistible.

So what does any of this have to do with Hamlet and, more immediately Claudius and Marcellus? The grand parallel is that Hamlet, the character, is preoccupied with time, death, and posterity, and that all the players show a willingness to validate their existence. Indeed, it can be argued that the play exists out of one man’s desire to self-validate through usurping a higher status, and to quantify his life not as someone’s brother, but as a country’s king. The idea of unearned validation and quantification through questionable means coincides with today’s popular/celebrity culture and the, often dubious, talents therein. The question of Claudius’ worth and worthiness connects the world of the play with the world of the audience. Equally, in a play that strongly considers the theme of existentialism, the concern is one of non-existence; hence, the obsession with measurement, quantification, and certainty. The concern over ‘non-existence’ is fear-based: contemplate the fears of an old man, Polonius, waning in life and power, literally disappearing. Apparent, too, is the fact that in our world the captured experience is not always the real one. Think of all the gigabytes taken up on our hard drives and mobile devices of non-essential moments. It is interesting therefore to juxtapose the fact that Claudius is materially present but not real (as in worthy or authentic) with the idea that the Ghost of Hamlet’s father is immaterially present, yet quite real. The key driver of material action is a non-material manifestation, and in many ways the desire for quantification and validation of existence is undone by the ethereal presence.

It is not a new idea to suggest that Horatio is the narrator of this family tragedy, not in the traditional sense of that word but in what he is shown and to what he has access. For example, in the first scene he is shown a ghost: here he is trusted by low-status guards, in the same way that in act IV, sc. v the king entrusts him with the task of following and watching the despairing Ophelia. Further, Horatio has access to many private exchanges with Hamlet, and is urged by the dying prince to ‘…report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied’ (V.ii.332) – the obligation of which extends him beyond the play through the testimony of bloody events he offers the triumphant Fortinbras (V.ii.365-379).  If anyone could be said to hold objective facts, it is Horatio. We also know that he is a scholar. Let’s, for a moment, consider what this could mean in the only sense that matters: in the sense of the play’s practical manifestation of action and activity. Imagine that he is a scholar of history, and that part of his study involves documenting the life and times of Denmark’s royal family. He may even be a writer or journalist. In this sense, Denmark’s relationship to Horatio is similar to a number of contemporary organisations that allow open access to selected media representatives. In such exchanges there is mutual benefit: Horatio benefits from exclusive access, and those who create the access thrive in the validation of being captured or recorded in the certainty of time.

To test the worth of an attempted motif or overarching metaphor – apply it to the smaller fish. Extending this quantification idea to the guards, consider the following internal monologue: ‘I am a lowly guard; I quantify my existence by seeing, observing, and protecting the surrounds from threats that exist and which are material. If I perceive a threat from an exceptional, non-material visage, what an exceptional guard I am!’ What a marvellous opportunity it is for Marcellus to call upon the services of higher-status Horatio, the scholar, to quantify his suspicions about the ghost. It would depend on the temporal context of a production, among other factors; but imagine the opening exchange with Bernado and Francisco, stationed on the castle’s ramparts with tripod and camera, approached by Horatio and Marcellus – the latter with a larger, more powerful lens and flash. To quantify the ghost by measuring and capturing it visually is to validate their existence. A choice such as this also increases the scene’s dramatic potential by adding a competitive element between Bernardo and Marcellus: the haste to validate oneself is certainly a contemporary phenomenon. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern operate in a similar way: their haste for self-promotion and validation amongst the higher echelon sees them spying for the king – an act which costs them a friendship and eventually their lives. Similarly, to appease and impress a prince, the players are prepared to alter script and performance.

The idea of quantifying the experience and validating oneself in a coercive, or less than admirable way is also linked to lineage and the usurpation and retention of power – strong subjects in the play. Claudius’ speech that opens the second scene offers the potential to explore this idea through the in-authenticity of stage-management and public relations. It is a speech that attempts a multitude of contradictions: it threatens and unites, it recognises Denmark’s strength but manipulates with the suggestion of instability, it is self-serving, but appears generous and self-effacing. In short, Claudius’ ranging tactics reflect the difficulty of his sell. He must be careful. Off the text you might imagine a politician in serious preparation. It is his debut press conference, and it could go quite wrong. Imagine a dress rehearsal of the speech – with nobody present, or perhaps one advisor. Imagine Claudius redrafting the speech after breaking off in error. Imagine, then, that he is ready. Horatio enters up the back, slightly late, perhaps tired and wide-eyed from the previous night’s experience. He is the writer, the freelance journalist who attempts to be everywhere (this need not upset his greeting with Hamlet in I.ii.159). Perhaps due to the formal occasion that is I.ii he doesn’t get a chance to greet his friend until the formalities are over.

At any rate, it is not impossible to imagine Horatio breaking from Marcellus and Bernardo and arriving to hear the new king’s speech ahead of the guards. He will even observe Hamlet’s first soliloquy (I.ii.129-158), unbeknownst to the prince: rising to greet his friend from the back of the room – or from within the audience – at the departure of the king et al, on line 128, and sitting uncomfortably as Hamlet, not noticing his friend, unleashes torrents of pain in what he thinks is a private moment. Imagine the tension in the room when Horatio resumes his seat in the audience, as an audience member, watching and taking notes as Hamlet contemplates the ‘too too sallied flesh.’ It certainly fits with the surveillance motif and of quantifying the experience. It also reinforces the idea of the play’s ‘performative’ aspect: that many people are performing roles, (or are manipulated by others in this tragedy), and he – along with the king’s handpicked retinue – is necessary to give the impression of openness and accessibility. Such in-authenticity is then filmed, recorded, annotated, and captured. Parts of the speech are applauded. To further explore the juxtaposition of authentic/immaterial former king with the idea of inauthentic/material present king, it might be possible to express Claudius through a TV monitor. Those present would resemble a studio audience. The depiction of Claudius as a live studio presence and a screen presence suggests the two-faced nature of the usurper king. Although the broadcast could conceivably end with the departure of Voltimand and Cornelius, accompanied by the retinue of Lords and attendants, allowing the camera to run in the presence of Horatio and the royal family maintains the dual image of Claudius, foreshadowing his duplicity.

Hamlet’s distance in this scene may be depicted by him exercising some sort of interruption, by offering a play for attention, or by the fact that he enters the speech at its halfway point. In this way, Hamlet, too is quantifying his existence through the expression of opposition. Let’s imagine that Hamlet enters this studio environment with a camera (non-digital, of course), disrupts the scene by switching off the cosmetic studio lights in favour of the house lights, and starts taking photographs of Claudius. It is an odd gesture, in keeping with his need to capture the experience, to probe and to problem-solve, and to document this moment in time for his own purpose or wellbeing in dealing with the trauma of his dead father. Moreover, it presages his antic disposition. Remember: the prospect of a ghost merely confirms Hamlet’s suspicions later in the scene. ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind’ conveys his misgiving from the start. We can view this as a typically intelligent and cryptic play-on-words. However, we need to be aware that it is the first line he utters. The concise belief that Claudius ‘is claiming an excess of kinship in designating himself father as well as uncle while acting in a way which could be construed as ‘unkind’ or unnatural’ (Arden, p.170) is evidence that Hamlet brings a sharp and loaded mind to the scene, with the alacrity to offer the perfect summation of his feelings about the usurper – although the strong consonants at the end of both clauses do indicate a man attempting to control the expression of vowels and to thus suppress emotion.

I’ve often been amazed at the amount of productions in which this crucial introduction to Hamlet only distinguishes him through moping, slumping, mooching, and generalised displays of teenage attitude. These sluggish ideas contradict the swiftness, zeal, and elusive quality of his opening line. Imagine the conflict from Claudius’ point of view. He will interpret Hamlet’s interruption and obsessive photography as some sort of power play. Disarming him takes on a whole new meaning; but he cannot make a show of his annoyance or disquiet at this troubled and perplexing youth due to the context and the participants in the scene. It makes for an interesting subversion of status form the off: a newly crowned king subtly attempting to remove a camera from a troubled adolescent. As for Hamlet: point of view is a dangerous thing. It is the point of view of those present that Hamlet is disturbed by the loss of his father and by the hasty marriage of his mother. Depictions of Hamlet, almost invariably, take their cue from this point of view. However, by taking the point of view of Hamlet himself and by asking what he could be doing in the scene, we can see that disturbance, depression, disquiet, sorrow or anger clearly need not be sluggish. The point is to distinguish Hamlet through action and activity rather than through generalised mood or assumed behaviour.

It is intriguing that Hamlet is so much in awe of actors, and expresses a theoretical knowledge of their craft: that they act without reason or emotional connection, ‘in a fiction, in a dream of passion’ that is a conceit; yet possessing a genuine motive he cannot: ‘Yet I, / A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak / Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, / And can say nothing. No, not for a king / Upon whose property and most dear life / A damned defeat was made’ (II.ii.501-506). The nature and sheer suddenness of losing a loved one can impair the ritual of loss, sullying and extending the grieving process. Part of the function of ritual is to quantify the experience – of a birthday, a religious date, or in this case a death. Ritual may also prepare us for grief impending. In many ways this is Hamlet’s problem: dealing with loss is difficult enough, but to be denied a clear pathway into acceptance by not knowing the precise details of his father’s death is understandably unsettling. Hamlet’s desire to test his theory by re-enacting the death of his father through the The Murder of Gonzago. (III.ii), while designed to ‘catch the conscience of a King’, is also an attempt to complete the ritual process. By firstly resurrecting his father then capturing a large-scale action shot of his murder, Hamlet is attempting to quantify and experience a retrospective moment in time as evidence of proof.

Here, it is possible to move Hamlet away from keen observer, of play and King, to active participant as a means of further validating his cause in opposition to the attacks against order and nature (and against his imprisonment within the diseased organism) – perhaps through a role in direction, stage-management, or as lighting-technician. His knowledge of the craft of acting, shown at the beginning of the scene, qualifies him in this innovation. Perhaps Horatio is filming the performance. It might also be fitting for Hamlet to perform as the murderer, Lucianus. One can imagine Hamlet replaying the tape of Claudius’ response to the staging of the murderer’s method. Having Hamlet as performer is also a way to insinuate his ambition – after all, there are numerous ways of perceiving his statement to Rosencrantz: ‘Sir, I lack advancement’ (III.ii.331), and a more competitive interpretation of his ensuing reference to starving and growing stale. Also possible is that he is manifesting his unconscious understanding of the state that he wishes not to become. Regardless, the player king should resemble old King Hamlet as much as possible – that is, armoured, like the garb worn by the ghost. Elevating Hamlet to a more active role in the in-authenticity of performance is an effective juxtaposition to his real life stasis. The fact that he can only quantify a sense of order and control according to a replication means that his revenge is theoretical, and although it confirms in his mind Claudius’ guilt concerning the death of his father, it doesn’t lead to clear action.

There is a growing understanding among contemporary directors for the need to do more with the well-worn sections of a famous text that happen to house some of the most spoken words in the English language. To offer stand and deliver ‘To be’ speeches is increasingly passé, and reflects the type of production from which this essayist is attempting to distance himself. Equally, it is no longer an act of sacrilege to alter the temporal order of one of Shakespeare’s plays. The famous soliloquy in question (III.i), for example, given its subject matter and contemplative aspect could appear in a number of places in a production (consider Maxine Peake’s 2014 Hamlet performance at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, in which the soliloquy in question, according to Michael Billington, comes ‘so late in the evening that one thought someone might have mislaid it’). In many ways the challenge, rather than to underscore such anticipated moments, is to offer them with subtlety or with new exploration and vision. Paradoxically, to have the soliloquies performed just as they are (heightened text on a page) is becoming increasingly anti-climactic and archaic. They are the expected chorus of an ancient song, and despite the build-up they often flop. Anecdotally, discerning audiences and directors of today are demanding a more progressive gesture.

Suicide, a deeply progressive subject at the time of performance and utterly controversial to original audiences, eventually taken up by Ophelia (or so it would seem), is nonetheless on Hamlet’s mind from the start of the play: ‘Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His Canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God, God…’ (I.ii.131). The irony is that many suicide victims quantify themselves and their life at the very end by leaving a note. One treatment for Hamlet’s (III.i) soliloquy, and continuing the idea of quantifying, validating, and capturing the experience of time, is to consider the credible prospect of it being a suicide note. Scholars, critics, and editors, although divided on Hamlet’s question after centuries, nonetheless agree that suicide is one of three possibilities for the speech (Arden, p.284). The link to act one certainly makes the idea highly plausible. Additionally, the speech is full of doubt, entrapment, and self-recrimination over failed action.

Critics of this will contend that the re-crimination over failed action amounts to a fear of death itself. Purists may contend that the speech amounts to an aspect of Hamlet’s antic disposition, arguing for his consciousness of a present and attentive Claudius in the scene. However, the speech that we know is incomplete – interrupted as it is by Ophelia – and the extent of Hamlet’s awareness of the setup (or the point that he becomes aware) is open to debate. Let’s take the idea of incompletion and return to our scene two example of Claudius drafting his maiden speech. Imagine that Hamlet is offstage, reciting, drafting, and calling aloud what we know today to be a very famous soliloquy. Imagine, too, that Horatio is quietly present (initially unseen by the hidden Claudius and Polonius), transcribing as per his role as narrator and historian. Imagine, now, that Hamlet appears from time to time to make corrections. Nicholls (2014), extends the idea of Hamlet drafting his suicide note by having him correct Shakespeare’s first quarto offering: ‘To be, or not to be – I, there’s the point.’ This intimate pairing of Hamlet and Horatio need not be completed in one sitting: it may be extended to reflect a universal pondering of the mysteries of life, death, morality, action, cause and effect over the course of the play. As far as communicating a clear image, the activity of drafting is a mirror linking uncle and nephew. Ophelia’s interruption in act three offers the prospect of there being other interruptions and repeats of what is an evolving draft. In short, the soliloquy that we know can be considered in episodes. Perhaps, controversially, Hamlet fails to complete the soliloquy as a final draft, as a symbolic failure to quantify profound feelings concerning his existence and the subject of existentialism itself – in the same way that, like the perfectionist archer, he fails to take the fatal shot of stabbing Claudius (III.iii), delaying until the impossibly perfect clarity of opportunity, circumstance, and morality presents itself.

‘Madness’ is an often-abused term, even today, often applied to matters or conditions little understood. It is possible to interpret Ophelia’s transformation in a manner befitting logic and psychology, and in accordance with the course of her trajectory in the play. The first image we have of her is that of a girl caught between two men: brother and father, both urging her away from a third (Hamlet), and teaching her to fear. This is her beginning. Despite her grief concerning the death of her father, paradoxically, her trajectory into death is in many ways the failure to deal with the freedom of fear removed. Father, brother (to France), and potential lover leave her in a state that is without all guidance. She is un-held for the first time. From valuable and disempowered article, pawn in men’s devices, and object of Hamlet’s sexual derision – Ophelia is, like many women throughout history and literature, shunted into a restrictive typecast. Prior to her transformation it is difficult to recall a point in the play in which we see a public display of her self. Gently, albeit privately, chiding her brother against hypocrisy is perhaps the exception (I.III.45-51). The ‘madness’ of Ophelia may be likened to a form of regression: a defence mechanism that returns her to a point of fixation (upon security) within the primitive child state. By extension, her suicide ensures that her life is essentially captured in childhood: she is not ready for the adult world and is denied access to it through the male gatekeepers of her life and, ultimately, through the death that she orchestrates.

Instead of offering flowers (IV.v), imagine that Ophelia is attempting to capture the experience by offering beautifully crafted formal invitations to what proves to be her suicide (with flowers attached). A macabre sense of control and purpose would be brought to Ophelia’s thwarted life, and an act of validation: as if quantifying herself at the death – before time runs out. Shakespeare has provided us with a stunning character transformation. Underscoring this moment for Ophelia is important precisely because she is so chastened earlier. Her release, in turn, must chasten – for it is the type of release she has hitherto not experienced. Furthermore, although such a powerful close might look like a distraction in the life of this Elizabethan tragedy (and what a withering indictment on the paternal world of the play that a young woman can only feel validated through these means), it is nonetheless a perfectly ironic contrast to Hamlet’s failure of purpose.

Gertrude, being the only other female presence in the play and with a sense of sisterhood, empathises with Ophelia’s entrapment and loss. Logically, she is the only one who can make sense of the invitations: ‘Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss’ (IV.v.18), and anticipates the suicide to the point that she bears witness to it. Here we must imagine that Horatio, in spite of Claudius’ command to ‘follow her close; (and) give her good watch’, cannot find her; it is Gertrude who is finally taking responsibility and ownership for capturing the action of events. One assumes that she is powerless to prevent Ophelia’s death, but of interest is the possibility that she allows it to happen, or is somehow more actively involved. We know that she is feeling guilty for Ophelia’s plight: ‘So full of artless jealousy is guilt, / It spills itself in fearing to be spilt’ (IV.v.19-20), and is reluctant even to admit her at the start of this scene. Crucially, though, it is the length of what can only be an eyewitness account of Ophelia’s death that gives her away (IV.vii.168-185). In it she makes reference to a precise location and to the precise species and colours of the flowers that Ophelia has chosen. Clearly, Gertrude is close enough to bear such meticulous detail, even hearing the girl sing.

There will always be speculation about the nature of Ophelia’s death, but the fact that she becomes like a ‘creature native and indued’ and is reportedly without struggle, suggests a surrendering ‘unto that element.’ Additionally, there is consternation as to her worthiness for Christian burial. Sadly, for Gertrude, it is a truth that relaying the description of Ophelia’s watery death represents her most authoritative public display of the play. Logging the death in such forensic detail shows an ordering of the mind, and perhaps a profound identification with Ophelia’s demise. There is power in knowing – and she is validated by her expert statement. Ophelia’s death is rarely, if ever, captured; but perhaps in a world punctuated with spying and eavesdropping, it can be – on CCTV (the more callous option of capturing the experience of death on iphone certainly fits with the trend in contemporary society that sees a reduced ability to sensitively discern essence from triviality; voyeurism from privacy). Perhaps, too, Gertrude’s eyewitness statement is a simple poem read during the playback – as a sign of guilt and as a mark of respect.

Hamlet, Design and Credible Activity in Shakespeare: A Summary

Credible activity within the plays of Shakespeare is in many ways an unwritten state of flux, largely imperceptible to participants, but always present. The major function of this resource is to encourage thought as to the possibility of activity in complex heightened texts. When participants can perceive that the speaking character is not merely standing in an unidentifiable space and offering difficult or archaic language, they are better positioned to respond positively to what the dramatic text has to offer. Many of the aforementioned suggestions concerning credible activity can and will be challenged. The point is not necessarily that they are the right choices, but that the principle of imagining credible activities is the right process because it connects characters to the world of the play (or brings Shakespeare forward to the contemporary world) and enables them to be better identified, perceived, imagined, and understood. Further, visualising credible and plausible activity can add necessary layers of meaning to a difficult text. Examining scenes from heightened works, particularly lengthy textual moments within the plays of Shakespeare, can therefore be enhanced and made more accessible with the examination of a small question: what could the character/s be doing in this scene by way of credible activity based on the verbal and non-verbal textual evidence presented, in conjunction with the given circumstances?


Billington, M. (2014, September 17). Hamlet review – Maxine Peake stresses character with a caustic, spry prince. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com.

Shakespeare, W., Proudfoot, R., Thompson, A., Kastan, D. S., & Woudhuysen, H.R. (2006). Hamlet. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2022