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How do you write a history of Hamlet?

By David Bevington

For the last three years or so, I have been wrestling with the question of how to write a history of Hamlet: that is to say, a history beginning with the ancient Scandinavian saga of Amleth as told by Saxo Grammaticus, the script in varying stages that represent Shakespeare’s retelling of that story and also probably of a lost Hamlet play of about 1590 by Thomas Kyd or someone like him, the stage history of the play in Shakespeare’s time and afterwards, critical reception of the play in the late seventeenth century, theatrical adaptations by David Garrick and other eighteenth-century actor-managers, editorial fashions of editing the play in the era of Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson and Edmund Malone, Romantic recasting of the play’s protagonist as a delicate Coleridgean sensibility incapable of decisive action, Darwinian readings of the play, Freudian readings, stage responses in the twentieth century to World War and holocaust and atomic brinkmanship, existential interpretations, responses to the feminist and new historical and deconstructive revolutions of recent years, and much more.

How could I tell this story in relatively brief compass, taking also into account the many depictions of important scenes by artists like Joshua Reynolds and John Everett Millais, parodies and spoofs, Spaghetti westerns, meditations on Hamlet in the fiction of George Eliot and James Joyce and others, and Hamlet’s impact on the very language we speak without collapsing into a welter of information lacking critical direction? What is this story all about?

The answer that has worked best for me, I think, is to regard Hamlet as an index of our cultural history. The play forms the center of a story about our various attempts, over the centuries, to understand as well as we can who we are. Hamlet is a paradigm for the cultural history of the English-speaking world. The idea that we turn to great works for a better understanding of ourselves is not not new, to be sure, but it has not been told about this play that is such a central icon of our cultural consciousness. The idea as applied to Hamlet has the advantage of reaching across four centuries and a bit more of an extraordinarily eventful and momentous stretch of history in Western culture. The story grows as it moves forward, becoming more complex and controversial. The play becomes increasingly capable of greater variety in critical interpretation. It thus becomes emblematic of the history of critical discourse, of artistic investigation. It is like the expanding universe, beginning in an event of incalculably great energy that we must constantly reassess because it represents some essential part of the origin of ourselves. It moves outward. The story can have no ending at the present moment, of course, since time and Hamlet will move ineluctably forward. Meantime, though, we can pause and reflect on where we have been and where we may be heading. Hamlet insists that we undertake this search.

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast. no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused.
(4.4.34-40)

David Bevington is one of the world’s foremost Shakespearean scholars and has written or edited more than 30 volumes on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. He is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is Murder Most Foul: Hamlet Through the Ages.

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