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Murder most foul?

By Elizabeth Knowles

As the year draws to a close, we’ve been reflecting on all the wonderful books published in 2011, and in doing so, we’ve also realized there are some classics worth revisiting. The authors and friends of Oxford University Press are proud to present this series of essays, which will appear regularly until the New Year, drawing our attention to books both new and old. Here, OUP editor Elizabeth Knowles writes about David Bevington’s Murder Most Foul: Hamlet Through the Ages.

David Bevington’s Murder Most Foul: Hamlet Through the Ages gives an engrossing account of Hamlet through the centuries, with delightful glimpses of great theatrical moments, and actors, of the past. We learn of the tragic actor John Philip Kemble that his Hamlet took twenty minutes longer than anyone else’s because of the pauses he inserted for emphasis (Bevington tells us that the wit and writer Richard Brinsley Sheridan suggested filling up the intervals with music).

In the nineteenth century, Henry Irving was a Hamlet of note—but his reputation did not save him from a satirical cartoon (reproduced by Bevington) showing a costumed and ghostly Hamlet advising Hamlet ‘not to saw the air too much with your hand’ (in the play, the warning of Hamlet to the Player King). Irving was renowned for his costly productions, and Shakespeare of course offered a rich field of possibilities. Some managers were accordingly cautions: according to Bevington, F. B. Chatterton, manager at the Drury Lane Theatre from 1864 to 1879, went so far as to declare that ‘Shakespeare spells ruin.’

More modern times are represented by Gielgud and Olivier, and more recently by David Tennant. Less seriously, there is a striking extract from Richard Curtis’s Skinhead Hamlet. There is a story of one of Queen Victoria’s ladies emerging from a performance of Antony and Cleopatra with the words, ‘How different, how very different, from the life of our own dear Queen.’ Neither she nor the Queen, we assume, would have been amused by Curtis’s irreverence—but then we discover in this book that the Victorian age was ‘a golden time for parodies of Shakespeare on stage’. Bevington lists two of them from 1866: the anonymous Hamlet! The Ravin’ Prince of Denmark, and Robert Craig’s Hamlet, or the Wearing of the Black.

Murder Most Foul shows us how Shakespeare’s great tragedy has been constantly reinterpreted. As the final sentence runs, ‘We continue to reinvent Hamlet to this day.’

The ghost scene in Hamlet is one of its most chilling moments, but the Ghost’s announcement ‘I am thy father’s spirit’ has acquired another association, for what John Sutherland in How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts has called ‘literary untranslatability’. Sutherland quotes a Times Literary Supplement piece of 1987 by Roy Harris, which pointed out that in Afrikaans this would sound ‘something like “Omlet, ek is de papa’s spook.”’

The American producer and theatre manager Daniel Frohman recounts in his autobiography Encore (1937) the anecdote of a nineteenth-century theatregoer’s appreciation of Hamlet: ‘It’s a lovely play. It’s so full of quotations.’ The story, although probably apocryphal, must resonate for the editor of any dictionary of quotations. A quick glance through the pages of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations reminds us of many familiar phrases: from ‘To be, or not to be’ to ‘Alas, poor Yorick.’ Even a particular production may have contributed to the language: the expression ‘Hamlet without the Prince’ goes back to a reference by Sir Walter Scot to ‘The play-bill, which is said to have announced the tragedy of Hamlet, the character of the Prince of Denmark being left out.’

The diarist John Evelyn, writing in 1661, noted that he ‘saw Hamlet Prince of Denmark played, but now the old play began to disgust this refined age’. In 2011, we can be confident that there will be many more Hamlets for diarists and others to enjoy.

Elizabeth Knowles became a historical lexicographer through working as a library researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement, and then as a Senior Editor for the 4th edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993). She is the Editor of the most recent edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (7th edition, 2009), and her other credits include What They Didn’t Say: A Book of Misquotations (2006), the Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009), and How to Read a Word (2010).

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