In a Nutshell
Hamlet: The Story
Young, on point, in the prime of his life, at university, with all the world in front of him, opportunity knocking, in love, witty and charming, heir to the throne. He’s the man. And then his father dies, suddenly, under a tree. His mother marries her former brother-in–law, Hamlet's Uncle. And Uncle Claudius wants to be his new dad. Uncle dad bars the Prince from going back to Uni. Tells Hamlet to cheer up. That always works. Makes himself King, usurping Hamlet’s own ascendancy to the throne. By rights, young Hamlet should rule the roost. But, to use his own words, he lacks advancement.
Everything's gone wrong. Hamlet (Ben Whishaw) looking glum (2004)
And then it gets spooky. The ghost of his true father appears, telling Hamlet he was murdered by his brother in the orchard, with poison being poured into his ear. Old King Hamlet calls for revenge. Thereafter, Young Prince Hamlet's life is turned upside down and is never his own again.
Hearing beyond the grave. King Hamlet (Ewart James Walters) demands vengeance. Photo: Manuel Harlan (2018)
No father. His mother is a slut. His uncle is a murderer. No freedom to leave the court of corruption. He loves his girlfriend Ophelia, but has to give her up and feigns madness so that he can enact revenge on his uncle. Accidentally, Hamlet kills his girlfriend’s dad, Polonius, a man whose only crime is that he talks too much. This sends Ophelia off the rails. Hamlet also incurs the wrath of his former friend, and Ophelia’s brother, Laertes.
Next, Hamlet entraps his uncle, getting proof from Claudius’s own lips while at prayer, but doesn’t want to dispatch him in church since this would send him to heaven. Hell is where Uncle King dad belongs.
Hamlet (David Tennant) unable to dispatch his cruel uncle (Patrick Stewart) in 2008
photo: Zuleika Henry
Ophelia is destroyed emotionally. Then she drowns herself. At this point, Hamlet goes truly barking. Or is he still pretending? He certainly talks to himself a lot. In a cunning twist, Hamlet sends his former friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their death. Well, they asked for it, without realising. They were supposed to be taking Hamlet to his own death in England.
That's what good friends are for. Guildenstern (Eleanor Wyld) with Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) photo via Hackney Post
Heartbroken over the loss of his sister and father, Laertes comes to court and challenges the Prince to a duel. Before the fight, they make up, but Laertes still insists on the duel. Hamlet gets poisoned by Laertes’ foil. Uses the same sword to pierce Laertes’ skin, and they are both doomed. Hamlet’s mother then drinks from the poisoned cup. This is all Claudius’s fault, remember, though strictly speaking Hamlet is the one who set in motion an irreversible chain of actions leading to one moment of tragedy after another.
Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet, engaging in a spot of swordplay (2017)
Hamlet (Benedict Cumberbatch), thirsty for revenge, but his mum has already taken a swig (2015)
Finally, Hamlet has just enough strength to run his sword through his uncle. They are all dead now. Almost. Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend, survives. Lives to tell the grisly tale. Continuity is crucial. But it’s young Fortinbras who arrives to claim the land and the crown. Hamlet has expunged his own entire family line. Horatio departs, leaving the kingdom to a former enemy.
And so, All's not Well that ends Tragically.
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
The Connected Cultures Hamlet special:
Review of the RSC’s Hamlet at the Hackney Empire
The African Hamlet
All the Hamlets: famous performances through the ages
Words Words Words: favourite lines from Hamlet
The RSC: Hamlet