On Saturday 12th May, the day after I published my previous website post about Shakespeare’s influence on the English language, I had a day of culture trekking around London. I went to The Globe Theatre in the morning for a tour, I visited the Sir John Sloan museum in Holborn to admire his artefacts, I went to the British Museum for the Rodin exhibition on statues and sculptures and in the evening I returned to the Globe Theatre for a performance of Hamlet.
I was devastated that I missed Eurovision (please note my sarcasm) but from what I heard the British singer was miming anyway? I can assure you that the lead actor playing Hamlet wasn’t miming although there was miming the performance…
Here is my Hamlet review.
I suppose I should put a spoiler warning for Hamlet here… but it’s been out for around four hundred years.
Before I tell you about Hamlet let me tell you about the Globe Theatre.
The Globe Theatre I visited was the third theatre to bear that name. The first Globe was destroyed in a fire during a performance of Henry V. (Fun fact, although no one died in the fire, records show that one man’s breaches were set alight and was extinguished with ale!) The second Globe Theatre was demolished by the Puritans in 1642. The third and current Theatre was founded by Sam Wanamaker, Father of Zoe Wanamaker, in 1997 although he passed away before the opening. The modern theatre is based off the floorplans of the original and is almost identical. The roof is still thatched, the only thatched roof in London, but it now contains a sprinkler system in case of fires and the modern theatre has extra exits for health and safety reasons.
The biggest surprise for me was learning the different attitudes to theatre between a modern day audience and a Elizabethan audience. Although we sit in near silence during a performance, with the idiot whose phone goes off being cast dirty looks, the Elizabethan audience would have been rowdy, heckling the actors and throwing items on stage if they were displeased. Acting at the globe is longed for honour by many modern day actors but that prestige is ruined somewhat when you realise that all of the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays would portrayed by young boys or men in drag. Try taking Romeo and Juliet seriously now.
We don’t know a lot about Shakespeare the man, which gives us writers room to employ creative licence, but the most interesting idea to me is that he never existed. While it’s true that the figure we call Shakespeare at least co-wrote a few of his plays, such as Pericles, Prince of Tyre and Titus Andronicus, I want to briefly examine a few historical figures who could have been the “real” Shakespeare.
(Full disclaimer, I don’t believe any of this nonsense but I do find it fun to speculate)
Sir Francis Bacon
Sir Francis Bacon is most likely the real Shakespeare. He travelled the world and would have had intimate knowledge of the locations Shakespeare set his plays. He had the education to write these plays as was also known to write poetry, much like Shakespeare’s sonnets. He is also known to write under a pseudonym. The only evidence against Bacon being Shakespeare is that there is no direct evidence for him being Shakespeare. It is questionable when Bacon would have had time to write the plays as his life was recorded in great detail… unless these records are faked?
Sir Henry Neville
Like Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Neville was educated and had visited many of the locations Shakespeare wrote about. The most interesting argument for Neville being Shakespeare is that his life almost exactly corresponds with the changes of Shakespeare’s writing. While Sir Neville was in favour with Queen Elizabeth Shakespeare wrote comedies and histories. After Sir Neville took part in the Essex Rebellion he fell from grace and wrote tragedies. Shakespeare’s poetry would have been written during the time Sir Neville was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Although Sir Neville died before Shakespeare, it has been suggested that his work was published post humorously.
Earl William Stanley
Stanley was known to be a writer and although it is reported that he wrote a vast number of plays and poems, none under his own name survive. Although Shakespeare based his plays of already known stories (for example Romeo and Juliet was inspired by the Greek story of Pyramus and Thisbe) there are several events referenced or seen in his plays that historians know know Stanley witnessed… although I can’t find any example of these.
All of the above
There is a theory that William Shakespeare was not one man but several, a group of writers using the same pseudonym. This would explain how Shakespeare’s style was able to change, how he produced a vast amount of work during his lifetime and how we was aware of events around the globe. Personally I find this the most believable theory.
There are also theories that William Shakespeare was an alien who was able to write plays to entertain us humans and distract us while the rest of his race plotted world domination. There’s not a lot of evidence to support this theory but he did appear in an episode of Doctor who… so there’s that.
On to Hamlet. Hamlet was first performed sometime in the early 1600’s and is Shakespeare’s longest and arguably most interesting play. It has been adapted more than any other Shakespeare text and remains one of the most popular pieces of work today. This is partly due to the many different ways you can interpret the play, is Hamlet really mad or is he pretending? Does Ophelia really love Hamlet and why doesn’t Hamlet murder Claudius when he has the chance?
In case you’re unfamiliar, the play is about Hamlet a Prince of Denmark avenging the murder of his Father, the King of Denmark by killing Claudius, the King’s brother. Hamlet spends most of the play plotting Claudius and pretending to be mad while theorising about life and death.
Like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet is based on an already existing story. Shakespeare was heavily inspired by the 13th century Danish legend of Amleth who also avenges his Father’s ghost by killing his uncle. You will notice that this is also the plot of the Lion King (as I have mentioned before in a previous post).
What I find interesting about the play is that the modern day audience don’t have an official script. During the Elizabethan period three different Hamlet scripts were produced each with subtle differences. Certain scenes relating to previously unknown plot threads were removed, Hamlet’s famous soliloquies were altered and other characters such as Ophelia were expanded. Normally the director chooses what script to work from.
If you remember my review of Romeo and Juliet (click here if you don’t) you’ll remember that I was expecting a traditional performance. Instead I witnessesed Lord Capulet descending onto the stage riding a disco ball dressed as a T rex singing YMCA. I wasn’t disappointed at all, I loved that show but I was surprised by the interatation. Hamlet also wasn’t a traditional performance (note to self, always read the Globe Theatre website carefully) This version of Hamlet was gender reversed. Hamlet was portrayed by Michelle Terry and Ophelia portrayed by Shubham Saraf. I’m not sure why the gender roles were reversed, I’m not sure if the Hamlet I was watching was a woman or just a female actor pretending to be male but I didn’t mind either way. I must say… it was strange watching Ophelia singing on stage while her chest hair was escaping her night dress!
There is one notable thing I would like to mention. The actor portraying Guildenstern, Nadia Nadarajah, was deaf. She used sign language to do her dialogue and another cast member would interpret.
My most dear lord!
My excellent good friends! How dost thou, Guildenstern?
As the indifferent children of the earth.
He means, happy, in that we are not overhappy. On Fortune’s cap we are not the very button.
Nor the soles of her shoes?
Neither, my lord.
Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors?
Aye, faith, her privates we.
In the secret parts of Fortune? Oh, most true. She is a strumpet. What news?
It’s brilliant to see people of different disabilities not being restricted in following their dreams.
Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next week. Take care.