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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

William Shakespeare lived in a time of great change and excitement in England- a time of geographical discovery, international trade, learning, and creativity. It was also a time of international tension and internal uprisings that came close to civil war.

Under Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) and James I (reigned 1603-1625), London was a center of government, learning, and trade, and Shakespeare's audience came from all three worlds. His plays had to please royalty and powerful nobles, educated lawyers and scholars, as well as merchants, workers, and apprentices, many of whom couldn't read or write. To keep so many different kinds of people entertained, he had to write into his plays such elements as clowns who made terrible puns and wisecracks; ghosts and witches; places for the actors to dance and to sing the hit songs of the time; fencing matches and other kinds of fight scenes; and emotional speeches for his star actor, Richard Burbage. There is very little indication that he was troubled in any way by having to do this. The stories he told were familiar ones, from popular storybooks or from English and Roman history. Sometimes they were adapted, as Hamlet was, from earlier plays that had begun to seem old-fashioned. Part of Shakespeare's success came from the fact that he had a knack for making these old tales come to life.

When you read Hamlet, or any other Shakespearean play, the first thing to remember is that the words are poetry. Shakespeare's audience had no movies, television, radio, or recorded music. What brought entertainment into their lives was live music, and they liked to hear words treated as a kind of music. They enjoyed plays with quick, lively dialogue and jingling wordplay, with strongly rhythmic lines and neatly rhymed couplets, which made it easier for them to remember favorite scenes. These musical effects also made learning lines easier for the actors, who had to keep a large number of roles straight in their minds. The actors might be called on at very short notice to play some old favorite for a special occasion at court, or at a nobleman's house, just as the troupe of actors in Hamlet is asked to play The Murder of Gonzago.


The next thing to remember is that Shakespeare wrote for a theater that did not pretend to give its audience an illusion of reality, like the theater we are used to today. When a housewife in a modern play turns on the tap of a sink, we expect to see real water come out of a real faucet in something that looks like a real kitchen sink. But in Shakespeare's time no one bothered to build onstage anything as elaborate as a realistic kitchen sink. The scene of the action had to keep changing to hold the audience's interest, and to avoid moving large amounts of scenery, a few objects would be used to help the audience visualize the scene. For a scene set in a kitchen, Shakespeare's company might simply have the cook come out mixing something in a bowl. A housewife in an Elizabethan play would not even have been a woman, since it was considered immoral for women to appear onstage. An older woman, like Hamlet's mother Gertrude, would be played by a male character actor who specialized in matronly roles, and a young woman like Hamlet's girlfriend Ophelia would be played by a teenage boy who was an apprentice with the company. When his voice changed, he would be given adult male roles. Of course, the apprentices played not only women, but also pages, servants, messengers, and the like. It was usual for everyone in the company, except the three or four leading actors, to "double," or play more than one role in a play. Shakespeare's audience accepted these conventions of the theater as parts of a game. They expected the words of the play to supply all the missing details. Part of the fun of Shakespeare is the way his plays guide us to imagine for ourselves the time and place of each scene, the way the characters behave, the parts of the story we hear about but don't see. The limitations of the Elizabethan stage were significant, and a striking aspect of Shakespeare's genius is the way he rose above them.

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