Directing “Hamlet” in one’s mind

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have encountered many fine performances of Shakespeare both on stage, and, sometimes, on screen. And also, quite frequently, in audio recordings, which can be at least as effective as either. But for me, reading the plays provides the most enriching experience of all: somehow, nothing quite matches the performance that goes on in my head. There, I can be my own director, my own set and costume designer, determine the lighting just as I would wish. I could be the entire cast, all by myself. There is no bar to my imagination – except, of course, the natural boundaries of that imagination itself. There is no bound on my own interpretation. And all this from the comfort of my own library, without having to worry about getting the train back home afterwards!

For instance, I have yet to experience a production of Hamlet that stages the first scene in between Hamlet and Claudius (I,ii) as a confrontation. Yet, that is how I have been reading it these last few years. Everyone on set is dressed in their fineries: this is the court, after all, and also the first time the court is presided over by the new king. Only Hamlet, dressed still in his suit of solemn black, stands out. The king notices, of course, but pretends not to. He goes through other business first – even the relatively insignificant one of granting Laertes leave to return to France, before turning with a forced geniality and good humour to “our cousin and our son”, Hamlet.

Hamlet’s opening lines are laden with multiple meanings. First, we have “A little more than kin, and less than kind”: this alone indicates the deep antipathy Hamlet feels for this man now calling him “cousin” and “son”. And then, when Claudius asks: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Hamlet answers:

Not so, my lord, I am too much i’th’sun.

(Or, if you read the Quarto text, “Not so much, my lord, I am too much in the ‘son’ ”.)

The quibble with sun/son is obvious, but I think an extra layer of meaning may be added to this if it is made clear in the set design that the sun is a royal symbol. This line I always imagine spoken with an almost aggressive insolence. It certainly stops Claudius in his tracks. It is a tricky situation for him: he cannot afford to lose face in his own court, and yet he has to be careful, for, amongst other things, the queen, his new wife, still dotes on her son. As he pauses, wondering what to say in reply to such insolence, Gertrude wades in with some loving, motherly advice: all that lives must die – you know it’s common … and various other such banalities. Hamlet, disgusted, amongst other things, that such unthinking platitudes are dressed up as wisdom, replies sarcastically: “Ay, madam, it is common.” He does not even bother to disguise his scorn: it is “common” … it is a “commonplace” … indeed, you, dear mother, are “common”, for mouthing such trite emptiness.

But the queen doesn’t get it. “If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?”

The word “seems” strikes a nerve in Hamlet. For his mother, of all people, to accuse him, Hamlet, of “seeming”! “Seems!” he practically screams at her. “Nay, it is – I know not ‘seems’.” And then, as ever, his mind races on to all sorts of other things, his tone changing almost by the second. First of all, he affects the tone of a kindly teacher imparting basic matters to a child: “’Tis not alone this inky cloak, good mother…” (or “cold mother” in the Q2 text: did Shakespeare, I wonder, alter this because it expressed Hamlet’s contempt too blatantly?) Then, the tone changes to one of exaggerated affectation:

Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly…

The voice becomes forceful again for the next three words: “These, indeed, seem” – this last repetition of the word “seem” almost spat out. And then, to rub it in, he changes abruptly to a tongue-in-cheek flippancy, as he closes his little tirade with a somewhat trivial little rhyming couplet:

But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Almost as soon as Hamlet finishes – even slightly before he finishes – the King steps in: he has had enough. For a while, he had been unsure what to do, but there is no way he can allow himself and his Queen to be humiliated in open court. He speaks in a severe, formal tone, first of all addressing Hamlet with apparent kindness (although there is no kindness any more in his voice – none of this “our cousin and our son” stuff):

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father…

For the next few lines he expresses more or less those commonplace sentiments that Gertrude had expressed – that all who live must die, that’s the way things are, and so on. But, unlike Gertrude, he does not allow Hamlet time to reply: he presses on till he comes to his point:

but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness;

These last two words are delivered with the utmost force. There must be a pause here, for these words to register. There is pindrop silence. The court is shocked to see Prince Hamlet receive so public a dressing down. Gertrude too is shocked by this: yes, she knows that son had overstepped the mark, but this perhaps is a bit too severe. Claudius possibly at this point makes a discreet gesture to Gertrude, as if to tell her not to interfere, that he will explain later; and she, knowing the niceties of aulic manners, remains silent, though troubled. And Hamlet himself, possibly for the first time in his life, is lost for words: no-one has ever spoken to him like this before. And certainly not in public. Possibly for the first time his true position dawns on him: he is no longer the son of the king, and there is now nothing to shield him from this sort of thing. The advantage gained, the King presses on, as Hamlet stares at him in stunned silence:

’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d…

“Unmanly” was perhaps a greater insult then than it is now: it is intended to sting, and it does. And “unschool’d”? Imagine describing the most intelligent and educated character in all literature as “unschool’d”! How that must hurt!

His point made, Claudius can now afford to make a show of his love and regard for Hamlet. And he can now do so on his own terms:

We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father:

The stage is now his. Claudius is in full control. He has defeated Hamlet publicly, and he knows it. Hamlet’s request to return to Wittenberg is refused in the most imperious of terms:

It is most retrograde to our desire

And finally, his mission now accomplished, the King can afford to return to his genial, loving tones:

And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.

But there’s no sarcastic rejoinder from Hamlet this time: he knows he has lost the battle.

This, at least, is how I imagine this scene being played. But it never has been played like this in any of the performances I have seen or heard. Indeed, in some performances, we have Claudius gently remonstrating with Hamlet, and sympathising with his grief: this seems to me entirely wrong. In the opening book of The Iliad, which Shakespeare would have known at least through Chapman’s recent translation, Achilles is humiliated in open court, and in response, he withdraws from action and broods on the nature of morality and of mortality; and I, for one, can’t help conjecturing whether this Homeric motif had stayed in Shakespeare’s mind, and had transformed itself into this.

Gertrude’s death in the final scene has never satisfied me either in any of the productions I have seen. She dies from drinking from the poisoned chalice that had been intended for Hamlet, but is this a mere accident? For if it is, the random nature of her death makes for weak drama. How much more powerful the drama is if she drinks it knowingly! For Gertrude, too, is a tragic figure: the two people she loves the most – the two to whom she is wholeheartedly devoted – are her husband, and her son; and between them they have cleft her heart in twain.

In the text, the King marks out the chalice intended for Hamlet by dropping a pearl into it:

Stay; give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine;

Here’s to thy health.

[Trumpets sound, and cannon shot off within]

Give him the cup.

As soon as he drops in the pearl, Gertrude understands. And the production should make it clear that she understands. Perhaps she should be standing at this point right at the front of the stage, facing the audience, and somewhat detached from the other figures crowding the scene. A quick, jerky movement from her could draw the audience’s attention to her face, which now bears an expression of the utmost horror, and also one of utmost grief. There is only one thing for her to do – to take that poison that her husband had intended for her son:

He’s fat, and scant of breath.
Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows;
The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

Good madam!

Gertrude, do not drink.

Claudius is often criticised at this point for being too cowardly to leap over and knock the poisoned drink from her hand, but if he is on the other side of the stage at this point, and if there are many people between them, then it is not possible for Claudius to make his way over to her in time. The best he can do is to call out to her, and tell her not to drink. But Gertrude insists: “I will, my lord.” There is no reason why she should insist on this if she didn’t know the significance of the drink she is holding. But if she does know what it is, then her insistence at this point is charged with deep significance. And, all of a sudden, at the moment of her death, this shallow creature, this wretched queen, becomes heroic.

She adds:

I pray you, pardon me.

This is no polite rejoinder. This is a heartfelt plea for forgiveness, her last words to the man she continues, despite everything, to love. And before she dies, she takes a last tender farewell of her son:

Come, let me wipe thy face.

Each one of Gertrude’s lines at this point must be charged with significance, and with tragic weight.

I find Gertrude one of the most pathetic characters in Shakespeare: she is foolish, weak, and irredeemably shallow: and yet, she is naïvely loving. This is the person who feels real grief at the fate of Ophelia – more so, one suspects, than Hamlet himself does. Almost without quite realising what she is doing, she has allowed herself to become embroiled in a terrible evil. It is in her death, I think, that she redeems herself. And yet, the pathos of this scene is rarely projected. Well – it is in the production that goes on in my mind as I read it!


One could go on almost indefinitely, going through it all scene by scene. And the best thing is that unlike, say, films, or recordings of Shakespeare’s plays, the interpretation of the mind isn’t frozen in time: each time I come back to the play, I find new subtleties and nuances that had not occurred to me before. Shakespeare’s plays are intended to be seen, not read, runs the mantra, but that is to ignore what one sees – and hears – in one’s mind as one reads.

13 responses to this post.

  1. I like the idea of Gertrude intentionally drinking the poison. I must admit that I never gave much attention to her character. I have seen her portrayed a wonton, aging vixen but I agree that she really should be naively loving and very sad.


    • Hello Brian, the problem with writing about Hamlet is that there’s no way of saying anything that is original: everything you can think of saying has already been thought of! I’m sure there have been productions presenting Gertrude’s death as suicide, but I don’t remember seeing any. But I really would like to see a production that presents her at the end as a tragic figure. Judi Dench came very close to this: her scene with Hamlet in III,iii was almost unbearable to watch. The main problem with that production was that she acted everyone else off the stage!


  2. When she was in High School my daughter was to read Hamlet over the summer holiday and then write a paper. Although it is not upheld through the entire play, I suggested to her that Claudius might not have murdered the King and perhaps both Claudius and Hamlet are assuming that the other did the deed. Now if Claudius thinks Hamlet is the murderer, then Claudius himself is in danger from the man in black.

    This bit of speculation, I felt, was valuable in getting inside the play and really trying to understand all the nuance and ambiguity.

    When I was at university it was common to receive decent grades for essays that may have been dead wrong but were carefully thought out and well-written. Unfortunately, my daughter’s English teacher was the type that graded on how close you came to the Spark Notes analysis of the play and the resulting grade was disappointing.


    • Hello Mike,
      i sometimes can’t help feeling that Spark Notes are among the biggest obstacles to understanding and appreciating literature. Literature should not be packaged into such neat and easy interpretations! Of course, we know (or at least, we find out about half way through the play) that Claudius is indeed the murderer (he confesses as much in his soliloquy in III,iii); but your suggestion seems a good one to explore. We need to be able to see matters from his point of view also.

      One point that is frequently missed is that in the play within the play, the murderer of the king is not the king’s brother, as might have been expected if the play were but a reconstruction of the death of old king Hamlet: it is the king’s nephew. And the current kings nephew is … of course, Prince Hamlet. So when Claudius walks out of the play, we cannot say whether he does so because he sees in the play an image of his own guilt; or because he sees in the play an open threat to himself. And, significantly, the murderer in the play within the play represents both Claudius (if the play is read as a reconstruction) and also as prince Hamlet (if the play is read as a threat). The two identities are startlingly fused together. It really is an extraordinary moment!


      • In some ways Spark Notes caused a problem for my daughter. I shamed her into not relying on regurgitated analysis thrown together by some hack that writing for lunch money but she bemoaned the reality that most of the other students took the short-cut and fed the teacher the crap found in Spark Notes and the teacher was pleased (hey, teachers want to get out of thinking too!).

        To my daughter’s credit she did her own analysis and I’m sure that is what advanced her in literature. She now a PhD teaching film and EngLangLit at a major university. Are there Spark Notes for Hitchcock?

        By the way: if you haven’t read John Updike’s novel, Gertrude and Claudius, do so … it is a gem!

  3. I like your interpretation of Gertrude’s role in that final scene. It seems quite plausible to me — more so than thinking of Gertrude as totally naive and stumbling. If you have not already read it you will enjoy Carolyn Heilbrun’s essay about Gertrude in Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women. It was a revelation to me when I read it because she shows how dismissive critics have been of Gertrude, seeing her only through the eyes of Claudius and Hamlet and not as a free-standing character with her own will and motivations.


    • I have not seen Carolyn Heilbrun’s essay, but I shall look it up.

      Gertrude has long seemed to me a tragic figure. I remember many years ago now seeing Judi Dench play the role on stage (Daniel day-Lewis was Hamlet). In teh closet scene (II,iv), Judi Dench made you think that it was Gertrude who was the real tragic protagonist of the play: the mental agony she projected was almost unbearable to watch.


  4. Every time I’ve been reading a Shakespeare play recently, and then watching a film version after, I’ve felt the very strong desire to direct my own film version which will bring out the true meaning of the play – and just in general be far better than the version I am watching. Others, of course, might disagree.


    • That’s the great thing about reading the play: you can direct it as you want! You can play all the roles yourself! You should have seen my performance of Antony in “Antony and Cleopatra” – it brought the house down!


  5. Posted by Mimi on November 10, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    This is amazing!….Your version of both points (the confrontation with Claudius and the death of Gertrude) is so persuasive and vivid! I feel as if there were a pipeline back into Shakespeare’s draperied study, and the draft of cold fresh air is exhilarating!….Now will you please help explain the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia? ….Does Hamlet love Ophelia very deeply indeed? Then why does he not show it more? There are of course some tender lines (calling her nymph?) but mostly one remembers his apparent contempt (or banter) in telling her to get to a nunnery (which in either meaning is insulting). Yes I accept that he feels stung by her betrayal (in the eavesdropping scene) coming after being betrayed by his mother, but I still don’t understand: Why does he reject Ophelia so coldly? She herself finds it sudden and strange…(By the way, the only time I ever felt Hamlet’s love for Ophelia displayed vividly enough for my taste was in the French opera of Hamlet.)…One possibility to explain the apparent coldness: Is Hamlet perhaps purposely driving Ophelia away because he knows himself to be doomed?


    • Hello Mimi, and thank you for your comments. I’d love to be able to direct something like Hamlet on stage – but since I have no theatrical experience, I guess I just have to limit myself to imagining what it might be like.

      Whenever I come back to the play, I seem to see it from a different perspective. It is never fixed. I think Hamlet clearly loves Ophelia; he loves her still. And yet, perhaps because of this, he cannot help tormenting her. After all, if even his own mother could forget her husband so quickly, why should Ophelia be any better?

      Does Hamlet realise he is being unfair to Ophelia? Perhaps. Hge is certainly intelligent enough, and sufficiently self-aware, to realise this. And yet, it’s almost as if he can’t help himself. In the famous scene where they meet (III,i), it is noticeable that Hamlet castigates himself more than he does anyone else:

      I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.

      Earlier in the same scene, he says “I did love you once”. Most actors speak this line with bitterness and contempt, but I think it would be a good idea if it were spoken sincerely, with the stress on teh word “did” rather than on the word “love”. And when Ophelia replies “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so”, Hamlet is genuinely stricken with guilt: he canno9t, given his present state, marry Ophelia, but he recognises teh suffering she must be going through. That’s when he tells her that she shouldn’t have believed him – and then he goes on to castigate himself. It would be very interesting, I think, to see this entire passage played with Hamlet stricken by guilt for his behaviour to Ophelia. But immediately afterwards, he turns on her: as i say, it’s amost as if he can’t help it. And in the following scene, Hamlet insults Ophelia in open court – as if to finalise once and for all his break with her. And durng his brief exchange with Ophelia, he makes no less than three references to his mother’s fickleness (and, by extension, to the fickleness – as he perceives it – of women in general):

      What should a man do but be merry? for, look you, how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within these two hours.


      ‘Tis brief, my lord.

      As woman’s love.


      … Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife,
      If, once a widow, ever I be wife!

      If she should break it now!

      It’s almost the very presence of Ophelia brings out his paranoia about women – and that he has absolutely no control over this.

      That’s the impression I am left with Hamlet knows he is being cruel and unfair to Ophelia, but he can’t seem to help himself!


  6. Posted by Mimi on November 11, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    Thanks so much! Your ideas make perfect sense! Hamlet’s love for Ophelia was sincere, and still is. But now he has a complex mixture of feelings about her and his predicament (love/ regret/ guilt/ distrust/ paranoia/ cruelty/ pity/ inability to fix things or change himself/ self-loathing, etc.) ….Your version makes sense, and takes away the dreaded “contempt” and sheer flippancy shown by so many Hamlets for Ophelia. (P.S.–I confess I still wish for even more “true love” between them somehow…I have a fantasy that some day a missing page of Shakespeare will be found that shows Hamlet loved Ophelia more that we thought. When I saw the French opera adapted from Hamlet it seemed somehow very satisfying that he would mourn her so deeply.)


    • I don’t know Thomas’ opera Hamlet. All I know about it is that Verdi was quite harsh about it, but if it still holds the stage, it must have something going for it, I guess!

      As ever, my views on Hamlet and Ophelia – or bout anything else, for that matter! – are provisional till my next reading!

      Cheer for now,


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