Prologue to the Omen”
“And even the like precurse of feared events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.”
-Horatio, from Hamlet, Act 1, scene 1.
Downhearted Dane. Vengeful vigilante. Haunted Hero. Shakespeare’s monumental creation is many things, not least the bane of grudging high school students everywhere. We’ve all slogged through a half-hearted reading in English class. Perhaps rather than bid us tackle reams of impenetrable verse direct from the printed page our teachers were kind enough to let us watch a film version. There are, after all, over fifty. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ve seen a live performance – my own preferred method of absorbing this difficult and alluring work.
Few people know, however, that The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarkbegan life in an altogether different form. In fact, it may not be remiss to say that Shakespeare himself was haunted by the specter of his masterwork’s former incarnation. While we don’t have an exact date for Hamlet’scomposition, tantalizing evidence suggests the existence of a so-called Ur-Hamlet, written a decade or more earlier and in all likelihood by the Bard himself. Just how the melancholy Dane first appeared to the fledging dramatist yet to hit is stride will, alas, forever be a mystery. Was the ghost of Old Hamlet his son’s diabolical lodestar even then, or would the towering and, as we shall see, groundbreaking phantom erupt from the playwright’s mind only later, as an ingenious means for grafting larger questions onto a well-worn legend?
The name of Hamlet’s literary predecessor, Amlethof medieval Scandinavian lore, with whose bloodstained tale Shakespeare was likely familiar through a retelling by 16thcentury poetFrançois de Belleforest of a legend first recorded by 13thcentury chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, is thought to stem from the old Icelandic Amlóði, with ties to a whole complex of words denoting tricksters and fools. (One of these, Amhladh, is itself an Irish adaptation of the Norse name, Olaf– which readers of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Eventswill recognize. That’s right: Hamlet and the malicious Count are distant cousins!)
Taking center stage, quite literally, are the antics surrounding Hamlet’s feigned madness. Shakespeare’s longest theatrical work by a mile is also a dizzying survey of the uses, abuses, affects and presumptions of theatre, not to mention their prickly relationship with reality. Not only does Hamlet enlist a band of actors to “catch the conscience” of his fratricidal uncle, his contemplation of stagecraft throughout becomes a theme on which to hang many an unsettling soliloquy bemoaning the contentiousness of existence – lending him the air of one quite mad. His bloodthirsty commitment to the play-within-the-play, paired with his bizarre detachment from the actualplay, lend him the air, I maintain, of that indomitable mythical figure, the Trickster.
The Trickster, as both a literary and psychological archetype, needs no introduction – indeed would laugh heartily to hear me stumble through one. From the Native American Coyote to Deadpool, he is easily the most compelling figure in whatever story he appears because he alone seems to knowhe’s in a story. He breaks the fourth wall by dint of folly – real or imagined – and affirms the sneaking suspicion that all is but a shadow, an echo of an echo of something forever out of reach. So too with our troubled prince from Denmark. Hamlet, casting himself in the role of madman, gains access to the hidden scaffolding of his his own narrative, standing shrewdly, albeit bleakly apart from the horrific events swarming him even as he plots revenge. (Think Bugs Bunny turning away from the barrel of Elmer Fudd’s shotgun to smirk at the camera.)
From whence comes Hamlet’s preternatural, Trickster-like aloofness?
We have scant data in the way of Hamlet’s outlook on life before his father’s death and his pivotal meeting with the ghost, but it’s a reasonable assumption Ophelia found something in him worthy of love bearing little resemblance to the heartless cad who would later shriek, “get thee to a nunnery!” Hamlet’s first appearance onstage abounds with ennui at how breezily the court forgets his mighty father. He’s sullen, temperamental, acerbic, self-pitying. He pays sneering lip service to decorum while inwardly despising the hypocrisy it conceals. He is, under the circumstances, a typical teenager. This changes drastically after he accosts the phantom in its nightly constitutional on the ramparts.
It’s important to note here that in the original legend, the slain father’s ghost plays no part in Amleth’s bloody-minded agenda. The supernatural element is the Bard’s own inspired addition: the specter’s ultimatum diverts Hamlet’s considerable mental powers away from diffuse, self-indulgent gloom and sets him on the path to action, though that path will be riddled with existential doubts through the final act. Shakespeare may not have invented the tortured, revenge-seeking apparition as plot device – that concept goes at least as far back as 1st century Roman dramatist Seneca – but by forging it as the catalyst to a potent meditation on mortality, revenge, nihilism and the limits of expression, Shakespeare serves up a ghost story utterly original in its implications.
Some scholars are fond of arguing the ghost is no more than a fancy of Hamlet’s bereft, overwrought imagination. Yet having the apparition seen by other characters beforeHamlet would seem to advocate we’re to take the visitation as bare fact. And here’s another wrinkle in Shakespeare’s innovation: even as bare fact, the ghost supports a number of contradictory interpretations, all weighed and commented on by Hamlet himself. Is it the ghost his murdered father? An evil spirit pretendingto be his father? A projection from purgatory? From Hell?
Susan Owens, in The Ghost, a Cultural History, writes: “The more sophisticated members of the audience watching the play at the Globe Theatre, mindful of the new directions of Protestant thought, would have been likely to conclude that the ghost was a spirit that had assumed the form of Old Hamlet. Others, perhaps the majority, probably held muddled, uncertain views [and] it is not difficult to imagine entrenched folk belief continuing to exist alongside new intellectual theories.”
Hamlet, a student of philosophy, is versed in the cutting-edge spiritual thinking of his day. When confronting the ghost he asks point blank if it means good or ill. Then, warily acknowledging the ghost’s likeness to his father, offers an hypothesis that evokes an even older tradition: the dreaded revenant. That is, a reanimated corpse. The ghost fires back, claiming to be in fact a denizen of purgatory – though we have no guarantee this isn’t trickery. What he is and what his appearance means we’re left of ponder.
Owens offers an elegant summation on the subject I won’t resist quoting in full: “In Hamlet, Shakespeare refashions the dramatic ghost, taking the classical Seneca model as a basis but molding it to match the turbulent ideology of the times. The ghost of Old Hamlet elicits the widest possible range of responses – expressions of religious beliefs of various kinds, intellectual passions and remembered snatches of folklore, as well as degrees of skepticism. It is this, alongside Hamlet’s own questioning attitude towards it, that makes it the most representative ghost of its era – as well as one that still defies conclusive interpretation.”
What prompted this innovation? The nature of Shakespeare’s genius is necessarily a mystery, though it’s quite possible the death of his only son – the intriguingly named Hamnet – compelled him to revisit his earlier work, the Ur-Hamlet that would ultimately become the benchmark of English literature we know and obsess over today. While the tone of his output grew notably darker after 1596, the year of Hamnet’s passing at age 11, the extent to which this personal tragedy informed The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is, like all things Shakespearian, debatable. But it’s scarcely difficult to envision William, racked by grief, metabolizing his loss by addressing Hamnet’s imaginary ghost, and this in turn leading his febrile mind down a rabbit hole in which he, Shakespeare, was the ghost and Hamnet, alive, addressing him. (There is apocryphal support for Shakespeare playing Old Hamlet’s specter at The Globe.)
Like Prince Hamlet, as anyone can tell you who’s ever temporarily pierced the veil separating this world from the next, the experience colors us in ways so subtle we may never see the brush strokes. Often what follows is a sea change in our view of the world and of ourselves, such that the only conceivable outlet is a story – one we’ll tell in some form or other for the rest of our lives.