A History of Hamlet-Book and Lunchtime Lecture

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Last Tuesday, 21 June, Professor David Bevington spoke to a group of enthusiasts and students about his new book, Murder Most Foul, a cultural history of Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the ages, from the original sources right up to the interpretations given the play in the 21st century. It is because Hamlet presents us with such a variety of possibilities and solutions, that each new generation finds a way to use the play to show “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (3.2.24). He described this as an ever-growing conical shape of influence forming through history, leading to a web of cross-referencing that impinges on all the arts. However, since the lunchtime lectures traditionally last only about an hour (hardly enough time to fit in five centuries!) Prof Bevington chose to focus on developments in the late 18th century as representative of the whole.

This was an interesting period, where at the same time as the full text of the play was available in print and revered as a philosophical poem to be read in solitude, it was in practice considered as incapable of being acted, so that when staged, distasteful details contradicting the vision of Hamlet as a great moral hero (such as the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or even of Ophelia) were simply left out. Heavily edited and rewritten versions of the text allowed the role to became a vehicle for star actor-managers to strike theatrical poses and arrange tasteful tableaus, rather than attempt to interpret Hamlet’s character as imagined in so many private drawing rooms. This vexed state of affairs of the theatre in general and performances of Hamlet in particular reached a possibly all-time low at this point, with the result that we were treated to the following newspaper advertisement for a production in 1793:

THEATRE ROYAL, KILKENNY, IRELAND (Irish players). On Saturday, May 4, will be performed by command of several respectable persons in the learned metropolis, for the benefit of Mr Kearns, the tragedy of HAMLET, originally written and composed by the celebrated DAN HAYES of LIMERICK, and inserted into Shakespeare’s works. HAMLET by Mr Kearns (being his first appearance in that character) who, between the acts, will perform several solos on the potent bag-pipes, which play two tunes at the same time. OPHELIA by Mrs. Prior, who will introduce several familiar airs in character, particularly THE LASS OF RICHMOND HILL and WE’LL ALL BE HAPPY TOGETHER from the Rev. Mr Dibdin’s ODDITIES. The parts of the KING and QUEEN, by direction of the Rev. Mr O’Callaghan, will be omitted, as too immoral for any stage. POLONIUS, the comical politician, by a Young Gentleman, being his first appearance in public. THE GHOST, THE GRAVEDIGGER and LAERTES, by Mr. Sampson, the great London comedian. The characters will be dressed in Roman shapes.
To which will be added an interlude of sleight of hand tricks, by the celebrated surveyor, Mr Hunt. The whole to conclude with a farce, MAHOMET THE IMPOSTER, Mahomet by Mr Kearns.
Tickets to be had of Mr Kearns at the sign of the Goat’s Beard, in Castle Street. The value of the tickets to be taken (if required) in candles, butter, cheese, soap, etc., as Mr Kearns wishes in every particular to accommodate the public. No persons will be admitted to the boxes without shoes or stockings.

What more can be said in this blog? The rest is silence!

Murder Most Foul (hardback) by David Bevington, is available from The Shakespeare Bookshop for £25.

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