By Bob Tait
Theater is best when it not only entertains its audience but when it does so in a way that lets those involved in any performance make a living with a future. Theater has to pay for itself and keep itself performing. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet does just that by paying attention to what its audience wants, staying within the bounds of the social mores of its era, and by the profitable structure of the theater it is performed in.
When Hamlet was first performed by Shakespeare’s Company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, on the south side of the Thames, in or about 1601, it wasn’t unusual for a company to present thirty to forty different plays a year (1). London at that time had a population of about 200,000, so any play would have run through its audience pretty quickly (not to mention they had to compete with bear baiters!) (2). One of Shakespeare’s tactics for such prolific playwriting was to use historical events – plots he didn’t have to create. The story of Hamlet was first presented in written form in the second half of the twelfth century in Saxo Grammaticus’s Historica Danica, and was based on historical events. (3)
Another tactic of Shakespeare’s for keeping his audiences coming back was to focus his tragedies on nobility. This isn’t a new tactic; Greeks and Romans were portraying tragic nobles since theater began. Hamlet is a Prince, the son of the King of Denmark. The story begins after his royal father has been murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, who not only claims the throne, but also takes Hamlet’s widowed mother for his wife. All this is revealed to Hamlet by the ghost of his dead father (who may have originally been played by Shakespeare). The tragedies spin out of control till everyone ends up . . . but that would be telling; I’ll just say, how the mighty have fallen, in five acts.
Even good tragedy (good tragedy?) gets old, especially at thirty a year. Shakespeare, though, was a master of mixing tragedy with comic relief. One example of this is in Act Five, Scene One, in which two clowns (gravediggers) philosophize about Christian burials while sharing jokes; just guys at work. My personal favorite is the truism from the grave digger when, also in Act Five, Scene One, Hamlet asks the clown, “How long will a man lie i’ th’ earth ere he rot? And the clown answers, “Faith if a’ be not rotten before ‘a die . . .” (translation: Depends on how rotten he was when he was alive?!) This scene has nothing to do with the plot or the tragedy; it’s comic relief. Shakespeare knew that to bring an audience back he had to make them laugh.
All this entertaining had to be done under the watchful eye of the keeper of society’s morals, The Master of Revels. Queen Elizabeth, the ruler during Shakespeare’s early career, realized that the spectacle of theater, and what might entertain the masses, could undermine her authority; satire of current political figures was a threat to their power, especially when tragic plays were written about nobility. It was the job of The Master of Revels to review any play of the time before it was presented and decide whether it could be performed. With Hamlet Shakespeare deftly dodged censure by presenting the history of Denmark and not England. Also the language in Hamlet is never crude, and Shakespeare adheres to the strict standard of not showing the church in any bad light.
Shakespeare and his theater company did have the protection of The Lord Chamberlain and after that King James himself when it came to any license to perform, but that was just a sponsorship for protection. “The role of the patron cost little or nothing…What a company could normally expect from its lord was a document declaring that its members were his servants and should be respected accordingly, occasional intercession on their behalf, if they got into trouble, a payment when they performed before him (such as they would receive in similar circumstances from any other lord), and, occasionally, a ‘badge’ or livery allowance of cloth so that they might wear the colors of his house” (matching t-shirts!) (2). To make a sustainable living in theater Shakespeare was a shareholder in his company – actually he held three shares (one as playwright, one as company member, and one as an actor).
Hamlet was a successful play because it was a good story well told but also because it entertained its audience, and kept to the guidelines set by a watchful government. These elements also come together to make it one of the most frequently performed plays each year.
(1). “A History of Performance.” Internet Shakespeare Editions. University of Victoria, Web. 15 Dec. 2020. <https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/Ham_PerfHistory/index.html>.
(2). Oates, M., and Baumol, W. “On the Economics of the Theater in Renaissance London.” The Swedish Journal of Economics, vol. 74, no. 1, 1972, pp. 136–160. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3439014. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020. Page 143.
(3) Barnet, S., ed. “The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare.” Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Publishers. 1972. Page 913
Gurr, A. “Venues on the Verges: London’s Theater Government between 1594 and 1614.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 4, 2010, pp. 468–489. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40985627. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.
Lesser, Z., et al. “The First Literary Hamlet and the Commonplacing of Professional Plays.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 4, 2008, pp. 371–420. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40210297. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.
Marino, J. “Burbage’s Father’s Ghost.” English Literary Renaissance, vol. 44, no. 1, 2014, pp. 56–77., www.jstor.org/stable/43607764. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.