April 17

June 9, 2019

CST’s Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

Playgoer’s Guide

The king’s ghost walks upon the battlements of Elsinore. Prince Hamlet, his son and namesake, returns home for his father’s funeral, and instead is the reluctant guest at a royal wedding: his mother’s to his Uncle Claudius—now Denmark’s king. “Remember me,” the Ghost exhorts Hamlet, as it reveals the grim details of death at the hands of a usurping brother. The son swears to avenge the father’s murder.

Hamlet withdraws from all, including Ophelia, whom he loved. Polonius—courtier, advisor, and father to Ophelia and Laertes—hypothesizes that Hamlet is merely lovesick. Suspecting otherwise, Claudius summons Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy upon their old school friend.

Hamlet wrestles with the Ghost’s truth—could it be the devil instead? The arrival of a troupe of players provides the prince a course of action: to stage before the assembled court a re-enactment of the Ghost’s story. The king’s overt response becomes proof of his guilt. Hamlet now confronts his mother and, suspecting it to be Claudius behind a curtain, plunges in his knife, killing instead a spying Polonius.

Claudius ships the prince off to England, escorted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who unwittingly carry their school friend’s death warrant. Hamlet escapes and, returning to Elsinore, finds more sorrow—and Laertes desperate for revenge. Proposing a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, Claudius stages another night of entertainment for the court, but with stakes now infinitely higher.

The story, appearing first in an eleventh-century Icelandic poem, derives from an ancient Norse legend of Amlothi, a prince who feigns madness to exact revenge. In the twelfth century, the Danish scholar Saxo Grammaticus attributed the legend’s folk-hero to a prince in Denmark’s history named Amleth. Amleth’s father is slaughtered by his jealous brother Feng, who then marries the king’s widow, Gerutha. Too young to revenge his father’s murder, Amleth pretends insanity to assure his uncle that he poses no threat. (John Updike borrows Saxo’s names for the first part of his novel, Gertrude and Claudius). Four centuries later, the French chronicler Belleforest included Saxo’s story in his Histoires Tragiques. The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s popular and influential play (written ca. 1580s), whetted London’s appetite for revenge dramas. Strong evidence exists of an English revenge tragedy from the 1580s based on the histories of Saxo and Belleforest, but no text survives of this earlier so-called Ur-Hamlet.  

Generally agreed to have been written in 1600 or 1601, Hamlet marks the first of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Its first publication, in 1603, is called the “Bad Quarto”—a text perhaps pirated without authorial consent. A year later, the Second Quarto (equivalent to paperbacks today) was printed—nearly twice as long as the first and likely based on Shakespeare’s manuscript. This so-called “Good Quarto” served as the basis for the first anthology of Shakespeare’s plays, the 1623 First Folio (an expensive, larger book, analogous to our finest hardcover editions), published seven years after his death. The First Folio Hamlet text, at 3,904 lines (nearly 200 lines longer than the Second Quarto) is the longest play in the canon. Shakespeare’s editors and directors continue to wrestle with Hamlet’s multiple texts—perhaps inevitable for a work so elusive, even in its most elemental “words, words, words.”

No record exists of Hamlet’s first performances at the Globe. But by 1603 its stage popularity is implied by the printing of the First Quarto’s pirated text, and by its title page proclaiming earlier performances in Oxford, Cambridge, and London. Tradition holds that King Hamlet’s Ghost was first played by Shakespeare, himself an actor in the company of the Chamberlain’s Men. The play was presented at the courts of James I and Charles I in 1619 and 1637, respectively. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the subsequent reopening of London’s theaters, Hamlet was among the first plays to be produced again. But Restoration tastes had changed, preferring sophisticated comedy over tragedy, and Hamlet disappeared from the stage until the eighteenth century. The subject of one of the earliest silent films (1907), Hamlet is among the most frequently staged and filmed plays in the canon. This marks Chicago Shakespeare’s third production, and the second directed by Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, following her staging in 1996 with Robert Petkoff and Mariann Mayberry, and the 2006 production by guest director Terry Hands, with Ben Carlson. Irreverent explorations have been staged over the years in the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare: Hamlet! the Musical, in association with The Second City (2000, 2001), Tiny Ninja Hamlet (2006), and Celebrity One-Man Hamlet (2016). Two major WorldStage productions have toured to Chicago Shakespeare: Peter Brook’s with Adrian Lester (2001) and the Shakespeare’s Globe production, celebrating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth (2014).

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