Hamlet – both title and character are replete with meaning. The quantity of commentary dedicated to William Shakespeare’s play is second only to that devoted to Jesus Christ. It is the Bard’s longest play, with nearly 4,000 lines, carefully spun into three simultaneous plots, with seven soliloquies given by the title character (and two more by Claudius), 22 scenes and over 600 new words that would be incorporated into the English lexicon. Shakespeare’s brooding, existential, verbose and most human protagonist is at the very root of literary and social thought, and ingrained in our common consciousness. The play is Shakespeare’s most quoted drama and most frequently adapted. Significantly, it was chosen to open Tyrone Guthrie’s new Minneapolis theater in 1963, a venue that also first hosted then-Center Opera. It is only fitting that the operatic version is a part of the now-Minnesota Opera’s 50th anniversary season.
However, none of this reverence was observed when the play traveled to France in the 18th century. The eight-person body count was perhaps too gruesome for French classicists (Voltaire once remarked “One would think this is the work of a drunken savage”). In 1769, Jean-François Ducis made considerable adjustments. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Marcellus, Fortinbras and others were eliminated from the drama, and there were no players or gravediggers. The final duel was also missing, and Hamlet didn’t die, nor did Ophelia. This became the standard performance edition until an English troupe brought Hamlet to the Théâtre de l’Odéon in 1827. The city went mad for Ophelia’s flower scene, and composer Hector Berlioz was infatuated with the leading lady, Harriet Smithson. The Symphonie fantastique became a calling card for their courtship, and they eventually married, with dubious results. Also in the audience was a young Alexandre Dumas père, who later provided his own adaptation (aided by Paul Meurice), a little truer to the source, but still lacking the Fortinbras-Norway angle (one of the subplots to be discussed below) and Hamlet’s trip to England (nor do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern perish). There is an added love scene for Ophélie and Hamlet, and the Ghost of Hamlet’s father reappears at the end to condemn each of the dying characters. Hamlet, however, lives on to become King of Denmark.
Dumas’ version, which opened at the Comédie-Française in 1847, was likely known to librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier. It is for this reason Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet differs considerably from the original work. For the purposes of dramatic necessity (as action tends to take longer when sung), minor characters and dramatic action were removed. Polonius’ famous stabbing while spying behind the arras does not occur (though the scene will be recreated in this production). In fact, we learn he was a willing accomplice in the conspiracy to kill Hamlet’s father, a detail that further dampens the prince’s affections toward Ophélie. Hamlet’s drinking song, presumably to underscore his feigned madness, was a tradition included to appeal to French audiences. Hamlet doesn’t die in the original ending, but when the production premiered at London’s Covent Garden, an alternate outcome had to be composed. English purists couldn’t see their national treasure adulterated, so Hamlet presumably expires of a broken heart from the grief he feels over Ophélie’s passing. Only one performance took place.
Little is known about the composition of Thomas’ Hamlet, other than it was confined by the requirements of French Grand Opera, in five acts with a ballet. The proximity to Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, which premiered just one year earlier, is merely coincidental – it was not intended to compete with the younger composer’s success. The title role was, quite naturally, originally to be a tenor, but given the singer availability at the time, Thomas recast it for a talented baritone, Jean-Baptiste Faure, and he had the good fortune to have Christine Nilsson as his Ophélie – a fully staged suicidal mad scene à la Lucia di Lammermoor or Lady Macbeth became a signature piece. The opera was enthusiastically received at its premiere in 1868 and received over 300 performances by the end of the century.
The foundations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet are as complex as the work itself. Like many of his plays, it is a drama of variation and adjustment rather than one of outright planning. The ultimate root is the 12th-century folklore tale of Amleth found in Saxo Grammaticus’ Historiae Danicae. It contains all the basic elements: Amleth’s father has defeated the King of Norway in a single combat and is murdered by his brother Feng, who takes the widow Gerutha as his wife. Her young son Amleth pretends to be mad to avoid being eliminated (in European thought at that time, if one was to kill a lunatic, one would become a lunatic). This situation endures for many years during which time his mental capacity is tested by the courtiers. At one point he is sent a young woman (the prototype for Ophelia) to see if he will react sexually (he does, but swears her to secrecy). A councilor close to the king eavesdrops on a conversation between the queen and her son. He is killed by Amleth, chopped up, cooked and fed to the pigs. Feng sends his nephew to Britain with secret execution orders, and Amleth alters the communiqué, requesting his escorts be killed instead. Upon his return to Denmark, Amleth sequesters the courtiers as they are reveling and sets fire to the room. Feng is murdered in his own bed after the prince has exchanged weapons, rendering the king helpless, and Amleth is crowned king – a tale of noble success rather than one of horrendous tragedy.
A later French version found in the Histoires tragiques by François de Belleforest, published in 1570, follows Saxo, but introduces two new misogynist elements to the character of Geruth – she and Fengon have had an adulterous affair prior to the old king’s death, and she is duplicitous in his murder. She later switches her allegiance after a talk with Hamblet, promising not to disclose his plan and supporting his seizure of the throne. Belleforest’s lineage is apparent in two other Shakespearian works, namely Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, so the Bard may have known this narrative as well; however, Hamblet was not translated into English until 1608. Also, the same material may have been known to another playwright, Thomas Kyd, who could read French and who produced a revenge drama, The Spanish Tragedy, which featured a ghostly presence as well as 19 other similarities. Although knowledge of this play may have inspired Shakespeare to write his drama, it is supposed there was a companion work, referred to as the Ur-Hamlet, that may have been authored by Kyd, one of his contemporaries or even Shakespeare himself, and may have preceded (and influenced) Kyd’s tale of vengeance. The Bard is believed to have worked off this copy, providing his First (or “Bad”) Quarto, a sort of dry run at the subject matter, written in the last decade of the 1500s. (There is speculation that this was a pirated version of the play, possibly adapted from the memory of an actor and perhaps abridged). He later expanded and edited his material quite extensively, yielding what is known as the Second “Good” Quarto (1604). A third edition, the First Folio was published in 1623.
Belleforest’s new feature, Gertrude’s culpability in the plot, is never fully resolved in the play, but rings true in the opera. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” is her well-known remark while viewing the “Mousetrap” play Hamlet has engineered to draw out her guilt as much as that of Claudius. The opera has an entire duet devoted to the conspiratorial couple. Shakespeare leaves her fate in the hands of God (at the Ghost’s request), and in the opera, the spirit consigns her to a convent. In Belleforest, she is the daughter of the former king, and therefore the prototypes for Old Hamlet and later Claudius are royal consorts, another factor fueling the jealousy, murder and hasty “incestuous” second marriage. Gertrude’s morality is harshly called into question when confronted by her son in the infamous Closet Scene. It appears he is more concerned about the adultery than about his father’s death, and after delivering about 150 lines of abuse, can only be brought back to task by a second appearance of the Ghost.
There is the growing fear that Claudius may be usurped by the younger Hamlet. As in Saxo and Belleforest, Shakespeare has the prince acquire an “antic disposition,” attempting to prove he is crazy while he gathers evidence. Though the play is more about an internal struggle rather than outward action, Hamlet is the supreme puppet master. In The Murder of Gonzago, where “the play is the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” he has the nephew instead of the brother orchestrate the murder. It is a telling indication that Hamlet knows the details of the crime and of his intentions toward Claudius. The play hinges on Hamlet’s delay – why doesn’t he simply kill Claudius after the Ghost’s initial visit? There are signs in the drama that he doesn’t trust the supernatural being’s intentions. Hamlet requires “ocular proof,” which he receives with the king’s reaction to Gonzago’s poisoning. Then he very conveniently has a chance, finding Claudius alone deep in prayer. But murdering the king while observing religious piety would guarantee his soul would be carried to heaven, and that is not where Hamlet wishes it to go. Only after the “accidental” murder of Polonius, an act that appears to have been meant for the king himself, does justice become swift. It is clear Hamlet now has a taste for the kill, and he is quickly dispatched to England in the interest public safety. Thanks to his own wily intelligence, the prince intercepts the execution orders, and still in possession of the royal seal, is able to revise them, leading to the ultimate demise of the unwitting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He is “rescued” by pirates (the convenience of their chance appearance is often overlooked), and brought back, fully matured, now able to fulfill his father’s commission.
The original work also involves several subplots not fully realized in the opera. We have Polonius and his two children, Laertes and Ophelia. The former he cautions to be frugal and tame, to the latter he recommends no further love interest in Hamlet – he of royal birth and she merely a commoner – there can be no lasting future. Laertes becomes a true foil in the tradition of the Senecan revenge drama. Rather than being thoughtful and hesitant like the title character, he is rash and decisive. When he learns his father has been killed (a parent for which he has very little regard, but the family’s honor is at stake), he organizes an uprising. Cooled by Claudius’ artful promises, he is drawn into a conspiracy to eliminate Hamlet, which will ultimately result in the death of all the principals. Sadly, the doubly poisonous dueling scene (by cup and by blade) did not make it into the opera’s finale.
Meanwhile, Fortinbras of Norway is seeking to reclaim lands lost by his father of the same name to the recently departed King of Denmark. In a parallel situation, his uncle is currently the ruler, and as in Hamlet’s case, primogeniture has also been set aside. His story rather awkwardly fits into the main action of the play (and is perhaps a remnant of the lost Ur-Hamlet), but does draw everything full circle when, on a corpse-strewn stage, the dying Hamlet leaves to him the leadership of Denmark, acreage that formerly belonged to his country. Like Laertes, Fortinbras is a man of conflict, an aggressive, capable warrior in contrast to Hamlet’s softer intellectual temperament.
Ophelia’s character must also be examined. She is the ultimate femme fragile. In Shakespeare’s play, she is warned against receiving any of Hamlet’s love but is then used as a pawn by Polonius and Claudius to obtain information. Hamlet treats her poorly, alternately affectionate and cruel. Unlike in the opera, they never have a truly romantic moment. Hamlet’s “Get thee to a nunnery” speech, showing his antipathy toward women, reaches its peak as he derides both Ophelia/Ophélie and his mother as whores, as the cloister at that time was believed to be a place of fornication in a corrupt Catholic Church (England had just recently turned Protestant). In the original drama, Ophelia’s final scene is a distribution of flowers to members of the court. Each has significance – rosemary for Hamlet for remembrance (he has forgotten her); pansies for Laertes for pensiveness and grief; fennel and columbines for Claudius for deceit, ingratitude and faithlessness; and rue for Gertrude for repentance. Even in her madness, Ophelia clearly knows what is going on. Her suicide (which in the original occurs offstage and is reported by Gertrude) is inconclusive, but suspicious enough to deny her a proper funeral for she is buried in unconsecrated ground attended by a doctor of divinity rather than a priest.
Claudius is likewise enigmatic. Given to the sensations of power, lust and alcohol, an alternative, more tender side emerges in the prayer scene. He obviously has some remorse, and if one takes into account the Fascist “Iron Curtain” interpretation of this production, it is very possible Claudius eliminated King Hamlet because he was a cruel totalitarian, rather than a progressive ruler (there is the question of why he is languishing in purgatory rather than a place better befitting a hero). The opening of the play would indicate Claudius is capably governing Denmark when he receives a diplomatic mission from Norway, in an effort to maintain peace. Hamlet is a very different tragedy from those written before or since, and Claudius is hardly as villainous as the purer examples of Macbeth, Edmond or Iago.
In Saxo’s original story, the cause of the elder Hamlet’s murder is openly known, and therefore, requires no ghost. The junior Hamlet must pretend to be to be a fool for many years. Shakespeare has translated this into a sort of super-sanity – at every juncture he is one step ahead, and he uses subtle and persistent humor, crafting a world of riddles. A revenge tragedy is conducive to introspection, and we are subjected to Hamlet’s innermost thoughts. The audience never loses its sympathy for the prince, even though he is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of five people. The Ghost expects his namesake to be an imprint of himself – heroic, brave and noble. But nothing could be further from the truth – while Old Hamlet displays bravado on the battlefield in a single combat with Old Fortinbras, his son achieves supremacy by using his wits, an honest version of a Machiavellian prince if ever there was one. Further dynamics between father and son become evident when viewed in light of real events. Shakespeare had a son, Hamnet, who died young in 1596, and he lost his father a few years later. Both of these terrible events give the play an elegiac quality.
Only after Claudius tries to have him killed is Hamlet’s resolve steeled, yet Shakespeare’s final act plays out as a tragedy of circumstance rather than the execution of any actual architectural plan, resulting in the deaths of the remaining four principals instead of just one. The drama that boldly features regicide, fratricide, suicide, homicide and incest eliminates two entire families. Famously retaining its most familiar quotation, “Être ou ne pas être,” the operatic version also plainly confronts issues of life and death. Thomas and his librettists were faced with an enormous challenge, and in spite of their digressions and eliminations, they still managed to produce an effective, concise piece of theater, even if hampered by the antiquated practices of the day. If one is not expecting an exact musical interpretation of the Bard’s masterpiece, they should be fully satisfied by Thomas’ chef-d’œuvre grand opéra.