Hamlet and “Something’s Rotten in Denmark”

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings:” Richard II Act 3. Scene 2.


Let’s get something out of the way first off. The long version of the name of the play is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark . Nobody ever says that. They just call it “Hamlet”. ‘Course if you want to appear smart, you can just call it “the Danish”. For instance, “‘Hamlet’ is such a wonderful Danish Pastry.” Just like you can call the Scottish play “the Scottish play”. If you’re an actor, you do not want to say the play’s name. You’ll have more double-double-toil-and-trouble than you can shake a stick at.

Never ever say that “Romeo and Juliet” is “that Italian play”. It just won’t fly. Shakespeare wrote so many Italian plays that people’s heads would spin like Regan in “The Exorcist”. Pretty soon they’d be calling in a priest to do the exercis-isms. And I am not talking Pilates here. Personally I like tai chi and walking myself. But enough about me.

The thought just came to me. The reason Shakespeare wrote so many Italian plays was that he was getting a kickback from the Italian Tourist Bureau. The English would see one of the Italian plays and they couldn’t wait to book a flight to Venice, Florence, Verona or Rome.

If you want to show off, just say “The Dane” and everybody will know it’s The Danish Play. Just like everybody knew that the Beatles were talking Johann Sebastian Bach when they sang “Get Bach”. Now that that is out of the way, it’s on with the show.


If you don’t, it goes like this. Hamlet (he’s the main dude) comes home for spring break. Finds out his Uncle Claudius has done his Dad in, married his Mom and taken over the family business. Pretty lousy homecoming I would say. Talk about a bummer.

Next thing you know. Dad’s ghost shows up. This ain’t no Scrooge kind of ghost. This ghost is out for blood and he wants Ham to do the bleeding. Prince, and that is not His Purpleness either, isn’t so sure what he should do. Maybe he is hallucinatin’. Maybe he has gotten hold of a bad batch of LSD.


Now there’s this girl Ophelia. Her friends call her Eggs. She was such a good egg. She’s been out on a few dates with Hamlet. Nothing serious. Just some necking to “In a gadda da vida”. They are young. They don’t know any better.

I could say that they were a golden couple, doing the Mick Jagger and Marrianne Faithfull thing. ‘Course we know how that one turned out. And Eggs would probably be singing “As Tears Go By” sooner than later. You can blame it on Egg’s Old Man, Polonius, and her Big Bro, Laertes. They demand that she have nothing more to do with Ham.

In the dating department, he’s persona non grata. He’s a prince and he can’t marry just anybody. He can have sex with just anybody, but no marriage. Father and brother don’t want to see her pregs. It’s the Middle Ages and unwed mothers were treated badly. They might go as far as kicking her out of the castle. The castle may be cold in the winter, but she didn’t want to thrown out in the cold.  She would freeze her knickers off.


Eggs tells her dad that she just saw Ham. He’s off his rocker, ranting and raving, raving and ranting. Of course, he’s off his rocker. That’s what too much sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll will do to a fellow. It don’t help that his dad is dead and his mum has married the murderer.


Polonius runs and blabs to the king. Ham has a thing for his daughter, and he’s got it real bad. At least, that is what Pol thinks.

Two of Ham’s boyhood buds show up. They are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You’ve heard of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Simon and Schuster, R and G are the originals. Ham used to play “Robin Hood” and “Cowboys and Indians” with them. Now they are playing James Bond and they are no 007s.. Ham gets out of them that they are working for Claudius. He doesn’t even have to do water-boarding.


Anyway they tell Ham that there is an acting troupe in town. It’s led by none other than Will Shakespeare, star of stage, screen and tv. Just kidding. There was no tv in those days. TV antennas didn’t work in the castle anyway. And Claudius refused to pay for cable. On top of everything, he set a bad example. He illegally downloaded the latest episodes of “Game of Thrones”. But he had a very good reason. He just had to know what happened after the Red Wedding.

Ham is delighted. He has an idea how to find out if Claudius really did Dad in like the ghost says. It’s the play he wants the actors to do, “The Murder of Gonzago”. Yes, that “Murder of Gonzago”. Only he does what all directors do. He does a rewrite. He wants the play to re-enact how Claudius did the murder. If Claudius reacts to the murder, then Ham will know he’s got his guy. This will prove once and for all that Uncle Claudius is a badass. Or does he just play one on tv?


Are you still with me? Will Shakespeare has written a doozy of a play in this “Hamlet”. Lots of twists and turns, turns and twists, and a few exit stage lefts too. Kind of like dancing, don’t you think?

Claudius sees the play. He is white as a sheep. Ham now knows for sure that only one thing could turn Claudius white as a sheep. Viagra. Next thing you know Ham’s in his mum’s room, giving her the third degree, ranting and raving, accusing and accusing. “Claudius offed Dad,” he’s saying. Polonius. Remember him. He’s Eggs’ dad. He hides behind a curtain, spying.

If you are going to spy from behind a curtain, don’t cough. It can cost you big time.He coughs. Ham thinks it is Claudius. Ham stabs the curtain. Somebody should have told him not to stab the curtain. Then he sees it is Polonius he made corpus dilecti. “Oops, wrong guy.”


Claudius decides that it’s off to England for Ham. Let the English do his dirty work. They’re good at it. They’ve offed their share of royalty. Why, just look at what Henry 4 did to Richard 2 and Richard 3 did to a lot of royals. Claudius sends R and G with Ham to make sure the deed is done.

On his way to England, Ham runs into the prince of Norway, heading to Poland with his army. Norway has this prince thing down. He is good at it. Right there and then, Ham decides he’s going to be good at it too. He will act. He will have his revenge. No more “to be or not to be.” No more Mr. Nice Guy. Being the Elvis in this play, he could very well have belted out “All Shook Up”.


In the meantimes, Eggs loses it. She loses it big time. Her daddy is dead. It was her Elvis that done it. Guess you’d lose it big time if that had happened to you. I know I would. She runs around, a Patsy Cline doing “I Fall To Pieces”. Then she goes off and drowns herself. You might say that she is glug-glug-gluging out of her head.


Her brother, Laertes, is back in town. He’s ready to do some harm to the dude that done Daddy in. He’s hot under the collar. Unlike Ham, he ain’t hesitatin’. He is out for blood. Just as the castle is burying Eggs, Laertes jumps into her grave, mad with grief. His grief is grieving. First Daddy, then Eggs. It’s like the Rapture has come and left him behind.


Ham escapes R and G, and Claudius’ plot to do bad things to him, Ham arrives just in time to join Laertes in the grave. He proclaims just how much he loved Eggs. She was such an egg-ceptional girl. He loved her a lot.

Egged on by Claudius, Laertes challenges Ham to a duel. Ham accepts. Claudius poisons a glass of wine. It’s for Ham if he wins. He tips the sword of Laertes with poison too. So Ham and Laertes are in the castle hall, doing a sword to sword. The queen drinks the poisoned wine and dies. Ham and Laertes are poisoned by the sword tip. As he dies, Laertes repents of his hatred for Ham. He tells Ham that it was the king that poisoned the tip and the wine. Ham stabs Claudius, then falls mortally wounded.

At the end of the play, the last words are Horatio’s. “Good night, sweet prince,/and flights of angels sing thee to rest.”


Lots of sneaking and spying, spying and sneaking. And lots of blood. Two families wiped out. Two kings and a prince dead. A Polonius and his son, Laertes, dead.  Eggs first mad, then dead. Makes Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock look like amateurs. On top of that, you get seven soliloquys for the price of one. I know how many. I counted them. Want to know what a soliloquy is, you are just going to have to stick around.

One gets the sense that the reason the play is so long is because Shakespeare kept saying, “Just one more dead body. Just one more.” Makes me think that the title of the play should have been How many Danish can I kill off without really trying.


All this got me wondering what Ham’s father did to get his crown in the first place. Who did he have to do in? The Bible says that a man will be cursed to the fourth generation. Whatever great grandpa did, it wipes out the family. So it must have been bad. Real bad.

Denmark ain’t prosperin’. The Medievals believed that if things were rotten at the top, things were rotten at the bottom.. They got that from the Ancient Greeks. As the rulers, so the ruled. That was why Oedipus plucked out his eyeballs. I got to tell you that really hurts. Then he did an Edward 8. He abdicated. So his country could prosper. One thing is for sure. “Hamlet” is the downside of ambition.

Like “Macbeth”, “Othello” and “King Lear”, there is madness in the castle. Living in a castle can do that to you. All the dust in all those rooms and you can’t find decent help to dust. It’s enough to drive a king bonkers. And not in a good way.

Indeed something is rotten in Denmark. Got that? Just to make sure, let’s say it again. Something is rotten in Denmark.

Just how rotten we’re about to find out.

Shakespeare Hits the Books

I must say that I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a book. Groucho Marx

Bet you’re wondering how Will got so smart. Smart enough to write all those plays. Shakespeare had a hobby. He read books. When he was just knee-high to a grasshopper, he got hooked on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He was smitten with words so much so that he read everything he could get his hands on. If Abe Lincoln had been around, Will would have given him a run for the money in the reading department.

When it came to books, his daddy, Ol’ John Shakespeare, told Will to “just say no”. The “Just Say No” campaign had worked well with Good Queen Bess. That’s what her daddy, Henry 8, had told her when it came to marriage. So Ol’ John figured it would work on Will. It wasn’t that Daddy Shakes was against reading. It was reading at night under the covers by candlelight. He was afraid Will would set the house on fire. In those days, there was no Smokey the Bear to put out the fire. On top of that, Will was going blind from all that reading. John was getting to the point where he couldn’t afford the cost of glasses.

Now you would think his dad’s lectures would work with Will. That and the other kids calling him Four-Eyes all the time. But Will was a stubborn cuss. He was going to read and nobody was about to stop him. Besides he kept telling anybody who would listen that he wanted to grow up and be a playwright. Thing was that nobody believed him . They didn’t even know what a playwright was. It was going to be up to Will to grow up and invent the word the way he invented a lot of other words.

When his dad said “Just say no”, Shakes would say, “Get with it, Dad.” You see, reading was the latest craze in the sixteenth century. Books were the iPads of that age. It was all started by Henry 8. Seems he had gotten an email from some guy named Gutenberg. The email said, “Have I got a deal for you.” Before you can say 3-D printer three times backwards, King Henry had gone all out and bought shares in Gutenberg Press stock. To make sure Gutenberg didn’t go bankrupt, Henry ordered enough printing presses from the company to stock every English town with at least one press.

It was a very wise investment. Sixteenth century England became the readingest country ever. To celebrate, Henry wrote his own version of “Greensleaves”. It was a hit. With that kind of encouragement, the English wrote and wrote, then they wrote some more. They wrote plays. They wrote essaies. They even wrote poetry.

To be a Somebody in Elizabethan England, you wrote poetry. Phil Sidney wrote poems. Ed Spenser wrote poems. John Donne wrote poems. Poems were the blogs of the sixteenth century.

The English became so literate they no longer read stain glass windows for their Bible stories. They actually read the Bible. Until that time, there had only been Latin Bibles. No one was about to be caught dead with Martin Luther’s German Bible. He had left some stuff out. In fact, it was against the law to even possess one of “Marty’s ditties”. If caught, you’d be made dead. Believe me. A roast was no fun in those days. Especially if you were the roast.

Speaking of dead, Latin was a dead language. That is why nobody, but nobody read the Bible in Latin. People wondered why it had not been buried long before. In Sunday school, the teacher would ask, “Anybody know John 3:16?” His students answered, “It’s all Latin to me.” If anybody was going to translate the Bible, it would be King Henry or one of his minions. Before you know it, the English had their very own King James Bible. Now every inn room in the land got its own Gideon’s Bible.

And they got their own prayerbook too. The Book of Common Prayer. Pretty soon just about everybody could pray. Gave God something to think about. He’d never heard so many prayers asking to win the lottery.

So, as you can see, the English were readaholics. And Will Shakespeare was the readingest of them all. He read everything he could get his hands. He read Holinshead’s Chronicles and wrote his two Henriads, “Richard III” and “Macbeth”. Geoffrey of Monmouth gave him “King Lear”. He read Ariosto and gave the world “Taming of the Shrew”. He read the Italian, Cinthio, and made “Othello”. He read Ovid and wrote “Titus Andronicus”. He read Plutarch, then scribbled down “Julius Caesar”, “Coriolanus” and “Antony and Cleopatra”. Arthur Brook provided the framework for “Romeo and Juliet”. “The Decameron” and “The Canterbury Tales” were the inspiration for several of his comedies. “Gilligan’s Island” gave him the idea for “The Tempest”.

As far as “Hamlet” is concerned, don’t blame it on the rain. It was Saxo Grammiticus and Tom Kyd’s play and wallah, “Hamlet”.

Makes me wonder what kind of play Shakespeare would have written after reading “Gone With the Wind” or  “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

Scarlett: Why, Ashley Wilkes, you are the winter of my discontent.

Later Rhett: To Scarlett or not to Scarlett, that is the question. This is the long and the short of it.

Still later Rhett to Scarlett: God has given you one face, and you make yourself another, Scarlett.

Scarlett:”What’s in a name? That which we call a Yankee by any other name would smell like a Yankee.”

Rhett (aside): Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

Rhett (to Scarlett): Something is rotten in the state of Tara.

Scarlett: Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!—One; two: why, then
’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky.—Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and
afeard? What need we fear of you, Rhett Butler.

Rhett:All that glisters is not gold.

Scarlett: But it is, Rhett, it is.

Rhett: Frankly I don’t give a damn. (Rhett leaves.)

Scarlett (tears rolling down her face): I suppose tomorrow is another day. Yet to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

Mammy (Voice over); This was a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

If Shakes could do this with “Gone with the Wind”, just think what he could do with “Fifty Shades of Gray”.

“Hamlet” and the Globe-al Affair

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. As You Like It, Act II Scene VII.

It was a brand new world the Elizabethans were creating. It was only a hundred years or so since Gutenberg gave them the printing press and inexpensive books to read. It was a little less than one hundred years since the Tudor Henry defeated Richard on Bosworth Field and ended the Civil War the English knew as the Wars of the Roses. It was only a half century or so ago since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on a church door, virtually ending the dominance of Rome over Christianity. It was only in 1588 that England defeated a Spanish Armada and began its rise as an European sea power. And under Good Queen Bess the arts flourished. Especially music, dance, poetry and theater.

Sure there was plague every few years. Sure it was a hierarchical society. Sure there were still fears that the Pope’s agents would assassinate the queen. But there was such optimism in the air that anything was possible for the English. The sixteenth century was a good one for England. By its end, London was the largest city in Europe.

By the time Shakespeare’s first play appeared on stage in 1590, it had been less than a century since Columbus proved that the planet was round. Not flat as everybody believed. That was a big deal. As big as what Wilbur and Orville did at Kitty Hawk. Maybe bigger.

Ships would not fall off the earth when they went far out to sea. There were no sea monsters to gobble up ships and their sailors. First Magellan, then Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe. In 1580, Drake and his Golden Hind returned from his three years at sea with stories and riches. He brought back enough booty that the Queen’s share doubled her annual income for that year. Anything was possible.

The only thing to compare with the attitude of the English was the feeling Americans had after defeating Germany and Japan in 1945. Anything was possible. Even putting a man on the moon.

A reflection of this “anything was possible” attitude was the theater. The first playhouse in England was built in Shoreditch, London by James Burbage in 1576. It had a very original name. It was called The Theater. Until then, plays were performed by wandering troops of actors in guildhalls, in local nobles’ halls, in inns and at festivals and fairs. By the 1590s, there were a number of theaters in London like The Curtain and The Rose. And in 1599 Shakespeare and his fellow players of the Chamberlain’s Men opened The Globe.

There were an amazing group of dramatists to excite London audiences. William Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont and Thomas Middleton. Of all the rivalries, it was the one between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe that excited audiences the most. It was like watching Picasso and Braque’s competition with cubism in the early twentieth century. It was like seeing Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams battle it out on Broadway in the late forties and the fifties.

Creativity was in the English air and London was the place to be. Only Marlowe’s premature death caused the Elizabethans to pause, then continue with some of the greatest drama in the history of Western Civilization. And it wasn’t just a drama for the court and the upper classes as it was in Moliere’s France. The theater was for every class in society from the blacksmith and the baker to the Queen of England.

The Globe was appropriately named to give the English a sense of the wide world Drake and others were beginning to reveal. For the price of a ticket, a Londoner could leave the plague, the violence and the crime of London behind and step into a different world. Walking into the large round building that held up to 3000 people for a performance was an adventure. All that was required of the ticket holder was a few hours time and an imagination.

During the performance, the stage was had no set. It might have a large wooden chair that was a throne. It might have a table and chairs for an inn. It might have a log for a forest. This is why Shakespeare’s plays use dialogue and prologues. To help the audience imagine the scene with prologues such as the opening of “Romeo and Juliet”. Just listen to the Chorus in the Prologue of “Henry V”.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Or we get the weather in “Hamlet” with such dialogue:

Hamlet: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
Horatio: It is a nipping and an eager air.

In “The Tempest”, we get a shipwreck in a storm:

Master: Boatswain!
Boatswain: Here, master: what cheer?
Master: Good, speak to the mariners: fall to’t, yarely, or we run ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.

Enter Mariners

Boatswain: Heigh, my hearts! cheerly, cheerly, my hearts! yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to the master’s whistle. Blow, till thou burst thy wind, if room enough!

Just from the dialogue we get the sound and fury of the storm these men are dealing with. Then in Act 1, Scene 2, we get further evidence of how bad the storm was:

If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting souls within her.

With only dialogue, the actions of the actors, the colorful costumes and a few sound effects, the Elizabethans created in their imaginations the courts of kings, the forests of fairies, the streets of ancient Rome and Greece, castaways on an island and the battle scenes of great conflicts.

For Shakespeare’s audience, the Globe was truly a whole new wonderful world. And they loved it.