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4 Plays: Hamlet; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello

von William Shakespeare

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The four plays included are Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.
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William Shakespeare

Four Tragedies:
King Lear

Penguin Classics, Paperback [1994].

12mo. 951 pp. Introduction and Notes to all plays by the editors, except Hamlet: Introduction by Anne Barton.

Hamlet edited by T. J. B. Spencer.
Othello edited by Kenneth Muir.
King Lear and Macbeth edited by G. K. Hunter

First published separately in the New Penguin Shakespeare, 1967-80.
First collected thus, 1994.


The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Further Reading
An Account of the Text

Hamlet [pp. 73-300]
Act I, Scenes 1-5
Act II, Scenes 1-2
Act III, Scenes 1-4
Act IV, Scenes 1-7
Act V, Scenes 1-2


Further Reading
An Account of the Text
The Songs

Othello [pp. 361-512]
Act I, Scenes 1-3
Act II, Scenes 1-3
Act III, Scenes 1-4
Act IV, Scenes 1-3
Act V, Scenes 1-2

King Lear

Further Reading
An Account of the Text
Words and Music in King Lear

King Lear [pp. 591-783]
Act I, Scenes 1-5
Act II, Scenes 1-4
Act III, Scenes 1-7
Act IV, Scenes 1-7
Act V, Scenes 1-3


Further Reading
An Account of the Text
Words for the Songs in Macbeth

Macbeth [pp. 841-951]
Act I, Scenes 1-7
Act II, Scenes 1-3
Act III, Scenes 1-6
Act IV, Scenes 1-3
Act V, Scenes 1-6


It seems that, so far as it can be assessed, at the turn of the seventeenth century Shakespeare reached a kind of artistic peak. The four tragedies collected in this massive Penguin Classics edition all seem to have been written during the first five or six years of the new century, and in the order they are arranged here. Shakespearean authorities also tell me that all four plays are definitely among Shakespeare's finest creations. So it seems like an excellent place to start a serious exploration of the Bard of Avon. But first be aware that:

Spoilers ahead!

I cannot give a better advice to Shakespeare newcomers than to beware of learning plot details of plays they haven't read yet. I am not going to make ludicrous claims that this is the best Shakespeare can offer you, but he is certainly a better dramatist than is generally recognized. By this I mean his ability to supply dramatically effective stories that keep you on the edge until the end. The sublime beauty and the profound philosophical depth of the poetry are all very well, but they are not enough to make theatre. Shakespeare knew that very well indeed. It's often been said that today he would be writing screenplays. It is true, of course, and it is neither as startling nor as perceptive as it might seem at first glance. Do you think Wagner would be writing for the concert hall today? Not a chance: he would be writing for the screen. It pays better, too!

Such time-travel jokes are pretty pointless but they do serve one fine purpose. They remind us that no great writer ever wrote without wanting to be read, or staged and acted in the dramatist's case. It is a tremendous historical irony, and a very sad comment on our age, that Shakespeare's plays, so highly regarded today, were not even considered worth printing at the time of their writing. Anyway, let's have a look at these four tragedies.



The Characters in the Play

Othello, a Moor, General in the Venetian army
Desdemona, his wife
Cassio, his Lieutenant
Iago, his Ancient
Emilia, wife of Iago

Bianca, mistress of Cassio
Roderigo, in love with Desdemona
The Duke of Venice
Brabantio, a Venetian Senator, Desdemona's Father
Gratiano, his brother
Lodovico, his kinsman
Montano, Governor of Cyprus

Senators of Venice, Gentlemen of Cyprus, Musicians, Officers, A Clown in Othello's household, A Herald, A Sailor, A Messenger, Soldiers, attendants, and servants


What I have to say about Othello I have said it about the separate edition of the play in the Penguin Popular Classics series. Several notes about the differences between the two editions will suffice here.

The editorial work of Kenneth Muir is far more extensive than that of G. B. Harrison. Both his notes and his introduction are, with few exceptions, informative, illuminating and stimulating. The differences between the two texts are minor. They mostly deal with spelling, Mr Muir's being the more modernized version, though occasionally there may be slight differences in the words themselves (chiefly in the oaths) or the regularity of the lines. In Mr Muir's edition there is one scene more than in Mr Harrison's: II.2. has been split into II.2. and II.3., but the texts are virtually identical. Comparative reading is interesting but the play is pretty much the same in both cases.

The only really serious difference between both editions is the punctuation. In this respect, the texts are vastly different indeed. This is a matter that everybody should decide for his- or herself, reading aloud favourite passages from both versions. Mr Harrison claims that his text is closer than usual to what was spoken in Shakespeare's own theatre and that may well be true. For my part, however, Mr Muir's punctuation allows for better rhythm and more expressive delivery; it's easier on the eye, too.

Actually, there are some intriguing differences in the notes as well – and here Mr Muir is not always notably superior. Apt example is one of the most controversial stage directions in the play: Cassio's kissing Emilia (on the lips) in II.2. The stage direction itself occurs only in Mr Muir's edition, while Mr Harrison mentions it in his notes. In both cases, in the very next line, Iago makes it clear that the kiss was on the lips and that he, apparently, is amused by the occasion. Mr Muir tells us only that such kissing was common courtesy at the time, but Mr Harrison suggests that this is a sign of familiarity and signifies that Cassio considers himself of a higher social rank than Iago.



The Characters in the Play

Ghost of Hamlet, lately King of Denmark
Claudius, his brother, now King of Denmark
Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, widow of the late King and now wife of his brother Claudius
Hamlet, son of the late King Hamlet and of Gertrude

Polonius, counsellor to the King
Laertes, son of Polonius
Ophelia, daughter of Polonius
Reynaldo, servant of Polonius

Horatio, friend of Prince Hamlet
Voltemand, Cornelius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Osrick, A Lord, Gentlemen: members of the Danish Court
Francisco, Barnardo, Marcellus: soldiers

Two Messengers
A Sailor
Two Clowns, a gravedigger and his companion
A Priest
Fortinbras, Prince of Norway
A Captain, a Norwegian
English Ambassadors
First Player,
Second Player,
Third Player,
Fourth Player,
Lords, attendants, players, guards, soldiers, followers of Laertes, sailors


Hamlet is a monster. On the one hand, Anne Barton tells me that it is, by a wide margin, Shakespeare's longest play. Looking at those 5 acts, 20 scenes and more than 3700 lines, I can well believe it. On the other hand, the sheer popularity of the play is intimidating. I see it repeatedly described as "Shakespeare's best", "one of the most quoted works in the English literature", "one of the most influential works ever written", etc. It is amazing to find so many familiar phrases in Hamlet's lines: "Frailty, thy name is woman" (I.2.146), "To be, or not to be" (of course, III.1.56), "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (III.1.58), "conscience does make cowards of us all" (III.1.83) and many others. The most disappointing of these discoveries was that the famous "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (I.4.90) is actually not spoken by Hamlet. It was a big let-down to "hear" the words from the mouth of Marcellus. The most surprising discovery was that one of the earliest and most obscure essays by Bertrand Russell took its title from Hamlet's words: "Seems, madam? Nay, it is" (I.2.76). Clearly, the influence of the play has been tremendous if so many phrases are familiar to somebody who has read virtually no Shakespeare so far.

Now, all this is very fascinating but I don't particularly care about it, or at least I will do my best not to care. Scholars may argue where exactly to place "To be, or not to be" and critics may hail this and the other soliloquies as the most profound stuff ever written. That's their own business. My objective here is much more modest: to formulate as clearly as possible what Hamlet means to me as a newcomer to Shakespeare who is rather anxious to explore what's considered the playwright's best.

On the whole, my experience with Hamlet has been like my previous encounters with Shakespeare. I was prepared for something unreadable and overrated: I actually got something compulsively readable and rather underrated. No, of course I don't think it is the greatest work in English, nor do I think Shakespeare is the greatest writer in that language. Neither any single work nor any single writer should be degraded by such cheap accolades. Shakespeare himself, I am sure, would not have taken his modern fame seriously. He might have been offended. But more probably he would have been amused.

The play is by no means perfect. It has some dull moments and it has some, indeed many, issues that remain quite unresolved after the final curtain. Above all, there is a tantalising, and often perplexing, ambiguity about the central character. My overall impression, however, is of a superbly crafted piece of theatre that deals with many serious issues. It will not answer any profound philosophical questions. Great literature is not supposed to do that anyway. It is you who should do it for yourself. The best that a great writer can do is to make you think harder than ever before on such questions. That Shakespeare does.

Unlike Othello or Romeo and Juliet, the action in Hamlet takes place over longer periods of time, weeks and even months, and this may be one of the reasons why it is not quite satisfactory as a structure. The plot depends a little too heavily on eavesdropping, some scenes are unduly extended with material of whose importance I fail to be convinced (e.g. Hamlet's ranting to the players and to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz in II.2. and III.2., or the exquisite but inappropriate comedy with the two gravediggers that opens V.2.), and the mass slaughter in the finale is just a trifle too lurid. Four corpses in four pages tends to turn a tragedy into a comedy. I also expected the critical play within the play (III.2.) to be dramatically more effective; as it is, it gives the impression of something that was written in haste and remained rather unfinished, or unpolished if you like.

Despite all that, Hamlet makes for a surprisingly dramatic read. The second act and the beginning of the third are almost painfully dull, but after III.2., one of the longest and most important scenes, there is no slowing down until the holocaust in the end.

I can well see why nearly every actor, including many ill-qualified ones, is only too eager to play the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is a most fascinating creature, full of contradictions. Much like, broadly speaking, Philip Carey in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage or David Morey in Archibald Cronin's The Judas Tree, Hamlet is one of those characters you can always sympathize yet are often exasperated with. The finest description of the Dane I have ever heard is Mel Gibson’s: ''Hamlet is more than a part. It's an assault on your personality. Every passing day his doubts become more your doubts.'' Indeed!

In the end, somewhat surprisingly, I find myself overwhelmed with sympathy for the Prince. Much as I sometimes want to shake him by the shoulders and cry into his face "Get a grip, man!", I often find it much easier to identify with Hamlet's uncertain mind, a bizarre mixture of integrity, cowardice, nihilism, morbidity, nobility, madness. So, let's have a look inside Hamlet's head, as revealed in his relationships with the other characters as well as in his famous soliloquies.

First of all, it must be said that Hamlet is no fool. In fact, he is well educated, having just returned from the university of Wittenberg, and highly intelligent fellow, as obvious not just from his introspective soliloquies but also from many of his lines addressed to other characters. Nor, with the obvious exception of his deliberate ''antic disposition'', is he insane. Quite to the contrary. He often shows a remarkable capacity for dispassionate self-analysis.

The soliloquy in which Hamlet, after reflecting how drama mirrors life, decides to set a ''Mousetrap'' for his uncle is very rich in self-disparaging remarks, one more apt than the other: ''O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!'' (II.2.147), ''A dull and muddy-mettled rascal'' (II.2.164). Please note that this is no pose. There is no one else on the stage for Hamlet to pretend. I wonder how many people can look inside themselves with such degree of honesty. Hamlet goes even further, mocking himself how ''most brave'' his lack of determination is:

O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A stallion!


It is striking how accurately Hamlet describes some of the other characters, too. ''Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!'' (III.4.83) suits Polonius perfectly. It's also notable that sometimes he reveals himself, unwittingly, in conversations with others. It is a superb touch of irony that Hamlet, while discussing the drunken habits of the Danes, should make an acute analysis of his own personality. It might even be that he is aware of the irony, but thinks, rightly, that Barnardo and Marcellus wouldn't grasp it and he doesn't mind if Horatio does. Not for nothing did Laurence Olivier start his classic movie version with these lines:

So oft it chances in particular men
That - for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin,
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens
The form of plausive manners - that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery or fortune's star,
His virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo-
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.


In fact, Olivier even went as far as declaring the above to be the essence of all of Shakespeare's tragic characters: Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello, Richard (Shylock if you like). This is surely an over-simplification. But it's worth considering.

Not the least important, nor the least attractive, feature of Hamlet is his sardonic sense of humour, often expressed by subtle puns and allusions. The very first words of his, prompted by the King's ''my son'' and brilliantly summing-up Hamlet's predicament, immediately establish the Prince as a sharp-tongued fellow: ''A little more than kin, and less than kind!'' Hamlet also has an enviable ability to make quips. Favourite examples include a rebuke of Polonius' complain that the prologue is too long – ''It shall to the barber's, with your beard.'' (II.2.497) – and a daring reply to his uncle who asks where (the now dead) Polonius is. Hamlet replies that he is at supper but ''Not where he eats, but where he is eaten.'' (IV.3.19), and a little later adds ''In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not / there, seek him i' th' other place yourself.'' (IV.3.32-34). My favourite example of comedy within the tragedy must be Hamlet's blindly slaying Polonius, hidden behind the arras (III.4.28-29).

Queen: What thou hast done?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not. Is it the king?

Last but not least, when Hamlet is in the mood for talking dirty, the poor Ophelia is left almost speechless. I am grateful to the editor for pointing out to me that ''country matters'' actually means ''sexual intercourse''. Now that's magnificent:

Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Hamlet: That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.

On the other hand, Hamlet's inability to make up his own mind is pathological. His complete lack of resolution, his simply outstanding incapacity to take any responsibility, often diminish my sympathy to nearly non-existent levels.

In his first soliloquy (I.2.129-158) we see Hamlet distraught by what must be a serious predicament: his father's dead body is still warm, yet his uncle, a ''satyr'' to ''Hyperion'' compared to the old king, has already married his mother. For some rather inscrutable reason the new King and the old Queen insist on Hamlet's staying in court, rather than returning to his studies in Wittenberg. It is understandable that the Prince is depressed by the whole situation, especially considering his obvious love for his late father. Shortly after that, indeed the very same evening (I.5.), Hamlet meets and speaks with the Ghost of the old King. He tells him in no uncertain terms that he had been killed, poisoned by his own brother who, moreover, had an affair with his mother.

Then follows, naturally enough, Hamlet's second soliloquy (I.5.92-109), which is a passionate ranting that he would fulfil his father's request and revenge his death. What do you think Hamlet does next? He decides ''To put an antic disposition on'' (I.5.172), in simpler words: to pretend he is crazy in order (presumably) not to be discovered that he has any suspicions. Being a theatre lover and apparently an adept dramatist himself, in his third soliloquy (II.2.547-603) Hamlet decides, with furious passion yet rather sensibly, that he must have something more substantial than a mere Ghost, and the theatre is the perfect weapon for the purpose:

I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks.
I'll tent him to the quick. If he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.


It is notable that the Prince has absolutely no idea what he would do if the king did prove guilty. When this duly happens, what do you think Hamlet does next? The answer is absolutely nothing – except his usual specialty of evasive, opaque, obscure, confused reflections. Not deeds or actions or even plans, but just that: thoughts. And there is a superb irony here, an irony I already learn to expect in Shakespeare. Just some fifty lines after the above quote, when Hamlet openly questions the veracity of the Ghost, we, the audience, have our first proof that Claudius is indeed guilty of his brother's death, as clearly expressed in his short soliloquy (III.1.50-54). But never mind that. For there follows an even more exquisite irony.

After the critical scene (III.2.) with the inset play, Hamlet has a superb opportunity to kill his uncle. While on his way to Gertrude's closet, he glimpses Claudius on his knees, praying for his sins, altogether an excellent target for some sword practice. What do you think Hamlet does? Why, he soliloquies, of course! This is his fifth monologue (III.3.73-96) as well as one of the most suspenseful scenes in the whole play. Hamlet, of course, does nothing, and his excuses are characteristically vague, not to say stupid. If I kill him now, the Dane reflects wisely, his soul would go straight to Heaven, ''Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.'' (III.3.79). Such a spineless creature! The sheer dramatic genius of Shakespeare shines brightly in the last two lines of this scene. They belong to Claudius, Hamlet having apparently left the stage, and they make it clear that his prayers had been quite unsuccessful.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

In other words, Hamlet needn't have worried. He might have cut his uncle's throat without his soul going anywhere near Heaven. It really does take a dramatic genius to finish a scene like that.

As for Hamlet himself, in his last soliloquy (IV.4.32-66) he continues to agonize over the weakness of human nature, finishing in grand style (my emphasis): “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” It is by no means unimportant that all three killings Hamlet does commit until the final scene are of victims he doesn't see because they are either behind the arras (Polonius) or far away in England (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). When he finally does kill Claudius, face to face, he knows he has been poisoned and will be dead soon.

Yet to condemn the Prince of Denmark for his lack of character is only too easy. And pointless. After all, what could Hamlet do? Kill Claudius and take the throne? Yes, certainly. But imagine what kind of king he would be! Why becoming a king only to have Fortinbras knocking spots off you? Hamlet knows only too well that he would never make half as good a king as his father did. No matter what he choose to do, he is doomed. On the one hand, he is quite unfit by temperament to be king and, on the other hand, his own inactivity and cowardice, not to mention his mother's betrayal with his Cain-like uncle, torture him more painfully than anything else. Perhaps the only thing that Hamlet could possibly have done in order to save himself was to go somewhere far away from Denmark and try to forget the whole thing. But probably it would not have worked anyway.

There is, perhaps, a deeper reason for Hamlet's essential incompatibility with this world. I have deliberately left out above his most celebrated soliloquy: ''To be, or not to be'' (III.1.56-89). You know, these thirty lines are very much like Newton's three laws. They are so obvious that it's often neglected how profound they actually are. To be, or not to be, that really is the question to end all questions. Does life have any meaning, and if it does what is it?

To be, or not to be - that is the question;
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.


So far as the Dane is concerned, the answer is a resounding ''not to be''. In this soliloquy Hamlet's nihilism, pessimism and morbidity reach their absolute peak. This is a most unhealthy state of mind, to be sure, but if that's what you are, if that's the way your mind has developed, you don't have much choice. Hamlet looks around and is horrified by the world he sees, a world that can be ended once and for all with a ''bare bodkin'':

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?


What stops Hamlet from committing suicide is what stop us all, myself included, who have the same mental defect: a deep, deeper than anything, fear of this ''consummation / devoutly to be wished'' [III.1.63-64]. Yes, it is tempting. Yet here is another nagging question for which there is no answer. What happens afterwards? Either you simply cease to be – forever: a horrifying enough notion – or something else which, being unknowable, is every bit as frightening:

To sleep – perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.


Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns- puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,


Most people, no doubt including many who have read Hamlet, never ask themselves questions like ''To be, or not to be''. Their lives are purely instinctive and, to continue echoing Somerset Maugham, theirs may be the greater wisdom. I envy those people for whom the answer is definitely ''to be'', who consider their lives worth living and death not worth bothering about. Didn't Spinoza once say that the free man thinks of nothing less than of death? True. Hamlet is not that kind of man, nor am I. And this is what, above all, makes Shakespeare's Hamlet such a shattering experience for me.

Now let's get down from those rarefied planes of metaphysical speculation.

There are other extenuating circumstances as regards to Hamlet's endless vacillating. To begin with, the only piece of "evidence" about his uncle's guilt he has, apart from his own suspicions, are the dubious words of the Ghost or his uncle's leaving the play in the middle, obviously deeply shaken. Both of these are, to say the least, circumstantial. How exactly does one stab in the back a man during his prayer on such grounds? Not until the end of the play (IV.7.) did Hamlet learn about some of the dark sides of the King's character, as he intercepted the letter that asks the British to secure his own death. But even then Hamlet can't really be sure that Claudius committed fratricide. It seems to me that, despite his deeply disturbed mind, Hamlet's refusal to take his revenge does say something about the nobility and the humanity of his character.

We, of course, know only too well that Claudius is guilty as hell. Whether he had seduced Gertrude while the old Hamlet was still alive remains elusive (we have only the Ghost's testimony for that), but his two soliloquies made it clear that he did commit fratricide. The reasons for this, as so much in the play, remain unclear. The most likely explanation, it seems to me, is that Claudius did indeed seduce Gertrude, or at least lusted for her while she was married to his brother. I can't see why he, and not Hamlet, should be elected king after his brother’s death. The editor is silent on the matter. Does it make any sense rushing into a questionable marriage with your sister-in-law soon after your brother's death if the kingdom is what you really want? The editor doesn't tell me that, either.

There is about the King the same duality of character that makes Hamlet so fascinating. The significant difference is that the case of Claudius is black-and-white, far removed from Hamlet's intensely grey mind. The King's decision to kill his nephew, including his chilling plotting with Laertes (IV.7.), are perfectly understandable. After all, the play that Hamlet has arranged, in addition to making it clear that the Prince knows of the fratricide, is as clear a threat to the King's life as anything. In ''The Murder of Gonzago'' it is the nephew who slays the ruler. The dramatic contrast with the King's rather friendly, almost affectionate, attitude in the beginning of the play is very effective. The same is true for the characters on the whole: Hamlet never dares act until he is on the verge of death; Claudius acts immediately after he is provoked, especially after the Prince slays that patent eavesdropper Polonius.

By the way, the councillor of the King is not without charm himself. You have to admire the stupendous amount of common sense he imparts to his son before he leaves for France. It may be preachy, but it is nonetheless profound for that. For my money, it's one of the most amazing passages in the play:

And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched, unfledged courage. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel. But being in,
Bear't that th’opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulleth edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.


It is difficult to imagine that there may exist a man on this planet who cannot profit in one way or another from following at least some of these ''precepts''. It's also diverting to learn (III.4.) that in his youth Polonius was an actor and even played ''Julius Caesar'', a nice ironic touch as regards to his death in the very next scene. The verbosity so typical for him is rather amusing; as the editor tells us, in a rare flash of wit, Polonius' first lines are typical: he takes 33 words to say ''yes''.

Yet, for all of his apparent wisdom, Polonius is a fool. He is totally taken in by Hamlet's feigned madness (II.2.) and he continues to believe until the end that the sole reason for this is Ophelia's rejection (on his advice) of the Prince's advances. It never passes Polonius' mind that Hamlet may be troubled by trifles like incest and adultery. It is interesting to speculate whether the councillor knows of the King's crime. There is nothing in the play – or if there is, it went above my head – to suggest that he does. This effectively makes Polonius less of a fool. Also, there is no evidence that there ever was any friendship between the Prince and the Prime minister. So it is hardly surprising that Polonius should stick to the easiest explanation of Hamlet's bizarre behaviour. To arrange his murder while doing his favourite thing – eavesdropping – was a masterful stroke of Shakespearean irony.

In passing it may be noted that the Ghost is a very fishy subject. That's perhaps not something unusual for a ghost, but it's disappointing that his nature – whether by Shakespeare's deliberate intention or by his fault – is never fully explained. That he is the old Hamlet is certain enough. But he can be neither seen nor heard by his former wife (III.4.), and to the rest of the characters who do see and recognise him (Horatio, Marcellus, Barnardo) he never speaks a word. The oath in the end of I.5. is the only place (except the Closet Scene of course) when the Ghost speaks in the presence of somebody else but Hamlet. But the words of Horatio – ''O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!'' (I.5.164.) – do not necessarily indicate that he can hear the old king; he may be referring to Hamlet's speaking apparently to the air. So it seems most probable, if decidedly strange, that the Ghost, though real enough to be visible at least to some of the characters, is not very talkative.

I am inclined to believe that his words materialize only inside Hamlet's head as a kind of vivid imagery of his suspicions. Not for nothing, perhaps, does the Prince exclaim ''O, my prophetic soul'' (I.5.40) when it becomes clear who slew his father. Fascinatingly enough, Hamlet's only basis for such remarkably correct suspicion is the fact that his mother married his uncle rather in haste (a mere month as abundantly clear from the first soliloquy) after the old king's death. It might also be relevant to note that the Ghost explicitly demands of Hamlet not to plot against his mother. I surmise the only reason for his appearance during the Closet Scene two acts later is to prevent his son, now beside himself, from disobeying his command.

Another fishy point of contention is Hamlet's frequent harping on incest. Either I am missing something here or "incest" had a different meaning in Elizabethan times; if the latter, I wish the editor had warned me. We do have Hamlet's words that ''man and wife is one flesh'' (IV.3.) but they seem to be either more devoid of brains than is usual for him or they lean to some obscure convention of the times. For incest between Claudius and Gertrude is, of course, not possible at all. Adultery, yes. But to have incest there must be a blood relationship, preferably a close one. There is no such thing here. Claudius is Gertrude's brother-in-law. This is a legal relationship, not a blood one. This accusation seems to be Hamlet's chief objection to his mother's behaviour, with adultery and hurried marriage firmly on second place. He mentions it in his very first soliloquy and never tires of repeating it throughout the whole play, often including Claudius. The Ghost, too, speaks of incest in I.5.

To say the least, this incest obsession is a trifle strange. Even though I do not share "Freudian" or "Oedipal" interpretations of Hamlet's relationship with the Queen, they may still play some part in his attitude. Opinions have ranged from Olivier's somewhat blatant pro-Oedipal kisses in his movie to Asimov's complete rejection in his Guide. I would rather view Hamlet's incestuous ramblings as part of his personal weakness, rather than as being motivated by some unconscious desire for his mother. This does not fit really well with his cerebral make-up, yet it might have something to do with his madness (the real and subtle form of it, not the ''antic disposition'').

Hamlet's relationships with the two female characters in the play are, perhaps, the most perplexing of all. The fact that the parts of both Gertrude and Ophelia are at best sketchy doesn't help the matter either. Hamlet himself hardly comes out of both confrontations with unstained conscience. His treatment of Ophelia is absolutely abominable. In III.1. he rejects her in a pretty brutal fashion, and in III.2. he constantly uses her as a scapegoat while he is really angry with his mother. Even Gertrude herself hardly deserves the vitriol she gets in III.4., the justly famous "Closet Scene". But, of course and as always, the things are not that simple. It is certainly significant that in both cases there is in the end something very much like reconciliation, no matter that, again in both cases, it's too late for it.

Don't you believe anybody who tells you that there is a love story or any kind of romance between Hamlet and Ophelia. There was something like that, but by the time the play opens it is completely over, presumably because the shock of his father's death and his mother's second marriage had disturbed Hamlet's amorous disposition too much. What is one to make of his confused "I loved thee once" and then, four lines later (!), "I loved thee not"? I really don't know. Perhaps it is not worth exploring this direction.

Ophelia, after all, is not a character. She is a pawn, blatantly used by her eternally scheming father for demonstrating Hamlet's "antic disposition". Despite her most affecting madness, I cannot bring myself to be especially sorry for her. Hamlet's feelings, however, might well have been much deeper. Nothing else could explain his outburst at the funeral (V.1.), with the bold declaration to Laertes that 40 000 brothers can't equal his love for Ophelia. Or maybe he just feels guilty? It is never made clear why the girl goes crazy in the first place. I suspect that it was Hamlet's brutal treatment, and not her father's violent death, that was instrumental in that.

Gertrude is a more sympathetic character, if very scantily drawn. It is interesting that in the Closet Scene she makes no attempt to defend herself against Hamlet's torrent of abuse. Then again, what does she have to apologize for? The whole problem – adultery, hasty marriage, incest – is mostly in Hamlet's mind, not in the events, most of which are unsubstantiated enough anyway. What seems certain, and what speaks in favour of Gertrude, is that she probably doesn't know anything about the fratricide. It is not that her surprise at Hamlet's mention of it is genuine, but earlier in the play (II.2.56-57) she makes the perfectly accurate diagnosis of her son's mental disease: ''I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father’s death and our o'erhasty marriage.'' She tells this to the King alone, and there is no reason why she should not add at least an allusion to the murder of the old Hamlet had she been aware of it. Last but not least, she finally yields to Hamlet's uncompromising requests: ''Assume a virtue, if you have it not.'' (III.4.161). (The editor tells me that ''assume'' here means ''acquire'', but the modern meaning ''to pretend to have a particular quality'' suits the occasion so much better!)

In short, Shakespeare's Hamlet does deserve its fabulous fame. It should be required reading for every thinking creature, unless one has some strong aversion to drama, which is unlikely considering how much it resembles life. I suspect it should also be a ''required seeing'' for everybody who enjoys the paper version. Since I have never seen the play on the stage, I have to rely on the cinema.

[My verbosity being intolerable, as usual, this "review" went beyond any reasonable limits. So only the concluding "Note on the Edition" is given here. The full version, including the parts about King Lear and Macbeth, can be found here.]

Note on the edition.

The plays and the editorial apparatus are exact reprints of the four separate volumes in the New Penguin Shakespeare. There is, however, one very important difference. The text has been reset and the notes by the editors appear, not in the end of the book, but on the same pages as do the passages they discuss. This is extremely helpful. To be sure, it doesn't look very pretty to have almost every page half occupied by footnotes in minuscule font, but it's a great deal better than flipping through hundreds of pages every few lines.

I cannot imagine why Penguin don't reprint these reset versions in their "New Shakespeare" series which in fact consists of the texts and notes from the old "New Penguin Shakespeare". The only new things in these editions are the introductions and the hideous covers, neither of which is any improvement over the old ones.

The introductions in this volume are surprisingly superb, and I really don't see how they can be improved. All four of them are pretty substantial pieces, some thirty to forty pages long on the average, and they discuss the plays from every point of view: historical background, sources, plots, characterisation, language, imagery, etc. Needless to say, the discussions are neither comprehensive nor exhaustive: Shakespeare wouldn't be where he is if one could tell everything about some of his finest plays in mere thirty pages. But the essays are very well written, lucidly and insightfully, and can be read both as introductions and as afterwords; indeed, all four of these pieces do reward re-reading, and it's always a pleasure to agree or disagree with the editors.

The psychological dimensions of the characterisation are especially well captured, perceptively yet without any outrageous meddling with amateur psychology. The historical backgrounds are also fascinating. They are rather revealing about Shakespeare's dramatic genius, as well as about his poetic one. He borrowed a lot from all and sundry, yet he elaborated on that material in a thoroughly individual manner. After all, it is not the material that really matters. It is the pattern.

I must say, however, that G. K. Hunter is something of an exception. He is the only one of the editors who occasionally slips into pretentious and not altogether lucid prose. He makes a number of interesting points about both Macbeth and King Lear, but at times I find it hard to follow him.

The notes are, on the whole, equally fine. They can, of course, sound rather dogmatic sometimes, but they are nonetheless invaluable for that. And one, presumptuous as this may seem, doesn't have to agree with everything. For example, Mr Muir's interpretation of "Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago" as referring to the difference in their respective social positions seems rather superficial to me; I should think Iago means the profound difference in their natures. Never mind. The notes are absolutely essential for everybody with as little experience of Shakespeare as I. They clarify lots of issues: obscure words and meanings, allusions and metaphors, cross references with other scenes or even other plays, textual variants between the First Folio and early quartos, etc.

The ''Account of the Text'' sections consist of an introductory essay and any number of collation lists. The former examines all known editions, how they differ from one another, and what problems is the modern editor faced with. The latter gives the more interesting deviations of the present text from earlier editions. As usual with Penguin (cf David Womersley's editorial work on Gibbon's Decline and Fall), the scholarship is scrupulous, meticulous and exhaustive almost to the point of pedantry. It is not stretching a point too much to suggest that every comma is accounted for. Then again, Shakespeare deserves such a treatment, and I am grateful to the Penguin editors for their magisterial work.

The book is massive and not especially handy, but the text, except for the footnotes of course, is printed in an eye-friendly manner – normal font size, not too closely printed, comfortable line spacing – that makes for an easy and pleasant read. ( )
3 abstimmen Waldstein | Aug 11, 2012 |
HAMLET: It's been probably more than five years since the last time I read any Shakespeare, and I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed it (rather than just "appreciated" it). I'm impatient, so 400-year-old verse, no matter how good the writer is, just isn't going to be my thing - but the story is just damn good. The ending was a little disappointing, though (but there's a lot of action, so it's probably a lot better when you're watching instead of reading). 3/5. 6/17/08.

OTHELLO: Not very good. The plot is simple and straightforward with no reason to be dragged out over five acts. The characters are melodramatic and without depth. I entertained myself by imagining it performed by the cast of The Honeymooners, which actually fit really well. It's almost exactly like a long episode of The Honeymooners, except Norton is evil, and Ralph kills Alice. 1.5/5. 8/2/08.

KING LEAR: Pretty enjoyable -- much better than Othello, not as good as Hamlet. The biggest fault is the parade-of-corpses ending; sort of a lazy way to make sure it has the requisite body count to qualify as a tragedy. It isn't particularly tragic; except for Cordelia (who isn't a big character) and maybe Gloucester (who I didn't find very sympathetic), everyone who dies has it coming. And there's a lot of humor; I'll be interested to see a film version to see how humorously it's actually played. 3/5. 11/24/08.

MACBETH: A short, fast read. There's not much depth to it; sometimes it seems more like an excuse for stage effects than literature. But it kept me entertained. 3/5. 2/7/09. ( )
  comfypants | Jun 18, 2008 |
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AutorennameRolleArt des AutorsWerk?Status
Shakespeare, WilliamHauptautoralle Ausgabenbestätigt
Barnet, SylvanEinführungCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Barnet, SylvanHerausgeberCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Barton, AnneEinführungCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Bevington, DavidHerausgeberCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Hunter, G. K.HerausgeberCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Kastan, David ScottHerausgeberCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Meo, AntonioÜbersetzerCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Muir, KennethHerausgeberCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Spencer, T. J. B.HerausgeberCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Van Doren, MarkEinführungCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
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This page is intended for single volumes that contain exactly these four tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. Alternative titles, editions, editors, introductions, etc. are welcome as long as the plays themselves are the same. For example, the Signet Classics and the Penguin Classics belong here.

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