Creating Shakespeare


What a piece of work is man!
—Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Shakespeare’s longest play (over 4,000 lines), is also his most popular. From its creation in the early 17th century, Hamlet has captivated audiences and readers with its tale of desire, revenge, madness, and murder. As with many of his plays, Shakespeare may have drawn upon existing versions of the story–including a 13th-century Danish history and an earlier (now lost) Elizabethan play—in crafting his own Hamlet. The earliest printed version of the play differs greatly from the one we know. The works in this section illuminate how Shakespeare created one of the most powerful and influential works in the English language and how it has inspired countless writers, actors, and artists from 1603 to 2016.

Hamlet through the Centuries

This above all, to thine own self be true.
—Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3

The creation of Hamlet has been dated to 1600, and it was published as a quarto four times before the 1623 First Folio. Hamlet was one of the first plays revived after the Restoration in England and has rarely been out of the spotlight since then, albeit in different versions and formats.

By 1744, Hamlet’s now-famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be,” was extracted from the play and reproduced as parody, suggesting that the speech was by then widely known. In “The Bachelor’s Soliloquy,” a man muses, “To wed, or not to wed, that is the question.” Later parodies ran the gamut, from “To write, or not to write,” “To shave, or not to shave,” and even one about dentistry:“To have it out or not–that is the question.” These parodies became a genre in their own right, and were themselves mocked by Mark Twain, whose characters the Duke and the King, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), declaim, “To be, or not to be, that is the bare bodkin.”

18th-century writers worked Hamlet into their own stories. The protagonist of Henry Fielding’s novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) attends a performance of the play. In The Life and Adventures of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767), one of Laurence Sterne’s characters, Parson Yorick, is said to have descended from the famous “Yorick” of Hamlet’s graveyard scene (Act V, Scene 1). When Tristram Shandy reveals that his friend Yorick is dead, he asks the reader to gaze upon a black page, and declares, “Alas, poor Yorick!”

In the early 18th century, as Shakespeare’s works became known abroad, they often inspired operas, although they may have been based on his source material more often than the plays. Amleto, the 1792 opera by Gaetano Andreozzi, departs dramatically from Shakespeare, as when the old king’s funeral monument bursts into flames in the first scene. Although Hamlet never gained wide popularity as a subject for opera, when it was staged operatically it could be visually stunning, with dark graveyards and haunted castles creating an atmosphere both Gothic and Romantic.

Although the first American edition of the collected works of Shakespeare was not published until 1795 (in Philadelphia), an edition of Hamlet was published in Boston in 1794. By the early 19th century, illustrated editions of the plays flourished; in 1807, the English authors Mary and Charles Lamb created prose versions of 20 plays in their Tales from Shakespear, using language and illustrations aimed at children. The Lambs’ book proved popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and was used as the basis for a 1951 radio play. In 1888, E.M. Palmer used the Lambs’ version of Hamlet for a pamphlet on phonography, finally answering the question of what “to be or not to be” looks like in shorthand.

The Undiscover'd Country: Hamlet and Purgatory

While Hamlet is a deeply introspective play, it is also very much about physical spaces, including both the terrestrial world and the “undiscovered country” of the afterlife. The play includes not just philosophical meditations on death, but material ones as well (for example, the decay of Yorick’s body and the place of Ophelia’s burial). Early modern discussions about the afterlife often involved debates about its geography—if heaven, hell, and purgatory are real places, where are they located?

The opening concern of the play is who will inherit Hamlet’s father’s lands. Even in death Hamlet’s father is anxious about this: in Act I, Scene 1 his ghost appears wearing the same armor he wore when he fought in Norway and Poland. Early modern audiences would have construed the countries mentioned throughout the play—Denmark, Norway, Poland, England—as a geographical unit, as shown in the top-down view in Gerard Mercator’s hand-colored atlas in the adjacent case. The map groups another country into this cluster—Iceland. Mount Hecla figures prominently in the topographical landscape in both Mercator’s map of Iceland and Abraham Ortelius’s map. This volcano loomed large in discussions about the reality of purgatory and its geographical location. Some believed that the ice-covered volcano was the entrance to purgatory and that the noises emanating from it were actually the cries of tormented people trapped inside. Many regarded Hecla as the purgatory for soldiers, as well as those who had been murdered. Mercator’s map emphasizes Hecla’s infernal associations, with its vivid illustration of the volcano spewing plumes of smoke and the inscription “mons perpetuo ardens” or “always burning,” while Ortelius’s goes a step further with the inscription “perpetuis damnata”—“perpetually damned.”

Hamlet, Before and After Shakespeare

Contemporary references suggest that there was an earlier play on the subject of Hamlet, although the text does not survive in manuscript and was apparently never printed. Scholars now refer to this hypothetical play as “Ur-Hamlet,” and have suggested Thomas Kyd as its author. Scholars have also cited Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy as an influence on Shakespeare. First published in 1592, The Spanish Tragedy features many elements that also appear in Hamlet, such as the play-within-a-play used to trap a murderer and a ghost intent on vengeance.

In 1661, Hamlet was the first play theater manager and playwright William Davenant adapted and staged after securing rights to a number of Shakespeare’s plays for the Duke’s Theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Davenant cut nearly a quarter of the lines, speeding up the play and making Hamlet less a man of philosophy and more a man of action. He cast Thomas Betterton as Hamlet, who acted the role until he was 74 years old. John Downes, who worked for the Duke’s Theatre and later wrote an account of the late 17th-century stage, claimed of Davenant’s production: “No succeeding Tragedy for several Yeares got more Reputation, or more Money to the Company.”

The Fourth Folio (1685) promised on its title page many “corrections” and “amendments,” but it also included a number of egregious typographical errors, including the one on the page shown here:

The Tragedy of Hamlet Rpince of Denmark.

The Artist's Touch

The year 1603 saw the publication of the first printed edition of Hamlet. Now known as the “Bad Quarto,” only two copies survive. In 2015, The Virginia Arts of the Book Center created a collaborative artist’s book titled The Bad Quarto, using facsimiles of the copy from the British Library. Four teams of artists participated. They were assigned pages from the original and given the following constraints: only words from the original page could appear, although they could be re-arranged; and the only colors that could be used were red, black, white, and silver.

In 2016, Chicago bookbinder Samuel Feinstein created a bespoke binding for the copy of The Bad Quarto now at the Newberry. The binding is goatskin, with red and black onlays, and tooled in 23K gold and palladium. In the notes for his design, Feinstein explains that the text and limited color scheme of the artist’s book contributed to his design for the binding, as did the many disparities between the original 1603 quarto and the Hamlet that we now know. Feinstein explored the idea of limitations through the use of line, with the vertical lines in palladium and the horizontal lines in gold. The lines within the curved ornaments (an abstract allusion to a prince’s crown) are based on the same design, but are all different, emphasizing the fragmentation within the play itself, as well as the collaborative nature of the artist’s book.

The Cranach Press Hamlet

In 1912, Count Harry Graf Kessler commissioned Edward Gordon Craig, the English actor, director, set designer, and wood engraver to produce illustrations for an edition of Hamlet. Craig’s blue paper contract with Kessler is shown here. Hamlet was a play that Craig knew well; he had designed a minimalist set for the now legendary 1911-12 production of the play at the Moscow Art Theatre. Craig believed that theater could be reduced to form, light, and movement, and he translated these principles into his illustrations. The book took more than a dozen years to complete.

Craig sent Kessler a number of sketches. In July 1913, he wrote to Kessler from Florence, proposing a design for a page in ink. In 1927, Craig wrote from Genoa, providing a sketch in addition to suggested texts that Kessler could use in the margins of the book surrounding Shakespeare’s play text. Kessler ultimately chose the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, a 12th-century chronicler, whose work was first published in France in the 16th century. The story of Hamlet, or Amlethus, is contained in the work, and the French version may have been known to both Thomas Kyd, the possible author of the text now known as Ur-Hamlet, and Shakespeare.

Kessler selected John Dover Wilson to edit the English edition of the book. Dover Wilson was a professor at King’s College, London, and the chief editor of the New Cambridge edition of Shakespeare’s plays; his 1935 book, What Happens in Hamlet, is a classic work of Shakespeare criticism.

In March 1930, the calligrapher and type designer Edward Johnston (1872-1944) wrote to Kessler to congratulate him on the English edition of the book. He writes, “The Hamlet is a really noble book. It will I believe form a ‘milestone’—as they say in the history of printing, and you and all those associated with you in the production of this monumental work are to be congratulated.” In June of that same year, Johnston wrote again to Kessler, telling him, “I took up my precious Hamlet, partly to encourage my students…& partly to show the keeper of the library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, as I want him to get a copy if possible (I am so afraid of the edition being all snapped up by Americans, & my own country perhaps not having any copies in our national collections).”

Johnston’s instincts were right: the Cranach Press Hamlet is considered a landmark of 20th-century book design and printing.

Hamlet! One Night Only!

Theaters rarely featured a run of a single play. Instead, each night included a different combination of performances, interspersing plays, music, and dancing. This practice allowed actors and actresses to cycle through the plays in their repertoire and encouraged patrons to return many times to see their favorites in different roles. Theaters advertised performances with broadside playbills, often featuring eye-catching type, which could be pasted up in various locations.

Hamlet in the 20th Century

The Theatre Guild on the Air was created to bring Broadway theater to radio with leading actors in major productions. Sponsored by the United States Steel Corporation, it premiered September 9, 1945, and within a year the series drew some 10 to 12 million listeners each week. The program was broadcast for eight years before it became a television series.

In 1951, the Theatre Guild on the Air broadcast a performance of Hamlet, starring John Gielgud as Hamlet, with Dorothy McGuire as Ophelia. Gielgud was already renowned in the role of Hamlet, first performing it when he was 25 years old. Initially emphasizing the character’s youthful changeability and mercurial speed of thought, as he returned to the role over the years, his Hamlet became more thoughtful and romantic. The production was a combination of Shakespeare’s play and Charles and Mary Lamb’s 19th-century prose adaption of it, which proved very helpful for explicating the action for listeners. The pages from the script reproduced here bear further notes and amendments by the director, Homer Fickett.

Classics Illustrated was a comic book series that ran from 1941-1971, featuring adaptations of literary classics such as Moby Dick, The Iliad, and Hamlet that were intended to be distributed in classrooms as teaching aids. The comic book version of Hamlet functions as a hybrid between book and performance, emphasizing the play’s action and “staging” it graphically in a way that might appeal to young readers, who could relate it to other comic books of the period.

Read Magazine was also designed for classroom use. In 1964 (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth), it devoted an entire issue to Shakespeare silliness, including games, fake advice columns (with letters sent in by characters from the plays), and this feature, “To Beatle or not to Beatle,” which celebrates the most recent British stars alongside a centuries-old one.

In 2016, the Newberry worked with students from Chicago High School for the Arts to record a Hamlet mash-up. With this recording, we're adding one more link to the chain of interpretive creativity inspired by Shakespeare.

View more Hamlet material in our Image Gallery

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This page references:

  1. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
  2. "Speak the Speech" mashup with Chicago High School for the Arts
  3. Eight Wood Engravings For Hamlet
  4. Tales From Shakespear: Designed for The Use Of Young Persons
  5. Hamlet
  6. Poli Arctici Et Circumiacentium Terrarum Descriptio Novissima
  7. Amleto
  8. Contract Edward Gordon Craig illustrations for the Cranach Press Hamlet
  9. The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
  10. Eight Wood Engravings For Hamlet
  11. Mr. Young’s Farewell Visit to Liverpool...When will be performed Shakspeare's Tragedy of Hamlet
  12. Poli Arctici Et Circumiacentium Terrarum Descriptio Novissima
  13. “To Beatle or not to Beatle”
  14. Classics Illustrated no. 99: Hamlet
  15. Tales From Shakspere: Hamlet. Rendered In Phonography
  16. The Spanish Tragedy
  17. “The Bachelor’s Soliloquy”
  18. The Bad Quarto
  19. Letter in ink from Edward Gordon Craig to Harry Kessler. Florence, Italy
  20. Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies
  21. The Tragedy Of Hamlet Prince of Denmark
  22. Hamlet
  23. Binding the "Bad Quarto"
  24. Edward Gordon Craig. Pencil sketch on blue paper. Paris