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Friday, November 9, 2012

A Toast For The Premiere of Hamlet

When was the first performance of Hamlet?

I am convinced it was 10 November 1601.

There is no recorded date of the very first performance, and there is very little agreement on the date between scholars.

There is evidence to suggest that there was a Hamlet performed around 1590, when Shakespeare was just beginning his career. There is evidence that there was a Hamlet play at different times in the mid-1590's, when Shakespeare was the most successful playwright. There is reason to believe that there was a Hamlet play at the end of the decade, maybe 1599, 1600, or 1601.

Were the earlier versions written by someone else, like Thomas Kyd? Did Shakespeare adapt Kyd's story?

I think there is a very simple and elegant answer to all of this. With Occam's Razor in mind, if we make the least amount of assumptions, then Shakespeare wrote all of these different versions of Hamlet -- they were different versions of the same story.

Why would he write different versions? Because plays and stories were recycled often in those days, and Shakespeare wanted to say different things with this particular play, to reflect the changes in his own life and the changing world around him.

I think Hamlet was Shakespeare's most personal play, it was the play he loved more than any other. He had a son named Hamnet -- which is interchangeable with Hamlet -- and he wrote the 1590 play for his son. This version would have been heroic and not tragic.

His son died in 1596, at the young age of 11. So, Shakespeare wrote a different version of Hamlet, this time not heroic but more tragic. He may have written more than one version of the play during this time, as he was trying to come to grips with the loss of his son.

In 1601, Shakespeare's friends and patrons Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton led a failed rebellion against the Queen. Essex was executed and Southampton was put in prison.

For Shakespeare, this must have been a terrible loss and he must have been truly afraid for his own personal safety and future.

Later that same year, his father John dies.

This would have been a devastating loss. As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, this was a "loss upon loss."

I think these events inspired Shakespeare to write one more version of Hamlet -- the darkest, bloodiest and most tragic of them all -- to reflect one of the darkest, bloodiest and most tragic events in England's history.

I think this last version of Hamlet was also a personal statement of defiance to the Queen and her councillors. I think it was the greatest risk he ever took.

If this was perhaps the fourth version of the play, then that would explain why the play is so long -- the play we have now is a combination of every version Shakespeare wrote.

When would Shakespeare have wanted to perform this new version of his Hamlet?

I don't think it is the big mystery it has been made to be.

10 November 1601.

Why this day?

Because it was Essex's birthday.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Some scholars agree that the character of Hamlet was inspired by Essex, just as Shakespeare's Henry V has been thought to have been written with Essex in mind.

In my version of Hamlet I explore who Essex was, the relationship between Shakespeare and Essex, and how the play was written in response to the events of the Essex Rebellion.

My version, Shakespeare's Premiere of Hamlet, shows the very first performance, on 10 November 1601 and how this new version of the play was an opportunity to publicly celebrate and mourn his friend, and the hero to many people in England.

I do not think that Shakespeare was an anti-monarchist who wanted the Queen to be killed. I think he, like many people in England at the time, were afraid that the Queen was going in the wrong direction, and was ceding her power to people like Robert Cecil, the Queen's right hand man, and the most powerful man in England.

After all, the purpose of the Essex Rebellion was to force an audience with the Queen, so Essex could gain more influence at court. Essex's real enemy was Robert Cecil, who was widely feared and hated.

There is another reason why Shakespeare chose this day, 10 November.

It was Martin Luther's birthday,

Born in 1498, Luther's Ninety-Five Theses launched the Reformation.

I don't know how significant Luther was to Shakespeare, but as I have written before, I think Shakespeare wanted to change the world with the words he wrote in the same way that Luther changed the world with his words -- his statement of defiance.

There is yet another reason why 10 November is important.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton -- Essex's great ally and friend, and Shakespeare's great friend and patron -- died on 10 November 1624.

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton

I happen to think that Southampton's death on that day is not a coincidence.

I like to think that on that day in 1624, he opened a bottle of something that he saved for special occasions like this, and drank a toast to his long lost friend Essex and his dear friend Shakespeare (who had died in 1616) and that premiere of Hamlet in 1601. 

He would also have been delighted of course to know that Shakespeare's plays, which had never been officially printed during Shakepeare's life had just the year before, in 1623, been printed and sold for the very first time, in the First Folio.

As he sat and ruminated on all of this, he fell into a pleasant sleep from which he never awoke.

I hope you will join with me today, and raise a glass to make a toast to all of them -- Essex, Southampton, Queen Elizabeth, even Cecil, and most of all to Shakespeare -- for without them we would not have Hamlet.


David B. Schajer

Related articles:

Hamlet and The Massacre At Paris

A five-part series on the Essex Rebellion:

Shakespeare in January 1601

Shakespeare's Richard II on 7 February 1601

Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Essex Rebellion

Shakespeare and the Essex Trial

Shakespeare and the Essex Execution

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