Staging Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Director’s Interpreting Text Through Performance

Author: Kaaber, Lars
The aim of this study is to investigate the original text and background of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by separating the play from four hundred years of accumulated layers of theatrical and critical tradition. The outstanding popularity of the tragedy has caused the text to be altered according to the particular tastes and morals of various ages; the critical distortion occurred most notably in the Romantic Period (with Goethe, Coleridge and Hazllitt) and was perpetuated by performers of the Victorian Age and beyond. Even when cuts and changes have gradually been abandoned in favour of Shakespeare’s original text, tradition has proceeded to present, by and large, the Romantic Hamlet of the nineteenth century and an infallible protagonist strangely at odds with the rest of the Shakespeare cannon, as Joseph Hunter observed in 1845 when he said of the play that it was ‘quite at variance with the ordinary modes of thinking of its author’. In 1930, Wilson Knight stated that the price of sentimentalizing Hamlet is our failure to understand him. For the benefit of scholars as well as theatre people, this investigative study of the text and tradition of Hamlet hopes to demonstrate that Shakespeare’s original play and its hero were much less of a mystery than commonly perceived today.


“[This work] offers to all of the English-speaking world a new look at the play and the protagonist, which deserves the attention of this large audience not because of its author’s background, but because of the merits of his work. To write a book on Hamlet with a fresh look at the text is an impressive achievement at a time when there is no end to the literature, academic and popular, which continues to fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores around the world.

Lars Kaaber’s book has many merits. First and foremost it is an extremely perceptive, intelligent, and witty (and occasionally irreverent) scrutiny and exposition of the playtext … His theory about the play is grounded in his own dual background in the academic world and in the world of the theatre as both playwright and director. His pervasive argument is that we need to peel off layer after layer of a tradition which has encrusted the original playtext. Thespians and critics are alike to blame for these aberrations, and above all it is the Romantics and the Victorians that are to blame for what happened to Hamlet. Hamlet is not the noble youth that Goethe and many others would have us believe. The text, Kaaber claims, if read with an open and attentive mind, forces us to discard many preconceptions and misconceptions about the prince. He is much less likable and admirable than we have been led to believe. If we accept that, we find that in the process our estimation of much else in the play, not least the characters of Claudius and Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, changes radically as well. This is not in itself a radically new insight. The romantic hero has been out of fashion for quite a while; modern directors and actors around the world are most happy to go their own ways, with varied, strange and often unfortunate results.

What is special and rewarding about Kaaber’s approach is his persistent and intelligent attention to details in the text which provide cues for psychological and dramatic interpretation, coupled with the lucid and elegant, witty and indeed entertaining style in which he presents his observations, comments and arguments. Hamlet may, as Kaaber argues in an appendix, have taken colour from Shakespeare’s friend and patron the Earl of Southampton. More significantly he shares with his creator a fascination with the theatre and everything associated with it, which is the most salient addition to the character Shakespeare took over from his sources. But Shakespeare saw more deeply into the mind and predicament of his introspective protagonist and the circumstances in which he had to maneuver. So the keynotes to a proper appreciation of the text, the keynotes in Kaaber’s approach to the text, are its almost countless instances of theatricality and irony. To get the right perspective on the play we need to be constantly aware of the comedy in the tragedy. This thought is not in itself original and new; but Kaaber has more consistently and persuasively than any other book I am familiar with pursued these ideas and woven them into an all-round reading of Hamlet which stands solidly on the two legs of scholarship and performance, and which should appeal equally to scholars and theatre people.”- (from the Foreword) Niels B. Hansen, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen

“Lars Kaaber gives us an act by act, scene by scene, indeed line by line, reading of Hamlet, which while carefully and correctly acknowledging Shakespeare scholarship, is marked by it freshness and independence, qualities doubtless resulting from his 20 years or more of experience as a director. He speaks from the heart … Lars Kaaber’s years of reading and directing Shakespeare have paid off in this vast and fascinating work … This book is that rare thing, a scholarly page-turner, one which allows us to absorb painlessly the benefits of Lars Kaaber’s labours while relishing the air of cheerful insouciance with which he almost, but not quite, conceals his lifelong passion for Hamlet. I recommend this book to teachers, students and Shakespeare lovers everywhere.” – Marion Fewell, Lecturer, The University of Copenhagen

“… not until Lars Kaaber’s book do we get what we have never had before: a thorough and perceptive reading of Shakespeare’s most famous play.… It could not have been done more thoroughly and exhaustive, nor with more insight into the secrets and pitfalls in the text … “ – Jens Kistrup, senior theatre critic at Weekendavisen

“With microscopic attention both to textual nuance and historical allusion, Lars Kaaber has vivisected Hamlet’s cadaver and, paradoxically, brought it spankingly back to life. Kaaber triumphantly reaffirms the value of ‘close reading’ and never taking a classic for granted.” – Critic, playwright and director Charles Marowitz

Table of Contents

Foreword by Professor Niels B. Hansen
What Happened to Hamlet – Text and Tradition
1. A Change of Guard
2. A Day in Elsinore
3. A Dramatic Evening
4. Royal Knavery
5. The Cease of Majesty
Appendix A, B, C