As people in the twenty-first century generally don't believe in ghosts and don't consider revenge a duty, why is a play like Hamlet still of interest to film and theatre audiences?
As William Shakespeare began writing Hamlet in 1598 - at the end of the 16th century - the play which would go on to become one of his most famous pieces of work was geared towards an audience of “churls”, “groundlings” and the less-educated members of theatre-going society, just as equally as the more educated and affluent audience members. Theatre being a relatively affordable and popular form of entertainment for the less wealthy individuals, Shakespeare would cater as much to their tastes as he would to the ‘higher society’ who would attend his plays. A fellow playwright, Ben Johnson, noted the diversity of the audiences in his verses to Fletcher's The Faithful Shepherdess, in which he refers to them as “the wise and many headed bench that sits upon the life and death of plays” and cites “gamester, captain, knight, knight's man, lady or pucelle, that wears mask or fan, velvet or taffeta cap, rank'd in the dark with the shop's foreman, or some such brave spark that may judge for his sixpence” as the various components of an audience.
Therefore it is not uncommon to find characters and situations in Shakespeare’s plays which may appeal more to the less-educated and “naïve” in attendance. Such undemanding elements could include clowns, lewd characters and, some may argue, ghosts. It is acceptable to believe that some of Hamlet’s audience, possibly even a majority, would have believed in the existence of ghosts to a degree. Fiercely religious, the audience’s fear of God and the supernatural would certainly lead them to accept that the more seemingly-absurd elements of Hamlet to us were deemed more than plausible when the play was originally performed in the early 17th century. However, as more contemporary productions of Hamlet are performed to today’s modern audiences, the question has to be raised as to what interest the audience can find in a tale fuelled by stories of ghosts and one man’s quest for revenge: themes which today’s spectators are unlikely to relate to. To simplify Hamlet as a tale of revenge and ghosts would be doing a great injustice to the play as a whole, and it can even be argued to some degree that “ghosts” and “revenge” in their traditional sense have no bearing on the tale of Hamlet at all, making the play as effective and engrossing today as it would have been to an audience during the early 17th century, even when applying today’s mentalities to the play.
One argument that can be applied to support claims that modern audiences cannot relate to a performance of Hamlet due to its outdated notions is the theme of “revenge” throughout the play. Hamlet is often seen as a “vengeful hero” or “revenger”, and the general feeling is that the concept of “revenge” as a duty is now not only outdated but antediluvian. However, Hamlet’s structure and story allow for different interpretations of Hamlet’s actions and his intentions, one of which arguably proves far more acceptable to any modern audience who require the need to be able to empathise with the tragic hero. It can be said that events simply conspire against Hamlet and that he is simply an opportunist in the action. This idea of Hamlet as responsive rather than initiating can be supported throughout the text. It is easy to derive from Hamlet’s demeanour and words in Act I Scene II (“A little more than kin, and less than kind”) that he is resentful and, therefore, vengeful towards his uncle, the King. This is further corroborated in Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which he contrasts the King with his father (“My father’s brother: but no more like my father, Than I to Hercules”) and describes how the King’s marriage to his mother breaks his heart.
However, as close attention is paid to the circumstances surrounding the events that follow, the line becomes quite blurred...
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