By Lyn Lockwood
‘Yet have I something in me dangerous…’ (V. 1. 248) – what Hamlet has to tell us about the very human nature of war.
One reason for Shakespeare’s enduring appeal is that he can speak to so many aspects of our lives and does so by crossing time and cultural barriers. It’s probably no surprise that Shakespeare has been a character on BBC’s time-travelling sci-fi drama, Doctor Who. One of the most popular Doctor Who stars – David Tennant – is a fine Shakespearian actor, with tickets having sold out for his highly praised 2008 performance in Hamlet.
Hamlet continues to be widely produced even though it is a dauntingly long play. Maybe its particular appeal comes from the fact that it has so many themes: family, deception, love, madness, death and war. Of course, conflict of some kind is at the heart of all stories and many of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Macbeth, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, are set in what we appropriately call the ‘theatre of war’. Hamlet’s relevance to 21st-century warfare was recently brought to the national consciousness when Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, appeared via two large video screens in the House of Commons on the 9th March 2022, less than two weeks into the war with Russia. This was the first time that a foreign leader had addressed British Members of Parliament in this way and so it was a momentous occasion. It signalled that Zelensky and the British Parliament saw themselves as aligned. In this speech, Zelensky said:
‘The question for us now is to be or not to be. Oh no, this Shakespearean question. For thirteen days this question could have been asked but now I can give you a definitive answer. It’s definitely yes, to be.’
Zelensky included suitably British cultural references, both to Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, to rouse listeners into action to support his country, notably referencing ‘to be or not to be’ (Hamlet, III. 1). This soliloquy, as Zelensky clearly knew, is not just about one man deciding whether he should use suicide as a drastic solution for all his problems, but an existential speech that asks what is life for? Why do we somehow choose to go on, even when our lives seem to be an endless battle, where we always need to be ready to 'take arms against a sea of troubles’ (III. 1. 4). Zelensky takes this quote away from the individual (the character of Prince Hamlet himself) and makes it about a nation – Ukraine – engaged in warfare and threatened with its own loss of identity.
Hamlet is not the only young man at war in this play: he has his mirror image in Prince Fortinbras. As Prince Hamlet mourns, jokes, threatens, and even finds time to embark on an ill-advised romance with Ophelia, the young Fortinbras is described as 'Of unimproved mettle hot and full' (I. 1. 96), driven by his own ambition to avenge his father’s death. Just as the long history of Ukraine and Russia is intertwined, so are the nations of Norway and Denmark. The Danish soldiers are scornful of the reasoning behind Fortinbras’s invasion, commenting that Fortinbras has 'Shark’d up a list of lawless resolutes' (I. 1. 98) to justify the war. Shakespeare dramatises the natural impulse of a threatened nation to decry an imminent invasion as both illegal and unjustified: an impulse that those enduring such conflicts today would most likely recognise.
The role of a theatre company is to take ideas from the play they are performing and bring them to life through costume, sets, casting and so on. Each production of a Shakespeare play then becomes a fresh interpretation. One example of a production that explored contemporary experiences of conflict and warfare through its stagecraft was the 2010 National Theatre production, in which director Nicholas Hytner produced a modern dress Hamlet with Rory Kinnear in the lead role.  The guards wore earpieces and Ophelia’s Bible was secretly bugged. It was noticed by one reviewer that the stern-featured Patrick Malahide, the actor playing Claudius, resembled Vladimir Putin.  The production appeared to be making connections between the king's violent, merciless police state and that of contemporary regimes.
Hamlet itself has been caught up in political arguments. Although, this is now somewhat disputed.  It has often been said that Joseph Stalin, Soviet leader from 1922 to 1952, hated the character of Hamlet and banned productions of the play. It was suggested that Stalin thought the play 'decadent' in its presentation of a weak and indecisive prince, who is indulged in these failings by those around him. A cinematic production of Ivan The Terrible in 1947  also failed to impress Stalin in its depiction of Russia’s medieval leader. Stalin complained, 'The Tsar comes out in your film as indecisive, like Hamlet. Everyone suggests to him what should be done, but he can’t make a decision himself.' (Essay, What did Hamlet (not) do to offend Stalin? 2017)
So, can reading Hamlet help us to understand the nature of modern conflict, and, vice versa, can looking at how we experience conflict today help us to understand this play? Can we see President Zelensky as a Fortinbras figure, fighting to save modern Ukraine? Despite his indecision, is Hamlet a 'dangerous' insurgent or a freedom fighter trying to weed out corruption within his own country? It might be argued that Claudius is a less ambiguous figure: a usurper, ruthlessly killing his way to the seat of power, only to be undone by his nephew/stepson. What is certain is that Hamlet, like all such timeless and enduring works of art and literature, will be returned to again and again, to help us understand how war acts upon both the state and the individual and how both may be interpreted through its lens.
- Billington, M. (2010) Hamlet Theatre Review, The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/oct/08/hamlet-review-rory-kinnear (Accessed: November 17, 2022).
- Woodall, J. (2010) Hamlet, National Theatre, The Arts Desk. Available at: https://theartsdesk.com/node/2361/view (Accessed: November 17, 2022).
- Assay, M. (2017) 'What did Hamlet (not) do to offend Stalin?', Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare. Société française Shakespeare. Available at: https://journals.openedition.org/shakespeare/3840 (Accessed: November 17, 2022).
- Ivan the Terrible (1945) British Film Institute, https://www2.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2b6ad684f4.
Lyn Lockwood has taught English for over twenty years and has written widely for York Notes. Lyn is also the Deputy Chair of the Philip Larkin Society.