Many of Shakespeare’s plays are baggy loose monsters — but Hamlet may be the baggiest and loosest of them all.
It’s hard to stage the full text in less than four hours unless you take it at a dead run; and considering there are scenes and even characters which could seemingly be cut and make the play better, why wouldn’t you?
But here’s the thing. Hamlet can look a mess on stage. But it has a near perfect harmony among its thematic elements. And once you seem them, it is difficult to consider (well, at least for me) anything but judicious line edits.
Here are my arguments against making the most common cuts:
When directors are looking to save time, Fortinbras is usually the first to go. The problem is that Fortinbras is the play’s essential frame.
It is clear that Shakespeare intended Fortinbras to play this role. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is the son of a king who shares his father’s name and who is seeking to avenge his father’s death and recover his kingdom from a usurper.
Fortinbras is also uniquely tied to Hamlet. As we learn from the gravedigger in Act V, Hamlet was born on the day his father slew Fortinbras’ father. Fortinbras achieves his revenge barely five minutes after Hamlet’s death. The correspondences between the two characters are so exact they must be deliberate.
Fortinbras offers two important contrasts to Hamlet. The first is that Hamlet is only interested in personal revenge. He acts with indifference to his responsibilities as a powerful prince and there is not much evidence that Hamlet actually cares he isn’t king.
Fortinbras also wants his revenge, in his case by attacking Denmark, but he won’t do it in defiance of his Uncle Norway. Despite his personal motivations, Fortinbras acts like a politic prince.
The second contrast is that Fortinbras is patient, resolute, calculating, bold, and opportunistic. Fortinbras manages events in his life while accepting they are often beyond his control and keeping his eyes on his goal.
By comparison, Hamlet cycles between paralysis and recklessness. He tends to either over-manage or under-manage events, and his Act V fatalism leads him to walk into a contest that both he and Horatio sense is a trap.
The result? Hamlet is complicit in the destruction of the entire Danish royal family. Fortinbras seizes the crown of Denmark without striking a blow.
Ophelia & Laertes
This sister and brother are too central to the plot of Hamlet to disappear, but they often get trimmed. And these cuts reduce Ophelia and Laertes’ role as a double for Hamlet.
Like Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes also have a murdered father, and between them they reflect Hamlet’s reactions to his murdered father – except Ophelia and Laertes follow their reactions through to conclusion.
Hamlet is believed to have gone mad either because of grief for his father’s death or despair over Ophelia’s rejection of his love. He also contemplates suicide. Ophelia actually goes mad with grief from her father’s death and actually does commit suicide.
I also believe she feels despair over Hamlet’s rejected love, sharpened by his murder of her father. There is a great deal of evidence that Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship was serious (Hamlet’s behavior in the graveyard makes little sense if it wasn’t) and more than enough circumstantial evidence to convince me it was sexual.
Both Laertes and Polonius worry about Ophelia losing her virginity to Hamlet. Hamlet taunts Polonius and Ophelia in explicitly sexual terms after Ophelia obeys her father and rejects him. Ophelia’s madness is full of talk of sex and unfaithful lovers. None of this makes much sense if Hamlet and Ophelia shared a mere chaste flirtation.
Laertes is, of course, the wronged son who actually does “with wings as swift as mediation … sweep to [his] revenge”. He acts with the kind of blinkered recklessness with which Hamlet believes he should also act.
Like Hamlet, Laertes is focused only on his personal revenge, not the political implications of conspiring with the king to murder the heir to the throne. And he dies the same death as Hamlet, from the same weapon and same poison.
One detail of Laertes story also reveals the politics that are largely invisible in the play. Even though he is not a member of the royal family, Laertes shows up in Denmark and instantly becomes the leader of a rabble ready to make him king.
Why couldn’t Hamlet have organized the same men to depose Claudius? He was, by Claudius’ report “loved of the distracted multitude”. Fortinbras would have seized the opportunity in one red hot minute. Hamlet, apparently, never saw his chance or gave it a thought.
The Player King & Queen
I get why a director would cut these speeches. The dumb show that proceeds the Player King and Queen does everything needed to advance the plot. Other scenes and speeches emphasize the point that practically every character in Hamlet is playing a role (you could go as far to say that Hamlet’s tragedy was he was forced to play roles to which he was not suited). The Player King’s speech is hard to follow. And the topic of the scene is not particularly relevant to the major themes of the play.
But I will say this. It is interesting that the most honest and authentic conversation in the whole play (excepting those between Hamlet and Horatio) occurs between two actors playing actors in a play within a play.
I also think it is interesting that Hamlet chose this text for the actors to play. The scene suggests how Hamlet might have viewed his parents’ relationship, regardless of the actual and unknown truth of the matter.
Polonius & Reynaldo
Honestly, you could whack this entire scene and not do Hamlet any harm at all. Other than hinting that Polonius might not have been a complete idiot for his entire life, and providing some additional comedy – if you want that – I don’t see the point. I’m always surprised when this scene appears in a production.
Let’s Whack “the morn, in russet mantle clad” Etc.
All of which is not to say (Reynaldo withstanding) that with a sharp pencil, and a little work, a director couldn’t easily save her audience 30 or 40 minutes of sitting. There’s not too much pure purple junk in the play, although those lines of Horatio’s at the end of Act I qualify.
I find almost every word Hamlet says entertaining, but I’m also aware other people might reasonably conclude that the man never shuts up; and if these people trim some of Hamlet’s words, I may not like it, but I don’t blame them.
Polonius also talks on and on, which is the point and also the joke, but generally the point is gotten and the joke exhausted well before Polonius finishes up. You can excise lesser lines of lesser characters and some of the duller clowning of the gravediggers. That would all be fine.
But please leave Fortinbras alone. We really need him!
Related Hamlet Content
If you are really keen on the Danish prince, you could read my capsule reviews of 10 film versions of Hamlet here. Otherwise, I’d say both of us could now give this Shakespeare play a rest.