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Adapted by Robert Richmond Performed by Aquila Theatre Company
Welcome to Keynotes, a performance guide created by the Education Department of the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. These Keynotes are designed to be used before and after attending the Aquila Theatre Companys performance of Hamlet. CONTENTS Can You Follow the Plot? Exploring the Characters Themes in the Play Interpreting the Play page 2 page 3 page 4 page 5 Adapting the Play Production Elements Shakespeare and Hamlet Audience/Resources page 6 page 7 page 8 page 9

Can You Follow the Plot?

And in this harsh world, draw thy breath in pain and tell my story.
Hamlet has returned to Denmark from his studies abroad to attend both the funeral of his father and the wedding of his mother, Queen Gertrude, to his uncle, Claudius, now King of Denmark. Hamlet is disgusted by his mothers hasty remarriage to his uncle.

Act One
Late at night, the ghost of the recently deceased King of Denmark appears before the guards standing watch on the castle walls. Horatio decides to inform Prince Hamlet, the dead kings son.

Laertes, son of the Kings minister Polonius, warns his sister Ophelia not to get carried away by her love for Hamlet. Polonius comes in with some parting advice for Laertes, who is leaving for France. He tells Ophelia to break off her relationship with Hamlet.

Hamlet waits on the castle walls until the ghost of his father appears. The spirit tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother, Claudius. He urges Hamlet to avenge his death. To buy time to plan his course of action, Hamlet will pretend that he has gone mad.

Act Two
Ophelia reports to her father that Hamlet is acting strangely. Polonius tells the King and Queen that Hamlet has gone mad because Ophelia has rejected him. Polonius comes in, and Hamlet pretends to be insane. When Polonius leaves, Hamlet meets up with his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He accuses them of being sent by the King and Queen to spy on him. During the performance of Hamlets play Claudius becomes agitated and abruptly ends the show. Hamlet is now certain of his uncles guilt. He hesitates to kill Claudius when he finds the King kneeling at prayer because he does not want Claudius soul to go to heaven. When a group of traveling actors arrives at court, Hamlet decides to have them play out the story of a king who was killed by his brother and observe his uncles reaction.

Hamlet, alone, contemplates ending his life.

Act Three
Ophelia gives back her love letters to Hamlet while Polonius and the Kingin hidingobserve Hamlets reaction. His bizarre behavior greatly upsets Ophelia. Claudius decides that Hamlet is only pretending to be mad and that he is too much of a threat to his crown. He is determined to send him to England and to have him murdered there.

Hamlet meets his mother in her room and begs her to end her marriage. Hearing someone behind a curtain and thinking it to be Claudius, Hamlet stabs Polonius to death.

Act Four
Gertrude, believing her son is truly mad, tells Claudius about Polonius murder. Claudius banishes Hamlet to England, sending along Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with secret orders for Hamlet to be killed.

Ophelia descends into madness, pushed over the edge by Hamlets rejection and her fathers murder. Laertes, just returned from France at news of his fathers murder, receives another blow when he discovers his sister has gone mad.

Horatio reports to Gertrude that Hamlet discovered the assassination plan and had Rozencrantz and Guildenstern killed in his place. He is now on his way back to Denmark.

Claudius, surprised to hear that Hamlet lives, urges Laertes to revenge the murder of his father by killing Hamlet. Gertrude comes in with the news that Ophelia has drowned herself.

Act Five
In a graveyard, Hamlet and Horatio talk with a gravedigger. The funeral procession enters with Ophelias body. Laertes angrily attacks Hamlet.

Hamlet has agreed to a fencing match with Laertes. He does not know that Claudius and Laertes have secretly poisoned the tip of Laertes sword. During the fight, the swords are switched and both Hamlet and Laertes are mortally wounded.

When Hamlet begins to gain an upper hand in the duel, Claudius offers him some poisoned wine, but Gertrude drinks it instead and dies.

Laertes reveals to Hamlet that they are both poisoned and that Claudius is to blame. Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword and forces him to drink the poison. The King falls, dead. As Horatio looks on in sorrow, Hamlet dies.

Exploring the Characters

Like real people, many of the characters in Shakespeares plays have complex personalities and great psychological depthso much so that critics and scholars have applied the tools of psychoanalysis to try to understand them better. Of all Shakespeares characters, Hamlet is generally thought to be the most difficult to analyze and AMBIGUOUS understand. For example, although he has reason to seek revenge against his Uncle Claudius, he is Open to more undecided and inactive; and while he is described as a passionate lover, he seems indifferent about than one his affections toward Ophelia. There are other complicated or ambiguous characters in Hamlet, all interpretation of whom have their own unique perspectives and motivations for their actions.

Whos Who in the Play

HAMLET Prince of Denmark. Commanded by the ghost of his father to take revenge on his uncle, will he be able to bring himself to kill the new King? The current King of Denmark, Hamlets uncle and now married to Hamlets mother, Gertrude. How secure is his hold on the throne now that Hamlet knows he committed murder to get it? Queen of Denmark, mother of Hamlet. What does she know, or what might she suspect about her first husbands death? The spirit of Hamlets dead father, the former King of Denmark. Is it right for a parenteven a murdered oneto ask a child to commit murder himself? Chief advisor to King Claudius, father of Laertes and Ophelia. Is he a wise counselor or a babbling fool? OPHELIA Polonius daughter and Laertes sister. Is she mentally weak all along, or does tragedy drive her mad? Polonius son, brother of Ophelia. Like Hamlet, he seeks to avenge the murder of a father, but is it right to do it by cheating? Sentries (guards) of the castle. What might have happened if they had kept silent about seeing the ghost? Hamlets friend. Is he the only person Hamlet can trust? Courtiers to King Claudius who grew up with Hamlet. Whose side are they on? Actors in a traveling theater company. Described by Shakespeare as a clown, meaning a comic character. Servant to the King.

Character Journal
Put yourself in the shoes of a character from Hamlet. Explore the text for clues to what this character is like and what he or she is concerned about. Look at their dialogues and soliloquies (speeches to themselves or the audience), their actions, and also what the other characters say about them. As your character, write a journal entry depicting a day in your life as well as summarizing some of the events in the play from that characters unique perspective. While writing in your journal, think about: Who are you? What do you look like? How do you act? How do you feel about the other characters? Which characters do you interact with the most? Who is your strongest ally? Who is your enemy? Were you involved directly with the action in a particular scene? If not, how did you hear about the events that transpired? What was your reaction?










Make a Character Shield

Create a shield for one of the characters in Hamlet. Draw the outline of a shield (or photocopy one) and divide it into quarters. In each quarter, put an image representing one of the following: 1. The characters goals 2. The characters worst fear

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3. The characters personality 4. Three words representing the character

Use your character journal for ideas and inspiration for your shield. Each quarter may also contain a quote from the play. Share your shield with a partner. Did you choose the same character? If so, how do your shields differ? If you did not choose the same character, are your goals similar or different? Does your relationship to one another affect your fears? Shields can then be hung around the room according to character or in any way your class chooses.

Themes in the Play

The theme of madness appears throughout Hamlet. The characters in the play have differing opinions about Hamlets state of mind: Polonius thinks he has gone mad because Ophelia has rejected him, while Gertrude thinks it is because of the death of his father and her remarriage. Claudius suspects that he is not really mad at all. The play provides evidence on both sides: that Hamlet is actually mad as well as that he is only pretending.

Claudius rise to power is achieved through a series of corrupt actions, including murdering his brother and marrying his widow. This one action leads to the downfall of not only himself but all those around him. Many of the characters in Hamlet become corrupted in some way and, by the end of the play, all of the corrupt characters must be eliminated so that Denmark can once again be set right. One corrupt person, especially one in power, taints everyone he touches. What drove Claudius to go so far in his pursuit of power? Do you believe that, having gained the throne the way he did, he could ever make a good king? Can you think of any modern-day parallels to King Claudius?


What do you think? Is Hamlet mad because the pain of losing his father is too much for him? Is madness a strategy he uses to protect himself? Is madness an escape that allows him to avoid taking responsibility for his actions? Why do you think Shakespeare did not make it clear whether Hamlet is really mad or not?



Though it may seem overshadowed by some other ideas, love is a major theme in Hamlet. We see examples of different kinds of loveromantic, maternal, paternal, love for country, well as the consequences of love. Hamlets love for his father is what drives him to avenge his death. Ophelias love for Hamlet and for her father cause her to commit suicide in the wake of Hamlets departure and her fathers death. Gertrudes unconditional love for her son drives her to sacrifice her life for him by drinking the poisoned wine at the end of the play. What examples of love do you recognize in Hamlet? How does love connect to the other themes in the play? Would you call Hamlet a love story?


Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, a popular style of theater in Shakespeares day. The most obvious revenge involves Hamlet and his responsibility to avenge the murder of his father. Revenge is associated with other characters as well. Laertes seeks retribution after Hamlet kills his father, Polonius. He also blames Hamlet for Ophelias suicide. The theme of revenge drives the entire plot of Hamlet; the Ghosts plea for vengeance sets in motion everything that happens later in the play.

Do you think that the characters were right to seek revenge? Does seeking revenge take more or less courage than turning the other cheek? Do you think justice was done by the end of the play?



Interpreting the Play

In taking a play off the page and bringing it to the stage, it is the director who is responsible for creating an artistic vision for the production. He or she must first decide what the play is about and then figure out how to use all the elements of live theater to communicate this meaning to the audience. The artistic choices a director makes in staging a play affect the way the audience understands its meaning and message. Taken together, all of these artistic choices are called an interpretation. Even the simplest production of a play is an interpretation. Robert Richmond, who directed Hamlet for Aquila Theatre Company, says that he and his company based their interpretation of the play on what they thought were Shakespeares original thoughts and intentions.

It seemed to us that beneath the reverence, the years of scholarship and analysis of Hamlet, there was a commercial crowdpleaser trying to survive. As Shakespeare put quill to parchment, over 400 years ago, he was trying to write a new play. A play that when performed had to survive in the biggest of commercial theaters of its time, the Globe. If the play was not favorably received it would most likely never be performed again. We took the same approach when creating our production of the play.
In their discussions, the Aquila company thought about the practical requirements and limitations that Shakespeare might have faced. They came up with a hypothetical assignment that he might have had in mind when writing the play:

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Exploring Aquilas Hamlet

Why do you think Aquila would be interested in staging this 400-year-old play in the first place? As you watch the performance, think about the assignment the company created (at left) and see if you can detect how they used these guidelines in their production. Did Aquilas interpretation of what the play is about and who the characters are agree with your own ideas about Hamlet? Did their production make you think about the play in a different way?

Write a popular drama that has mass appeal. You must include the following: A company of 16 actors (all men) An open stage The performance must be between 2 pm-5 pm (3 hours maximum) A modern-dress production Minimal props and portable scenery (perhaps a trap door) No intermission No artificial lighting only the unpredictable English weather A leading part for Richard Burbage Stop the spectators from constantly talking or leaving. All scenes must be attention-grabbing or they will be ignored

Adapting the Play

In bringing a play to life onstage, the director and the creative team may decide to adapt the materialmake changes in the text, setting, or other aspectsto make it work within a particular set of conditions. Aquilas Robert Richmond comments on some of the choices the company made in bringing their vision of Hamlet to the stage. CHANGES IN THE TEXT - Some portions of the play have been cut, a usual practice in staging Shakespeare today. Some other sections of the text have been moved or assigned to another character.

We strongly believe that you should never cut something merely because you dont understand it. But with no cuts, Hamlet would take almost 4 hours to perform. We tried to trim the script down to a time frame that is practical for a modern audience, without losing any essential parts of the story. Our version runs about 2 hours, including intermission.
CASTING - There are eight actors in this production, though there are more parts than that in the play. In adapting the play for the available cast, some small roles have been cut, while in other cases an actor will doubletake on more than one role. (For example, the actor playing Polonius later plays Osric, while another actor portrays both the Ghost and the Gravedigger.)

Robert Richmond

Adapting Hamlet
Did you notice any of the missing text while watching Aquilas Hamlet? What parts would you cut if you were the director? Did you notice the actors who played more than one role? How did they use their voice and body to create the different characters? If you were going to create your own adaptation of Hamlet, would you choose to put in on stage or on film? How would you change the way the story is presented? Why? Are there ideas youve seen in other versions of Hamlet that youd use in your own adaptation? Watch three different film versions of the Hamlet and Gertrude scene (Act III, scene iv). With your classmates, discuss the differences among the three film adaptations and Aquila Theatres staging: What time period do the set and costumes indicate? Is there any music and, if so, what effect does it have on the performance? What different choices did you see the directors and actors making? Which version did you think was most effective? Why?

Doubling the smaller roles gives more to do for the actors who are not playing a lead part. It also challenges those performers to come up with a distinctive way of moving and speaking for each of their characters so the audience does not get confused.

Shakespeare on the Screen

Shakespeares work has been extremely popular on the big screen. (Laurence Olivier, left, won an Academy Award for his 1948 Hamlet.) Like the director of a stage play, film directors and screenwriters make critical choices about how they want to express their vision of the play. With the ability to shoot at different locations and to create special visual effects, however, filmmakers have many more options at their disposal. Some Shakespeare films remain faithful to the original plays or are simply a live stage performance captured on film. Other directors choose to set the story in a different place and/or time. Some decide to keep the basic story while rewriting the script in modern language to allow new audiences to be drawn in by Shakespeares characters and themes. The resource list (page 9) lists just a few of the many film versions of Hamlet.

Production Elements
Aquila Theatre Company uses the visual elements of live theater to create the atmosphere for the various settings in Hamlet. The scenery, costumes, and lighting work together to help the audience enter the world of the play. These aspects of the production were designed specifically to help communicate the companys ideas about the play, keeping in mind the practical concerns of a touring show.

Since Aquilas productions tour around the U.S. and play in theaters of different sizes, the sets must be compact and light enough to pack up and travel across the country by truck or plane. The backdrop is a large scrima piece of translucent fabric that, when lit from behind, reveals the actors behind it. This technique is incorporated during scenes with the Ghost as well as scenes during which people are spying on others. The set pieces for Hamlet are fairly simple: a square groundcloth, wooden chairs, and wooden folding screens. A large wooden box with a plank top used is used as a bed, Ophelias bier, the grave in the gravedigger scene, etc.

During the show, watch how the same objects are used in different ways.


Costumes and props help establish the plays time period and location, and also indicate the age and social position of the characters. In Aquilas production of Hamlet, the design team created costumes and props that, for the most part, look like the clothes and items people wear and carry today. (For example, the guards carry guns instead of swords.) A few aspects of the production more closely resemble Shakespeares era: the duel between Laertes and Hamlet is done with swords.

During the show, notice the use of both contemporary and period props and costumes. How do the costumes help define the age and social status of the different characters? Would it have been as easy for you to notice these distinctions if the actors had been dressed in 17th-century costumes?

The lighting design helps convey mood, atmosphere, and time, and helps the audience focus on a particular image. The speed and movement of the lighting are carefully coordinated with the actors and music. Color is a key element in the lighting design. Thin sheets of colored plastic, called gels, are used in front of a lighting fixture to change the color of the light. To achieve depth and dimension, gobos (sheets of metal with designs cut into them) are placed in front of lighting fixtures to create patterns on the stage floor or in the air. Where the lighting is placed is also important. Side light sculpts the actors and gives them dimension. Direct front light flattens out the actors appearance, while back light makes a performer stand out from the background. A specialdirect light on an actordraws focus onto a performer and helps them connect with the audience.

During the show, look for interesting patterns created by light shining through the folding screens.

Shakespeare and Hamlet

Shakespeares Life
It seems strange how little is known for certain about the life of William Shakespeare, the most frequently read and performed playwright in the English language. There are even those who believe that he did not write the plays that bear his name! Here are a few facts that are generally accepted about him: Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 in Stratfordupon-Avon in England. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glover and merchant and his mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a local landowner. William was educated at Stratford Grammar School until 1577 when he was forced to leave school because of his fathers financial difficulties. On November 27, 1582, he married Anne Hathaway who was eight years his senior. In the next three years they had three children: Suzanna and twins Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died in 1596, at the age of 11. Shakespeare left Stratford for London in 1587 to become an actor. There he began writing for and acting with Londons leading theater troupe, the Lord Chamberlains Company. In 1599 they opened a theater, named The Globe, where many of his greatest plays were performed. In 1610, Shakespeare moved back to Stratford to live out the rest of his life in the country. He died on his 52nd birthday on April 23, 1616. He began his literary career in 1591 with his first play, Henry VI. From that date until about 1613 he produced in total 36 plays, 2 long poems and 154 sonnets.

Drawn from Life?

Shakespeare lost his son Hamnet just a few years before writing the play Hamlet. How do you think this might have influenced his depiction of the relationships between fathers and sons in the play?

The Origins of Hamlet

First performed in 1603, Hamlet is one of Shakespeares best-known plays. Like most of his works, it is based on a story and characters that already existed. Though its exact origins are unknown, the story can be found in the folk literature of Iceland, Ireland, and Denmark. The timeline below tracks the story through the centuries leading up to Shakespeares play. 11th century - earliest known reference to the legend of Hamlet, in an Icelandic poem 12th century - earliest written version of the story, Historiae Danicae by Danish poet and historian Saxo Grammaticus. Here, the character appears under the name Amleth, but many of the key elements of Shakespeares play are there. 1570 - Franois de Belleforests translation of Saxos story published in his collection, Histoires Tragiques. It is believed that this version was the main source of Shakespeares Hamlet. 1590s - Hamlet, an anonymous play (thought to have been written by Thomas Kyd), is popular in England. No copy of this Hamlet exists today. 1603 - First performance of William Shakespeares Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Do You Know Your Part?
As a member of the audience, you are a crucial part of the performance. Before you arrive at the theater, make sure you know your role! When you enter the theater, follow an usher to your seat. Once the house lights (the lights in the part of the theater where the audience is sitting) go down, focus all your attention on the stage. Attending a live theater performance is not the same as watching television at home. At the theater, talking, eating, or moving around disturbs the performers and other members of the audience. So watch and listen carefully to the performance. And please no food or beverages! Dont bring cameras, camcorders, tape recorders, or any other recording equipment to the performance. You will not be allowed to use them. If something in the play is funny, go ahead and laugh. And of course, please applaud at the end of the performance if you liked what you saw! After the performers are finished taking their bows, stay in your seat until your group gets the signal to leave the theater.

BOOKS: The Friendly Shakespeare : A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard, by Norrie Epstein. Penguin USA, 1994. Hamlet (Cambridge School Shakespeare), by William Shakespeare, edited by Richard Andrews. Cambridge University Press, 2005 Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt. W. W. Norton, 2005 The World of Shakespeare, by Anna Claybourne & Rebecca Treays. Usborne, 2001 WEBSITES: Absolute Shakespeare The Shakespeare Resource Center The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Teacher Cyberguide: The Tragedy of Hamlet Shakespeare Examined Through Performance Introduction to Hamlet VIDEO: Hamlet (1990), starring Mel Gibson, directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Keynotes are produced by the Education Department of the State Theatre, New Brunswick, NJ. Wesley Brustad, President Lian Farrer, Vice President for Education Keynotes written and designed by Lisa Beth Vettoso Edited by Lian Farrer 2005 State Theatre Hamlet production photos 2005 Richard Termine for Aquila Theatre Company
The State Theatres education program is funded in part by Bristol-Myers Squibb, Brother International Corporation, James and Diane Burke, the E & G Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, the J. Seward Johnson Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Karma Foundation, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, the McCrane Foundation, the National Starch and Chemical Foundation, the PNC Foundation, and the Wachovia Foundation. Their support is gratefully acknowledged. Funding has been made possible in part by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/ Department of State, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts. Continental Airlines is the official airline of the State Theatre.

Hamlet (1996), starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh Hamlet (2000), starring Ethan Hawke, directed by Michael Almereyda. A modern re-telling of the story using Shakespeares text. Royal Deceit (1994), starring Christain Bale, directed by Gabriel Axel. This version of Hamlet is taken from the original Danish legend rather than the Shakespeare play. Shakespeare: A Day at the Globe. Guidance Associates Video, 1990. William Shakespeare: A Life of Drama. A&E Television Networks, 1996.