Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Things You Didn't Know

Every book has a story—check out these 10 unusual facts about Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

Hamlet | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Hamlet, Shakespeare's timeless tragedy, has both intrigued and shocked audiences for centuries. Written between 1599 and 1601, the story about a sensitive and confused young man who is forced to seek revenge for his father's death continues to encourage audiences to think about both mortality and morality.

Some of the greatest actors in the world have taken on the play's titular role both for the stage and the screen. It is the most widely performed play in the world, and there are dozens of film versions. This tale of murder, family, political intrigue, madness, love, and hate still has the power to engage critics and thrill audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

1. Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play.

While it is difficult to get a precise count because of variations among texts, with around 4,042 lines Hamlet is by far the longest of the 38 plays written by Shakespeare. By comparison, his shortest play, A Comedy of Errors, is less than half the length of Hamlet at about 1,787 lines. According to one estimate, Shakespeare plays are usually performed at the rate of 1,000 lines an hour, so Hamlet would run well over four hours.

2. Shakespeare reportedly played the Ghost of Hamlet's father.

While there's no indisputable evidence Shakespeare played the Ghost in Hamlet, he was an actor as well as director and playwright of his theater company, and he certainly played roles in several of his own plays. Shakespeare's first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, claimed that Shakespeare played "the Ghost in his own Hamlet" and called it "the top of his performance."

3. A composer donated his own skull to be used in a Hamlet performance.

In a 2009 performance of Hamlet, actor David Tennant used a real human skull during the gravedigger scene. Polish composer André Tchaikowsky donated his body and said he wanted his skull to be used in a theatrical performance after he died. So his cranium was donated to the Royal Shakespeare Company and used onstage. Talk about realistic props!

4. There's speculation that The Lion King may be an adaptation of Hamlet.

The Walt Disney Company claims in its film notes that the 1994 animated film The Lion King was an original story, but most critics believe it is based, at least in part, on Hamlet. Both stories include a father murdered by his brother and a prince stripped of his throne. Both include dual sidekicks (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Timon and Pumba) and an appearance by the ghost of the prince's father. However, there is far less bloodshed and death in The Lion King, which also has a happier ending.

5. In one of the most unusual early performances, Hamlet was staged at sea in 1607.

In 1607 Hamlet was staged on board the East India Company ship The Dragon off the coast of Sierra Leone. The captain even noted in his journal that the play kept his crew "from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep."

6. Hamlet has been translated into Klingon.

Hamlet has been performed or published in more than 75 languages, including Klingon—the fictional language spoken by the Klingons in Star Trek. The varied languages into which it's been translated include Hebrew, Welsh, Icelandic—and even Esperanto and Interlingua, both constructed international languages.

7. Hamlet has more lines than any character in any of Shakespeare's plays.

Hamlet has 1,506 speaking lines in the play. His closest rivals are Iago in Othello, with 1,088, and Henry V, with 1,031. The female character with the most lines is Rosalind in As You Like It, with 685 lines.

8. The brother of Lincoln's assassin made his theater comeback playing Hamlet.

Edwin Booth had his greatest acting success playing the role of Hamlet. After his brother, John Wilkes Booth, fatally shot President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Edwin retired from the stage. The public, however, clamored for his return, and he appeared in the role again in January 1866. The press raved about his performance.

9. Actor Laurence Olivier directed himself in a film adaptation of Hamlet and won an Oscar.

In the 1948 film version of Hamlet, Sir Laurence Olivier directed and played the lead role, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor. He was the first actor to win an Oscar by directing himself. He also provided the spooky voice of the Ghost by recording his own voice and playing it back at a slower speed.

10. Many common phrases used today originated in Hamlet.

Beyond the well-known "to be or not to be," many phrases from Hamlet have made their way into daily life. These include "neither a borrower nor a lender be," "heart of gold," "in my mind's eye," "cruel to be kind," "a piece of work," and "the lady doth protest too much."

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