Hamlet: from legend to play to opera
by Jerry Ferraccio, coordinator, Santa Fe Shakespeare Society
Hamlet is a story deeply embedded in our collective Western psyche, and yet, the story wends its way into our souls through a most circuitous route. Our earliest known source for Hamlet is Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish historian, who devoted parts of his 13th century Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes“) to the story of Amleth. In (mostly) Latin prose, the story recounts many parallels to our more familiar Hamlet: Amleth’s uncle kills his father and quickly marries Amleth’s mother for the crown of Jutland (basically, mainland Denmark). However, the story quickly becomes unfamiliar to modern readers, with a fiery death for all the courtiers, and two marriages for Amleth, who dies in a much later battle.
Elizabethans, however, knew Hamlet from François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques (1572), which itself was a translation of an earlier work by the Italian, Matteo Bandello. As early as 1589, Hamlet had appeared on the English stage, according to the playwright Thomas Nashe, and in Philip Henslowe’s “diary,” we have a 1594 performance record of a Hamlet. The author is uncredited, but it is from a time-period when Henslowe’s actors worked with Shakespeare’s.
We know for certain the first time the play is clearly ascribed to Shakespeare is 1602-03, with the registration/printing of the “First Quarto”- what seems to be a corrupt copy of Shakespeare’s text, half the length of any other version, and containing numerous errors. A corrected version appeared the following year, known as the “Second Quarto”- it is superior in every way to the earlier version.
Luckily, John Hemmings and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s fellow-actors, prepared a 1623 collection called Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, known today as Shakespeare’s “First Folio.” This allowed Shakespeare’s plays to survive the Puritan ban on theatre that razed all the London playhouses in 1648. Shakespeare’s plays, well-respected but not adored to the degree they are today, may not have thrived after the eleven-year Interregnum if not for this fortuitous printing.
Since it is well-known that Boito, in his collaborations with Verdi (Otello, Falstaff), followed Shakespeare’s works faithfully, the texts upon which he based his Amleto libretto are almost certainly Shakespeare’s originals, and certain story parallels indicate his work was probably based on the First Folio.
This is not to say that Boito was slavish to his source material (Shakespeare wasn’t): his libretto compresses the action of the play, removes peripheral storylines, and deletes several characters. Boito’s Queen is in on the original murder, and his Ofelia much more aggressive. Where Shakespeare tells his story linearly, Boito’s Amleto removes the first scene and has many events occur more-or-less simultaneously. By removing the first encounter with the Ghost, Boito makes Hamlet’s meeting with his father’s spirit feel more immediate, thrilling and terrifying. This kind of counter-point lends itself to the dramatic truth of opera more easily than the comprehensible storytelling of a playwright’s quill.
Lost, of course, is any of Shakespeare’s ambiguity: opera does not lend itself to ask some of the fundamental questions Hamlet poses about morals, madness and death. The need for a firm moral point-of-view dictates that Boito answer such questions as “for whose loss does Ophelia mourn, Polonius or Hamlet?” and “where or when is Hamlet’s madness real or feigned.” Nor does opera lend itself to subtlety: the deaths come in bold strokes, and it’s up to the director to flesh these out and tell the story in a way that finishes out the “emotional phrase” for us, and lets us move onto the next plot-point unencumbered by confusion.