Many consider it the best play ever written. Actors have performed it thousands of times over the last four centuries:
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
And yet, was Shakespeare’s most celebrated work — the crown of the Western canon — banned during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I?
The performance record
Hamlet was first published in 1603, though no one knows precisely when Shakespeare wrote it. Only four pre-1603 references to the play have survived.
The first is contained in a preface written by Thomas Nashe to Robert Greene’s book of prose published in 1589. Nashe says of another writer, “[I]f you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets – I should say handfuls of tragical speeches.” The second reference is a record of a 1594 performance staged by Philip Henslowe at Newington Butts. The third is contained in a book written by Thomas Lodge and published in 1596, which refers to a performance just outside London. The fourth reference is the registration of Hamlet in the Stationer’s Register in 1602, which secured exclusive rights to print the play. There’s also evidence that Gabriel Harvey mentioned Hamlet in notes written in a 1598 edition of Chaucer, but it’s not clear when those notes were written and the edition has not survived.
So, during the first 13 years after Hamlet is known to have been written, the play is mentioned just four times in the surviving historical record. It’s not even included in Francis Meres’ 1598 list of twelve Shakespeare plays, which led G.R. Hibbard to conclude: “[Hamlet’s] absence from that list amounts to strong presumptive evidence that it had not been staged.”
Hibbard was referring to the first printed version of Hamlet that appeared in 1603. He’s among scholars that speculate there was an “Ur-Hamlet” written by someone other than Shakespeare, which was the play being referred to prior to 1602. (The prefix “Ur-” derives from a German word meaning “original”.) Other scholars, such as Harold Bloom, dismiss the “Ur-Hamlet” theory, maintaining that Shakespeare, and no one else, wrote the Hamlet referred to in 1589, 1594, and 1596.
One explanation for there being so few references to Hamlet before 1602 is that, even though the play was popular and performed with some frequency, records of those performances simply have not survived. That could very well be true, but for those believing that only Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, it still begs the question why the Bard’s best-known play isn’t on Meres’ 1598 list. And why did it take at least 14 years for Hamlet to appear in print, when at least eleven other Shakespeare plays ─ about a third of the canon ─ were published prior to 1603?
Corambis aka Polonious aka William Cecil
Another explanation for seeing Hamlet mentioned just three times prior to 1602 is that the Crown suppressed the play. It’s not difficult to understand why.
For 150 years, scholars have concluded that the character Polonious in Hamlet represents William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was Lord Treasurer under Queen Elizabeth I.
A Machiavellian, Burghley was the most powerful man in England during the 40 years of Elizabeth’s rule. He was spymaster under Francis Walsingham. In Hamlet, Polonious is a pompous, meddling, long-winded councilor to Claudius, the man who has poisoned Hamlet’s father to marry Hamlet’s mother and become King of Denmark. Hamlet murders Polonious while the latter is spying him, a major turning point in the play.
In the first printed version of Hamlet published in 1603, the name for the king’s councilor was not Polonious, but Corambis, a name that resembles Burghley’s motto, “cor unum,” meaning “one heart” in Latin. “Corambis” translates as “two hearts,” meaning duplicity. Other Polonious-Burghley links include the words of advice Polonious gives his son in the play, which sound much like the moral precepts Burghley actually wrote for his son.
It is difficult to imagine that the most powerful nobleman in the queen’s court would stand back and allow himself to be lampooned on the public stage. It’s doubtful that Elizabeth would have tolerated Hamlet, either, given the very long and close association she had with Burghley. She spoon fed him while he was stretched out on his death bed, and went into deep mourning when he died in 1598.
It’s the year Francis Meres was publishing his list of Shakespeare’s plays. No doubt it would have been wise of him to exclude a play that mocked Burghley and, by association, the queen.
As Hamlet opens, Queen Gertrude has recently married her husband’s poisoner, Claudius. Queen Elizabeth’s long-time consort was Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, also known as a notorious poisoner. To at least some in the audience ─ courtiers in the queen’s court, for instance ─ the parallels to Burghley and the queen would have been unmistakable.
How could Shakespeare get away with this? The short answer is perhaps that he didn’t.
Muzzling the Dogs
Compared to Western democracies of our times, freedom of expression was very limited in Elizabethan England. The Crown controlled the press, licensing everything that could be printed legally, and it did so with great efficacy at least until late in the queen’s reign.
The Crown could ban performances of plays. It shut down The Isle of Dogs, a play written by Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson. That play has not survived, but its subject matter was described as “lewd” and “scandalous,” and may have even satirized Queen Elizabeth.
Elizabeth likely would have been troubled about being a model for Queen Gertrude. Prince Hamlet repeatedly accuses Gertrude (his mother) of incest by marrying his uncle, Claudius. The subject of incest had to be an especially sensitive one for Elizabeth whose mother was executed on charges of incest and adultery. Elizabeth herself, as a young teenager, was caught up in a sexual scandal involving her relations with her stepfather.
After Elizabeth’s privy council heard about The Isle of Dogs, it wasted no time ending its performance. It’s easy to see how Hamlet, a play mocking William Cecil, the queen’s closest advisor, and therefore Elizabeth and Leicester by association, would meet a similar fate once the authorities found out. This could explain the spotty performance history of Hamlet and why it doesn’t appear on Francis Meres’ list. The play may have quietly resurfaced in 1594 after being suppressed a half-decade earlier, in the late 1580’s. Ultimately, however, the Crown would fail to keep Hamlet underground.
The Queen is Dead, Long Live Hamlet
Hamlet appeared in print only after the queen died. We know this because the title page of the 1603 quarto describes the play as having been “diverse times acted by his Highness servants in the City of London,” meaning the servants of the new king, James I.
By that time, neither Burghley nor the queen were around to protest. Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil, however, was still living, and serving as the new king’s secretary. If Cecil could not prevail in keeping Hamlet banned, the name Corambis nonetheless was changed to Polonious, which is how the name appears in the 1604 version of Hamlet and all subsequent editions.
The idea that Hamlet was banned, of course, is only a theory. If it’s not a good way of explaining the dearth of records showing the play being staged during Elizabeth’s reign and why Meres left the play off his list, it’s arguably a better explanation than murky ones based on an “Ur-Hamlet” and lost performance records.