Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by David Hewson and A.J. Hartley, is fairly straightforward. It doesn’t depart from the basic plot events or thematic issues as we are familiar with them in Shakespeare, nor is it particularly inventive in language or structure. This surprised me at first, as I expected a meta or avant garde treatment of this most classic of texts. (Thinking about it, I was probably unconsciously expecting a more Stoppard-esque adaptation.)
What this book does do is deepen the characterization of each of the major characters. In Hewson and Hartley’s version, we understand the myriad reasons for Old Hamlet’s murder, for Fortinbras’ invasion of Denmark, for young Hamlet’s halting confusion. We get a lot of backstory, as well — glimpses into the rigid mind of Polonius, the deep love between Claudius and Gertrude, and Hamlet’s lonely childhood.
The two places where Hewson and Hartley change the actual plot the most revolve around two relatively minor characters in Shakespeare’s play: Voltemand and Yorick, respectively. In their story, the Norwegian ambassador Voltemand takes on a much larger, and more sinister, role, masterminding several of the play’s many twists and turns, including Ophelia’s “suicide.”
Perhaps the largest change in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is that Yorick is still alive in this play and sticks close to Hamlet, helping him figure out what has already happened and what he should do about it, as well as providing some sharp-tongued comic relief for the beleaguered prince. His existence is explained near the end in what, to me, was a somewhat tired twist (think Fight Club) but his presence during the novel is wonderful, as his dialogue is rife with jokes, puns, and literary references galore.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark provides a nice focus on the father/son relationship and the tensions therein, also a major theme of Shakespeare’s play. The several father figures in the novel — old Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, and even Yorick himself — prompt us to ask if the son must take after his father? What duty does a son have toward his father, even if the father does not treat him well? The character backgrounds Hewson and Hartley create make it clear that, if Hamlet had been able to just get over his father’s death and forgive Claudius (who had been more like a father to him than Old Hamlet), his life would have been good. He would have experienced love, peace, and fulfillment, possibly marrying Ophelia and taking the crown after Claudius’ death. With this understanding, Hamlet’s compulsion to avenge a father who never cared for him is even more tragic than in the play.
The theater nerd in me loved that the players were an English theatre troupe composed of actors known to have worked with Shakespeare himself: Richard Burbage, Will Kempe, and the like. They are in Denmark to make some money while the plague is in London, an actual theatrical practice. Well, maybe not as far as Denmark, but theatre companies did travel in the winter and during plague outbreaks. The novel also made much of the language of theater, as does the original play. And Hartley is just the writer to give us this theatrical grounding. He is, after all, a professor of Shakespeare in the theater department at UNC-Charlotte.
I listened to Audible Studio’s audio version of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark which was read by Richard Armitage (of Hobbit fame). It was the best reading I’ve ever heard — great character voices, great accents, great acting!