A Swedish Hamlet
This production was staged at Dramaten (full title Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern) in Stockholm from 9 February to 19 April 2019. I attended four performances of the production on 23, 24, 26 and 27 February.
The Royal Dramatic Theatre, as it is known in English, was founded in 1788 and moved into its current home on Nybroplan in central Stockholm in 1908. Built in the Art Nouveau style, its entrance, ticket hall and lavishly decorated marble foyer were designed to be ostentatiously opulent.
For this production, the proscenium arch stage contained a series of steps, black in colour, rising from the floor of the stalls to the back of the theatre across the entire width of the stage. These were interspersed with two flat areas for entrances, exits and performance, although the action was by no means limited exclusively to them.
The main landing corresponded with the normal stage level, up four steps from the floor of the stalls. The upper landing was six steps above that, but was not as deep.
Apart from the graveyard scene and the fencing bout at the end, no props were used to establish location, the emphasis being on simplicity and fluidity of scene change.
The Swedish text of the production was based on a translation by Ulf Peter Hallberg, which was published in 2016 in a hardback volume containing translations of Richard II, Richard III, Hamlet and Macbeth entitled “Det blodiga parlamentet” [The Bloody Parliament].
Extensive edits were made to the text. Some quite common cuts were made, such as removing the Reynaldo sequence from 2.1. Fortinbras was edited out of the storyline, but a shortened version of Hamlet’s closing speech in 4.4 was included. Scenes 1.1 and 4.6 were cut entirely, while other scenes were truncated but still preserved narrative cohesion.
The Swedish performance text frequently varied from the base translation. At some points, lines from a 1986 translation by Britt G. Hallqvist were used in preference to those by Ulf Peter Hallberg. At other times the text appeared to have been edited by the creative team itself, arriving at a form of words more suited to their contemporary setting and the version of the titular character presented by actor Adam Lungren.
The director and dramaturg were thus able to produce a version of the text in Swedish, based largely on a single modern translation that respected the much of the visual imagery of the English original and its metre, but one that was effectively tailor-made for their contemporary production concept and their lead actor.
Words and phrases that were deemed too ‘literary’ were occasionally expunged in favour of more contemporary, sometimes vulgar ones. Hamlet’s notable monologues were made into the core of the production, but even ‘To be’ was edited in line with the aforementioned principles. Nothing was off limits to the process of textual reshaping.
The costumes worn by the actors were modern but formal, with only Hamlet and Ophelia among the main cast dressing down, but still recognisably in the same upper-class world as the Danish court.
This review will quote the production’s Swedish text and then translate the Swedish into English so that the flavour of the translated text can be appreciated, rather than make reference to the English original, unless the two are nearly identical.
The first scene was cut entirely, so that the performance began with the house lights up and Hamlet entering slowly across the main landing from stage right, looking up at the audience.
The house lights dimmed as Gertrude and Claudius were ushered into the theatre’s royal box stage left by Osric. Laertes and Polonius were entirely absent and all the lines involving his character were cut, as was any reference to Fortinbras and the ambassadors sent to Norway. The entire scene centred around Hamlet and his new family.
Hamlet sat on the main landing with his feet on the steps just below him just a few feet above the floor of the auditorium as Claudius stood with Gertrude at his side and launched into the opening monologue of scene 1.2.
“Fast minnet av vår käre broders död/är levande…” [Though the memory of our dear brother’s death is alive] intoned the suited figure of the new king towards the theatre audience, from the actual royal box that would at other times be reserved for Sweden’s king and queen. But this was a fictional king of Denmark, addressing the theatre’s (mostly) Swedish audience as if they were the Danish people.
Osric stood just behind the royal couple and at times mouthed along with the king’s words as if cheerfully relieved that the king had learnt his script properly, perhaps also indicating that Osric was indeed the king’s speechwriter.
Tending towards thinness and with a black suit and white shirt with no tie that made him look more artistic than business-like, Hamlet sat isolated on the main stage, his hands clasped round his knees, looking out at the same audience with a blank stare.
Up in the royal box, Gertrude was standing very close to Claudius as he spoke, and when he mentioned his recent marriage to her, she drew even closer and held onto his arm and patted an affectionate hand on his chest just below his shoulder.
Despite all the references to the conflict with Norway being cut from the text, it proved too difficult to edit Claudius’ words with complete consistency to reflect this, so that his reference to Denmark being “denna krigarstat” [this warlike state] remained.
Cutting all references to Norway and Laertes, Claudius thanked those present for their advice. His assistant Osric leant out over the audience and gestured at us to applaud by clapping his own hands together silently. The obedient Danish subjects complied.
Claudius then directly addressed Hamlet down on the stage
Och nu, min Hamlet, frände, även son
And now, my Hamlet, kinsman, even son
This line was from the base translation by Ulf Peter Hallberg. Hamlet’s reply, however, was taken from the Britt G. Hallqvist text.
Still sat on the stage separate from the others, Hamlet turned his head towards Claudius up in the royal box and commented dryly but forcefully.
Din son? Nej styvson, och mer styv än son!
Your son? No stepson and more clever than son!
This play on words relies on the fact that “styv” is both the first part of the compound noun for stepson in Swedish and a word in its own right which in certain contexts can mean “clever”. Imagine a situation in which the English word was “cleverson” and the effect becomes clearer.
The translation is an astute one, because it brings out the idea contained in Hamlet’s original English “a little more than kin and less than kind”, a terse, compact and ingeniously contrived wordplay, that this educated prince is intelligent and quick-witted. This Swedish Hamlet made the implicit explicit and pronounced himself to be clever in a wordplay.
But at the same time something of the original phrasing goes missing in the translation. The English version is so terse and intricate that its precise meaning is difficult to pin down. In particular, it is not immediately apparent to whom the words refer, Claudius or Hamlet. So while the original has a poetical multiplicity of possible meanings, the Swedish translator has pinned the phrase down and given it an unequivocal meaning.
Gertrude was firmly by Claudius’ side and her closeness to her new husband also expressed itself in a cold and dismissive attitude to Hamlet’s behaviour. Instead of radiating maternal warmth in an attempt to thaw Hamlet’s standoffishness, she came across as haughty herself, bordering on contemptuous.
Hamlet’s first response to her “Ja, det är möjligt” [Yes, it is possible] was also taken from Britt G. Hallqvist. The fact that Hamlet was speaking from a separate translation may well have subliminally enhanced the overall effect of alienation that was primarily established by his obvious physical separation from the others.
Gertrude’s continued coldness appeared to spark Hamlet’s long essay on what might “seem”, which he spoke forcefully and with a degree of coldness back at her, as he still sat crouched on the steps on the main stage.
He eventually agreed to stay in Denmark and not return to Wittenberg, and once the royal box had cleared turned to the audience to bemoan his condition.
His voice was tinged with anger, but also resolution rather than desperation. His harsh words against Claudius and Gertrude were spat in the direction of the royal box, a habit also repeated at other points in the production, the location of the royal box serving as a ever-present symbol of the royal couple.
Horatio and Marcellus entered behind him on the upper landing and he spun round and greeted his friend.
Marcellus remained above, while Horatio descended the short distance so that the friends sat together on the steps. Hamlet mentioned his father, and Horatio responded with the blunt statement that he had seem him the day before. Hamlet jumped to his feet and much questioning ensued. Horatio’s description of the events of 1.1 served as a sufficient summary of the unstaged action. References to the old king’s armour were cut in line with the production’s modern aesthetic. The scene ended with Hamlet’s firm resolution to join Horatio and Marcellus on their next watch.
The text preserved the way the original English exit lines rhyme
Sitt stilla själ. Ond gärning träder fram,
om än vår jord har täckt den med sitt slam.
Sit still soul. Bad deeds appear
even if our earth has covered them with its sludge.
Laertes and Ophelia
Laertes and Ophelia entered on the upper landing. Laertes was dressed in a light-coloured suit, while his sister by contrast wore a long, black pleated dress. Her hair was long and dark and she wore extensive eye shadow, giving her an almost goth look.
Laertes admonished Ophelia for her dalliance with Hamlet, but the text was edited so that Laertes did not advise her to refrain from opening her “kyskhetsskrinet” [chastity casket] possibly because in a contemporary production the assumption that a woman of her age would be a virgin until married was an unrealistic one.
Similarly, Ophelia did not suggest, by invoking libertines or ungracious pastors, that Laertes might be hypocritical, but only said that “vissa” [certain] people might not act in accordance with their own strictures.
Polonius was loud, busy but absent-minded. His blessing to Laertes was an enthusiastic hug, but then he launched into his going away talk. He gestured with his fists to show how Laertes should commit himself to a fight should one break out.
It soon became apparent that both Laertes and Ophelia had heard this speech before because their father’s phrase “Lyssna på alla” [Listen to everyone] was finished by Laertes who got in first with “prata med ett fåtal” [talk with a few].
Advising his son to dress as elegantly as he could afford, Polonius reached into his wallet and produced a wad of notes as if about to give him the money to spend on clothes. Laertes put out his hand tentatively, but instead the absent-minded father continued with his homilies, including that relating to not borrowing money. This time Ophelia was able to complete his phrase, pronouncing that those who borrow “glömmer bort att spara” [forget to save].
By the end of his talk, Polonius was staring at the wad of cash in his hand and, almost as if heeding his own advice about not lending or borrowing, stuffed the money back into his wallet again, leaving Laertes confused and frustrated.
Once Laertes had gone, Polonius berated Ophelia for her liaison with Hamlet. The ending of the scene was edited in an interesting way that relied on the specific wording of the translation to create a different sequence of events.
In the original Hamlet we have
Polonius Look to’t, I charge you. Come your ways.
Ophelia I shall obey, my lord.
This became in Ulf Peter Hallberg’s Swedish translation
Polonius Och håll dig nu till det. Kom hit, vi går! [And keep to that now. Come here, let’s go!]
Ophelia Ja, jag ska lyda, far. [Yes, I shall obey, father.]
The English three-word phrase “Come your ways” becomes in Swedish two separate imperative instructions: “Come here, let’s go”.
The Swedish text then edited out one of those imperatives and rearranged the sequence to allow Ophelia, only half-heartedly complying with her father’s demands, to stomp resentfully up the steps, each downward strike of her feet making a loud impact on the wooden set in indication of her protest. She was followed by Polonius who called after her, imploring her to come back.
Ophelia Ja, far. [Yes, father.]
Polonius Kom hit, Ophelia! [Come here, Ophelia!]
While it is not impossible to stage the English text with Ophelia angry and protesting at her father’s wishes, it is certainly not possible to the use the English text’s “Come your ways” in precisely the same way to which the Swedish translation lends itself.
Up on the battlements
The stage was empty for a short while after Polonius and Ophelia had exited to allow wafts of stage smoke to appear from the very back of the set in a thin haze.
Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus appeared from stage left on the main landing and conversed briefly about what time of night it was. The ghost appeared after their brief exchange. Clad in a dark suit and shrouded in mist and smoke at the very top of the steps stage right, he frightened Horatio and Marcellus who went off each to one side and hid from the ghost’s sight, while Hamlet crouched against the upward slope of the steps still on the main landing.
Hamlet called on “Änglar och nådens bud” [angels and ministers of grace] to protect them and wondered whether this apparition was good or evil, but this did not lead into a conversation and struggle with the others. The action was truncated, effectively merging 1.4 into 1.5.
The ghost pointed an instructive, but not critical finger at Hamlet and in a booming voice implored him “Lyssna!” [Listen!] to which Hamlet replied that it was his duty to listen. This led straight into the ghost’s slightly abbreviated description of how he came to be murdered by his brother and his request to Hamlet to avenge him. Cut from this sequence was the initial explanation by the ghost as to where he had come from. The production just presented him as a supernatural presence without the text’s references to purgatory.
The base translation was altered at one particular point to give the ghost a form of words that could be spoken with specific emphasis on certain sounds created a very powerful effect.
The English “O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!” was rendered in Swedish using the Britt G. Hallqvist translation which reads
Så hemskt, så hemskt! Så övermåttan hemskt! [So horrible, so horrible! So exceedingly horrible!]
The ghost spoke slowly and deliberately, in both this and his subsequent appearance. As he uttered the above phrase about the horrors of his murder, his speech slowed down even further so that the individual sounds of the key word “hemskt” were almost separated out “hem-s-k-t” with the sibilance of the “s” and plosiveness of the “k” and “t” given excessive emphasis. This spitting out of the individual consonants made it sound as if the ghost were chewing over the word to bring out the full force of its meaning, or even allowing the force of the consonants to speak for themselves as individual sounds, unrelated to the word they formed. The three-fold repetition of “hemskt”, each time broken down and accentuated, and spoken by the booming, deeply amplified voice of the ghost, created a chilling effect.
It is possible that the choice of this particular translation was motivated by the powerful phonetic effect of the pronunciation of “hemskt”. Certainly, the English word “horrible” is not capable of producing the same effects in performance, meaning that this Swedish translation had, in this respect at least, a considerable advantage over the original.
The base translation was also amended to change the ghost’s final words to Hamlet from “Du, kom ihåg mig!” [remember me] to “Glöm mig inte!” [Don’t forget me!]. The amended version had the advantage of being shorter and snappier as a parting remark.
The ghost disappeared into the mist at the top of the steps. Hamlet ran up the long flight to the spot where his father’s figure had stood, but discovered to his disappointment that it had gone completely.
He returned to the main landing where Horatio and Marcellus tried to get some sense from him as he rambled on about his new mission.
The mostly Swedish audience laughed at one particular line in this sequence that no UK audience I have ever been a part of has ever found in the slightest bit funny. Hamlet said that it was possible to smile and be a villain “åtminstone i Danmark” [at least in Denmark]. This dig at Sweden’s dear but rival neighbour was a source of intense amusement to this Stockholm audience.
Hamlet paced up and down like a caged animal, his mind dizzied with new thoughts. He made his companions swear not to divulge what they had seen, but not on their “hedersord” [word of honour] and certainly not on a sword, both of which were too archaic for this production’s aesthetic. Instead, he got them to swear “på ert liv” [on your lives] which they symbolised by placing their hands on their hearts.
The ghost’s booming voice bellowed out from the under the stage and they followed its shifting location. The bizarreness of it all prompted Horatio to remark that “allt känns så främmande” [everything feels so strange]. This evinced an equally concise reply from Hamlet “Säg välkommen till detta främmande” [Give welcome to this stranger]. The Swedish translation made the phrase slightly neater than the English because a single word “främmande” functioned as both adjective and noun, where the English requires “strange” and “stranger”.
The scene concluded with Hamlet’s doleful estimation of the present moment. Its first words are considered in Sweden to be one of the play’s classic lines and a favourite with newspaper headline writers: “Ur led är tiden” [the time is out of joint] is a snappy four-word phrase whose concision conveys exactly the same idea as the English original but with greater economy and metrical neatness.
Ophelia in trouble
The entire Reynaldo sequence was cut, as it commonly is, so that we got to see almost immediately the initial results of Hamlet’s feigned madness.
Polonius positioned himself centrally on the main landing. He heard Ophelia entering offstage and asked her what the matter was as she ran in towards him. She hugged him complaining that she had been frightened by Hamlet.
The base translation’s reference to Ophelia sewing in her chamber was changed to something more credible in the 21st century. She said that she had been reading in her chamber, which sounded less antiquated. Similarly, the description of Hamlet’s clothes was modernised.
Ophelia acted out Hamlet’s strange behaviour, coming forward and facing the audience, grasping her own wrist, placing her own hand on her brow and nodding her own head up and down. She did this while staring at the audience in imitation of Hamlet’s own intense gaze. In order to make this staging work, the final part, in which Hamlet walked away from Ophelia looking back over his shoulder at her and not where he was going, was omitted.
The effect in performance was two-fold: it provided a handy demonstration of Hamlet’s actions, and in performing them Ophelia effectively identified herself with Hamlet making his tormented actions her own. But if this was only a performance of madness and not the genuine thing, then Ophelia was doubly duped by identifying with him so intensely and could be rightly described as “the more deceived”.
Polonius, now convinced that he had to bring this to the king’s notice, paid close attention to his daughter’s account, but also made time to engage with the audience. He lamented to Ophelia that he had not taken Hamlet’s love seriously and turned to the audience to announce that this was “felaktigt av mig” before turning back to Ophelia. Having caught our attention once, he found the habit hard to give up. He subsequently came forward and delivered his remarks about the comparative faults of the old and young to the audience as a kind of lecture.
He became engrossed in this engagement until he suddenly realised that he was becoming absent-mindedly distracted from the task at hand in the world of the play. He paused, checking himself, and then announced firmly “Till kungen!” [to the king] as if instructing himself to get back on track with his plan.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
The king and queen entered on the upper landing from stage left, with Gertrude grasping and tickling Claudius in a particularly frivolous way, desisting only when she saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear from the opposite side. They positioned themselves so that the king and queen stood at the centre while the two friends of Hamlet stood apart from them on opposite sides.
They both appeared very nervous, and Rosencrantz’s remark that the king might give them an order rather than a request, was quickly apologised for by Guildenstern.
The base translation’s “bud” [commandment] was changed to the more contemporary “order” [order].
Claudius got their names mixed up and was corrected by Gertrude. Their fear of the king translated into clumsiness, colliding with Polonius on the way out and making nervous excuses.
The sequence with Voltemand and Cornelius was cut so that the action could move forward directly to Polonius setting forth his explanation of Hamlet’s madness.
His long overwrought preface was cut short by Gertrude’s insistence on “Mer sak och mindre konst” [More matter and less art]. Polonius continued unabated with his meanderings. He turned away from the royal couple and addressed the audience with “löjlig mening, va?” [comical meaning, eh?] which was the base translation’s rendering of “a foolish figure”.
The Swedish words “defekt” and “effekt” created the same comical rhyme as their English equivalents.
In a particularly striking staging, Polonius began to read from the letter, but then Hamlet himself appeared at the very top of the steps far away from the others below. His attention was caught by the familiar sounds of his own words in the letter being read aloud, and he paused and crouched in surprise and disappointment. He realised that this was an indication that Ophelia had betrayed him. His knowledge of her cooperation with her father and ultimately with Claudius must have fed in to his subsequent treatment of her at their next explosive encounter.
Polonius did more than just tell the king and queen how he had advised Ophelia to distance herself from Hamlet: he acted it out towards the audience with predictable comic excess.
The conclusion was that Hamlet had become depressed as a result of Ophelia heeding this advice, and Polonius suggested that they orchestrate a meeting between him and Ophelia which they could observe.
They soon had an opportunity to study Hamlet at close quarters. He entered from stage right in the same lofty position as before, but his time reading a book. His laughter at it contents attracted the attention of the others below him.
Gertrude expressed her concern for the “arme stackaren” [poor wretch] and started to walk up the stairs to intercept her son, but Polonius shooed her away, reserving the investigation to himself.
Hamlet insisted that he did indeed know who Polonius was, but did not label him a “fiskhandlare”, the standard translation of “fishmonger”, but rather as a “kötthandlare”: this rather uncommon word means “meat trader” – a term very close in meaning to the archaic English “fleshmonger”, itself supposed to be the intended connotation behind Hamlet’s “fishmonger”.
Shortly afterwards the base translation was amended to ensure that an obscene meaning present in the original was overtly stated that the base translation tended to obscure.
The original English reads
Let her not walk i’th’ sun: conception is a blessing but as your daughter may conceive, friend – look to’t.
There is a double entendre in conception/conceive between its references to pregnancy and thought.
The base translation by Ulf Peter Hallberg rendered this line as follows
Då ska hon inte gå i solen. Fruktsamhet är en välsignelse, men om er dotter skulle bli välsignad – se upp, min vän.
His version states that “fruktsamhet” [fertility] is a blessing or “välsignelse” but then wonders what would happen if Polonius’s daughter were to be “välsignad” [blessed] rather than a second mention of an idea directly associated with “conception”. The effect created in English by the two meanings of “conception/conceive” is thereby lost because Hallberg’s translation “fruktsamhet” cannot be made to convey the same double meaning.
This defect in the base translation was improved on in the performance version of this line in a way that made its sexual meaning more explicit than in the English original.
Då ska hon inte gå i solen. Fruktsamhet är en välsignelse, men jag fruktar att er dotter skulle bli befruktad.
This version creates a wordplay by starting with the word for fertility “fruktsamhet”, but then closely following it with the similar-looking but semantically unrelated verb “frukta” [to fear] before returning to a second mention of fertility with the participle “befruktad” [fertilised].
The effect in Swedish could be rendered by the approximate English backtranslation “Fertility is a blessing, but I fertile-fear that your daughter might be fe[a]rtilised”.
At the word “befruktad” Hamlet extended his hand downwards and made an obscene fingering gesture with two fingers to make his point explicit.
Polonius turned his attention to Hamlet’s book, which the prince was happy to explain consisted of “Ord, ord, ord” [words, words, words]. Once again, the base text was amended to create a funnier gag than that provided by the translator.
Polonius Vad är det, min prins? [What is it/what’s the matter, my prince?]
Hamlet Med vem? [With whom?]
was changed to
Polonius Vad handlar det om? [What does it deal with?]
Hamlet Jag handlar inte. [I’m not dealing/trading]
His mockery of Polonius intensified as he recounted the slanders against old men contained in his book, ending with him flapping his arms at his sides and stepping backwards more like a crane than the crab he referenced.
Polonius attracted our attention by speaking to us directly as he thought out loud on the subject of Hamlet’s apparent madness.
Each of Hamlet’s repetitions of “utom mitt liv” [except my life] was accompanied by deep thundering sound effects. This unusual sonic underlining of his words made a great impact.
The slight archaism of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s greetings to Hamlet were turned to useful effect. Instead of revising the text to make it more modern, their salutations “Min käre prins!” [my dear prince!] and “Allra dyraste prins!” [Most dear prince!] were delivered comically with parodic obsequiousness and with over-elaborate gestures as if satirising the worst of fawning courtiers. The implied joke was that as close friends of the prince they were on genuinely intimate terms with Hamlet and thus clearly above such superficiality.
The repeatedly personified “Fortune” of the original text was rendered in the translation so as to make the personification explicit in a way that is lost in English performance where the capital F cannot be heard: they discussed their relationship with “Fru Fortuna” [Lady Luck].
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sat either side of Hamlet on the top of the main landing steps, as he explained that Denmark was for him a prison.
As they got deeper into their student-style intellectualising, Hamlet apparently grew tired of the chatter. He willingly offered up the idea that he could be bounded in a nutshell but still count himself a king of infinite space, but one of his subsequent lines was deliberately truncated, its shortened form making him express impatience with the pointless meandering of their speculations.
In the English original ideas about beggars, bodies, shadows and kings end abruptly with Hamlet asking “Shall we to th’ Court?” The Swedish renders this as “Ska vi gå vidare till hovet?” [Shall we go on to the court?]
The performance text reduced this line to “Ska vi gå vidare?” [Shall we go on?] and had Hamlet blurt it out impatiently at the end of his turn at philosophising. The twists and turns of the ideas and his rapid delivery of them capped by this petulant question created a new version in which Hamlet snapped at his friends and cut short their pointless verbal game.
The angry impatience in Hamlet’s tone made possible by this edit cleverly foreshadowed the fact that Hamlet harboured deep suspicions about the true motive of his friends’ unexpected arrival, so that his underlying contempt for them was able to leak out just before he put them on the spot and questioned them about the real reason for their visit.
He rose and stood behind them as he asked them outright if they had been “hitskickade” [sent here] rather than “sent for”. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sat a few metres apart but leant forward together as they tried to confer an answer, a process which Hamlet interrupted.
Once they had admitted the truth, the prince decided to explain why this had come about in his own terms. He sat between them once again and told them about his loss of mirth. As he described the “fantastiska baldakin” [fantastic canopy] above them, he was able to gesture upwards at the gloriously decorated Dramaten ceiling.
The closing part of this speech “nor woman neither” was cut so that the dialogue progressed straight from Hamlet’s depression to the announcement of the imminent arrival of the players. The usual cuts were made to the sequence about the boy company, so that Hamlet welcomed his friends to Denmark and then recruited them to his mockery of Polonius.
Drawing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to one side and pretending to joke with them about something that had happened on Monday morning, he responded to Polonius’s list of theatrical styles in which the city players excelled with a series of jerky body movements. He appered to be physically impacted by each of the items in the list, eventually lying almost flat against the upward slope of the steps.
Polonius reacted to this spectacle by slowing the delivery of his list, which then gave Hamlet more space to fool around, ending with him reaching out to Polonius and crying out his cryptic remarks about Jeptha.
Three actors arrived on the upper landing and the principal player, a woman, came down to be greeted by Hamlet and was asked to give a speech. Hamlet did not have a go at acting himself, so the player got straight down to reciting her monologue about “Odjuret Pyrrhus” [the beast Pyrrhus].
Polonius’s interruption provoked an angry response from Hamlet. The base translation’s “roliga historier” [funny stories] was changed to the more colourful “farsartade historier” [farcical stories] which got closer to the English “tale of bawdry” that Polonius was deemed to prefer.
Proceeding to the part about Hecuba, the player spoke of “en snabbklädd drottning” [a quickly-dressed queen], a translation that pinned down the uncertain meaning of the English “mobled queen”. This was based on the description of Hecuba’s hastily contrived outdoor outfit.
Hamlet watched in silent wonder and at the end asked the player if her troupe could stage The Murder of Gonzago with some small additions.
Having sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away he was finally alone. He sat on the steps at the edge of the main landing – his standard position for speaking intimately with the audience, just a few feet away from those on the front row – and began his critical self-analysis.
The base translation was radically altered to produce an opening line for this sequence whose tone and vocabulary were far in excess of anything that could be reasonably taken from the original English, but which were judged by the production’s creatives to be in keeping with their vision of the play and their concept of the kind of Hamlet they wanted to stage.
Ulf Peter Hallberg’s reasonably faithful translation reads
Hamlet Å vilken skurk och usel slav jag är! [O, what a villain and wretched slave I am!]
The performance text changed this to
Hamlet Å vilket svin och usel skit jag är! [O, what a bastard and lousy shit I am!]
What it lacks in poetry it makes up for in sheer emotional impact.
The speech was severely cut so that it leapt straight from “mina skäl för sådan smärta” [my reasons for such pains] to “ryggradslös mes är jag” [spineless wimp am I] excising the key question he asks to the audience “Am I a coward?”
The director Sophia Jupither had mentioned in an interview that she had an idealised image of her version of Hamlet which saw him sitting on the edge of the stage chatting with the audience. So it was disappointing that the one part of the play that often provokes audience responses (particularly at Shakespeare’s Globe) was entirely removed.
The phrase “ryggradslös mes” was a rewrite of the base translation’s “duvhjärtad mes” [dove-hearted wimp], which attempted to reproduce something approximating to the avian reference in the original’s “pigeon-livered”.
Hamlet’s explosive anger at Claudius in which he vowed he would have fed the local crows with that dreadful man’s “slamsor” [meat scraps] was directed in the direction of the royal box, where Claudius had made his first appearance, as if it were a symbolic representation of him.
The prince calmed down sufficiently to formulate his plan to set a “bete” [bait] to catch the king’s “samvete” [conscience].
Att vara eller inte vara
Claudius and Gertrude heard about the play from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while Ophelia paced nervously behind them clutching a letter and a chain necklace in her hands.
Claudius then instructed Ophelia to wait for Hamlet to pass through, while he and Polonius hid offstage to observe.
Ophelia remained on the upper landing above the main landing upon which Hamlet made a sudden and hasty entrance from stage right.
Hamlet run onto the stage holding his dagger in his hands and spoke the opening lines of ‘that’ monologue in nervous panic.
“Att vara eller inte vara, det är frågan:”
Once on stage and addressing the audience face on, his pace slowed so that his consideration of the implications of that key question was more measured.
Meanwhile, Ophelia was above and behind him higher up on the steps. She saw and overheard his words and became visibly concerned, slowly descending the steps to draw closer as if about to offer support.
It was only when he realised that sleeping might involve dreaming that he realised “Det är haken” [That is the snag]. From that point on, his delivery slowed even more and Hamlet developed an intense interest in what this meant for the audience.
He outlined his list of life’s troubles suggesting someone might easily end them “med sex tum stål” [with six inches of steel]. As he said this, he held his dagger between his hands at about waist level close to his body and directed its point upwards so that it threatened, albeit at some distance, the underside of his chin. The precise nature of this potential threat was subtle and suggestive rather than immediate and actualisable.
But there was absolutely no subtlety involved in what happened next. He gestured with his dagger in a wide sweep at the audience to ask us “Vem gick och släpade” [Who would go and toil] under a weary life unless they were afraid of crossing over to the undiscovered country. His manner was one of near confrontation with the audience.
This key speech was edited to make changes to the base translation many of which returned the Swedish version to something closer to the formulations of the English original.
The image below illustrates the extensive edits made to the base translation of the speech in preparing the finished performance text.
The base text itself changed one of the play’s most well-known lines in Sweden making it radically different to that established in the Carl August Hagberg translation of 1847.
Så går beslutsamhetens friska hy
I eftertankans kranka blekhet öfver,
Så blir beslutsamhetens friska hy
helt grå och sjuklig av all eftertanke,
In Sweden, “eftertankens kranka blekhet” [reflection’s sick paleness] the rough equivalent of “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” is one of the most famous phrases from the play. It has achieved this status because of it conveys a complex, poetic idea with concision. This is remarkable because the original English phrase of which it is a translation has never had the same renown.
Ophelia who had been observing all this while now caught Hamlet’s eye. She approached him and offered the “presenterna” [presents] rather than the base text’s “minnesgåvor” [souvenirs]. Souvenirs might be an idea comparable with the original English “remembrances”, but this production assumed that modern lovers would not use that word in this context.
Hamlet insisted that he had not given Ophelia anything, at which point she threw the letter and necklace at his feet inviting him to pick them up.
His reaction was not to pick up the gifts but engage Ophelia in a series of questions. The base translation version “Är du kysk?” [Are you chaste?] was changed to “Är du ärlig?” [Are you honest?]. This was an important piece of modernisation by the production team because chastity is not really a contemporary preoccupation. The translator had chosen to bring out the sexual honesty meaning behind the original English by a specific reference to chasteness. The performance translation superficially resembled the original English but did not convey the sexual connotations that readers of play text footnotes have come to associate with “honest” in that context.
Hamlet continued to debate the point that Ophelia’s honour and beauty might possibly be in conflict.
He told Ophelia that he had once loved her and she concluded that she had been all the more deceived.
At this he approached her and kissed her long and hard, but suddenly drew away telling her “Gå i kloster!” [Go to a convent!].
Hamlet withdrew some distance from her to spit out self-loathing invective about his personal failings. She looked concerned, slowly approached him and finally hugged him close. Hamlet accepted this in silence for a brief while before pushing her away, telling her “Vi är avskum allihop” [We are scum every one of us] repeating his order that she should “gå i kloster”.
The base translation had used the word “fähundar” for the original English “arrant knaves” and that was technically accurate. But the modernisation of the language required in this production meant that the creatives had Hamlet speak very plainly, describing himself and his fellow men as “scum”.
Hamlet asked Ophelia where her father was. When she replied that he was at home, Hamlet ranged around aimlessly saying he should he locked in. There was no suggestion that he knew that Polonius was spying on him, although his previous sight of Polonius reading aloud from the letter he had sent to Ophelia might have suggested that idea to him.
He bid Ophelia farewell and exited stage right.
Ophelia began to lament, solitary on the stage. No sooner had she said “Hjälp honom, goda himmel” [Help him, good heavens] than Hamlet rushed back in cursing her future marriage, hoping that she would marry a fool, then bade her another farewell and exited a second time.
Ophelia wished that heavenly powers would restore Hamlet, but he again entered enraged, this time grabbing her violently by the face and dragging her to centre stage to lambast her about the evils of makeup.
After Hamlet finally stormed off, Ophelia was able to sit on the steps stage left and lament the prince’s condition at length.
Her father and Claudius emerged from hiding. The king announced that the prince would be sent to England, while Polonius suggested that Hamlet be sent to see his mother for a good talking to after that evening’s play. If that failed, he should either be sent to England or “stoppas i säkert, gott förvar” [detained in secure, good custody], a phrase whose specific contextual meaning he indicated by miming someone trapped inside a straitjacket.
The whole of Hamlet’s advice to the players was cut. The action continued with his encounter with and praise of Horatio as the evening’s performance was prepared.
The king and queen were once again ushered by Osric into the royal box stage left, while the box immediately opposite them was occupied by Polonius and Ophelia. Meanwhile a curtain had been drawn across the stage in front of which stood Hamlet and Horatio.
As soon as he saw Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet pulled his jacket up so that its collar sat over his head like a hood and he began to lurch from side to side. His uncle asked him how he was, to which Hamlet replied that he was eating like a chameleon, the absurdity of which was emphasised by his mad act.
Polonius’s physical separation from Hamlet made the production’s cutting of their brief exchange very plausible.
Gertrude looked down at Hamlet from the royal box and invited him to join her, but instead he looked to where Ophelia was sat in the box opposite, climbed up a conveniently placed ladder and sat astride the edge of the box to banter with her.
Hamlet lay flat along the top of the balcony front with one leg over the side and edged towards Ophelia. He asked her if he might lie “mellan era låren” [between your thighs] which was a change to the base translation’s “i ert sköte” [in your lap]. The base translation kept close to the wording of the English original, while the chosen Swedish performance text decided to be more direct in its sexual implications by bringing forward the direct mention of “between maids’ legs”, which in the English original Hamlet adds as a jokey afterthought.
Hamlet edged ever closer along the top of the balustrade towards Ophelia as he said that it was “en skön tanke” [a fair thought] to lie that intimately close to her. His voice deepened and he panted in comical mimicry of sexual passion, while he appeared to reach down with his right arm towards the region of Ophelia’s anatomy that was the object of his fascination.
Ophelia was definitely unamused by these antics, but nevertheless Hamlet eventually sat in a chair next to her and concentrated his gaze on Claudius directly opposite him in the royal box.
After Hamlet’s barbed comments about the death of his father, the play began without any preceding dumb show, heralded by its all too brief prologue.
The curtain pulled back to reveal the player king and queen on the upper landing. Hamlet continued to stare at Claudius as the story unfolded and engaged the king and queen in barbed exchanges.
The Mouse Trap reached its climax with Lucianus the murderer making his entry. Right at that moment Hamlet piped up to explain who this character was. In a wonderful directorial touch, the actor playing Lucianus stopped in his tracks. He was visibly irritated at the interruption and walked in circles until he was allowed to continue after Hamlet had finished being aggressively sarcastic to the king.
Claudius recognised the action of the play for what it was and rose from his chair in the royal box. He seemed to retch, bending forward with his hand near his mouth, before being escorted away by Osric.
Hamlet was ecstatic and jumped up and down for joy. He descended the convenient ladder on to the stage where he confirmed his findings with Horatio.
The entire sequence with the recorder was cut, so that Hamlet was almost immediately informed that his mother wished to speak with him. He played a cloud-spotting game with Polonius and then announced to the audience that he would visit his mother but be genial in his behaviour, at which point the interval came.
The second half began briskly with Claudius handing the warrant for Hamlet’s removal to Guildenstern on the upper landing. After that was dealt with he descended to the main landing stage left to lament that “Min synd är frän” [My sin is rank].
He held out the hand that he imagined to be covered in his brother’s blood.
The base translation rendered “And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself/Buys out the law” by the Swedish phrase “och svarta pengar används ofta till att muta lagen” [and dirty money is often used to corrupt the law]. The use of a very contemporary form of language to describe dirty money corrupting due process chimed with the modern upper-class business wear of those at court, Claudius in particular. The king looked like someone from Sweden’s business elite, which gathers in the area of Stockholm around Stureplan, itself a stone’s throw from Dramaten.
Claudius reached down and hit the back of his knee to overcome its stiffness so that he could kneel in prayer.
Hamlet entered on the upper landing stage right. Seeing his opportunity, he took a flick knife from his pocket and snapped it open. Approaching Claudius from behind, Hamlet indeed looked ready to strike at his hated enemy. So convincing was his intent that anyone unfamiliar with the play would have readily assumed that its crisis point was imminent.
But in an instant he recoiled from his quarry with the same energy as he had stalked it. Hamlet looked scared, so scared that when he finally concluded that he would leave Claudius in peace, this looked like a rationalisation of his obvious initial fear rather than just second thoughts arrived at after a sensible pause.
During the performance on the evening of 27 February a remarkable thing happened when Hamlet was considering his options at this point.
Hamlet asked “Är det då hämnd?” [Is it revenge?] to kill Claudius while he was praying, which prompted someone up in the galleries to shout a loud “Nej!” back at him.
Adam Lundgren looked very surprised at this intervention. A quite reasonable reaction, as this particular scene in the play is not one that often draws heckles, not even in a space like Shakespeare’s Globe that positively encourages it.
Fortunately, Shakespeare had the actor’s back on this occasion. The next scripted line for the character was also “Nej” which Lundgren was able to fire back at the heckler and use as a means to regain control over the situation, enabling him to continue with his justification of letting Claudius live.
It has often been remarked that Shakespeare provided actors with comebacks to heckling – the “Who calls me villain?” etc. that occurs right after “Am I a coward?” in the same play is a famous example. This performance possibly helped identify another.
Hamlet left Claudius to rise from to his feet and leave.
Polonius wrapped himself into the folds of a theatre curtain stage right to overhear the conversation between Hamlet and his mother.
The word order of the base translation, which followed the inverted structure of the English original, was altered so that it reflected everyday language rather than the poetic register employed by Shakespeare.
Gertrude Hamlet, din far har du ju förolämpat.
Hamlet Min mor, min far har du ju förolämpat.
Gertrude Hamlet, du har ju förolämpat din far.
Hamlet Min mor, du har ju förolämpat min far.
Hamlet spoke to her angrily. She began to walk away as if going to fetch the unspecified others who would set Hamlet straight, at which point he dragged her back centre stage and made her sit on the steps. Gertrude shrieked and reached out with her hands to where Polonius was hiding, which Hamlet noticed, upon which the man himself cried out.
Hamlet rushed over to the curtain and stabbed through it repeatedly with his blade. Polonius fell out from the curtain to the ground, with a ripped fragment of the material still over his face so that the identity of the victim was not immediately apparent. His unrealistic announcement of the fate that had befallen him was cut.
Hamlet asked whether this was the king and proceeded to unwrap the curtain to reveal Polonius. At the performance on 24 February the fold of cloth did not end up in its correct position covering Polonius’s face. Taking account of this error, Adam Lundgren did not ask whether the dead body belonged to the king.
Hamlet dealt with Gertrude’s horror at his deed by changing the subject, accusing his mother of complicity in his father’s death. He sat Gertrude back down on the steps and positioned himself on the step directly above her. He took a photo from his pocket showing the pair of brothers and tore it in half, holding each piece in his outstretched hands in Gertrude’s line of vision.
She was invited to consider the difference between these two dissimilar siblings. She broke down and admitted her bad conscience, but Hamlet continued to goad her until the ghost appeared in stalls side aisle at the foot of the steps stage right.
The ghost slowly mounted the steps towards the pair. Hamlet, who was on the main landing stage left, gazed at him in amazement.
The text was edited to remove the ghost’s reminder to Hamlet to take action, making him instead primarily concerned with Gertrude whom Hamlet had been castigating in direct breach of his father’s previous instruction to leave her in peace.
Thus the ghost began “Men se din mor…” [But look at your mother…] and concentrated on telling Hamlet to look at his mother’s confusion and talk to her (nicely).
The ghost began to walk slowly up the steps while Hamlet tried to explain to Gertrude what he could see and why he was talking to an invisible figure. Near the very top of the steps smoke began to vent from the ghost’s suit into which cloud he seemed to disappear in a very striking visual effect.
Hamlet insisted to Gertrude that he was sane. She held him close and took his head down onto her lap as she lamented “Åh, Hamlet, du har kluvit hjärtat på mig” [Oh Hamlet, you have split my heart]. At this, he raised his head from her lap and asked her to throw away the worser part as if that were the logical and inescapable conclusion to her situation. In effect, he substituted his reason for her emotion, which he continued to do talking her round to a cooler attitude towards Claudius. These speeches were edited down and removed the obscure image of the monkey on the roof and so on.
He eventually dragged dead Polonius away, quipping that he was now “så tyst och hemlig och diskret” [so quiet and secret and discreet] whereas alive he had been a “korkad pratkvarn som ni vet” [stupid gasbag, as you know].
Where is your son?
Claudius entered accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and asked where Hamlet was. Gertrude was in distress and so worried about being overheard that she ordered the two hangers-on to leave.
On hearing what had happened, Claudius came forward, put one foot down on to the step below him to draw closer to the audience, and claimed in almost melodramatic style: “Ohyggligt dåd! Det kunde varit vi” [Dreadful deed! It could have been us].
The king gave orders to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find and detain Hamlet.
The unwritten soliloquy
A remarkable thing happened in the next scene (4.2) the full implications of which require a detailed examination.
In the original version of this scene Hamlet enters and announces that he has safely disposed of Polonius’s body and then engages in acerbic exchanges with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who have succeeded in tracking him down.
This production cut Hamlet’s opening remarks about the body and his response to hearing the others calling his name and instead had Hamlet act out something completely unlike casual indifference.
Hamlet entered slowly from stage right, walking backwards as he stared at his blood-soaked hands. Instead of continuing in the arrogant, jocular vein that characterised him at the end of 3.4, he now appeared to have realised the full horror of his actions. He had after all just committed murder and it was highly unlikely that this had not had a profound impact.
The visual similarity between this Hamlet’s horror at his bloodied hands and Macbeth’s reaction to the same sight was almost certainly a deliberate callback to that other Shakespeare play.
He turned and looked pleadingly at the audience, partly as if asking for our sympathy, but more importantly as if on the verge of saying something to us.
His pathetic condition and speechless gaze invited the audience to imagine what he was thinking and also what he might have said. The staging implied that at this point Hamlet might once again have unpacked his heart with words. But those words remained unwritten.
If Shakespeare had decided to have Hamlet morose and regretful in the wake of committing his first murder, what could he have said?
With a single plaintive look, Adam Lundgren’s Hamlet pointed towards an alternative version of the character and of the play in which Hamlet’s killing of Polonius had a decisive effect worthy of being explored in soliloquy.
Such a speech might have resembled Claudius’s realisation of the rankness of his offence and created a striking parallelism between the two killings.
After gazing out to the audience he walked up the steps and crouched near the top, reaching down into a recess filled with water where he washed his hands. His continued silence as he bathed away the stains of Polonius’s blood further emphasised that he was now a changed man.
Two doors either side of the stalls banged shut, drawing attention to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who had entered. They proceeded down the stalls side aisles, spying Hamlet who was near the top of the steps.
They both climbed up onto the main stage and crouched to observe Hamlet. They were now facing away from the audience, who were able to see that Guildenstern was concealing a dagger behind his back. A prey was being stalked, with more violence the possible outcome if Hamlet resisted their arrest.
They challenged him about the location of the body. Hamlet’s response about mixing it with dust, which in the original conveys some of the flippancy that characterises Hamlet at this point, was cut so that his first words in reply to them were unrelated to anything they had said and also deliberately puzzling.
Continuing to busy himself with washing, and melancholic to the point of self-absorption, Hamlet replied calmly “Tro inte det” [Do not believe it].
He rose and continued to tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they should not believe that he could keep their secret but not his own, informing his interrogator Rosencrantz quite calmly that he was a sponge.
From his initial entry with bloodied hands, through his hand-washing, and then during this exchange, Hamlet had been morose and unemotional.
But when Rosencrantz challenged him, questioning his judgement that he was a sponge, Hamlet flipped from dejection to high rage, shouting “Just det” [Exactly] before launching into an angry tirade comparing Rosencrantz to a disposable accessory to be exploited by the king.
As Hamlet did so, he moved purposefully towards the pair. His tirade was punctuated by an extra-angry outburst at Guildenstern. He spat out the words “Din svamp” [You sponge] with additional force, which frightened the already nervous Guildenstern so much that he drew his dagger at Hamlet in self-defence.
Hamlet saw the tip of the dagger pointing towards him and slowed down. Instead of stopping he calmly walked towards the blade, approaching to within a few inches of its point, while exuding an air of jocular insouciance. He thereby signalled to Rosencrantz that he did not take his threat to defend himself with the dagger seriously.
The comic nature of Hamlet’s response to Rosencrantz marked another shift in his mood in this scene. Having begun with melancholy, then provoked to anger, he now found his would-be captors a source of amusement, their threats empty. This characterised his next exchanges with them, which became farcical.
Rosencrantz’s protestation of incomprehension led to Hamlet calling him an idiot, but the former still insisted that Hamlet should disclose the whereabouts of the body.
Hamlet’s response was clownish and mocking. Starting several steps above Rosencrantz he lolloped down them in an exaggeratedly clumsy way in short bursts speaking in an oafishly comical voice and waving his hands, his steps matching the beat of his words.
The resulting spectacle was an interesting visualisation of the metrical pattern of the Swedish text.
“Kroppen är hos kungen” [the body is with the king] – Hamlet galumphed down one set of steps
“men kungen är inte hos kroppen” [but the king is not with the body] – galumphed down second set
He completed his puzzling speech, telling Rosencrantz in his ear that the king was a thing of nothing, and dashed off stage issuing an invitation for them to follow him.
Hamlet at bay
Claudius spoke to himself, and to a certain extent the audience, as he considered the danger Hamlet posed and the necessity of sending him away.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern happily announced to the king that they had detained Hamlet, whereupon the prince was summoned to enter.
Hamlet galloped in stage right on a pretend horse making whinnying noises. He stopped and carefully dismounted his invisible steed with an elaborate motion of the leg. Hamlet then mimed slapping the horse on its hindquarters and made more horse noises to indicate its departure. He repeatedly slapped his hands on his thighs in imitation of its hoof steps and watched it gallop away towards stage left. The sound of his slapping hands diminished as the horse was imagined to recede into the distance. After the briefest of pauses he began to slap his thighs softly, then more loudly, watching the horse make a return approach and go past him at speed, his head whipping round towards stage right as if tracking the horse’s definitive exit.
Such was the humour of this spectacle that it was possible to lose sight of the fact that Claudius had also witnessed it and was as unamused by Hamlet’s antics as the audience had drawn delight from it. There were school parties in the audiences of the four performances that I attended and this sequence was audibly a firm favourite with them.
Claudius asked Hamlet where Polonius was and Hamlet replied “Han äter middag” [He’s eating dinner] rather than the base translation’s “Han äter kvällsmat” [He’s eating supper], possibly because the latter was too refined a concept for the mood of the scene.
Hamlet explained how a worm that had eaten a king might get used as bait by a fishing beggar and then go through the poor man’s digestive system, his crooked index wiggling in imitation of the worm in question.
Claudius grew impatient with Hamlet’s fooling. Drawing close by Hamlet’s side as if about to impart a guarded secret, the king shouted an order in three staccato bursts “VAR. ÄR. POLONIUS?” [WHERE. IS. POLONIUS?]
The bellowing of Claudius’s voice at so short a distance caused Hamlet to flinch. There was a mild suggestion that he could have been chastened by this outburst of rage, but he almost immediately regained his composure. He resisted the onslaught with a determination to counter it with more derision.
Hamlet began to answer the question with a semblance of respect, indicating that Polonius was in heaven and that Claudius could send someone to check. Claudius was still close to him and angrily expecting a sensible reply.
But Hamlet’s real mood became apparent when he supplemented his answer. Drawing slightly away from Claudius to pass in front of him, he let slip that if the search in heaven proved fruitless then Claudius should go look for Polonius himself “på det andra stället” [in the other place].
Hamlet slowly took up a position on the ground in front of Claudius, eventually lying on his back looking up at the sky as he revealed Polonius’s actual resting place “uppför trappen i hallen” [up the steps in the hallway].
Surprisingly, the four mostly Swedish audiences of which I was a part did not find Hamlet’s joke about Polonius waiting until his rescuers arrived at all funny. In British productions this gag is usually delivered with comic timing and gets a suitably appreciative response from audiences.
Claudius began to tell Hamlet that he was being sent to England. As he spoke Hamlet turned and faced away from him, bending forwards so that his head was between his knees. He reached up and behind with his hands so that they touched his backside and then uttered his responses to Claudius as if manipulating his bottom with his hands to the effect that he appeared to be talking out of his backside.
He immediately followed this up by licking Claudius’s hand, calling him “kära mor” [dear mother]. Claudius disdainfully wiped his hand clean with a handkerchief and ventured down a step to tell the audience that he had sent Hamlet to this death.
Sent to England
The entire sequence with Fortinbras and the Norwegian captain was cut from the start of scene 4.4. so that Hamlet entered with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, dallied in the middle of the upper landing and told his supposed companions that he would catch them up.
The first sentence of his soliloquy “Hur allt som sker anklagar mig och sporrar min tröga hämnd” [How everything that happens accuses me and spurs my dull revenge] was cut because it was a reference to the preceding conversation with the captain, which had also been cut.
Hamlet spoke a truncated version of the soliloquy, retaining his disquiet at his inaction, but without the direct references to the soldiers marching towards Poland that Hamlet encounters in the full version of 4.4.
Productions that remove Fortinbras to save time often cut this scene entirely, losing the whole of this speech. This production considered it important enough to work in despite being Fortinbras-less.
The rhyming exit line in the base translation was entirely rewritten.
Och tanken rös [And thought is shaken]
Nu är den blodig – eller värdelös [Now is it bloody – or worthless]
was replaced by
Från denne stund [From this time on]
blir min tanke blod eller går till grund [be my thoughts bloody or come to nothing]
This was another example of the creative team amending the base translation in order that its wording should more closely reflect the English original.
Horatio and the Gentleman were absent from scene 4.5, which began very simply with Gertrude entering across the stage and then encountering Ophelia dashing in from stage right crying at her “Var är den sköna drottningen av Danmark?” [Where is the beautiful queen of Denmark?]. This translation consciously decided that the “majesty” of the original English referred to Gertrude, but this is only one of a number of possible options.
Ophelia’s appearance had now changed. Her hair was ruffled and her mascara had run so that it formed two black blotches around her eyes.
She danced manically as she sang her song about her father’s death in a high pitch of desperation. Claudius entered and Ophelia latched on to him, telling him earnestly that the owl was a baker’s daughter. She sat on the steps to stare emptily at the audience, reflecting that we know what we are, but not what we will be. Her now small voice wished “Gud välsigne maten!” [God bless the food!], which was the base translation’s rendering of “God be at your table”.
She sung the next two short songs, which had sexual themes, running around in a frenzy. At the references to sex, she pulled her arms back either side of her and thrust her hips forward in a suggestive gesture.
The translation made a very good job of recreating the feel of the original English songs. In particular the line “By Cock they are to blame” became “de halar Guken fram” [they get their Cocks out].
Instead of wishing goodnight to the “käre damer” of the base translation, the text was edited so that she took her leave instead from “kära ni” [my dears], which is an odd choice as it removes one of the indications of Ophelia’s distress.
Polonius spoke briefly to Gertrude about the probable causes underlying Ophelia’s changed condition, but did not mention the return of Laertes, nor did a messenger brings news of his imminent arrival. Instead the first sign of trouble was the sound of splintering wood coming from outside the auditorium doors on the stage right side, followed by the precipitate entry of Laertes through those doors and down the stalls side aisle to the foot of the stage.
Laertes walked up to Claudius, unfolded his flick knife and held it to the king’s throat as he demanded “Ge mig min far” [Give me my father]. This line was missing from the base translation by Ulf Peter Hallberg and the creative team had to insert it themselves. The order to hand over Laertes’s father was a more powerful line than the only one included, where Laertes only demanded to know where his father was.
The director stated in an interview that they were working from their chosen Swedish translation and also from the English original. They paid sufficient attention to that English version to notice and correct the omission of that line.
Many modern dress productions have Laertes threaten Claudius with a gun rather than a sword because it creates an immediate menace and means that a loose word from the king could provoke an instant deadly reaction from the aggrieved son. This production’s choice to have Laertes hold a knife to Claudius’s throat managed to make it both old-school in its use of a bladed weapon, but also put the king at risk of instant death in a manner that was more visibly threatening than a prop gun. The physical intimacy required to hold Claudius hostage to his own words with a dagger created a more gripping image than an armed Laertes at distance from his target.
Claudius’s conversation with Laertes was truncated so that in response to his angry threats the king simply assured Laertes that he would make his innocence obvious. The “swoopstake/friend/foe” lines were cut. A short time into this, Ophelia made her second appearance in the scene.
Ophelia entered from the back of the stage, her bloodied hands holding large pieces of broken glass. The implication was that she had cut her hands badly in the process of either smashing the pane and/or holding the resulting fragments.
The glass shards were then distributed and named as various types of flower.
The image of Ophelia’s bloodied hands was similar to Hamlet’s appearance in the same condition at the start of 4.2, creating a parallelism between the characters. Shards of glass are so far from flowers in appearance, feel and symbolism that choosing them was a deliberate inversion of the standard staging of this sequence.
The base translation rendered the mentions of “rue” with the inexplicable nonsense words “ånger-lej” and “ånger-tej”. The performance text corrected these to the standard Swedish word for rue “ångerört”.
Ophelia sang her final song, then wandered the stage in silence as Claudius offered supportive and consoling words to Laertes before they exited.
Gertrude remained on stage sat the bottom of the steps stage left while Ophelia wandered up the steps towards the top. On her way there she stepped into the pool of water in which Hamlet had previously bathed his hands, signalling yet another connection between the two characters in their separate moments of mental distress.
Reaching the top of the stairs at the back, Ophelia held a glass shard above her and admired it before dropping it over the edge of the back of the set. This indicated that behind the steps was a precipitate drop.
Ophelia then walked along the edge, steadying herself as she went, before stopping on the stage right side facing away from the audience. With a simple hop, she jumped off the ledge and disappeared down the far side of the set.
Although this jump was noiseless, Gertrude seemed to sense that something had happened behind her. Sat stage left at the bottom of the steps, she turned round and rushed up to investigate, looking down into the drop into which Ophelia had vanished, before hurriedly exiting at the top stage right.
The next scene (4.6) was cut so that the production did not stage Horatio receiving letters from a sailor and reading aloud the letter from Hamlet explaining his escape from the ship bound for England.
Letter for the king
Claudius made his excuses to Laertes for not having taken action against Hamlet sooner. They were interrupted by a messenger with a letter for the king from Hamlet announcing his imminent return.
The base translation was altered so that Laertes vowed to confront Hamlet and tell him “thus didst thou” rather than the more violent “Nu ska du dö!” [Now you shall die!”] of the Swedish.
The murder plot was quickly contrived with much of the extraneous detail edited away. Claudius’s manipulation of Laertes by insinuating that he might be merely the “painting of a sorrow” and the exchange in which Laertes said he was prepared “To cut his throat i’th’ church” were similarly cut.
The remaining text contained the basics: Claudius related Hamlet’s jealousy of Laertes’ fencing abilities and explained how this could be turned into a plot to assassinate him, complete with a backup plan.
Gertrude entered stage right from the top of the steps, the point from which she had previously exited after seeing the aftermath of Ophelia’s jump. This implied her immediate return from investigating Ophelia’s fate and that her account was first-hand rather than report.
She told them the story of Ophelia’s death, omitting only the side note about the flower known as “dead men’s fingers”, using the base translation’s beautiful rendering of the English original.
In performance there was no dissonance between the description of Ophelia dressing a tree with garlands of flowers and the actual staging of her madness in which she carried glass shards in her bloodied hands and only referred to them as various types of flower, before throwing herself off the top of the stage steps. The audience had witnessed the sum total of her actions before her entry into the water and was aware on one level that Gertrude’s description did not match the staging.
Laertes was profoundly affected by this account. He buttoned up his jacket, symbolic of his self-restraint, as he fought back tears. The “too much of water” line was cut. He admitted that he had a speech of fire “men denna svaghet släcker den” [but this weakness extinguishes it].
A single gravedigger threw open a trap door stage right and proceeded to throw out bones onto the main landing. He was an elderly man in a white vest. In common with other truncated productions of Hamlet, this one cut the jokey exchanges between two gravediggers.
Hamlet and Horatio passed across the stage from its left on the upper landing, which was above the level of the graveside. Hamlet briefly explained how he had escaped his captors, providing a short version of the fuller plot exposition contained in the cut scene 4.6.
Their haste along this path did not bring them into direct contact with the gravedigger. As if to signify that this sequence was a detour from their main mission, to get to the court as fast as possible, Hamlet looked down towards the graveside and descended the steps to investigate. Horatio was visibly put out by this, and continued to make his impatience with Hamlet’s eccentric interest in this matter known at subsequent moments.
Hamlet commented on the gravedigger’s curious attitude to this work, but the following lengthy conversation between him and Horatio about the skull possibly being that of a lawyer or merchant was cut, together with its convoluted wordplays.
Hamlet got straight down to asking the gravedigger questions about the end user of the grave, the owner of grave, and had to contend with the man’s over-precise replies.
The conversation reached the subject of Hamlet’s madness and there was a certain amount of mild tittering when the gravedigger mentioned that it would not be seen in him in England because there the men were as mad as he. Given the prominence of the UK’s Brexit problems at the time of these performances, it was possible to imagine that some of the audience laughter here might have reflected the state of the UK’s political landscape at that time.
The line “upon what ground” was cut because in Swedish the joke did not work very well.
The discussion of how long bodies last in the ground was cut, so that the gravedigger mentioned Yorick’s skull and its age unprompted by that consideration.
Hamlet took Yorick’s skull and sat with it on the steps of the main landing in a position that placed him close to the audience.
He wondered to Horatio if Alexander the Great had looked similarly, but their discussion was interrupted by the sound of the approaching funeral procession. Hamlet and Horatio escaped up the steps and crouched at the top stage right to watch the procession enter from stage left on the main landing.
The funeral procession was described by Hamlet as having “stympad rit” [truncated rite] which was certainly true because no priest was in attendance.
Laertes led the procession carrying Ophelia’s enshrouded body in his arms, followed by the king, queen and others. This meant that Laertes did not question the lack of ceremony, but in this staging was the person managing the entire ceremony.
With Ophelia cradled in his arms he instructed the gravedigger “Lägg henne då i jorden så violer kan växa upp ur hennes famn!” [Place her in the ground so violets can sprout from her arms!] rather than that line being an angry response to the priest.
He handed Ophelia down to the gravedigger who laid the body to rest in the trap door grave. Laertes stood over the grave and solemnly intoned that “En ängel ibland änglar blir min syster” [An angel among angels shall be my sister] as his own self-composed funeral rite rather than part of more angry words to the officiating priest.
Hamlet overheard this and immediately understood that the dead body was that of Ophelia. The prince’s head drooped and his friend Horatio patted him on the back in consolation.
Claudius dropped flowers into the grave, followed by Gertrude who strewed her flowers saying “Nu, skönhet åt den sköna!” [Now, beauty to the beautiful!]
Laertes was suddenly overcome with grief and jumped down into the grave. He dragged Ophelia up into his arms, which prompted Hamlet to descend the steps from the back of the stage.
Laertes seized the gravedigger’s spade and swung it round taking aim directly at Hamlet as he approached, but he was restrained by the others so that the blow fell short of its target.
They grappled with each other, a struggle that ended with Laertes grasping Hamlet by the throat. The prince fell to his knees as he gasped for breath. Laertes was almost on the point of choking him to death when Claudius gestured at him to stop, reminding him about “Vad vi planerat” [What we planned], which was that Hamlet’s death was to be made to look like an accident.
Laertes relented and let his opponent go. Hamlet was held back by Horatio and the others but continued to bark angry words at Laertes, who put on his jacket and did up his buttons with a look of satisfaction at his physical superiority over the intended victim of the coming murder plot.
Hamlet goaded him that “Hunden hugger till” [The dog will bite], which Laertes took as a provocation and lunged forward aggressively as if offering to fight again, before being once more restrained.
Hamlet explained to Horatio how he had escaped from the England-bound ship. This was a very cut-down version, limiting itself to a brief summary of the salient points: Hamlet discovered his death warrant, replaced it with another one ordering the death of the messengers, then escaped the ship.
Horatio questioned “Så Rosencrantz och Guildenstern gick åt?” [So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern perished?]. The affirmative response caused Horatio to panic that news would soon return to the Danish court of this commandment being fulfilled, which would immediately cause problems for the prince.
Hamlet was completely relaxed about the clock ticking down to that moment and was more preoccupied with his realisation that he had done Laertes wrong and that his life was the mirror image of Hamlet’s own.
These deliberations were cut short by the arrival of Osric.
Most Osrics are commonly portrayed as lowly servants who are made fun of by Hamlet and Horatio. This production cut the sequences in which Osric is humiliated by being ordered to repeatedly remove and don his hat, as well as those in which his florid turn of phrase is mocked. It is often implied that this verbal effervescence is characteristic of a semi-educated person affecting high-born educated speech.
This Osric was the king’s right-hand man. He had mouthed along with Claudius’s opening speech, as if he had helped write it, and then had leant out over the Dramaten audience to encourage us to applaud the king.
Now, he strode on stage purposefully in an elegant suit, his dapper cane adding an air of almost aristocratic grace to his movements. This Osric was not a clownish flunky to be jested with. The few harsh words the pair had for him were subdued and mostly shared between themselves rather than thrown in Osric’s face.
His message to Hamlet was simple and stripped of the details of the items wagered on the outcome of the fencing bout. Osric limited himself to announcing that the fencing contest had been arranged and what the odds were.
The ever-wary Horatio smelled a rat immediately. As Hamlet pondered the challenge, Horatio tugged at his arm and gestured silently at the original death warrant that Hamlet had replaced with a forgery, as if to suggest that this challenge might be a trap similar to the trip to England.
But Hamlet dismissed his friend’s concern and requested “Låt hämta värjorna” [Let the foils be brought]. His mind was made up.
Their awareness that this might be another attempt of Hamlet’s life added meaning to their subsequent exchanges.
Horatio’s blankly pessimistic statement “Ni kommer att förlora, min prins” [You will lose, my lord] and Hamlet’s insistence he had been practising, leading into his digression that being ready was everything, meant that he was not just resigned to potentially losing a bet but also to the possibility that another attempt was about to be made on his life.
The fact that Hamlet had earlier told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he had “slutat med all träning” [stopped all training] implied that his insistence now that he had been in continuous practice was possibly not true and merely an excuse to justify accepting a challenge that he suspected could be another ruse.
If the fencing contest were just for fun and a bet, why all the dark forebodings about death? The speech about defying augury only makes sense if Hamlet did indeed suspect what Horatio had suggested to him by pointing to the ship-borne death warrant.
The scene was set for the fencing match. Claudius, Gertrude and Osric took up spectator positions on the upper landing, while Hamlet and Laertes occupied the larger main landing.
Hamlet apologised to Laertes, who accepted his reconciliation with subdued good manners.
Like many modern translations, this one had to duck the problem of rendering Hamlet’s wordplay in which he calls for the foils (weapons) and then jokes that he will be Laertes’s foil in the sense of the setting of a jewel.
The great Carl August Hagberg had attempted in 1861 to create a link between the foil weapons and the idea of Hamlet being a flattering backdrop to Laertes’s greatness by having Hamlet say:
“Så blankt som klingan speglar jag er konst.” [As shiny as the blade, I reflect your skill.]
But subsequent translators have found this to be clumsy and have not bothered to shoehorn in a connection that replicates Hamlet’s pun.
This translation merely had Hamlet state “Jag blir er fond” [I will be your background] which coming from nowhere sounds an odd thing to say, but is preferable to the kind of tortuous image that tries to approximate to the original English.
As they compared the foils, Hamlet could not resist making a rude joke. He took a foil and waved it phallically against his crotch asking “De är väl lika långa?” [They’re both the same length, right?]
There was another indication of Hamlet’s flippant mood. The main landing and the steps below it were littered with dead brown leaves. As he waited for the bout to begin Hamlet picked at them with the point of his foil and brushed them one by one onto the steps below in a fastidious display of housekeeping.
Claudius put a pearl into the cup of wine and offered it to Hamlet, who refused. The fencing began.
Hamlet and Laertes went to the centre of the landing. Osric acted as referee. At the start of each round he separated them with his cane, then called out in French “Prêts! Allez!” before withdrawing his cane to begin the fencing.
In the first round Hamlet and Laertes fought quickly and fiercely until Hamlet managed to get a touch on Laertes’s foot. The point was awarded.
The second round was similarly energetic and Hamlet managed to strike Laertes on the back.
Gertrude wiped Hamlet’s sweaty face and returned to the upper landing. Stood some distance from the king, Gertrude took the poisoned cup from the tray held by a servant and despite Claudius’s protests, took a long swig from it.
The third round ended inconclusively.
In the relaxed atmosphere at the end of the round, Hamlet grasped the end of Laertes’s foil which his opponent held loosely in front of him. With a bated blade, this should have been a safe thing to do. However, seizing his opportunity, Laertes swiftly drew the foil backwards cutting into Hamlet’s palm.
The prince looked at his hand in shock at this unexpected wound.
A free fight now broke out. Hamlet wrenched the unbated foil from Laertes’s grasp, briefly scrutinised it, saw how it had been modified to make it deadly, and cast it aside.
What happened next was a gesture that was indicative of Hamlet’s character. Instead of pressing home an attack on the now defenceless Laertes, Hamlet gave his deadly enemy his own sword while taking up the unbated one himself. This was now a fair fight, but an intensely fierce one.
They battled each other up and down the piste. At one point Laertes fell onto his back and Hamlet pressed down on top of him, with only Laertes’s outstretched arms keeping Hamlet at bay.
The fight ended with Hamlet taking a swipe at Laertes that cut him across the face. The actor was turned away from the audience as the blow struck and was able to quickly smear a stripe of blood across his face so that when he turned towards the audience after being hit, there was visible evidence of the cut made by Hamlet’s blade.
Gertrude collapsed to the ground and announced that her drink was poisoned. Laertes was now sat on the ground facing the audience. He talked over his shoulder to Hamlet saying that the prince too had been poisoned by the foil and that the king was to blame.
Hamlet became enraged, took the foil and stormed up the steps to Claudius who fell to the floor. Hamlet drove the foil straight into Claudius’s chest and a powerful jet of blood spurted upwards from his body. This effusion made forcing the poisoned wine on him seem almost unnecessary.
Laertes pleaded for reconciliation with Hamlet and collapsed dead backwards.
Hamlet sat on ground, with Horatio crouched some distance behind him. Hamlet asked Horatio to tell his story to the awaiting world. Horatio wanted to drink the dregs of the poison, but Hamlet turned round and implored him not to. He complied.
All the sequences with Fortinbras and the ambassadors were cut, which meant that the production now entered its final phase with the death of Hamlet.
“Jag dör Horatio… Berättar allt, allt som har tvingat mig till… resten är tystnad.” [I die Horatio… report everything, everything that forced me to… the rest is silence.] The last phrase was taken from the Britt G. Hallqvist translation rather than the base translation which concluded “allt som varit – resten, det är tystnad” [everything that was – the rest, it’s silence] a form of words that doesn’t flow as well as the Hallqvist version.
Having spoken his final words, Hamlet also fell backwards dead.
After a brief pause for effect the lights went out, the cue for the audience to applause.
Seeing foreign language Shakespeare in its country of origin among a mostly foreign audience is a rewarding experience.
It provides insight into different attitudes to Shakespeare and to theatre in general.
This production demonstrated how working in translation allows creatives a great deal of freedom to shape the text to their exact requirements. This means there is no standard translation of Shakespeare, much in the same way that we do not have standard translations of Greek classics.
Working from a translation occasionally makes new meanings possible in performance, which audiences seeing the original version would probably never get a chance to explore.
Dramaten’s Hamlet contained one genius directorial decision: what I referred to above as “the unwritten soliloquy” – silent stage business from Hamlet showing him downtrodden after murdering Polonius.