In the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, the words “playwright” and “dramatist” had not yet been coined. Marlowe, Middleton, and Shakespeare were known by the designation “poets,” and if Shakespeare is one of the great poets of the world, his four great tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear, are among the greatest poems. As I write Erlkönig I turn to Hamlet and the three other tragedies again — not to imitate them but to find encouragement in their imaginative linguistic worlds. Shakespeare’s poetry lies in the language, not the story, and despite the difficulty of this language to 21st century ears we find in both its significance and sound a new ways of looking at, and describing, daily experience, our own lives.
Once Goldie and Billie are old enough to watch and read Shakespeare (and I honestly dread to know what the public school system is doing with him these days), I hope there will continue to be things like Gregory Doran’s 2009 television version of Hamlet, a production from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Its opening scenes are brilliantly contemporary, but it’s the language too that shocks. Below, Act I Scene 1 from this Hamlet, with Peter De Jersey as Horatio and Patrick Stewart as the Ghost (who, in an intriguing bit of doubling, also plays Claudius). The production’s Hamlet, who doesn’t appear in this first scene, is David Tennant. The entire film, and associated documentary material about the production, is available at the Great Performances Web site here.