Murder Most Foul: “Hamlet” Through the Ages by David Bevington (review)
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Reviewed by
David Bevington. Murder Most Foul: “Hamlet” Through the Ages. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 256 pages. $45.00 (cloth).

This everything-you-wanted-to-know about Hamlet is intended by noted scholar-editor David Bevington for “general readers and theatre enthusiasts and anyone fascinated by Hamlet” (viii). His worthy intention is less likely to include scholars, however, as the book’s detailed survey of the familiar would likely outweigh the good number of lively additional materials. Organized historically “through the ages,” it modestly concedes that it has no new “critical method” for its stance that the play’s meaning has been variously enriched—sometimes controversially—over time. The book’s thesis, lightly driven, is that the play’s history is a “kind of paradigm for the cultural history of the English-speaking world” (viii) and that Hamlet strikes every generation with a new relevance transcending history.

While its overall trajectory is historical, the book shuttles between accounts of staging, criticism, and editing of the play, usually surveying them efficiently and specifically. Although Bevington proposes that these areas have proceeded “hand in hand,” their conjunction is not itself argued in a sustained way, which in any case would be difficult with such widely disparate materials. The book begins logically with the “prehistory” of the story, recounting details from Saxo’s Latin History of the Danes in the thirteenth century and concluding with much speculation about the lost Ur-Hamlet from its presumed connection to an eighteenth-century German version of the story. Bevington follows his “prehistory” with a chapter on the play as staged around 1600, helpfully including a short course on Elizabethan theater companies and staging. He also treats the play’s famous “cruxes” of interpretation, such as why Claudius does not react to the “dumb show” of the murder when it is performed before the “Mousetrap” play, and conjectures that this particular question is explicable because the audience was to see the scene as a “riddle.”

Following an explanation of the textual problems raised by the play and its current division into three Hamlets (two quarto versions and the folio’s), the next chapter surveys several topics: major staging issues, Elizabethan politics, and conventional themes such as revenge, which Bevington construes as “ideological.” Bevington’s take on ideology tends not to seek out the radical or the dissident but rather the traditional, inferring the dominant audience’s responses when actual reception evidence is understandably sparse. Extensive citations from the play thus demonstrate how Hamlet follows a well-understood “revenge code,” but with Shakespeare also instructing his audience to “perceive the problems it poses for ethical and religious thought” (59). Here Bevington [End Page 82] uses the current scholarly attention to Reformation controversy, in particular the suggestion that the Catholic doctrine of purgatory informs the play’s ambivalent treatment of the ghost. Bevington nevertheless avoids overemphasizing the controversy and the Reformation schism by noting where common Christian beliefs, such as the idea of innate human depravity, might override sectarian difference. Bevington’s ultimate determination secures this approach, as he holds that the Elizabethan audience would “conclude . . . that Hamlet’s story ends justly and providentially” (75). Much of the chapter, however, closely illustrates not ideological “context” but rather major staging “challenges” inherent in the play, such as how discovery space is used for Polonius’s murder, or the stage trap for the graveyard scene.

With much of the introductory material out of the way, the next chapters focus especially on the various modes of reception of the play—editing, performance, and criticism—through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Here we learn more about transformations of the theaters after the Puritan interim of their closings and of the subsequent innovations and transformations: female actors, perspective scenery and elaborate scenic effects, different acting styles, and the limitation of performance to two acting companies. Critical appraisal of Shakespeare became characteristically mixed, often echoing Ben Jonson’s criticism that he sometimes “lacked art” and that his natural genius was mixed with unpolished or overly exuberant style. The explosion of what we would think of as adaptations and spin-offs rose to absurd heights, with multiple musical renditions of “to...