How would you explain Hamlet to someone who is new to the play?

If you enjoy a thriller and you want a sense of a ticking clock then Hamlet is a time bomb! You will recognise the structure of this story from many things that you’ve seen since Shakespeare’s time: everything is going down and one guy is trying to hold it all together.

Also, this is a play about politics and a play about government and a play about state and a play about succession. It’s about the biggest issues possible – and yet it’s also just about a lad who has got a grudge against his mum and that’s kind of where the play begins: “I can’t believe you’ve done this mum and I don’t know what this means for our relationship and actually I don’t want to see you right now”. To say that to your mum is not the kind of thing you expect, but everybody has felt a bit like that in family domestic relationships at some point. It’s just a case of how high the stakes are when you feel that.

Why does Hamlet still have such universal appeal?

Hamlet can speak to us all about what it is like to face some of the hardest decisions that you could ever have to face in life. Whether you like it or not, in your own life you will find yourself in Hamlet’s position. It probably won’t be because your father is killed by his brother! But you will be confronted with situations that you don’t know how to get out of; where you can’t see the wood for the trees but the pressure is on. Something will happen and you will work out what you are going to do, and through that you will discover what sort of person you are. And who knows how you will feel about that?

Hamlet is faced with a terrible dilemma: Is it right or wrong to kill the man who murdered his father? And he asks the audience: “What would you do?” Everyone in the room is on that journey with him, aren’t they.

Big time! Hamlet really puts the audience up in the driving seat with him. It feels like Hamlet’s signature tune is questions, questions, questions. Every question deserves an answer but the answer is in the audience. So you as the audience have got to respond: “Am I a villain? Am I a coward?”

And I think Hamlet is brilliantly constructed because you know how high the stakes are. If my dead father had just told me that he is in torment in this burning prison and that if ever I loved him – which of course I did – then I’d do something about it… well, you know, no pressure!

Hamlet is full of expressions that people commonly say today. “Woe is me” “Shuffle off this mortal coil” “That it should come to this!” “To thine own self be true” etc. Why do you think these are still so popular?

Part of the reason is that Shakespeare just finds a really economic way of expressing situations that we’ve all been in at some point in our lives. We’ve all felt embittered, we’ve all felt angry, we’ve all felt misunderstood. But the way that we’ve probably expressed it wouldn’t be poetic and wouldn’t have been in a way that you can say to yourself, “Yeah, that puts it in a nutshell”. Shakespeare does that and actually it’s good to know that we share that with other people. And it’s good to know that you can kind of take an objective glance at your feelings and hear them described in that way.

The Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet is touring regional centres, before being staged at the Canberra Theatre Centre (13 – 24 October) and Sydney Opera House (27 October – 6 December). Details at https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/hamlet/

Dr Nick Walton is Shakespeare Courses Development Director at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. Details at


Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist. Twitter: @1andymclean