Many people say Hamlet is the greatest play of all time. Why is it so revered?

One of the things that Shakespeare seems to do more completely than any writer who went before him is reveal the variety of the human mind; the way that people are very complicated.

Shakespeare does that through the soliloquy – the character alone on stage talking to himself, opening up his mind – and Hamlet just does that more than any other character. So there is that psychological complexity. That’s one reason the play is revered.

Then if you combine that with simply the power of the revenge story. The primal idea of your father being killed by your uncle, and then your mother being compromised by that, she marries the man who killed your father – that’s a very powerful plot line. Combine it then with Hamlet having this task of revenge, and not being naturally suited to it. Then throw in the idea that he is a young man in love but he realises very quickly that that love affair is going to be a distraction and it has got to come to an end.

So you’ve got those two things: the psychology and then just the sheer force of the plot.

Hamlet is searching for answers throughout the play isn’t he?

Yes he is. Hamlet keeps asking questions. The play even begins with a question:

Barnardo: Who’s there?

Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

In a way, the whole of the play is [distilled] in that opening exchange. It asks questions but it refuses to answer them. It is Shakespeare’s most philosophical play in that sense; the way he asks the biggest questions about the nature of human beings.

Hamlet seems to be paralysed by all of his over-thinking. He rarely knows which way to turn.

He absolutely defines himself by inaction – a life of contemplation, a life of philosophy, the life of the mind. Then he is given this task, this enormous task of avenging his father’s death. In Hamlet, Shakespeare is especially fascinated by a task being given to someone who is not naturally suited to it and that is what leads to the tragedy. But if you think about Macbeth, who is a great man of action, if you have gave Macbeth the job of dealing with Claudius…

…it would be a short play!

It would be a very short play! Macbeth would rip Claudius “from the nave to th’ chops” before you knew it! Conversely, if you gave Hamlet the job that Macbeth has, of deciding whether or not to believe the witches, Hamlet might be a little more hesitant and ask a few more questions than Macbeth does.

The role of Hamlet is greatly coveted by actors. Why do you think that is?

It is partly the sheer size of the role. Hamlet is one of the small number of Shakespeare’s plays where there is a single part that has a huge, huge percentage of the text. So you kind of know that if you are going to play Hamlet, you are going to be at the centre of things. You are carrying so much of the play.

Then there is the fact that there are these soliloquies where you have to hold the whole theatre alone and the language is immensely rich. Then there is the range of feelings – you’ve got to feign madness, you’ve got to be angry, you’ve got to be thoughtful, you’ve got to be in love, you’ve got to be out of love, you’ve to got to decide whether Hamlet is really mad or pretending to be mad. As an actor you are always pretending, so what is the difference between acting ‘really mad’ and acting ‘pretending to be mad’? It is such a great challenge.

What makes the genre of revenge tragedy so irresistible to audiences?

There is something very primal about it. Going back to origins of western drama, to ancient Greek tragedy, those are so often about revenge and about family conflict. If you think about the Bible, the story of Cane and Abel; Hamlet alludes to that in the play – the Cain and Abel idea, the sort of primal curse of the brother killing a brother. So it really gets to the rawest human emotions imaginable.

I think the other thing about tragedy is there is a way in which seeing difficult experiences acted out in some way makes us feel better about our own lives. I always remember one of my old teachers at Cambridge, the great scholar Sir Christopher Ricks, saying: “Comedies make us feel sad because we feel life can’t be that good. Tragedies make us feel happy because we feel life can’t be that bad.”

The Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet is 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/

Sir Jonathan Bate is the author of several books about William Shakespeare and his work. Details at www.jonathanbate.com

Interview edited by Felicity McLean, freelance writer and journalist. www.felicitymclean.com @felicitymclean