HAMLET – Prince of Denmark: a Novel (Review) – BY A.J.Hartley and David Hewson



Although I’m not very good in maths, I know that according to one of its laws the order of the factors does not change the production. This is what A.J.Hartley and David Hewson have done with the Shakesperian Hamlet: none of the characters are what we thought they were according to William Shakespeare’s play. Claudius (my favourite character) is not a cold-hearted bastard but had his [particular] reasons, being his main fault to love Gertrude and the young Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not the elegant courtiers but a grotesque comic couple in the line of Elvis and Costello (or Totò and Peppino). Polonius is not the kind Santa Claus of Denmark’s court but ruthless and heartless, the epitome of what we know by the word “Machiavellian”. Ophelia is not so innocent, and not virginal at all. Gertrude is the big sacrificial victim of the court of Denmark. The absurd attachment of Hamlet to the ghost of his cruel father is difficult to understand. But, notwithstanding all this radical changes, the end of the plot remains unchanged. As Hamlet says in both works “all the rest is silence”.

Maybe for some purists these changes and plot twists are sacrilegious, as the authors have dared to take the Bard’s name in vain. But this not the case for a good part of the first wave of hearers, because we are used to it. I defined this novel in a previous post, when some extracts were released in April “a luxury fan-fic”. This group of hearers, to which I belong, have arrived to this peculiar Elsinore attracted by the narrator, Richard Armitage (with all the respect of the previous work of the authors which, personally speaking, I didn’t know). We are used to read in internet stories in which well-defined characters and plots are changed, twisted and re-written. That is what fan-fiction is about: to fill the gaps, to answer the many unanswered questions you pose on a story or a character already existent. The purists and bard-worshippers may think that to re-write Hamlet requires very few imagination or work, as the starting point is a piece that is “only” four hundred years old; something that, by the way, did Shakespeare himself as many of his plays are re-creations or re-elaborations of previous plays or novels. On the contrary, the good fan-fiction, as a good novel, and a good audio-book, requires work. And in fact my favourite passages of the audiobook are the “new” stories and sub plots. For instance the crude and heartbreaking scene of Hamlet’s birth. The new characters, as the young Yorick or the Scott Gregor Macbeth. The novel has plenty of something that I particularly appreciate and like: subtle references to other works of art, which are left by the authors in the path as Tom Thumb’s crumbs. The surname of the Scottish sellsword as a tribute to Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” and their previous successful audiobook. Richard Burbage, the leading man of the company of English actors, was the name of one of the most successful actors of Elizabethan theatre, and was the leading actor of the Chamberlain’s Men.

Valerio Cioli - Bacchino dei Giardini di Boboli - From Wikipedia (CC)
Valerio Cioli – Bacchino dei Giardini di Boboli – From Wikipedia (CC)
Marcus Aurelius - Capitoline Museums (Rome)
Marcus Aurelius – Capitoline Museums (Rome)

The continuous Italian references, Florence and the Medicis, the Florentine sculptor fond of daggers called Benvenuto [Cellini], the gardens of Boboli, the pose of the dwarf compared with the one of the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, the tapestry made in Italy with Venus, Mars and Vulcano (I know I have seen it somewhere but I can’t remember where now… and this drives me crazy! please check the kind comment to this post of one of the authors to have more information about the source) , the daggers, the poison, the “new” Renaissance air which is arriving also to the cold North. The authors, as the witches in Macbeth, fill their cauldron with all these ingredients producing nine hours of magic and spell.

This post has already more than five hundred words and I have not written anything yet of the narrator… I guess that, in this moment, very few actors would have been able to narrate this book as Richard Armitage has. In my opinion the narration of an audiobook is by far more difficult than to participate in an audiodrama where the work is shared by a group of actors and the sound effects help the hearer’s imagination. Here everything is made by himself, pure acting, a man alone (with a director behind the booth) in front of a microphone. And, as happened in the beginning of times, when our ancestors gathered in front of the fire to hear the story teller, the magic is created, apparently from nothing. The magic potion cooked by the authors in their cauldron comes to life and his voice guides us to that world. The scene of the murder of Pollonius and the following dialogue, the confrontation between Gertrude and Hamlet, are one of the most moving performances that I have ever heard “I wonder how a woman who wept for THIS man goes to THIS in less time that take to a funeral banquet to ROT! I have dogs that are more loyal”, with the enhanced difficulty that between the “this man” and “goes to this”, the voice of Hamlet, broken by the emotion, is mixed with the impassive tone of the narrator. I guess this is something extremely difficult to make, technically speaking. Of all the repertoire of voices that Richard has created for this audiobook two are my favourite ones: Claudius and Gregor Macbeth. The voice of the king is the more “Thorin-like” of all: deep, profound, conveys perfectly to the reader the complexity of Claudius’ psychology “I killed your father for good reason… I never wanted your life too. Yet foul deeds begot others”.

Many other hearings of this audiobook will follow and I’m sure that with each of them I will discover something new.


19 thoughts on “HAMLET – Prince of Denmark: a Novel (Review) – BY A.J.Hartley and David Hewson

  1. Reblogged this on Armitage Agonistes and commented:
    A first full blog review of Hamlet: A Novel. (At least the first full one I’ve seen) I asked this question on Twitter – How many references to other Shakespeare works can you find in Hamlet:A Novel”?

    1. First of all, thank you for your comment! Oh my god…. Apart from the Hamlet ones (young Yorick suggesting the famous “frailty, thy name is woman!”), there are several when the English Company goes to Elsinore castle. For the time being I remember the “All the world’s a stage” of “As you Like It”, but I’ve just heard that part once. 🙂

      1. I’m sure there are many more! But I have a problem with audiobooks, i have to make a bigger effort to remember specific details, I guess I have to blame it on the narrator that distracts me. 😉

      2. Yes, he’s very distracting. I’m on my fourth read, and then maybe, I’ll write something about it.

      3. I think that this is an audiobook that can be heard dozens of times because you always discover something new after each hearing. For instance, that “Richard Burbage” rang me a bell and in fact was the real name of an actor of the Elizabethan period. I will update my post every time I find some interesting reference (I guess that in a couple of months it will be the longest post of wordpress! 😉 )

  2. Thanks for taking the time to review out work. I’m sorry the tapestry is nagging you – from what I remember it’s not actually a real one but a cocktail of some of the images in the Sala degli Elementi in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.


    Given the period we allotted to the story, and the fact that Hamlet, as you noted, is a Renaissance man in a world resisting that kind of knowledge, it seemed appropriate to steal from the Medici court, which was not so far from the fictional Elsinore one.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, I’m honoured! I’ve checked today my art books and after writing the post and thinking about it I guess I know why that tapestry “rang a bell”. There’s a painting of Tintoretto with the three of them, Venus, Mars and Vulcano in which the latter surprises the lovers

    1. Really beautiful indeed, I have to go back to Florence.

      24 hours ago I was visiting the Vatican Museums. There are special night visits in spring and summer. The faces of all those great artists (Raffaello, Michelangelo, Bramante, Leonardo….) portrayed in the school of Athens… it’s almost impossible not to remain shocked and in awe in front of them.

  3. Thank you very much for your review – it’s so nice to hear people’s opinions in this first week after release. But, I’d like to disagree with you on one point. I was impressed that the authors have NOT changed the characters at all – only dug around a bit for what is in the text and seen things, perhaps, with clearer eyes than many of us. So, Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are definitely idiots; Ophelia, from the crude jokes and songs in the play, has obviously slept with Hamlet and isn’t a virgin; Claudius isn’t portrayed as a complete villain by Shakespeare and appears to love Gertrude, as she him; the Polonius of the play is a bit of a spymaster who shows no reluctance to use his daughter rather cruelly to achieve his ends; and Elizabethans would immediately assume that Gertude would be a useful pawn – that the new king would want to marry the old king’s wife for political reasons, just as Henry VIII married his brother’s widow, although both of them had the added bonus of being in love.

    What I did notice about Hartley and Hewson’s manipulation of the characters, though, was the interesting way in which they left things OUT in order to support their POV. Thus, Polonius is not given the kindly, officious and concerned speech to his son on his departure from Elsinore – the one about being true to yourself and then you won’t be false to anyone else. And, at the very end, Hamlet and Claudius seem to part almost on a note of reconciliation because they leave out the bit where Hamlet viciously forces the wine from the poisoned goblet down Claudius’ throat. But, I cannot quibble in any way with what I see as their very truthful characterisations because they are the sort of things that very insightful directors might do when they have an interesting ‘take’ on the original play based on what they can see in the text. They don’t make things up: they just point them out.

    This book is a really great ‘read’ and RA certainly doesn’t let the authors down. I’m looking forward to listening to it again because I feel I have missed so much on the first play through.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comment! In fact, my “definition” of the characters has been a little hurried, based most of all on my impressions on the first act of the play that I’ve heard several times in a podcast of BBC Radio Drama. I will see in the next days David Tennant’s Hamlet and I’m sure that your comments will be very helpful.

      My first intention was not to write any review before hearing the book several times but I felt like a “need” to write about it. As I mentioned in a previous comment, I understand better a written book than an audio-book (even if the narrator is as good as Richard Armitage). Does it happen also to mother tongue English speakers?

      1. I know that some people get confused when listening to an audiobook even if their first language is English which is why David Hewson’s comments on what it takes to write for audio are so interesting., The thing is, you’re missing out on facial expressions, body language and even simple things like scenery. It must be so much more difficult when English is not a first language and I truly admire you for making the attempt. But the authors of this audiobook have done their best to give the listener extra prompts which you might not get in an audiobook and, of course, RA is trying to tell you so many things with his voice.

        I’ve seen many productions of Hamlet and have the advantage of this but a really enjoyable production (trailers and excerpts on YT) is Mel Gibson’s film. I don’t like the actor but it is directed by the wonderful Zeffirelli who did such a good job with a film of Romeo and Juliet whose original production with Judi Dench I saw staged at The Old Vic in London more years ago than I care to remember. Gibson’s film is very visual and offers an audience unfamiliar with the text some good ‘clues’. This new audiobook, hopefully, will do a similar job to raise people’s understanding of the play.

      2. I have that Hamlet… in a VHS cassette!!! (talking about time that flies 😦 ). I agree with you that I have not liked Mel Gibson (too “panting” for my taste) but I remember an incredible Glenn Close. Almost as great as in “The Lion in Winter” with Sir Patrick Stewart. But my favourite Zeffirelli is undoubtedly the “Romeo and Juliet”.

        I have promised myself that next time I go to London I must see a play.

    1. Yes, Yorick calls Hamlet “Romeo”. Your linked post is also very interesting, I will re-read it now more carefully.

      Regarding Tennant, I’ve just seen his series “Broadchurch”. I just can say “wow!”

      1. I think you will love the Hamlet. It’s a bit different, but very enjoyable, especially after reading the Hartley article, and then, once I knew more about Dr. Who. Have you seen The Spies of Warsaw with Tennant? I am in the middle of it.

      2. No, I have not… there are so many things to watch and the day has just 24 hours! 🙂 I will add it to my wishing watch-list

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