Shows » Hamlet: Reframed

Not Single Spies - Denmark as a Surveillance State

During the story of Hamlet, Denmark is going through some remarkable, yet subtle changes, as the regime shifts from Hamlet Sr.'s reign to Claudius'. One of the primary shifts is to a surveillance state. People are being watched, never as before. Claudius and Polonius (his spymaster?) keep their eye on everybody, not just on Hamlet.

While present in the source material, Shakespeare upped the surveillance ante in his version, no doubt due to the environment England found itself in at the time. Queen Elizabeth had created an unprecedented network of spies, both domestic and abroad, managed by Sir Francis Walsingham. This ring probably included playwright Christopher Marlowe and scientist/statesman Sir Francis Bacon. Elizabeth's espionage tactics successfully penetrated the Spanish Armada, and assisted in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots - her cousin and chief rival. (It was Mary's assassination attempts against Elizabeth that motivated the Act of Association of 1584, barring anyone in on a regicide plot from taking the throne.)

Nicholas Hytner, director of London's National Theatre production of Hamlet last year, said in an interview published in the production's playbill,

The play was written about a surveillance state: a totalitarian monarchy with a highly developed spy network. That was the system under which those who first watched this play lived. Elizabeth I exerted control through an internal security system that must have impinged on the lives of everyone who was present at its first performance.

England in the 16th and 17th centuries was a very different place than Denmark in the 11th and 12th, and Shakespeare wove the idea that everyone is under surveillance subtly and powerfully into the tapestry of Elsinore.


Hamlet (Sam Rabinovitz) hides himself the best he can
Hamlet (Sam Rabinovitz) hides himself the best he can

Hamlet, of course, is always under surveillance. His soliloquies (cut in our text) are inner monologues, known only to him; the rest of the time in Elsinore, he is keenly aware that he is never alone in the room. This is precisely why he feigns madness around the king and his minions in the Saxo Grammaticus tale that serves as the original source material. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, he must take his charade a step farther, never breaking character, never able to be himself.

What toll does this take on his psyche? While this is not a primary question in our production, it was the topic of several private discussions with Sam Rabinovitz, the actor playing Hamlet. At some point, we decided, the line between 'playing mad' and reality starts to blur. True madness "leaks out" with increasing regularity, though since Hamlet is a good actor, the people around him don't realize the true extent to his insanity until it is too late.

In our new frame of the Danish court, we are more concerned with the watchers than the watched. The king himself is the center of information in his regime. To that end, he employs people to observe and report - and not just on Hamlet. He knows of the impending Norwegian invasion before they deploy a single troop. He knows of Laertes' and Hamlet's returns to Elsinore before they arrive.

Voltimand (Pamela H. Leahigh) and Cornelius (Allison S. Galen)
Voltimand (Pamela H. Leahigh)
and Cornelius (Allison S. Galen)

At the top of Hamlet: Reframed (and unchanged from the original text), Claudius sends Cornelius and Voltimand on a diplomatic mission to Norway, to talk to the Norwegian king about halting the Norwegian invasion of Denmark before it begins. He gives them

no further personal power
To business with the king, more than the scope
Of these delated articles allow. (I.ii)

This is certainly not a job that requires two diplomats. Claudius sends them as a pair to keep them honest. They are to watch each other, and report back on their return.

Rosencrantz (Kelsey Meiklejohn) and Guildenstern (Jack Powers)
Rosencrantz (Kelsey Meiklejohn)
Guildenstern (Jack Powers)

Due to his melancholy disposition, and later to his mental instability, Hamlet is the subject of much of the surveillance (as Claudius says, "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go."). We barely see Hamlet in our production before Claudius and Gertrude have employed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather,
So much as from occasion you may glean,
Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him thus,
That, open'd, lies within our remedy. (II.ii)

Hamlet's college friends' business at Elsinore is two-fold. First, they're asked to cheer him up. If Claudius and Gertrude are not letting Hamlet go back to school in Wittenberg, they'll bring his friends from there to Elsinore. But secondly, more importantly, and more tellingly, the king and queen want Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to report back to them on Hamlet. At this point, there is nothing sinister in Claudius' request. He is keeping his eye on everybody.

Opheia (Kristin Rogers) and Polonius (Jay Tilley)
Opheia (Kristin Rogers)
and Polonius (Jay Tilley)

Polonius' role in Claudius' administration is never explicit, but he is at home with espionage. He is quick to use his own daughter to test his theories about Hamlet's madness. Well before the famous nunnery scene, he asks Ophelia first to avoid Hamlet, cutting off all communication between the two. A (fairly) obedient daughter, she does. But Hamlet nevertheless comes to Ophelia, doubtless aware that his "mad" actions will get back to the king. Polonius tests Hamlet himself, and twice, hides himself while others interrogate Hamlet - first Ophelia, then Gertrude.

However, Polonius' espionage work is not limited to Hamlet. In a revealing scene, as soon as Polonius' son Laertes leaves to return to school in France, Polonius puts a tail on him. He wants to know who Laertes' friends are, his and their habits, and how he handles insults. This scene is often cut, as it is in our version, due to time. We did use it, however, to inform us that Polonius is far more shrewd than many productions give him credit for. His foolishness, like Hamlet's madness, is an act that makes him seem less threatening, and puts him in a better position to glean information from others.

Devices for Surveillance

Elsinore on CCTV
Elsinore on CCTV

The film of the David Tennant production does a wonderful job of showing this surveillance. Every move is being recorded on CCTV - the guards patrolling the perimeter, Hamlet in the hallways and in the main room in Elsinore. Every once in a while, the film cuts to the CCTV camera view, constantly reminding us of the world these Danes inhabit. Hamlet, too, is fully aware of the electronic eye on him, which builds up to a point of frustration - he rips a camera off the wall and begins his soliloquy: "Now I am alone. . . ."
Hytner's National Theatre production utilizes similar elements on stage. Nearly all of Hamlet's movements are monitored by cameras and armed guards wearing earpieces, who occupied the stage for most of the production. Polonius' instructions to Ophelia are accompanied by photographs of her relationship with the prince.
Branagh's film production, set in the 19th century, conveys the same sense of espionage and surveillance with one-way mirrors and hidden passages. His Hamlet is not always being watched, but is never sure.

Our modest and minimalist production in the round utilizes simpler devices. Our Claudius seems to be behind every door. Every time Hamlet leaves Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, Claudius enters from another direction, eager for a full report. He does the same after Gertrude's conference with her son. Polonius calls Ophelia's cell phone and places it in her pocket before her encounter with Hamlet.

Whether a production focuses on Hamlet's side or Claudius', the idea of surveillance is imperative. Hamlet must know that he is under surveillance, for he launches counter-intelligence measures himself in the forms of his madness and his play, "The Mousetrap." Similarly, any production must acknowledge that Claudius' regime is an intelligence-driven government. Claudius doubtlessly realizes that knowledge is power, and surrounds himself with diplomats and spies, so that no piece of information relating to the state of Denmark escapes his grasp. What's more, he realizes that the information is better when it "come[s] not single spies/ But in battalions."