Hamlet, David Bevington concludes, "helps us to understand ourselves and who we are socially". It's quite a claim, but one that this slender vessel ably justifies. Bevington synthesises the Hamlet phenomenon from the conjectured date of its composition right down to Nicholas Hytner's 2010-11 National Theatre production (reviewed in Times Higher Education, 16 December 2010).
Hamlet itself, as befits Shakespeare's most iridescent achievement, is a multifarious prodigy, and Bevington deals with the play's textual manifestations, performance history (both on stage and screen), critical reception, musical adaptations, popular offshoots, parodies, quotations and even its place at the heart of contemporary spoken English. In this respect, Murder Most Foul mimics the generic inclusivity of the bewildered Polonius as he attempts to encapsulate the evasive creativity of the players: "The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited."
But it goes without saying that Bevington, one of the heavyweights of Shakespeare scholarship, is infinitely more eloquent than the paratactic Polonius. Whereas the "foolish prating knave" seeks in his absurd compounds to contain and delimit the polyphony of the Elsinore troupe, Bevington reads the play's many afterlives alongside one another, so that each component is mutually complementary. As he puts it, "the staging, criticism, and editing of Hamlet go hand in hand over the centuries from 1599-1600 to the present day". This book's concision belies its thoroughness, and there is a clear sense of how the play's meanings have shifted in the 400 years between its first performance and its most recent incarnations.
At the same time, Bevington's informality makes this less a scholarly tome and more a democratising project. His models, he tells us, are the introductory studies of Shakespeare that seek both to popularise and proselytise: those by Jonathan Bate, Katherine Duncan-Jones, Stephen Greenblatt and Stanley Wells. "This book", Bevington writes, "is addressed to general readers and theatre enthusiasts and anyone fascinated by Hamlet." (One imagines the last category to be a publisher's favourite dream!)
The flaw in this populism is manifest in the book's occasional tendency towards facileness: "Dr Samuel Johnson, that is, not Ben Jonson"; "Hamlet is handed a little black recorder (the musical instrument, not a recording device)"; "Sir Walter Raleigh (Professor of English Literature at Oxford, not to be confused with the Raleigh or Ralegh of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court)". Would the most inexperienced Hamlet virgin really assume that the "recorder" given to the Prince is a sort of Elizabethan iPod?
In places, Bevington's critical discourse is overly colloquial. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deserve their fate for "sticking their noses into Hamlet's business" or "for snooping"; Ophelia, like Polonius, is "in the wrong place at the wrong time". Here, Bevington protests his populism too much.
Not everything here is familiar though, even to the most hardened Hamleteer. The expression "Hamlet without the Prince" apparently derives from "an account in the London Morning Post, September 1775, telling of a touring company which suddenly discovered that its leading player had run off with the innkeeper's daughter". Unfamiliar too are the financial misgivings of a 19th-century manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, F.B. Chatterton: "Shakespeare spells ruin". Nor did I know that Richard Burton's contract insisted all recordings of his performance be destroyed.
As these gems indicate, this is more of an engaging history of Hamlet than a sustained critical analysis. With characteristic elegance, Bevington demonstrates the bottomless quality of the play: there are more things in Hamlet than are dreamt of in (y)our philosophy.
Murder Most Foul: Hamlet Through the Ages
By David Bevington. Oxford University Press. 256pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780199599103. Published 23 June 2011