RICHARD BURBAGE (lead actor and shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men): Well, the thing you have to remember is that 1599 was like the worst year ever.
HENRY CONDELL (actor, shareholder): The Earl of Essex barged into the capital, said he was the rightful ruler, got all the way to the queen’s bedchamber.
BURBAGE: Not to mention the plague. It was like, again? How long can I keep wearing rosemary under my nose?
CONDELL: And we hadn’t had a hit since the first part of Henry IV.
BURBAGE: We started trying these grab-bag titles just to get people through the door. As You Like It. What You Will.
CONDELL: Didn’t help.
BURBAGE: I think it was Heminges who had the idea for Hamlet.
JOHN HEMINGES (actor, shareholder, grocer): I was going through the repertoire, wondering what we could dust off. There was an old script called Hamlet lying around.
PHILIP HENSLOWE (theater owner): It was no Titus Andronicus. But it had done decently for the Admiral’s Men at Newington Butts maybe five years earlier. Can’t remember if Thomas Kyd wrote it.
HEMINGES: We thought Shakespeare might spruce it up. He couldn’t figure out a new plot to save his life, but give him a remake, and zounds!
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (actor, shareholder): I thought it was a bad idea. Revenge tragedies were like so 1580s.
HENSLOWE: Admittedly, it was a musty genre. All those long speeches about murder. In old-fashioned language. I was like, what is this—freaking Seneca? But people loved it.
CONDELL: It played, but it was hokey. Whenever the Ghost was all, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther,” Burbage would crack up. He couldn’t stay in character.
BURBAGE: “Murther!” (chuckles)
SHAKESPEARE: I guess I felt like if people were coming for murther, you had to give them murther.
HEMINGES: Casting was tricky. Burbage always played the lead. But he didn’t identify with Hamlet.
BURBAGE: There was this line where Hamlet talks about “the dejected havior of the visage.” Now, people have said a lot of things about the havior of my visage, not gonna lie, but “dejected” is not one of them. I’m basically a sunny guy.
SHAKESPEARE: I was like, “It’s called acting, Burbage!”
HEMINGES: Finally, he asked someone to drown his puppy. I thought it was a bit extreme, but we did it.
BURBAGE: Once I lost Fido, I finally understood Hamlet.
CONDELL: The other problem was a line about Polacks. Horatio says that Hamlet’s father once “smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.”
HEMINGES: We thought we might tour to Poland, and we weren’t sure if it would be offensive.
CONDELL: Apparently there’s a stereotype about Polacks not being skilled on the ice. That’s supposedly why the Danes and Norwegians kept conquering them.
SHAKESPEARE: I didn’t know. I’d never even met a Polack! It just made the verse scan.
CONDELL: We found some Poles and asked them how they felt about sledding.
HEMINGES: At least, we think they were Poles. There’s a small chance they were Lithuanian.
CONDELL: In any case, they weren’t too happy about it.
HEMINGES: Finally, we got Shakespeare to change “Polacks” to “pole-axe”: “He smote the sledded pole-axe on the ice.”
SHAKESPEARE: I had no idea what it meant, but the verse still scanned.
CONDELL: [William] Sly [who played Horatio] did this big axe gesture, and it kind of worked.
WILLIAM SLY: My dad was a woodcutter. He never approved of me going into acting. I always thought of him when I did the pole-axe. (sniffles) I liked to think he would have been proud.
HENSLOWE: The show was a bit of a hodge-podge. If you ask me, Shakespeare leaned a little hard on the three S’s: skulls, soliloquies, sword-play.
CONDELL: What really made it a hit was Fortinbras.
HEMINGES: Fortinbras was the one part Shakespeare came up with all on his own.
SHAKESPEARE: I mean, the heart of the play is the Danish-Norwegian rivalry. That’s just guaranteed box office. And I was thinking: The king of Denmark had a son, Prince Hamlet. Why didn’t the king of Norway have a son too? And then it came to me: Fortinbras!
CONDELL: It’s really perfect dramatic construction. We hear about Fortinbras. Then we see him once, briefly, at the head of an army. And then at the end of the play, when everyone’s dead, because—spoiler alert—revenge tragedy, there’s this drumbeat, and he finally bursts in, and he’s all: “Bid the soldiers shoot.” End of play.
SHAKESPEARE: It’s so badass.
HEMINGES: The audience loved it. Sent them out on a high. It’s like, sure, life sucks, but the cavalry has arrived. The kingdom is in good hands.
SHAKESPEARE: Plus, his name is like French for “Strong-in-Arms.”
BURBAGE: I wanted to play Fortinbras.
CONDELL: Fortinbras basically saved us. People kept coming back just to see the ending.
HEMINGES: The play was reprinted. Kept the box office alive until King James took the crown and made us The King’s Men.
SHAKESPEARE: I like to put it this way: no Fortinbras, no Coriolanus.