This review is about an Audible exclusive audiobook, which I realize limits its accessibility. However, if you’d like to read a cheaper ebook version, that’s also available.
Most of us are pretty familiar with Hamlet. I love the play and have read the original a few times, seen three or four movie versions, and read any number of retellings, all without any particular effort to seek them out. But the novel I’m recommending today manages to make it all fascinating in a new way, and would be just as appropriate for a total newcomer as a Shakespeare enthusiast. The book is Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, a Novel by A.J. Hartley and David Hewson, written exclusively for Audible in 2014 and read by the lovely Richard Armitage.
First, let me just say that exclusive Audible books read by noted actors are a smart move because I WANT THEM. (In fact, Audible could do a lot more to promote them — I know there are more, including a Romeo and Juliet from the same team, but I can’t find them all together for shopping purposes). Of course, they have to be executed well, and this one is absolutely fantastic. Richard Armitage reads wonderfully, and because he’s a super good actor, it’s almost like a cross between an audiobook and a dramatization. I consider audiobooks something more like attending a performance than me reading a book anyway, so I love that added level of interest and care for the finished product. Armitage does voices and accents, but not like silly high-pitched voices for women or anything like that. The length is good, about 9.5 hours, so there’s substance but not a commitment for the rest of eternity like some classics. Plus it’s written well for audio. There aren’t any odd audio gimmicks, but it flows well, and what I might’ve found slightly repetitive in a written novel just helped me keep track of everything here.
But we should also talk about what an awesome novel and reinterpretation this is. I loved how it adds layers of depth and grit to the situation, so you’re not just going “blah blah blah, now this scene and then this one, this monologue comes next…” but it’s still the same story and presents shades of familiar characters. Everything the authors do makes sense for the characters we know, but these new versions are more complex and yet more understandable. The kings have personalities, for instance, and they pull Hamlet in different directions. I mean, there must be a reason why the backstory’s events consume him so much, and the authors create a totally plausible scenario of love and hate and aspirations and yearning barely hinted at in the play, not to mention a legitimate intrigue plot rejuvenated with new suspicions and uncertain motivations. First we question who murdered the old king, and then whether or not it was a bad idea…
That aspect of being a novel, not a play or even a movie, also helps create an atmosphere and setting. There’s a sense of an entire castle, not just a few people in an empty building, and the whole castle is troubled, not just the prince. Plus it helps us understand external international concerns, giving the drama context. I’ve never gotten to the end of Hamlet without everyone in the room asking who’s king now, but in this novel, I understand.
I should mention this is a very adult book, full of violence and sex, but the authors did a great job with the female characters. There’s historical sexism and slutshaming from other characters, and references to possible rape, but none of that is condoned in the authors’ voice. Their female characters get just as much depth and newness as the men, with scenes of their own, and their perspectives given as much weight. There’s a really cool metanarrative present about how everyone sees Ophelia as a silly, weak girl — the way she’s often seen in commentary and how she often comes across in film versions — but she’s not. She’s no unrealistic warrior-princess revision, but she has secrets and she is fierce. Gertrude has her own interiority too, and the authors create as much of a relationship between Gertrude and Ophelia as there’s space for in the story.
There’s also a new character, young Yorick, the son of old Yorick. The jester or fool is a common character in Shakespeare plays, often the humorous voice of sanity, and I’ve always found it rather telling that in Hamlet, the play about death, the fool is dead before the play ever starts. But adding him back into the mix serves a purpose here. Yorick is Hamlet’s frequent companion, and he allows us to think through the play without using any monologues. It sounds technical, but leaving out the monologues was really a crucial choice and sets the tone for the whole piece. Yorick gives Hamlet someone to talk to, splits his role in a way and lets us see why Hamlet does things. Yorick brings out the possibilities of scenes like Claudius praying in the chapel — we often think of this as the moment Hamlet “almost” kills Claudius, but is it? Was he ever going to? Why didn’t he? Yorick asks those kinds of questions for us.
I’m not saying this Hamlet is better than the original or anything, but one of the things I always find fascinating about plays is how they change with every stage and every actor. They’re meant to be performed, so they’re not quite frozen in form like a novel or a film. In the authors’ afterwords, they even point out that the written version of Hamlet we have now wasn’t the first version, and was probably not a version performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. This audiobook, in an important sense, is a performance of Hamlet. It’s not meant as the be-all and end-all of Hamlets forever after, just a variation on a theme, bringing out different facets of the same idea. And it makes sense in itself, it’s coherent, which is the most important thing for me. I don’t want to see a few new things wedged in for shock value, I want to see this kind of depth imagined and brought to life, and I did. I absolutely loved it, and I’ll be looking into Romeo and Juliet as soon as possible!