As part of a discussion of Shakespeare in Facebook's playwrights' group, we've spent a bit of time on Hamlet. Partly my fault, as I mentioned my own abridgement (available at Amazon.com), and my Hamlet prequel, To Kill a King (available as part of my one-act play collection, The Sixth Victim and Other Plays). During the course of the discussion, an old Roundabout production was mentioned, with the suggestion that their Hamlet went a bit overboard in the "madness" department.
When you think about it, the madness has always been a bit problematic. Why is Hamlet mad? Or pretending to be mad? What does he gain by this?
In the original—or, at least, oldest referenced—version of the story, feigning madness made sense. In that version Hamlet (Amleth) was still a youth, perhaps 15 years old, making him too young to ascend the throne and rule. Also, in that older version, there is never any question that Claudius killed his brother and seized the throne. Feigning madness makes young Hamlet harmless, deterring his uncle from killing him as a potential rival before he's old enough to act.
But in Shakespeare's version, Hamlet is older. Upon his return to Denmark, the gravedigger establishes that young Hamlet was born on the same day old Hamlet defeated old Fortinbras, 30 years earlier. Depending on just how long Hamlet was away, he would have been perhaps 28 or 29 at the beginning of the play. Old enough, then, that acting crazy would have the exact opposite effect of what he supposedly desires. It calls attention to him, makes Claudius wonder what he's up to. It really would have made a lot more sense for Hamlet to ingratiate himself with his uncle, establish a close relationship and eventually, when they were alone and unguarded, kill him.
There is absolutely no reason to presume that, before the death of old Hamlet and Gertrude's marriage to her brother-in-law, the relationship between young Hamlet and his uncle was anything but cordial. It may have been fairly close. Claudius, after all, begins the play by extending a friendly hand to his nephew, calling him his son (something that more than a few scholars have suggested Shakespeare intended to be literally true). Almost every time he refers to Hamlet, he calls him his son. The exceptions are when Hamlet behaves improperly, when Claudius in effect gives him back to Gertrude. Even at the end, when Hamlet is fighting Laertes, and the king is fully aware of Laertes' envenomed rapier and the poison in the cup, Claudius tells Gertrude, "Our son will win."
If Hamlet keeps putting off killing Claudius, the same could be said about Claudius killing Hamlet. He can't seem to bring himself to do it, and ultimately falls back on shoving the job off onto England (whose actual identity is never given). I suspect that Claudius may be afraid of Hamlet after the play, even realize that his own life's continuance hinges on Hamlet dying, but I don't think he actually dislikes him. Maybe he really is his father. That was the path I took in To Kill a King.
Now, I happen to like Claudius. Partly, this may be a function of age. I've reached that point in life where it's either Claudius or Polonius, and Claudius is just generally the cooler part. Like Hamlet, he's a fairly complex character. Shakespeare never says exactly why Claudius murdered his brother. Ambition is suggested, but was that the main reason, or just a secondary effect. Hamlet was certainly old enough to take the throne when his father died. Why didn't he?
One possibility may be his perpetual student status. With Hamlet in Wittenberg, it would have required somewhere between four and six weeks for him to be notified and return to Denmark. Fortinbras presented an immediate danger. Perhaps the council chose Claudius simply because he was there and Hamlet wasn't.
There's an obvious contrast between Claudius and old Hamlet. The old king was a man of action, a dedicated warrior. Claudius is more of the thinker. When young Fortinbras threatens to invade, it seems certain that old Hamlet would have responded by sending an army. His brother's response is to send diplomats, and the pointless violence of Branagh's version aside, the diplomatic solution works and Fortinbras is diverted to attacking Poland instead. Arguably, old Hamlet thought of violence as the first response and Claudius sees it as a last resort. If their positions were reversed, old Hamlet would have likely killed his brother's son the first time he talked back to him.
In To Kill a King I suggested that old Hamlet and Gertrude were far from the loving couple young Hamlet believed them to be. Left by himself for a few minutes, King Hamlet declares:
O Gertrude, thirty years have we in twain
Been harnessèd together, and in all
Those years my love for thee remains unchang'd;
When wed I lov'd thee not, nor do I now.
Nor do I have Claudius killing his brother because he wants to be king. He presumes Hamlet will take the throne, and only discovers that he won't as his brother is dying and reveals a secret codicil to his will declaring Hamlet a bastard. That is, in this prequel, Claudius is Hamlet's actual father and old Hamlet knows it. No, Claudius kills his brother because his brother had sent an assassin to murder Gertrude. Claudius knows fratricide is wrong, and regicide even more wrong, but to his mind saving Gertrude is worth the price, even if he can never reveal what he's done or why he's done it.
And would that I could sleep as peacefully,
Knowing what is right, and knowing, too,
That what is right to do is quite as wrong,
As any wrong the other would have done.
My course is clear, for I would have her live,
Yet clear 'tis not in any way at all;
If I would have her live, then he must die,
And doubly damn'd am I to take him off,
For he is both my brother and my king,
And both I should protect e'en with my life;
Nor dare I say to her, this hath he tried:
She knoweth not, nor will he tell her so,
For what he's done proclaims it secret strict.
He wishes she were dead, and will, I think,
Continue on until he reach that goal;
Therefore must I act to save her life,
Though hope of heaven yield to fire eterne.
Note that this doesn't change anything in Shakespeare's play. Claudius can never say what actually happened. He's managed to keep the codicil a secret, and his marriage to Gertrude has legitimized Hamlet, so if he can't follow old Hamlet to the throne he will certainly follow Claudius. A fact Claudius himself emphasizes in scene 2 of Hamlet. "You are the most immediate to our throne..." If Hamlet is 30, or close to it, then Gertrude is most likely somewhere around 50, so there's little chance of any more children. At the end of Hamlet, one reason Fortinbras can simply take the throne is that the Danish royal line is all scattered about the room dead, and Fortinbras, who is presumably closely related, can put forward that he's a legitimate successor, in much the same way Scotland's King James VI would become James I of England after the death of his cousin, Elizabeth I, not too long after Hamlet was first produced.
One obvious thing To Kill a King does change about Hamlet is the character of the Ghost. While Shakespeare has Hamlet doubting the Ghost's character and motivations, he also suggests that he's telling the truth. In light of the prequel, however, the Ghost is lying. He wants his brother dead for killing him. He wants Gertrude to live, perhaps, not because he ever cared about her, but because he's always hated her and knows that she'll suffer far more if the man she's always truly loved is killed by the son she's never dared admit was really his.
From a standpoint of acting Hamlet, the prequel affects only Claudius' performance, because he is the only character who knows the truth, and he can't say anything. And I don't think it affects it that much. I think it's the rare Claudius who hasn't at least speculated on Hamlet's parentage. Or on the length of Claudius and Gertrude's relationship. My version suggests they've been in love for years, but only did anything about it on a single drunken evening, 30 years ago. Claudius loves Gertrude, and loves her deeply. He's one of the rare Shakespearean husbands who really does seem to love his wife, and if he doesn't fight his ultimate fate that much once she's died, perhaps it's because he believes his life is over even if he lives.