Props Used in Hamlet
A definitive list of props for Shakespeare's Hamlet does not exist, because there is no definitive production of Hamlet. The angst-ridden heir to the Danish throne has appeared in Medieval, Renaissance, Elizabethan, Edwardian and contemporary settings, with appropriate props for each age. Film versions faithfully reproduce historical details, scene by scene. Big budgets mean more props, and minimalist productions focus on acting and emotion on a bare stage. But some bits of business in Hamlet transcend varied directorial interpretations and do need their props. At times, those props have threatened to overshadow the play.
The Bard's Boards
Elizabethan theaters were vastly different performance spaces than the acoustically calibrated proscenium or black box theaters where most plays are staged today. The rectangular stage platform stuck out into an open-air courtyard where holders of cheap tickets stood, exposed to the weather. Wealthier patrons ringed the courtyard in steep tiers of boxes with a roof. Almost all action took place in full view of the audience, sets were minimal and props were spoken of as often as they were seen. Shakespeare didn't list the essential props for Hamlet, so reconstructing what he might have used is largely guesswork. Throughout the play's four centuries of performance, stage and film directors have added and subtracted props that may or may not have been seen in Shakespeare's time.
Alas, Poor Yorick!
Shakespeare has the gravediggers, with their shovels, tossing up two unremarked skulls before they uncover their old friend Yorick's, and Hamlet waxes eloquent about the fragility of life, the inevitability of death and the meaning of existence. Most Yorick skulls are just props, but in 1982, a patron of the Royal Shakespeare Company bequeathed his actual skull to be used onstage. The company limited its use to rehearsals until the RSC clandestinely put the real skull onstage in 2008. Only the actors knew the skull was real until the play closed; the director was afraid the novelty of using a real skull would overshadow the performance.
Cups and Daggers
The end-of-play slaughter in *Hamlet" would be difficult to stage without prop foils, daggers and cups. Laertes and Hamlet "play" at a sword challenge, and King Claudius has rigged Laertes' sword with a poison tip to wound and kill Hamlet. Both combatants are fatally scored with the poison tip during their feints. Hamlet uses his dagger to stab Claudius in the end. Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, drinks from a poisoned cup meant for him. The scene concludes with a heap of bodies and would be impossible to sort out without the visual cues of the weapons and goblets. In an earlier scene in Queen Gertrude's chamber, Hamlet mistakenly thinks Claudius is hiding behind a curtain and stabs at the curtain with a dagger, killing Polonius, the king's chief counselor and father of Laertes and Ophelia. That death sets the stage for the critical suicide and murders that follow.
Bits and Bobs
Official documents and letters are hinted at but not seen onstage. A film would likely use a hard copy of Hamlet's letter to Claudius requesting readmission to the kingdom of Denmark. Gertrude and Claudius wear crowns, an affront that increases Hamlet's fury. Prince Hamlet's script for the players' performance, calling out Claudius for King Hamlet's murder, is waved about and delivered. The players wear exaggerated masks during their performance before the royal court. Ophelia has a necklace, given to her by Hamlet, which she tries to return when he scathingly repudiates her, leading to her drowning. She pretends to read a book as Hamlet enters to deliver his To be, or not to be soliloquy. The queen carries flowers to scatter on Ophelia's grave, confirming for Hamlet that the corpse is really Ophelia's.
- Folger Shakespeare Library: Inside the Theaters
- BBC History Magazine: Shakespeare's Props
- BBC News: Bequeathed Skull Stars in Hamlet
- The Prop Store: Hamlet's Letter to Claudius
- Murder Most Foul: Hamlet on Stage in 1599 to 1601
- Royal Shakespeare Company: Themes in Hamlet
- Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; William Shakespeare
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .