Bevington’s latest book seeks to trace the history of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from its roots in Scandinavian epic lore, right the way up to present day postmodernist readings. The book uses a chronological structure to approach this mine of information, splitting the centuries into 7 chapters of around 30 pages each (so if, say, you’ve got an essay which desperately requires 18th century criticism of Hamlet, you can skip the Elizabethan, Restoration, Victorian, modern and postmodern readings).
All the book’s chapters follow the same basic structure. First, there is an introduction to each historical epoch, detailing the hard facts about stage production, textual revisions, and contemporary reactions. These are mixed in with some more offbeat details (did you know that Shakespeare himself played the ghost of Hamlet’s father? Or that he was actually ridiculed in his time for his lack of classical education?). The facts are then followed by a discussion of each period’s political and ideological readings, before Bevington ties off the chapter with a short summary, tying all the information he has just bombarded you with into neat, tidy, digestible package.
But while the range of information on display is dazzling in itself, what is particularly impressive about Murder Most Foul is the ease with which Bevington guides his reader through relatively complex ideas. You would not need an academic background to understand anything in this book, and yet the text deals with Freud, post-modernism, and other lesser known but no less complex theories. Part of the key to the book’s clarity is its heavy use of quotation, both from Hamlet and the secondary texts. Bevington is an expert at unpacking these quotes, and is able to couch them in everyday language that does not oversimplify, but succeeds in making them accessible to the general reader. As an aside, there’s also the odd picture which really helps to bring to life everything he talks about.
The only criticisms I have are that sometimes the facts are discussed for too long (do you need fifteen pages of comparison between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the original Norse saga?) and that Hamlet’s plot is reiterated too many times (though this may be to accommodate readers who only dip into chapters they are particularly interested in).
Overall, Murder Most Foul would serve as an excellent introduction not only to Hamlet, but also to the wider context of Shakespeare’s work and the ongoing history of critical theories surrounding it.