Hamlet: No happy ending like Lear (no foolin’)

So, what if you’ve got this movie, people love it in early screenings, but it’s ending is just a bummer? Well, in today’s Hollywood, the answer is simple: change the ending.

Today’s Hollywood. Or the English theater of the late 1600’s.

The History of King Lear was written by Nahum Tate around 1681, and he turned the tragedy of Lear into something a little lighter: Cordelia marries Gloucester’s good son Edgar, the bad son Edmund sees the errors of his ways, and–most importantly–Lear is back on the throne at the play’s end (hmmm, you don’t think the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660 set any precedent for that, do you?).

And it was a hit, a palpable hit. So much so that it was the Lear people saw until the 1800’s, when Edmund Kean first put the tragedy back in, and William Macready pulled Tate out of the play altogether.

There were also “happy ending” versions of Romeo and Juliet–where the lovers discover each other just in time–including operas, ballets, plays, and a faux play-within-a-play in the stage adaptation of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.

Even Othello’s operatic counterpart, Rossini’s Otello, has an alternate “happy ending.”

But Hamlet? Not so much. I’ve come across some references to a French version that ends happily, but it hew more closely to the Saxo Grammaticus source material than to Shakespeare.

But how would a happy end to Shakespeare’s Hamlet even work? Sure, Hamlet could come back (which he does), kill the baddies (ditto), and survive (not even close)… and I guess Ophelia could still be dry, safe and sound. That would make Hamlet the character bloody without consequence, and the madness exploration (with Ophelia’s parallel story) would remain un-explored.


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