A Polish Hamlet: Zbigniew Herbert’s "Elegy of Fortinbras"

Katarzyna Burzyńska


As Jan Kott observed in his seminal Shakespeare our Contemporary, Hamlet is one of but a few literary characters who lives not only beyond the text of the play but also beyond theatre. It seems that each nation possesses its own Hamlet, used for specific ends and equipped with distinctive features. Poles have their own Hamlet, imbued with specifically Polish qualities. Thinking about Polish history through the lens of Hamlet became a feature in several Polish poets' work. In 1961, Zbigniew Herbert published “Tren Fortynbrasa” [“Elegy of Fortinbras”]. As the staging of Hamlet in the Stary Theatre in Krakow in 1956 can be seen as a protest against the communist system, Herbert's poem also had political overtones. It seems to have been an expression of opposition to totalitarianism, written during “the Thaw”. Infused with a subtle irony characteristic of Herbert’s neoclassical poetry, the poem is interpreted here as manifesting a distinctly Polish Hamlet. This article offers a detailed analysis of it in the context of the contemporary political situation. References to the turbulent history of Poland explain Herbert’s appropriation of Shakespeare’s play as a political act.

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New Readings — ISSN: 13597485

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Published by: Cardiff School of Modern Languages