William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is considered by some to be the single greatest story ever written.
Hamlet has it all: ghosts, sword fights, suicide, revenge, lust, murder, philosophy, faith, manipulation, and a climactic bloodbath worthy of a Tarantino film. It’s a masterpiece of both high art and sensationalism, the only play I’ve seen performed live three times.
Not everyone likes Hamlet, of course. One of its detractors was Soviet premier Joseph Stalin.
Stalin’s hatred for the play has almost become a thing of legend, in part because it’s unclear precisely why Stalin hated the play. Entire academic papers are dedicated to answering the question.
In his autobiography Testimony, the famous Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich suggests that Stalin saw the play as excessively dark and potentially subversive.
“[Stalin] simply didn’t want people watching plays with plots that displeased him,” Shostakovich wrote; “you never know what might pop into the mind of some demented person.”
Stalin didn’t ban the play, however. He merely let it be known he disapproved of Hamlet during a rehearsal at the Moscow Art Theater, Stalin’s favorite theater.
“Why is this necessary—playing Hamlet in the Art Theater?” the Soviet leader asked.
That was all it took, Shostakovich said.
“Everyone knew about Stalin’s question directed at the Art Theater and no one wanted to risk it. Everyone was afraid,” Shostakovich observed. “And for many long years Hamlet was not seen on the Soviet stage.”
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