Ham and Sharp: Under Cover of Darkness

Hamlet was the first play I ever read voluntarily. After becoming intrigued about it through a Games Magazine puzzle, I sought it out during my first year of high school. I was taking English AP, the advanced class, and we had just read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first of two assigned Shakespeare plays. The other was Romeo & Juliet; when I asked about Hamlet, my teacher Mr. Young (much more about whom you’ll hear later) told me it was on next year’s curriculum. I couldn’t wait a year, so I checked it out of the library and dove in on my own.

I believe that book covers shape many of our impressions about the texts they contain, and Hamlet was no exception. I’ve already described my relationship to the play as defined by mysteries, so it was fitting that my first Hamlet cover was a complete enigma: part of the Swan Shakespeare series, it was completely black, except for an elaborately serifed white “S.”

That was it: white S, white title, black background. To this day, I don’t know whether the S was meant to stand for “Swan,” or “Shakespeare,” or both.

Swan Book CoverCompounding the mystery is the fact that I cannot find an image of the original Swan Hamlet cover online. Etsy has some copies of other plays from the Swan Shakespeare Series, and they were all identical, except the colour of the background changed for each play. So here is an image of the cover for Romeo and Juliet; swap purple for black, and you get the idea.

Now, looking closely, I can see that the upper curve of the “S” vaguely resembles a swan’s neck and head, and the bottom could arguably be a tail. But if it was meant to be a swan, it was too abstract for my adolescent eye to parse. Still, it’s a more striking design than the New Swan Shakespeare Editions, which merely offer up the Droeshout Portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio (the ugliest and most oft reproduced of his images).New Swan Cover

Despite its minimalism, the vintage Swan Hamlet cover was evocative for me. Partly, I’ll admit, it was my own associations with the letter “S” (both my first and last name begin with it). But mostly, I loved that, of all the tragedies, Hamlet got to be black — and not even the fancy, glossy black you might expect, but matte black, a black that absorbs all light. There were mysteries beneath that cover, and the only way to excavate them was to dig in — as I did, without even the aid of a teacher.

Since that time, I’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of different Hamlet book covers, posters, and miscellaneous artwork. Even the terrible ones add something to my experience, if not always to the mystery. Someday I’ll post again about book covers; in the meantime, here’s a page featuring ten extraordinarily varied covers. A Google image search yields even more fascinating examples. Which is your favourite? Do you remember the cover of the Hamlet you first read, or studied in school?


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