The character of Hamlet is often described, in Poland, as “the Polish Prince,” and is considered a significant figure in Polish culture. Since his first appearance in Poland (the first documented reference to Shakespeare’s play was in 1778, though it may have circulated earlier in written form) Hamlet became “a medium through which actors, directors, translators and critics tried to voice their concerns and deal with problems in their contemporary Poland.” Hamlet’s famous question, “To be or not to be,” was interpreted by the Poles as a burning political and moral dilemma: “To fight or not to fight — for the country’s independence.” The eminent Polish painter, poet, dramatist, literature and theater critic Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907), even suggested that the story of the Danish prince could have taken place at the Wawel Castle in Cracow:
You can see him: walking with a book in his hand in the upper gallery of the Jagiellonian palace. You can see him: about midnight going to the guards, where his friend Horatio is waiting for him on the terraces of the Wawel castle near Lubranka, in the vicinity of the Casimier part of the castle, and there the Ghost appears!
Polish painters, too, were inspired by the play. Jacek Malczewski, for instance, who is regarded as the father of Polish Symbolism. Malczewski “combined the predominant style of his times, with the historical motifs of Polish martyrdom, the Romantic ideals of independence, the Christian and Greek traditions, folk mythology, as well as his love of natural environment […]. His painting revolved around a few carefully selected motifs, constantly retold and expanded into mythology filled with national symbols.” In 1903 Malczewski painted one of his most celebrated works, the “Portret Aleksandra Wielopolskiego” [The Portrait of Alexander Wielopolski], commonly referred to as the “Polish Hamlet.” Historian Wiesław Juszczak has said, of the portrait, “This is not ‘a’ man in a background, which may represent nature ‘in general,’ but a Pole against the background of Poland.” The subject of the painting, Alexander Wielopolski, was a conservative, pro-Russian Polish aristocrat. Though his aim was to win more liberties for his country, establish a Polish school system and local government, he eventually accepted Russian rule over Poland. Malczewski’s painting symbolizes Wielopolski’s dilemma: should he serve the Russian government, or attempt to save the nation by staging another uprising?
Adam Heydel, Malczewski’s friend and biographer, gives his own interpretation of the work: “The two allegorical females symbolise an old enslaved Poland and a young revolutionary Poland breaking their chains,” while Wielopolski, “unaware of the tragedy, plays with a daisy.” Perhaps Wielopolski is plucking daisy petals in the hope that they will do the decision-making (“to serve, or not to serve, to serve, or not to serve…)
The “Portret Aleksandra Wielopolskiego” can be seen at the National Museum in Warsaw.
And here below: