The Hamlet of Stepney Green Analysis
by Bernard Kops

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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The Hamlet of Stepney Green unfolds as Sam Levy, an invalid, has his bed pushed out into the garden by his old family friend Solly Segal and the latter’s daughter, Hava. The lower-middle-class Jewish milieu is discernible in the dialogue. Two conflicts are immediately apparent: Sam believes himself to be dying, while the other characters, including his wife, Bessie, believe that he is exaggerating; and Hava (recently returned from an Israeli kibbutz) is interested in David, the Levys’ son, but he ignores her. Sam’s main worry is whether David (Davey, as Sam calls him) will settle down to take over his small pickled-herring business. David himself has ambitions to be a famous crooner. “I want to hear my voice blaring from the record shops as I whizz by in my Jaguar,” he declares, and he appears to have no desire to satisfy his father in any way. This conflict emerges as the main issue in the first act, although the father and son are in no way antagonistic to each other. In fact, Sam’s values are revealed to be ambivalent as the play proceeds, for he vacillates between urging David to settle down and urging him to be adventurous. Sam is also concerned that Davey marry for love and suggests that his own marriage was a second-best affair. He goes so far as to claim, “I’ve been poisoned by someone or something. What’s the odds? By my life or by my wife . . . so my wife poisoned me.” Davey does not understand the life/wife play of words and takes his father literally, especially when his father then suddenly collapses and dies.

Act 2 is divided into two scenes, both set in the living room of the Levy house, a week apart. Sam’s funeral has just taken place, but Sam appears to David, who is sitting alone in the living room, waiting for the others to return from the service. Sam is now a ghost; he appears solid enough, but he tells David, “I live only in your mind and heart. No one else will see me; nobody else will want to.” Parallels with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), begin to manifest themselves, especially when David suggests the need for revenge. Sam, appearing not to realize that David has misunderstood his claim to have been poisoned by his life and wife, does not stop David’s increasingly frantic talk.

They are interrupted in the debate by three salesmen coming in one after another, two apparently seeking to sell tombstones, the other to sort out Sam’s life insurance. David continues to talk to Sam, and as the others cannot see him, they believe David to be mad. Consequently, it is not clear whether he can be paid any money from the insurance. The others return from the funeral and indulge in typical postfuneral talk. David reappears dressed as a teddy boy (“but the similarity to Hamlet must be stressed,” Bernard Kops writes in his stage directions), makes a bizarre oration, and points a finger at his mother.

The second scene is set at the end of the week of mourning required by Jewish ritual; everyone is there as before. David now wants to put into motion a plan for revenge, but his behavior appears increasingly irrational. Sam’s ghost reappears and tries to calm David down, telling Davey to treat his mother gently. David has noticed that Solly Segal is beginning to see Bessie as a future wife and that she is offering little resistance to the idea. Sam welcomes this turn of events, however, and sees a possible way to “take revenge.” While the salesmen play cards, the women try to start a séance. Sam interferes, and the scene ends in total confusion, with Sam getting the message through that he is happy for Segal to marry Bessie.

Act 3 is set eight months later. It is early spring, and the scene shifts between living room and garden. The room is decorated for a festivity, apparently the wedding of Segal and Bessie. The three salesmen reenter, though they have now switched jobs. David and Sam also reenter. Sam sees that the only way to rid David of his...

(The entire section is 1,599 words.)