Distressed by his father's death and his mother's over-hasty remarriage, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is faced by a spectre from beyond the grave bearing a grim message of murder and revenge. The young Prince is driven to the edge of madness by his struggle to understand the situation he finds himself in and to do his duty. Many others, including Hamlet's beloved, the innocent Ophelia, are swept up in his tragedy, Shakespeare's most famous and one of the great stories in the literature of the world.
Shakespeare didn't write books or pamphlets or epics, he wrote plays. Short pieces of drama that were meant to be fast-paced and exciting. That they are mainly experienced today as bound books and not theatrical productions does not change their origins. If one wants to look at the achievements of Shakespeare, he should be compared to someone of a similar bent.
He should be compared with prolific writers known for catchy jokes and phrases. Writers who reuse old plots, making fun of their traditions. Writers of work meant to be performed. Writers who aim for the lowest common denominator, while still including the occasional political commentary. He should be compared to the writers of South Park; or Family Guy; or the Simpsons.
Shakespeare was meant to be lowbrow and political, but now it only reads that way to those who are well-educated enough to understand his language, reference, and the political scene of the time. He referenced mythology because that was the popular thing to do. Family Guy references 1980's pop culture. Is that any less esoteric? How esoteric would it be after 400 years?
Additionally, all of Shakespeare's magnificent plots were lifted, sometimes whole cloth, from other books and histories, just like how sit coms have 'episode types' or how the Simpsons steals the plots of popular movies.
Shakespeare was not as visionary or deep as he is often given credit for. Rather, he was always so vague with the motives and thoughts of his characters that two critics could give his characters two different and conflicting motives, but find both equally well-supported.
Is Shylock evil because he's a Jew, evil despite the fact, or evil because of the effects of racism on him? You can make a case for all three, while Marlowe (the more practised writer) never left it to chance, and where has it gotten him?
Shakespeare was an inspired and prolific author, and his effect on writing and talent for aphorism cannot be overstated. I think he probably wrote the King James version because it is so pretty. However, he is not the be-all and end-all of writing.
His popularity and central position in the canon comes mainly from the fact that you can write anything you like about his plays. Critics and professors don't have to scramble, or even leave their comfort zone. Shakespeare's work is vague enough that it rejects no interpretations. No matter your opinions, you can find them reflected in Shakespeare, or at least, not outright refuted.
His is a grey world, and his lack of agenda leaves us pondering what he could possibly have been like. His vague and endless interpretation makes his writing the perfect representation of an unsure, unjust world. No one is really right or wrong, and if they were, there would be no way to know it.
I don't know whether this makes him the most or least poignant of writers. Is the author's absence from the stories the most rarefied example of the craft, or is it just lighthearted pandering? I'm still not sure.
The title role is the quintessential test of an actor; Hamlet appears in a larger proportion of the play than in any other Shakespeare role--two thirds--and some fine Hamlets have appeared on film. There's the classic 1948 film directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, there's the 1990 Zeffirelli version starring Mel Gibson with Glenn Close as Gertrude and there's the 1996 film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Branagh's film is visually stunning, has incredible depth of casting with celebrated actors taking even the minor roles, and it's the longest using the full "eternity text;" it's a little over four hours. Those with less stamina might prefer Zeffirelli's version, at close to half the length. One thing about performances you're likely to see. Especially because the title role is so demanding, you usually see mature, veteran actors as Hamlet. Olivier was in his forties when he played the role, Gibson and Branagh in their thirties. I think this throws off the character. Hamlet is young--still a student and often referred to as "young." And age matters. One thing I loved about Zefirelli's Romeo and Juliet was how he cast actors that actually were the right ages--it made so much more sense of their actions, and I think that's true of Hamlet too. It makes more sense of his famous hesitations, his emo soliloquies, his grief over his father, his near suicidal musings and manic turns and why he feels so betrayed by his mother. If she married young and he is still young, she could possibly still produce a child that could displace him as heir. But all that is lost with a Hamlet pushing 40 and a post-menopausal Gertrude.
One of those books/plays you have to read or you're an ignoramus, but one that pays to know, and is even enjoyable if you have one whit of poetry in your soul. It's not my favorite Shakespeare play, but if by some miracle you got through high school and college without being exposed to Shakespeare, this is probably the one you really should know over all the others.
Despite some arguments to the contrary, he still comes across to me as a bipolar obsessive with impulse control problems, a distinct lack of responsibility, a poor attitude toward girlfriends and who, if we read only what is written, appears to make monumental judgments about his mother on little or no evidence. In other words, I don't like him. Of course, I don't particularly like fellows such as Mr. Macbeth either, but it's a different lack of esteem: a dislike for the bad guy (which is a sneaking regard) rather than a disdain for the self-absorbed.
I find the characters of Polonius, Ophelia and Gertrude much more intriguing in this play and I do enjoy it for them. So, while I love the language of this play, and the supporting cast, and acknowledge the structure and plot, I still don't enjoy it as much as a romp through Birnham Wood or, better yet, Lear's Britain.
When I was a child reading about Shakespeare plays in my Tales from Shakespeare (and seeing occasional live performances of the comedies), and later when I was a teenager watching them on videotape, I couldn’t quite see what the big deal was with Hamlet. It sounded to me like it lacked the romance of Romeo and Juliet, the fun of the comedies, the magic of the romances, and the bloodiness of some of the other tragedies like Macbeth.
How wrong I was.
While I wouldn’t necessarily advocate using a complete performance text—that would make for a long evening—and there are actually a large number of contradictions in the play as it has come down to us, what a joy it is to read all of Shakespeare’s words! Hamlet is a long play, but in general it flows beautifully, with long, elaborate scenes that fold into each other. I haven’t made a count, but I’d wager that in addition to being Shakespeare’s lengthiest play, Hamlet has, on average, the longest scenes. To me, this makes it read easier, but I might be in the minority in that respect.
Hamlet as a character is a vehicle for some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful poetry and most searching philosophy. The play has gained its worldwide renown almost solely because of his soliloquies, which are many and lengthy. With all due respect to the famous “To be or not to be,” my favorite of the lot is “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” I’m not an actor by profession, and haven’t been on the stage since junior high, but this speech stirred the actor in me. It’s a virtuosic piece, which opens with Hamlet’s typical melancholy and self-deprecation and ends with a moment of true resolve and excitement. Of course, the next time we see him, he’s depressed again and contemplating suicide.
Going in, of course, I already knew about the wonderful poetry and philosophy in Hamlet. What I didn’t expect was how powerfully I would relate to the main character. Perhaps this is because I was approaching the play for the first time with the understanding that Hamlet is a very young man. He has traditionally been thought to be about 30 due to a remark of the gravedigger’s, but all other internal evidence points to him being in his late teens or so, and it’s very much possible that the gravedigger’s remark was a later addition to accommodate an older actor. When I instead read him as a teenager or young adult, all the pieces came together and the play made sense to me for the first time.
Not that one has to be young in order to relate to Hamlet—he is a universal character, and it’s really remarkable how many different ways he can be interpreted. A friend and I were discussing how we might each play the role were we ever given the chance: he would probably emphasize his intellectualism, his shrewdness, his struggle with madness, and his quest for revenge, whereas I would stress his youth, depression, and emotional variance.
There’s so much in this play that it is utterly impossible to touch on everything in a single review, so I suppose I’ll stop while I’m ahead. I’m sure that when I reread, I will notice new things that I never saw before. And I do plan on rereading Hamlet. Like all truly great works of literature, it’s an inexhaustible gold mine, a fountain of insight one can’t help returning to.
I teach high school literature to a group of students weekly. We read Hamlet after finishing Richard III. The students were much more passionate about Hamlet. And when I use the term passion, I mean that in both a positive and negative sense. Some of the students felt Hamlet was a whiny, pathetic nincompoop. Other students were impressed with Hamlet's deceptive insanity and classified him as a hero, although of a more darker variety of heroes.
Some of the more interesting discussion topics included the following:
1. Does Hamlet rule events or do events rule Hamlet?
2. What is the definition of a hero? Does Hamlet fit that definition?
3. Is Hamlet truly insane? What is the definition of insanity?
4. Is inaction actually action?
Even when the students disliked Hamlet, they still seemed to feel that his character had a depth of authenticity. Because of Hamlet's "realness," they were able to feel the play and feel Hamlet more than some of the other characters they have read about this year, like Aeneas, Antigone and Richard III. It felt like a clinical, dispassionate discussion with the other works of literature. But, the Hamlet discussion was real.
During our classroom discussions we remarked on the fact that the play seemed full ambiguity. Could we trust ourselves to make any determinations. One student humorously remarked that maybe Shakespeare did this purposefully, laughing at all of the confusion and argument that this would create in future generations.
And while Hamlet is not my favorite work of Shakespeare, I do think it has a timeless value. Everyone should read or see it!
”In suggesting that these three worlds – the world of Hamlet's mind and the imagination; the physical, political, and “historical” world of Denmark; and the world of dramatic fiction and play – are parallel to and superimposed upon one another, I am suggesting, also, that the play is about the whole question of boundaries, thresholds, and liminality or border crossing; boundary disputes between Norway and Denmark, boundaries between youth and age, boundaries between reality and imagination, between audience and actor. And these boundaries seem to be constantly shifting.”
Also, of course, fathers and sons, words and meanings, just so much in this one, which, I suppose, is why I enjoy new things about it each time I read it. And I do love Hamlet. He treats Ophelia terribly, and Laertes at her grave, but his indecision, his anxiety, his sincerity, his hopefulness are all so... relatable! Really, I love it all. The relationships, the humor, the wordplay, the poetry. Happy sigh.
I’d advise watching a video or move, or perhaps listening to an audio presentation either before or while reading this one. No matter how good your reading skills are, the enjoyment and understanding of any play is enhanced Psy seeing it performed. This time out I watched an old stage production starring Richard Burton. The highlight of that one is Hume Cronyn’s marvelously humorous take on Polonius.
Highest recommendation possible.
Full review to come.
I thoroughly enjoyed a recent reread of Hamlet, and was much impressed with its layers of illusion, ambiguity, and deception – absolutely brilliant!
And I had forgotten how many great lines, still used today with regularity, had their origin in Hamlet; “To be or not to be …” is the most obvious and unforgettable, of course, but there are many more! How about “This above all: to thine own self be true” (1.3), or “What a piece of work is man!” (2.2). And, in some modern English equivalent, who has not said, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t” (2.2). The wise old adage about the danger of doing business with friends is from Hamlet, too: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,/For loan oft loses both itself and friend” (1.3). But alas, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (3.2).
Finally, I couldn’t but marvel at Shakespeare’s continued influence some four hundred years after his time; and this lead me to wonder who, if any, among our contemporary writers, will we (well, not you and I, but others) be quoting four centuries hence?
The rest is silence.