Sunday, November 21, 2010

Discussion: Hamlet

The play: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

The plot tweet: Ghost orders Hamlet to revenge dad's murder; he delays, sets up play within play, kills girlfriend's dad. Play ends with bodies everywhere.

My favorite line:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


We could, if we wanted to do so, ignore the rest of William Shakespeare's work and spend our entire year on Hamlet. We'd have plenty to do, even if we only read the best and most influential of the criticism focused on this play.

So, it's daunting to tackle Hamlet in a little weekly blog post. I'm not even sure where to start. Should we talk about the back story of Hamlet and Ophelia? Of Claudius and Gertrude? Why does Hamlet feign madness, and to what extent is that madness actually feigned? Why does Hamlet delay his revenge? Does Hamlet know he is being overheard in his "get thee to a nunnery" meeting with Ophelia? Why does Ophelia go mad? Is her death a suicide or an accident? To what extent are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern complicit in the plot on Hamlet's life? In what ways does Hamlet's outlook change during the play? How much time has passed from the first to fifth acts, and how old is Hamlet, anyway?


When I wrote about Merchant of Venice, I said the play was like a kaleidoscope: Every time you look at the play from a different angle, the entire meaning shifts. The same is true of Hamlet. Hundreds of questions have been posed about this play, so the possibilities for interpretation are, perhaps, infinite.

On this reading, the question that intrigues me the most is this one: What was Hamlet like before his father died and his mother remarried? After all, we're not exactly seeing him at his best.

We know from Claudius that he is beloved by the people, and Ophelia says that he has been "the glass of fashion, and the mold of form, th' observed of all observers." She also refers to him as a scholar, a courtier and a soldier. During his time at university, he's been learning to fence, making friends with actors and carousing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We tend to think of Hamlet as a bookish, melancholy (and perhaps even whiny) scholar who can't make up his mind to act, but that's apparently not true of the pre-mourning Hamlet we don't get to meet.

Hamlet has always seemed like a "real person" who could walk off the stage into everyday life. Thinking of him as a normal guy in difficult circumstances makes him seem even more alive. As many critics (most notably Harold Bloom) have pointed out, Shakespeare's creation of Hamlet changed our understanding of what it means to be human.


  1. Ah Hamlet! The best! If anyone ever asks me what one play by Shakespeare they should read, I would say Hamlet.

  2. Lori, I agree that it is the best. I would recomend it too, although you have to be pretty committed to it. I have recomended shorter ones to those that want to try Shakespeare, but are intimidated by thesize of Hamlet. Coedies work well. Hamlet is my favorite, however, and people look at me sideways when I start spouting randome quotes seemingly from nowhere.