You guys, I finally read Hamlet!
This checks off the reading challenge for February, a bit belated, but at least it’s for a good reason because I did in fact finish my WIP, and my agent and I have already had an awesome chat about it, and I’m diving into revisions.
Anyway…Hamlet. One of my 2016 Reading Challenge items is a Shakespearean play, and I selected Hamlet because I hadn’t read it before. In high school and university, I studied a couple others, but Hamlet’s story always got missed for me.
Before I get into my impressions on reading the play, I think I should probably include a quick plot summary, because I plan to discuss some of the details. There will be spoilers if you read further, but it’s almost five hundred years old, there has to be a limit on the spoiler warnings, right?
Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. His father, King Hamlet, has recently died, and his mother, Gertrude, married her brother-in-law, Claudius, who is now crowned as the new King even though Hamlet should be the heir. Returning home from studies abroad, Hamlet is distraught by all this, understandably. The Ghost of his father appears and entreats him to enact revenge upon Claudius, who murdered him.
Vowing to feign madness so that he can roam the castle at will, and observe everyone, Hamlet agrees to help the Ghost, but finds himself confused. He questions whether the Ghost is truly his father, or if it is a devilish creature sent to test him. To seek the truth, he arranges for a troupe of actors to perform a play called The Murder of Gonzago, which Hamlet has rewritten portions of to mirror the murder as described by the Ghost. Claudius does react in a way that shows he is conscience-stricken, so Hamlet concludes he is guilty and resolves to kill him in order to avenge his father.
He delays, however, reluctant to have the death on his conscience. He turns down a prime opportunity to stick a knife in Claudius’ back, because the King is praying and Hamlet decides it would be better if he died while doing something less pious. Later, while having a private conversation with his mother, Queen Gertrude, in her rooms, he realises someone is hiding behind the curtain, and thinks it is Claudius. Without flinging the curtain aside to check, he runs a sword through the spy. It turns out to be Polonius, the father of Ophelia, who is Hamlet’s love interest.
In punishment for killing Polonius, Claudius exiles Hamlet to England. He instructs Hamlet’s visiting school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to deliver the Prince to the English king for execution. (I never really understood why the English king would execute a foreign prince upon request, but that’s question for another time). Hamlet realises the plot, and arranges for his friends to be hanged instead.
In the meantime, Ophelia is drowning (ha, sorry) in sorrow because her father was murdered by Hamlet, the man she thought to marry, who has also been acting crazy and behaving quite cruelly toward her. Struggling with her own madness, she drowns while singing sad songs about unrequited love.
Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, wants to avenge his father’s death and sister’s demise. At her funeral, he and Hamlet fight about which of them loved her best. (Clearly, it’s Laertes – frankly, Hamlet doesn’t seem to like anyone very much). Laertes and Claudius plot together to kill Hamlet, and both of them favour poison. Laertes poisons the blade of his sword, and during a duel with Hamlet, both of them are cut by that same blade. While Hamlet slices Laertes with the blade, Queen Gertrude thinks this means he’s winning, so she sips from a chalice of wine and immediately dies of poisoning.
Laertes confesses with his dying breath that the poisoned wine was actually set up by Claudius and was meant for Hamlet, so the King is responsible for Gertrude’s death. This enrages Hamlet into action and he stabs Claudius with the poisoned blade, and for good measure, pours the rest of the wine down his throat. Then, as Hamlet himself is dying of his poisoned wound, he declares that the Prince of Norway shall be his heir, and begs his friend Horatio (the only person he really seems to like) to accurately explain the events that led to all these deaths.
The new King of Denmark, after arriving from Norway, holds a funeral with full military honours for Hamlet. For some reason. Let’s be honest, Hamlet probably didn’t really deserve extra honours.
I think my plot summary revealed that I did not actually enjoy this play very much. I did not know much of the plot beforehand, although I knew it was a tragedy, and I recognised some well-known quotations from it, such as “something rotten in Denmark.”
I had a rough start in my reading. It’s been a long time since I read any Shakespeare, and it takes a little time to get back into the cadence and rhythm of his words. It didn’t help me that the story begins with two soldiers, Bernardo and Francisco, exchanging pleasantries while on a night-guard duty. They are almost immediately joined by another soldier, Marcellus, and Horatio, who is Hamlet’s friend. When you can see them all on stage, it’s probably easier to keep them straight, but I kept forgetting who was who, especially when they are also immediately joined by a Ghost, who resembles the late king of Denmark (Hamlet’s father). On general principle, since it doesn’t speak yet, the Ghost is a lot more interesting than Bernardo and Francisco wishing each other a good evening.
By the middle of Act I, Scene II, I began to enjoy the story, however. I got hooked when Horatio speaks to Hamlet about the ghost. Horatio basically says, “Hey Hamlet, for two nights in a row, Marcellus and Bernardo saw a ghost that looks like your dead father, so on the third night, I went to check it out too, and this apparition definitely resembles your dad. It wouldn’t speak though, even when we asked it to, although it did look like it had something to say. Unfortunately a crowing rooster made it rush off.” (Obviously, this is a hasty modern summary).
In response, Hamlet says, “’Tis very strange.”
Yes, my dear Hamlet, oh Captain Obvious, it is. I immediately grew fond of Hamlet.
I also enjoyed it when the Ghost tells Hamlet that his uncle Claudius was the murderer, and Hamlet cries, “O, my prophetic soul!” This is a very fancy way to say, “I knew it” and I am resolved to find a melodramatic opportunity to use it.
My fondness for Hamlet did not last long, however. His lines remain clever and gripping; indeed, the examples I chose here are brief quips, but he is a master of manipulating words. His speeches are eloquent and existential. Sometimes, he critiques himself, and his philosophical questions about morality are at odds with the shadows of his depression. He is able to view things broadly – for example, he equates Claudius’s love of merrymaking to the decay of Denmark, and yet, even understanding his own comparison, he seems simultaneously unable to fully separate the man from the greater social change.
Often, Hamlet is cruel in his masterful use of language. He twists the words of his so-called friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern so that they seem to be admiring beggars instead of a king. He does not trust them, and they hardly seem to be friends (they are hired by Claudius to spy on him, so Hamlet is justified in his mistrust) but he is cruel to other characters that he supposedly does care for, as well. He openly mocks old Polonius, who mostly seems to have Hamlet’s best interests at heart, worrying over the Prince in his feigned madness, which Polonius believes is real and caused by the loss of Ophelia’s love.
Ophelia bears the brunt of Hamlet’s cruelty, and she embodies another example of Hamlet’s inability to make separations in his mind. Although the audience is given to understand that Hamlet truly loved Ophelia previously, he finds his feelings for her utterly tainted by his mother’s actions in remarrying. The marriage is repulsive to Hamlet – not only did Claudius murder the King, his own brother, he then married his widow (Hamlet’s mother). It is a vaguely incestuous union, distasteful even if we leave out the murder, and it is understandable that Hamlet would struggle with the death of his father and his mother’s choice in partner. He thought his parents had a pure, loving union, and it seems not to have been true.
But the remarriage had nothing to do with Ophelia, who is a separate human being with her own feelings and beliefs and actions. Feeling betrayed by his mother, Hamlet shoves Ophelia into an ‘all women are untrustworthy’ category anyway. He persistently behaves inappropriately around her, making sexual innuendoes and obviously making her uncomfortable. While Polonius thinks Ophelia has stopped loving Hamlet, it is other way around, and Hamlet’s hostile words wound her.
Hamlet also struggles with his desire for revenge. He wants to kill Claudius for the
murder of his father, but knows that doing so would make him guilty of the same crime. It is an interesting moral conundrum, particularly for a man who is literally being haunted by a Ghost urging the revenge. Hamlet remains indecisive, which ultimately does more harm than good. He kills Polonius, mistaking the man for Claudius, but Hamlet shows little remorse for this. While he acknowledges his part in the death, he blames Polonius for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He takes the body away with him, and doesn’t let anyone discover where it is hidden for some time, playing up his madness. Eventually he divulges the body’s location, and proper funeral rites can begin.
In the final Act, right before Hamlet and Laertes duel, Hamlet’s character improves slightly. He seems reconciled to the idea of mortality, and he wants Laertes’ forgiveness. He seems to be affected by Ophelia’s passing, but he still does not accept responsibility for Polonius’ death. To me, it felt like Hamlet had become exactly what he feared he would – a conscienceless murderer just like his uncle.
I can see why my husband told me I should read A Midsummer Night’s Dream instead.
Criticism of Hamlet as an unlikable character aside, though, I did enjoy reading the play overall. Shakespeare is still widely revered for a reason, and taking the time to read one of his plays reminded me how beautifully he crafts imagery and flowing sentence structure and puns. Maybe next time I’ll try a comedy instead, or Macbeth. I remember liking Macbeth a bit more.
In closing, here’s an update of the 2016 Reading Challenge (one book per month), if you’re following along!
2016 Reading Challenge:
- A National Book Award winner– complete, Fifteen Dogs
- One of Shakespeare’s plays – complete, Hamlet
- A mystery – next up is a mystery. I don’t know which one yet. Honestly, I picked this one because it seems like the easiest of the list and I’m super busy with my book revisions right now.
- Book you haven’t read since high school
- A book translated to your native language
- Non-fiction about a subject you’ve been curious about
- Book about or set within a culture you’re unfamiliar with
- A book that’s at least 100 years older than you
- Book in a genre you usually avoid
- A classic novel
- A graphic novel
- At least three poems