So… Hamlet.

This guy.

There is so much that has been written about this play already, so much life sucked from it by tired schoolroom analyses, and so many interpretations of the text put onto stage and film, that a relevant discussion can prove to be very difficult.  So let me come at this entry from a different angle: Now, maybe I’m the only person experiencing this, but it seems like too many people are complaining about the lack of imagination in movies – too many remakes, adaptations of comic books, repackaging of old pop culture property.  To those people, I say, “Fuck you, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a reboot.”

And manages to be better than the original, no less.

There are not just 2, but 4 known versions of the play, including the Folio version that we are most used to – plus the story itself is based on part of a Scandinavian text.  It’s an epic saga that covers the whole known history of Denmark, and even crosses paths at one point with Beowulf.  Shakespeare alters names in his version, but the basic story is the same: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, seeks revenge for the murder of his father.  However, the simple deed is complicated by the politics of the court: Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, has married the murderer, Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius.  Hamlet pretends to be crazy in order to hide his intentions, but kills one of the king’s spies in this game of cat and mouse.  Claudius, bound by the same politics, cannot kill Hamlet outright either, and so sends him to stay with allies in England.

Where his nihilism will be appreciated

This play is about two things: grief and politics.  Hamlet’s dad is “But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two,” when his mother remarries.  His strange behavior is simply grief, in my opinion, and his is surrounded by politicians who simply lack a capacity for human empathy: it seems like everybody around Hamlet are the truly crazy ones.  Hamlet murders a member of the court, Polonius, and Gertrude is most concerned about her son’s disrespectful tone of voice than the fact that he’s dragging a corpse through her bedroom.  Claudius cannot punish Hamlet directly because “He’s loved of the distracted multitude, Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes,”  and so sends the murderer out of the public eye for a bit.  Claudius, the guy who pours poison onto every damn thing like its hot sauce or something, never has his sanity questioned.  Fatherless kids who don’t know where to direct their lives because they have literally no responsible mentor figures anymore, yeah, they must be batshit crazy.  The behavior of not only Hamlet, but even Ophelia and Laertes after the death of their father Polonius, is driven by honest emotion, and the other politicians in the court are unable to comprehend an emotional reaction that isn’t immediately buried under psychosis and professionalism.

This is what the play-within-the-play scene looks like in my head.

Hamlet may be criticized for being slow to act, but really that can be said of everyone else in the play, too.  Claudius has to appear militarily strong to the surrounding nations, while maintaining the good favor of his people.  His propaganda against Hamlet works surprisingly well on the commoners, since one Gravedigger believes Hamlet left “because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there,” since it will “not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he.”  But after Hamlet’s voyage, Shakespeare starts to depart from the original source with the details of the revenge plot.  Specifically, Hamlet’s ship is intercepted by pirates, Hamlet jumps onto the pirate ship during the course of combat, and then returns back to Denmark with his new pirate friends: as opposed to the original version where Hamlet actually makes the journey to England, marries a princess there, amasses an army after putting people on spikes Vlad Dracula style, and actually survives the final onslaught because he locks the palace doors and sets the damn thing on fire while everyone is inside.

Those crazy Vikings

I will say one last thing on the Viking version of the story, taken from Books 3 and 4 of the Saxo Grammaticus: the mythical story takes place before the birth of Christ, and deals heavily with the violence of revenge.  Conversely, the mythic source of Cymbeline takes place during the life of Christ, and explores the concept of forgiveness.  The importance of Christian religion in the Elizabethan era when Shakespeare wrote shouldn’t be underestimated, and I don’t think I’m reading too much into that timing.  Sure, it’s probably a coincidence that is far more related to the shift in focus from brutality to hope in the playwright’s own life for whatever reason.  You have the everybody-dies horrors of Titus Andronicus and the Sixes at the beginning, and then Shakespeare gradually mellows out into things like the Winter’s Tale and eventually whitewashes anything bad in the sterile Henry VIIIHamletoccupies an interesting middle ground, but ultimately aligns with that earlier cynicism

And being a younger, sometimes cynical person, that early period is very interesting to me...

Now, while this is all very interesting, I want to actually start talking about the play that I read and that most people are numb to because it’s been painfully dissected and left lifeless by most education systems.  It’s important to have fun with these texts, because if you take it too seriously then it becomes elitist and people lose interest.  I occasionally like to posit strong concepts for how I would personally like to approach a text, but instead I’m just going to keep pursuing the theme of grief in this play and how that grief is misunderstood.

Specifically, Ophelia.

Here’s the thing: if I don’t think Hamlet is truly mad then I can’t presuppose that Ophelia is.  She is suffering from “the poison of deep grief,” even though there is currently a movement to redefine grief as a mental disorder, but what I’m saying is that grief is normal (though let’s not waste time trying to define “normal,” eh?) and so Hamlet and Ophelia are indeed the only sane ones in this play – besides maybe Horatio, but I’m not going to spend much time talking about him today for whatever reason.  The way that people treat death in this play is disturbingly apathetic, summed up pretty succinctly when Hamlet observes the army of Fortinbras mobilizing for war with Poland: “We go to gain a little patch of ground That hath in it no profit but the name. To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it.”

Holy shit this play is timeless

Consider how the court perceives the “Madness,” what I am calling grief, of both Hamlet and Ophelia, respectively.  Hamlet: sees the goddamn Ghost of his recently deceased father, is already and understandably pretty grief stricken, but then learns that his beloved father was murdered by his uncle and is spurred to bloody vengeance by the Ghost.  When Ophelia is disturbed by meeting Hamlet afterwards, “No hat upon his head; his stockings foul’d, Ungarter’d, and down-gyved to his ancle; Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other; And with a look so piteous in purport As if he had been loosed out of hell To speak of horrors,” the assumption is that Hamlet “Is mad. Mad call I it; for, to define true madness, What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?”  But really, he looks like he just saw a goddamn ghost.  And we know he’s not crazy about that, since three other people saw it before Hamlet is even onstage for the first time, plus the information given by the Ghost turns out to be completely true.  Ophelia: her boyfriend is freaking out and tells her to her face “I loved you not” before eventually killing her father, she is left all alone with a court that does not understand how to comfort a grieving person, and her own brother does not give a shit.  Seriously – Laertes gets off a boat, first thing he does is talk with the King about getting his murder on instead of comforting a sister that has been left alone for all this time.  Her mom is never mentioned at all, which, given the dynamics of this court, probably means that the woman is dead.  So Ophelia is all alone, grief-stricken, and like most teenagers with messed up families she is immersing herself in music with really dark lyrics.  Most of her responses are in song, but they are all responding to the actual questions that are asked.  She is aware, she understands what is happening, the people around her just do not understand.  It’s frustrating to see her commonly characterized as a wandering, aimless waif, when it would simply be more interesting to see an Ophelia that is deliberately messing with these sociopathic assholes when she hands them flowers.  It’s her brother Laertes that I do think is crazy, and not as a result of grief but as a product of the apathy of court life.  He thinks that he should walk up to Hamlet and “cut his throat i’ the church,” and Claudius persuades him against that, not because it’s CRAZY, but because the politics of it aren’t the best.  And don’t get me started on the sketchy description that Gertrude gives of Ophelia’s death, saying a tree branch broke under the girl and she “Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide; And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up.”  There is no indication of who saw this, or why this extensive and BEAUTIFUL description of a drowning teenager does not involve anybody trying to help the girl.

Just look at that nonsense.

Even Fortinbras, when he shows up at the end with English diplomats to meet with the King, seems weirdly detached.  “Such a sight as this Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss,” he says, as if massacre is improper at the dinner table, one ought to take that sort of thing outside.  Granted, this is a warlike culture, but Shakespeare is frequently pointing out the absurdities of war and I don’t think it should be ignored here.  In some ways, Hamlet has resemblance to Prince Hal, pursuing a plot that has absolutely nothing to do with the warlike politics raging around his King until the final Act.  But in other ways, Hamlet is unique among Shakespeare’s tragic works because it focuses almost exclusively on the court and not a war that is happening in the peripherals of the drama and even bookends the action of the entire play.  In some ways, this highlights the apathy and selfishness of the kingdom more than anything else – Fortinbras casually embraces the opportunity, while the First Ambassador can only think “The ears are senseless that should give us hearing, To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d, That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead: Where should we have our thanks?”  It’s not even stoicism, it’s full apathy towards human suffering, and nobody seems to think it is strange besides Hamlet and Ophelia.

So those are some of my thoughts on Hamlet.  Not all of them, mind you, just ones that I find most pressing at the moment.  It’s a great play, full of so many choices and depth, and I really think that it is a defining moment for an artist when they attempt to tackle the piece.  I’m glad I was finally able to reread this thing outside of the context of school for the first time, and really be able to take my time with it and enjoy it for all of its richness and darkness.  Until next time:  “Good night sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

3 Responses to “Hamlet”
  1. Roberta Hoff says:

    Thank you. Love the photos and the comments. I printed this out, and cannot wait to read it.

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  1. […] this play rightfully enjoys its reputation.  In many ways, it is greater than Hamlet, the usual trumpeted king of English language dramatic literature.  While Hamlet is an existential […]

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