It has been said that next to the Bible there have been more critiques and analyses about Hamlet than any other literary work. It is Shakespeare’s longest work consisting of more than 4000 lines and a favorite of many famous actors. I was lucky enough to see it in 1964 when Richard Burton played Hamlet on Broadway. The next time I saw this great play was in California with Nicole Williamson as the lead. Because I had not read the play when I saw Burton’s performance, I made sure to have read it prior to seeing it in California. My familiarity with the characters and plot made the production starring Williamson much more enjoyable to see. Without an understanding of the language with its many nuances, I found it difficult to follow all the action the first time I saw the play.
Since that time, I have reread it and seen different movie versions of it. Because the play was written over 400 years ago by a man who had a remarkable vocabulary, reading it on one’s own, with minimum explanation, is not advised. Most works of Shakespeare have available annotated interpretations of the lengthy soliloquies and dialogues that comprise the five acts. Some authorities on Shakespeare have speculated that the death of Shakespeare’s only son and his father, both occurring about the time he wrote Hamlet, may have influenced the saturnine pall that permeates the main character and play.
I will not give an exhaustive analysis of the play but rather sketch this essay around some of the points that I deem salient to life, itself, thereby, in my opinion, making it a work well worth reading. The play begins with Prince Hamlet back from his studies at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, appearing in black mourning clothes, still grieving his father, the late King of Denmark, who had died less than two months earlier. Hamlet, unlike prior Shakespearean protagonists, is a profound thinker, and as a scholar, might be considered a Renaissance Man.
In his first soliloquy, Hamlet says: “Frailty, thy name is woman!” The Prince is incensed at his mother’s rash decision to marry Claudius, his father’s brother, so soon after the death of his father. Hamlet is hurt by his mother’s lack of moral sensitivity in the abrupt manner by which she forgets his father. Meanwhile both Horatio and Marcellus, friends of Hamlet, have seen what they believe to be the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Against their advice, Hamlet, feeling compelled, follows the beckoning Ghost of his father determined to comprehend its purpose. It is then that Marcellus utters that most famous line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” This statement symbolizes the decay that comes from the marriage of Claudius and his sister-in-law of which the Church would consider incestuous, and it foreshadows the tragic consequences to come.
When Hamlet sees the Ghost of his father, the latter reveals that he has been poisoned and murdered by his brother. Because Claudius is now the King of Denmark, a society that is not a democracy, Hamlet will need to act alone if he is to avenge the death of his father. Although he respects the divine spirit of his father, Hamlet’s strong conscience will not permit him to act until he can verify, independently, what he has just heard from the Ghost. In formulating a plan, Hamlet instructs his friend Horatio not to be alarmed when he will “put an antic disposition on” to conceal his intentions of trying to fathom whether indeed his uncle has poisoned his father.
Rather than allay his uncle’s suspicions, Hamlet’s odd behavior arouses the King’s attention, and he forms a spy network around the Prince to investigate the cause of his sudden madness. Polonius, the King’s Chamberlain, believes it might be related to Hamlet being lovesick over his beautiful daughter Ophelia. Hamlet now gives–what is perhaps the most famous lines in the English language–his soliloquy that starts:
To be, or not to be: That is the question.
Hamlet recognizes that the dilemma he faces in having to attain justice by committing the act of killing his uncle, King Claudius, is a terribly difficult one. Perhaps, he reasons, it is easier to face death than having to carry out this dreadful act. Toward the end of the soliloquy he says:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.
This sentiment that Hamlet holds is extremely important because Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and Laertes, the son of Polonius, lack the conscience that Hamlet has. It is far easier to commit evil when one lacks a moral conscience. Hamlet ends his soliloquy with the following:
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.
Hamlet’s acute awareness of his plan to kill the King weighs heavily on his mind, perhaps causing guilt, and so he asks Ophelia to pray for him.
Up to this point in the play, my view of Hamlet had been distinctly positive. Not only is he well educated, but he also possesses integrity, that is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. But Shakespeare does not want us to be too comfortable in our view of Hamlet and, in so doing, we see Hamlet in a different light in the next scene when he encounters Ophelia. Perhaps the agony Hamlet feels is too much for him to bear or perhaps his view of women, and the world, are too much of a burden for him to accept. With an air of cruelty and uncaring, he tells Ophelia four different times:
Get thee to a nunnery.
Hamlet’s huge upset with his mother in conveniently dismissing his father, so quickly, to marry his uncle renders him incapable of feeling love for any female. In a nunnery, Ophelia cannot corrupt others with her beauty, but also, she cannot be maligned by the corruption of others. I remember being very much annoyed with Hamlet’s rough treatment of Ophelia, with whom in the past, he had shown signs of loving. Although Ophelia knows that the King and her father, Polonius, are spying on him, she is innocent and not complicit with what underlies the King’s intentions. She simply believes that they are concerned for Hamlet due to his suffering from lovesickness over her. When Hamlet lashes out at Ophelia, he is making an unfit generalization of all womankind. Queen Gertrude, and not Ophelia, would indeed be a much better candidate for a nunnery.
Soon after, when a band of theater players come to entertain the King and Queen, Hamlet sets a trap for the King by altering a scene to imitate exactly how his father’s murder may have occurred. The play comes from the Murder of Gonzago that Hamlet neatly renames the Mousetrap when he describes it to Claudius. The scene that Hamlet has the players interpose within the play accomplished precisely what the Prince had hoped for by “catching the conscience of the King” with the latter’s untoward reaction.
But Hamlet’s victory is short lived inasmuch as he misses the chance to slay the King when he believes the latter is praying and, soon after, mistakenly stabs Polonius. Because Polonius is spying on him from behind a curtain, Hamlet believes he is the King and thrusts his rapier into the body of Polonius. Now Hamlet has blood on his hands, and we sense that the plot he wove to verify the Ghost’s accusation has suddenly turned against him. But although he feels the guilt of killing the wrong person, he believes that he is to be the “scourge and minister” of a divine power, namely, heaven. Hamlet is far from insane, but in an environment where right and justice are turned upside down, he may appear that way to those who are part of the endemic so prevalent in Denmark.
Although Hamlet expresses upset about killing the wrong man, it is clear that he still very much has Claudius on his mind. Although Claudius does not know how Hamlet found out about the crime he has committed, he recognizes that Hamlet now knows the truth. Later, there is a funeral for Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, who has been said to have drowned. The cause of death remains unknown but we know that she knew that Hamlet, the man she once loved, had killed her father, and so, we may surmise that her death may have resulted from her sorrow causing an “accidental” suicide.
Toward the end of the play, Claudius enlists Laertes, son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia, in a plot to kill Hamlet by having Laertes put poison on his dueling foil. Moreover, if Laertes fails in gaining a point in the duel, he will ensure the death of Hamlet by having him drink from a goblet of wine. Laertes wounds Hamlet, then somehow in scuffling, Laertes and Hamlet exchange swords with one another, and Hamlet promptly wounds Laertes. In the midst of this, the Queen drinks from the goblet, meant for Hamlet, and topples over. When Hamlet becomes aware of the widespread treachery, he immediately stabs the King with the poisoned foil giving birth to a chorus of treason from those present. But Laertes reveals that the treason belongs to the King and not Hamlet, when upon dying, he says:
He is justly served;
It is a poison temper’d by himself.
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet;
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.
Laertes, in dying, regains his conscience after committing the intentional act of murdering Hamlet. Hamlet’s conscience is clearly on a higher level than both Laertes and the King, the latter lacking any apparent moral conscience when he murders his brother, Hamlet’s father, to become the King of Denmark. Ironically, Hamlet, as a purveyor of death, allows Denmark to be purged of the rot that had so badly infected it. Throughout the reading of this play, I felt the untenable situation that Hamlet faced, and I very much wanted him to somehow conquer it as a hero might. But then the actions he took: First, angrily telling Ophelia to go to a nunnery, and then impulsively killing Polonius by mistake, made me think differently of him. Although Hamlet is fallen, he never sinks to the level of the King, and he believes that providence is behind his efforts to free Denmark from the evil that encompasses it. He achieves this by what he intuitively knows will be his end. So, perhaps it is best to see him as a tragic hero.
I have touched only on the highlights of this spectacular play but it should be obvious that there is much more than one can read into this work. From my own experience, I would recommend reading it before seeing it performed on the stage. It is a difficult work to digest because of the complexity of the language. Most versions come with notes explaining the passages so be patient with yourself as this is really a piece of great art that requires intensive study. Of course, it’s much easier to do this type of reading if you are a student studying with a professor that has a keen knowledge of it and can teach it with expertise. In any event, I would avoid reading translations or abridged versions that will make the task of comprehension much simpler but will lose both the beauty and nuances of the language. Like anything else we do in life, the more you put into the exercise, be it physical or mental, the more you will get out of it.
Mark Twain understood human nature when he said:
A classic is something everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.
Accordingly, I suggest that you all fight the instincts to never have read what you deep down really want to read. In the process, I believe you will gain an appreciation taking on the challenge of exposing yourself to one of the greatest gems of English literature.