My Journey through 100 Books: Hamlet
"To be, or not to be, that is the question: whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles, and by opposing end them: to die, to sleep; no more; and by a sleep, to say we end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there's the rub, For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause." The soliloquy from Act III, Scene I of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is widely considered some of the finest dramatic writing in English literature. A soliloquy is a stage writing technique in which a character engages in a speech to oneself (rather than a monologue in which one character does all the speaking but is addressing someone else in the scene) and Shakespeare used them to great effect to let his audience into the innermost thoughts of his characters. In the example above (which is the first portion of a longer soliloquy), Hamlet is wrestling with the question of whether the pains of life are worth enduring or whether it would be better to just end his own life. It is a perfect glimpse into this character: brooding, morose, and never able to make up his mind on any topic as he overanalyzes every possible detail. Hamlet is considered by many scholars to be Shakespeare's greatest tragedy and it has been analyzed in tremendous detail by people far more knowledgeable and intelligent than myself. Nevertheless, I will try to provide the insights that stood out to me as particularly noteworthy, especially those that will provide interesting comparisons and contrasts with the themes of the second Shakespeare play we will examine this week: The Tempest.
Hamlet begins with the state (meaning nation rather than the modern American conception of a state) of Denmark in a state of unease. The popular and powerful king, Hamlet's father, recently died and now Denmark's enemies (particularly neighboring Norway under the reckless Prince Fortinbras) are threatening war as the elder Hamlet's leadership and martial valor were responsible for keeping them at bay. The elder Hamlet's brother, Claudius, now sits on the throne and married the queen which has caused a stir among the people. Prince Hamlet, our protagonist, is no warrior like his father but a scholar who prefers to brood over philosophical dilemmas rather than face the questions of statecraft. His life and the fate of Denmark are shifted when a ghostly apparition appears on the ramparts of the royal castle. Hamlet, in the first of many bouts of self-doubt and indecision, grapples with the idea of following this ghost as it beckons him and ultimately decides to pursue his curiosity. The ghost, as it turns out, is Hamlet's father whose spirit is unable to move on into eternity while his murderer (Claudius) walks free. The elder Hamlet with his warlike attitude expects his son to kill Claudius and enact vengeance, but the prince is not the kind of person to simply rush into action like his father might have expected. Shocked by the news and uncertain whether to trust this spirit or not, Hamlet sets about trying to discover the truth. He pretends to be mildly crazy to avoid alerting his uncle to his plans and, in the course of his plot for revenge, ostracizes those who are closest to him including his mother Gertrude and Ophelia, the young woman who loves him and is the daughter of Polonius who is advisor to Claudius. To entrap the king and determine his guilt, Hamlet engages the services of a troupe of actors who are visiting Denmark to put on a play to recreate the murder of King Hamlet in the hopes that Claudius will show signs of guilt at seeing his actions (fictionalized and under different names, of course) presented on the stage. The plan actually works and Claudius storms off to a chapel to pray about his guilt. Hamlet follows, but (surprise) is uncertain whether it would be right to kill Claudius while he is praying and thus guarantee that his sinful uncle would find redemption and go to Heaven. This moment of indecision proves disastrous as Claudius begins to suspect that Hamlet knows more than he should. Hamlet goes to confront his mother and kills a man skulking behind a curtain (thinking it to be Claudius) but is horrified to discover that he has slain Polonius. This murder provides Claudius with an excuse to get rid of his troublesome nephew. He sends Hamlet away to England carrying sealed orders that Hamlet is to be executed upon his arrival, but Hamlet outwits his uncle and manages to escape back to Denmark. Upon his return, he discovers that Ophelia has committed suicide in her grief at the loss of her father and her cold treatment by Hamlet. He interrupts the funeral to proclaim his love for Ophelia only to get into a sort of "I loved her the most" contest with Ophelia's brother Laertes. Enraged by Hamlet's behavior and spurred on by a murderous Claudius, Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel to avenge his sister. A complex scheme involving a poisoned blade and a poisoned chalice goes terribly wrong, leading to the deaths of Claudius, Hamlet, Laertes, and Gertrude. The play ends with Prince Fortinbras marching onto the scene at the head of his army only to discover that all claimants to the throne of Denmark lay dead and has Horatio, Hamlet's friend and the only survivor of the final tragedy, tell the story of what happened.
Hamlet is a rich and complex story, and the character himself is reflective of the divided and double-minded times in which we find ourselves today. Like Achilles, Prince Hamlet is proud and arrogant, yet his pride is coupled with a tremendous sense of self-doubt. This mixture of hubris with anxiety and depression makes Hamlet a poster child for our current culture. We believe we are too clever, too educated, too special to fall into the kinds of traps that caught our ancestors, yet we struggle with a deep sense of self-loathing that would have been foreign to most people of previous generations. These are two sides of the coin of pride. When you make yourself the center of the universe, eventually all you can see are your own failures and instances of how other people have wronged you. Hamlet presents us with a man who is unquestionably clever and talented (his deep knowledge of stage acting when speaking to the performing troupe showcases either experience on the stage or a brilliant intuitive grasp of both story and the performing arts), but his own strengths become his downfall as his analytical mind prevents him from taking action. This, in itself, is a genius inversion of the common revenge play trope that Shakespeare used to flip his audience's expectations on their heads as other plays of the type from this time were bloody, violent, straightforward affairs. The bold and headstrong Prince Fortinbras is the mirror image of Prince Hamlet in this regard, pushing forward at all costs to avenge his own father's death at the hand of the elder Hamlet while Prince Hamlet totters on the edge of action and inaction (and, ultimately, at the edge of sanity). The fact that Fortinbras emerges victorious while Hamlet causes the downfall of his family, friends, and nation shows that Shakespeare (at least in this instance) prizes the ability to take action over theoretical knowledge.
A great analysis of the play comes from PragerU's "Book Club" video on this play featuring commentary by Michael Knowles and Andrew Klavan. Perhaps the most intriguing insight from that video is that Hamlet speaks to the loss of a coherent European identity following the Reformation and the turmoil that followed. Hamlet actually was a student at Wittenberg, a city that would have been well-known to Shakespeare's audience as the site where Martin Luther posted his famous "95 Theses" that ultimately sparked the Protestant Reformation. Hamlet's uncertainty regarding the possibility that his father is truly a ghost trapped in Purgatory (a Catholic idea) or that he could be a devil in disguise luring Hamlet into mortal sin (a more common Protestant explanation for ghostly apparitions) adds further depth to this theory.
Shakespeare is something unique in Western literature in that his plays are brilliant pieces that deserved to be read but were also intended to be performed on stage with theatrical flourishes that help bring depth to each scene. It is my recommendation that you enjoy each work of Shakespeare both as a written work and also as a performance by talented actors. The written work is available for free on Google Books and there are too many high quality performances on stage and screen to give you only one option. If possible, try to see a good live performance to really get a sense for how the story was originally intended to be received by its audience. If you prefer an audiobook edition, I highly recommend the Shakespeare Appreciated series as they include a narrator to explain cultural references, historical context, and poetic techniques used by Shakespeare to craft his brilliant narrative.