on 1 February 2004
Obviously, Shakespeare's Hamlet is a masterpiece, so my review is aimed solely at the Penguin Popular Classics edition edited by GB Harrison (ISBN 0140620583). If you're looking for a cheap, pocket-sized edition of Hamlet, this is the one to go for. If you're looking for good notes, this edition is to be avoided. The notes are sometimes interesting, but often they either explain things that are very obvious, or are actually plain wrong.
on 31 January 2016
On the face of it, Hamlet is about a Danish prince taking revenge for his father's death at the hands of his uncle. Or rather, struggling to take revenge. Thinking about it, pondering it, and pretending to go mad. Then going mad, falling in love and a lot more besides. This in a play that, uncut, runs for more than four hours. Hamlet is a revenge drama, but it consists of Hamlet's inability to take revenge. The character's beautiful, desperate reflection on his situation have given rise to many interpretations of the tragedy. Is it a political, psychological or family drama? Is Hamlet a madman, genius, narcissist or revolutionary?
These are the themes I noticed as I watched, read and listened to the play:
The Difficulty of Certainty
Hamlet’s desire for revenge conflicts with the religious norms and the codes of society. Enacting his desire for revenge means that Hamlet’s soul could be in danger. His reasons for revenge and justice become conflicted and confused. There is no certainty as to what will happen if he follows his heart.
So, Hamlet does not commit to action until he convinces himself that what he’s doing is definitely correct. It's difficult to take rational action when there is a need for certainty in an ambiguous world. Hamlet does not give an answer to what is best: taking action, or not. Rather he suggests that no matter which one you choose the end result is the same: death.
Perspectives on Death
Following on from the death of his father, Hamlet obsesses over mortality and death. He looks at it from many different angles and poses lots of questions. Do kings have a free pass to heaven? Is there an afterlife? If you're murdered will you go to heaven? Will answers to these questions bring Hamlet peace? Maybe not, as death is the result of his desire for justice and revenge. It is also the cause of it too.
Hamlet describes the world as an "unweeded garden". He only seems comfortable with things that are dead. He reveres his father and claims to love Ophelia once she's dead. He believes that death isn’t too bad. He obsesses over the idea of suicide. But the uncertainty of the afterlife pushes Hamlet away from taking his own life. And in Act V after seeing Yorick's skull he realises that death levels any differences between people.
As the play progresses the quantity of bodies pile up. Even though eight of the nine main characters die, questions of mortality are not answered. The play provides an exploration without any definite conclusion.
Hamlet argues that death is the one true reality. He seems to view all life as "appearance" doing everything it can, from desiring power, to hiding the truth, to murder, to hide from reality.
The Nation's Health
Power transfers from one King to another. This causes anxiety and political turmoil; how morally legitimate is the ruler? And how healthy does this make the nation, if the ruler himself is rotten? Denmark’s national health is failing.
When Marcellus says, "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (Act I, Scene IV), he's suggesting that something evil is afoot. It refers to political unrest which links to Hamlet’s mental state.
Reality and Deception
Each character ponders what other characters are thinking. Deception is rife. Hamlet is unable to act because of his search for reality. He initially feigns madness. This is to convince others that he is harmless while investigating his father's death. He builds on this appearance of insanity and discovers the closer he looks the more false reality becomes. As the play progresses, Hamlet’s deception of playing mad seems to cause him to lose his grip on reality. In other words he becomes insane. Or so it appears.
I think the play is so enduring because of Hamlet's delay. He has an inability, or refusal, to go ahead and avenge his father. And his habit of stepping out of the plot to reflect on how the working of the mind might explain his inaction. For me, it is these aspects of the play that has kept it fresh and modern. Each generation in turn interprets Hamlet in light of the way we explain our own lives.
Resources I Used
"Hamlet" (York Notes Advanced) by Jeffrey Wood
Chop Bard podcasts; episodes 21 to 39 inclusive.
Hamlet (1990) movie, starring Mel Gibson
Hamlet (2009) movie, starring David Tennent
Photo credit: marcos / CC BY-NC-ND (http://www.flickr.com/photos/18206483@N03)
"Hamlet" doesn't need any introduction -- the tortured Dane, the ghost, meditations on suicide and a climax full of death. But as well-known as the storyline is, the play itself is what deserves the attention, both for Shakespeare's shadowy plot filled with uncertainty and treachery -- and for his brilliant, immortal writing, which takes on a new dimension when read on the page.
Prince Hamlet of Denmark is understandably upset when, only a short time after his father's death, his mother Gertrude marries his uncle Claudius, who is now the new king. Who wouldn't be unhappy? But when Hamlet encounters the tormented ghost of his father ("I am thy father's spirit/Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night"), he learns that his dad was murdered by his uncle -- but he's plagued by indecision, since he's unsure if the spirit was truly his dad.
In response to this vision, Hamlet's behavior becomes more bizarre and erratic -- he dumps his girlfriend Ophelia, arranges a play that mimics real life a little too closely, and generally acts like a loon. But when an argument with his mother ends in tragedy -- and the death of one of Ophelia's loved ones -- Hamlet's fate is sealed as Claudius begins plotting to get rid of him too.
Small warning: like all Shakespeare's plays, it's best to read "Hamlet" after you've seen a good performance, because the entire thing was intended to be acted out. Otherwise, it's like reading a movie script to a movie you haven't seen -- easy to get lost, and the dramatic effects aren't easy to connect to.
But if you HAVE seen a good performance of "Hamlet," then the play will just jump off the page. The plot is a relatively simple one, but it's tangled up in all sorts of moral dilemmas, personal doubts, deteriorating personal relationships, and a creeping undercurrent of darkness. The best part is that Shakespeare leaves you with all sorts of questions that are left up in the air -- is Hamlet crazy or just faking it? Is the ghost really his dad?
And, of course, it contains some of the most intense, powerful examples of Shakespeare's work here -- vivid, nasty imagery ("In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed/Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty"), some bleak humor ("you're a fishmonger"), and Hamlet's immortal soliloquies. It's also one of Shakespeare's most quotable plays -- obviously you've got bits like "Alas, poor Yorick," "to be or not to be" and "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," but there are countless other familiar phrases littered through the text.
On the page, Hamlet is basically an embittered young man who is torn between his doubts and convictions, but is still determined to fix things ("O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!"). A lot of the supporting cast are hard to follow, but there are some brilliant and enduring roles here -- the incestuous queen Gertrude, the subtle menace of Claudius, the windbag Laertes, and Ophelia, whose uncertainties spiral into madness after her ex-boyfriend kills her dad.
It's best to get a grip on this classic tragedy by watching an actual performance, but reading "Hamlet's" text is a vivid experience on its own. Brilliant, complex and intense.
This really is "The Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark" and not only the Prince but his family. Not only his family but his friends. Not only his friends but all though that came before him and is told to those that came after him.
You can slow down and pick apart many underlying themes and may of the phrases that now challenge Bible sayings in today's sound bites. But the real fun is in just reading the story and you will find that it is not as foreign as you may have thought.
A quick synopsis is that Old Hamlet conquered Old Fortinbras seizing his land. Now that Old Hamlet is dead, Young Fortinbras wants his land back and is willing to take it by force. Meanwhile back in Dänemark Young Hamlet who is excessively grieving for the loss of his father, gets a now insight from his fathers ghost. Looks like he was a victim of a "murder most foul"; it looks like his mother and uncle were in cahoots on the murder.
The story is about what each person felt and acted or did not act upon the situation.
You will find many movies and perverted imitations of the story but nothing will replace the original that was intended to be watched but reads well.
on 10 April 2009
I'm not going to delve into the plot, the characters, the themes, the philosophy and the atmosphere as I am no professor. It is enough to say that this is the best play, written by the greatest playwright of all time. Anyone who can read should have a go at this. More importantly go and watch a performance; it is a play after all, not a novel.
on 6 June 2008
I have read Hamlet, however it was not this edition. I have seen these editions in store and they are rather tatty looking, the paper is recycled so that's to be expected. These types of books suit people who are limited in cash perhaps about to board a plane and need something to read. If your a student, your teacher will have already have bought specific books prescribed by the examining board - if this is the case do so and purchase that copy because this does not have notes to explain language or anything.
The play itself is a wonderful piece of literature concerned by deception, political power, and action vs. inaction, perceived madness and religion. Before reading it (if you studying) you should get context about Denmark (where the play is set) but also England (where Shakespeare wrote it) as the two interlink, many of the themes present in Hamlet did actually happen during the time it was written, so do not completely ignore context.
on 13 December 2009
Arkangel have produced a highly listenable edition of 'Richard II', which (along with the Roman plays like 'Coriolanus') contains some of Shakespeare's most powerful political insights.
Arkangel's production never allows the listener to forget the subtle complexities at work. The actors do a marvellous job wringing meaning out of lines which might never have been gleaned from the written text, and the unspoken nuances, for instance, when Mowbray is told of his banishment, are palpable. The opening scene is intensely acted, with Bolingbroke and Norfolk spitting venom at each other before a king whose decadent boredom is obvious. Rupert Graves is excellent as Richard II, with highly expressive delivery (amused condescension, anger etc.) changing as his character's situation changes.
Also worth mentioning (in a play that completely lacks humour) is John Nettleton as the Duke of York, coming across as such a pompous old duffer that I almost laughed out loud each time he opened his mouth. The play's music is highly memorable, too, and was stuck in my head for days.