Friday, July 26, 2013

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

I don't feel even remotely qualified to say anything about Hamlet.  What could I possibly add to the millions upon millions of words of commentary that have already been heaped upon it since the 17th century?  I feel like I might have some interesting things to say about King Lear, but only because I've read it probably 20-30 times in the course of teaching it; if you really want me to say something intelligent about Hamlet, you might need to check in with me around 2016.

But if I don't blog about it, it doesn't count so: I haven't read Hamlet since high school, so I was surprised to find how familiar it was to me.  It's so full of great moments, but I've re-encountered them recently in Bloom, or Ron Rosenbaum, or in other places, yet I found very little I liked that seemed new to me.  In that sense, and only that sense, reading it was a little disappointing.

In every other sense, of course, it's amazing.  Lear has a special place in my heart, but if you were to say that Hamlet is the best Shakespeare offers, I wouldn't argue.  I think, besides merely being Shakespeare at the height of his literary powers, Hamlet is so revered because it manages to encapsulate what it means to be a modern human being.  I'm thinking about what Hamlet says about thoughts and actions:

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

The line on Hamlet, if I'm remembering correctly from high school, is that his "fatal flaw" is that he thinks too much; he dithers and plots and plans instead of getting right down to business.  What a meager, shrunken vision that is of the Prince of Denmark.  I see in this passage and the play as a whole the best expression of that strange feeling that there is no immediacy in actions, that the groundlessness and mystery of being calls the very importance and urgency of action into question, the feeling that the life of thought is so much more vital than the life "out there."  Hamlet seems as if he laments the dissolution of "enterprises of great pitch and moment," but doesn't he simultaneously compel us to question the very worth of those enterprises?  The "fatal flaw" perspective on the other hand is too dependent on Aristotelian ideas about tragedy that Hamlet annihilates completely.  What does Hamlet have in common with Oedipus, for example, whose character is so completely circumscribed by his actions, by the things that he's done?

That feeling, of course, as Hamlet understands, is connected to the fundamental dilemma of death--if the living world seems burdensome, yet that burden is balanced or even overcome by the fear of "the undiscovered country."  I think Hamlet shows us the way that we retreat into our own minds as a way of escaping these two poles.

Okay, there are some incoherent, rambling thoughts about Hamlet.  Do you think I could get next year's sophomores to react to these ideas in the form of a diorama?


R.M. Fiedler said...

When I was in China, I watched The Banquet which is a loose adaptation. Close enough to still capture the spirit of Hamlet; far enough to include some awesome, awesome, awesome kung-fu scenes.

R.M. Fiedler said...

I've always said that the one thing Shakespeare needs is more kung-fu.

Brittany said...

I have taught Hamlet to AP, honors, and regular seniors in various combinations for the last five years. (I am amazed that I have managed to love it in spite of going through it approximately 16 times, although I am honestly excited for the break from it as next year I am teaching freshman so, Romeo and Juliet).

Before we ever start reading I have them think/write/discuss a bunch of the major topics that are central and relatable (ie: how much say should you have in your parents' love lives? how long should someone wait after their spouse's death to start dating? do you have a stronger allegiance to your friends, family, or country? how much influence do your parents have on your love life? is it ever ok to kill someone? is it ever ok to kill yourself?) and by the time we read the play they are stoked on it. Every year it is (to my surprise) one of the most loved texts. The new BBC movie has David Tennant as Hamlet and is *amazing* (but they make some changes in the order of scenes, which I actually decided I prefer, but it can be confusing) and the Kenneth Branagh Hamlet is also very well liked by the students - particularly that version's ending - it's very dramatic and fun. The Ethan Hawke Hamlet is rated R so I don't mess with that, but I like to show his to be or not to be scene because he's wearing a beanie and walking around a blockbuster ( and I think it's an interesting setting compared to all the others.

When I ask my students which texts I should keep and which I should lose, Hamlet is almost always a winner.

I also just heard about Shakespeare's Star Wars which is the Star Wars story told in a play form entirely in iambic pentameter, so I think I'm going to buy that and use it in my future Shakespeare teaching endeavors. (

Christopher said...

That's all actually very helpful, thanks.