There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first time and said, “I don’t see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.” –Issac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare
Studying Hamlet in the grammar school years can be a tremendous boon to a young person. The themes that Hamlet presents are so timeless and profound that only by repeated readings over many years can one truly come to appreciate the depth of richness and pathos which this work of art holds. Indeed the various seasons of life will lend even more understanding to life issues presented in this play. Children who have a head start are truly fortunate.
Those who have read Beowulf in their studies of Medieval History, will find it interesting to note that Hamlet derives its original story from Norse myth. Indeed much of the plot comes from the Norse myth Ameleth–and one can easily see how Shakespeare merely transposed the “h” at the end of the word to arrive at Hamlet. While in Beowulf there is a very clear mix of Norse superstition with emerging but primitive understandings of Christianity, one will not see monsters like Grendel in Hamlet. Of course, the ghost of Hamlet’s father plays a key role in this tale, but clear understandings of Christian notions of morality are evident in Hamlet’s constant wrestling with his conscience.
It might be helpful to note that while there are adult themes in this play, Shakespeare’s version is significantly sanitized from the original Norse. It is also important to note that our American Puritanical heritage often makes us uncomfortable with the plain and frank approach to issues like sexuality, brothels, incest, cuckoldry, and so on. If parents are sensitive to these issues, (and understandably so for younger students), the Marcia Williams edition of Tales from Shakespeare and the Beverly Birch edition Shakespeare’s Tales, does not include these elements.
Harold Bloom in his scholarly, dense, but thrilling (to English majors) analysis of Shakespeare’s works in The Invention of the Human, defines Hamlet as
the prince without the play, unsurpassed in the West’s imaginative literature. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Falstaff, and perhaps Mr. Pickwick approximate Hamlet’s career as literary inventions who have become independent myths. Approximation can extend here to a few figures of ancient literature: Helen of Troy, Odysseus, Achilles among them. Hamlet remains apart. [. . .] Rare in secular literature the charismatic is particularly (and strangely) very infrequent in Shakespeare. . . Hamlet, first and last vies with King David and the Jesus of Mark as the charismatic of charismatics.
Hamlet is the quintessential tragic hero, but a tragic hero blessed (or cursed) with a keen intellect and an exceedingly tender conscience. Hamlet’s struggle is with fate, but is also a moral wrestling, the struggle of one who has been dealt an unusually cruel hand. Bereft of a beloved father, tied devotedly to his mother and his love, Ophelia, Hamlet loses everything when his father’s ghost visits him in the night and reveals to him the circumstances of his death–murdered by his brother Claudius who now reigns in his father’s stead and has married Hamlet’s mother, not even two months after his father’s death. Hamlet’s conundrum is that his father’s murder demands retribution yet Hamlet is torn by his own unanswerable questions, his deeply penetrating and intellectual mind, and his reluctance to act, as he continually second guesses himself and others. As Hamlet laments, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right” (I.5.188-189). Bloom notes:
Whoever Shakespeare’s God may have been, Hamlet’s appears to be a writer of farces, and not of a comedy in the Christian sense. God, in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Job, composes best in rhetorical questions. Hamlet is much given to rhetorical questions, but unlike God’s, Hamlet’s does not always seek to answer themselves. The Hebrew God, at least in the Yahwist’s text, is primarily an ironist. Hamlet, certainly an ironist, does not crave an ironical God, but Shakespeare allows him no other.
Hamlet has four soliloquies–each worth visiting with students, and each marking a particular point of torment in his mind. His most well-known is of course the “to be or not to be speech” which occurs in Act III.i.55-88, and is actually his third soliloquy. These lines powerfully display Hamlet’s rhetorical questions to himself about the nature of life, its toils, pains, and heartache, and how tragedy can tempt one to quit this life (lines 74-75) with a “bare bodkin”–i.e. a mere dagger. Hamlet knows that only the fear of the “undiscover’d country, from whose bourn (boundary)/ No traveller returns” makes us “bear those ills we have,/ Than fly to others we know not of?/ (76-81). Suicide is not far from his thoughts as is true of his first soliloquy as well.
Hamlet’s first soliloquy (I.ii.129-159) is another worth visiting with students. It takes place just after his mother’s wedding, but before he is visited by his father’s ghost. It is a penetrating view of Hamlet’s state of mind, his weariness with life–”Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst [self] slaughter! O God, God/ (131-132). Even before Hamlet learns the truth of his father’s murder we see the depth of his grief over this loss, and his agony over the “wicked speed” with which his mother has married Claudius, “Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears / Had left the flushing in her galled eyes” (154-156).
Hamlet’s second soliloquy reveals his agony regarding his reluctance to act in avenging his father’s death. After viewing the actors playing the fall of Troy and the death of Priam, he is overwhelmed with self-loathing “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”(II.ii.550). He feels ashamed that players can work themselves to tears in the parts they play while he has a “dear father murthered” whom he cannot bring himself to avenge . He cannot trust himself that the ghost he saw was truly his father, and wrestles with the fact that it could be “a devil” assuming “a pleasing shape” in order to deceive him into murdering his uncle and thereby bringing “damnation” upon himself (II.ii. 599-603). Thus, Hamlet determines to present a play that will catch the king if he is guilty–”the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (604-605). This is the “framed narrative” that occurs within the play and of course, provides a play within a play.
The love story between Ophelia and Hamlet is one of tender pathos and tragedy. They are the star-crossed lovers who, caught in the swirling whirlwind of events beyond their control become its most innocent victims. Hamlet and Ophelia’s most heart-rending exchange comes just after Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech. It is a subtle exchange with double meaning, turns of phrase, and enigmas. I can not get through it without a tear springing to my eye! The tender nature of this young couple’s love for each other is intertwined with the intrigue and rottenness of the Danish court and ultimately succumbs to it. The tragedy of Ophelia’s ensuing madness and death is compounded by her burial in unsanctified ground, due to the “doubtful” nature of her death. Death by suspected suicide meant burial in graveyards not blessed by church prefects. Hamlet’s agonized cry at the grave site “I lov’d Ophelia. Forty-thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum” brings a close to the tragic love affair (V.i.269-271).
Abraham Lincoln was a constant reader of Shakespeare and the plays Hamlet and Macbeth were two of his favorites. While most literary critics consider Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy his finest, Lincoln felt that Claudius’s lament over his inability to repent deeply moving. “O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t / A brother’s murther. Pray can I not / Though inclination be as sharp as will” (III.ii.36-39). The entire soliloquy (to line 72) is a powerful reflection of the murderer’s heart and his inability to find a place of repentance and forgiveness. This would be a fine study for memorization and recitation.
Finally a brief monologue that Hamlet recites to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the “What a piece of work is a man” and reflects the humanism of Shakespeare’s Renaissance era (see II.ii.303-310). I also love Hamlet’s lines when he uses the metaphor of music to describe how Guildenstern is trying to play Hamlet like an instrument. Shakespeare’s use of each aspect of music–frets, stops, plucks, voice, organ, notes, pipe, instruments, all combine to create a moving passage that powerfully describes his false friend’s attempts to manipulate him (see III.ii. 345-372).
There is so much here in Hamlet, that this brief overview only provides a place to start. A recent interview with Ben Kinglsey on NPR reminded me of why studying Hamlet is so important. Kingsley notes,
I think it’s very important to embrace tragedy as a real part of our lives. David Mamet in his book Writings in Restaurants [says], ‘Western civilization is a civilization determined to outlaw tragedy. If you remove the interpretation of tragedy and the presentation of tragedy, you’re telling the tribe nothing of real life, and it doesn’t prepare us as adults. It infantilizes us, it doesn’ t prepare us for real life. All great mythology that we love and respect has included loss and tragedy as well as great moments of salvation. It’s braided in.
Aids to help: For mature audiences, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, I think most closely approximates the great Bard’s original masterpiece. It is a full length version (4 hours) which is rare. It is rated PG-13 for brief nudity and violence. These parts could be easily skipped by previewing beforehand. Mel Gibson also played the role of Hamlet in a Franco Zeffirelli production which is rated PG. This is an abridged version. Listening to audio editions in the car also help students to grasp the beauty and poetry of the language. Remember that since this is a play it is meant to be read aloud! John Gielgud’s audio edition is a classic and many others are available as MP3 downloads. Enjoy!