Why This Play?:
Here we are, tackling one of the most important and recognized works in the history of the English language. Nothing to be intimidated by, right? I first read Hamlet when I was 15 years old, in my 10th grade Honors English class. My teacher, Mr. Birrer, either had high expectations of his class and/or he just really loved getting to teach this play. That same year, I saw Branagh’s movie (unabridged text; hold on to your hats!) in the theatre. I think an early introduction to the work really mitigated some of the trepidation I probably would have felt if I had first explored this play in college. I got the chance to really enjoy it from a plot/characterization standpoint before I had developed my finely honed, pretentious, English major critical thinking skills. I could just absorb the story for what it essentially is: a punk kid, depressed about his messed-up family situation, argues with himself on how to change his circumstances.
I was very pleased to see a free, 1-hour long production of Hamlet a couple of weeks ago at my local library. There’s something refreshing about seeing such a dense work (Shakespeare’s longest) stripped to its essence. It brought to mind my long-ago first reaction to the play – that many teenagers could identify with this confused, angry, sad protagonist, who’s been let down by some of the people he loved most. I like most to imagine a youthful Hamlet, because I think he struggles with his own capability in making adult decisions. This guy has a difficult time choosing a course of action and actually pursuing it. Hamlet as the ultimate stereotype of a hipster philosophy student. What makes this guy so relatable and famous for so long? Because like him, at some point, we’ve all been our own worst enemy.
So What Happens?:
Brace yourself – this is Shakespeare’s longest play, which means this is my longest recap. Skip ahead to the next section if you know this play intimately. Onward!
The action opens on a castle in Denmark in the dead of night, two guards identifying themselves in the mist. Everyone’s on edge as relations are tense with Norway at the moment (more on that later). But it’s more than just that – spectral sightings have occurred the past couple of nights! Guard Marcellus and pal to the royals, Horatio, spot the ghost, who happens to be a dead-ringer (pun intended) for the recently deceased king of Denmark. Horatio thinks this is a bad sign for their country’s future. Old King Hamlet and Norway’s King Fortinbras had previously fought, Fortinbras was slain, and some of his lands won by the Danish. His son (conveniently also called Fortinbras) is looking to wage war to gain those lands back. Horatio tries to speak with the ghost, but it vanishes. They decide to bring the matter to his son, Prince Hamlet.
Claudius, old King Hamlet’s brother, has been crowned the new king of Denmark. On top of that, he’s also married Queen Gertrude (his former sister-in-law, Prince Hamlet’s mama), a mere month after her late husband’s death. He sends some envoys over to Norway to try to sort out their potential war. Laertes (son of royal advisor, Polonius) asks for leave to return to school in France since the coronation is done. Queen Gertrude tries to urge her son, Hamlet, out of such intense mourning for his father. The (new) king and queen want Hamlet to be cheerful again and play happy family in their new arrangement, but they aren’t ready to send him back to school yet and require him to stay at court. Alone, a depressed Hamlet contemplates and rejects suicide all in one breath, then rails against his mother for moving on so quickly from her widowhood. Horatio and Marcellus interrupt him with news of the ghost sighting. Interest piqued, Hamlet agrees to keep watch with them that night.
Laertes prepares for his travels to France, bidding goodbye to his sister, Ophelia. She and Hamlet have been flirting for some time, and Laertes tries to convince her that Hamlet’s can’t seriously consider a future with her. Polonius, their father, comes to pass on some (famous/cliché) words of wisdom to his son. When he hears of Ophelia’s would-be dalliance with the prince, he instructs her to shut it down since Hamlet’s only interested in a fling, he’d never marry her, etc. Obedient Ophelia agrees to dismiss any ongoing wooing. Later that night, Hamlet joins the night guard for a little ghost hunting. The ghost appears and lures Hamlet away from the others. There, he reveals that Uncle Claudius murdered him (the ol’ pour-poison-in-the-ear-of-your-napping-brother-making-it-look-like-a-snake-bite trick)! That usurping wife stealer gots to get got.
Ghosty Hamlet Sr. instructs Hamlet to avenge his death and go after Claudius. He’s pretty disgusted with his widow as well – yet, curiously, he indicates that Gertrude should not be included in this plot. He disappears, begging to be remembered. Hamlet wants to keep this info to himself, but Horatio and Marcellus come to check and makes sure he’s safe and sane. Hamlet makes them swear that they won’t reveal any word about the ghost to anyone else. The ghost creepily chimes in to make them swear as well (it works). The ever-meddling Polonius instructs his servant, Reynaldo, to head to France to spy on Laertes. He’s just a concerned father who wants to make sure his son is honest and living up to the family name, ok?! To further show his paternal oversight, he checks in with Ophelia to make sure she’s true to her word to dump Hamlet. She’s freaked out because Hamlet is acting very strangely, wandering around with his clothes all disheveled and sighing and staring at her. Polonius is positive this turn in character is because Hamlet’s lovesick, and he decides to loop in the royals.
The king and queen happily welcome Hamlet’s old school buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who are slightly dumb and basically interchangeable, so I will henceforth refer to them as “R&G”) – they sent for the lads to visit and root out what’s been bothering Hamlet.
Messengers report to Claudius that the royal elders in Norway have gotten Fortinbras Jr. to back away from Denmark and focus on Poland for the time being, so direct war is averted. And Polonius bursts on the scene to give a long-winded speech that finally reveals he thinks Hamlet’s thwarted passion for Ophelia is the cause of his recent mood swings. Gertrude and Claudius want further evidence for this, so Polonius arranges to send Ophelia to Hamlet and spy on the whole ordeal.
Hamlet runs witty circles around Polonius while Polonius puzzles through his meaning. R&G arrive and heartily greet Hamlet, who is happy to see them but also suspicious that they are there only at the behest of his parents. But a troupe of players has arrived too! R&G give a fun topical complaint about child troupes being all the rage (that must have been a fun dig in Shakespeare’s time for a performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to have a go at the competition like that!). Polonius tries to assert some authority around the players, but Hamlet just rolls his eyes and teases him with cryptic comments about his daughter. Hamlet asks the main player to recite a speech about Pyrrhus, a Greek warrior who’s out to avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet asks the players to put on a play the following night for the court (including a little extra scene he’ll write for them). Once he’s alone, he chastises himself for not feeling as much genuine emotion for his own father as the actor did for Pyrrhus’s fate. He gets a little manic in his speech, going from malaise to anger at Claudius to self-hatred to resolve. Concerned that the ghost sighting may have been a devil just messing with him, he decides to watch Claudius carefully during the play about brother murder to see if he can detect any feelings of culpability from the king. If Claudius reacts badly to the play, then Hamlet will take it as a sign that he’s guilty of regicide.
R&G aren’t really divulging any good intel to the king as to Hamlet’s state of mind. So he, along with Polonius, position Ophelia to run into Hamlet, and they position themselves to spy. Hamlet enters, seemingly alone, and delivers the most famous speech in English literature, in which he again contemplates suicide. He stumbles upon the planted Ophelia and is horribly cruel and erratic, claiming he loved once loved her, then denying it altogether, and finally just railing against women in general. Ophelia is torn apart by this, lamenting his drastically changed personality. Claudius isn’t convinced Hamlet is mad, however. To be on the safe side, he’s going to send Hamlet away to England.
Hamlet gets a boost of enthusiasm as he brings the players together for their royal performance (and to hopefully determine Claudius’s guilt). He enlists Horatio to watch the king carefully during the play. He also sends further mixed signals to Ophelia by using lewd language with her as they prepare to be the audience (he’s really kind of the worst when it comes to the ladies). The play commences – the player king and queen sigh over how much they love each other; the player queen vowing she would always be true and never remarry in the event her husband dies. While the player king sleeps, a player villain enters and poisons him. Hamlet informs the audience the villain is doing it to win the player queen.
In a flash, Claudius up and bolts out of the assembly. In the resulting confusion of people leaving, Hamlet revels, convinced that this confirms Claudius is guilty of the murder. He then turns on R&G, who bear a message to summon him to Gertrude. He spits venom (figuratively, of course), claiming they are trying to manipulate him like an instrument. Hamlet resolves to speak harshly (but without violence) to his mother. Meanwhile, Claudius has shut himself in the chapel. He firms up plans to send Hamlet to England with R&G, and Polonius confirms that he will spy on Hamlet and Gertrude’s conversation. Alone at last, Claudius is freaking out. He wants to repent for the murder, but he realizes that he can’t truly as long as he’s still enjoying the fruits of his sin (power, a wife). Hamlet sneaks up on him while the king tries to pray silently, ready to attack…but he stops himself. He doesn’t want to kill Claudius while his soul is newly clean and reconciled to God. Daddy Hamlet didn’t get that same courtesy, so Hamlet Jr. vows to kill another day and leaves.
He makes his way over to Gertrude’s room. She starts to upbraid him for his turbulent moods and treatment of his “father” when he violently interrupts her. In rapid succession: Gertrude cries out in fear, which startles the hidden Polonius, who is then stabbed by Hamlet (he thought it was Claudius). Polonius is dead, Gertrude is utterly shaken, but Hamlet is not to be derailed. He dives straight into a tirade against his mother, accusing her of disloyalty to his late father and general harlotry. Gertrude pleads him to stop, and the Ghost appears ask him to comfort her. As Hamlet speaks with the Ghost, Gertrude cannot see anything except proof of her son’s madness. Hamlet denies this and urges his mother to repent by avoiding her marital bed. He leaves, dragging Polonius’s body with him.
Claudius storms into the bedroom, and Gertrude reveals that Hamlet killed Polonius. Claudius realizes he dodged a bullet and that Hamlet is really after him. R&G fetch Hamlet and bring him before the king. He’s being all saucy and tough and finally (after torturing everyone with word play) reveals where Polonius’s body is. Claudius orders him, chaperoned by R&G, onto a boat to sail that night for England. Over at the coast, Hamlet and company spy some soldiers as they ready to set sail. It’s young Fortinbras, passing through on his way to invade a tiny, inconsequential strip of Poland. This spurs Hamlet on to compare Fortinbras’s overzealous initiative with his own inability to act. He riles himself up, and angrily reaffirms his commitment to revenge on Claudius.
Back at castle Elsinore, Gertrude’s trying to avoid Ophelia, but finally admits her when a messenger importunes. Ophelia enters and upsets the queen with songs about her dead father. The king and queen are amazed at her downslide into madness, and she then sings of loss of virginity and betrayal before leaving. Unhappy Claudius then receives Laertes, who has arrived back in town for his father’s funeral with a mob in tow who wants him on the throne. Claudius calms him, but that’s undone once Ophelia arrives in a haze of crazy, chattering about flowers and singing. Laertes is heartbroken over the state of his family.
Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet. En route to England, he was captured by pirates [missed opportunity for some quality action here, Shakespeare!] and he bartered for them to release him. He’s heading back to Denmark, although R&G are now magically disappeared to England, out of the picture. Meanwhile, Claudius has been at work on Laertes, telling him that Hamlet is responsible for the death of Polonius. Also, he totally would have punished Hamlet, except Gertrude and the Danish people wouldn’t have liked that. When a messenger tells of Hamlet’s return, Claudius hatches a plot to end Hamlet’s life. Vengeful Laertes is on board – they plan to host a show of swordsmanship with a fight between Laertes and Hamlet. Laertes will poison the end of his sword to strike Hamlet, and Claudius will have Hamlet’s drink poisoned as a back-up plan to ensure the job is done. Gertrude enters with horrifying news: Ophelia was out picking flowers when she plummeted (purposefully?) into the river and drowned.
Two men dig Ophelia’s grave outside the castle, debating if she should technically be allowed a proper burial. There’s some cheeky singing involved as well as some quality jokes to make light of the fact that we all have the same deadly destiny. Hamlet and Horatio happen by, a bit shocked that the gravedigger is just tossing skulls out of the grave. Apparently one of them was the king’s old jester, Yorick, which makes melancholy Hamlet ponder (again) on the ephemeral state of man and memory. The court arrives, and hidden Hamlet slowly realizes this is Ophelia’s funeral. Laertes jumps into the grave while Hamlet comes forward to have a grief-off with Laertes, each proclaiming he loved Ophelia more. Horatio breaks them up while the court leaves. Hamlet then reveals to his friend that R&G were carrying secret orders from Claudius to the English government to execute Hamlet on sight upon landing there. While still on the boat, Hamlet doctored the order to replace his own name with R&G’s before he stole away with the pirates. He doesn’t feel badly about orchestrating the deaths of his old school buddies, but he’s feeling guilty over everything Laertes has to grapple with. A young servant (Osric) comes with news of a king-sponsored sword-fighting challenge with Laertes, and Hamlet decides to opt in.
The court turns out to watch the challenge, and Hamlet first offers his apologies to Laertes for all he’s endured, claiming that Hamlet himself is not to blame for any wrongdoing (it was just his madness). Claudius makes a show of saying he’ll toast Hamlet every time he gains a point, and the players choose their swords and commence fighting. Hamlet strikes the first hit, then the second. Gertrude fusses over her son, then grabs his cup (remember, the secretly poisoned one) to toast him. Claudius tries to stop her, but she drinks anyway. The fighting gets more heated now, and in the scuffle both are wounded with the poisoned sword. As Gertrude falls and dies under influence of the poisoned wine, Laertes confesses the sword is poisoned as well and that the two men are not long for this world. He confirms the plot is the king’s doing. In a fit of rage, Hamlet stabs Claudius and makes him drink the remainder of the poisoned wine. The king dies. Hamlet and Laertes make peace, each forgiving the other before Laertes dies. Hamlet makes Horatio promise that he will live on to tell the tale, then the prince also dies. Suddenly, the Norwegian army shows up at court, along with the English ambassador. R&G are confirmed dead. A bewildered Fortinbras surveys the bodies, and Horatio promises to explain all. Being the only royalty around, Fortinbras commands an honorable funeral and fanfare for Hamlet’s death.
Check This Out:
I really just want to use this section to point out how pervasive Hamlet is in pop culture. Here’s a (small) sampling of my favorites nods to the play in the past few decades:
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard. RENT THIS FILM!
- To Be Or Not To Be by Ryan North. Do you like graphic novels? Choose your own adventure books? Dead-on, hilarious, educated satire? Track this down immediately. I laugh every time I pick it up.
- 1st season Slings & Arrows, one of my all-time favorite TV shows that I’ve mentioned several times before. Stop what you’re doing (after you finish this post) and just go watch it already. First episode streaming for free on Amazon!
- It’s lampooned by many a cartoon, such as this fine example from The Simpsons
- As a Neil Gaiman fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Coraline, particularly his aging actress characters, Misses Spink & Forcible. (2:15 for specific references to Hamlet, but the movie and book are chock full of references from Macbeth to King Lear)
- The fun pop ditty, Cruel to Be Kind by Nick Lowe. In a fun Shakespearean twist, this song was covered by Letters to Cleo for the soundtrack of 10 Things I Hate about You, a modern take on The Taming of the Shrew.
Special side note: This play so popular, Microsoft Word didn’t even spellcheck any of the major character names while I wrote this blog post (it didn’t like Yorick or Fortinbras, however) – a rare occurrence when I’m writing about Shakespeare.
Oh, that short production I just saw? Some strong but judicious cuts made it tight and fun! All the business with Norway and Fortinbras went bye-bye (a huge improvement). The cast was tiny, just 5 actors, all of whom carried multiple parts excepting Hamlet. All of R&G's lines were cut, and they pulled two kids from the audience up to play them at intervals -- they were mostly just bewildered, which played perfectly into their characterization. Thanks for a grand time, SF Shakes!
Thoughts & Themes:
Think about your life for a moment. Think back to any time you were at a crossroads, where you knew a decision must be made. Perhaps you recall a time when you were presented with an opportunity that would have required a leap of faith. Maybe you just needed to move on from your current situation. Think about the chances you’ve taken, the decisions you’ve made. Now remember the other times. When you were so afraid or indifferent or confused that you just refused to act. You sat back and waited, hoping that something would change due to outside influence, unable to bring yourself to do it.
Well, reader, not acting is a choice in and of itself. You’ve done it. I have definitely been there. Hamlet spends the majority of the play in this state. Hence the play's relatability over the centuries.
Hamlet’s state of indecision is due to several factors. Primarily, he’s waffling over how/when/whether to avenge his father’s death and punish Claudius for his misdeeds. His own depression plays into this state of inaction as well. Hamlet turns inward many times throughout the play, focusing on his own struggle with continuing with his life or ending it. He devises many creative methods of procrastination (we writers can all empathize on that point) – dallying with Ophelia’s affections, raging at this mother, staging an elaborate play to find proof of his uncle’s guilt, playing the madman to throw everyone off course. But ultimately, his refusal (for the first 4.5 acts of the play) to make a conscious decision to kill Claudius or himself is the key to Hamlet. And let’s be clear, he could also make a firm choice to NOT KILL Claudius, to opt out of revenge, but he doesn’t do that. He just remains at the crossroads, waiting to see what’s going to push him to deal with Claudius or forgive. His inaction ends up actually driving the events of the play for other characters, leading to Polonius’s death and Ophelia’s madness. It’s a scary thought: can our own indecision actually create a butterfly effect?
Luckily, the vast majority (I hope) of you reading this haven’t had to struggle with the choice of killing someone. My guess is most of our non-decisions have to deal with relationships or career stuff. I have this journal that I write in everyday. The idea is that you have space to write a couple of sentences for each day. Each page is for a specific date (e.g. March 29), and you can write up to 5 years worth on a single page and see what’s changed. I’m currently in my 5th year of the journal. It’s fascinating to compare what I was doing/thinking/dreaming in 2012 on a given day (back when I was a mama of only 1 kid, working full time, barely engaged with anything creative) to where I am now. This time last year, upon flipping through the journal, I noticed 4 years worth of posts that showcased how frustrated, overworked, and underappreciated I felt in my job. It revealed a good 2 years (!!!) of me stalling, going round in circles in my head, convincing myself to stay in a position that was unhealthy. I pulled a Hamlet, delaying self-examination of “should I stay or should I go” by playing a game of “wait and see”. I would make occasional changes at work (none of which included me pretending to be crazy), but my delay to examine my priorities was really a decision. One that kept me on a treadmill that would eventually force my hand.
I got really sick in January of last year. And it was entirely from being so preoccupied and stressed; I just was too busy taking care of everyone else to take care of myself. It took a problem like that to shake me into examining the causes of stress and why I couldn’t get out of my bad patterns. Once I noticed that and was honest with myself, I was able to finally see that my problem wasn’t exactly with my position or the company or team. Turns out I was highly dissatisfied that I had chosen a career track that wasn’t utilizing the skills I most wanted to develop. And that discontent at work spilled over too much into my personal life and I felt like I couldn’t go on spinning so many plates. I missed writing on any topic other than health care or tech info. I missed hanging out with my kids and husband without simultaneously planning a work to-do list to tackle once they were in bed. I missed full nights of sleep without waking up to remind myself of what needed to be done the next day. My only solace was my commute (train & walk combo) that let me catch up on reading and podcasts. You know it’s a sad existence when you look forward to commuting.
My incredible husband enjoyed a glorious “I told you so” moment, then sprang into action helping me formulate a plan. We crunched numbers, made timelines, and enacted an exit strategy. He was right all along (I’m saying it in print, Bobby!) – I didn’t just need to change things at work or look for a new job. I needed to take a step back, regroup, focus on our family, and start fresh. We had these conversations for weeks before I became fully on board. I feel so unbelievably lucky that I was able to do just that, with his support and some careful planning.
Happily, I was able to leave my old company on good terms. Upon leaving work, I gave myself two months of no plans, no agenda for myself. I focused entirely on entertaining and educating my two little monsters. I would never in a million years claim that full-time care of my children has been relaxing…but it was so nice to just focus on them instead of the voices in my head telling me I was failing at work and at home. And after some time, I slowly started to analyze my interests vs. my skills and strengths. It’s what led me to start writing again, and why I started this blog. It also enabled me to work on some (temporary, part-time, finite) projects for my former employer. It’s been a happy balance since walking away.
After close to a year of staying home, I’m coming up at another fork in the road. I have been contemplating next steps. Go find a new job, decide to stay home? Some combination of the two? This time, I’ll be damned if I’m going to stay on the treadmill of where I am for 2 more years if that’s not where I want to be. I refuse to be “pigeon-livered and lack gall” like a certain Shakespearean protagonist. I guarantee that if Freddie Mercury was around in Hamlet’s day, the kid wouldn’t have felt such angst/ennui/weltschmerz.
Next up, it's time for some happies. I'm heading on a vacation to the woods myself, so what better for me to read there than As You Like It?