You may remember that in my autumn TBR post, I mentioned a Hamlet read-along that I planned to participate in. That began on the first of the month, but never fear! We’ve only gotten as far as Act 1, Scene 4, so it won’t be too hard to catch up.
To be very blunt about it, I love Hamlet. I didn’t think I would when I first read it in my high school English class, but whatever effort it took to get through it was worthwhile: it’s now one of my favorite books. Here are just a few of the reasons why you might want to give Hamlet a try in October.
1: The Setting
This, of course, is a play, usually encountered these days with splendid backdrops, props, etc. But in Shakespeare’s day, props were minimal and backdrops were almost nonexistent. The whole atmosphere of the play depended on words rather than on visuals. For that reason, Hamlet establishes an atmosphere of dread and suspicion from the very first line. If, like myself, you are enamored of shadowy eeriness, you will like this play.
2: The “Big Questions”
Unsurprisingly, there’s more to talk about in this play than could be sifted through in ten readings. We’re only four scenes in, but already, we’ve had tons of fodder for discussion, whether it was about the play’s context in history, conflicting views on the characters, or the ideas and views represented by the play itself. Maybe that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly kept this reader happy. 🙂
If nothing else, read it for the language. Read it for exchanges like this:
HORATIO [on having a ghost speak to him]: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”
HAMLET: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.”
or for the verbal tricks that Shakespeare pulls in order to make his hero seem insane while also keeping him truthful. (I might add that anyone who appreciates sarcastic humor will love Hamlet’s exchange with the grave-diggers in Act 5.)
4: The English Language Would Not Be What It Is without Hamlet
I knew that Shakespeare is responsible for many of the phrases and expressions we use today, but I didn’t realize just how many of those came from Hamlet. Sayings like “my mind’s eye,” “to the manner born,” “hoist with his own petard,” and of course, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” all find their roots in this play. It makes Hamlet quite an interesting read if, like me, you have any interest in the origins of idioms.
Of course, Shakespeare isn’t the sort of things that most people think of when they think of pleasure reads, but I wonder if that has more to do with what people expect Shakespeare to be like than what he’s actually like. So, to that point, I will attempt to answer a few of the most common complaints about Hamlet.
1: The Language Is Too Difficult
Language is a problem, especially since there are places in this play where Shakespeare uses words that we still use today, but whose meanings have changed drastically in the last 400 years. Luckily, most printed editions of Shakespeare’s plays are awash with footnotes, definitions, etc. Or, if you don’t have that, there are websites that function the same way. ShakespearesWords.com was indispensable when I read Hamlet the first time, and when I read The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare-Online.com also has the full texts of Shakespeare’s plays (Sonnets too!) and even more in-depth notes than are to be had with Shakespeare’s Words. (Just don’t be a jerk and lift one of their essays for your school project).
But vocab is only half the problem: besides the words themselves, the way they’re strung together can be awfully confusing. I find the best way to deal with it is, first, to read the sentences aloud. I don’t know why, but passages that I read four times silently without making progress make perfect sense once I read them out loud. Other people have claimed that the same is true of them when reading Shakespeare, poetry, or anything else difficult, so it can’t just be me. 😉
I find it also helps to break up especially long sentences. There are lots of parts in Hamlet that use a sort of sentence within a sentence, with the second sentence set off by dashes in the first. This, for example:
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as ’twere with a defeated joy,–
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,–
Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr’d
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along.
When faced with this kind of monstrosity, I usually read around the dashes the first time, then go back and read the lines inside the dashes, and finally read the whole thing together. Hopefully, that should make these jawbreaker sentences a little easier to tackle.
2: It’s Going to Be Depressing
The odd thing about this play is that, while it certainly is very dark and eerie, the darkness never becomes oppressive (At least, I don’t find it so.), and there are even some light moments mixed in with all the darkness. In an extreme twist of irony, the grave-digging scene ends up being rather amusing. So does the scene in which Hamlet [SPOILER!] discusses the method by which he disposed of Polonius’s body. A person who enjoys a bit of spookiness and some black humor should find this play very entertaining.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering that I’ve devoted much for this blog space to praising classic authors, but I believe that the age of a work of literature has exactly no bearing on its value. That’s not to say that there’s no value to be had from more recent books, but rather, a book’s publication date should be one of the last things we consider when we decide whether or not to read something. Older books have stuck around not just because they appeal to a certain sense of aesthetics or because they speak to current events, but because they are true. They speak truth about their subjects, whether those subjects are human beings themselves, or ideas like honor, revenge, evil, and repentance, things we still grapple with to this day and, likely, always will. I could probably devote a whole post to defending older books and stories, but that’s a topic for another time.
Meanwhile, has anyone read/seen Hamlet already? If so, what did you think? Are you planning on reading it? Let me know in the comments.