Review: Hamlet

Posted 26 March, 2015 by Lianne in Books / 8 Comments

Hamlet
By: William Shakespeare
Format/Source: Paperback; my copy

Hamlet is the story of the Prince of Denmark who learns of the death of his father at the hands of his uncle, Claudius. Claudius murders Hamlet’s father, his own brother, to take the throne of Denmark and to marry Hamlet’s widowed mother. Hamlet is sunk into a state of great despair as a result of discovering the murder of his father and the infidelity of his mother. Hamlet is torn between his great sadness and his desire for the revenge of his father’s murder.

I read this play years ago when I was in high school; we never studied it in class so I sought it out and read it on my own. I liked it them but that’s about all I remember in terms of my reaction. I wanted to revisit it since; I didn’t get around to it last year during my reading challenge, but it bumped up my re-read pile this year after I purchased the 2009 production of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company with David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart. I was going to listen to it, but then I picked up a copy for myself (long story) and figured what the heck, I’m reading it 😛

Oh gosh, how does one begin a post about William Shakespeare’s Hamlet? I suppose I should start by sying I could see why they say that Shakespeare was influenced by Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (review to be posted next month) (which I believe was written and performed a good how many years before Hamlet) as it has a lot of similar elements: a ghost with an untimely and unnatural death, themes of revenge, a play within a play to bring out the suspect, madness (real and feigned), death of a lover. These elements were used in their own ways in their respective plays, but I can’t help but feel as though Hamlet is more compelling, if only because the titular character is a very introspective one.

I really felt for Hamlet, even when he was making some poor decisions: his father isn’t even dead for more than two months and already his mother has moved on and she and his uncle/stepfather/howeveryouwanttocallhimatthispoint isn’t sure why he’s so sad. Hamlet gets a bit of a rap in contemporary culture for being very surly and moody to almost teenage angst levels, and Claudius does call him out on it (his grief is “unmanly”), but I don’t blame Hamlet for feeling this way, one month is suspiciously fast to move on from the mourning period. As events move on and some light is shed on his father’s untimely death, you can’t help but think that Hamlet was already heading towards some crossroads with himself and events have unravelled his delicate frame further; it’s unfortunate because he’s otherwise a very clever young man who had his whole life ahead of him. There’s also been a lot of commentary about Hamlet’s inability to make a decision and act on it; he’s not decisive, he wavers, he has second thoughts, but I didn’t feel frustrated by his actions. It felt very human, pondering about his actions and what the consequences would be stemming from doing this or that. He eventually becomes quite resolute towards the end, but his tackling with his morality made the indecision earlier especially understandable. The infamous speech “to be or not to be” endures because of the questions it poises; it’s very eloquent and covers the course of life and yet it’s very dark.

On another level, I did get a bit frustrated with the way he handled his predicament. In his indecision and struggle to get back at his uncle on behalf of his dead father, Hamlet for a good half of the play was just destroying almost all of his relationships left, centre, and right. More on Ophelia later, but he treated her woefully despite being profoundly affected by the actions of his mother. I’m not going to go into the psychoanalysis of his frame of mind because there’s been plenty written on that, but it was painful to see how he extended his anger to Ophelia, and later jerked her about during the play performed before Claudius and Gertrude. It was sad too because it seemed clear that he did indeed care for Ophelia (I say this before that scene in at the graveyard in Act IV).

Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is a curious one. It made me think of other well-known Shakespearean plays and how the theme of mothers-and-children tends to be missing or the relationship isn’t a terribly good one; there’s a lot more plays that have the father-and-son dynamic working or fathers-and-daughters. I need t read that one up, but I’m guessing Shakespeare’s relationship with his mum wasn’t so great? Nonetheless the scene when he finally confronts his mother about her actions was a very interesting one and changes the course of Gertrude’s character for the remainder of the play. Wow that it took some pretty absurd antiques to get this mother and son to communicate their feelings through 😛

On a random note, I didn’t know Hamlet’s father was also named Hamlet. That detailed seemed to have slipped my attention the first time 😛

I felt so sad for Ophelia’s character; it was clear from her opening scene that things were going to go down badly for her. The men in her life are all looking out for her in different ways, but it feels like such a tug-of-war that in the end she just had no say in anything and when they all went away she was left unable to even keep her sanity together (granted, her father died and Hamlet had spurned her, but still). She was just ill-used by everyone for their own means (I’m looking at you, Polonius–what was up with him anyway? He seems like some sort of social climber or something). It’s a pity that her character wasn’t more developed, I wish she had more developed scenes leading up to her madness.

Story-wise it was interesting to revisit the play as I didn’t remember too much of the details. No kidding actors chuckle over the amount of lines Hamlet has, he has a lot of soliloques! Starting from Act II the madness (no pun intended) really begins, as Hamlet struggles to take down Claudius but at the same time has to deal with the various people around him doting on him and trying to understand him. The only segment that sort of bored me was Act II, Scene 2, which was not only really long but also introduced the play-within-the-play element and directing the players around. It was fine when I was listening to The Spanish Tragedy but I found it to be on the long side here. Overall though it was pretty thrilling to turn the page and see what the characters were going to do next.

I’m sure I missed a point or two in this post but this is all I can think of at this point. I’m happy to have revisited the play and contemplate on the themes that Hamlet found himself facing–duty, love, madness, grief, morality, death. It’s intriguing that the two folios that exist for this play have big differences, but it’s clear that Shakespeare had a lot of ideas going into this play. After all, there are so many familiar phrases and soliloques comin from the text. Anyway, my review of the 2009 production of Hamlet will be up shortly! 🙂

Rating: ★★★★★

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8 Responses to “Review: Hamlet”

  1. I’m actually planning on rereading Hamlet myself at some point in the near (I hope) future, so I was excited to see you had a review up for it^^ I’ll admit though, that I got the idea after getting my hands on the BBC version of Hamlet with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart that you mentioned there ;D When I first read it in my teens, I remember liking Hamlet as a character despite all the bad rap he seems to get. His feelings were totally understandable to me because it’s like you said: one month is a very short amount of time for his mother to mourn before marrying Hamlet’s uncle of all people O.O I also remember that my strongest feelings about the entire play was the ill-use of Ophelia as a character. It makes me sad just thinking about it, I feel like she could have been so much more 🙁 I’ll definitely be looking out for your review of the 2009 production!

    • Nice, happy re-reading Hamlet! 🙂 It was awesome re-reading it because I’ve come to appreciate all of the themes and characterisations this time around that I missed the first time. But yeah, I feel like there was already so much going on with Hamlet that his mum marrying his uncle was the one that broke the camel’s back, so to speak (still weirded out about marrying his uncle, of all the people!). Agreed, Ophelia and what happens to her always makes me sad 🙁

    • Time for a re-read 😀 I’m glad to have revisited it, I think I appreciate a lot of the themes happening in this play a lot more than I did when I read the play years and years ago xD

  2. I absolutely love Hamlet. Best I’ve ever seen was Derek Jacobi playing him. He was brilliant and I think it’s available on DVD. The film with Kenneth Branagh is pretty good as well. Ophelia’s role is badly underwritten if you can say that about Shakespeare! I always feel sorry for the actors playing that part. For a book which takes on that character sympathetically there’s the novel Ophelia by Jeremy Trafford.

    • I totally hear you about Ophelia, I think the writing for her is up there with Much Ado‘s Don John–and at least he gets to have his evil moment (despite his reasons not being terribly nuanced) before dropping off the page. Thanks for the rec on the novel, I’ll have to look it up!

    • Thanks so much for dropping by! There’s just so much to this play, I think this will be one of those literary pieces I can ead time and time again and pick up something different 🙂

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