Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Everest of literature

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<p><figcaption class=David Tennant as Hamlet in a 2009 production. BBC Wales, Royal Shakespeare Company

Although I’m wary of declaring a work of literature the greatest of all time, Shakespeare’s Hamlet would be a favorite. It is often proclaimed or voted Shakespeare’s best play (Google it). It has countless movie adaptations, is heavily referenced, and even receives some kind of homage in The Simpsons.

Hamlet deserves such accolades because he offers the most profound insights into the human condition; although this idea can be a bit difficult to explain.

Consider some of Shakespeare’s other serious and popular plays. Romeo and Juliet is a tale of forbidden love – the cliche falls effortlessly. Othello speaks of the horrors of jealousy. And Macbeth, with its Tarantino tale of regicide and its dark consequences, explores the dark side of ambition. What about Hamlet then?

Well…ah…It’s when someone does something wrong, and you’re pretty sure what they did wasn’t right, and you should do something. about it, but you can’t find the strength within yourself to do that something, and your uncertainty and inaction cause you even more distress, but events follow one another – as they always do – and everything ends up being worse than if you had done something in the first place. Perhaps.

I’m stupid, but it’s my way of coping. Because even though I know the misfortunes associated with love, jealousy and ambition, my greatest sorrow is not having acted time and time again when the situation called for it. I was a coward. I’m sure I’m far from alone in evaluating my life this way. And that is why Hamlet, which depicts this state of inaction, is the Everest of literature.

Read more: Guide to the classics: Homer’s Iliad

An overview of the game

Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is a modern character. He attends the University of Wittenberg and is an intellectual. His father, the recently deceased king, also called Hamlet, was, unlike his son, a warrior.

In the first scene of the play, the ghost of old King Hamlet appears silently to Horatio, Hamlet’s friend. Seeing him, Horatio recalls the time when “in an angry conversation [a battle]/ He [the old king] hit the Polacks in sleds on the ice. This counterpoint to Hamlet’s famous inaction, like the ghost of the king himself, haunts the play.

We soon learn that the old king has only been dead two months and that Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, hastily married the new king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father returns, this time telling his son that he was murdered – poisoned – by Claudius (it was “the most heinous murder”) and urging Hamlet to avenge his death.

The scene ends with young Hamlet revealing his reluctance:

Time is out of whack: – O cursed wickedness, / That I was never born to remedy it!

But the increasingly troubled prince is unsure if the ghost was even telling the truth. He gets proof of this when he has a troupe of actors re-enact the poisoning before Claudius and Claudius react strongly.

Now Hamlet must truly avenge his father. The opportunity arises when, on his way to meet his mother, he comes across Claudius praying. But Hamlet is plagued with doubts and cannot kill Claudius.

Hamlet continues to confront his mother about her hasty marriage. While arguing with her, he stabs Polonius (the father of Ophelia, the woman he wooed), who had been planted behind a curtain to spy on her.

Polonius’ son, Laertes, wants to avenge his father. He, unlike Hamlet, is ready to act.

Claudius, who now also wants Hamlet dead, arranges for Laertes to duel Hamlet with a poisoned rapier. They fight. Hamlet is cut by the rapier, then Laertes too. Meanwhile, Hamlet’s mother accidentally consumes a poisoned drink meant for her son and dies.

Hamlet learns the truth about what happened. He stabs Claudius, making him drink the poison as well. Claudius dies, then Laertes dies, then finally, Hamlet dies. (South Park effectively represents the final scene).

To be or not to be – or maybe not

I expected to illustrate Hamlet’s struggle for action with an analysis of all of Shakespeare’s most famous speech: “To be or not to be” (Act III Scene I). It begins with these oft-quoted lines:

To be or not to be, that is the question:
Let it be nobler in the spirit to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or take up arms against a sea of ​​trouble

But now I’m not sure that’s a good idea. “To be or not to be” is ambiguous. Also, Hamlet probably knows he’s being watched by the king or others while he’s speaking, and therefore doesn’t really say what he thinks.

Arguably, Hamlet’s final speech in the play comes just before this one, at the end of Act II. In this bloody soliloquy, he berates himself for his inaction, asking, “Am I a coward? and thinks he lacks the nerve, “To make oppression bitter”.

He said: “I should have fattened all the kites in the region / With the giblets of this slave”; that is, murdered Claudius and fed his guts to scavengers.

He also mocks her propensity to seek solace in words:

Why, what an ass am I! Yes, of course, it is very courageous;
That I, the son of a dear murdered father,
Incited to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with my words…

The rejection of the call to adventure

Shakespeare’s play is notable because it tells the story of a man who, to draw inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s enduring concept of “the hero’s journey”, refuses “the call to adventure”.

So many of the stories we consume involve some sort of heroic quest where a reluctant hero accepts that call. Watch Frodo in The Lord of the Rings or Luke Skywalker’s ambivalence around the call in Star Wars. The two heroes end up defeating evil. And although they are modified by experience (not entirely for the better), one feels that refusing the call would have led to worse results.

Hamlet’s inaction—his refusal of the appeal—directly or indirectly causes eight deaths, including his own. If he had acted, then probably only Claudius would have died.

The moral of the story is that there is risk in action, but the greatest risk lies in inaction. In short, action in bad situations is the lesser of two evils.

But maybe that’s not the moral. Perhaps the play is not urging the audience to take action, but asking a deeper question. Namely, what does it mean for us to cross the threshold that separates reason from power? In other words, what does it mean for us to abandon reason and fight back against the monster?

Reason appeals to principles. It appeals to the capacity of reason in others. He does not do justice to himself. What if it was sometimes reasonable to abandon reason and strike power with power? Can reason survive such a decision?

Read more: Guide to the classics: Shakespeare’s sonnets – an honest account of love and a surprising portal to the man himself

The endless appeal of Hamlet

Hamlet is not just a success because Hamlet himself embodies our own struggles. Hamlet is also incredibly quoteable – the joke is that it has too many quotes.

The play’s appeal also lies in the depth of the secondary characters, such as Ophelia, Polonius and the inseparable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Hamlet’s university friends).

And the piece is seductive and enigmatic. We don’t know if Hamlet’s mother was involved in the murder of the old king, if Polonius is indeed a fool, if Hamlet loses his mind, etc. Where there are mysteries, there are detectives.

Hamlet pops up everywhere in Western culture – not just in The Simpsons and South Park.

Given all the trouble Hamlet has with his father and mother, it’s no surprise that Freud saw something Oedipal in the whole thing.

Ophelia, who suffers the double tragedy of her own demise and is less talked about than Hamlet despite compelling struggle and brilliant lines (“we know what we are, but/don’t know what we can be”), is referenced in The Waste by Eliot Terre. His words, “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night” provides an ominous conclusion to the gruesome pub scene in Part II of Eliot’s poem.

And for Star Wars fans (a Star Wars reference is never enough), Chewbacca has his own “Alas, poor Yorick” moment when he reassembles C3P0 in Empire Strikes Back (Yorick was a jester who entertained Hamlet when Hamlet was a boy) .

Compare that with Kenneth Branagh’s version.

Memento Mori

That said, and with Yorick in mind, what stands out most to me in Hamlet is the dark and beautiful graveyard scene at the start of Act V.

Polonius is dead. Ophelia, whom Hamlet probably loved, is dead. The final bloody streak is near.

And the play stops.

Two gravediggers have a tongue-in-cheek debate over whether or not Ophelia committed suicide as they dig her grave. It’s a dark comedy moment.

The gravediggers dig up Yorick’s skull. After the “Alas, poor Yorick! – I knew him,” Hamlet thinks the most famous people, like Alexander the Great and Roman Emperor Caesar, were no different from Yorick.

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay
Could plug a hole to keep the wind away.
Oh, that this land, which held the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the rift of winter!

While exploring the most serious aspects of the human condition, Shakespeare, with this memento mori, seems to remind us that existence is something of a cosmic joke. It’s reminiscent of the end of Life of Brian. Roll the credits.

This article is republished from The Conversation, the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Dr Jamie Q Roberts, University of Sydney.

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Dr. Jamie Q Roberts does not work for, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.

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