Friday, March 4, 2011

A few thoughts on "Hamlet"

Hamlet and Horatio in the Cemetery
by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)

I have very successfully been avoiding Hamlet.
This is partially because it is too big of a subject for a blog post and partly because I love it so much. I know I'm not going to be able to explain why and sound rational.

I wonder how many years people have dedicated to studying, interpreting, and performing Hamlet. I bet the total would be staggering.
Is it worth the obsession we have with it?

The Play-scene in Hamlet
by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)

I think Hamlet is largely about the complexity of human nature. Hamlet, himself, is extremely complicated and the subject of wide and varied conjectures (both in the play and the four-hundred years since it was first performed).
This was a problem for Hamlet too. Most of his soliloquies center around his inability to understand himself or his actions.

It is astonishing that today we accept Hamlet as a hero and his mission commendable. While Hamlet is certainly a likable character and I consider it natural to sympathize with him, this doesn't mean we should agree with what he is doing.
Shakespeare wasn't trying to create a role model.

Revenge tragedies were extremely common in Elizabethan England and taking vengeance oneself was universally condemned in the theater. It could be possible Shakespeare would go against this pattern, however, Hamlet condemns himself with several of his speeches. (For instance his reasoning in Act III, Scene 3 is startling as well as his quiet dispatch of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and lack of remorse over Polonius.)

Hamlet and Ophelia
by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-1882)

It could also be a indication of Shakespeare's own conclusion when the only characters standing are Horatio and Fortinbras.

Horatio is the moral stability of the play and Fortinbras is the only son who does not take revenge into his own hands.

(There is some debate here. Branagh's interpretation has Fortinbras storm Elsinore and then take the throne. I suppose the play can be taken this way, but the last we heard of Fortinbras he was obeying the counsel of his uncle. Personally I think it would be horribly unfair for Fortinbras to get away with revenge while Laertes and Hamlet are dead on the floor. I know that doesn't sound very scientific, but Branagh is the only thing I've seen/read that interprets it this way. It makes me suspect that he is a little to fond of shattering glass.)

Here is a beautiful paragraph from Brightest Heaven of Invention by Peter Leithart.

"Hamlet" thus presents a negative view of redemption. Denmark is a fallen world, needing to be set right. Instead of showing us the Redeemer, however, Shakespeare shows us the folly and danger of man's efforts at self-redemption and especially redemption through violence. Time out of joint is not set right by the wrath of men. It is not the grasping of the first Adam who secures redemption but the patient suffering of the Last Adam. Those who seek vengeance do not prosper. The crown usurped by the serpent is finally worn by one who rejected revenge. And the meek inherit the land."

I think Hamlet raises a lot of questions without answering all of them. I don't think Shakespeare was just having a bad day. He knew exactly what he was doing and exactly what questions he wanted us to think about.

I know it is rather cliche to love Hamlet, but I am quite certain I will not get tired of it until the day I die. :-) It is by far my favorite Shakespeare play. I believe it is one that can be studied for a very, very long time...

I know these thoughts are all very incomplete, but I look forward to hearing yours.

I shall cudgel my brains no more about it (for the moment).
Miss Pickwickian

Further Reading-

There is a lot of very interesting stuff on Hamlet. Here are a few links online I came across earlier. I'd love to hear about other books or essays you found helpful.

-This is an interesting post by Alan Vanneman. The contrast between nine of the film versions is very helpful and some of the discussion on the themes and the plot of the play are interesting.

Over all, Vanneman has little confidence in Shakespeare and the consistencies of the play, which seem to make him miss the point. This is sad, but watching him talk himself out of Hamlet's conclusions and unanswered questions is amusing.
(He is strongly opinionated and doesn't mind using some off color language to get his point across.)

-Hamlet Works has a lot of reading material on the play and characters with several thought provoking essays.

-Shakespeare Online has some interesting ideas here.

-Although Peter Leithart's most organized thoughts on Hamlet can be read in Brightest Heaven of Invention there are two later blog posts that I found particularly fascinating.
Other thoughts on Hamlet can be seen here.


Happy Homemaker said...

I read this play for a college class, and a book called Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is also a play.

Bobbi Jo said...

We studied Shakespeare early this school year, and Hamlet was one of my favorites as well.

I remember writing a response to Hamlet in which I noted the 3 soliloquies of H and how they were all (I believe) about death/suicide/life not being worth living. Yet it seemed there was a progression in them and that in the later ones you see his reasons for NOT succumbing the the temptation to just take his own life:

"who would bear the whips and scorns of time... who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life/ but that the dread of something after death/ the undiscovered country, from whose bourn/no traveler returns, makes us rather bear those ills we have/ than flee to others that we know not of."

My incomplete thoughts for the moment.

Miss Pickwickian said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Bobbi Jo. That is very interesting. We should talk about this more at some point...

Rachel Renée said...

I love Hamlet too! One thing that I thought interesting (I think from Leithart) was the reasoning behind Hamlet's frustration with Ophelia. On the face of it, it seems he is just upset with her b/c of her rejection of him, but what makes it worse is that she does it out of obedience to her father. This parallels Hamlet's own dilemma of whether or not to obey his "father".

I really appreciate your Shakespearean book and movie reviews - you inspire me!

Anna said...

When 1HappyHomemaker did her class, I got to be the ghost and Horatio when we read the play aloud, that was my favorite part. When I played the ghost and got to growl "SWEAR!" most ferociously. :)

Your post was most informative and thorough. I have not taken much interest in Shakspear, but I shall have look into it soon. :)
~Anna P.