12 January 2015
"Hamlet" doesn't need any introduction -- the tortured Dane, the ghost, meditations on suicide and a climax full of death. But as well-known as the storyline is, the play itself is what deserves the attention, both for Shakespeare's shadowy plot filled with uncertainty and treachery -- and for his brilliant, immortal writing, which takes on a new dimension when read on the page.
Prince Hamlet of Denmark is understandably upset when, only a short time after his father's death, his mother Gertrude marries his uncle Claudius, who is now the new king. Who wouldn't be unhappy? But when Hamlet encounters the tormented ghost of his father ("I am thy father's spirit/Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night"), he learns that his dad was murdered by his uncle -- but he's plagued by indecision, since he's unsure if the spirit was truly his dad.
In response to this vision, Hamlet's behavior becomes more bizarre and erratic -- he dumps his girlfriend Ophelia, arranges a play that mimics real life a little too closely, and generally acts like a loon. But when an argument with his mother ends in tragedy -- and the death of one of Ophelia's loved ones -- Hamlet's fate is sealed as Claudius begins plotting to get rid of him too.
Small warning: like all Shakespeare's plays, it's best to read "Hamlet" after you've seen a good performance, because the entire thing was intended to be acted out. Otherwise, it's like reading a movie script to a movie you haven't seen -- easy to get lost, and the dramatic effects aren't easy to connect to.
But if you HAVE seen a good performance of "Hamlet," then the play will just jump off the page. The plot is a relatively simple one, but it's tangled up in all sorts of moral dilemmas, personal doubts, deteriorating personal relationships, and a creeping undercurrent of darkness. The best part is that Shakespeare leaves you with all sorts of questions that are left up in the air -- is Hamlet crazy or just faking it? Is the ghost really his dad?
And, of course, it contains some of the most intense, powerful examples of Shakespeare's work here -- vivid, nasty imagery ("In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed/Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty"), some bleak humor ("you're a fishmonger"), and Hamlet's immortal soliloquies. It's also one of Shakespeare's most quotable plays -- obviously you've got bits like "Alas, poor Yorick," "to be or not to be" and "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," but there are countless other familiar phrases littered through the text.
On the page, Hamlet is basically an embittered young man who is torn between his doubts and convictions, but is still determined to fix things ("O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!"). A lot of the supporting cast are hard to follow, but there are some brilliant and enduring roles here -- the incestuous queen Gertrude, the subtle menace of Claudius, the windbag Laertes, and Ophelia, whose uncertainties spiral into madness after her ex-boyfriend kills her dad.
It's best to get a grip on this classic tragedy by watching an actual performance, but reading "Hamlet's" text is a vivid experience on its own. Brilliant, complex and intense.