Ah, Hamlet. Bane of every high school student’s existence. Hamlet was also momentarily the bane of my existence, because halfway through I found myself asking Google what Shakespeare’s longest play is. I had a sneaking suspicion that I was holding it my hands, and I was right. Hamlet was a struggle to get through at times, but it picked up near the end and now I have semi-positive feelings about it more than anything.
Before I go into the plot and my thoughts, I just want to say that it took me an hour to find an appropriate header image for this post. I wanted a picture of Ophelia – but not just any picture. A picture of Ophelia separate from Hamlet, separate from her madness and ultimate suicide. I wanted this picture because Ophelia has the capacity to exist as a fully formed character outside of all these things. Or you’d think so, anyway. One hour later, and all I came up with is a still from an upcoming re-imagining of Hamlet. I will talk more about Ophelia as we go along, but you should know that I am very passionate about her.
We open in Elsinore, Denmark, where a ghost in the form of the late King Hamlet has been making himself known lately.
Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dread sight twice seen of us.
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night,
That, if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
Tush, tush, ’twill not appear.
Horatio is a skeptic, and I don’t blame him. However, the ghost of King Hamlet does appear. Horatio, despite being one of the most level-headed characters in this play, decides to tell young Prince Hamlet about this. Hamlet has been struggling with the passing of his father, and I’m of the opinion that this will serve as more of a setback to him than anything. But I digress.
Claudius is now King of Denmark. He took his late brother’s throne…and his wife. We are introduced to Laertes (Ophelia’s brother), as well as his father Polonius. Laertes wants to go off to France. Knowing what awaits Elsinore, I can’t help but support him in his desire to leave. Polonius isn’t too happy about it, as you’d expect of a father.
Hamlet, meanwhile, appears to be acting out. He is understandably upset about this passing of his father. Also, he’s not on board with his mother marrying his uncle. I feel that he is reacting normally to his current situation, but everybody seems intent on telling him to get over it.
Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not forever with thy vailèd lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
Fine – but it’s only been two months since the death she speaks of. Claudius gives Hamlet a ridiculous lecture, echoing the sentiment that Hamlet needs to snap out of this mood that he’s been in lately.
Hamlet is…interesting. I don’t love him, but I don’t hate him either. I think I feel pity for him. Later in the play, I began to feel strangely protective of him. He does some terrible things during the course of this tale, but he never catches a break. And, ultimately, he does what he thinks he has to. His judgement, perhaps, is what deserves to be called into question.
Still, Hamlet is very upset at his mother’s marriage to Claudius. And, look, it is a little weird. He is left alone, and he lets out some of his anger. Horatio enters with some supernatural news.
My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.
My lord, the King your father.
The King my father?
There is so much potential in these short lines. I could hear Horatio’s unsure, soft tone. And Hamlet’s response? Shaky, shocked, muted – like he is being faced with a ghost.
If it assume my noble father’s person,
I’ll speak to it, though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace. I pray you all,
If you have hitherto concealed this sight,
Let it be tenable in your silence still;
And whatsomever shall hap tonight,
Give it an understanding but no tongue.
I will requite your loves. So fare you well.
Upon the platform, ‘twixt eleven and twelve,
I’ll visit you.
There is a subtle edge of desperation to Hamlet here. He wants to see what this Ghost business is about, of course, but this is also a chance to lay his eyes on his father once more. A chance to speak to him.
We move to Polonius’ chambers, where Laertes is giving Ophelia a lecture that none of us asked for.
[…] Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs
Or lose your heart or your chaste treasure open
To his unmastered importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia; fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
Laertes is, of course, talking about Hamlet, who is just crazy about Ophelia. Ophelia always finds herself being directed by the men in her life. She is almost like a puppet, and the male characters have no problems pulling her strings without any consideration to how their plans or ill-advised words might affect her. Ophelia isn’t a weak character by any means – but she is submissive. She does as she’s told, the way a sweet, innocent girl should.
When Laertes leaves, Polonius tells Ophelia the same thing: that Hamlet’s declarations of love aren’t meant to be taken seriously, and that she should stay away.
Nobody ever asks Ophelia how she feels about Hamlet. Does she love him back? Do they care? All of the sweet nothings that Hamlet has whispered to her, do they mean anything? Ophelia is a independent character in her own right, but almost everybody seems to outright disregard her. It is so incredibly annoying.
Meanwhile, an episode of Ghost Hunters is beginning. Claudius is drinking the night away, much to Hamlet’s disgust. But, on the bright side, that leaves everybody free to enjoy some casual paranormal activity.
The Ghost appears, and gestures for Hamlet to follow it.
It waves me still. – Go on, I’ll follow thee.
You shall not go, my lord.
[They hold back Hamlet.]
Hold off your hands.
Be ruled. You shall not go.
My fate cries out
And makes each petty arture in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve.
Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!
I say, away! – Go on. I’ll follow thee.
Hamlet is desperate to follow the Ghost of his father. I cannot imagine all of the raw pain and adrenaline coursing through his body at this sight. He wants to – no, has to – go after it.
The Ghost tells a story that is familiar to literally every single one of us. He tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius (surprise!), and asks that his son avenge him.
I once wrote about how Romeo and Juliet is ingrained in popular culture, that it is a story everybody knows regardless of whether or not they like Shakespeare. Hamlet is very much like Romeo and Juliet in this way – we all know the story. It has been immortalized in The Lion King, and in a myriad of other art forms. It’s inescapable – Hamlet is part of all of us, whether we like it or not.
Hamlet asks his friends to swear that they will not breathe a word of what they’ve seen. He acts a bit manic here, and his companions seem to be distinctly aware of it. But it’s really no surprise. Hamlet, instead of healing, is elated that there is something he can do to make this better, to get rid of his pain, and to justify his disgust and hatred for Claudius. Before, getting over it was the only thing he could have done. Now, he has plans for action. And part of his plan involves him behaving a little bit…eccentrically.
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors – he comes before me.
Mad for thy love?
My lord, I do not know,
But truly I do fear it.
Polonius is a loudmouth, so he immediately runs over to tell Claudius and the Queen that Hamlet has literally gone mad with longing for Ophelia. I wonder if this is what Hamlet intended when he went to see Ophelia. This distracts Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius for a good portion of the play. That isn’t to say that Hamlet uses this time wisely, but still.
Polonius and Claudius decide to get a sense of just how mad Hamlet is.
You know sometimes he walks four hours together
Here in the lobby.
So he does indeed.
At such a time I’ll loose my daughter to him.
[To the King.] Be you and I behind an arras then.
Mark the encounter. If he love her not,
And be not from his reason fall’n thereon,
Let me be no assistant for a state,
But keep a farm and carters.
Poor Ophelia is being used as bait. She told her father not too many pages ago that Hamlet scared her out of her wits when he appeared before her, disheveled and behaving strangely. But, as I’ve said before, nobody really cares about Ophelia’s feelings. And because she is obedient, she does as she’s told.
Before this plan can be put into action, we are introduced to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – friends of Hamlet who, for some reason, agree to help Claudius figure out what’s gotten into the young Prince.
It’s no use, of course. Hamlet isn’t about to divulge his plans for revenge to anybody at this point. He’d rather throw them off with his nonsensical ramblings. He does so until an acting troupe enters, at which point Hamlet adds another layer to his plan.
Follow him, friends. We’ll hear a play tomorrow. [As Polonius and Players exit, Hamlet speaks to the First Player.] Dost thou hear me, old friend? Can you play “The Murder of Gonzago”?
Ay, my lord.
We’ll ha ‘t tomorrow night. You could, for a need, study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which I would set down and insert in ‘t, could you not?
Ay, my lord.
Shakespeare is a fan of putting plays in his plays. We’ve seen it before in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in The Taming of the Shrew, and now here in Hamlet. I have to say, it isn’t my favorite device of his. I get very invested in the characters involved in the main plot – so much so, that I usually don’t care to read through pages of another story, regardless of whether or not it pushes the plot along. I’d rather the point of it be laid out in the stage directions.
[…] I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick. If he do blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this. The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
It’s a simple plan – act out the murder of King Hamlet, and if Claudius so much as flinches, then he’s guilty. Hamlet’s slight distrust of the Ghost is very interesting to me though. He was very clearly attached to his father, and his grief runs very deep. You’d think that he’d jump at the chance to blame somebody for his untimely passing, wouldn’t you? And the fact that it was Claudius is even better, because Hamlet already has a grudge against him. But Hamlet wants to be sure, as he’s hesitant to kill Claudius without proof. Hamlet always hesitates – but why?
Ophelia and Hamlet are finally pushed together, and it is a total disaster. He comes onto the stage speaking words known to every single human on this planet:
To be or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep –
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.
When I was a kid just getting into Shakespeare, I came across an essay about this very soliloquy. We have Hamlet contemplating suicide as a potential escape from the horrors of the living world – but then he thinks to himself that the afterlife may be a lot worse. The essay called Shakespeare brave for writing this soliloquy because suicide was so looked down upon. People who committed suicide were denied a Christian burial, and it was considered self-murder. But Shakespeare decided to explore it in more depth than would have been considered appropriate. This fits well with the person I imagine Shakespeare was. He never took one solid stance on much of anything. Rather, he had an intense curiosity about every possible viewpoint – even if those viewpoints didn’t match his own.
And, as always, Hamlet is hesitant, even when it comes to this. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t be, of course. But we do see him be hesitant quite often, and he is unable to even come to a conclusion while juggling ideas around.
But let’s talk about his interaction with Ophelia. Hamlet is just awful to her – he tells her he never loved her, trashes women in general, and tells her to go to a nunnery.
I feel like I’ve been very forgiving of Hamlet, but he is part of the problem that I discussed earlier. We can assume that this is just another part of his act, but it is incredibly selfish of him to hurt Ophelia like this. Like the other men in this play, he doesn’t care how his words affect her. How much pain he has caused her doesn’t mean anything to him. Ophelia, to her credit, doesn’t get angry.
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mold of form,
Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his musicked vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh;
That unmatched form and stature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me
T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!
Sweet Ophelia. She immediately recognizes that this is not Hamlet. She thinks he’s gone mad, and she feels miserable to see him now, especially after knowing who he was before.
This is far less important, but I wonder if it hurt Hamlet to speak this way to Ophelia. If he truly loves her like he’s said, then it should have hurt a lot. But he did this to himself, so let’s not dwell on him right now.
Polonius and Claudius come to the conclusion that Hamlet isn’t mad because he’s in love with Ophelia. Claudius, who is objectively the worst, decides to get Hamlet out of the way by sending him to England. Polonius asks him to hold off – perhaps Gertrude can talk some sense into him after the play.
Speaking of the play, it’s about to begin.
Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me.
No, good mother. Here’s metal more attractive.
[Hamlet takes a place near Ophelia.]
POLONIUS, [to the King]
Oh, ho! Do you mark that?
Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia’s patience is infinite, really. I would have smacked Hamlet right across the face for such behavior. Ophelia, however, is a saint. And she’s sad for him, sad for herself, and sad for what they could have been together.
The play goes as planned. Claudius storms off when he realizes what he’s watching, confirming the Ghost’s words. Gertrude is furious with her son, and asks for him to come see her in her sitting room.
Claudius, in a decidedly uncharacteristic move, feels a little bit of guilt. So he kneels down and begins to pray. Hamlet comes across him – now’s his chance!
Now might I do it pat, now he is a-praying,
And now I’ll do ‘t.
[He draws the sword.]
And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scanned:
A villain kills my father, and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how is audit stands who knows save heaven.
But in our circumstance and course of thought
‘Tis heavy with him. And am I then revenged
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?
Up sword, and know thou a more horrid hent.
Hamlet hesitates again. Why?
I read a few analyses online while writing this post, and I can’t say that I like any of them that much. I think the reason for Hamlet’s hesitation is simple: he’s scared. Killing someone isn’t some trivial matter, and Hamlet isn’t stupid. But he is very overdramatic, and, for the most part, his bark is worse than his bite. He can plot and plan until the cock crows, but actually doing what he says is a different thing entirely.
Hamlet goes to his mother’s room. It’s here that he truly loses his temper. There are some very…interesting analyses out there about Hamlet and his mother, but I will be disregarding them because I’m not a fan. I will say that Hamlet feels betrayed on his father’s behalf, and betrayed on his own behalf. It must be frustrating for him to be the only person truly grieving the loss of his father – even his mother has picked up and moved on, leaving Hamlet caught in the cloud of his own misery.
Polonius, who is the nosiest person in the entire universe, hides behind a tapestry in Gertrude’s room so he can eavesdrop on the conversation between mother and son.
Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge.
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?
POLONIUS, [behind the arras]
What ho! Help!
How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead.
[He kills Polonius by thrusting a rapier through the arras.]
Look, I’m not pro-murder, but Polonius kind of deserves this. He kept sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Hamlet’s problems have literally nothing to do with him personally. He was just playing the role of Claudius’ lapdog, sniffing around for information that has no business being spread around.
Why would Gertrude think that Hamlet means to murder her? Sure, he was speaking forcefully and probably being a little frightening, but he’s her son. He’s been acting strangely, but I don’t think there’s any reason for her to think that he would be violent with her.
Well, until now, because Polonius is dead. To make things worse, the Ghost appears.
Upon the heat and flames of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience! Whereon do you look?
On him, on him! Look you how pale he glares.
His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones.
Would make them capable. [To the Ghost.] Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects. Then what I have to do
Will want true color – tears perchance for blood.
To whom do you speak this?
Do you see nothing there?
Strangely, Gertrude cannot see the Ghost. I thought for a second that the entire concept of the Ghost was Hamlet’s imagination, but no. Horatio himself saw it at the beginning of this play. Perhaps this Ghost, the current Ghost, is a product of Hamlet’s imagination. He can’t be truly going mad, can he?
Claudius, meanwhile, still intends to send Hamlet to England. Not so he can enjoy the peace of the English countryside, but so he can be murdered. That’s one way to deal with your annoying nephew, I suppose.
Poor Ophelia has gone mad as a result of Polonius’ death. Ophelia is heavily associated with her madness in popular culture, and I wish she wasn’t. It’s like people forget that she existed before Polonius’ death, before Hamlet broke her heart.
Laertes returns from France, hellbent on avenging his father. Kind of like Hamlet is, hmm. He and Claudius quickly formulate a plan to kill Hamlet. Laertes will spar with him, but his rapier will be poisoned. And, for insurance, Claudius will make sure a cup of poisoned drink will be given to Hamlet if he gets thirsty. This is all well and good, but Laertes is too late to save Ophelia.
One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,
So fast they follow. Your sister’s drowned, Laertes.
Drowned? O, where?
We all know where, because we can all see the image in our minds. Most imagery of Ophelia involves her partially submerged in a brook, surrounded by flowers and willow boughs. But (I’m sounding like a broken record now) I wish people tried to see her as more than that.
Ophelia is given a Christian burial, despite her suicide.
Lay her i’ th’ earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A minist’ring angel shall my sister be
When thou liest howling.
HAMLET, [to Horatio]
What, the fair Ophelia?
Oh, right. Hamlet doesn’t know. As far as Laertes is concerned, Hamlet is the reason that Ophelia was found floating in that brook. Hamlet was part of the problem, sure, but the patriarchal structure of this entire court is what lead to her madness and untimely death. But since nobody is going to admit this, Laertes pounces on Hamlet. They are separated from one another.
I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?
O, he is mad, Laertes!
For the love of God, forbear him.
I said before that it must have been painful for Hamlet to push Ophelia away, and now I think it definitely was. I do think he loved Ophelia. They would have made a strange couple, but I think it might have worked out if she had been with the Hamlet of the past.
When the time eventually comes for Laertes and Hamlet to spar, everything falls to pieces. Gertrude accidentally drinks the poison, Laertes stabs Hamlet with the poisoned rapier, Hamlet stabs Laertes with that same poisoned rapier, and Claudius is stabbed by Hamlet. It’s a total bloodbath. I was happy to see Laertes and Hamlet forgive each other before dying, at least.
He is justly served.
It is a poison tempered by himself.
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.
That’s right, all of us are finally in agreement: Claudius is the worst and literally every issue in this play can be blamed on him.
Horatio is the only one left, really.
[…] O, God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.
And he does.
There is really not much I can say about Hamlet, because so much has already been said by people who are far better at this Shakespeare business than I am. It’s an intriguing play to be sure, especially once it picks up in the last few acts. But I don’t think it’s a good first play for anybody – and yet, it is everybody’s first play.
Hamlet is very long, and there is a lot of complicated language in it. To a high school student, it’s nothing but a struggle. A better first play would be something like Much Ado About Nothing. For a tragedy, maybe Julius Caesar or Titus Andronicus would be more appropriate. But Hamlet? No, I think Hamlet is better suited for the seasoned Shakespearean.
I didn’t watch a film version of this play because I was dismayed and annoyed to find out that, opposite very young and beautiful Ophelias, Hamlet has almost always been played by older men. This adds a predatory edge to their relationship, and makes the entire play worse. There is some debate about how old Hamlet is supposed to be. I think he’s rather young, and would place him in his 20s (no matter what the gravedigger scene may imply).
There is a lot I skipped over, and for that I apologize. Hamlet is so long, and so much happens. I couldn’t possibly talk about every single little thing.
It’s time for me to switch gears, because next month I’ll be reading The Merry Wives of Windsor (yikes). After that, I’ll be reading mostly obscure plays, which I’m excited about.
I’ll also be seeing a production of Much Ado About Nothing on August 3rd as part of the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival, so be on the look out for a review of that if you’re interested!