I felt like reading a Great Book, and wanted to refresh myself ahead of reading and watching Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Hence, The Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. The play is about a young man navigating - perhaps better put, failing to navigate - life now that his world has been turned upside down and the band-aid of youth and innocence has been ripped off, following his father’s untimely death.
Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, has recently died. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, has married his mother and taken the throne. Hamlet has been lost and depressed and resentful ever since. Hamlet soon finds out, via the appearance of his father’s ghost, that Claudius poisoned his father. Hamlet hatches plans to verify his uncle’s guilt and ruminates on killing Claudius himself, as his father’s ghost has charged him. His behavior becomes even more outlandish. He launches into long monologues full of existential angst. One moment, he’s obsessed with Ophelia - the daughter of Polonius, the King’s chief advisor. The next, he barely recognizes her and denies having ever loved her.
After Hamlet set’s up a ruse that highlights his uncle’s guilt and accidentally kills Polonius while in a rage at his mother, Claudius sends Hamlet to England, with a secret plan to have him executed there. Hamlet uncovers and foils this plot - having his stewards and former friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, killed instead. He returns to Denmark, where Claudius hatches another plot to have him killed, this time in the form of a seemingly friendly fencing duel with Laertes, Polonius’ son, out for revenge. Poisoned drink and poisoned foil, intended for Hamlet, end up backfiring on Claudius. The Queen (Hamlet’s mother), Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet all end up dead. Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, takes the Danish throne, with plans to give Hamlet a soldier’s funeral.
What does Shakespeare want us to experience?
It’s not clear to me what Shakespeare wants the audience to experience, but I have a couple of ideas. Perhaps Shakespeare wants us to experience sympathy or empathy with Hamlet, as his world turns upside down after his uncle’s treachery, his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage. It’s unclear just how young Hamlet is at this point, but even without knowledge of his uncle’s treachery, it makes sense that he would be angry, resentful and lost. He raises interesting questions about the meaning and purpose of existence, that preview proper Existentialism of a few centuries later.
Yet, Hamlet is so self- and other-destructive. He ruminates. He passes on an easy opportunity to kill Claudius. He does not act according to his dead father’s wishes, that he apparently honors and misses so dearly. It’s as if he prefers to remain resentful, overwhelmed, self-pitying and stuck. Perhaps Shakespeare wants us to look on Hamlet with some disgust, and experience some poetic justice in the play’s conclusion: Hamlet’s father previously fought off the threat of Norwegian invasion. After all the chaos of the play is complete, Fortinbras - the prince of Norway - takes the Danish throne!
Did I like it? Did it speak to my heart?
It is moving and painful and cautionary to see someone self-destruct and spread destruction amongst his family and peers. But what Hamlet experiences looks like nihilistic depression, and this is not meaningful to me. David Tennant - Doctor Who, also Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter IV - gives an excellent performance in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production. But I think many of us are familiar enough with nihilistic depression, and do not need another experience of it.