Hamlet by Skakespeare (Review)

Labels: Great Works

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The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
William Shakespeare, 1603 (First Quarto)
~150-160 pp. (varies by publisher)

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September 2012
Hamlet
is a difficult read, no getting around it. Yet it's the most thrilling drama in all of Shakespeare—some believe in all of literature. It is the story of a prince robbed of a father and of his rightful seat on the throne of Denmark.

Love, revenge, betrayal, intrigue at home and abroad—and the most brilliantly complex character in all of literature—comprise the story. Add some of the most dazzling language ever written...and there you have Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Briefly told, Prince Hamlet's father, King Hamlet of Denmark, is dead. The king's brother Claudius has seized the crown and married the widowed Queen Gertrude—all done with such unseemly haste that "the funeral bak'd meats did coldly furnish forth the wedding tables." To make matters worse, Denmark is under threat of invasion from Norway.

The spirit of the dead king rests uneasily and appears one night to Hamlet on the castle ramparts. Poisoned by Claudius, as he tells his son, he exhorts Hamlet to avenge his murder. Things are indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.

Enter the lovely Ophelia, once beloved of Hamlet, now scorned. Sensing her complicity as a spy for Claudius, Hamlet utters his infamous line, "Get thee to a nunnery" (a double entendre referring to both monastery and brothel). When Hamlet stabs her father, the courtier Polonius, she descends into madness and drowns.

A second son now seeks revenge for his murdered father, friends betray friends, swords are tipped with poison, and all the while Norway marches toward the borders. What a mess is Elsinore. Yet in the midst of all this giddy action, Shakespeare throws in sublime, meditative moments in which he allows Hamlet to ponder the essence of both humanity and mortality.

For centuries readers have plumbed both Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character, reading it through a multiplicity of lenses. What is Hamlet's true nature? Does Hamlet know his own nature? One of the many reasons Hamlet has survived as literature's most enduring hero is the untenable dilemma in which he finds himself—a young man of immense talents, bereft, despairing, and angry, who has no idea how to proceed in a corrupt world.

He struggles—charged with a task he is purposed to, yet repulsed by. "What a piece of work is a man!" he exclaims—"noble in reason," like an angel in action, a god in apprehension. How does such a being live in this life? Hamlet presents us with a universal conundrum: how are any of us to live in this life? How are we to know what is just, moral, or true when all around us lies confusion and loss?

For a number of years, I was lucky enough to teach Hamlet in the classroom. Young 20-somethings, little younger than our hero, cringed at the opening lines. But by the last lines they had become enthralled by the story of a young man who, in many ways, mirrored their own paths to knowledge of the world and the self. It was a privilege to witness.

Ways for a book club to treat Hamlet.

  1. Invite an English teacher or professor to guide you through a discussion...and to open up the glories of the language.
  2. Watch the superb Charlie Rose "Why Shakespeare?" series on PBS, with particular attention to the first episode on Hamlet.
  3. See the helpful teaching guide on the Simon & Schuster website. It contains a well-written synopsis of the play, act by act.
  4. Shakespeare was written to be seen. So intersperse your discussion with clips from any or all of three film adaptations: Laurence Olivier's version (1948), Mel Gibson's (1990), or Kenneth Brannagh's (1996). There's also a stylistically modern version with Ethan Hawke in 2000.
  5. Purchase the W.W. Norton Critical Edition (click on the cover image above). Norton includes a rich selection of ciritical analyses of the work, which are wonderfully helpful.
  6. Have some fun...and play the game described at the very end of our Reading Guide.
  7. Don't rush through this work. Take the luxury of spending two meetings talking, reading, watching and listening. You won't regret it!

See our Reading Guide for Hamlet.

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