Shakespere’s Hamlet

According to Italian writer, Italo Calvino in Why Read the Classics, “The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: I am rereading… and never I am reading….” and Shakespeare’s works are exactly such classics. Although he died more than 400 years ago, William Shakespeare is still one of the most popular English writers in the world. Noted critic Harold Bloom argues Shakespeare is the canon, and he sets the standard and the limits of literature. Bloom goes even further by stating Shakespeare’s work reflects what it means to be human, and because of this, Shakespeare invented us as well. But why is a play like Hamlet, which was written at the end of the 16th century, still of interest to contemporary audiences who generally don’t believe in ghosts and revenge? I think the answer is simple: What Shakespeare created is an idea, or as Bloom defines it, “personality.”

So, what is the “idea” or “personality” Shakespeare created? The opposites of it would simply be “character.” Shakespeare’s plays bring us a sense of inwardness. Characters like Hamlet seem to belong to fantasy, and yet there is something in his story that people relate to. Hamlet is not a hero, and he’s not even a determined person. When he decides to take revenge, he vacillates between action and inaction. Did Shakespeare really arrange the play within the play to confirm the story told by the ghost? Or if he was thinking about the possibility if he can prove the ghost is wrong, he then doesn’t have to bear the burden of revenge, so he doesn’t have to get blood on his hands? When Hamlet gives the famous soliloquy ”To be or not to be…” isn’t he considering escaping reality by committing suicide? Even when he has the chance to kill Claudius while Claudius is praying, his over-contemplative nature stops him from killing Claudius because he thinks Claudius if “purging of his soul.”

Look what Hamlet says to himself:
“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”
“Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!”

Hamlet is growling the foulest imprecations at himself. Isn’t he sick and tired of his cowardly incompetence? Doesn’t he have a strong feeling of revenge in his heart? However,  he remains passive till the end. He accepts the fencing match, using the sincerest words in apologizing to Laertes. And he still doesn’t kill Claudius till his mother drinks poisonous wine and he and Laertes both get stabbed by the poisoned sword, and Laertes reveals Claudius was behind all of this. Imagine if Claudius didn’t stage a plot to kill Hamlet, would he still struggle over the question “To be or not to be?”

Most people will not face the same dilemma as Hamlet, but there will be situations in which we will try to convince ourselves and have to force ourselves to face difficulties. “You cannot be a hero without being a coward.” I guess there is a coward inside all of us, a desire to run and hide in the background. We are fighting this cowardliness all the time. If our lives are the hero’s journeys, it’s the responsibility and ambition that make us desire to reach the next peak high up in the sky. But the coward in our hearts makes us afraid of the challenges on the way. It might challenge our physical strength, our will to push forward, but sometimes it will test our morals and ethics. Wouldn’t we also struggle and vacillate, trying to find excuses for our cowardliness, and end up regretting and hating like Hamlet? But this is who we are. Shakespeare isn’t rendering characters. He is creating an idea. He is presenting human experience through wonder and improbabilities. A Character like Hamlet seems uncannily real to us because he is our friend, he is you, and me, he is all of us.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.