In Which I Profess My Love For A Certain Masterpiece By An English Playwright
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?
The firsts lines of the ever-famous soliloquy of Hamlet. And such lines they are.
I have always had a passion for Shakespeare. In a way, I have often understood the language of Shakespeare better than modern day English. I can read the entire soliloquy and perfectly understand what Hamlet is trying to say. Not many people get this, but it’s true and I love it. Shakespearean English has so much passion, imagery and beauty in it. Hamlet is by far my favourite Shakespeare play. Romeo and Juliet follows not too far behind, but Hamlet is top.
I love Hamlet for a number of reasons.
First, on a material level. My copy is a small, slightly worn copy. The cover is a faded blue, which you can tell used to be rich in colour, and the edges of the pages are worn with use. Some of the pages are falling out, but that adds to the charm. The book is so delicate that it must be handled with care, much like the subject inside the pages themselves. As with all Shakespearean works, there is a certain glimmer about them which I cannot describe, but that makes me feel as though I have to treat the very pages as though fragile. With this copy ever more so. It seems as though the pages would crumble in my fingers if I held them too tight. But the thing about this book which makes me adore it above all others, is the smell. My copy smells different to the other books, and it adds to the charm again. As Rupert Giles of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would say, “if it is to last then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be um, well, smelly.”
Hamlet’s character is complex, and I feel it gets a lot of mixed reviews. I don’t know which is right, or even if there is a right. I personally feel bad for the guy. It seems to me as though he gets a lot of stick for being the way he is: denying sending the letters to Ophelia, being absent-minded, etcetera. But when you look at it from his point of view, wouldn’t you do the same?
At the beginning of the play, he appears bitter towards King Claudius – but he is now married to Hamlet’s mother and taken over the country as King in place of Hamlet’s father. He is also trying to call Hamlet ‘son’, which he really isn’t. Wouldn’t you be bitter? His father is dead, he hasn’t had time to mourn and suddenly his uncle has swooped in, married his mother and taken over the country, trying to force Hamlet to call him ‘dad’. I think that’s harsh how hard they are on him for this. “‘Tis unmanly grief” he says to mourn. How fucking rude. “It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,/A heart unfortified, a mind impatient” etc. He’s having a go at Hamlet for grieving. He is only in his twenties from what I remember and has just lost his Dad. He should be allowed to grieve. Furthermore, Hamlet wants to go back to school in Wittenberg. His uncle’s reply? “It is most retrograde to our desire”. Our desire. So Hamlet doesn’t matter? Claudius wants him to stay but Hamlet wants to go. If it will help him, be beneficial to him, and is what he wants then he should be allowed to go, but Claudius doesn’t take this into account. They make him stay.
Hamlet has to keep his cool through this entire scene and does, quite well. He remains impassive, albeit a tad melancholy, but is only able to show his inner turmoil when they leave. He is hurt tremendously by his father’s death but cannot show it in public. If your father died and you were forced to keep it together outside of closed doors, you would struggle too. His Dad is dead and his mother, in his eyes, has married his uncle without a moments hesitation. In Hamlet’s eyes, she cried a little, then got over it and married his brother with “most wicked speed”. But he knows he can’t say anything, that he has to keep his thoughts to himself. How frustrating it must have been to have this anger and grief bottled up with no way to let it out: “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”
He then hears of his father coming back as a ghost to his best friends. They tell him they’ve seen him – imagine how that must have felt. He is still heartbroken over his death and his best friend tells him he’s seen his ghost. Your emotions would be all over the shop – confused, scared, but at the same time intrigued and almost excited at the prospect of seeing him again. Not long after, Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, as well as her father, Polonius tells Ophelia that Hamlet’s love is probably a sham. They both say it wont last. That even if he loves her now, he’ll be too involved with his princely duties later to love her. I think this is bollocks. How rude must they be to both be telling her they doubt his love is real. Admittedly we as an audience are led to doubt it ourselves later, but at this stage we know nothing. Perhaps he does genuinely love her but is too wrapped up in his immediate grief to go around professing his love for her. I think it’s a bit harsh for them to lay into Hamlet before they even know the score.
He then finds out his father was killed by his uncle in a case of foul play. The same man who is sleeping in his mother’s bed and running Denmark murdered his own father. The man who implored Hamlet to call him Dad killed his real Dad. And not to mention, all of this information is coming to him from his father’s ghost. An emotional tornado if ever I saw one.
I won’t go on much more about his character, but there a couple other notable things which make me love his character. When he finds Ophelia dead, although the scene in which himself and Laertes jump into her grave is grim at best, we as an audience can see immediately that Hamlet really did love her. Despite the doubts Laertes and Polonius had, despite denying sending the love letters to her, he loved her and this scene proves it.
Personally I believe he knew something was wrong when she handed the letters back. I mean, he professed his love quite ardently in the letter we see, and Ophelia’s words throughout the play lead us to believe hat she really loved him too. So why, if she loved him so much, would she give the letters back of her own free will? This is what I believe Hamlet thinks. He loved her, told her so in many letters and perhaps she responded, we don’t know. Either way, she received them and had never tried to give them back before. So why the sudden change of heart? In my opinion, he knew something was up, and maybe suspected they were being spied on. It isn’t made clear whether he knows, but the situation must have caused him to suspect something was up. I don’t think he denied sending the letters because Ophelia brought it up and he was embarrassed that she had. I think he denied it because he knew the situation was weird and suspected something more was going on, so, as the Prince of Denmark, he had to protect his position by denying it. Yes, it ended badly for Ophelia, but it could have ended worse for the both of them if he had have said “yes I sent them”. He is the prince, and she is nothing in terms of social status. That relationship would have been nothing short of scandalous. It was going to end badly for Ophelia either way, a young girl in that situation was never going to get out unscathed, but Hamlet could save himself. And maybe he thought that if he denied it, it would come down less harshly on her because the involvement of the prince was in fact not true. If he had have been involved, perhaps things would have been worse, and maybe he knew it.
The other thing that makes me love the character is his relationship with Horatio, his best friend. In particular the scene that hits me hard is Hamlet’s death. I wanted to write about this scene in an essay on inter-generational relationships, but I ran out of words to be able to do it justice. I shall explain it here. The thing I loved about this scene so much was that, as Hamlet is dying, Horatio goes to drink from the poisoned chalice to join him in death. Hamlet knocks the cup away and tells him no. He begs him to live. Whereas Claudius stands by and watched Hamlet’s mother drink from the poisoned cup without giving her any warning or showing any signs of regret, Hamlet, even whilst dying painfully from poison, manages to reach up and stop Horatio with his own hand from following him. It makes me so mad to see Claudius stand, in full health, quite capable of stopping her, and watch his wife drink from a cup he knows will kill her. He doesn’t even subtly tap her shoulder, or cough, or hint in any way that she shouldn’t do it. Hamlet is dying, has only minutes to live, and is able to talk Horatio out of suicide. This scene gets me every time. To bring it down a level, it gives me all the feels. It is such a heartfelt moment of friendship and love, and show the generation gap so well. While Claudius was willing to kill his own brother, marry his wife and try to kill Hamlet – se poisoned Laertes rapier so that is he hit him the poison would kill him, and if Hamlet won then the poisoned wine was for him to celebrate his win – Horatio loved Hamlet so much that he was willing to give his own life to not live without his best friend. But, being best friends, Hamlet stops him and implores him to live on. The separation of the generations here is clear, and only makes me love Hamlet all the more.
Moving on from Hamlet, another reason I love this play is Ophelia. The ‘original suicide girl’. This is what I would love to do my final dissertation on if I get the chance. Was she crazy? Was she bipolar? Was she driven crazy? Or was she completely normal, but merely seen as crazy by everybody else? Also, did she kill herself, or was it an accident?
In the case of ‘was she crazy’? I think maybe not. Without getting elbow deep into research and reading over the passages thousands of times I can’t give a coherent answer. Or at least, not one that I can say for certain I truly believe. If I do this for my dissertation, perhaps I will know then. But right now, I’m thinking she wasn’t crazy. Not at the start at least. In my eyes, she was a young girl in love with a man who appeared to love her back. She had a brother and Dad who were protective, possibly overly so, and her social status was not exactly of the highest standing. Polonius worked for the king, but he wasn’t really of that high a status himself, and so his daughter was going to be even less so. This possibly aided her downfall.
As a woman of the time, she would have been under certain rules of etiquette and social position: stay quiet, keep out of sight, and look pretty. So for her to claim to be in a mutually loving relationship with the prince was really not what she was meant to do. The king, the queen, and even her father, looked down on her. She was forced into a corner with nowhere to go, nowhere to run, or to hide. She was stuck in this image that she was meant to be, and when she overstepped the boundaries it was too late for her. She knew that she would never be viewed with any respect. This is why I believe the later scene, Ophelia’s famous ‘Mad Scene’, was all an act. I don’t believe she was crazy. I don’t believe she was mentally ill at all and simply rapid cycling. If anything if she was crazy, she was driven mad by the pressure and expectations thrust upon her by everyone else. For her, it became easier to play the part of the crazy girl because that was how people already saw her.
Emilie Autumn also believes this. At this stage, Ophelia was already being viewed as a little mad, so why not just be mad. If everyone is already going to see her as mad, no matter how hard she worked to be viewed as normal, why not just play up to the part. She acts completely crazy, unrestrained, and possibly has fun with it, because who’s going to care? She’s crazy after all. Most characters during this scene say something relating to one subject: “How do you do, pretty lady?” / “Pretty Ophelia!” / “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, she turns to favour and to prettiness”. Essentially, what they are saying is “She’s mad? But she’s so pretty!” Her sanity is based on her looks. She’s pretty, and they say it’s a waste and a shame because she’s mad, but she’s so pretty.
Did Ophelia kill herself? We don’t know. We can’t know. She may have slipped while picking flowers, or she may have thrown herself in. Both are interesting theories. Neither can be solidly proved. Only Shakespeare knew, and he never left a note to tell us. If I had to give my opinion, I would say that it wouldn’t surprise me if she drowned herself. Perhaps she slipped, but if she did kill herself, I wouldn’t be shocked. During her mad scene, all they could say was, “but she’s so pretty”, and lamented her state. But no-one tried to talk her down and find out if she was okay. They didn’t try to help her. They just looked on her in pity and moved on. She couldn’t get by trying to fit in, and she couldn’t get by being the crazy girl they expected her to be. Her father was dead, her lover had denied being so, and her brother was off in France. She was totally alone, and no-one cared. Even when Laertes came back, he only felt bad for her. He didn’t try and help. So if she did throw herself into the river, could you blame her?
The reason I’m thinking so much over Hamlet today is because I am writing an adaptation piece for my coursework which, ironically, never began as anything close to a Shakespearean piece. The original text was a Spike Milligan poem. I hear maybe it comes from a longer poem ‘Silly Verses for Kids’, but I will have to look that up. It goes thus:
I’m not frightened of Pussy Cats.
They only eat up mice and rats,
But a Hippopotamus
Could eat the Lotofus!
What our group came up with as a possible adaptation was twisting it around to show the Hippo’s point of view. He is misunderstood. We created the Lotofus, a mythical creature of the forest who is deathly afraid of the Hippopotamus’s power. Spike Milligan empowers the Hippopotamus here by saying it could eat the Lotofus – it could. We played on this. Maybe the Hippopotamus could eat the Lotofus but doesn’t want to. Maybe he just wants a friend, but he is so large and powerful that everyone is scared of him. Perhaps he is an anti-hero.
What we did, was we decided that we would turn this children’s poem into a tragedy. It would be a stage play. Originally we thought of trying to make it good for kids still, and I’ll try and keep this element by not being too violent. However, as a tragedy, people have to die. So I’ll lessen the blow by only damaging the lesser characters and leaving the Hippopotamus alive, though alone and sad again. I feel horrible just typing it.
So to turn it into a tragedy, I started thinking of the writing style. Immediately Shakespeare came to mind. Particularly Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. I took the idea of a prologue from R&J, and gave our anti-hero Hippopotamus a soliloquy reminiscent of Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ one, as quoted at the start of this post. I don’t know if I can pull off five acts, but I’ll give it a go.
It goes to show how the influence and power of Shakespeare never lets up. It is a big part of my life – he is my favourite playwright. Hamlet is my favourite play, and I literally swoon over the language. It is one of the few things on this Earth that make me genuinely so happy and peaceful, so inspired to write, that I can smile for no reason, and turn children’s poems into full-scale stage tragedies.
Shakespeare, I fucking love you.