In this post I shall tackle Hamlet, a formidable task which I feel I will not be able to do justice to its words. This feeling is one that Hamlet may have felt, and one we all feel when posed with such questions whose answers seem beyond our reach.
Due to the play’s reputation, when I did read and watch Hamlet, I felt obliged to see its deeper meaning. I certainly did, but I question as to whether it was due to what I have heard of the play or what I truly felt. TS Eliot said that Hamlet “is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear”. It is this excess that I find hard to come to terms with. I even might entertain the possibility that it is us, the audience, who have added this excess. This, however, can be argued for any interpretation so I will cease my pondering on this subject for the moment. To clarify, I am not saying that Hamlet is devoid of the meaning we see in it. I found it a very emotional play and the questions I found being posed to me are ones that we need to think about.
One of these is, and this hardly needs to be said, Hamlet’s question, “To be or not to be, that is the question”. The problem, if it can be called that, with this line is how famous it has become. I even saw it on a t-shirt in Topshop. The problem with this is that it undermines its importance in a sense. An actor who played Hamlet told the story of when he had just said the words, “To be or not to be” when a member of an audience said the words “that is the question”. Instead of being unsettled by this interjection, the actor exclaimed, “Yes! Yes, that is the question”. There is something endearing about this story and I think that it is because it gets to the root of what Hamlet means to us. Hamlet needs our empathy, it asks questions concerning our own humanity which we all have to suffer the consequences of. In a recent programme on Radio 4, Alain de Botton claims that the art of good conversation is to share our weaknesses and fears, and this is what Hamlet does in this situation with the audience member. A different story concerning these lines came from Brian Blessed. He tells of talking to a group of students who were half awake and trying to discuss this important line. As he was doing so, he took out a gun. This closeness with death, the fact that one pull of a trigger is all that stands between here and nothing is what gives the line its power. I, therefore, will not be buying an overpriced, mass-produced t-shirt with a question so deep and unsettling that it hurts my head to think about it at all.
An interesting aspect of the play is Hamlet’s deliberation in killing his uncle, the king. When I first read the play, I thought it was because he didn’t want to commit murder; Hamlet says that “conscience does make cowards of us all”. Having watched a film version of the play, however, I am more inclined to see it as something more than simply this. Hamlet’s depression, or madness, is due to his knowledge of what has happened and the knowledge that he can never reverse it. As Nietzsche says, comparing Hamlet to the Dionysian man, “it now disgusts them to act, for their actions can change nothing in the eternal nature of things”. The unchanging nature of things is emphasised in the play due to Hamlet’s father returning as a ghost, a visible reminder of the state of things as they were. The contrast between Hamlet’s utter torment and the other characters who, even when unsettled, remain fairly stable reinforces this disparity between what we can see and what we can feel. I go back to TS Eliot’s comment on the “excess of the facts” because I think that this is what he meant.
The use of place is very important to how the play unravels. At the beginning, Hamlet’s mother implores him to stay in Denmark and not return to Wittenberg and this is perhaps where Hamlet’s trouble start; place is very important. Hamlet has to stay within the court and is faced everyday with what has happened. Marcellus says in the opening scenes, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and the tragic ending seems inevitable already. Furthermore, the country is constantly under threat of a siege from Norway which adds to the tension and the insular nature of the court. Hamlet’s father says that a ‘serpent’ stung him which echoes the story of how Adam and Eve lost the Garden of Eden. The result of these devices that Shakespeare used is a constant state of uneasiness, and festering hostilities and suspicion. In the first few scenes, Hamlet says “’tis an unweeded garden that grows things rank” and by staying in Denmark, this is what happens.
I watched the film version of Hamlet with Kenneth Branagh and I was not disappointed. It was long but this enabled it to make the most of each scene, something not many films feel the need to do. With Hamlet, or indeed any of Shakespeare’s plays, each word deserves scrutiny and the result is definitely worth it.