Sonntag, 8. Januar 2012

The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

A great king, slain by his own brother to gain power over his kingdom and his queen.
A ghost who cannot find rest unless the truth is revealed.
Royal blood spilled and a sensitive, pensive young prince left alone in a dark world to take revenge.

One week and five pages in my notebook after reading the first lines I have finished what is widely regarded as one of the greatest tragedies of all time and to be honest I have to force myself to write this review, so empty of words am I.
I felt for Hamlet all the time and I loved to watch his journey from the sad, sophisticated, melancholy boy to a man who has the courage to stand up for what is right, even if it costs his own life.
Of course that doesn't mean that it was not excruciating for me to see how everything spiraled downward from the moment Hamlet killed Polonius without being able to interfere.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.
This is a quote from the Player-King and I think it determines the course of the play very well: When Claudius killed the king he surely did not imagine to follow him so soon, nor did he expect the Queen to drink from the poisoned cup prepared for Hamlet, and Laertes did not know that he himself would die from his own venomed blade.
All those people; Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Claudius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and in the end Hamlet die because of one single deed, they are all doomed because of one greedily committed murder.

However, every death in this play has its meaning, poor Ophelia's innocent death which is reported exactly at the moment when the king and Laertes maliciously decide to poison Hamlet shows in a brutal contrast how these two have let go of all morality and by unknowingly killing Polonius Hamlet puts his son Laertes in the same position as himself. This is very important because from then on they are two persons with the same fate, their stories begin similarly but go on differently because they are different people, their personalities are not alike at all.
When Laertes hears that his father has been killed he storms into Elsinore, demanding revenge, whereas Hamlet prefers to hide himself behind imitated madness to gain time to think.

I loved the character of Hamlet, he is intelligent and possesses a dry sense of humour, and, most importantly, he is honest. Even when he hides behind his 'antic disposition' and presumably talks mere nonsense, there is often a deep wisdom in it: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, for example. Though this be madness, yet there is method in't, as other characters remark too.
Strangely it was very easy for me to understand the doomed prince and it was not until I read the afterword of my edition that I found out how much controversy there is about his personality and how many riddles seem to be still unsolved.

In my opinion Hamlet is a thoughtful and sophisticated, but also witty and sometimes highly sarcastic young man. I place emphasis on the word young, because I understood him to be a student at heart: used to philosophising and pondering important questions, but not to having to make difficult decisions, having to act. His father's untimely death forced him to grow into the king he is in the end too soon, and Hamlet, trying to do his father justice, to fulfill his appointment is overstrained, the burden placed on his shoulders is just too heavy.

Hamlet struggles to understand the world and tries desperately to find what is right and what is wrong inside himself. While he is excellent in finding the truth in others and in seeing through their personalities he is unsure about himself, I think that is the reason he mirrors his conversational partners all the time.
He is trapped because he has no other choice than to revenge not only his father, but his king. There can be no doubt that Claudius deserves to die, and yet he is reluctant to murder him, out of two reasons.
Firstly, Hamlet simply is not the kind of person who commits murder as a way to solve his problems; his morality and conscience are too strong to kill someone bloodthirstily. After he kills Polonius in an outburst of fury he says:
For this same lord I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so, to punish me with this and this with me.
Secondly, Hamlet is too intelligent to willingly throw his own life and probably even more his reputation away by openly killing the king. To kill the monarch is to commit high treason, no matter how justified his death is.
Anyway, this has not stopped Claudius from murdering his brother, so why doesn't Hamlet simply poison his uncle secretly?
Because doing that would be choosing Claudius' deceitful path of action and Hamlet is too noble to do so, he does not only want the kings' life, he wants the truth to be revealed, and ultimately it is, even if it costs the prince's life too.

Closing the book I asked myself what the eternal appeal of Hamlet is, after all it is a play full of blood and tears. I guess it is this: we see Hamlet, a young prince, and we see what he could have, what he should have been, had he not been cruelly betrayed. The sad, thoughtful prince is still beautiful although inside he is broken, and God knows we are all drawn to what's beautiful and broken.
So, to finish with the words of Horatio, the best friend I can imagine:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
The rest is silence.


  1. I like your take on Hamlet's character, particularly this part:
    I place emphasis on the word young, because I understood him to be a student at heart: used to philosophising and pondering important questions, but not to having to make difficult decisions, having to act.
    I agree. Hamlet is such a complex character, constantly torn between doing what he's told and what he wants to. He was so young and inexperienced when we first met him, too young and inexperienced to face the fact that his uncle and king killed his father and old king. Loyalty plays such a prominent role in the play and his character.

  2. Caro, I am glad you understood it the same way, it's a great relief to know that I am not totally wrong ;)
    I feel really sorry for Hamlet, it's such a waste that he has to die.

  3. What a wonderful and thoughtful discussion on Hamlet! You've really explored Hamlet's character struggles... It has been a long time since I've read this, but you've made it all fresh in my mind again. Thank you for that.