Hamlet by Shakespeare

I know, I know: the minute a person writes the word “Shakespeare”, a flood of preconceived notions floods your mind, right? Try reading this review as though you know nothing about the writer of the play, or the plot. Please. This is a very confusing plot, and you will need all your mental energy to figure out what is going on.

The personalities in this play cannot make up their minds as to their characters or as to their side of the story, so if this summary seems devoid of logic behind the motives of the characters, that is why. The basic plot goes something like this: a spirit, claiming to be our hero’s father, shows up and tells our hero that his father was murdered. Our hero (the rightful heir to the throne our villain holds) is told that the murderer is his uncle, our villain, who married our hero’s mother a month after his father’s death. Our hero believes the spirit, and swears to abide by its instructions. Then he acts mad/crazy. The villain and his minions try various methods to ascertain the cause of our hero’s insanity (is he in love? mourning? plotting? The villain eventually decides it is the latter). Once our hero starts killing people, the spirit shows up again to remind our hero about what he has been asked to do and inquire as to why the murderer isn’t dead yet. The villain tries to have our hero assassinated or exiled or both, but our hero escapes, signs the death warrant for two more people, and comes back to his land to find our heroine has committed suicide. This is now four months since the beginning of the play, and our hero still does not have a plan for the revenge the spirit asked him for.

{SPOILER WARNING} One of the minions asks our hero to a mock duel, and he agrees. The duel is a set-up by the villain and minions to make our hero’s death (by poison) look like an accident. The plan works: our hero is poisoned. Soon after, he poisons one of the king’s minions. Then the villain poisons his wife, our hero’s mother. The wife dies, the minion soon after. Our hero poisons the villain, who dies immediately. Our hero stays alive long enough to keep his sidekick from getting poisoned, then dies. Ambassadors arrive to announce that the two extra people our hero wanted killed are dead. Our hero’s father’s enemy’s son becomes king in our hero’s place. The end. {END OF SPOILERS}

The good parts of this play are the famous lines, just because they are famous and its nice to recognize them and put them in context. Also, adultery is condemned, loyalty is spoken of highly (though it leads to death for at least two people), and honoring one’s parents is considered a positive trait. Oh, and virtue is considered important for women, even if few in the play have it. Most significantly, this play is full of references to Elizabethan culture. Dueling, for example, was officially illegal in many European countries. Yet it was also considered the proper way for a young man to recoup his honor after an insult. Thus, like in the play, duels had to be fought under some other pretense. Technically legal versions of dueling led to the art of fencing, which is popular to this day (albeit in much safer form than originally intended). There are many such references to historical events/mannerisms in Hamlet, making it a relatively interesting study of English culture in the early 1600s, even if it is set in Holland. Finally, its Shakespeare, and everybody who reads extensively is bound to come up against some reference to Shakespeare, and once done with this play one can say one has read Shakespeare and be done with it.

Which brings us to what is wrong with this play: good and evil are both destroyed by the end, suicide is not condemned (our hero and his sidekick consider it, our heroine commits suicide, and the priest who tries to rebuke this is strongly put down), murder is not condemned (our hero kills one person in cold blood, then makes himself judge and jury for two old friends and has them murdered, all portrayed positively), the dead are treated with contempt (unless they come back as spirits), innocence leads to insanity for at least one character if not four, ghosts/spirits are portrayed as giving good advice (if our hero had done what the spirit asked in the beginning of the play, seven people would still be alive), and, lots of explicitly crude dialogue. Also, none of the parents in the play (at least the living ones) are portrayed honorably. The mother figure is weak and lustful, the two fathers are intruding, foolish, and corrupt. In fact, the son who is king by the end would not even have become king if he had not disobeyed his father (at least twice) and gone into our hero’s country with his army.

In summary, I discourage reading this particular play of Shakespeare’s to younger children or sensitive teens. Because of its status as a classic, it would be a fine read for an older student who wants to kill two birds with one stone (understand Shakespearian culture and read a Shakespearian play). It would also make for an interesting addition to a home-study unit on Chronicles: many kings of Judea in that Biblical book either undergo or cause events similar to Hamlet’s. If you like Shakespeare, you will probably enjoy this play; if you don’t enjoy Shakespeare, you will probably not like this play.

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