Although I dare not say that no literary work is the best in history, Hamletfrom William Shakespeare, would be one of the favorites. It is often proclaimed or voted the best work of Shakespeare (Google it). It has countless film adaptations, is widely referenced and even receives a kind of homage in The Simpson.
Hamlet deserves this praise because it offers the deepest insight into the human condition; although this vision can be a bit difficult to explain.
Let’s look at other serious and popular works of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet it is a story of forbidden love: a cliché that collapses effortlessly. Othello It deals with the horror of jealousy. Y Macbethwith its tale of regicide in the style of Tarantino and its grim consequences, explores the dark side of ambition.
But what is it about Hamlet?
Well… uh… It’s about those situations where someone does something wrong, and you’re pretty sure what they did was wrong, and you should do something about it, but you just can’t find the energy in yourself to do that thing, and your uncertainty and inaction cause you even more anguish, but events take their course – as they always do – and everything ends up worse than if you had done something in the first place. Perhaps.
It sounds silly, but it’s my way of dealing with it. Because although I know the evils associated with love, jealousy and ambition, my greatest regret is that in many cases I did not act when the situation required it. I was a coward. I am sure that I am far from the only one who evaluates his life in this way. And so Hamletwhich describes this state of inaction, is the Everest of literature.
An overview of the work
Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is a modern character. He attends the University of Wittenberg and is an intellectual. His father, the recently deceased king, also called Hamlet, was, in contrast to his son, a warrior.
In the first scene of the play, the ghost of old King Hamlet silently appears to Horatio, a friend of the protagonist. Seeing him, Horacio remembers the moment when “in an angry altercation / he made the Poland man fall on the ice”. This counterpoint to Hamlet’s famous inaction, like the ghost of the king himself, is woven throughout the play.
We soon learn that the old king has only been dead two months and that Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, has hastily married the new monarch, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius.
The ghost of Hamlet’s father returns, this time telling his son that he was killed – poisoned – by Claudius (it was a “cruel murder”) and urging Hamlet to avenge his death.
The scene ends with young Hamlet revealing his reticence:
“Nature is in disorder… Heinous iniquity! / Oh! I would never have been born to punish her!”
But the prince, increasingly embarrassed, is not sure that the ghost has told the truth. He gets evidence when he asks a group of actors to act out the poisoning for Claudio and Claudio overreacts.
Now he really must avenge his father. The opportunity presents itself when she, on her way to a meeting with her mother, runs into Claudio praying. But Hamlet, plagued by doubts, is unable to kill him.
In return, he confronts his mother about her hasty marriage. While arguing with her, he stabs Polonius (the father of Ofelia, the woman he has been courting), who had been placed behind a curtain to spy on him.
Laertes, the son of Polonius, wants to avenge his father. He, unlike Hamlet, is ready to act.
Claudius, now wanting Hamlet’s death as well, arranges a duel between Laertes and Hamlet with a poisoned rapier. They fight. The rapier cuts Hamlet and then Laertes. Meanwhile, the queen accidentally consumes a poisoned drink intended for her child and dies.
Hamlet learns the truth of what happened. He stabs Claudio, making him drink the poison as well. Claudius dies, then Laertes dies, and finally Hamlet dies. (South Park effectively depicts the final scene).
To be or not to be… or maybe not
He hoped to illustrate Hamlet’s struggle to be able to act with an analysis of the most famous speech in all of Shakespeare: “To be or not to be” (Act III Scene I). It begins with these oft-quoted lines:
“To be or not to be, that is the question:
if it is nobler for the soul to endure
the arrows and stones of harsh Fortune
or arm yourself against a sea of adversity.”
But now I’m not sure it’s a good idea. “To be or not to be” is ambiguous. Furthermore, Hamlet probably knows that he is being watched by the king or other people as he speaks, and therefore he is not really saying what he thinks.
Arguably, Hamlet’s final speech in the play occurs just before it, at the end of Act II. In this passionate soliloquy, he berates himself for his inaction, wondering “am I a coward?” and he deduces that he lacks the nerve “to embitter oppression.”
He says “other than this, the kites of the air would have already fattened themselves on the spoils of that unworthy one”; that is, he would have already murdered Claudio and fed his guts to the scavengers.
He also mocks her propensity to seek solace in words:
“But why should I be so foolish? Will mine be generous, that I, the son of a dear father (for whose treacherous death heaven and hell itself ask me for revenge) effeminate and weak, vent my heart with words (…)?”
The rejection of the call to adventure
The work of shakespeare is remarkable because it tells us about someone who, based on the model of Joseph Campbell of the “hero’s journey”, rejects “the call to adventure”.
Many of the stories we consume involve some kind of heroic quest in which a hero, reluctant at first, accepts this call. Let’s watch Frodo in The Lord of the rings or Luke Skywalker’s ambivalence about “the call” in Star Wars. Both heroes end up defeating evil. And although the experience has changed them (not entirely for the better), one intuits that rejecting the call would have led to worse results.
Hamlet’s inaction – his rejection of the call – directly or indirectly causes eight deaths, including his own. If he had acted, probably only Claudio would have died.
The moral of the story is that there is risk in action, but the greatest risk lies in inaction. In short, action, in serious situations, is the lesser of evils.
But maybe this is not the moral. Perhaps the play is not exhorting the audience to act, but raising a deeper question. Namely, what does it mean for us to cross the threshold that separates reason from power? That is, what does it mean for us to abandon reason and fight back against the monster?
Reason appeals to principles. Appeal to the reasoning ability of others. Justice is not taken into his own hands. But what if it is sometimes reasonable to abandon reason and hit power with power? Can reason survive that decision?
The endless appeal of Hamlet
Hamlet is not only successful because the protagonist embodies our own struggles. He is also amazingly quotable – maybe too much so.
The appeal of the play lies in turn in the depth of the secondary characters, such as Ophelia, Polonius and the inseparable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Hamlet’s friends at university).
And the work is seductively enigmatic. We don’t know if Hamlet’s mother was involved in the murder of the old king, if Polonius is really a fool, if Hamlet loses his mind, etc. Where there are mysteries, there are detectives.
Hamlet is a constant reference in western culture, not only in The Simpson Y South Park.
Considering all the problems the protagonist has with his father and mother, it is not surprising that Freud saw something oedipal in the whole thing.
Ophelia, who suffers the double tragedy of her own death and of being less analyzed than Hamlet despite experiencing an equally attractive conflict and pronouncing brilliant lines (“we know what we are, but we don’t know what we can be”), is referenced in the wasteland from Elliot. His words, “Good evening, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; goodnight, goodnight” provide a foreboding conclusion to the ghastly tavern scene in the second part of Eliot’s poem.
And for the fans of starwars (just a reference to starwars is never enough), even Chewbacca remembers the “Oh, poor Yorick” moment when he’s rearming C3P0 in The Empire Strikes Back (Yorick was a jester who entertained Hamlet when he was a child.)
Similarities and differences with the version of Kenneth Brangh.
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in 1899. Wikimedia Commons
Having said all this, and with Yorick in mind, what most strikes me in Hamlet it is the dark and beautiful graveyard scene at the beginning of Act V. Polonius is dead. Ophelia, whom Hamlet probably loved, has also died. The bloody final sequence is near.
And the work stops.
Two gravediggers have an ironic debate about whether or not Ofelia has committed suicide while digging her grave. It is a moment of a lot of black humor.
Gravediggers dig up Yorick’s skull. After declaring “Oh, poor Yorick! – I knew him”, Hamlet considers that even the most famous characters in history, such as Alexander the Great and the roman emperor Ceasehave ended up just like Yorick.
“Emperor Caesar, dead and turned to earth, can cover a hole to prevent the passage of air… Oh!… And that earth, which had frightened the world, will perhaps serve to repair the cracks in a partition, against the elements of the winter…”.
Despite exploring the most serious aspects of the human condition, shakespearewith this memento mori, seems to remind us that existence is something of a cosmic joke. And remember at the end of Brian’s life. That is to say, the credit titles can already come out.
*Dr Jamie Q Roberts is Professor of Political and Institutional Relations at the University of Sydney.
Originally posted on The Conversation.