Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.” (Act 2, Scene 2)

Everybody knows Hamlet, even when they don’t know they do. “To be or not to be, that is the question,” is probably the most quoted literary line in English, and quite possibly in other languages as well. Ser o no ser, esa es la cuestión, is equally famous in Spanish; people may or may not know about Hamlet but they sure know that line.

I had never read Hamlet before and I was surprised when I recognised the line I’ve chosen to start this post. It was clearly imprinted in my mind, even if I had totally forgotten that it was a quote from Hamlet and I no longer know where I first read it (I suspect it was in one of Stephen Hawking’s book, which I once tried to read and soon gave up, but I’m not 100% sure).

So yes, everyone knows Hamlet and almost everyone knows what the story is about.

“To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man pick’d out of ten thousand.” (Act 2, Scene 2)

Hamlet, prince of Denmark, meets a ghost that claims to be his late father. Said ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his own brother, now king Claudius, and asks young Hamlet to avenge him. Hamlet, who isn’t sure whether he should trust this ghost or not, comes up with a plan to test the veracity of this story. All the while, Hamlet ponders what to do in case the ghost had been honest and all this questioning will eventually drive him mad.

That’s Hamlet in a nutshell.

Of course, there’s more going on than that. A LOT more. Hamlet is what’s come to be known a revenge play because revenge plays a big part in it. But it’s not all about revenge. In fact, many of Hamlet’s doubts arise from the fact that he’s never sure that revenge is the path to take, even if the ghost tells the truth and his uncle murdered his father.

Some other questions that are explored in Hamlet are loyalty (Hamlet must find out who’s still loyal to him; Claudius needs to know who’s loyal to him), freedom (how loyal can a person be without losing his or her freedom or life, as is the case of Polonius and his children, Ophelia and Laertes), love (did Hamlet ever love Ophelia? Why does she consent to his father and the king’s game if she loved him?) and family relationships (well, everything in the plot revolves around this).

Indeed, family ties play a crucial role in Hamlet. Claudius murdered his brother and married his wife and Hamlet is now tormented by this incestuous relationship. Why? No one knows for certain. Is it solely because he finds the idea of her mother sleeping with his uncle disgusting or is it because she suspects her as well of having plotted against his late father?

“QUEEN. Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended. HAMLET. Mother, you have my father much offended.” (Act 3, Scene 4)

What I found fascinating about Hamlet was the dialogue to what it lends itself with its historical context. Hamlet is thought to have been performed somewhere between 1599 and 1602, so Elizabeth I was still alive. She lived but she was old and childless and the threat of yet another civil war seemed very real. The question of the royal succession was hot, even if no one was allowed to speak publicly about it. In the end, no son of England would inherit the throne, much like Hamlet did not succeed his father (why? no one really knows but I think this seemed much less bizarre back then than it does now to us). And just like a foreign prince came to claim the crown of Denmark, it would also be a foreign king who would inherit the throne in England.

Fascinating, really. I should write more about this sometime.

Have you read Hamlet? Did you like it? Any thoughts you’d care to share?

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