After one parse, there is just so, so much that I missed. But I think I got a lot too. I read an Open University text with a page of explanatory notes on the left of each page of play - that helped.
Hamlet is a play worth thinking about. Unlike with lots of fiction, asking yourself why the characters act the way they do, trying to go beyond the words into the psychology of the characters is very fruitful. There is always a good reason for everything.
The mentality of Hamlet losing his nerve as he yearns to murder the usurping king seem so... human. Whilst reading - and afterwards - I found myself slotting parts of my life in the Shakespearean mold; the narrative helping me to understand the world around me. Much of life is described in this play.
And of course, it’s a tragedy. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that everyone ends up dying in a heap on the floor. The drama builds and builds, and the tension ratchets up until the final explosive scene. I found the play quite claustrophobic. The plot revolves around a tight band of courtiers and kings who become cloistered, feeding off each others contrivances, grievances and dark impulses. There is no light from the outside world to disinfect this rank pit of emotions. Their lives become mentally unhealthy, a steaming cesspool of bubbling murkiness and frustrated desire, that eventually overflows into spectacular and chaotic doom.
I recommend reading Hamlet. I have seen the play on stage twice, watched the film and listened to a radio production. But reading enabled a completely different - and richer - experience. Watching Hamlet as a play allows you to pick up on the context. You can see what’s going on by the expressions and intonation of the actors. It makes the play seem alive.
However, Shakespeare is very densely packed with information. For example take this phrase:
“The dram of evil doth all the noble substance of a doubt to his own scandal”,
If I heard an actor say that, I might understand the emotion behind the speech, but I wouldn't have time to decode the metaphor. To me, it means ‘a little evil in someone makes us doubt all their good qualities - which is to our detriment’.
I think that’s quite profound. If someone is generally nice, and they act nastily one day we might say ‘now I’ve seen what they’re really like’. Too often people are willing to let a small amount of bad behaviour colour an overwhelmingly positive experience of someone. I find Shakespeare full of this kind of deep insight about life, and it’s easy to miss when simply watching a play.
I bravely attempt a criticism
I can’t really critique Shakespeare (I think it’s a reasonable assumption that the play is operating on a deeper level that I am), but if someone forced me to, I could perhaps come up with one thing. I was slightly disappointed with a plot device in the last act. Hamlet is dueling Laertes with swords. Laertes, taking part in a plot developed with the king, has poisoned his sword in order to try and kill Hamlet. Half way through the duel they - somehow! - switch swords, with Hamlet now holding the poisoned one. Hamlet promptly stabs Laertes with the poison tip who (spoiler alert) dies.
Wait a second - during a duel they somehow manage to swap swords?! This seems such a random, unbelievable course of events, almost as if it were just a device to make sure that both characters die. There was an asterisk in the text that I read saying ‘this might seem crude, but actually during live action this could happen very easily in a scuffle’. I’m not too convinced. Quite a crucial outcome of the play hangs on Hamlet and Laertes accidentally switching swords whilst fencing.
The last word
Should everyone read this? God, yes.