I feel there’s a certain unavoidable amount of absurdity and presumption in sitting down to write a review, informed only by my own reading and interpretation, of a work as significant as Hamlet. Anything I could say has most likely been said before, in superior language and with clearer purpose. In an effort to tackle an aspect of this play that I might speak well on, I want to focus on the experience of reading Hamlet as a required text for a high school class in comparison with this experience of reading it on my own, entirely outside of an academic setting.
Hamlet is not actually my favourite Shakespeare play, although at present it is my favourite of his tragedies. My favourite has for a long time been The Tempest, rather ironically, given that it was the last of his works and is widely held to have not been completed by The Bard himself. It was the first Shakespeare that I ever saw performed, though, so it holds a special place in my heart. Regardless, a couple weeks ago I developed a craving for Hamlet, so I dug through my boxes of books and managed to find a copy that I bought my senior year, when the Barnes & Noble near my house was closing (I dropped nearly $300 in books over the space of two months when everything went on clearance, but I bought reading material that could last ten years). My roommate loves Hamlet, so she strongly endorsed my decision, which boosted my confidence when I was at the beginning of Act II and trying to figure out how this play could be so much longer than I remembered.
I’ve never particularly struggled with Shakespeare. Some people find it impossible to read, and while I admit it can be a challenge, I think “impossible” puts it a bit strongly. It just requires a little extra work. That little bit of extra work, though, is what puts so many people off these plays. High school students already have plenty of work to do. They have homework and sports and musicals and drama, and in my case a never-ending sense of personal mortification. High school is difficult enough without Shakespeare.
I didn’t hate Hamlet when we had to read it for class, although it’s a safe bet that I probably fell behind on the reading fairly quickly and had to catch up in a heroic effort to continue my facade as a good student. No, I didn’t hate Hamlet then, but I enjoyed it far more this time around. I read the essays included at the beginning of the book, I perused the timeline of Shakespeare’s life, and I skipped over the cast of characters because I already knew them. I took Act I slowly, because I knew that I needed to give myself time to adjust to the language and syntax. I used the Barnes & Noble Shakespeare edition, and it has footnotes on the left hand page and the text on the right. Of the formats I’ve seen, I think I prefer this one. The footnotes are easy to find because they run the length of the page, instead of finding themselves crammed at the bottom of the page. Particularly with a text that has as many additives as Hamlet might, the format helped me to keep organised. It had the added benefit of making me feel like I was reading twice as fast, because for every ten pages, only five of them had been the play, with the other five serving as explanatory notes. A false sense of accomplishment does wonders for my self esteem.
The trick, I found, was to figure out which notes I needed, and which I didn’t. Sometimes there would be a block of historical context, and I read that because it was interesting, and it adds another dimension to the reading. Other times, the note was essentially nothing more than reading comprehension, in which case it was irritating to break the flow of my reading to receive redundant information. My rule became that I would read until the end of the sentence in which the footnote was marked. If I didn’t understand it, I checked the note. If I did, I left it alone. It was refreshing, almost empowering, to at times give myself credit for understanding without the offered assistance, and to decide for myself how to read the play, how to interpret it, and most significantly, how to enjoy it.
As a society we have such a stubborn notion of Shakespeare and his antiquity, that when I encounter a moment when he really is just being outrageous and inappropriate, I usually have to reread it. I’m positive that there must be something I missed, because he can’t really mean that— and yet he does. I owe so much to footnotes for those times when I’m staring at a line, assuming I have my teenage hormones to blame for the fact that my only interpretation is a sex joke, and then the footnotes inform me that yes, Shakespeare is indeed making an innuendo out of “Fortune’s private parts.” So much for a highly sophisticated, masterful manipulation of the English language. Shakespeare used his genius to smirk like a fourteen-year-old boy.
To those high school students who hate Shakespeare, I have a few points of advice, having endured high school’s presentation of Shakespeare and moved on to create my own experience.
First, and I actually recommend this with any assigned reading, don’t read it like assigned reading. If you’re reading in three chapter chunks every night because that’s what Teacher assigned, when normally you only read if you have a good three hours to sit down, then do that instead. If you read for twenty minutes before bed, do that. Don’t read sitting at your desk with all your other homework out and in front of you, don’t read with a notebook ready because you’re trying to guess what theme class might cover tomorrow. Read in a way that enables you to focus solely on the book, which, remember, was originally written for the sake of entertainment.
Shakespeare did not write to torture the poor high school students of the 21st century. He doesn’t mean to use archaic syntax and words that have long since vanished from our vernacular. He wrote for his peers, for the English stage, in a time period when theatre was a significant cultural phenomenon, drawing the social classes together. In the edition of Hamlet that I’m reading, there’s an essay included after the play that explains some of the editing decisions. This edition is based off the Quarto 2, and the majority of the changes function solely to modernise the text. Reading “You come moft carefully vpon your houre” and then “Tis now ftrooke twelfe, get thee to bed Francifco” and going on like that for another 200 pages would have been miserable (I’ve never understood why “s” is “f” in Middle English. I should probably investigate that at some point). This editor’s focus was to minimise the peculiarities of the English language that Shakespeare and his generation wouldn’t have remarked upon. It doesn’t change any meaning in the play to read “most” instead of “moft”– it just makes our lives easier. Shakespeare didn’t write to be inaccessible, and it is the job of the editor to maintain the play’s relevance when the evolution of language might have rendered it obsolete.
Many high school teachers have students act out scenes when they’re teaching a play. I have a friend earning degrees in Education and English, and she’s already excited to transform her classroom into a stage. Sometimes these amateur performances are successful and sometimes they’re just awkward, but either way they’re a crucial reminder that plays are meant to be performed. Seeing Shakespeare on the stage is a completely different experience from reading him in print, but there are ways to minimise the gap. Visualisation is an important aspect for me– I like to pay attention to stage directions and imagine a set in my head. The B&N edition has a diagram of what the stage at the Globe would have looked like, and that helps as well. It can also be useful to read difficult lines out loud, just to play with inflection. In cases where sentences are lengthy or awkward, speaking them can help to break up the clauses, depending on where the breath falls.
Dear High School Student, my best piece of advice might be to simply embrace the ridiculousness of so many of Shakespeare’s scenes. Even in his tragedies, there are wonderful moments of absurdity. Hamlet teasing Polonius, for example, always makes me grin. We all know some pompous person who likes to assault our ears with pontification. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to call them a fishmonger?
Or Hamlet with his school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…even if he does have them executed. Up until intrigue and backstabbing play a part, the three of them are just like us. They’re students. They make rude jokes and they get excited about the players coming to perform.
I think the gravedigger in Act V falls into a similar category. He’s what one of my professors referred to as a “low-life,” meaning all those Shakespearean characters that fall into the lower classes and generally wander on stage for the sake of some comic relief. They speak in dialect, often crudely, and they confuse words’ definitions. In a beautifully cynical light, these are the people who often represent the majority. These are the normal people, going about their lives, untouched by the crises of the monarchy. The gravedigger doesn’t care whose grave it is that he’s digging. Hamlet remarks that he “has no feeling of his business,” because he can carve out the walls of a body’s final home and sing a merry tune all at the same time. The truth, though, is that this fellow is just doing his job, has been doing his job for the last thirty years, and will continue doing his job after Hamlet is dead. He doesn’t care whose ass is sitting in the throne. He tosses up skulls and plays the jester and gives us a breath before Shakespeare storms in and slaughters all the main characters with the stroke of a pen.
I never hated Shakespeare, so perhaps I have an advantage, but I truly enjoy reading him now, just for myself, without any pressures or deadlines to worry about. So, to the high school student who has Act III due Monday, try taking a moment to remember that these plays have survived the last four hundred because they really are stupendous, because thousands of people before us have read them just for entertainment. Look for the hilarity, for the questions that reverberate in all of us. Take “to be or not to be” and ask it of yourself. Sure, there a thousand adaptations of that famous line already, but that doesn’t mean it can’t apply to us, too. We make the choice “to be” in every moment. We choose to live, to work, to sing or dance or laugh. Hamlet’s crisis of identity is a crisis that we all endure. Once we realise that in holding “the mirror up to nature” we see our own reflection, how can we help but read and tease out Hamlet’s answer, in the hope that it might guide our own?
A link to the play: Hamlet