We’ve been studying Hamlet in my Shakespeare class lately. I’ve had a… fun? interesting? unusual? experience with it, which is what prompted me to write this post. I still have to figure out how I feel about it – I gave it a three-star rating but may end up changing that to four, and I have the distinct feeling that it’s one of those stories that I’ll come to appreciate more over time – but right now I’m kind of overwhelmed with oh so many papers and quizzes to complete that I haven’t had a quiet moment to really figure that out.
Anyway, reading it has been an Experience for two reasons.
First of all, I knew very little about the plot. Oh, I knew of all the famous soliloquies, and I knew about the ghost, and I knew that Ophelia killed herself by drowning – but I didn’t know the rest. Somehow. I’m not quite sure how. I didn’t read the play in high school, but that still doesn’t really explain how little I knew about Hamlet. I didn’t know that his mother married his uncle. I didn’t know that by the end of the play, four people are dead. I was ignorant of so many MAJOR plot details.
And I don’t suppose that even matters now, since I’ve finally read it. My point is not to complain or to scold myself, because it was actually super fun to experience the play in this way. I watched a film adaptation first – with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart as Hamlet and Claudius, which I highly recommend – because I thought it would help me to visualize the events of the play.
The movie was over three hours long, but I didn’t get bored because so much of it was brand-new to me. This play is over four hundred years old but to me it may as well have been written today.
And that’s not an experience I often get to have.
Part of that is due to being, well, a person who was born some four hundred years after Shakespeare’s plays were written – spoilers tend to spread far and wide when you’re dealing with such a vast expanse of time.
And part of that is due, I think, to being an English major. My professors constantly reference other literary works, either with a vague assumption that we’ve already read them, or with the knowledge that it’s something we’ll have to study in required classes further on down the line. They’re always discussing other books and then it’s just like, “Oh, thanks for telling me THE ENTIRE PLOT of this novel.”
The other reason reading Hamlet was an Experience is that I had no idea just how many common sayings come from it. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” “to thine own self be true,” “the play’s the thing,” et cetera. I’m not going to list them all because there are so many, but let’s just say that I went scarcely more than four or five pages without stumbling upon another phrase I recognized.
I was surprised by how many were said by Polonius, actually, because I… wasn’t even aware that he existed before reading this play? (HE IS THE GREATEST, THOUGH. So annoying, but he – and the others’ reactions to him – make me laugh.) Like, he prattles on and on and rarely says anything of importance, but quite a few of his lines have made their way into common use in modern English? That’s so weird.
So, yeah. Hamlet was full of surprises for me. That doesn’t often happen, especially as an English major, so it was fun to go into the play with very few expectations: I was in suspense the entire time, and was delighted to find many famous quotes that I had never associated with the play before. The final play we’re reading in this class is Othello and that’s another play I know very little about, so I’m looking forward to that.