Some of the toughest questions in life remain unanswered. No matter how much you brood over them, twist and twirl them in your head, they just don’t seem to get solved. What’s worse is that they can get even more complicated and entangle your little head deeper and deeper into its mystery. Many real life people have broken their heads pondering over these tough questions. But this scenario is true of many literary characters as well-the most famous of them being Hamlet. He is ridden with thoughts of revenge but also conflicted with how to execute this task. And we will all unanimously agree that the question of revenge is undeniably a tough one. Revenge can prick your conscience, corrupt your soul, foster evil etc, but if your father’s ghost orders you to do it, then what can one do but carry out the task? Poor Hamlet was indeed in one problematic quandary.
For those who are not in the know, ‘Hamlet‘ by William Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest tragedies written by him. The play begins with a couple of guards on the night duty watch who come across a mysterious ghostly apparition while on duty. The latter doesn’t talk to them, doesn’t reveal anything to them. Horatio, one of Hamlet’s loyal friends, who witnesses this scene with the guards, then decides to inform Hamlet about the ghost. Till now, Hamlet is gravely mourning his father’s death and is greatly perturbed by his mother, Gertrude’s marriage to his uncle, Claudius, who is now the King of Denmark. Hamlet’s disgust with this incestuous relationship reveals itself in his first, masterfully delivered soliloquy. But when Horatio informs him about the ghost and Hamlet decides to see for himself what the apparition is, the play takes a turn because the ghost is none other than Hamlet’s father who tells him about the actual cause of his death(which was murder) and also instructs Hamlet to take revenge of his death. So now Hamlet is not just grief stricken but also burdened by an immense task and a knowledge of a murder that few are aware of. It is not easy to take revenge against a King who is comfortably on the throne with public support. Murdering the King would amount to treason and further, Hamlet himself is worried about the moral implications on his soul if he does commit the crime. Hamlet is thus very much alone in his dilemma. Everyone in the court (with the exception of Horatio) seems against him or plotting against him. Though he is swift in establishing the guilt of Claudius by staging the play,The Murder of Gonzago, that also has a murder of the King by his brother by similar means, his inaction in carrying out revenge says a lot about his conflicted attitude towards the whole business of revenge. Does he finally carry out the task his father’s ghost set out for him? Or does he simply ruminate over it throughout the play without any conclusive answers being revealed to him? Now these are questions that can be solved if you read the whole play. If only Hamlet could have had such an easy way out of his conundrum.
‘Hamlet‘ is a thoroughly enjoyable play to read. Hamlet himself is a complex, many layered character. However, the entire play itself is constructed with much ingenuity to create Hamlet’s complexity of character. His inactivity is contrasted with both Laertes and Prince Fortinbras’ hot blooded desire to take revenge. The play has many sub plots as well-Hamlet’s love for Ophelia, Ophelia’s eventual madness, Polonius’ assumption about Hamlet’s madness, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s guise of friendship to get Hamlet to reveal his plans to them, the plot to kill Hamlet etc. ‘Hamlet ‘ is not a regular revenge tragedy which had flooded the Elizabethan and Jacobean literary periods. Instead, Shakespeare uses the themes of this genre to create a play that goes beyond the normative to create a character study, to show the influence of a corrupting society and court of Denmark on an individual, to show the politics and construction of power and many other aspects.
Melancholy and tragedies and brooding protagonists may not appeal to you any more in the 21st century, but ‘Hamlet’ has a universality in its story and themes that makes the play such an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating read. And here’s another reason to read the play: you can then boast about having read the oft quoted soliloquy, ‘to be or not to be,’ the famous fatherly advice by Polonius to his son, Laertes; Ophelia’s suicide which has been the subject of many paintings etc. and then pretend to be an intellectual.