Class Act

A 21st Century Look at Hamlet

Written By: William Shakespeare

Reviewed by Justine Manzano


         As a student at Hunter College in NYC, I recently came up with a brilliant idea to express my current state of being drowned in required class reading.  Who hasn’t had to read Hamlet for school?  Who will not have to read Hamlet in the future?  Well, I guarantee, there are not many, if there are any at all.  So, here’s a not-quite-ready-for-an-English-paper account of what I took away from Hamlet and my tips for better grasping the tragedy.

     As a high school student, I fell in and out of being able to understand Shakespeare’s writings.  At times, I hungered for the puns and clever, witty lines he infused most of his work with.  At other times, I just didn’t get it.  Now, as an Intro to Literature student, I believe I’ve finally learned to appreciate a play that has been considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, Hamlet.

     The tale takes place in a kingdom known as Elsinore where a terrible tragedy has just taken place.  The King has died and not a month later, his brother, Claudius, has married his wife.  Nobody seems to have a problem with this, but the son of the deceased party, Prince Hamlet, is quite perturbed, and I think, reasonably so!  This strange occurrence is brought to a head by the appearance of the Ghost of the King, who tells his son, Hamlet, that he was murdered by his brother.  Realizing that he may have been more correct than he had realized in questioning the remarriage, Hamlet begins plotting revenge and in a myriad of brilliant scenes, feigning insanity, all the while remaining completely unaware of the fact that his ministrations will lead to the largest tragedy ever to shake the foundation of Elsinore.

     Reading this again, I was truly able to understand the brilliance of William Shakespeare’s dialogue and soliloquies.  It’s funny to realize how the banter I value in all of the television shows that I watch as well as in my own writing occurs in Hamlet, under the guise of Elizabethan Language. There is a lot of humor in this tragedy, evident in the jibes Hamlet delivers that get right by the Queen, in the insanity that he feigns for Ophelia—the woman he would have married, had things gone a different route, and in the fun he has jerking around Claudius’ councilor, Polonius simply because he doesn’t like him.

     Even more important to the play is Hamlet’s internal battles, which come through as soliloquies.  We see him battle with the idea of suicide and with the fact that if he is to avenge his father’s death he will have to kill a man.  In brilliantly crafted speeches, we get to know the darker side of Hamlet.  The supporting characters of the play are equally memorable.  Claudius is deliciously evil, and this shows through how he purposely pushes Hamlet’s buttons in front of his court by calling Hamlet his “son” and, through Hamlet’s retaliations, forces Hamlet to look like an ungrateful brat.  Gertrude and Ophelia are pretty dense, and it’s fun to watch how some of Hamlet’s baser insults just get right by them.  Polonius is also extremely memorable as a rambling old fool with a lacking memory. 

     Where the characterizations are interesting, it is the mysteries of this play that seem to stick with us forever.  Is Hamlet truly insane, or is he really just playing the part?  Exactly how much did Gertrude have to do with her husband’s death?  And, who is the ghost?  Is he truly Hamlet’s father as Hamlet believes him to be, or is he some kind of demon, brought forth to drag Hamlet down to hell as he is corrupted into a vicious man?  The answers to these will probably never be known, but it sure is fun to draw your own conclusions. 

     Now, I’ve heard people complain that Shakespeare would be a lot easier to read if he just spoke English (a complaint that makes me groan and slam my head into random objects) and my only answer is this—this is English!  It is English that has survived through time.  If it were in German, then it would be impossible to understand unless you learned the language.  Understanding Shakespeare is not that great a challenge.

     So, what are my tips for understanding Shakespeare?  Well, for one, I suggest getting your hands on the New Folger Edition of the play as there are notes on the play on the left hand side and the actual play is on the right, making it easy to look things up that you don’t understand.  This edition also has scene summaries, so you know what you are about to read going in—it really helps to understand some of the phrases a bit better.  My other tip—act it out.  Go ahead-say it just like you think the actors were meant to—the more you do it, the more you’ll grasp and the more fun you’ll have with that book you’ve been “forced” to read. 

     That’s my take on Hamlet.  Until next assignment—enjoy.


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