Why is Hamlet Great?
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
We’re wrapping up Hamlet this week, and it never ceases to amaze me how it stays relevant year after year. A few years ago, one of my students who graduated emailed me about a podcast from This American Life titled “Act V”, where Jack Hitt interviews prisoners who perform and interpret the play from a correctional facility in Missouri. One performer who played the ghost of King Hamlet describes feeling as if the words of the ghost were the words of the person he killed. Another described how playing Laertes made him realize how he tried to play the “bad guy” when he was younger. Another said that performing Claudius’s confession in the chapel made him feel like he confronted God over what he did. After I played some clips, we had quick discussion about how committing murder might go against Hamlet’s conscience, and against his desire to publicly expose Claudius’s guilt. My students expressed more interest in one of Jack Hitt’s main questions: “Are we forever a prisoner of our actions?” We ended up talking about incarceration, recidivism, the criminal justice system, and rehabilitation. Not where I expected to end up.
Hamlet declares one of Shakespeare’s main goals in life: “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”(119). How can a play allow us to scrutinize those in power? To expose the truth of their character to the public? To question the customs and culture of the powerful? When Bernardo asks Francisco “Who’s there?” on the first page, Francisco dodges the question and demands, “Nay answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.” Bernardo also dodges the question by declaring, “Long live the King!”(7) What kind of answer is that? It seems ridiculous until we ask ourselves how often we do the same thing. When someone asks to know how you feel, do you really tell them? If someone asks for your opinion, do you answer honestly? Or do you invent some response that will keep you out of trouble? Why do we fear those in power? Do we sometimes fear each other? Because Hamlet can’t speak the truth out loud, he does the next most logical thing he can do, he uses art and directs the players to “imitate humanity” and “hold the mirror up to nature”(137). All art has the power to make us better people. The imagination of the artist brings us closer to understanding the reality of our inner selves and our world. Hamlet, like many teenagers, tries to determine who in their life is “admirable” and who is “a piece of work” or the “quintessence of dust”(101). They also struggle, just like Hamlet, to live up to the expectations of their parents and uphold the values of the last generation. Will Hamlet die in vain, or find a better way out of this mess?
When Hamlet asks Yorick’s skull “Where be your gibes now?”(249), he forgets that he’s in his memory. Hamlet doesn’t realize that how we treat each other remains the most valuable thing we leave behind. He knows he needs to end corruption for the sake of Denmark, but deep down, he just wants to return to the loving relationship he had with his girlfriend Ophelia, his mother Gertrude, his father King Hamlet, and his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
page numbers from Hamlet, published by the Folger Shakespeare Library, edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
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