Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Classic of the Week: Hamlet

Today’s Classic of the Week is probably my favourite Shakespeare play, and certainly one of the most famous. One of the reasons I love it so much is that David Tennant (the best Doctor ever) performed as the lead character a couple years ago and did an amazing job. Also, I just love the style of play. It’s a revenge tragedy, but instead of having a blind desire for revenge, the hero is a university student who would much rather be studying than trying to kill his uncle. The play is….

Hamlet holding the skull of Yorick, the jester
Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Almost everyone will know the basic plot of Hamlet. Two months before the play starts, Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius kills his father and marries his mother, becoming king of Denmark. Hamlet isn’t very happy about this, but when his father’s ghost appears to him and tells him it was murder, he decides to get revenge. The problem is, he’s not sure if the ghost is telling the truth. So he gets some actors to put on a play of the murder to see if Claudius will look guilty. Claudius ends up leaving halfway because he can’t stand to hear it, so Hamlet is sure that Claudius is a murderer. Then, due to some complications that I couldn’t mention earlier, Hamlet ends up getting in a fencing match with another young man at court, and, thanks to a lot of poison, everyone ends up dying.

Hamlet creeps up behind Claudius while he's praying
Hamlet could have been a normal revenge tragedy. Uncle murders father, Hamlet murders uncle, everything works out fine. In fact, this is how it all works out in The Lion King, which is basically just Hamlet re-done with lions. But what Shakespeare does that is so brilliant is create a hero that is very poorly suited to a revenge tragedy. Hamlet is a quiet young man, a university student. At the beginning of the play, his one request is to go back to Wittenberg, a center of learning. Hamlet is saddened by his father’s death but he has no interest in getting revenge, until his father’s ghost appears.

Then it takes a good long while before Hamlet actually decides to kill Claudius. Hamlet has several opportunities to get revenge but he decides to wait for two main reasons. First of all, he’s not sure that Claudius did in fact kill his father and he wants to be sure before he kills someone. Secondly, he chooses not to kill his uncle while he’s praying because he wants the uncle to go to hell, not heaven. This may sound really cruel, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. After all, Hamlet thinks that his father was murdered without time for prayer, sending him to purgatory. If Hamlet kills his uncle only to send him to Heaven, then that’s not revenge at all.

Hamlet and Ophelia
All in all, I would highly recommend Hamlet to anyone. It’s not actually as hard to understand as some of Shakespeare’s other plays, especially if you watch a film along with it. Kenneth Branagh has a wonderful uncut version of the play, making it easy to read along, but I personally prefer the David Tennant version which is absolutely hilarious. Before I watched this I never thought Shakespeare could be that funny, but it certainly is. Shakespeare somehow manages to combine tragedy and hilarious comedy to create Hamlet.


  1. Love Hamlet. Love David Tennant.

  2. I've recently visited the performance and it was so amazing, actors, game, music. I like a dialogue from the play which i published here King Claudius Gap – Monologue