"There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – Hamlet
It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s genius that, after 400 years of debate and scrutiny, we still cannot come to a consensus on exactly who Hamlet is. Is he a noble hero fighting to retrieve the land and title that is rightfully his? Is he a depressed and melancholy young man in over his head? Is he just playing at insanity, or is there something truly wrong with him? Is he in love with his mother? Is he in love with Horatio? Is he a misogynist? These are just some of the questions that have been asked over the centuries, all of which assume a consistent and singularly definable Hamlet. When we consider the numerous inconsistencies that Shakespeare builds into his protagonist, things become even more complex. Why would the previously contemplative and careful Hamlet be so brash as to stab an unseen man on an assumption of identity? Why would someone who has been so cruel to Ophelia throw himself into her grave in a seeming fit of grief? These are all fine questions to ask, and while one could interpret these unresolved questions as the product of deficient talent, I would rather argue that they hint at a greater thematic awareness on the authors behalf. Knowledge is almost impossible to obtain in the world of Hamlet. Almost everyone has multiple motives. The entire plot hinges upon a possibly untrustworthy source of information. It’s fitting that a play that constantly questions how its characters obtain truth and knowledge should cause its audience to spend hundreds of years arguing about the main character.
While possibly the most famous play in history (if not this, then another Shakespeare), let’s quickly recap the plot of Hamlet for those of you who managed to miss it: The King of Denmark has died, and his wife, Gertrude, has married his brother, Claudius. Enter Prince Hamlet, just returned to Elsinore from University to attend his father’s funeral. The sullen and forlorn prince is visited by the ghost of his father in the night, who informs Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius, and that vengeance must be had. Young Hamlet devises a plan that involves pretending to be insane, and mounting a play-within-a-play re-enactment of his father’s death, in order to draw the truth from Claudius. However, a violent outburst from Hamlet sees him killing Claudius’s major advisor, Polonius, and being banished from Denmark. He soon orchestrates the death of his travelling companions, old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, before returning to Denmark, determined to get his revenge. Not all are happy to see him though, as the recent deaths in Elsinore has seen the return of Polonius’s son, Laertes. Hamlet discovers that his old girlfriend, Laertes’ sister Ophelia, has recently committed suicide, most likely due to her callous treatment at the hands of Hamlet. The plot climaxes with a duel between Hamlet and Laertes; an event which sees the remaining major characters in the play die violently.
What that previous paragraph, or any plot summary, fails to take into account is the dense and gorgeous language which Shakespeare imbues Hamlet. Several of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches are in this play (“To be or not too be…”, “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt…”, “This above all: to thine own self be true…”, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!...”), and the use of metaphor is without comparison. Even the lines which seem simple can be layered with wordplay that takes several readings, or a knowledge of historical context, to truly appreciate. Indeed, in researching this article I found that the word “Nunnery” was often used as a euphemism for “Brothel” in Elizabethan England, providing interesting new readings to Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. Whether Shakespeare intended this or not is impossible to say, but it does show us that Hamlet is not a play that welcomes simple definitions. While we as a modern audience trust the ghost’s story at the beginning of the play, the mainly Protestant audience of Elizabethan England would have been discomforted by the many Catholic references layered into the Ghost’s dialogue, and immediately distrusted him. It’s also easy to forget that, while the audience hears Claudius’s confession of guilt, Hamlet never does, which raises questions about Hamlet’s moral purity and heroic status. It is fitting that Hamlet should cause such fervent debate for so many years, as it is at its core a play about the uncertainty of truth. The opening perfectly sets up the uncertainty that characterises both this play and the scholarship surrounding it: two soldiers, nervous and distrusting of the disembodied voices calling out to them through the dark.
It is all too easy as a critic to spend more time talking about the character of Hamlet than the play itself; we do tend to place more importance on the actor playing the title role than the quality of the show itself. While this may seem counterintuitive, it’s actually a product of what makes Hamlet so influential. Before Shakespeare, playwriting was about narrative: characters were important, but always served the plot. Shakespeare revolutionised the way we interact with plays, crafting a plot that is in service of exploring the complex, philosophical creation that is Prince Hamlet of Denmark. This may not seem like much today, but this change of priorities opened the door to the hundreds of years of experimentation that have resulted in the theatrical landscape that we have today. Hamlet is a fascinating rumination on truth and knowledge, containing some of the most delicately constructed monologues about meaning and death in literature history; existing as a record of proto-existentialist philosophy and serving as the centrepiece of psychoanalytic theory. If it was only these things it would still end up on this list, but it’s also one of the most influential pieces of theatre still being regularly performed today. I disagree with English Teachers that describe Shakespeare’s works as having “Universal Themes”, as no piece of art can cater to every intersection of society, but I have no issue with describing his work as “Eternal”. Hamlet changed the way we think about character, and that influence will be eternal.