"The remarkable thing about Shakespeare
is that he is really very good,
in spite of all the people who say he is very good."
~ Robert Graves
Recently I finally read William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as I slowly make my way through the entirety of the Bard’s works, and at my sister’s behest since it is her favorite tragedy.* While I found Hamlet well-written and dealing with deep and interesting themes, I could not help but react with my default reaction: inappropriate jocundity. This default reaction has occurred with every Shakespearean tragedy (and a few plays by Christopher Marlowe as well), starting with my initial exposure to Othello. I think this is due to the tragic elements of the story being completely avoidable.
Take Hamlet, for instance. Obviously as the story opens the titular character has some…issues. This is understandable since his father, the king of Denmark, has recently died. Yet instead of ensuring that her son gets the grief counseling he needs, Hamlet’s mom, Queen Gertrude, decides to compound her son’s mental imbalance by marrying his uncle Claudius (the king’s brother and...twin, apparently. I’d go crazy, too.). As Hamlet becomes more and more erratic, the people around him constantly ignore the warning signs, instead chocking his unhealthy amount of crazy to his love for Ophelia (although he just doesn’t seem that into her).
Unbeknownst to them, it is the visitations of his father’s ghost that is driving Hamlet crackers. His father’s ghost demands Hamlet avenge his death by killing his murderer…his own brother Claudius. Eventually (spoilers) Hamlet succeeds in spades, not only killing Claudius, but including his mom, Ophelia, Ophelia’s dad, himself, and also two random dudes named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the death toll. One almost expects to see a tally number pop up at the bottom of the stage when this play is presented.
Personally, I find Hamlet unrelatable. If I were in his position, just minding my own emo business, and some ghost showed up that looked like my dad, I would at least demand some otherworldly I.D. How else can Hamlet be sure that his dad and mom didn’t pull an ol’ switcheroo and kill Claudius, pass him off as the king, then collect the life insurance money and get (re)married? Then Claudius’ ghost, out for revenge, would be all, “Hamlet, Hamlet I ammmm your father! Avenge my death!” This is probably what happened. Which is why the ghost is totally okay with the collateral damage.
Also, how come none of the other characters show up as ghosts? I mean, obviously the door between the spiritual and earthly realms is wide open, or else the King/Claudius-in-disguise wouldn’t be taking nightly walks on the battlements trying to freak out sentries. After Polonius dies, I expected him to show up to Laertes and be like “Laertes! Avenge my death!” This little ghostly appearance thing would also be helpful in clearing up exactly how Ophelia dies…if she did die….**
After the play ends and pretty much everyone we cared about (and even some we only kind of tolerated) are dead, why don’t they all show up in ghost form?
HAMLET: Father! I have done as you asked and avenged your death! Now we can be together!
KING: Dude, that’s your uncle.
GERTRUDE: Yeah, Hamlet. If you’d stopped acting all nuts for a while your dad and I would have let you in on our insurance scam secret.
HAMLET: Uncle? Why would you do that to me?
POLONIUS: Do that to you? You stabbed me to death and then proceeded to have an entire conversation with your mother as if my corpse weren’t stiffening on the floor right in front of you! I can’t believe I tried to get you to marry my daughter.
OPHELIA: I never really felt enthusiastic about that plan anyway.
Speaking of Polonius’ death scene, am I the only one who saw parallels between that and The Wizard of Oz? “Pay no attention or violence to the eavesdropper behind the curtain.”
Lastly, as I came to the close of Hamlet I could not help but wonder, “What came next?” Are we really supposed to root for this Fortinbras nonentity becoming King of Denmark? Or did Horatio steal the throne (which to me makes more sense, since he basically enables Hamlet in his bloodthirsty escapades of insanity)? And did the Danes ever catch on to the fact that they’d been invaded by Italy and Greece? (Claudius? Horatio? Ophelia? Laertes? Polonius? Methinks Shakespeare was in need of one of those name origin books for prospective parents.)
Guess I’ll just have to wait for the sequel to come out. ***
*Huh. “Favorite tragedy” just sounds weird.
**My play-watching self functions on the premise that “no body, no death.” I figure Ophelia went to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and started a pop-rock band.
***Hamlet II: The Rise of Horatio has a nice ring to it. Also a spin-off entitled Ophelia and the Pussycats, or perhaps a parallel-universe “Parent Trap” story in which Hamlet is forced to get his mom back together with his ghostly father with only the help of his long-lost twin brother (naturally played by Hayley Mills) and their combined acoustic guitar-playing skills.