Saturday, April 6, 2024



One cold night at the castle of Elsinore in the Kingdom of Denmark, two guards see a ghost at the ramparts that they assume to be that of the previous king. His son Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is led to see his father’s ghost and ends up having a conversation with him. The old Hamlet tells the young about his brother Claudius, the new king, and how he murdered him so he could take over the kingdom and snatch his wife, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. The young prince then undergoes a cycle of psychotic visions and rants, contemplating whether to avenge his father and depose his uncle. His madness spirals out of control, resulting in an accidental death and the souring of his romance with Ophelia, daughter of Polonius, the chief counselor of the king. The king decides to send his nephew to England for execution, but he eventually makes his way back to Denmark to settle things between them for good.

To be or not to be, that is the question! However, the more popular question appears to be that which questions Hamlet’s sanity. Do they really see a ghost or is Hamlet and his bros just plain nuts? If not, does he just end up gradually becoming more insane as the plot unfolds? Is he just masking his revenge plot as madness so he could carry out his plans without a hitch? If so, why did he delay his uncle’s murder for a while? Those are just some of the questions that people are still asking up to this day.

As much as I would like to weigh in, I think what I agree with the most is how this seems to be the prototype of the ever entertaining madman as the hero kind of storyline. Here you have a character that can be a hero or a villain. Which is which is decided upon depending on the point of view of whoever is doing the critique. The play has been analyzed through various perspectives, from Freudian to Feminist through the centuries, and it seems as though there is no stopping literary pundits from fleshing out this play in madly distinct ways.

While the debate on how Shakespeare was viewed back in the day will always be controversial, what cannot be denied is how his works have effectively captured the zeitgeist of the Elizabethan era along with its vernacular, preserving noticeable traits of the transition from Middle English into its early modern form one step behind what it is today. Among these are archaic personal pronouns such as Thou and Thy as well as obsolete inflections of verbal forms like Hast and Canst, among others.

There are also some linguistic idiosyncrasies here that hark back to English’s Germanic heritage, evident in the ever changing position of verbs when accompanied by another one or the absence of the helping verb “do” in the case of questions that used to be asked by simple inversion of the subject and verb. The likes of “I shall the effect of this good lesson keep” and “What said he” are a throwback to when English used to be more like its other Germanic cousins as far as sentence structure is concerned.

But let’s not bore ourselves any further with matters of linguistics. My point is that if you do not end up liking Hamlet, or Shakespeare’s other works for that matter, there will always be something for you to look forward to if you are interested in the evolution of the English language. As for the reading experience, I must admit that I avoided Shakespeare for the longest time, my defense being that a play is written to be seen on stage, not read in book form. I still maintain the same opinion, although I must admit that I am pleasantly surprised how Shakespeare ended up being an amusing read. I thought I would be bored to death!

And perhaps that is the next step in this journey to rediscovering Shakespeare. Go watch the plays. Rest assured that Hamlet will be the first on my list if ever I find myself one day on the West End. Language and plot aside, I am curious to witness how innovations in mounting stage plays at present have influenced the presentation of a play made for theater four hundred years ago. Surely, there must be some reinventions as well as modern touches or tweaks to make the play more palatable to a contemporary audience. After all, every one of us is a little bit mad, aren't we?

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