Slow-Read Sunday: Hamlet, Final Thoughts

Previously, I proposed some questions to ponder as you read the play: Acts 1 and 2; Acts 3 and 4; Act 5. What follows are some final thoughts on the play. I recognize the exercise of saying something “final” about Hamlet is absurd because the play has been criticized every year since its creation, but for what it’s worth here is one way you might conclude a discussion of one person’s reading of Hamlet in 2013, which, of course, is subject to change upon a future reading. How’s that for a disclaimer?

Hamlet was influenced by its predecessors, but it is ultimately Shakespeare’s creation.

We tend to view reading as an activity where the “blank slate” of the reader’s mind is filled by the contents of what we’ve read. We tend to view reading as an information dump from the page to the brain. This view of reading sets us up for failure because we’re not computers. We’ll never read enough, learn enough, understand enough to make reading in this way pleasurable. There are few literary works that make this point better than Hamlet.

Think of the story–it was borrowed from Norse folk literature and then further adapted from a Spanish revenge-tragedy–but Shakespeare’s Hamlet is only related to its predecessors through basic plot elements. We’ve lost the original “Ur-Hamlet” written by Kyd which is believed to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We can’t make a line-by-line comparison. What we can do, though, is, like a good reader, imagine Shakespeare’s Hamlet as being a derivative of his intense reading, study, and contemplation of Kyd’s tragedy.

How might Shakespeare have read Hamlet’s predecessors? He would have asked a series of questions like the ones we ask when we read his play. He might have seen the play and wondered what was going on in Hamlet’s mind as the events were unfolding. He might have written some thoughts or questions and tried to resolve them from his own personal experience. He might have found that he could answer some, but others he could not. He might have studied his own internal state to try to understand what Hamlet’s must’ve been like. He might have drawn on his own personal experience to create something completely new.

Sometimes great works of literature act as scaffolds for us to use as we construct our own original works. I like to think of Hamlet as a massive scaffold.

We all have something to offer in our interpretation of Hamlet because we’ve all brought something different to our reading.

Who is Hamlet? Is Hamlet mad? What makes one mad? Are there acceptable levels of madness? Does Hamlet love his mother? Ophelia? His father? Hamlet becomes, through the questions it raises, a guide to critical self-analysis. Hamlet shows us that not all questions have certain answers, both in the play and in life. Shakespeare recognizes that our answers to these questions are informed by what we bring to our reading or viewing of the play. Hamlet is a windsock, but Shakespeare recognizes he was not in control of how the wind fills it. Neither Shakespeare nor I can control your reading of Hamlet. Neither Shakespeare nor I can control what experiences you re-live when you read it. We all bring something to our reading of the play, and for centuries people have seen enough in Hamlet to keep coming back. Why?

In Hamlet there are at least three worlds. There is the physical world, the world of external realities. There is also Hamlet’s internal reality. We see it in his soliloquies. Those two worlds are at times in harmony, but at other times they clash together like weather fronts competing for the same atmospheric space. But, the third world is the world of experience that we bring to the play. Our reading of Hamlet is dictated as much by the third world as any other. Shakespeare’s brilliance is that he leaves space for this world to exist. He creates questions and then leaves them open to interpretation. He shows us how the first worlds collide and then leaves it to us to resolve the inconsistencies, or, if we can’t resolve them, to contemplate them.

If we were content to have a play act on us and answer everything for us and fill our brain like empty beakers then we would likely have long forgotten Hamlet. Since we are not content to have our internal thoughts completely dictated to us, though, we find ourselves coming back to works like Hamlet to test how much we’ve grown, to evidence how much we still can grow, and to show us that our reading is as much a product of us as it is of the author. The best things to read are things that leave space for us to react to them and for us to inform them as much as they inform us. Hamlet proves this point to me every time I read it.

Looking Ahead to Pride and Prejudice

Reminder: In April we’re reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’ll be using the Norton Critical Edition. We’ll discuss the first chunk on March 31st. Try to read to Volume 1, through page 89 by March 31st. If you don’t make it, don’t worry. You can always come back to the discussion when it’s convenient for you.

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