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.

Slow-Read Sunday: Hamlet, Act 5

If you missed the discussion of Acts 1 and 2 you can catch up here. If you missed the discussion of Acts 3 and 4 you can catch up here.

I’ll have some final thoughts next week on Hamlet, but for now here are some questions you could ask as you read Act 5, the play’s conclusion:

1. Is Hamlet a man of action? Is Ophelia a woman of action?

The gravedigger tells us an “act hath three branches.” He goes on to say that those three branches are, “to act, to do, to perform.” Act 5, Sc. 1, lines 10-15. We can certainly see where Ophelia has acted on her grief. She appears to have taken her own life. Has Hamlet acted on his grief at this stage in the play?

2. How did Hamlet become mad?

The question is somewhat unanswered in the play. Hamlet, talking with the gravedigger, asks the same question in Act 5. Sc.1, lines160-165. The gravedigger never gives much of an answer, aside from “strangely.” If you were to have to answer that question how might you try to answer it?

3. Did Hamlet love Ophelia?

Hamlet tells us he loved Ophelia in Act 5. Sc. 1, lines 284-288. Can you trust him? Do you believe he loved Ophelia? Why did he act the way he did to her near the end of her life? Is it enough to say, he was mad, and excuse Hamlet for the way he treated Ophelia?

4. Is Hamlet his madness or is the madness separate from him in some way?

When Hamlet talks to Laertes after Ophelia’s death he takes the position that he is in some way divorced from his madness. Hamlet sets up “madness” as a kind of third-party that influences him. Act 5. Sc. 2, lines 240-258. Do you see Hamlet as separated from his madness? Is the madness acting on Hamlet or has Hamlet become his madness? Do you see madness as a parasite in search of a host?

Next Sunday, I’ll have some closing thoughts on Hamlet and we’ll wrap up our discussion. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Hamlet, whether you find this post today, or at some point in the future you find yourself reading Hamlet.

Looking Ahead to Pride and Prejudice

With our reading of Hamlet concluded we can start to look forward to our next book. We need some balance. Having read two male authors I think now is a good time to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’ll be using the Norton Critical Edition. This is my first time reading Pride and Prejudice, so I’m excited to take it on with any of you that have the time. Even though this is technically our pick for April, I propose we discuss the first chunk on March 31st. That will give us five Sundays to break down the text. Let’s try to read to Volume 1, through page 89 by March 31st.

For a great introduction to Pride and Prejudice I recommend you read Amarie’s post on the book. As she points out, this really is the perfect year to read Pride and Prejudice, whether you’ve read it 10 times or none at all.

Photo: Some rights reserved by KalinaSoftware.

Slow-Read Sunday: Hamlet, Acts 3 and 4

If you missed the discussion of Acts 1 and 2 you can catch up here.

In Acts 3 and 4 we see Hamlet express his grief as a rational genius when he sets up the play to catch the King and confirm his suspicions about the circumstances of his father’s demise. We also see Hamlet senselessly kill Polonius. Who is Hamlet? Is he a rational man capable of  being judge, jury, and executioner on behalf of his father? Or is Hamlet instead a vulnerable man driven by his emotions to ignore reason? Can Hamlet be both? Are we, like Hamlet, able to exhibit flashes of rational brilliance in one moment only to be swept up and carried by our emotions and forced to ignore good reason in the next?

1. “To be or not to be….”

Is Hamlet’s consideration of suicide evidence of madness? Act 3. Sc. 1 lines 64-98.

2. Hamlet blames Opehlia for his madness.

What is it that makes Hamlet say, “It hath made me mad,” to Ophelia. What of her actions have made Hamlet mad? Is it a fair statement from Hamlet? Act 3. Sc. 1 lines 154-162.

3. Is melancholy the same as madness?

Claudius uses the word melancholy when talking about Hamlet in Act 3. Sc. 1 line 179. Do you think Cladius is using the word as a symptom of madness, a cause of madness, or something else?

4. Is Hamlet “not guilty by reason of insanity” under our modern use of the defense when he kills Polonius? Act. 3 Sc.4 lines 25-35.

Imagine yourself on the jury in Hamlet’s murder trial. Would you send Hamlet to a mental institute or to prison for killing Polonius? Can Hamlet be rehabilitated? Is Hamlet a murderer? Is Hamlet a danger to himself and others? If he is a danger to others, is he a danger to everyone?

5. The Queen can not see her dead husband’s ghost.

The Queen tells Hamlet that the ghost is “the very coinage of [his] brain.” She thinks he’s made it up, but this is after he’s already killed Polonius. Does Hamlet’s mother think he’s mad before this point? Act 3. Sc. 4 line 157.

6. Would an English audience want Hamlet dead?

Shakespeare brilliantly includes the audience and draws them into the play to judge Hamlet when Claudius announces he’s sending Hamlet to England to be killed. Act 4. Sc. 4 lines 70-77. How would the English audience feel about doing Claudius’ dirty work? Would the English audience want to be responsible for Hamlet’s death?

7. Compare Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death to Hamlet’s.

Do Hamlet and Ophelia handle their fathers’ deaths in similar ways? Do they handle their fathers’ deaths differently? Act 4. Sc. 5. What does Shakespeare accomplish by this juxtaposition?

We’re one act away from an epic finish. We’ll discuss Act Five next Sunday.

Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for more on Hamlet, here’s a good starting point. There are several free pieces of literary criticism linked there.

Slow-Read Sunday: Hamlet, Acts 1 and 2

To get the idea behind “Slow-Read Sunday” you can read this introductory post.

There are as many ways to read Hamlet as there are people, as there are backgrounds, as there are experiences. It is a play of infinite renderings.

I tend to read Hamlet with an emphasis on Hamlet’s madness. That’s not to say you should, too. Consider it, instead, a bit of a disclaimer. You’re reading doesn’t have to lean so far in that direction. In fact, maybe you can have me consider a new way to read the play. I’m open to it.

What is madness? Madness is a bit difficult to get a handle on because we don’t really use the term anymore. It’s a word that’s out of favor in clinical psychology, but psychology is the field that could best help us come to a definition because, if madness can be defined by limitation, then it is an internal state. Is madness the same as mental illness? Is madness the same as depression? Is madness a manifestation of anxiety?

Have you ever been accused of being mad? Have you ever suffered through the loss of a loved one? Have you ever been depressed, anxious, or felt like you couldn’t control your own thoughts? If you answered yes to any of these questions then you may see some of yourself in Hamlet.

Here is a series of questions you could use in your reading of Hamlet, Acts 1-2, and, of course, I suggest you come up with your own questions as you read.

1. In Act 1. Sc.1 does a ghost appear?

Horatio seems to be unsure at line 28: “Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy.” On the first page of the play, therefore, we are asked to consider whether the ghost is real or just in the characters’ imaginations. What do you think, is the ghost real?

You could follow up with these questions: Why does the ghost leave at dawn when the cock crows? Why does the ghost refuse to speak when asked the first couple of times?

2. What are Hamlet’s first words of the play? Act 1. Sc.2.

At line 67 we hear Hamlet finally speak and he seems clever, doesn’t he? How would you describe his first words? Are they morose? Are they critical? If so, of who? Does he seem mad to you at this stage in the play? He does talk to the King in a way that a commoner in England would not, but he is a prince after all, and related to the King, too.

3. Does the King choose an odd way to try to cheer up Hamlet? Act 1. Sc. 2.

The King attempts to cheer up Hamlet by explaining that everyone must die and that he should just get over his father’s death after a month’s time. Lines 90-100. Is it the King that drives Hamlet mad?

4. Hamlet wants to leave to go to school, but he is persuaded by his mother to stay, can you imagine how his life might have been different had he been allowed to leave? Act 1. Sc. 2 lines 120-125.

5.  Does one person’s experience encourage another’s with regard to the ghost? Act 1. Sc. 2.

Even before the ghost appeared, Hamlet admits to having seen his father in his “mind’s eye.” Act 1. Sc. 2 lines 190-195. Horatio then admits that he has also seen him, but he doesn’t mention that he may be imagining the whole thing this time. Do you think he is persuaded by Hamlet’s mention of having seen his father to believe his own experience with the ghost? Do you get the impression that madness may be contagious in a sense?

6. Laertes thinks Hamlet is mad long before the ghost ever appears, do you agree with him?

It’s interesting to play the game of trying to identify when Hamlet shows signs of “madness.” To Laertes it’s before the ghost has visited Hamlet. Act 1. Sc.3 lines 15-25. Laertes believes Hamlet can no longer control his will. What might be the cause of Hamlet’s madness at this point? Do you believe Hamlet is mad at this stage in the play?

7. Why does the ghost come at all? Act 1. Sc.4.

Can you tell why the ghost comes? Can Hamlet tell why the ghost comes? Hamlet asks this question at Act 1. Sc.4, lines 41-50.

8. Will the ghost make Hamlet mad or is he already mad? Act 1. Sc. 4. lines 77-86.

Horatio suggests the ghost may deprive Hamlet of his “sovereignty of reason” and “draw [Hamlet] into madness.” Do you agree with Horatio? Again, if Hamlet is ever mad, when does he become mad? What is the source of his madness? How does the madness express itself externally, if at all?

9. Is Hamlet’s father in purgatory?

In one of my favorite lines of the play, the ghost says to Hamlet, “I am thy father’s spirit.” The ghost goes on to describe some of the physical symptoms of continued existence. Some, including Greenblatt, have suggested Shakespeare is exploring the idea of purgatory in this play. Do you agree?

10. Why does Hamlet swear an oath to never speak of the ghost they’ve seen? Why does the ghost encourage the oath?

In Act 1. Sc. 5 lines 170-190 both Hamlet and the ghost encourage Marcellus and Horatio to swear an oath to never talk about what they’ve seen. Why is this important to the play?

11. Does Polonius believe Hamlet is mad? What does he believe to be the cause of his madness? Act 2. Sc.1 lines 88-95.

Polonius’s perception of Hamlet’s madness is different than the King’s and the Queen’s. In fact, almost every character has a different perception of what is causing Hamlet to act mad. Do any of the character’s perceptions line up with your own perception. I ask again, at this stage in the play, do you think Hamlet is mad? If so, why?

12. What is madness? Act 2. Sc.2. lines 95-102.

Polonius is convinced Hamlet is mad, but he is unable to “define true madness.” Can anyone define madness throughout the play to your satisfaction?

Polonius even attempts to describe the changes to Hamlet’s moods. Act 2. Sc.2. lines 150-160. Are you convinced he’s captured Hamlet’s madness through these outwardly appearing stages?

Polonius tries to make sense of Hamlet’s madness by finding a “method in’t.” Act 2. Sc. 2 lines 223-224. Does he succeed?

13. Hamlet admits to being mad, but only a transient madness. Act 2. Sc. 2. lines 402-403.

“I am but mad north-north-west.” Hamlet says. Act 2. Sc. 2. lines 402-403. Which means he admits to madness, but only when the wind blows a certain direction, only sometimes. As a reader, we’re left to determine at which times he is mad. We’re also left to determine what the source of that madness is. But, can you trust Hamlet to know when he’s mad? Are mad people aware of their own madness?

14. Shakespeare uses a play’s speech to wake Hamlet’s reason. Act 2. Sc.2 lines 575-605.

The play’s speech inspires Hamlet to consider his own actions and emotions and duty to his father. Hamlet seems to be awakened by the speech and put on track to exact revenge. Is Hamlet’s plan evidence of madness or is it  a beautiful logical trap and evidence of his clever rational mind? Act 2. Sc.2 lines 610-634.

For next Sunday let’s read Acts 3 and 4. As always, I’m open to any comment or discussion on the play. You need not limit yourself to the questions I present.

Editor’s Note: Here are a couple of additional posts that might relate to this one: