There are several plays by Shakespeare whose reputation precedes them. Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story, Macbeth a spooky tale about witches and ambition-fueled murder, A Midsummer Night’s Dream a lighthearted romp in a forest full of fairies, and Hamlet … well, Hamlet is that one with the skull.
If you have an interest in Shakespeare, or even if you don’t, you can’t miss Hamlet’s influence on popular culture. It’s the first thing most people think of when they hear “Shakespeare”, along with Romeo and Juliet. It’s the source of “To be or not to be?” and many other familiar lines. It’s been adapted as a movie countless times and has inspired other stories as well. I’m not someone who believes the most famous literary texts are always the best, but there’s no denying Hamlet’s popularity.
I guess you could say I’m going into this as a skeptic. I don’t want to dislike Hamlet, and I wouldn’t be reading it if I thought I’d regret it. But there’s so much hype surrounding it: I’ve seen it called Shakespeare’s greatest masterpiece, a work so grand that it makes the rest of English literature look like nothing, and so on. One feels the obligation not just to like it or appreciate its significance, but to agree with the hyperbole. I feel no such obligation. I doubt that it will be my favorite work of literature, or even my favorite play by Shakespeare, and I don’t think it’s possible to give a definitive “best” of any broad and subjective category. I don’t mean to downplay Hamlet’s significance, but I do want to look at it realistically and not put it up on an uncritical pedestal of greatness.
With all that being said, I’ve read Act I, and so far I’m enjoying it. The play begins as something of a cross between ghost story and political thriller, with the ghost of Hamlet’s dead father revealing that he was murdered by his brother – Hamlet’s uncle – and asking his son to avenge him. One of the best things about Shakespeare’s plays is how human their characters seem, and that definitely applies to Hamlet, with his deep, conflicting emotions of sorrow and betrayal. As the rest of the royal court begins to move on, his mother remarries, and his uncle ends the period of mourning, he is the only one who seems to still grieve for his father. The contrast this creates emphasizes that Hamlet is emotionally isolated despite being surrounded by other people. The idea of brothers turning against each other is common in Shakespeare; while Edgar from King Lear and Prospero from The Tempest both survive being betrayed by their brothers, the basic situation is similar to what Hamlet’s father suffered.
One final thing I want to mention is Ophelia, and that’s where I suspect I’ll have the most criticism of this play. Shakespeare lived and wrote in a different time, when women’s role in society was very different than it is now. It’s important to understand that, and yet, as a 21st century woman, I can’t help but be offended by a woman’s male relatives trying to dictate her life choices. If Hamlet is pursuing Ophelia, shouldn’t it be up to her how to react? Shouldn’t her father and brother be giving her advice rather than orders? They seem to view her as having no ability to make decisions on her own, which probably is how women were viewed at the time. But it’s jarring compared to modern life, or even compared to many of Shakespeare’s comedies, where the women tend to have more agency.