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To be or not to be: Understanding Hamlet

August 31, 2021

Volumes have been written on the “meaning” of Hamlet (the play) by more qualified people than me. I do not seek to compete with them. What follows is my perception of Hamlet, a sketch so if you will, from a modern day perspective.

Hamlet is a complex character. I have strived to deduce Hamlet strictly from the source text and not get influenced by writings elsewhere because I feel external analysis somehow shrouds (glorifies or diminishs, whichever) the essence of what Shakespeare intended. I also acknowledge there are passages and portions that are still unclear to me. I take them as deficiencies on my part and the excellence of the play.

Act 1, Scene 2

Seems,madam! nay it is; I know not “seems.”
’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.


Seems? No, it is. I do not know how to “seem”.
It is not my inky coat, mother,
nor the conventional black suits,
nor the forceful restrained/artificial sighs,
nor the copious tears in my eyes,
nor the frowning on my face,
together with all forms, moods and shapes of grief
that can truly represent my sadness. These may seem
like actions that man may act upon,
But I feel and that feeling surpasses show
of these frowning and crying and black suits.

Hamlet’s first speech in the play in response to her mother who suggests that his father’s demise shouldn’t affect him in such grave manners. Multiple facets of Hamlet can be deduced from this text itself. The first striking observation that a reader will make (in retrospect to the characters so far) is his superior choice of words, usage of similies and eloquence in speech all indicating an educated, civilized mind, and a modest upbringing. He sharply criticises his mother for asking him to “move on” which suggest an authoritative, disciplined prince capable of experiencing deep emotions and who mourns his father’s death with sincere remorse.

Act 1, Scene 4

…This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and taxed of other nations.
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition, and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though performed at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute…

…This heavy-headed (drunken) revelry everywhere
Makes Denmark slandered/looked down upon by other nations
They call us drunkards, with gross/coarse phrases.
Malign our titles, and injures
our achievements, though accomplished at the highest level,
which are an essential and vital part of our reputation…

Hamlet’s uncle, the present King of Denmark, is having a debaucherous party. Hamlet’s personality befitting a king shines through before his coronation. He is concerned about the reputation of Denmark in the eyes of other nations and how they perceive his kingdom. He succintly criticises his uncle and doesn’t mince words in pointing out the malicious at a time when aristocracy was generally wary of their opinions and words.

Act 1, Scene 5

…And so, without more circumstance at all,
I hold it fit that we shake hands and part,
You, as your business and desire shall point you;
For every man has business and desire,
Such as it is, and for mine own poor part,
Look you, I’ll go pray.

…And so, without any further detail at all,
I think it is suitable that we shake hands and part,
You, as your business and desire shall guide you;
For every man has business and desire,
Such as it is, and for mine own humble part,
Look at me, I’ll go and pray.

This is a crucial point in the play where Hamlet has just conversed with the Ghost (the spirit of his slain father) who has revealed to him the serpentine nature of his uncle and asked him to revenge the scandal. Upon a lot of insistence and request from his friends, even his trusty Horatio, he doesn’t reveal to them anything. Hamlet’s prudence and diplomacy is highlighted. He is not swayed by excitement or passion. He has taken the task by heart and won’t take any chances that might culminate in its collapse.

Act 2, Scene 2

This is a long scene and a lot of different plots progresses through it.

  1. Hamlet is eloquent and learned. Excellent memory. Recited the play speech (Slaying of Pyrrhus by Priam and the reaction of his wife Hecuba) almost impromptu by heart and with good deliverance as remarked by Polonius who was standing nearby. The speech is skipped as it will bloat this essay.

  2. Am I a coward?

First instance when Hamlet is doubtful of his passion to pursue his vengeance. It is not surprising that a slew of modern phrases in English draws from Shakespeare. His words succintly flows from the instinctive thoughts of man.

  1. The devil hath power T’ assume a pleasing shape…

Hamlet is analytical and thoughtful. He judges a situation from every aspect. He is cunning enough to setup experiments to test his postulates and wants to ascertain the guilt of his uncle before seeking revenge. He is aware that the devil might assume a pleasing shape (for instance, the ghost of his father) and exploit his youthful passion to make him commit a sin and hence damn him.

Act 3, Scene 1

“…That if you be fair and honest, your honesty shall admit no discourse to your beauty.”

Is Hamlet talking abour fidelity and adultery? I am in the dark in these lines.

This scene is home to perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare’s phrases. Yet, I believe the brilliance lies in the speech in its entirety which is paraphrased here for better understanding.

Hamlet To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ’Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep –
To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause.There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life –
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despisèd love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of ?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Hamlet To exist or not to exist: that is the question.
Whether it is befitting to the mind to suffer/endure
The challenges and hurdles of outrageous fortune/life,
Or to revolt against the sea of troubles,
And end them by opposing them? To die, to sleep no more (the mortal sleep),
and say adieu to the heart ache and the thousand natural shocks
that mortal flesh is entitled to by sleeping forever. It is an end
to be wished for devoutly. To die, to sleep –
To sleep, perhaps to dream: ah, but there’s the conflict,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have gotten rid of this mortal tangle of obligations
It must give us rest. That is the matter/point
That makes a disaster of such a long life –
For who would bear the pain and insults of time,
The oppression of the oppressor, the arrogant man’s abuse,
The pain of hated love, the delay in seeking justice,
The contemptous speech of officeholders, and the rejections
That the patient ordinary person endures,
When he can discharge himself from the debt of life
With a bare dagger? Who would bear burdens of sorrow,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But the dread of that something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose borders
No traveller returns, confuses the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we do not know about?
Thus our consciousness/awareness of moral obligations makes cowards of us all,
And thus the original passion of resolution
Is painted with the pale gray of considerations,
And initiatives of great height and weight
With this regard have their objectives muddled/perverted
And thus lose the effectiveness of action/being acted upon…

Act 3, Scene 2

Ophelia Tis brief, my lord.
Hamlet As woman’s love.

Quick witted and a presence of mind. Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter and the play’s heroine, is describing the short preamble to the play being enacted for the King (Yes, a play within a play).

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you
make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to
know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my
mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to
the top of my compass – and there is much music,
excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it
speak. ’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than
a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can
fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

Here, Hamlet is criticizing his friend Rosencrantz for secretly conspiring with the King to spy upon him and extract from him the true nature of his “madness”. Hamlet is prompt in pointing out what people are trying to do. He can handle confrontations well when the need arises. He isn’t easily manipulated.

Act 4, Scene 3

Not where he eats,but where ’a is eaten. A certain
convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm
is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat
us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your
lean beggar is but variable service – two dishes, but to one table.
That’s the end.

He (Polonius) is not where he eats, but is where he is being eaten.
An assembly of diplomatic worms
are feeding on him now. The worm
is the emperor of all diets. We fatten all creatures to eat them, but we fatten ourselves for the maggots. Your volumptous king and the skinny beggar are only a variation in the courses served (to the worms) – two dishes at the same earth/grave.
That’s the end.

Well spoken. And then immediately,

“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”

A man may fish with a worm that has fed on a king and then eat of the fish that was caught by the worm.

In essence, how a common man can eat the king.

Act 5, Scene 1

This is a very interesting and tense scene. The different subplots have developed to a climax and are yearning to be resolved. Perhaps the most dramatic is Laertes’ hatred towards Hamlet for the death of Polonius and his sister. He fearlessly proclaims, “The devil take thy soul!”. The first half of the scene has many interesting monologues by Hamlet emphasising on the transitory nature of life and privileges. For example:

Hamlet To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bing-hole?

Hamlet To what degraded use we may return, Horatio! Why may not thoughts trace the ash of Alexander from its grave to stopping the bottle of liquor (that is, become a cork)?

The ash is washed into the soil, that soil is used to make loam and eventually corks which sit on top of liquor bottles. To think so critically and speak so liberally does require a confident and thoughtful mind. This part is littered by Hamlet justifying the meaninglessness of property, fame and worldly possessions for after all, everyone has to inevitably return to the same dirt.

Laertes is a figure in himself to be reckoned with. I have only been quoting Hamlet so for a change,

Laertes Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead
Till of this flat a mountain you have made
To o’ertop old Pelion or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.

Laertes, Polonius’ son, is overcome with extreme grief at his sister’s death (probably a suicide as may be inferred from the discussion on her method and ceremony of burial). The Olympians were said to live on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain unreachable by mortals. Often, the giants tried to reach and overthrow it by stacking mountains on top of others. Pelion was one such mountain stacked on Mount Ossa. This is quite a striking manner of expressing sadness and hints at the learned, chivalric nature of Laertes.

Thoughtful dialogues

  1. Hamlet …For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

  2. Player King (to Player Queen) What to ourselves in passion we propose,
    The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.
    Player King (to Player Queen) What we claim/propose in moments of ecstasy/passion, Loses its potency when that moment of passion recedes.

  3. Player King This world is not for aye, nor ’tis not strange
    That even our loves should with our fortunes change,
    For ’tis a question left us yet to prove,
    Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love.
    Player King This world/the condition that prevails is not forever and it is not strange
    If we change our lovers with our fortunes,
    For it is a question still unproven,
    Whether love guides fortune, or fortune leads love.

In essence asking: Is love a morality or an economic convenience?

  1. Ophelia …we know what we are, but know not what we may be.

  2. Hamlet …The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.
    Hamlet …Those who work little and know little about hardship (the aristocracy) have much delicate feelings/interpretations of life.

How relevant is Hamlet today?

And a more practical question, should you read Hamlet today? Yes, by all means. The hype and reverance that enshrouds Hamlet is justified. Being one of the most significant plays by argubly the greatest playwright in English literature, it justifies its position with its brilliance. The language, the symbolism, the metaphors, analogies are potent, coherent and dramatic.

Hamlet, the prince, who we started out to understand, is without doubt a prominent and poignant Shakespearean prince. He is learned and thoughtful. Analytical, witty and cunning, he understands diplomacy and social interactions well. But to clarify, I think Hamlet is flawed too. He did hesitate and waver when he could have easily revenged his father’s death. He was in a constant conflict with his conscience and the people without. His brilliance shines in handling them well, both within and without but he lost sight of his objective and became something else. He couldn’t confess his love for Ophelia when she was alive and only naively did so at her funeral. He is a hero and an antihero at the same time.

Basil | @itbwtsh

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