What to Do About Hamlet
Hamlet is scary.
How in the world can I write about this play, this incomparable giant in the world of English literature? What can I write that others more knowledgeable and scholarly haven’t already analyzed inside and out? Googling Hamlet, I get 54 million hits. Googling “analyzing Hamlet”, half a million hits come up. I’ll get lost in the jungle!
How can I possibly approach the immensity of Hamlet’s cynicism, pain, bitterness, and enthrallment with death? How can I delve into the depths of the characters of Ophelia or Gertrude or Claudius?
I already have a relationship with Hamlet of course. Anyone growing up in an English speaking world can recite half the play by heart without knowing it, simply by saying the hundreds of quotes that have become everyday expressions: Neither a borrower nor a lender be; to thine own self be true; something is rotten in the state of Denmark; the time is out of joint; what a piece of work is man; to be or not to be; to sleep, perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub; get thee to a nunnery; the lady protests too much, methinks; I must be cruel only to be kind; alas, poor Yorrick. I know him, Horatio; the readiness is all; the rest is silence; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead; of death put on by cunning…etc. etc. Whole books have been written about the “To be or not to be” soliloquy alone!
I have read the play in its entirety at least twice, once in Swedish. I have seen Branagh’s film five or six times and at least as many other versions once or twice.
So my awe in facing the monumental force of Hamlet is not for lack of familiarity. On the contrary. That is one of the problems. I’m all too aware of the enormity of the play. I can’t even say, “OK, I’ll just write about my first spontaneous reactions” because they were many readings/viewings ago.
But come on! It’s just a play! It won’t bite! Just choose one of the five million aspects of the play that are fascinating and write about it! Never mind that everyone else has already written about it – it will be Ruby’s take on it and therefore relevant enough.
Hamlet is like the universe. It can absorb whatever is thrown at it. It can survive whatever nonsense or profundity is offered.
So just do it. Come on, it won’t hurt. Well, yes it will, but it will feel good when it’s done.
There. Hamlet, here I come.
I’m…ready for you.