Hamlet – William Shakespeare: A Musing

Date finished: April 27th 2017

I’m not sure I’m allowed to “review” Shakespeare as such; my view of his work bears no weight upon his time-tested influence as one of the greatest writers of all time. Think of it more as me giving my opinion on it, regardless of whether it needs giving (and we all know it doesn’t).

“O God, I could be bound in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.”

I haven’t read Shakespeare since school, indeed, never read it for pleasure. I remember little other than the gist of Romeo and Juliet and the terrible movie version we were subjected to which, though valiant in its attempt to modernise the setting, felt like a cheap attempt to appeal to kids. I know The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream also came up at school, but they were handled so poorly and in such apathetic classes of mixed ability that I remember almost nothing about them.

The only positive experience I’ve had with Shakespeare was Joss Whedon’s film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, shot around his house with actor friends who gave a physicality to the performance that caused the archaic prose style to come alive. At that point I concluded that Shakespeare wasn’t marred by age, it was marred by people who couldn’t teach it. All any material needs is the right person to bring it to life although it was a tad surprising that it turned out the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, for me, that person.

“A little more than kin, a little less than kind.”

Since then I’ve wanted to return to Shakespeare on my own terms so I can enjoy it. I’ve just never got round to it. My reading of Hamlet isn’t a matter of finally getting round to it either, rather it was a necessary primer for an intended reading of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Still, there aren’t bad reasons to get into Shakespeare.

Reading it now, I get it. Some turns of phrase are difficult and require a couple of reads to understand the meaning of, but I largely understand the prose and what’s going on. I even got some of the jokes. One has to wonder whether Shakespeare is wasted on the young. What was the point of trying to teach a group of mixed ability children – some of whom struggled with basic reading skills – to appreciate five-hundred year-old English drama? Shakespeare is important, and should be held in the high regard that he is, but it’s also not taught in the right way. A certain breadth and depth of reading has to have taken place for a reader to understand it. It’s either that or vigorous tuition, which always threatens to suck the joy out of the reading experience.

“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”

Drama, too, is supposed to be acted. Reading Hamlet is all very well and good, but I can’t help but feel I’m missing a whole dimension that would be brought to life by a stage or television adaptation. Part of the problem in teaching Shakespeare in schools is that this dimension is missed or, even worse, filled in by modernised versions that attempt to trendily appeal to kids and the world they know. Kids can smell deception a mile off.

The narrower dimension offered by merely reading Hamlet is not without its charms, however. It’s a chance to enjoy Shakespeare’s gorgeous soliloquies and now famous turns of phrase. Half the time a well-known saying crops up you can be relatively sure that Shakespeare was the originator of it. Coming from a linguistics background, it was interesting to see the way Shakespeare rhymed, suggesting that some of his couplets used pre-Great Vowel Shift pronunciations, a linguistic process that was ongoing at the time he was writing.

“Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?”
“Why, because he was mad. He shall recover his wits there, or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.”
“Why?”
“‘Twill not be seen in him there. There the men are as mad as he.”

Additionally, it was informative to recognise Shakespeare’s influence on other writer’s I’ve enjoyed. Ian McEwan’s latest novel Nutshell paid homage to Hamlet, and it was interesting to note the similarities between the prose within in regard to Moby-Dick, Herman Melville having been strongly influenced by Shakespeare’s use of language. Once you can appreciate Shakespeare’s lasting impact on language and literature, it gives new and unique ways to enjoy his work.

So there we have it. I’m not going to pretend I have the authority or intelligence to review Shakespeare. Suffice to say, I believe that the way he’s forced upon children at school is a good way of convincing them that his work is boring, rubbish and weird. An appreciation of Shakespeare requires a body of literary knowledge and an experience in English drama. The people who appreciate Shakespeare straight away are few and far between. I now feel I’m at the point where I can begin to appreciate his work on its own merits, and I’m heartened by that and the pleasure in the future it will bring.

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