Tuesday, June 8, 2010

HAMLET by William Shakespeare

Okay, so this isn't strictly a book.

It's a play, meant to be enjoyed on stage, but I personally believe there is no harm in appreciating the beauty of the written word and let your imagination do the rest of the work.

I first knew about Hamlet in MRSM Muadzam Shah. I was a socially awkward kid and socially awkward kids go to the library. It's been that way for centuries. Anyway, there was this collection of illustrated books on famous stories and I remember reading one on a very moody prince who is upset about the fact that his mum married his uncle very soon after his dad died. Or something. I can't remember. The illustration wasn't that great.

So when I was properly introduced to Shakespeare in Form 4 (doing Sonnet 18), I remembered vaguely the story of the young prince and was really disturbed that I couldn't remember what happened to Hamlet at the end of the story. So I borrowed a Penguin copy of Hamlet (abridged, of course, haha..) and read it. This time I was really moved by the poignancy of the story, partly because I could relate to his feelings. I'm not referring to the father-died-and-then-mum-married-uncle thing. It's just the general sense of frustration at everything that goes wrong in the world and being in a situation that forces you to make decisions in light of that frustration. In short, it's a story for young people who are confused. Take away all that fancy language and the Shakespeare phobia and you're left with a story as sad and beautiful as life.

The reader first finds himself , not at the funeral of Hamlet Sr, who just died of suspicious circumstances (But is appears nobody thought foul play was involved), but instead at a royal wedding. Traditionally, Hamlet Jr would be king after the death of Hamlet Sr, but OMG! He came back from boarding school to find his uncle, Claudius, had married his mum and was appointed king. Double sorrow. No, make that triple because he couldn't believe that his mum had forgotten his dad so soon and married Claudius. We're talking two months after the death. And the marriage was as big as any royal event. It is ugly.

And then, with the help of his best friend Horatio, Hamlet came across the ghost of his dead father who told him that he had been murdered by Claudius, the uncle. So now, Hamlet has to decide whether or not the ghost was telling the truth (Because ghosts can lie, you know) before deciding whether or not to avenge his father.

(L to R) Hamlet and Horation in the film
version starring Kenneth Branagh 1996

Now, my favourite part is when Hamlet is contemplating his own mortality. The famous "to be or not to be" speech is basically a soliloquy (a speech by a character not addressed to anyone) that raises Hamlet's fear of death. Death is an unknown territory because to him, nobody has ever come back from death to tell him what exactly happens after life. So he's scared of the fact that he does not know what lies after. And he's increasingly frustrated by his inability to avenge his father. On top of that, he is pained by the fact that nobody seems to remember his dead father anymore. Everyone seems to be praising and flattering the new king, and nobody is mourning apart from Hamlet himself. Dead and forgotten. The tragic fact about mortality.

So we follow Hamlet as he tries to find himself amidst the question of mortality and what it means to live. Hamlet is a good person. He believes in undying love (which is why he was hurt by his mother's change of heart), he believes in justice (he wants to avenge his father's murder), and he believes in morality, especially when it comes to trust between friends. This story is about a young man's journey to keep his moral righteousness while trying to seek justice. And the sad part is, he lost the battle. Somewhere along the line, his quest for justice became an act of revenge. And in doing that, he sacrificed more than just his own morality; he sacrificed the very thing that makes him human: Love.

But even through all that, I think Hamlet did learn something good. There is a quote near the end of the play where Hamlet stops worrying about what would happen if he died. "Let be", he said. This reliance on the higher power ("the special providence")that decides people's destiny is sometimes the only thing we need to have courage to do what we're meant to do.

There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.
Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is't
to leave betimes, let be.

A great story. I highly recommend this to people who take pleasure in good stories and even better language. The poetry blows me away. If you think you're not up to reading Shakespearean English just yet, don't worry. Penguin abridged versions are readily available everywhere. Perhaps in some time, you will on move on to the real thing and enjoy the beauty in its entirety. Happy reading! =)