Over the holidays, I started reading, one play at a time, the works of William Shakespeare, figuring that I ought to get around to reading what I was supposed to have read in high school and college … but, of course, didn’t. I started with Othello at Thanksgiving and finished Hamlet a few days ago. I obtained copies from Project Gutenberg, which on its website states, “Choose among free epub and Kindle eBooks, download them or read them online. You will find the world’s great literature here, with focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired. Thousands of volunteers digitized and diligently proofread the eBooks, for you to enjoy.”
I’ve seen Hamlet (and other plays) numerous times at The Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern and Oglethorpe University so I knew the storyline, and then there’s the iconic lines throughout the play that most have heard in other contexts. My past familiarity with Hamlet helped because early on in the play, Hamlet pretends to be mad (insane). And, later on, it can be plausibly argued that he ended up mad to some degree. As such, his lines can be difficult to interpret but skipping those sections also does not work as these sections provide much needed background for what happens later. Then, too Ophelia, Hamlet’s would-be fiancée and brother of Laertes, goes mad when Hamlet kills their father. Thus, I turned to some sources on the Internet for help. One is the old standby, Cliff Notes, with its character list and plot summaries. The best source however that I found for translation of difficult passages is LitCharts. The original language and then a modern translation is included.
Hamlet is the story of revenge gone most foul because in seeking to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet loses his crown and life, winds up losing Ophelia, killing her father when he believed it was his father’s murderer, losing his mother to poison at the hands of his father’s murderer though her death was intentional as the poison was meant for Hamlet and seeing Laertes (unintentionally) killed by his own hand and Denmark, taken over by Norway. It is a sad tale of unintended consequences when one seeks vengeance by their own hands, though there is a proviso here.
Readers must, as with most historical fiction and non-fiction, realize that what may not be lawful, or if lawful, acceptable, now, was then. As the king of Denmark committed regicide to gain the crown from his brother, Hamlet had almost nowhere to turn except to revenge … unless he sought the intervention of another country, such as Norway or England, which he did in the end to stop himself from being assassinated by the new king’s orders. Nowadays, as the January 6th events have shown, insurrection and like-minded violence is rightly shunned.