Understanding Hamlet

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet
Overlooked and Underappreciated

Recently I watched Kenneth Branagh’s epic film version of Hamlet again, and was once again struck by both its scope and intimacy — like the play itself. It served again as a reminder that it is, without a doubt, the definitive film version of the play. Indeed, so far as I’m concerned, it’s the only one worth watching.

But it also reminded me of the fact that so many people just don’t truly understand Hamlet. It’s the fault of all of the pseudo-intellectual teachers that instructed us improperly because they didn’t know anything outside the teacher’s edition of the textbook. Screw context, time period or the fact that the language itself was in flux at the time, latter–century sensibilities work perfectly for interpreting text from the Renaissance.

Alternatively you may have been guided by the drill instructor teacher who was so focused on grinding the language into you that you lost sight of the fact that plays are meant to be spoken and acted, not read. They didn’t even clue you in to the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were extremely guilty of the sins of neologism. It was only as they filtered through time that they became pieces of our language.

Learning Shakespeare

I was fortunate to receive instruction from two guys who blew that stuff away.

I don’t even remember the first guy’s name. I just remember that he looked like Ronald Reagan with thick glasses. Which was a big plus and probably why I paid attention to him every class. In fact, during the worst semester I ever had in college, his class was the one bright shining star that lit the burning desire to learn. I can honestly say that thanks to him, I will always love Shakespeare’s plays on a deep, fundamental level that I think anyone who didn’t have him as a teacher missed.

The teacher whose name I do remember, Michael Olmert, was like a knowledge bomb. He taught a 400-level Shakespeare class and was ridiculously funny, witty and smart. One of those guys who actually knew his stuff and didn’t dodge students with “it depends” BS. He also gave me an “A” on a paper I wrote comparing Luke Skywalker and Hamlet. Of course, it was an awesome paper. A buddy of mine at the time told me I should develop it into an American Studies thesis. Someday.

There was also a fairly attractive college teacher with whom I flirted mercilessly. Strangely, I did well in that class. I also tried to go on a date with a girl in that class, and it ended very poorly. Very, very poorly. Didn’t stop me from calling three times trying to get a second date. Because I had so much to offer. Hair that was starting to thin, a weight problem and a smoker? How could she resist that?

Actually, it’s one of the most sadly embarrassing dates on which I ever went. Ugh. Thanks for letting me relive that.


He existed. No matter how many class-based arguments are made that a 'common man' couldn't have written anything so good, ask yourself: are you so dismissive of the common man? Especially one who, in the context of the times, actually abused the language?

There are plenty of resources out there for you to discover the necessary elements of a “successful” tragedy, but if you remember nothing else, remember always to think of context. Unlike the burned-out-at-twenty dope in my English 235 class, 9:45 a.m., Hornbake Library building, who insisted that the ghost of Hamlet’s father was a fake, a secret agent from Fortinbras sent to topple the kingdom through subterfuge, remember context.

Somewhere beneath the THC cloud that trailed this guy like Pig-Pen, was a functional human brain at the time. One that could have appreciated the fact that if the ghost of Hamlet’s father isn’t real, then there’s no point to the play.

This is because for Shakespeare, there was no such thing as subtext in his plays. If there were, his characters wouldn’t have the habit of telling the audience their innermost thoughts. You know, like when Richard III tells the audience that he’s a terrible person who’s condemning himself to death and damnation through his own actions, but he’s going to enjoy the ride while it lasts. Or when Hamlet tells the audience, “I’m pretending to be mad.”

Shakespeare wasn’t writing Sherlock Holmes. He was playing by the rules, it was the language he was abusing. It’s not his fault he reshaped the lexicon. He didn’t mean to, he was just trying to shoehorn his way through the necessary meter. Ask anyone who’s ever written a poem; sometimes you make stuff up to get out of a jam.

And for all the conspiracy theorists that claim Shakespeare didn’t really exist…you’ve got a movie coming out next year dealing with that directed by Roland Emmerich. So, by default, you’ve lost the argument for the rest of time by virtue of his taking up your cause. Thanks for playing. Your parting gift is a nice big plate of your elitist garbage with a side of Shut Up.

Flexible Meanings

If there’s one thing on which I’ll always harp, it’s this: definitions of words change. Sometimes drastically. Just look at this word and see what I mean.

When Hamlet says,

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

He’s referring to science. That’s what he means. He’s telling Horatio, who doubts the ghost’s reality, that science can’t account for everything. Which makes sense, because he’s talking about a ghost.

One More Thing

Polonius is Killed
"I am Slain!"

There was a little comedy called I Hate Hamlet. It led the charge in pushing the notion that Hamlet is really a confused, sexually overcharged kid with a bad handle on his emotions.

While he may have trouble controlling his temper, Hamlet is not confused so much as too self-aware. In line with the philosophy of the day (“Wheel of Fortune”), what went around came around.

This is why Hamlet is so slow to act; the ghost may be a devil trying to trick him into damning himself since killing is a sin. He is slow to move not because of depression, but because he’s aware that his own anger at the world and his mother will result in him getting tricked into condemning himself to Hell, and is terrified of what happens to him once he kills.

Notice how, when he kills Polonius, he’s suddenly a man of action? Exactly.

Final Thought

I read Shakespeare to the kids in the womb, and they’ve both developed awesome language skills. I really think that the move away from Shakespeare has been a terrible thing. His works used to be universally acknowledged and respected in ordinary conversation and popular culture. Heck, Star Trek II and Star Trek VI seem to have cribbed at least half their lines from Shakespeare (and some other classics). Now we watch movies that crib their lines from them instead, and so we’re getting more derivative each day.

I say, let’s get back to the source. Let’s make it awesome again. Let’s make sure that our kids are getting solid, regular exposure to Shakespeare before he’s lost for good. I know mine will.


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