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  • "Who's there?"

  • Whispered in the dark, this question begins a tale of conspiracy, deception, and moral ambiguity.

  • And in a play where everyone has something to hide, its answer is far from simple.

  • Written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1601, "Hamlet" depicts its titular character haunted by the past, but immobilized by the future.

  • Mere months after the sudden death of his father, Hamlet returns from school, a stranger to his own home,

  • and deeply unsure of what might be lurking in the shadows.

  • But his brooding takes a turn when he's visited by a ghost that bears his father's face.

  • The phantom claims to be the victim of a "murder most foul," and convinces Hamlet that his uncle Claudius usurped the throne and stole queen Gertrude's heart.

  • The prince's mourning turns to rage, and he begins to plot his revenge on the new king and his court of conspirators.

  • The play is an odd sort of tragedy, lacking either the abrupt brutality or all-consuming romance that characterize Shakespeare's other work in the genre.

  • Instead, it plumbs the depths of its protagonist's indecisiveness and the tragic consequences thereof.

  • The ghost's revelation draws Hamlet into multiple dilemmaswhat should he do, who can he trust, and what role might he play in the course of justice?

  • These questions are complicated by a tangled web of characters, forcing Hamlet to negotiate friends, family, court counselors, and love interests, many of whom possess ulterior motives.

  • The prince constantly delays and dithers over how to relate to others and how he should carry out revenge.

  • This can make Hamlet more than a little exasperating, but it also makes him one of the most human characters Shakespeare ever created.

  • Rather than rushing into things, Hamlet becomes consumed with the awful machinations of thinking itself.

  • And over the course of the play, his endless questions come to echo throughout our own racing minds.

  • To accomplish this, Shakespeare employs his most introspective language.

  • From the usurping king's blazing contemplation of heaven and hell, to the prince's own cackling meditation on mortality, Shakespeare uses melancholic monologues to breathtaking effect.

  • This is perhaps best exemplified in Hamlet's most famous declaration of angst.

  • To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them?

  • This monologue personifies Hamlet's existential dilemma: being torn between thought and action, unable to choose between life and death.

  • But his endless questioning raises yet another anxiety:

  • Is Hamlet's madness part of a performance to confuse his enemies, or are we watching a character on the brink of insanity?

  • These questions weigh heavily on Hamlet's interactions with every character.

  • And since he spends much of the play facing inward, he often fails to see the destruction left in his wake.

  • He's particularly cruel to Ophelia, his doomed love interest who is brought to madness by the prince's erratic behavior.

  • Her fate is one example of how tragedy could have been easily avoided, and shows the ripple effect of Hamlet's toxic mind games.

  • Similar warning signs of tragedy are constantly overlooked throughout the play.

  • Sometimes, these oversights occur because of willful blindness, such as when Ophelia's father dismisses Hamlet's alarming actions as mere lovesickness.

  • At other points, tragedy stems from deliberate duplicity, as when a case of mistaken identity leads to yet more bloodshed.

  • These moments leave us with the uncomfortable knowledge that tragedy evolves from human error

  • even if our mistake is to leave things undecided.

  • For all these reasons, perhaps the one thing we never doubt is Hamlet's humanity.

  • But we must constantly grapple with who the "real" Hamlet might be.

  • Is he a noble son avenging his father?

  • Or a mad prince creating courtly chaos?

  • Should he act or observe, doubt or trust?

  • Who is he?

  • Why is he here?

  • And who's out there, waiting in the dark?

  • Here's a question for you: Do you prefer Shakespeare's comedies or his tragedies?

  • Register your vote by clicking one of these videos.

"Who's there?"

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Why should you read "Hamlet" ?

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    Liang Chen posted on 2019/07/16
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