Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thoughts: Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Part 1)


This is what I said last week when my English Lit professor mentioned Hamlet: Shakespeare scares me. I’m not afraid to admit that I cower at the thought of reading the works of a guy who’s been dead for over five hundred years. It’s just that his plays are so hard to understand, not to mention booooooooooring…

This is me after reading Act I of Hamlet: Shakespeare is pretty cool, not to mention funny… as long as you actually understand what he’s saying.

Okay, let me backtrack a little.

I’m a Literature major (I’ve mentioned that so many times on this blog that you’re probably tired of hearing it). I’m about to graduate and the only Shakespeare I’ve read is King Lear, and I can’t remember a thing about it except that they all, you know, died in the end.

So, after seeing seeing Mel Gibson as Hamlet, I decided to remedy the situation by reading the original text. Luckily, I found an edition with a modern line-for-line translation at my favorite secondhand bookstore. I felt so smug, since I could finally understand what Hamlet was saying.

And guess what?

I love it. My favorite character so far is Polonius. There’s a part in Act I Scene III where Laertes, Polonius’s son, is leaving for France. Polonius gives him a load of advice, and every single word out of his mouth is like a gem that you have to treasure. Here’s a sample:
Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t th’opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
He’s telling Laertes to avoid getting into fights, but to make sure he wins if he does get himself in one. I think Polonius means something deeper, but I prefer to think of the above quote in that context. Dude (I can call you dude, right Polonius?), why is my father not like you? You’re too cool for words.

My favorite Polonius line, though, is almost a cliché these days:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
To thine own self be true! That’s like a non-cheesy way of telling someone to follow his heart. Someday, I’m going to put that on a gold plaque, and hang it over my door. The quote spoke to me on a completely different level. It echoed in my brain, and tattooed itself on my heart.

How can I be true to myself when I don’t even know who that is? In my Theology class two years ago, the teacher asked us to draw a symbol that represented our individual selves, and I was stumped. I had no idea what I was supposed to draw to represent “myself,” and I still don’t.

But I guess figuring out who I am or who I’m supposed to be is half the fun. From now on, I’m going to try to be true to myself as much as I can.

I look forward to reading Act II.

18 comments:

fatbooks.org said...

I'm curious to see if your opinion of Polonius changes as you keep reading - because doesn't he do a lot of backhanded and dishonorable things in "Hamlet"? It's been a while since I've read this, but I remember there being some point to all this (often cliched) advice he gives out to everyone - that he doesn't take his own advice, or live by the ideas he tells other people to live by. ie, he talks a lot about "honor" but the way he supports Cladius after he kills Hamlet's father shows pretty clearly that Polonius is as power-hungry & deceitful & dishonorable as anyone in this play. I've always kind of thought of Polonius as a windbag, so maybe it's time I reread "Hamlet" and see what I think of him now.

I'm glad you're enjoying Shakespeare. I've found those texts with some line or phrase translations are amazing for getting into him, it's nice to be able to read with the text on one page and some of the background information & translations on the other.

-- ellen

Kristi said...

Hamlet was the first Shakespeare that I read on my own, and I really enjoyed it. Afterward, I went to see a production, of it which was really great.

I hope you continue to enjoy it. Hamlet is one of my favorites.

Red said...

I'm glad you're learning to appreciate Shakespeare! I love the guy and Hamlet is the best one. Not necessarily my favorite but just amazing. And I agree that Shakespeare can be intimidating at first but having a "modern" translation helps you understand the story so you can appreciate the Bard's language.

If you end up liking Hamlet you should check out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard.

Jillian said...

I loved Hamlet, and was also surprised that I loved it!!

No Shakespeare and you're almost a graduate? Well, I'm glad I'm reading him on my own them. I was sure as a lit major, he'd be at the top of the assignment list...

I'm reading Shakespeares 154 sonnets right now. So beautiful.

Zibilee said...

I have seen many movie renditions of Hamlet but never actually read the play. The Bard seriously intimidates me. I am glad to hear that you are liking it though, and perhaps your reviews will give me the courage to try something new!

Emilee said...

Once you know how to read Shakespeare, he's quite enjoyable and humorous. Hamlet is one of my favorites (not very original, I know, but there's a reason it's one of the most well known Shakespeare plays).

Brad Jaeger said...

Polonius is a douche. Apart from that single scene where he offers good advice, he's nothing but a fool.

Sorry you had to see the Mel Gibson version. You should watch the Kenneth Branagh version. A little over acted, but it is the only Hamlet movie to date that has had every single line intact.

Avid Reader said...

I'm so glad you're loving it! I'm a Shakespeare fan, but Hamlet remains one of my all-time favorite plays or books by anyone. I do agree with Brad that the Kenneth Branagh version is divine.

Teacher/Learner said...

I'm so glad you're enjoying Hamlet as it's my favourite Shakespeare tragedy and quite possibly my favourite play of his. It's one of his more accessible plays. I'm surprised that you didn't encounter more Shakespeare in high school as most students study one of his plays every year.

Brenna said...

I was an English lit major as well and we were required - to my dismay - to take an entire semester of Shakespeare, reading one play a week. I can't remember if I took his first half or second half of plays, but in the end I was happy I got the chance to read so many because I knew I would never have done it on my own. My very favorite was The Taming of the Shrew.

Vicky said...

I have been a fan of Shakespeare since I read As You Like It in seventh grade. I am also a Literature major, and when my AP English teacher said we were going to read Hamlet, I rolled my eyes, because I thought Hamlet was seriously overrated. However, when I read it, I realized why it's one of SHakespeare's most popular works. It is beautiful and fun and I enjoyed studying. I read it 3 years ago, but it's still fresh on my mind, and I can't wait to read it again. Also, when it comes to a movie, watch the Kenneth Branagh version. It may be like five hours long, but it's worth it. Happy reading!

Allie said...

I'm glad you're enjoying Shakespeare! I love modern translations since they help me understand the play and language so much more.

I read Hamlet in high school, but I barely remember it. It is on my list, but I just haven't gotten to it yet. I remember really liking it!

llevinso said...

I've always loved Shakespeare and have posted about him a lot on my own blog. I think it helped that I was into theater when I was younger so I acted out many of his plays. It helped me understand the language and therefore he never intimidated me and I never found him the least bit dull.

Glad you're learning to like him :)

simplerpastimes said...

I forgot how much I enjoyed Shakespeare until I read The Tempest last summer. Once you can get past the initial understanding phase, his works are wonderful. And they are so packed with puns and jokes and wonderful phrases that they can be read again and again. Yay for getting past your initial preconceptions and enjoying Shakespeare!

alexandra george said...

Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare. sometimes I think he is my favourite character in classical fiction
I have an award for you at my blog here http://bookshelfstories.blogspot.com/2011/03/award.html
I really love your blog. have a wonderful day!

bibliophilica said...

I was a Shakespearephobe for the longest time too. What helped get me on board was (Isaac) Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare. It really helped me to understand the context of what was going on and also helped with all the - what would otherwise have been obscure - references.
-Jay

Trisha said...

Shakespeare and I are great friends, so I'm thrilled you are enjoying Hamlet.

Peggy said...

It's a common reaction once you get past the language barrier, to go--oh! Now I see what the big deal about Shakespeare is all about! One of my favorite things about Hamlet is all of the sayings we still use. (Even though Hamlet is a bit emo.)

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