November 16, 2021

#08-153: Hamlet

Horatio, Hamlet, and the ghost

Note: Considered by many to be Shakespeare's greatest work, Hamlet tells the story of a "modern man" who is unable to choose his best path forward--he was lost, like many people today.

Get Ready: If the ghost of someone you trusted appeared to you and told you what to do, would you do it?

"To be, or not to be, that is the question."

This brief statement--perhaps the most famous in English literature--encapsulates the dilemma faced by the title character in one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, Hamlet. Should we go on living in this difficult world, Hamlet wonders, or let go of life?

Early in the play, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears and urges his son to avenge his death, declaring that Hamlet's uncle Claudius--now king, and married to Hamlet's mother Gertrude--murdered him!

Hamlet's indecision in response to this call is one of the earliest modern examples of the antihero: a protagonist who lacks the qualities we usually associate with heroes. Hamlet lacks courage.

Throughout the play, Hamlet's misguided actions lead to dire consequences. Thinking it is Claudius who is spying on him, Hamlet stabs someone behind a tapestry. But the spy is Polonius, a kind of counselor, and the father of Hamlet's friend Laertes and girlfriend Ophelia. Ophelia goes insane after her father's death and commits suicide by drowning.

Laertes fences with Hamlet to avenge the deaths of his father and sister, and, following a plan by Claudius, stabs him with a poisoned sword. Watching the fencing match, Gertrude toasts her son with a goblet of poisoned wine that was meant for Hamlet: Claudius's backup plan. Hamlet gets his hands on Laertes's poisoned sword and stabs him in turn. Laertes tells him of Claudius's plot and dies.

Hamlet, acting too late, stabs Claudius and makes him drink poison in turn. After asking his friend Horatio to live on and tell his tale, Hamlet dies at last with the final words, "The rest is silence."

Along the way, Hamlet delivers some of the greatest speeches in literature. Reflecting pessimistically on the human condition, he exclaims sarcastically, "What a piece of work is a man!" When he sets a trap for Claudius, using a passing troupe of players to draw him out, he says, "the play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." And in a graveyard, while holding the skull of the late court jester, he reflects on human mortality, saying in part, "Alas, poor Yorick!... Where be your gibes now?"

Thoughts and words like these make the play worth reading (or watching!) again and again.


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. conscience
  2. dilemma
  3. encapsulates
  4. gibes
  5. goblet
  6. jester
  7. mortality
  8. skull
  9. tapestry
  10. wherein

  1. a kind of clown
  2. impermanence; ability to die
  3. head bones
  4. jokes; sarcastic remarks
  5. sense of right and wrong
  6. in which
  7. a difficult choice
  8. a fancy cup
  9. captures; summarizes
  10. a decorative wall hanging

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 16, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. e; 2. g; 3. i; 4. d; 5. h; 6. a; 7. b; 8. c; 9. j; 10. f