Hamlet: A Populist Tragedy

The next reading in the Great Books is the “Tragedy of Hamlet,” by William Shakespeare.

I read a Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Hamlet, which has notes on facing pages of the play’s text. It is likely not what the creators of the Great Books set would like, since they were focused on reader response. That said, the Folger editions are a great way to read Shakespeare because they can help with the language questions.

In reading it again, I think that Hamlet is a populist tragedy. Many of the people killed in the play are not aware of what is happening. Hamlet and Claudius mislead people and they die for it.

Take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s friends. They are brought in with the idea that they are helping their friend. Claudius tricks them into taking Hamlet to England where Hamlet is supposed to be executed. Hamlet finds the sealed letter and rewrites it so that it is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are executed. But they have been duped from the beginning. There is no evidence that they knew about the plot of Gertrude and Claudius to take the throne. They certainly would not have ever opened a letter from a king, so how could they know?

Tom Stoppard wrote a play that was also turned into a movie called “Rosencrantz and  Guildenstern are Dead.” On of the critical lines is “We were sent for.” The play in many ways is about a deterministic universe. The movie contains this line, which I think is important for us all:
“There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no. Somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time. ”

If you read Hamlet you should find this play and watch the movie.

Also, let’s take the case of Polonius, whom Hamlet murders. He also did not know what was going on, and was looking after his kid. With his moral compass, he is not likely to support the murder of the king. He gives the oft-quoted, blowhard speech in Act 1, Scene 3, which includes “to thine own self be true,” which is oft quoted in context of following your dreams. But this is misquoted.

Considering Polonius’s full quote, this really means “don’t lie to yourself,” which is good advice.

“This above all: to thin own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

There is also the famous quote: “Get thee to a nunnery,” in Act 3, Scene 1. In high school, we all liked to tell each other that “nunnery” meant a brothel in the parlance of the time.

But here again, I think we are misreading the play.

“Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…”

Then he tells Ophelia that even if she does marry that she will not escape calumny even if chaste, so it would be better to go to a nunnery. It is about being chaste and escaping everything that they are going through in Hamlet’s family.

Is ‘Hamlet’ the tragedy of suckers? Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes all end up dead because of Hamlet and his indecision. In Act 4, Hamlet refers to Rosencrantz as an apple int he mouth of an ape. Is that a warning? Is there are point, as Stoppard suggests, where they could have said no and avoided all of this? The play is full of some many critical points, where a different decision would have changed the lives of so many people. Do we face these same decision points? Do we know when we do? Maybe the point of Hamlet is really “to thine own self be true” — don’t lie to ourselves about what our decisions might mean.



3 thoughts on “Hamlet: A Populist Tragedy

  1. i think it was seeing the rosencrantz and guildenstern play that opened my eyes but also seeing the umpteenth adaptation of hamlet and myself being able to admit that he is colossally misjudging things. he is a complete dick when it comes to ophelia.

    not sure what you mean by ‘populist’.

    • I can’t disagree with you on Hamlet’s behavior towards Ophelia, but really, I think he was the same to just about everyone.

      I guess by ‘populist’ I mean that you have a prince and a king running around doing things, and the rest of the world gets caught up in it. I read it this time from the view of the rest of the world rather than focusing on just the Hamlet and Claudius conflict. Thanks, Tom Stoppard!

      • thanks stoppard indeed! his play really gives you a keen sense of how absurd the whole setup is.

        i think when i was a teenager i totally and utterly identified with him and it was interesting growing older to learn that this is not true any longer. it doesn’t happen that much.

        i quite like how in these stories you have the personal and the political be so very closely related. it isn’t just his mum being with his uncle, she’s the queen and there has been some usurping going on. but it’s true, everyone gets caught up in it quite spectacularly. it’s a useful exercise to change the point of view. i think the play is very obsessed with hamlet’s pov, nobody else has so much time and soliloquising to do.

        my favourite thing about the ethan hawke hamlet that was released some time in the nineties, was the idea that horatio had some kind of life outside of his service to hamlet. i remember we though he had a girlfriend :p

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