I decided to start on a bucket list item, which is to read everything by the great William Shakespeare. This includes re-reading plays that I have read before. It’s therefore fitting that I start with Hamlet, arguably the greatest play ever written. Although I have read it more times than I can remember, I knew I would gain new insights from another close reading.
The play is so rich that one could write volumes analyzing the text and the nuances. So, rather than trying to write a summary of the entire play, I decided to share my thoughts on Hamlet’s first soliloquy, and also the play’s ending. Here is the first soliloquy, which appears in Act I, Scene ii.
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month–
Let me not think on’t–Frailty, thy name is woman!–
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:–why she, even she–
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.
What I find fascinating about this passage is the amount of foreshadowing that takes place. Obviously, there is the existential questioning of whether life is worth living, which is revisited in the more well-known “To be or not to be” section. But the question of suicide is also tackled during the burial of Ophelia, where the fact that she may have been responsible for her own death results in the denial of certain burial rites.
Another really interesting bit of foreshadowing appears in the second line with the words “a dew,” which spoken sound like “adieu.” The word “adieu” appears often throughout the rest of the text, and always at key points. Here are a couple of examples. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father takes its leave, it uses the word three times: “Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me.” As Hamlet is dying, he speaks: “I am dead, Horatio. Wretched Queen, adieu.” And there are other examples. I encourage you to pay attention to this the next time you read the play.
At the end of the soliloquy, Hamlet mentions that he must hold his tongue, or in other words, hide his thoughts. He then makes Horatio and Marcellus swear an oath of silence regarding the encounter with the ghost on the platform. Hamlet continues holding his tongue as he feigns insanity to hide his thoughts.
Finally, I want to talk about the play’s ending. I had never noticed until this reading, but it seems to me that the ending suggests a circle, a return to the beginning of the play. Horatio states: “But let this same be presently performed/ Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance/ On plots and errors happen.” Fortinbras then responds: “Let four captains/ Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage.” It is like the play is asking to be performed again, in an eternal loop, over and over. Hamlet then becomes a play within a play, within a play, and on and on, for all eternity. As I sit here now, I feel that this may be the most brilliant ending ever constructed.
I could certainly write more about this masterpiece, but I will stop and encourage you to read it again. Please feel free to share your thoughts. Thanks, and keep reading!!
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