At uni at the moment I am studying Hamlet. This week I had the exciting epiphany of understanding what Shakespeare was writing about when Hamlet starts with the words:
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: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to?
Prior to Shakespeare, the classics followed a narrative that explored the concept of fate. Think of the plot Oedipus Rex in which characters trying to escape their own fate, end up sealing it. The theme of fate being inescapable, of traditional character roles being played out, all of that was shaken up by Shakespeare.
How is Hamlet different? Shakespeare was writing in a time where normal literary conventions were being questioned, and Shakespeare was an excellent questioner. That's why his works still endure today. Hamlet is a brilliant example of this. Sorry for spoilers if you haven't read the play. Hamlet is a grieving prince, named Hamlet after his father the King. He is visited by the ghost of his father who tells him that he, the King, was murdered. The murderer turns out to be the old King Hamlet's newly crowned brother, who totes married the queen within a few months of the old King being dead.
Needless to say, Hamlet is not okay with this. The ghost asks Hamlet to avenge him, and thus begins the uncanny and wild story of Hamlet Junior. Is the play then named after the father, or the son? This is a great question. I feel it is named after both, because it is meant to capture a certain duality. There is a lot about parallel lines and people as plot mirrors in the play. Hamlet doesn't follow the conventional path of revenge that the old ghost asks of him. I say old, because the ghost represents the past, and the old. This old way of life and the new are clashing and both pulling Hamlet in different directions. In his grief he seems to have become disenchanted with the petty pressures of the world around him. He struggles with playing along, madly spinning further and further out of control as he flicks from passionately vengeful to questioning life, fate, duty and everything in between.
That duality, that mirroring of people runs all the way through the play. Hamlet's much loved father has been murdered by a plot involving a much loved mother. Hamlet is torn between insanity from grief and fierce revenge but never settles on either role. He darts madly between the two. Beside him there is Ophelia, who's beloved father is murdered by a plot involving her much loved Hamlet. She steps fully into the role of grief driving her to insanity, and going beyond where Hamlet could not dare to go, by committing suicide.
Laertes takes on the other role that Hamlet is offered. His much loved father is killed by a much loved Hamlet, his sister is driven mad by grief. He readily takes up the mantle of vengeful son, which Hamlet has failed to do completely. Laertes and Ophelia serve as mirrors beside him, projecting what he could have been and showing what traditional role Hamlet should have played. Hamlet is tormented by this, flickering between the two, never fully forming, not bending to fate, unable to be forced into a role by fate like smoke can't be forced into a lunch box.
This inability to be lead by fate was a really critical concept at the time Hamlet was written. This was a time when the concept of self determination was taking hold. People were discussing the idea that they weren't born to fulfill roles because of fate, and that they could break away from that by their own choosing. Hamlet is also a really complex, multidimensional character. He isn't a simple as a vengeful son or a man driven mad by grief. He's grappling with larger concepts and embodying so many things at once. That's where the duality comes in again.
So when Hamlet starts asking those big question, 'to be, or not to be', what he's talking about is self determination. He's questioning the roles enforced on us by society, by fate, by history, by the trajectory of the present, by the people in our lives demanding responses. He's asking if the role he is playing should be Ophelia or Laertes, he's asking if the whole thing is just ridiculous and could someone please stop the bus because he needs to get off.
If this has inspired you to read Hamlet, please do! If you are more of a visual person, check out the magnificent 1996 film edition from Kenneth Branagh. Be warned though, it is one of the longest films in cinematic history, clocking in at just under 4 hours.
Sweater: Thrifted school jumper
Boots: somewhere in Oxford
Watch: Daniel Wellington
Locations: Clunes and Maryborough