Keely's Reviews > Hamlet

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
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Jun 03, 07

bookshelves: drama, reviewed, uk-and-ireland, read-more-than-once
Read in March, 2001

Shakespeare is an adept poet and master of the language. He layers on jokes, puns, and references everywhere. He has a massive output of work, and a number of different plots. When we compare him to other authors, it is difficult to find anyone who stacks up--but then, we're often comparing him to the wrong people.

Shakespeare didn't write books or pamphlets or epics, he wrote plays: short pieces of drama that were meant to be fast-paced and exciting. That they are mainly experienced today as bound books and not theatrical productions does not change their origins. If one wants to look at the achievements of Shakespeare, he should be compared to someone of a similar bent.

He should be compared with prolific writers known for catchy jokes and phrases. Writers who reuse old plots, making fun of their traditions. Writers of work meant to be performed. Writers who aim for the lowest common denominator, while still including the occasional high-minded political commentary. He should be compared to the writers of South Park; or the Simpsons; or MAD Magazine.

Shakespeare was meant to be lowbrow and political, but now it only reads that way to those who are well-educated enough to understand his language, reference, and the political scene of the time. If you do know the period lingo, then his plays are just as filthy as any episode of South Park.

For example, the word 'wit' refers to a fellow's manhood (this one comes up a lot), here's an example from Much Ado About Nothing:
Don Pedro: I said that thou hadst a great wit. Yay, said she, a great gross one. Nay, say I, a fine wit. Yay, said she, a fine little one. Nay, said I, a good wit. Just, said she, it hurts nobody.

Plus there's the title of that play, which references the fact that 'nothing' was slang for a woman's maidenhead, which occurs also in Hamlet:
Hamlet: That's a fair thought to lie between a maid's legs.
Ophelia: What is, my lord?
Hamlet: Nothing.

He was also not one to pass up a good cunt joke.

Shakespeare often refers to mythology because that was the standard pool of reference for authors at the time. Family Guy references 1980's pop culture. Is that any less esoteric? How esoteric will Mr. T be after 400 years (assuming he doesn't find his way into the latest testament of the bible anytime soon)?

Additionally, all of Shakespeare's magnificent plots were lifted, sometimes whole cloth, from other books and histories, just like how sit coms reuse 'episode types' or borrow plots from popular movies. Shakespeare was not quite as visionary or deep as he is often given credit for. Rather, he was always so indistinct with the motives and thoughts of his characters that two critics could assign two completely different and conflicting motives, but find both equally well-supported.

Is Shylock evil because he's a Jew, evil despite the fact, or evil because of the effects of racism on him? You can make a case for all three. Marlowe (the more practised and precise writer) never left interpretation to chance, and where has it gotten him?

Shakespeare was an inspired and prolific author, and his effect on writing and talent for aphorism cannot be overstated. I think he probably wrote the King James version because it is so pretty. However, he is not the be-all and end-all of writing.

His popularity and central position in the canon comes mainly from the fact that you can write anything you like about his plays. Critics and professors don't have to scramble, or even leave their comfort zone. Shakespeare's work is opaque enough that it rejects no particular interpretation. No matter your opinions, you can find them reflected in Shakespeare; or at least, not outright refuted.

His is a grey world, and his lack of agenda leaves us pondering what he could possibly have been like as a person. His indirect approach makes his writing the perfect representation of an unsure, unjust world. No one is really right or wrong, and even if they were, there would be no way to prove it.

I don't know whether this makes him the most or least poignant of writers. Is the author's absence from the stories the most rarefied example of the craft, or is it just lighthearted pandering? Either way, he's still a clever, amusing, insightful, and helplessly dirty fellow.
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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Alison I love what you've written here: Shakespeare is certainly an aphoristic writer and esoteric in a myriad of ways, and always will be. And that is his staying power, as you have touched upon.

However, I do disagree with your notion of Shakespeare as the modern-day equivalent of the writers of South Park or Family Guy. Are South Park and Family Guy ingenious? Absolutely. But Shakespeare, while certainly a portrayer, and even imitator, of the culture and myths of his time (as are the writers of South Park and Family Guy), was no cultural icon. His writing was not junk food comedy and crude, completely biased jokes for a laugh a minute, with celebrity appearances and fart jokes. His writing can be interpreted many different ways because in order to be reading Shakespeare correctly, you have to be completely aware of just how jam-packed each line is with meaning. And that is ingenious, not vague, as your review seems to say.

So, basically: Shakespeare is not vague. He is not like the writers of South Park or Family Guy. He is classic, he is forever, and his literature cannot be boiled down to a handful of characters with any number of meanings for their actions. It's not that random. It's actually exact, and any vagueness in meaning or understanding is entirely the fault of the reader, and that is also the whole point. If I'm reading something, I don't want to be thinking the same thing that the person sitting next to me is thinking. That is Shakespeare's genius: his plays, his poetry, whatever, are all of a spectrum, a program, a systematic mystery. There is calculation behind all of his words, every single one. And while calculation is exacting, Shakespeare's calculated language is a formula of paradoxes and twists, confusion and wrong answers (miscalculations!) and dead ends -- all on purpose. And guess what? That's what life and humanity are too. A mess, yet a calculated existence, just not all on the page in a book. That is Shakespeare's staying power, and his hold on readers will be forever because he created the literary formula: the paradoxical literary 'formula' that yields no exact answers, but many shades of gray as the answer to human achievement, love, victory, whatever. His shades of grey are the exact solution. That's what you've missed here: Shakespeare as the Isaac Newton of modern literature.


Keely "His writing was not junk food comedy and crude, completely biased jokes for a laugh a minute, with celebrity appearances and fart jokes."

Actually, I'd say that describes a lot of Shakespeare very well. His historical characters were celebrities of their time, and some were quite recognizable (if inaccurate) caricatures of famous people, like Falstaff as the Sire de Coucy.

And Shakespeare's plays are littered with cheap, dirty jokes. He's not as scatological as Chaucer, Shakespeare preferred infidelity as the punchline. Though the tragedies have less of this flippant humor, even Hamlet has a 'cunt' joke.

When I said 'vague', I did mean something approaching verisimilitude: that he never gave simplistic answer. It was, as you suggested, as messy as life, and certainly ingenious.

"in order to be reading Shakespeare correctly, you have to be completely aware of just how jam-packed each line is with meaning"

Certainly important, but so much has been written about him, so many angles explored, that it often seems like just getting to the Bard requires untangling centuries of rogue theories and popular opinion. I'm not sure I have yet met the scholar who I would entirely trust to winnow this chaff.


message 3: by Colin (new)

Colin Bruce Anthes Hmm interesting viewpoint, but not quite accurate. Certainly we have to look at who Shakespeare wrote for. But Shakespeare wrote for a multi-tiered audience, ranging from rowdy drunken peasants to the Queen. Also, he was writing at a time when there was a tremendous craving for language. Modern English was relatively new, and the printing press was very new. He was able to write with a 29,000 word vocabulary, inventing or coining over 2,000 words and phrases, because his audience was in a very different place than ours is. The end result is that although, yes, he was writing for the popular masses the way South Park does (and I’m a fan of South Park, so this is not a knock on them), there really isn’t much in South Park to compare Shakespeare to.


Keely Shows like the Simpsons or South Park also have a multi-tiered audience, finding fans amongst both intellectuals and 'the common man'. Also, Shakespeare's 'new words' were mostly extrapolations of old terms, as in the case of 'doorknob', a portmanteau of pre-existing words. Serial comedies are also well-known for coining words and phrases which enter the popular lexicon, though they tend to be less concerned with that kind of language play than Shakespeare was.

But I'd say there are a number of different comparisons between Shakespeare and South Park that we could make: the combination of low humor and intellectual exploration, the use of pre-existing, recognizable plots, numerous allusions to social touchstones, satire, political messages, the loose plotting relying on the interpretation of many creative minds, the public performances, the quick turnaround, and the 'breads and circuses' popularity.


message 5: by Gabriel (last edited Jun 22, 2012 01:25PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gabriel Shakespeare as the Simpsons/South Park/Family Guy/MAD. Now that is an intriguing angle I've certainly never heard before. And it works, surprisingly enough. Still, what about the mix of irony, absurdity, and pathos (view spoiler). What about the beauty and poetry of the language alone, particularly in Hamlet's soliloquies: "to be or not to be," "what a work is man," etc.

At the very least, you can’t deny that Shakespeare was one of a kind for his time.There's a reason why contemporary playwrights like Ben Jonson are almost solely remembered in their relation to the Bard.


Keely Certainly one of a kind, and a writer of great artistry. Though the authors of the modern comedies and satires of television sometimes do tackle moments of great pathos and difficulty, they possess very few examples of the sustained hardship of Shakespeare's histories. Likewise, there is little grand and formal poetry in them.


message 7: by Jeremy (new) - added it

Jeremy There are a number of ways to approach Shakespeare, this is true; it’s also true that he included in his plays some low-brow entertainment, and even a few ordinary working-class characters, something to give the pit a chuckle; it’s also true a lot has been written about his work. And yes, he lifts plots from all over Europe, obviously so, and his audiences would have know it too. It’s not the plot, in the end, that matters. The play’s the thing…
I will even agree that his is not the be-all and end-all.
But he is, possibly, the be-all.
And ‘Hamlet’ is the first great modern secular prayer. It is the greatest, most blazingly living piece of narrative poetry every penned.
I do not find him vague in the least, or lazy, or less studied than Marlowe. Hamlet is sometimes vague, sometimes evasive, sometimes very specific, often playful, sometimes contradictory… But the writing itself is never vague. It is wet with humanity.
Harold Bloom even argues that he invented us. One of the central ideas of studying narrative is to see what about it makes us what we are. We live chiefly narrative lives, so it makes sense that an author such as this, so seminal in so many ways, is looked at quite a bit. It’s not that the material is so vague that you can apply anything to it, it’s that, if we’re going to believe in the importance of studying literature, then we going to have to give that which has influenced us the most a good hard run.
Since you’ve still given the book five stars, I’m going to assume the South Park, Family Guy etc comparison was tightly tongue in cheek. Something that delves so deep into the psyche of man---and potentially reforms it and shifts it---isn’t just pop-reference humour, satire and parody, even if sometimes these narrative tools are put to use.


Keely "I do not find him vague in the least, or lazy . . . But the writing itself is never vague. It is wet with humanity."

Whoever said that to be vague means to be lazy? Is the courtesan lazy with her glances? And is not humanity vague?

Unlike all other authors of his period, we cannot pin Shakespeare down, we cannot put him on this side or that side of the issue. He is vague because he does not have a specific, clear message, he merely asks questions, and never gives answers. I think this is a very respectable trait for an author to have, and one most difficult to conceive.

However, it also leaves the work open to interpretations, much more open than a more idiomatic work, where the author's voice was clear. Hence, I think we must be careful to ascribe any particular idea or stance to Shakespeare, or to let our analysis run too far afield simply because it is not contradicted by the text.

"Since you’ve still given the book five stars, I’m going to assume the South Park, Family Guy etc comparison was tightly tongue in cheek."

Perhaps I just assume that in a few centuries, students will be studying South Park and Mad Magazine with the same fervor and academic precision as we tend to tackle Shakespeare with today. More than that, I'm using it as a way to talk about the form of Shakespeare--that these were bawdy plays with aspirations to human philosophy, not novels or Epic Poems. I'm not saying they are less than, just that they are a different mode.


message 9: by Jeremy (new) - added it

Jeremy The courtesan? Her glance able to quicken dry bones? And that was just when she was being lazy…

Okay, but ‘vague’ seems to be a too pejorative term for what you appear to be meaning; I’m pretty sure no writer would self-describe their work as being ‘vague’. As though they haven’t put enough effort in… How about ‘opaque’ if we’re using it as a positive: since any writer of quality wants to engage with the opacity of the human condition, and not just simply tell you exactly what’s happening; and even when they apparently do that, the reliability of their omniscience if questionable, textually or extra-textually, so any work, no matter the apparent ‘vagueness’ can be brought into question.

Calling from anything other is pure Guildensternism.

You can’t interpret Shakespeare in any way, there still has to be a rational thesis, and the importance of plumbing the depths is due to the importance of the work in the makeup of our existence, which has as much to do with aesthetic energy as anything else I would argue (and have). It’s a flawed project, but a necessary one.

‘You would seem to know my stops. You would pluck out the heart of my mystery. You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.’

So we’re in agreement, you, Hamlet and I: it’s just that I find your phrasing and comparisons reductive, and Hamlet, unnecessary.

The rest is silence.

The head of my PhD thesis board, Ken Gelder, used to rate Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and had a lifesize cardboard cutout of her in his office) more highly than Hamlet, so the academy is perhaps behind you. I think the idea is that you pull apart shallow texts these days, since to find clever stuff incisde them more greatly reflects your cleverness.


message 10: by Jeremy (new) - added it

Jeremy And it's almost, methinks, some kind of goodreads rite-of-passage to have a disagreement with Keely. Does it always descend into playground histrionics?

Have at you now!


Keely "How about ‘opaque’ if we’re using it as a positive: since any writer of quality wants to engage with the opacity of the human condition, and not just simply tell you exactly what’s happening . . ."

Yeah, opaque is a good term.

"the academy is perhaps behind you. I think the idea is that you pull apart shallow texts these days, since to find clever stuff incisde them more greatly reflects your cleverness."

Well, recall that it took a long time before people started seriously looking for Shakespeare's cleverness. I am not mocking him when I say that, at the time, he was considered a comedic and rather rude writer. After all, it wasn't until some time after his death that they finally published his plays as stories to be read, and much longer until his current reputation was established.

So, who knows what popular, serial entertainment might have that depth today, or might be the work that is, as we speak, reinventing the mind of humanity? I'm certainly not going to assume that I can see clearly who the next Shakespeare will be, since the great minds of his own age did not recognize him at once.

" . . . it's almost, methinks, some kind of goodreads rite-of-passage to have a disagreement with Keely. Does it always descend into playground histrionics?

Have at you now!"


Oh dear, has it become so ritualized as that? Surely, a sign that I've lost the fervent flame of my younger days, if I now stand only as a gorgon to test the mettle of those who will come after. But I suppose, if this is the way of things, we might as well get it over with:

O quiver, foolish youth to think
An easy scape, jaw's trap
Your steps haphazard placed shall want
Less hazard and more hap.

Each gnash, a dancer's step--I lead--
each lunge a cross to match,
Your needling blade must inroads make
Ho now, but there's the catch!

Each footfall closer cloying brings,
Since living's hardly fair,
Who wins the fair Hypatia's hand,
Risks limb within my lair.

So puissance ply in lab'rinth deep--
Each corner I have known--
But who survives learns only this:
Hypatia is her own.



message 12: by Rob (new)

Rob In his book What Good Are The Arts?, John Carey praises Shakespeare at length for his "indistinctness." Maybe that's an appropriately non-pejorative word -- Carey, at least, seems to have thought so.


Keely Ah, another good one. I've put in a rewrite, using both 'indistinct' and 'opaque' at different points (plus the addition of some rude humor). Thanks much for the suggestions.


message 14: by Jeremy (new) - added it

Jeremy Nice versification, if a little indistinct... I shall write a thesis based on the object of your affections being the fall of moral fibre in early seventeenth century Southern France, and the collapse of Egypt.


Keely Publish or perish, my friend.


message 16: by Garrett (new)

Garrett Amill This may be my favorite thing on the internet


Keely Wow, better than cats with shoes?


message 18: by Garrett (new)

Garrett Amill Yes. Shibas with shoes, however...


Keely Yeah, hard to beat that.


message 20: by Nik (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nik Kane I agree with most everything you say, but I think none of it takes away from the absolute genius and beauty of Shakespeare's writing. It does seem that Hamlet could very well be an episode of South Park, except for the stunning natural genius of the language and the multiplicity of profound meanings packed into the text (which I believe is what you are labeling as vagueness). Although in many cases popular opinion can run woefully contrary to good taste, when wide acclaim is persistent and lasting (even over the centuries!) as it is with Shakespeare I believe the reason is most often the undeniable and clearly recognizable genius of the work. Given your five star rating for this play, it seems you may agree.


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