There was a great General named Macbeth. All that kept him from kingship was a death, but - as with a Pringle - he couldn't do a single. So, he showed seven more their last breaths.
I King Lear too much loved being praised, and too little recognized love. He shunned the daughter he should’ve kept, and held tightly those in need of a shove. II Timon of Athens spent lavishly, but then - in his time of great need - no one would return the favor, so he gave his last coin to watch Athens bleed. III Antony is a love-struck boy, and plots are afoot he can't grasp. He ends in slow suicide by sword, while Cleopatra goes out with an Asp. IV Coriolanus was kind of a jerk, and that's why he was exiled. But he could vanquish all of Rome. Death to the reciprocally reviled!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This continuation of the story of the reign of Henry IV, like the preceding part, is really the story of Prince Hal, the rapscallion who will be transformed into King Henry V. And transformation is the central theme of the play [as it often is in great stories.] In the previous part, we saw that Hal pulled it together to do what needed to be done while the rebellion raged, but here we see a bit of a relapse at the beginning as he returns to Eastcheap to hang out with friends. The Lord Chief Justice has a stern talking to Falstaff to discourage the incorrigible rascal from leading Hal down a destructive path, a talk that fails, causing a defensive Falstaff to take umbrage at the official’s words. However, by the end of the play we see how the weight of the crown forces Hal into what feels like a more permanent changing of ways. To borrow and misapply a Biblical quote: When he became a king, he put the ways of debauchery behind himself.
Prince Hal isn’t the only one who’s changing, Falstaff is also experiencing a transformation, but not so much one of growing up or growing more virtuous, but rather one of getting old. This is seen most vividly when Hal and his past conspirator, Poins, spy on Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, a tavern girl. Hal breaks the espionage off, realizing there is no adventure to be had in the endeavor.
While Henry IV’s forces (including, prominently, Hal) won the day in the previous play, a peace settlement hasn’t been reached. With Hal out gallivanting and Henry IV having fallen ill, the task of concluding a peace agreement falls to Hal’s brother, Prince John. No-nonsense John receives the rebels’ grievances and says he will see to it that they are all rectified, and then (when their guard has fallen,) he tells them that there is still the matter of the rebellion for which they will have to be put to death. Which they are.
The play climaxes with Henry IV on his deathbed. Hal goes in to visit him, and mistakes the King’s feeble vital signs for death. Overwhelmed not only with grief, but also with an anger at the very crown for subjecting his father to more stress than the old man could bear, Hal takes the crown and walks off in dread contemplation. When the King revives and sees the crown is gone, he questions his men as to where it’s gone, and they say Hal must have it as he was sitting with Henry IV the last any of them knew. Henry IV is outraged that his son should care so much for the crown and so little for father that he’s not willing to wait until the old man’s death to abscond with the crown. When Hal is summoned, Henry IV tells his son as much via more extensive and eloquent comments. When the King completes his rebuke of Hal, Hal responds by saying that it’s not the case at all. Hal refutes that he is eager to be the King, and instead sees the crown as a kind of enemy that he is nonetheless fated to confront. The King is happy with Hal’s articulate explanation, and father and son are on good terms when Henry IV dies – this time for real.
The play reaches resolution when Henry V’s state of mind is revealed. This can be seen vis-à-vis two characters. First, the Lord Chief Justice is afraid Henry V may have an axe to grind about the senior official’s attempts, on behalf of Henry IV, to rein in Hal (including pressuring Falstaff.) Second, Falstaff takes it as a given that his position will be vastly elevated by his old drinking buddy’s rise to King. It turns out that both men are wrong in their assumptions. The newly matured Henry V is gracious to the Lord Chief Justice, and makes a show of turning Falstaff away.
This play is sometimes considered the penultimate of what has been called the Henriad, and so the story bleeds into the next, “Henry V.” It’s definitely a work that should be read by those interested in Shakespeare’s histories.
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Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a brilliant General, and when war is afoot, he’s beloved by his Roman countrymen. However, in times of peace, he’s kind of cantankerous, thinking that people who don’t bleed for their nation should shut their pie-holes and thank their lucky stars for whatever they get in life. This latter fact puts him in conflict with both Rome’s political elite and its commoners. The play opens on this very conflict as rioting citizens are complaining about how the State’s grain silos are full while the rank-and-file are suffering. One gentleman (a friend of Coriolanus,) Menenius, tries to calm the rabble by listening and offering reasoned discussion on the issue. Coriolanus, alternatively, throws fuel on the fire by (and I paraphrase and oversimplify here) telling folks that if they want to get paid, they should join the army.
Soon, Coriolanus is off to war with his arch-enemy, Tullus Aufidius — who is also a great General, but for for the competing state of Volsci. Coriolanus is successful in battle, and uses the merit gained him to successfully be elected Consul. Of course, adversaries tire of being shut down because they aren’t all war heroes, and so conflict escalates. Eventually, the Romans run Coriolanus off, sending him into exile. Except for Coriolanus’s closest friends and his family, all of Rome is pleased to see him go.
But then Coriolanus shows up in Volsci and goes to see Tullus Aufidius. He tells his former enemy that one option would be for the Volscian General to kill his old foe where he stands, but alternatively, if they partnered together, they could easily sack Rome. Aufidius and the Volscians go along with this deal, and soon these great Generals have fought their way up to Rome’s gates. Rome sends three waves of envoys to talk Coriolanus out of burning down Rome. The first two envoys, the Consul Cominius and his old friend Senator Menenius, fail completely. The third wave is Coriolanus’s family and his dear mother, with an eloquent speech, succeeds where the others failed.
And now the Romans are happy, but the Volscians… not so much. In particular, Aufidius is seething because he feels he’s been betrayed. Coriolanus tries to tell the Volscian leaders that, “Look, I got you this far, now you can write a treaty on favorable terms, and Rome is no longer going to look down on you.” But Aufidius still feels that he’s been used and cast aside cheaply. So, he stabs Coriolanus.
This is one of Shakespeare’s last, if not his very last, tragedy. It’s fascinating to consider how his slate of tragedies unfolded. “Titus Andronicus” is generally not regarded as highly as the others because of its savagery – which at the time (and even today) was considered a bit over the top. I will say that I enjoyed the visceral intensity of “Titus Andronicus,” but won’t deny it was a bit bonkers in terms of its brutality. Toward the middle of his career, one has Shakespeare’s best-known and most warmly-regarded tragedies, e.g. “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” etc. that are not as harsh as “Titus Andronicus” but are tragedies for more than the main character. The last few tragedies are much more personal in nature: (i.e. “Timon of Athens,” “Antony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.”) Obviously, a lot of people die off stage as Coriolanus works out his revenge plot on the way to Rome, but as far as on-stage / speaking characters, Coriolanus is the sole victim. I don’t know whether this has anything to do with a lesson in “less can be more” or if it’s just how the dice fell in Shakespeare’s writing, but it does make one wonder. (Like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, this one is based on recorded history, and so that certainly is a factor in the number of deaths. However, it also raises the secondary question of why various projects held interest to the Bard when they did.) I will say these last plays aren’t as gripping the one’s in the middle, but they are never-the-less sound stories.
Like all Shakespeare, this is a must read.
This is Shakespeare’s telling of the tragic love story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Mark Antony was one-third of a triumvirate (along with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus) ruling Roman territories. Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt. The couple carries out an intense love affair despite the fact that Antony is legally wed to two other women over the course of the play. Early in the play we learn that his first wife, Fulvia, has died and that she was part of a rebellion against Octavius. Hanging out in Egypt, playing kissy-face with Cleopatra, Antony is largely oblivious to events in Rome. Fulvia’s death would be a boon to the love affair, but shortly later [when Antony makes a trip to Rome to deal with Roman affairs, including the campaign against Sextus Pompey,] he ends up marrying Octavia – Octavius’s sister. This marriage is explicitly made to re-cement a growing rift in the triumvirate [and it’s probably also hoped that it might keep Antony from living in Egypt in his own little world.]
While Antony has been accused of being out of touch, he does become irate when Octavius unilaterally decides to renege on a peace treaty with Sextus Pompey. In conjunction with the removal of Lepidus from the triumvirate, being left out of the decision to fight Pompey triggers Antony to take his portion of the Roman lands [the Eastern portion] and jointly rule them with Cleopatra in conjunction with her Egyptian lands. Of course, this brings Antony head-to-head with Octavius. The Battle of Actium, which was fought at sea [though Antony is strongly advised he would be much better off strategically to fight on land,] is a major event in the story. The battle is a disaster for Antony and Cleopatra. The latter prematurely withdraws her fleet, Antony follows, letting his naval forces collapse and the battle is decisively handed to Octavius.
Antony is enraged both by Cleopatra’s apparent betrayal and by self-loathing over his own decision not to fight to the bitter end. Still, his love is so intense that he quickly makes up with Cleopatra even though it appears that he caught her in the act of seriously mulling over Octavius’s offer [delivered via messenger] for a deal whereby she would give up Antony and be spared.
Antony is again enraged when he loses the battle on land, believing he’s been betrayed by Cleopatra once more. Still, he can’t help but be moved when he is told that Cleopatra has died. In fact, she is alive at that point. It turns out that Antony being told that Cleopatra is dead was an ill-considered scheme by Cleopatra to win back Antony’s affections.
This brings us to the most frequently discussed feature of this play, the character of Cleopatra. She is often referred to as Shakespeare’s most well-rounded and intriguing female character. This is saying a lot because Shakespeare has some clever and courageous women among his characters. [True, he also has a number of female characters that serve only as victims, love interests, or some combination thereof.] Probably part of this admiration can be chalked up to the fact that the Egyptian queen is the only female character who has true agency – independent of a father, a husband, a brother, a king, or a fiancé. However, it’s also got to do with the fact that Cleopatra manages to combine the ‘Do you think I’m pretty?’ vanity and petulance of a shallow teenage girl with the ‘Ready my battle fleet!’ authority of a commander. She is both in one package, and people [apparently] find her convincingly so. Mark Antony is also a mish-mash of the loyal and virtuous leader we knew from Julius Caesar but dulled by being smitten and lovelorn. [One event that stands out as showing Antony’s character is when he has the wealth of a traitorous man, Enobarbus, forwarded home to him. It can’t fully be determined whether this is an act of pure virtue or a clever screw-you. If the latter, it worked splendidly as Enobarbus is crippled with regret for shifting sides to join Octavius.]
At any rate, Cleopatra’s plot to endear herself to Antony by making him feel her loss fails utterly. Having been definitively routed by Octavius by sea and by land, and now believing his true love is dead, Antony mortally wounds himself in an attempted suicide. [After failing to get a subordinate to do it for him – one of whom commits suicide himself to be freed of the obligation of killing Antony.] The play ends with Cleopatra’s own dramatic suicide by asp. It should be noted that she kills herself not so much because her poorly conceived plan contributed to Antony’s death, but more because she can’t take the idea of being paraded through the streets of Rome and being subjected to the imagined barbs of Octavia –Antony’s legal wife. [At least there is a great deal of explicit discussion of this fear of humiliation, and not so much of regret.]
This was one of Shakespeare’s last tragedies. For many it is one of his most beloved [though I’d put it more in the middle of the pack.] Still, it’s a great read, and I particularly enjoyed the latter acts.
This is a tragic take on a premise similar to that of “The Merchant of Venice.” That is, there is a gentleman who is generous to a fault — and much beloved because of it — who ends up suffering for it. [It’s also a bit like the “Oedipus” trilogy except that, instead of the discovery of unintended incest that sets the lead character walking the wilderness, it’s Timon’s discovery that he isn’t as rich in friendship as he’d thought.] In “Timon of Athens,” the lead character (Timon) is going about business as usual (i.e. being a patron to artists, lending to those in need, and holding banquets) when debt collectors begin to gather at his gate.
At first, Timon is unconcerned. Surely, his friends will help him get through this rough patch, just as he has helped so many of them over the years. However, when he sends his servant out to borrow what he needs to get back in the black, he faces rejection after rejection. Eventually, it hits Timon like a hammer that the only reason he ever got any love was because he was always supporting, feeding, and purchasing the products of Athenians. This realization hastens a sea change in Timon’s attitude. Timon decides to hold one more “banquet” to which he invites those he’s been good to and who’ve not offered the slightest reciprocity. At the banquet, the dishes are uncovered to reveal stones in water. Timon then gives the assembled crowd a piece of his mind. Then, Timon takes off to live in a cave in the woods – shunning contact with humanity.
One intriguing character is Apemantus, who is a Cynic philosopher. [Cynicism was a school of philosophy that was largely ascetic, nature-oriented, and which rejected many of humanity’s norms and values (e.g. valuing comfort and wealth) as anathema to a good life.] Apemantus features in the first part of the story, insulting both Timon and his guests, but also serving as a harbinger of what’s to come when he explains that these sycophants only associate with Timon because of what he does for them. In the second half, Apemantus visits Timon in the latter’s cave and – among other insults – accuses Timon of being a copycat by adopting Apemantus’s way of life.
Living in the woods, Timon stumbles onto a cave of gold. While he could take this money and return to his previous life, that path holds no allure to him. He has no interest in the money. When news of this discovery circulates, people come to the woods to seek Timon’s good favor only to be rebuffed. Alcibiades, a military man who was also wronged by Athens and who now promises to destroy the city, is given gold. Also, Timon gives some money to a couple of prostitutes so that they can go spread venereal disease among the Athenian population. The painter, the poet, and the senators who come to Timon are cursed and sent away. Even Timon’s servant, Flavius, is told to go away, although he is tolerated when it becomes clear that he is – in fact – an honest man who never sought anything more than his just recompense for virtuous service.
It’s generally believed that this play wasn’t a completed work, but rather a work in progress. The pacing at the end does become a bit abrupt, but it’s hard to know for certain. It’s also the case that some points could use fleshing out – notably the discovered gold which gives the latter bit of the play some drama but which also strains credulity. As Shakespeare’s tragedies go, this one is at the other end of the spectrum from “Titus Andronicus” in terms of bloodiness, which is to say it isn’t at all violent. We don’t see Timon’s death but only hear about the discovered grave, and otherwise the soldier who Alcibiades tries to save is the only other fatality of note. There are some critics who don’t even classify this work as a tragedy, but rather as a problem play.
It’s a simple story, but is potent in that it shows such a clear and definite character change. While it’s not one of Shakespeare’s more popular works, it’s definitely worth a read.
Macbeth is the tale of how a little nudge can send an ambitious man on a catastrophic and murderous course. Three witches tell Macbeth, a victorious military commander, that he will be king. With this tidbit of information, the seed of ambition in Macbeth sprouts. He begins to think about what he must do to make the witches’ prophecy come true. The sprout is watered and nurtured by Lady Macbeth, his wife, who encourages her husband to take an active approach.
When the king, Duncan, comes to visit to bestow an additional title on Macbeth for service well rendered, the opportunity presents itself. Macbeth kills the king, making it look like Duncan’s own servants did it. From that point on the murder train starts picking up steam — though Macbeth outsources the rest of the dirty work. The murder that most devastates Macbeth is that of Banquo, who was a close friend and confidant, but whom a paranoid Macbeth felt needed to be killed. (Banquo was present when Macbeth met the witches, and thus he knew too much for his own good.) Banquo’s murder triggers a nervous breakdown in Macbeth, who sees his old friend’s ghost at a dinner party. The vilest of the murders that Macbeth is responsible for are those of the wife and children of Macduff. Macduff is competitor for the crown, and, while Macduff isn’t home to be assassinated, all his potential heirs [and the wifely potential to make new ones] are executed.
Macbeth is joined in madness by his wife, who famously can’t seem to get a spot of blood off her hands and — ultimately — commits suicide. Besides Macbeth’s madness-skewed worldview, he becomes foolhardy because the witches present him with another prophesy, that no person born of a woman can defeat Macbeth. This seems pretty iron-clad. Macbeth brandishes this prophecy as a weapon along side his sword. It seems to be working out for him, too, until he tees up for battle with Macduff – the same Macduff whose wife and children Macbeth had murdered, and who – apparently – was delivered by caesarian section.
This is said to be the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I didn’t count lines, but it certainly seems right – the play reads very quickly. Despite being short, it does include its share of great Shakespearean language. It may not be a quotable as (the much longer) “Hamlet,” but it has comparable moments. Most famously in what is called the “To morrow and To morrow and To morrow” soliloquy that gives us these gems about the nature of life:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.”
I’d highly recommend this play. In fact, it’s probably one of the better entry points into Shakespeare because it’s short, not a complex story – though a rich one, and is one of the more familiar works. [However, chronologically, it is the sixth of Shakespeare’s ten tragedies.]
Once again, we revisit a title in my favorite source for mainlining quality information on niche topics, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series of books. These guides are generally between one-hundred and two-hundred pages in length, and provide essential information on a specific topic or discipline without getting bogged down in minutiae or in attempts to be entertaining.
I’ve been reading (/rereading) the tragedies of Shakespeare, and thought the guide might give some insight into the background of the plays and the more obscure shifts in language and meaning. Which it did. I would say more the former than the latter. But it also brought up subjects that I wouldn’t have necessarily given much thought, such as how the nature of the theater of the day shaped the plays – e.g. what could and couldn’t be done and how it influenced the pacing.
The book consists of an introduction, eleven chapters, an epilogue, and the usual backmatter (i.e. references, recommended reading, index.) The introduction and first chapter together set the stage by explaining the nature of tragedy in literature and drama. The introduction deals more generally with the question of what is tragedy, while chapter one deals more specifically with theatric tragedies in Shakespeare’s time. The question of which of Shakespeare’s plays are tragedies, versus the other two genres of the day – comedies and histories, might seem straightforward, but it’s not. Some of Shakespeare’s tragedies are quite historical (e.g. “Julius Caesar”) and some of his comedies are fairly bleak (e.g. “The Winter’s Tale” and “Troilus and Cressida”) and his tragedies generally have comedic elements and language (e.g. see: “Hamlet.”)
Having established differed approaches to defining tragedies, the remaining ten chapters each take on one of Shakespeare’s tragedies in what is believed to be chronological order: “Titus Andronicus,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Timon of Athens,” “Anthony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.” For each play, the author discusses things such as how what was going on at the time and where Shakespeare was in his career play into the character of the plays. However, much of the page space is occupied by laying out each story. In that sense, this guide is probably most useful for someone who has minimal experience with these plays. However, one will learn about how the plays were received at the time and subsequently, a little about the modern retellings (i.e. film, mostly,) and a little bit about how these works fit in the context of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and those he borrowed from.
Having recently read Bart van Es’s “Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction,” I was thinking about which organizational scheme I preferred, between the two. Instead of organizing chapters by the play, as Wells does, van Es has chapters that are topically arranged — covering subjects like setting, language, characters, the role of time, etc. It should be noted that there is a good reason for this difference in approach. There are more comedies (18, by some — but not all — counts) and some of them are “more comedic” than others, and so the topical arrangement is more sensible for a short book (i.e. it wouldn’t make sense to have 18 or more chapters in a book designed to be concise, and it wouldn’t be the best use of space to have full chapters to cover “problem comedies” or “tragi-comedies.”) Ultimately, I don’t know that I have a preference. Both clearly have advantages, and I thought each approach was sensible for its subject.
A brief epilogue delves into why we are even interested in reading tragedies – Shakespearean or otherwise. As might be expected of an epilogue in such a concise guide, the author doesn’t bother arguing for a decisive answer, but rather presents a few alternatives in basic outline. The book has a few plates of artwork that take their subjects from the works of Shakespeare, notably paintings by the poet / artist William Blake.
I’d recommend this book as an accompanying guide for those reading through Shakespeare’s tragedies. It may prove slightly more beneficial for readers with limited experience of the works. However, even those who’ve read, watched, and reread the plays are likely to learn something new.
“Othello” is Shakespeare’s tragic take on a plot device he uses in comedies such as “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Cymbeline,” and “The Winter’s Tale.” It’s the story of a jealous husband who falsely accuses his [in fact] virtuous wife of infidelity. Othello is a Moorish military commander, well regarded for his prowess in battle. Unlike Ford from “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Othello isn’t particularly jealous by nature, but he’s masterfully manipulated by one of Shakespeare’s most famously treacherous villains, Iago. In fact, it could be argued that Othello’s virtuous nature blinds him Iago’s duplicity.
[Spoiler warning: I discuss plot details in much greater detail in my Shakespeare reviews than I usually would, because: a.) the plots are generally familiar anyway, b.) many people aren’t comfortable reading Elizabethan language and find it easier to follow if they have a basic idea of what is going on. At any rate, from this point forward plot details are discussed.]
The play opens with a furor that is created when Desdemona’s father (Brabantio) is informed by Iago (and Rodrigo) that Desdemona has been “making the beast with two backs” with Othello (still one of my favorite euphemisms for intercourse.) In the court of the Duke, Othello is accused of defiling Desdemona, but the Moor claims that he and Desdemona are legally wed, having eloped and married. Desdemona is summoned, and she confirms this to be true. Iago’s initial plot peters out here because Brabantio has always respected Othello. As it turns out, Othello is being deployed to a military action by the Duke.
Not one to give up easily, Iago advances his treachery while deployed by getting Othello’s right-hand man (Cassio) drunk. Cassio is on Iago’s blacklist, because Iago thinks the Moor should have granted him a post that was instead given Cassio. Cassio loses favor with Othello when the Moor finds him drunk. This ploy sets up a two-pronged plan by which Iago intends to wreck the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. (Iago’s wife, Emilia, is Desdemona’s attendant and bestie. So, while Othello’s virtuous nature seems to create a blind spot of Iago’s duplicity, the villainous Iago appears to suspect imagined treachery everywhere – including the possibility that Othello is bi-backed beasting Emilia [whether he imagines this being a coupling or a menage-a-trois with Desdamona is unclear.])
The twin prongs of the plot are: first, get Cassio to ask Desdemona to smooth things over with Othello about the drunkenness (which will make it look like Desdemona has a more intense interest in Cassio than she actually does,) and second, subtly start planting the notion in Othello’s mind that he should keep and eye on Cassio.
Like an evil genius, Iago plays it subtle – a reluctant accuser. This keeps Iago’s own motivation from being made clear because it seems like he’s just trying to do the right thing. He plants sees but lets other do the obvious work of tending. However, Iago knows some hard evidence will be necessary because Othello isn’t going to go off the rails without at least some circumstantial evidence. He achieves this by obtaining from Emilia a handkerchief that was gifted from Othello to Desdemona. He nags Emilia to steal it, which she won’t, but when Desdemona mislays it, Emilia figures she can shut her ne’er-do-well husband up. [Emilia doesn’t know it’s for some grand homewrecking design. She is dubious of her husband, but figures it’s just a patch of cloth. How much trouble could be caused by letting her husband borrow it for some juvenile prank?] The handkerchief is planted in Cassio’s room.
It turns out that when Othello sees the handkerchief in the hand of a woman known to associate with Cassio, it’s all the evidence he needs to turn things murderous. He asks Iago to kill Cassio (a job Iago outsources to Rodrigo, suggesting that Rodrigo can finally have a chance with Desdemona if Cassio is killed because Othello will have to stay at home rather than the couple moving on to a foreign posting abroad.) Rodrigo ends up severely wounding Cassio while being mortally wounded himself (Iago making sure his treachery doesn’t come out while Rodrigo can still talk.)
Othello kills Desdemona after accusing her of cheating. [Desdemona, of course, thinks he’s lost his mind.] When Emilia questions Othello’s motives, the Moor cites the handkerchief as evidence of Desdemona’s scandalous behavior. Emilia tells him that Desdemona dropped the handkerchief and that Iago took possession of it. It’s at this point that Othello realizes he’s been scammed. Iago dies. Othello takes his own life.
This play is more than a cautionary tale about jealousy. It also shows how an honest man may be too quick to see honesty in others, while a dishonest man feels the need to preempt all manner of imagined plots. It’s among Shakespeare’s more popular works. It’s a simple story, but features richly developed characters. It’s definitely a must-read.
This is probably Shakespeare’s most popular work. If it’s not, it has to be in the top three. One reason for its popularity relates to language. There’s probably a higher density of widely-quoted lines, and phrases that are part of common speech, in this play than in any other work of literature. From Polonius’s warnings to his son (e.g. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”), to Hamlet’s soliloquized attempts to think through a course of action (“To be, or not to be: That is the question:”), to Hamlet’s wisdom in moments of lucidity (”There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” or “There is more in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”) to the many other quotes from various characters that appear across pop culture and everyday speech. “Methinks she doth protest too much,” “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and “Sweets to the sweet” [or variations thereof] all derive from this play.
But quotability isn’t the sole basis for the play’s popularity. While it’s certainly not the most action-packed of Shakespeare’s plays, that is actually part of what makes it unique and makes its lead character relatable. Shakespeare’s works are full of tragedy resulting from rash conclusions that – in turn — result in ill-considered actions. How many times have we seen the case of a man who is too quick to believe his wife or girlfriend has been unfaithful, and – after the cataclysmic fallout – he then discovers that it was never true in the first place. Hamlet turns the convention on its head, showing us what can go wrong with a character who – in true scholarly fashion – is prone to paralysis by analysis. Hamlet is prone to drawn out contemplation that results in missed opportunities – not to mention, tragic neglect of his love interest, Ophelia. [Such over-analysis is exemplified by the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy as Hamlet considers suicide.] It might seem like inaction would make for a boring play, but the tragedy unfolds never-the-less. [And in the instances in which there is fast-action, it proves flawed as when Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius.]
Another element of the play’s success hinges on a technique for which Shakespeare was a pioneer and an early master, strategic ambiguity. We don’t know the degree to which Hamlet is insane versus pretending, regardless of hints in the form of moments of lucidity. At least until the final act, we don’t know the degree to which Hamlet’s mother is in on Claudius’s plotting. We also don’t know if Ophelia is a lunatic when she is handing out flowers, or if she’s cunningly delivering a masterful series of passive-aggressive bitch-slaps. Shakespeare is careful with his reveals, and sometimes chooses to not offer any at all.
As most people are at least vaguely acquainted with the story, I’ll offer only a brief description. [But if you don’t want the story spoiled any more than it has been, call it quits here.] Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, returns home from college. He’s bummed because, not only did his father recently die, but his mother has remarried his uncle. Hamlet might be able to cope with this apparent disrespect [arguably to him as well as his father because young Hamlet was next in line of succession], but then his father’s ghost appears to Hamlet. The ghost tells him that he (Hamlet’s father) was murdered by Claudius, and the ghost insists upon revenge. Hamlet doesn’t want to be punked by a malevolent spirit, so he has a group of actors modify their play so that it depicts the assassination as the ghost described it. When Claudius is shaken up by the scene and leaves the theater, Hamlet feels certain that the ghost spoke true. When Hamlet goes to visit his mother, he believes that Claudius [or a real rat] is spying on him and stabs out at a rustling curtain, but he actually kills Polonius (father to Hamlet’s love interest, Ophelia, and a guy who doesn’t deserve to die – despite being a bit of an irritating know-it-all.) Polonius’s killing triggers a sequence of events that ultimately results in Hamlet being sent to England, Ophelia committing suicide, and her brother, Laertes, coming home intent on getting revenge for Polonius’s murder.
Hamlet discovers that Claudius sent him off with a “Please kill this man” note, but Hamlet manages to replace the King’s order and escape. He returns to Denmark in time to happen upon Ophelia’s funeral. He’s distraught about Ophelia’s death, despite having been a complete jerk to the girl whenever he wasn’t completely ignoring her. Laertes is angry at Hamlet for killing Polonius and giving his sister a lethal case of heartbreak, and there is a tussle. This is broken up and an agreement is made to have a gentleman’s duel later. Unbeknownst to Hamlet, this is part of a plot engineered by Claudius and Laertes. [To be fair, Laertes doesn’t know what a treacherous villain Claudius is, and how much the King’s previous plot – killing Hamlet’s father – is the cause all the play’s unfortunate events – as opposed to them resulting from Hamlet being part crazy and part jackass.] Claudius and Laertes poison the tip of Laertes’ rapier, and Claudius doubles down by pouring some more poison into Hamlet’s cup [which Hamlet’s mother ultimately drinks, followed by forced consumption by Claudius at the hands of Hamlet.] In true tragic form, the end is an orgy of death.
This is a must read (or see) for everyone – both for the language and the complex and interesting characters.