I like Hamlet. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say I’m a Hamlet fangirl, though a few years ago I was claiming not to like Shakespeare. When one of my English Literature teachers informed us we would be studying it this term, I was over the moon. They informed us we would have to buy our own copies if we wanted to write in it; I did so and immediately started annotating it gleefully in orange gel pen. I track the Hamlet tag on Tumblr. I saw Hamlet the Musical a few weeks ago. I ship Hamlet/Horatio more than I ship Hamlet/Ophelia. I once had a text conversation about Hamlet in the middle of the night for no reason other than neither of us wanted to stop talking about it. I’m a Hamlet nerd, basically.
I first became interested in the play after it was referenced continually and used as a metaphor in one of my favourite books of all time – Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater. While studying the play in class, the main characters are asked which character they sympathise the most with.
“Ophelia,” says James. “Because no one told her what the hell was going on so she killed herself.”
Though this is a simplistic way of looking at her character, the gender opposite metaphor that followed was very clever and didn’t seem at all contrived. And I started to become interested in Hamlet.
This was about a year ago, and I was thinking at the time that I was very like the character Deirdre, not just in personality (something I regret!) but also in life events, though mine unfortunately lacks the fairies. A short while later I was discussing this with a friend (my ‘James’, if we are to continue comparing ourselves to characters), and we got into conversation about the Hamlet metaphor.
This resulted in an essay on the character of Ophelia, approximately seven text messages long, that I received at one in the morning.
But I hadn’t read Hamlet. Everything I knew about it was from that book, from the references, and that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t reply intelligently to this brilliant text message (which, alas, is lost to me now – I have long since had a new phone).
Fast forward to October. I’m on work experience at the English Folk Dance and Song Society, commuting an hour and a half each way to reach Cecil Sharp House in London. I’m working mainly on the front desk, but I also folded bunting. A lot of bunting.
One morning I was early, so I sat on one of the comfy chairs in reception and continued to read the book I’d been reading on the train. Somebody stopped and asked me, “What are you reading?”
“Hamlet,” I said, waving it vaguely at them, and they assumed I must be studying it because they asked me whether school was ruining it for me. I explained that I was reading it for fun. Because I wanted to. They were surprised, but pleased to hear this.
I didn’t get the play, but I still enjoyed it. I liked laughing at “‘Tis here! ‘Tis here! … ‘Tis gone.” I liked seeing the proper quotes in context.
And now I’m studying it. It’s a totally different experience. For a start, reading it through I’m picking up on things I did not understand last time, and I’m interpreting things in more depth. I’m enjoying writing the essays, for goodness’ sake! All you need to do to make someone do their work is give them a play they like :D
And it’s different because we’re watching it. Yesterday evening I was in school until half past five, watching the first half of the play with my English class. For much of it, I was the only one watching it. Later, there were two, perhaps three of us. Everybody else was talking, sharing pizza (we were allowed to order pizza to school. It was quite amusing because Domino’s thought it was a prank call), and complaining that they didn’t know what was going on, that they were bored.
“That’s because you’re not watching it,” I snapped at them. “If you watched it, perhaps you’d get it. She’s having an emotional breakdown and you’re just talking straight through it!” I gestured wildly at the screen, on which Ophelia was crying. “Yes, it’s long, but you wouldn’t be so bored if you actually watched the film.”
I was following it with the book because, when the classroom is that noisy, it’s the only way I could keep track of what was going on and who everybody was. I discovered a few more wonderful quotes, and a few things I’ve heard but didn’t realise were from Hamlet (most of the class had the same reaction to ‘to be or not to be’, which I thought was absolutely shocking), but my enjoyment was definitely marred by the class’s behaviour. You’d think, at sixteen, they’d be able to cope with Hamlet.
We’ve got the same thing again on Thursday, and if they talk all through the end I will not be happy. What’s more, they’ll come to lessons and say, “I don’t know what’s happening in this scene.” Because they didn’t watch the film.
But I’ll know, and I’ll be able to write the essays. And I’ve got my ‘James’ to talk passionately about the character of Ophelia at one in the morning, and I’ve got Maggie Stiefvater’s humorous paraphrases of certain scenes (“Horatio thinks we’ve been smoking mushrooms” is totally a good version of “Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy”).
And anyway, I’ve got a different version of the film at home, and I’ve heard you can watch the David Tennant one online, so I’m sorted. Class Hamlet showings – who needs them?
I’ve got plenty of Hamlet to keep me going.
What do you think of Hamlet / Shakespeare in general? Let me know in the comments! :)