Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hamlet: Old School YA?

I have a favorite Shakespeare play and I’d wager it’s not an uncommon choice: Hamlet. What’s not to love? There are excellent plot points—supernatural interventions, family betrayals, sword fights, confrontations, suicide—and an array of multi-faceted characters. There is the ongoing mystery of the king’s death filtered through the lens of the most unreliable of narrators, Hamlet. The play is funny, very funny. And of course we have Hamlet’s lovely soliloquies, his incessant waffling about action and inaction, “be”ing or "not to be”ing.

The role of Horatio is considered a minor one. Many critics claim the character is underdeveloped and intended only as a foil for Hamlet. Where Hamlet wavers, Horatio is steadfast. Where Hamlet seeks direction, Horatio is the poster child for loyalty and intent. As a younger person and student, when my love for the play was at its most ardent, I identified keenly with Hamlet. So many choices, so many people looking to him as he tried to decide what type of person to be. And he really loved Ophelia, didn’t he, in his warped, tormented way? How many current YA offerings have this same framework—disturbed but deep-feeling young man, innocent girl hoping to lead him to the stable ground of her love? Even the appearance of the ghost and Hamlet’s hand-wringing about life and dreams, life and death, and his self-assertions: “to thine own self be true”—all seem youthful diversions, the type of thing teens and young adults ruminate over when they don’t have to work all day and maintain a household.

Horatio, on the other hand, is resolute and purposeful. The appearance of the ghost does not rattle him. Instead, he badgers the specter about its purpose: “Speak of it, stay and speak!” He’s like, what’s the deal? Do you have secrets to tell? I don’t have time for this.

Even Hamlet recognizes the differences between himself and his friend and acknowledges him as a “man that is not passion’s slave.” And at the play's end, it’s Horatio who speaks over the corpse of the prince and sets the tone for the kingdom's continued stability.

I’ve been rereading bits from the play lately, and I find that maybe I’m beyond an age to fully appreciate Hamlet and his deliberations. Give me a loyal, calm friend like Horatio any day. Someone who knows his mind and purpose. There is work to do, after all, and only so many hours in the day.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka