Hamlet, Sarcastic Classics

Hamlet – Act I, Scene IV

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Can you guess what Hamlet’s doing at the beginning of this scene?

If you said ‘brooding’ you’d be right, except this time he’s decided to change things up and brood outside instead. It’s exciting stuff.

Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus (one of the guards we met earlier) are sat out in the cold waiting for the ghost to show up while Claudius and the rest of the court party the night away, with trumpeters playing every time he drains a cup of wine. Hamlet admits that this is a Danish tradition, but because he has to complain about something – especially when Claudius is involved – he decides that it’s a rubbish tradition that makes the Danish people look like drunkards.

The ghost arrives just as Hamlet finishes trashing his uncle, displaying a dramatic flair and taste for ironic timing that we have come to associate with the dead. Hamlet, usually so sceptical, immediately yells “Daddy!” and tries to go off by himself with the spectre. His friends have clearly been brushing up on their tropes, however, and warn him that palling around with the supernatural is usually a good way to get yourself killed or worse; Horatio is particularly worried that the spirit will take advantage of his emotional grief and drive him mad *cough*FORESHADOWING*cough*. Hamlet is so desperate to talk to his father again that he doesn’t care and threatens to kill his friends if they stand between him and his father.

IMPORTANT POINT/LIFE LESSON TIME: just because it looks like a dog and barks like a dog doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your father (what?).

Hamlet is very accepting that this ghost actually is his dear old Dad, but Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would likely have been much more cynical. The Elizabethans, on the whole, were a religious lot and to them Hell was a Big Deal, with demons and evil spirits that would love nothing more than to wreak havoc and corrupt your eternal soul. This thing may well look like Hamlet Sr., but it was equally as likely that it was some evil spirit trying to drive Hamlet Jr. to madness or death for the lols. In fact, we never actually get confirmation of whether the ghost is the real deal or not, which could entirely change how we interpret the rest of the play’s events; is what happens (spoiler: death, and lots of it) actually the revenge of a murdered king, or is it the nefarious work of something more sinister who drives Hamlet to madness and causes the death of the entire Danish royal family just for funsies? You can’t say definitively either way, but it’s interesting to look at what happens next in the context of both theories.

Whatever you think the ghost is, its appearance can’t mean anything good. Marcellus sums it up best with one of the play’s most iconic lines:

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

You and I know this, as do Horatio and Marcellus, but Hamlet – angsty, emotionally vulnerable Hamlet – is too wrapped up in his grief for his father and anger at Claudius to care. Place your bets on what will happen next.

Hamlet, Sarcastic Classics

Hamlet – Act I Scene III

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Act I Scene III, or as I like to call it ‘Let’s Have A Family Discussion About Ophelia’s Virginity Because That’s Not Weird At All’.

Poor Ophelia. I’m sure pretty much everyone’s familiar with what happens to her in the end (hint: it’s a little soggy), and just from this scene it’s pretty understandable why. She’s a fictional woman in Elizabethan times, and as such the very idea of her having her own motivations, desires or even *gasp* a sex life is enough to send the male characters into some kind of frenzy, including her own brother, who decides that the most appropriate way to say goodbye before he returns to university is to warn her that she Absolutely Must Not Sleep With Hamlet, because her virginity is her only worth and she would be RUINED without it and also something about worms.

Polonius turns up to say goodbye to his son, but this rapidly descends into him also warning Ophelia that she Absolutely Must Not Sleep With Hamlet. (You have to wonder if this is a common topic in this family. Do they always say goodbye to each other with a cheery ‘Don’t be a slut!’?) Polonius is outraged at how much time Ophelia and Hamlet have been spending together recently and demands to know what they get up to. Ophelia says that Hamlet has been quite affectionate lately and Polonius automatically assumes that means that he’s trying to get into Ophelia’s girdle, despite Ophelia’s objections that he’s been nothing but a gentleman.

Both Polonius and Laertes seem to be under the impression that Hamlet is some kind of sex fiend and that Ophelia is a naïve and stupid child (Polonius literally calls her a “baby”) who needs their protection from the evil machinations of men who have no other motive than sex. I have no idea where they got the impression of Hamlet being a complete cad from. There’s no mention of any previous history, and I’m assuming that he and Ophelia are rarely alone together due to the rules  Elizabethan etiquette, so I can only conclude that Polonius and Laertes are projecting onto Hamlet what they personally think all men are like, thereby including themselves in that undesirable group. That’s disturbing for quite a few reasons. It suggests that all men are predatory by nature, meaning that

  1. literally all men are terrible, no exceptions
  2. they’re not really accountable for their actions
  3. it’s the responsibility of women to restrain themselves and limit their freedom so men don’t have the opportunity to do the bad things, rather than expecting the men to just not do the bad things.

This is a point of view that is unfortunately still prevalent today and can be seen in everything from ‘boys will be boys’ to the argument that skirts cause rape, and one that makes me very angry. It also seems like Polonius and Laertes have come to this conclusion by projecting their own behaviour onto all other men, which leads a rabbit hole I’m really not prepared to go down right now.

Of course I realise that I’m looking at this from the perspective of a 21st-century feminist and that this absolutely wouldn’t have been the context it was put in at the time of writing, so I’m probably reading too much into it as far as it’s relevant in the play. It definitely illustrates how (over)protective of Ophelia her family are of her, with Polonius going so far as to forbid her from spending time with Hamlet. That would have been the start of an almighty smackdown had that been my father and me, but Ophelia is clearly used to this and just agrees to try and limit her Hamlet-time. You have far more patience than I do Ophelia. Shame it doesn’t pay off…

Hamlet, Sarcastic Classics

Hamlet – Act I, Scene II

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Read my summary of Act I Scene I first!

A lot of important character and plot building in this scene, so buckle up.

Scene II sees all of our major players gathered together and Claudius calls together his court. Present are – are you taking notes? – all of the lords, including Polonius with his children Laertes (finally, a child not named after his father! Points to Polonius for original thinking!) and Ophelia, and Queen Gertrude. Hamlet is also with them, but he’s off in a corner doing what he does best – sulking and wearing black.

Claudius mourns the passing of his brother, Hamlet Sr., for all of about thirty seconds before saying “Oh well, life goes on” and getting on with the running of the country. After a vaguely shifty defence of his decision to marry his sister-in-law in that suggests he totally knows that it’s kind of weird he reassures the nobles that Fortinbras – that’s the Norwegian prince trying to avenge his father from the previous scene – isn’t going to be a problem. He’s written a letter to Fortinbras’ uncle telling him to get his nephew under control, which is the King equivalent of running crying to someone’s mother because they threatened to beat you up in the playground.

Claudius does a bit more king-ing, giving Laertes permission to return to his university in France, and then turns to Hamlet (who is still sulking in the corner) and addresses him as his nephew and son. This familiarity pisses Hamlet off no end.

Gertrude can’t seem to understand why Hamlet is still upset about the death of his father after a whole two months. Not everyone can move on as fast as you Gertrude. Claudius joins in, telling Hamlet that everyone’s fathers die eventually and that it’s silly – sinful, even – to get too hung up about it. He tells Hamlet to think of him as his new father, which is something that step-fathers should never say unless they definitely want their kids to hate them. Claudius wraps up this example of A+ parenting by refusing to let Hamlet return to university in Wittenberg because he wants to keep him close by.

So now we have:

  • A suspiciously dead father.
  • An uncle who has gained a throne and a wife out of the aforementioned suspiciously dead father.
  • Some excellent parenting skills.
  • The ‘call me Dad’ speech.
  • A whole load of resentment.

Prepare for the fun.

Hamlet is the only one less than thrilled about their current situation. He’s finding no joy in life since his dad’s death and is hanging on to the memory of how great and loving his father was. We don’t really hear from anyone else what kind of a king Hamlet Sr. was, so it’s entirely possible that Hamlet Jr. is idealising him just a little, comparing him to a god against his uncle: “as Hyperion to a satyr”.

What particularly upsets him is that Gertrude remarried only a month after his father’s death. He attributes her flakiness to her sex: “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Ouch. He’s also very unhappy with the fact that the marriage is to his uncle, which he considers incestuous. Why this particular point is important will require a brief history lesson, so bear with me.

Most people are probably familiar with Henry VIII and the divorce debacle. Henry wanted to get rid of his first wife Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, giving the reason that his marriage to Katherine was unlawful because she had previously been married to Henry’s brother Arthur before his death, making her marriage to Henry, according to the scripture he provided, incestuous. Whether Henry actually believed his argument or if he just wanted to marry the younger woman he was infatuated with is up for debate, but Henry used it as a reason to break away from the Catholic Church, marry Anne and have a child. Why is this important? Well, Elizabeth I was the daughter Henry and Anne had, and she also just so happened to be Queen while Shakespeare was writing Hamlet. She needed people to believe her father’s argument because otherwise his divorce was invalid, making his marriage to Anne unlawful and Elizabeth a bastard and therefore unable to rule. Shakespeare was probably inspired by these events while writing, but carefully stayed on the side of the argument that would allow him to keep his head.

Hamlet really hates his current situation but because he can’t do anything about it he’s just going to stay quiet and monologue about how sad he is, making him relatable to pretty much every teenager out there.

Horatio and the guards from the previous scene arrive and Hamlet is happy to see Horatio – or as happy as Hamlet is capable of being – who is his friend from university in Wittenberg. Hamlet shows a spark of wit in this conversation, albeit a slightly macabre one; he jokes that the wedding came so soon after the funeral so they could use the leftovers from the funeral dinner for the wedding feast. It makes a refreshing change after the downer soliloquy he just delivered and shows that he has more emotions than “sad”, such as “slightly sad” and “sad with a hint of melancholy”.

The topic of Hamlet’s father comes up because that’s Hamlet’s favourite topic, besides slut-shaming his mother, and Horatio brings up the ghost they saw the previous night. Hamlet is understandably concerned by this news. The fact that the ghost is armed suggests another worrying omen for Denmark, and dead fathers appearing is generally never a good sign. Hamlet decides to stand watch with the guards that night in case his father shows up again because he wants to talk to it.

I get that Hamlet is probably desperate to talk to his father, but I can’t help but wonder if he should be more careful; ghosts don’t usually show up for anything good. Demons and evil spirits run rampant through Elizabethan literature and a suspicious ghost turning up would probably have been shorthand for Trouble. Hamlet himself seems at least vaguely aware that this could be something demonic, briefly mentioning Hell, but doesn’t seem to care much. He needs to remember that just because something looks like your father and dresses like your father does not make it your father. A dead father by any other name would not be called Dad, or something like that.

To wrap up: Hamlet hates Claudius, his mother, the court, life in general, Denmark and fun, but he kind of doesn’t hate Horatio.

Hamlet, Sarcastic Classics

Hamlet – Act I, Scene I

I’ve wanted to do something like this for a while. Let me know if you enjoy it, or if I’m just trying too hard to be funny! Just kidding. I always try too hard.

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Our story starts on a dark and stormy night in Denmark. We arrive just as the night watch is changing shifts at the royal castle of Elsinore, and rumours are flying that there’s a ghost has been spotted for the past few nights stalking the battlements. Horatio, who has been to university and therefore is the smart one of the group, is sceptical about the existence of any ghost but agrees to listen to the guard’s story anyway. It’s common knowledge that spirits have excellent dramatic timing, so the ghost chooses this exact moment to turn up.

It looks strangely like the King of Denmark who recently died and Horatio asks exactly what it thinks it’s doing floating around looking like the dead king. The ghost seems to take offence at this line of questioning, probably because Horatio ruined his dramatic entrance, and leaves. Horatio, who has been to university and knows about these things, instantly declares this a Bad Omen for Denmark.

The guard asks if this has anything to do with all of those weapons and ships Demark has been making recently and our resident exposition man Horatio says that he’s probably right. Things aren’t good in Denmark at the moment; in fact, you could say they were rotten. (Ha ha, literary reference to a line that hasn’t happened yet!)

Some years ago the king, who was called Hamlet but isn’t our Hamlet and shall henceforth be known as Hamlet Sr., killed the King of Norway Fortinbras in a duel. The terms of the duel required the loser to relinquish all of his lands to the victor, which seems like a pretty reckless agreement to make if you ask me. Now Fortinbras’ son who is also called Fortinbras – were there only five names in the whole of the middle ages? – has grown up and decided that he wants to claim back the lands his father so carelessly lost. Denmark is preparing for war, and all the omens are saying that this will not go well.

Pay attention to Fortinbras, because the first time I read Hamlet I didn’t and then when he turns up again I was all “who the hell is this guy?”. He’s also worth paying attention to because he draws some interesting parallels with Hamlet. Both of their fathers have *spoilers for a 400 year old play* been murdered, but they both have very different ways of dealing with it. Hamlet chooses the noble path of sulking, which is very satisfying but doesn’t really achieve anything, whereas Fortinbras decides that the best way to deal with his grief is to invade Denmark. I like Fortinbras. He thinks big.

The ghost tries again with its dramatic entrance, but the cock crows and ruins his big moment again, so he buggers off. Horatio orders one of the guards to poke the ghost with his spear, which really makes me doubt Horatio’s position as the smart guy. If you’re looking for ways to piss off a ghost attacking it with sharp objects is probably pretty high on the list, and it’s not like they could really hurt it anyway because it’s a freaking ghost. Horatio ignores the guard who points this out to him and decides that the best thing to do is to tell Hamlet that there’s a spirit wandering around with his dead father’s face, which may be one of the strangest things your best friend can say to you, although I’m not sure it would quite break into my Top 10.

And so begins the greatest soap opera ever told. Buckle up, it’s going to be a melodramatic ride.