I saw Shakespeare’s Hamlet a few years back. It was a performance in the park. It was on a weeknight, and it lasted until 10 p.m., which is way too late for a weeknight. I usually like to be in bed by ten o’clock on school nights, so near the end I began to fade.
For the last two acts I took arms against a sea of drowsiness,
But such a pitiful struggle ’twas.
‘Ah to sleep,’ me thought. And what dreams in that sleep may come.
Plagiarism aside, I struggled to pay attention for the last two acts. I just knew that the play had a cheerful ending. I decided, then, to read through Hamlet, which wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I expected to be bogged down by the language, and become bored by lack of actual people on a stage. It was the first play that I’ve read on my own. And it was great.
I’ll admit, the reading was difficult at first. I struggled through the first Act, but soon found myself enjoying the play. And I actually laughed out loud at several parts, but I didn’t cry. That’s probably because I’m a bit of a macho man, which is obvious by now, seeing as how I’m reading Hamlet. Still, I want to look at why it’s so difficult to read Shakespeare. The New Folger Library edition of Hamlet cites four reasons why people struggle with Shakespeare’s works: Shakespeare’s words, Shakespeare’s sentences, Shakespeare’s wordplay, and implied stage action.
As Hamlet said, “Words, words, words.” Shakespeare utilizes words that are either (1) out of common usage or (2) in usage but changed by time. Parle, for instance, has Anglo-French roots dating back to the 14th century. It means to discuss or talk. If you’re French, you still use a form of this word in the phrase, “parlez-vous francais?”, which simply means, “Do you speak French?” Or if you’re a pirate, you may use a form of this word in “parley,” which is a conference with an enemy. If I was a pirate, though, I would never parley with anyone, not even Orlando Bloom. I might be convinced to parley with Johnny Depp, but only if he invited me to join the cast of Pirates of the Caribbean VI: Scurvy. It’s helpful, then, to have explanatory notes alongside the regular text. This can take away from some of the poetic scheme; but that’s why it’s written down, dummy. You can read it again.
“Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from ‘normal’ English arrangements– often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word… sometimes to allow the character to speak in a special way.” Shakespeare often places the verb before the noun. He occasionally places the object before the verb and noun. And he rearranges words that belong together.
When it comes to making awkward sex jokes, Shakespeare is king. In Act III, for example, Hamlet tells Ophelia, “It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.” Do you see what I mean? But Shakespeare wasn’t just interested in sex jokes. In Act IV after Hamlet kills Polonius, the king asks Hamlet where he buried the body.
Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
At supper where?
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. (4.3.19-24)
Text like this doesn’t necessarily make the text less easy to understand (or less readable), instead it makes it more enjoyable. It gives the reader a sense of the wit and depth that Shakespeare possessed. Also it made me realize that Shakespeare’s appeal wasn’t strictly for the cultural elite. He wrote for the masses, for the masses surely enjoyed a good double entendre.
Implied Stage Action
Fortunately there is such thing as imagination. So you may very easily conjure images of a young prince dressed in black garbs. Or you may be able to envision a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Nevertheless, I suppose there are some who find it difficult to interpret and understand the words while envisioning the actors.
Looking at these four problems makes me realize that these aren’t really problems at all. They are just excuses people use to avoid Shakespeare’s works. This is slightly sad, methinks. So many of us see Shakespeare as a kind of high-literature, a literature that is often considered sacred to the Western canon of literary works. And it is, but it’s more than that. Shakespeare’s works are pieces of beauty. HIs characters allow us to peer into ourselves and the human condition. Hamlet especially allows us to perceive ourselves, in a sense. He is a kaleidoscope character with universal appeal. Harold Bloom writes, “Shakespeare, ironical beyond our comprehension, has given us a play that is all Hamlet: subtle, volatile, supremely intelligent. If you read well and deeply, then you have no choice: you will become Hamlet… he will expand your mind and spirit, because there is no other way of apprehending him.”¹ Too often people find it impenetrable or too difficult, or they don’t try to understand it, or they don’t care to understand it. But once you push through the barriers of understanding, you reach a point of real enjoyment. And that’s the goal of reading, right? To enjoy.
1- Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Scribner, 2000.