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Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

The play’s plot can be concisely summarized as: A king is killed by his brother. The brother marries the dead king’s widow. The prince pretends to be mad to save his own life. Eluding traps set by his uncle, the prince avenges his father’s murder by killing the uncle.

The ending of “Hamlet” is very different than the ending to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “Hamlet” is a tragedy, whereas “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a joyful story. Hamlet, who dies at the end of the story, is solely responsible for 5 deaths: Polonius, Claudius, Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.

I am disappointed that I did not have the opportunity to read Shakespeare during high school. The more that I read and experience life, the more I am disappointed with my high school education, or lack thereof. After reading the first act of “Hamlet,” I was extremely excited to read the rest of the story and read some analyses. Most people agree that Hamlet is a difficult character to understand. He has emotional and personality swings, and these wide swings are likely because he is faced with a challenging moral problem of “right vs right” (or “wrong vs wrong” pending your perspective). Either he obeys the ghost and commits murder, or he disobeys the ghost and lets a murderer get away with evil. Hamlet is poetic, highly intelligent, and verbally gifted. Hamlet’s intelligence and verbal abilities are compared to those of Polonius, Laertes, and Claudius. All of these men are intellectually inferior to Hamlet, and this made me wonder about the relationship between general intelligence and verbal intelligence. Is there any relationship between general intelligence and verbal ability?

From what I understand, intelligence can be divided into 7 distinct categories, according to the “Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” and furthermore the spatial and numerical intelligences do not relate to verbal intelligence. Intelligence can be categorized into the following:

  1. Musical/Rhythmic

  2. Spatial/Visual

  3. Verbal

  4. Mathematical/Numerical

  5. Bodily/Kinesthetic

  6. Interpersonal

  7. Intrapersonal

Personally, I think that this theory makes a lot of sense! I am weakest in the areas of musical intelligence and interpersonal intelligence. Similarly, I am strongest in the categories of spatial, numerical, and kinesthetic. Based on my own observations, I think that it is accurate to divide intelligence into multiple categories.

I think that Hamlet’s intelligence threatens Claudius, Laertes, and Polonius, and because of Hamlet’s perceived threat, these characters oppose Hamlet’s well-being. Claudius cares only about power and self-image and indulgence, and he will do anything to maintain these, including murder elder and younger Hamlet. Laertes and Polonius are strict, by-the-book people. They follow the rules and act strictly according to the rules. On the other hand, Hamlet is willing to think outside-the-box and rub against the rules in order to push what he believes is right. From my experiences, people like Hamlet do not get along well with people like Laertes; independent and questioning thinkers struggle to get along well with strict rule followers. When I consider Hamlet and his foils, I immediately think about one of my college professors, let’s call him Dr. Wonderful, who opposed every action that I made. Dr. Wonderful was very strict about following rules and formats. On the other hand, I thought that the classwork and presentations could be enhanced via some minor improvements. Since I wanted to implement an alternative algorithm within the bounds of the assignment, and since I wanted to add a bit of excitement to my presentation slides, Dr. Wonderful felt justified to give me a failing grade. We did not get along, and I cannot help but think that he felt threatened by my presence. I questioned his approaches and methods, and I attempted to push his boundaries, just like I do with most things. Our personalities did not mesh well and it caused great strife. My conflict with Dr. Wonderful seems similar to the conflict between Claudius and Hamlet. Is outside-the-box thinking and the willingness to push boundaries associated with intelligence? Or is merely a sign of stupidity? I do not know the answer to this question.

Here is another thought related to power. Is the Queen a blind follower of Claudius? By following the leadership of her first husband, did the Queen lose her ability to think independently and question her spouse? Is this something that happens to a woman when she marries a powerful man – she gains confidence in her husband’s leadership and loses her own ability to think independently and question? The Queen in “Hamlet” is one supporting example. Another example that my mind immediately gravitates toward is Robert Moses’s wife; she was a strong, independent woman, who eventually receded into the background of Robert Moses’s power.

I think it is really interesting to consider that the only literature available for Shakespeare to base his works on was the Bible. Additionally, “Hamlet” is the second most highly analyzed English work of all time, second only to the Bible. One of my favorite quotes from Hamlet is based on Matthew 10:29, which says “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Referencing this verse, Hamlet says, “Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.” [Act 5, Scene 2, Lines 205-209]. In these lines, Hamlet accepts providence. God controls the direction of the world, and everything is under God’s control. Even something as invaluable and cheap as a sparrow – God directs and knows its actions. Since you are so much more valuable than a sparrow, God knows your circumstances and everything happens according to his will. Hamlet accepts God’s divinity, and he accepts that he must act and face death, if that is the consequence for his actions. Hamlet trusts providence with the outcome, just like we should trust God with all outcomes!

Hamlet also embraces the Biblical principles of judgement and morality. Bestirred by the ghost’s direction, Hamlet feels like he is obligated to pass judgement on the King, Claudius, for murdering his father, King Hamlet, and whorring the Queen. Hamlet clearly identifies the King’s murderer as morally wrong, and he identifies the act of his uncle marrying the Queen as wrong. These are Christian principles: do not murder, and do not take your brother’s wife. Hamlet says that Claudius married the Queen with “O, most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” Although Claudius sins, is it Hamlet’s place to pass judgement? Does the ghost somehow impart the right on Hamlet to judge the King? This is an open and debatable question.

“For women fear too much, even as they love...Where love is great, the littlest doubts are fear; Where little fear grows great, great love grows there” [Scene 3, Act 2, Lines 188-194]. Why did this quote stand out to me? I think that I might be touching a topic here that far exceeds my understanding, but here it goes. I think that in love there is a fear of losing the love. Therefore, any doubt that raised with regard to the love generates tremendous fear. When you love someone, you have fear of losing that love, and doubts force that fear to the surface. The greater the love, the greater the fear of losing that love. Love is something that we want to hold close. Yet this seems paradoxical to the idea that love grows from fear. How is that possible? I immediately think of the fear of God. As we learn more about God’s power, we fear Him more. Our fear increases as our understanding of God grows. But at the same time that fear grows, our love for Him also grows. When we learn about God, our fear of and love for Him grow together. Does this help my understanding? Not really. God is full of paradoxes that I cannot understand. I still like this quote, and I think that there is much more that can be said about it, but I cannot articulate.

“Hamlet” is perhaps the longest and most elaborate knock-knock joke in history. It opens in Act 1, Scene 1 with “Who’s There?” The “Who’s There?” question is finally answered at the end of the play when Hamlet says, “This is I, Hamlet, the Dane.” Is the whole play an episode for Hamlet to discover himself and who he is? Is Shakespeare sketching a character that maintains his individuality, understands morality and judgement, and is content with life? Is Hamlet relatable because we are all trying to understand ourselves? The title of the play, “Hamlet,” seems to answer the question of “Who’s There?” Clearly, Hamlet is there. But who’s Hamlet? I think that’s the better question. We do not know the answer, and it has been extensively debated. Maybe that is what makes this play immortal? It makes the reader question, “Who am I?” Who are you? Are you acting correctly? Do you accept who you are, your situation, and the consequences for your own actions?

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