Words, Words, and Words REVIEWING Hamlet

Hello, welcome back to The Real World According To Sam!

Verily, we are doing something a bit new. Some of you may know, or may have read on here, that I have a Bachelors degree in English and American literature. My concentration is in Shakespeare. You may have noticed that overall, there isn't a ton of Shakespeare related content. I have maybe five posts involving books, writing, and lists, where I mention or involve Shakespeare. I have been asked to do more Shakespeare based content...so we are starting a new feature. The first Saturday of each month is now Shakespeare Saturday. 

Rest assured, I am not going to do any lecturing! You may call me Professor Sam if you are inclined, but I am not nearly qualified enough to seriously recommend you actually do so. This blog is not a critical analysis or literary criticism blog. This is a blog where I talk about books and my thoughts on them and my thoughts on other things. We talk about characters and stories and if they are like delicious steaks...that is to say, well-done. So that is what we will do, no matter how old the book or how popular the story is academically. 

This year I am participating in the Shakespeare 2020 Project, which is a reading challenge. The goal is to read every work by Shakespeare, this year. It is being hosted by Ian Doescher, author of the William Shakespeare Star Wars books that I have been known to read and review. It has a calendar for the year with a time set for each book and I've been enjoying it a lot. It has kept me reading consistently and has allowed me to read new works I haven't read before, while also letting me revisit plays I have already read. You can do it as strictly or as leisurely as you want, no fees, no force. There is a Facebook group for discussion among readers, and every play Doescher sends out an e-mail with extra resources. Sometimes there are synopses, articles, videos of productions, or even images from archives involving the play being read. Here is a link to the Project for anyone interested in taking a look at it: Shakespeare 2020 Project

Today, we are going to talk about Hamlet. There will be a couple spoilers, but this story has been available since the 1600s. If you haven't read it because you're too young, worry not, you'll have to read it in high school anyway and can come back later if you want to. All my reviews are up indefinitely so far. If you haven't read it because you aren't interested, then I'm not really sure my review will make you more interested. It would be cool if it did. Anyway, this play is referenced so often that I'm sure most people know how it goes or won't care. I'll still include a spoiler note when I need to, for some extra courtesy, since not everyone thinks to read or likes to read older works. This is just a very popular play, so I feel it is less of a problem right now than if I were reviewing a play by Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, as far as the average reader goes.


Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Drama ➜ Tragedy
Year: 1603



Hamlet is Shakespeare's most popular, and most puzzling, play. It follows the form of a "revenge tragedy," in which the hero, Hamlet, seeks vengeance against his father's murderer, his uncle Claudius, now the king of Denmark. Much of its fascination, however, lies in its uncertainties.

Among them: What is the Ghost -- Hamlet's father -- demanding? Justice? Is he a tempting demon or an angelic messenger? Does Hamlet go mad, or merely pretend to? Once he is sure that Claudius is a murderer, why does he not act? Was his mother, Gertrude, unfaithful to her husband or complicit in his murder?


For starters, I understand that plays are meant to be seen on stage and generally not predominantly read, but I really like to read plays. I find that reading plays is almost as fun as seeing plays performed, in my opinion. Furthermore, it is often easier to find a play to read when you want to than to find a performance of any given play you want to see, WHEN you want to see it, unless you know of a filmed version or movie adaptation. We are going to talk about plays here as though they are just another book, along with the same general approach.

Hamlet was the second Shakespeare play I read, the first being Romeo & Juliet. I read both in middle school, but found Hamlet to be far more amusing at the time. I have since read both plays at least four more times. Hamlet is still my favorite of the two, although I find a lot more merit to Romeo & Juliet now than when I was younger. We will talk about that next month, though. The point is, I read Hamlet pretty early on and enjoyed it. Re-reading it this year, I have to say, is still fun. There are still new things to grasp onto and to think about. 

Hamlet is the story of Prince Hamlet of Denmark. He is the son of a king, also named Hamlet (we will call him Hamlet Sr.). Hamlet Sr. appears as a ghost after he was murdered and asks his son to avenge him. He was murdered before the start of the play by his brother...who has married his widowed wife and usurped the throne through marriage. So, he is blocking the throne from potentially going to Hamlet, laying in his mother's bed as her new husband three months after Hamlet Sr.'s death, and mainly just being a real power-hungry jerk. This is pretty typical for England as far as thrones are concerned. Lots of Shakespeare plays and other literary works deal with power struggles that involve fighting over thrones, so this is not a new concept. Considering the age of this play, there is really nothing new about it in terms of concept, as of today. People want the throne, they do bad things to get it, and now we have a son out to get revenge for his father's wrongful death. Hamlet spends a lot of time planning and procrastinating his revenge. He plans a theatrical production to lure our reactions of guilt from his uncle, goes off with pirates, and leaves a trail of bodies behind him, all while pretending to be mad. Some people think he may actually be mad, but it is a point that can be argued either way, so we won't get into it. 
Why in the world has this story lasted for so long? 

The characters, for one. They're relatable and interesting. They all have their own motivations and they play off of each other very well. Hamlet is sassy, but methodical. He procrastinates, but he also tries to be efficient with his plots. He causes ruin, while trying to seek justice. Claudius is dastardly and conniving in his power grabs, trying to cover his tracks to keep the throne at all costs. He is willing to remove anyone in his way, even if that includes his own family. Polonius also plots, but in a different way. He tries to stay in a place of relevance with the king, while spying on both his son, and Hamlet. He places himself in situations that really just mark him as a fool, but I would have liked to know more about how his spying on his son went, and if it would've backfired. We've also got Gertrude, Laertes, Ophelia, and Horatio. So many characters with different roles to fill in, while trying to get to Hamlet in some way or another.  

The quotes, for another. There are so many frequently used quotes within this play. It is fun to see their actual context (ex: "to thine own self be true"), and how they apply within the story. They aren't just snippets of text in isolation. Seeing how they are actually used and which characters speak them adds so much. I prefer knowing the context for all the literature quotes I spit out in conversation at random...even if they're completely random. For example, my hands-down favorite quote from Hamlet right now, and for the last several years, is "Words, words, words." This is Hamlet being sassy when asked what he is reading, and I just love it, even though it is simple and sarcastic....BECAUSE it is simple and sarcastic. There are new passages to dive into more on each read through, and I think within Shakespeare's works there's probably a quote that suits everyone, somewhere, some way. 

The story, naturally. As I mentioned, this is a story that generally has concepts that have been done a lot. Seeking thrones, power struggles, murder, ghosts, and revenge. Off-stage piracy. All the makings of greatness, really. I do wish that we could have seen more of the pirates, or heard what happened to Hamlet while he was with them...though that isn't the point of the story, so it isn't overly necessary. That doesn't make it a less interesting part of the story to wonder about. What did being out on the high seas do for Hamlet's plot? Did it help him? Why did he come back at all? Was it purely for revenge? Just to tie up loose ends and move on? Did he have a plan for after? We don't know! It is fun to speculate though. Even now, in a time without monarchs in the traditional sense, it is still intriguing to read or watch stories involving power struggles over a throne. If you doubt this or think it is an outdated story point, then consider for a moment A Game of Thrones, in which the main plot is a struggle for the throne among several families and people. Consider the importance of the Return of the King for Lord of the Rings. While we are no longer ruled by kings and queens, a lot of our popular stories still explore this concept and we are still entertained by it. So, even with political structure shifts, the pursuit of the throne stays relevant. Also, revenge. Revenge stories are relatable, even if realistic revenge doesn't go to such murderous extremes as Hamlet does. It is still compelling and just seems to be part of human nature to a certain extent. Human nature is relatively timeless so far, and stories like this will continue to be compelling and enticing for years to come.  

The questions and ability for exploring different aspects of the play is another cause for enjoyment and continual re-reading. Scholars and students enjoy this play, often because of how many different ways you can read it. There are so many questions it can leave a reader with. For example, did Hamlet truly love Ophelia? Was he actually crazy or not? How old is Hamlet and does age have anything to do with how he reacts or his suitability for the throne? Some readings imply that he's a teenager, while others imply that he is already in his thirties. Does that make his brooding more or less acceptable? Would Hamlet have been a good ruler if he'd succeeded in gaining the throne? Why is Polonius such a meddlesome fool? There are also many others and we could go on for days. This is a great work for discussion.  

So why do I personally like this story so much? 

Hamlet is a sassy guy who is toying with everyone around him while trying to reach his goal. Ophelia has to deal with everybody trying to control her emotions and role, poor girl. I can't help but feel bad for the route her story goes. It all culminates in an epic sword fight and one of the craziest endings when you really think about it. 


A guy is coming to fight the kingdom over a conflict we didn't even see, because it happened before the start of the play, and he walks in to see that his job became a whole lot easier than he probably thought it would be. It's basically how a family ruins their entire line's place on the throne, because they all kill each other and leave it open to the next guy who walks into the castle with a bone to pick. It's kind of absurd, yet it makes sense once you see how every event plays out.  

As with some other Shakespeare plays, particularly tragedies, we also get an abundance of deceased characters. Let's check a tally here, shall we? 

Body Count: IT DEPENDS. Yes, you read that correctly. It depends on if you count the bodies that fell off-stage or before the play even began. Here's the breakdown!

Total possible: 13 (11 if you don't count the two skulls the gravedigger threw, because those two people, whoever they may be, are also dead). 

That we see on-stage: 6

Off-Stage/Before the play: 4

So, do you count the death of Hamlet Sr.? Since he is a main character who needs to be dead to be a ghost in the first place, probably. But then do you also count Fortinbras Sr., whose death sets Fortinbras towards Denmark at the start? I do. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also meet their end, but we do not see it happen. Do you count Yorick, who passed years before and whose skull Hamlet iconically holds? I count everything, so to me, it's a grand total of 13.  

Now leaving SPOILER LAND

So anyway, this play is awesome, to say the least. It may not be the most easy piece of writing to understand since the style of English is so different from what we use now, but boy is the story itself worth checking out in some way or another. Watch a film version, even if it is one that makes it easier to understand. Check out a graphic novel version (I've read a manga one, for kicks and grins). 

I also like to recommend my favorite adaptation, which I like to refer to as Hamlet with lions, which a lot of people are already very familiar with,...otherwise known as The Lion King. I'm being completely serious. It's a story of a king who has a brother, who wants the throne, who is willing to hurt his family members (including his nephew), to get it. His nephew has to figure things out and decide whether or not he wants to come back to try and set things straight, and it culminates in an epic fight. Some of the more adult themes are left out, but hey, it was predominantly created with kids in mind! If you didn't consider it like this before, I dare you to give it a test run. Read the play and then watch the movie, and if you cut out the adult portions, simplify the story, and make it more kid friendly overall, The Lion King is what it boils down to if you set the story in Africa, turn every human into lions, and pair it with a fantastic soundtrack.  

Seeing as how it is my favorite play by Shakespeare, I'm sure anyone can guess that I give Hamlet a Lone Star rating of ✯✯✯✯. I do think that it is a must read, or at least a must-watch in some form. The story is compelling and the plot points are exciting. Things get complex, but by the end, things wrap up simply enough. There's a lot you can be left thinking about and there are lots of fun lines to quote and reference that can be deep or simple. It has lasted this long, so clearly, something was done right. 

If you do plan to read it, so far I recommend the Shakespeare Folger Library edition of Hamlet and all other Shakespeare works. They are very helpful to not just students with a good grasp of the time period and language, but also to casual readers who need assistance with definitions of unfamiliar terms. They provide summaries of scenes so you can focus on how things happen and can actually know WHAT happens, even if the language is hindering you a bit. It helps a ton in understanding the progression of the story, and as a bonus, most of them are rather small and inexpensive! They're my favorite edition so far, even on top of an official Norton Anthology. I like being able to easily carry my books around and the accessibility of these editions is fantastic. Cannot recommend them highly enough. 

This concludes the first Shakespeare Saturday here at The Real World According To Sam, where I bring the books to your screen and even put in my own two cents about them. 

If you'd like to see more, let me know! I take recommendations, review requests, and critique!