Ghosts, Murder, and More Murder – Hamlet Part I: Crash Course Literature 203


Hi I’m John Green, this is CrashCourse Literature
and today we’re going to talk about the greatest Dane of all, Scooby-Doo. No, it’s
Hamlet. So Hamlet is either a 16h or 17th century
play, we’re not positive. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was written by William
Shakespeare sometime between 1599 and 1602 and it’s considered by many to be Shakespeare’s
best work, even better than Timon of Athens or Cymbeline.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green, I know Hamlet’s like super famous and important and everything,
but isn’t it basically just like a super long play about a guy who never makes up his
mind? Well, Me From The Past, some argue that Hamlet
doesn’t have trouble making up his mind so much as he has trouble executing his vision.
More specifically, executing his uncle. Then again, Me From The Past, many of us would
argue that Hamlet does struggle to make decisions, but the decisions he has to make are quite
difficult. I mean this is a play about justice and revenge and your conscience, and your
place in the social order, and once again deeply uncomfortable feelings about mothers. [Theme Music] So, Shakespeare based Hamlet on a medieval
Scandinavian tale chronicled by everyone’s favorite Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus,
pictured here, depending on your world view as either Santa Claus or God.
But shakespeare probably knew the tale from contemporary plays rather than like actual
Danish history because up to that point had been mostly about Vikings and pastries. Actually,
that’s still mostly what it is. So Saxo tells the story of Prince Amleth,
a kid who he sees his uncle murder his father. And then young Amleth bides his time and pretends
to be crazy in order to lull his uncle into a false sense of security. And then, as soon
as he’s grown up, Amleth slaughters his uncle with his father’s sword.
Amleth by the way, 80% of the way to being Pig Latin for Hamlet.
Anyway, it’s interesting to know that background because it makes you think about the changes
that Shakespeare makes to that story which indicates something about what’s really
important to Shakespeare. For instance, Hamlet isn’t unable to kill
his uncle because he’s young. And he doesn’t actually see his uncle murder his father.
So basically, Shakespeare was introducing ambiguity into the story which is kind of
Shakespeare’s specialty. So Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most popular
play, in fact, it’s perhaps the only one to have been consistently performed since
it debuted. It’s also, very long. Like when Kenneth Branagh attempted to film
every line the movie lasted more than four hours. Some theatrical productions have gone
on as long as six. The general consensus is that Shakespeare
wrote the play so long to satisfy himself, and he knew that theatre troupes would just
like make it shorter any way they wanted. But it’s also possible that he thought that
by keeping the audience at the theater for longer, would help him to sell more
mutton pies at the concession stand. We have to remember art is also commerce.
But this whole link thing brings us to the fact that there are actually three different
versions of Hamlet. There are two quartos, one from 1603 and another from 1604, and then
the Folio edition from 1623 The second quarto and the folio are somewhat
similar, although the first was probably based on Shakespeare’s notes and the second based
on seeing the play in performance. But the first quarto is known as the “bad
quarto,” and not in the sense that it’s evil, but in the sense that it’s kind of
terrible. Historians believe that an actor probably
transcribed the first quarto his memory and that that actor probably only played really
small parts. Like Marcellus. Basically, the scenes he was onstage for he remembered pretty well, but the other ones not so much. He was probably that actor who’s always
mouthing other peoples’ lines. For example, here’s the bad quarto’s “To be or not to be” speech:
“To be, or not to be, that’s the point, to die, to sleepe, is that all?” Yeah, that’s fantastic.
Anyway, in all the versions, the plot is the same: Hamlet is a grad student who returns
home to Elsinore when his father dies and then his mother Gertrude suddenly marries
his uncle Claudius. Claudius takes over as king even though technically Hamlet should
inherit the throne. So a grieving Hamlet deals with this as any
grad student would by wearing black, listening to sad music, and making long speeches about
how he wishes his flesh would melt. Which spoiler: It eventually will.
But then, his father’s ghost appears to him and begs Hamlet to revenge his murder
by that aforementioned uncle Claudius. Hamlet isn’t sure about this. So he pretends to
be insane, you know as you do. He then hires a troupe of players
to put on a show that will make Claudius to reveal his guilt,
Claudius is indeed overwhelmed with emotion, flees the play, Gertrude summons Hamlet to
her bedchamber where they have a weirdly intimate discussion, until Hamlet hears a noise and
in a rare decisive moment stabs the curtain. Oh, but it’s not my uncle, it’s Polonius. Polonius, who was never brief despite saying
that, “brevity is the soul of wit.” And then also famously said, “to thine own
self be true” and you know, proceeded to not be terribly true to himself.
So Gertrude decides that Hamlet should get out of town for a while and he sails away
and there’s a writ of death and storms and pirates, and then Hamlet returns only to find
that Polonius’s daughter Ophelia has committed suicide and that her brother Laertes is kind
of mad at Hamlet. So Claudius schedules a fencing match between
Laertes and Hamlet, poisoning Laertes’s sword and Hamlet’s wine.
Hamlet is stabbed, but manages to wound Laertes while Gertrude downs the fatal wine. And then,
once everyone is dead or dying Hamlet decides that, now, is finally a good time to stab
Claudius. Basically, all the Danes die. Except Horatio
of course because you need someone to say, “Good night sweet prince: And flights of
angels sing thee to thy rest!” What kind of place is this Denmark where people
have stunningly un-Danish names like Claudius and Polonius. Well, let’s go to the Thought
Bubble. So, throughout the play, Claudius is building
up an army to take on Norway and Denmark is caught in a strange limbo between war and
not war. As often happens, the specter of external enemies leads the ruling powers to
search for enemies within, and we see a lot of examples of Elsinore as a surveillance
society. Like, Hamlet’s not wrong when he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “Denmark’s
a prison.” The characters are closely watching each other;
I mean Gertrude and Claudius are watching Hamlet, so is Polonius, though he’s awfully
bad at it. Hamlet’s schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are watching him closely
as Claudius is encouraging them to spy while they throw back Danish grog and talk about
girls. Ophelia is watching Hamlet, too, but Hamlet isn’t watching her, because he’s
too busy staring at Claudius, trying to figure out if he really did murder his father and
of course Hamlet also spends a lot of time watching himself and then reciting anguished
soliloquies about it. Personally, in the end, I’m more struck
my Hamlet’s narcissism than by his indecisiveness. Anyway, all of this is probably less a criticism of Denmark, which is a perfectly nice place
full of herring sandwiches and competitive handball, than it is a commentary on Elizabethan
England, a place notorious for spying and also the place where Shakespeare actually
lived. There were all sorts of anti-royal, anti-Catholic conspiracies going and Elizabeth
I ran a whole network of spies to help discover them — sort of like M in James Bond, but with
more tiaras. Even Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s rival and one of the most badass playwright’s
ever, was a spy. So the court of Elsinore can be read as a commentary on Shakespeare’s
own environment, in which being tried and beheaded for secret treason was kind of a
national pastime. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So Hamlet is a play
about watching and being watched. Something that we’re all pretty familiar with these
days, but it’s also a play about doubling and mirroring.
This is a common Shakespearian thing but it gets to some really core questions about being
a person. Like are people really capable of change,
can they become different people over time, and when you look in the mirror are you seeing
the person that is actually you? Are you the person you imagine yourself to be?
So, there are at least two Hamlets in this play, right, there is the old dead King Hamlet
who goes around haunting the Elsinore battlements and our hero who is supposed to avenge that
old Hamlet . But the living Hamlet is also split into two
people: the one who wants to kill Claudius and the one who’s like, “You know maybe
not. Maybe I should just be a grad student.” And some critics argue that the Hamlet who
returns home from the pirate adventure is yet another person, because he is a very different
guy from the one who left. And you can even see Ophelia as a kind of
extreme, subversive double for Hamlet, like what Hamlet might be like if he were robbed
of all of his power and agency. And then obviously when the actors perform
their play The Murder of Gonzago, they’re mirroring all the recent events in Elsinore.
But it’s not a regular mirror right. It’s kind of a funhouse mirror.
But ultimately, it’s not just…. oh no! My desk is moving! That must mean it’s time
for the open letter! An open letter to Simba. Hey there Simba,
let’s take a look at the 1990s adaptation of Hamlet that DIDN’T star Mel Gibson. The
one starring you – The Lion King. Simba? Hamlet
Mufasa? Recently murdered king. Scar? Claudius
Mufasa in the sky and smoke? Oviously, Ghost. Nala? Ophelia
The Elephant Graveyard? England. Or maybe the actual graveyard with the last poor Yorick
whom I knew well. The point is: YOU MUST NEVER GO THERE, SIMBA.
Sorry, I don’t have a good James Earl Jones. Best wishes, John Green.
So anyway, it’s not just one mirror, but many, that reflect Hamlet’s trouble figuring
out what kind of a man he is and how he should act. These mirrors also underscore the perpetual
cycle of violence at the heart of the revenge tragedy which you’ll no doubt remember from
our talk of ancient Greek stories. Like in these tragedies the desire for vengeance ultimately corrupts the revenger and he or
she has to die, too. Each murder has to be answered for with another murder until we
are out of people who can die. A good example of this unending violence is
old Hamlet’s ghost, who can’t rest in this grave until he’s avenged. Now, the
critics Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle describe ghosts as “the very embodiment
of strange repetition or recurrence: it is a revenant, it comes back”
Okay, but it comes back from where? Like ghosts don’t really fit into Hamlet’s understanding
of death. He describes death as “The undiscover’d country, from whose born / No traveller returns.”
Except his dad, apparently. In fact, one way to read it is that the ghost’s
fate is in some ways aligned with Catholic purgatory, “confin’d to fast in fires
/ till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / are burnt and purg’d away.” And
Hamlet seems to fear something similar, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.”
Though it’s also worth nothing that Hamlet wonders if the ghost really is his father.
Hamlet has to ask if the ghost is a “spirit of health or goblin damn’d.”
Regardless, the ghost makes Hamlet wonder about the consequences of his actions. I mean
here’s Hamlet saying, “Can this ghost (whose name I remind you is Hamlet) be trusted?
Is justice the business of people or of God. Now obviously there are no easy answers to
those questions but earthly justice is clearly corrupt in this play — I mean Claudius has usurped
the kingdom and there’s evidence that old King Hamlet might not have been the greatest ruler
either. And Claudius is already being punished spiritually,
although it’s not clear whether it comes from himself or from god, but, like, at one point
he tries to pray and finds that he actually can’t: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below
words without thought never to heaven go,” Now prayer was seen as cleansing and in that scene Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius
because he believes that Claudius is praying and therefore will be cleansed of his sin
and will go straight to heaven if Hamlet killed him right then.
And that wouldn’t be fair! Of course, actually, if he’d just killed Claudius in that moment
due to the thoughts not going up to heaven everything would’ve been fine. I mean not
for Claudius, but you know, for justice. So should Hamlet act? Should he let diving
justice take its course? Does divine justice only work through people? Even I can’t decide!
But Mr Green, Mr Green, in the end how does Hamlet make up his mind though?
Well, Me From the Past, when he finally makes up his mind he’s dieing, right? He has like
seconds left to live. Ultimately, Hamlet is a great play for its
aphorisms, and its language, and its ambiguity, but also because it brilliantly captures the
fact that we do not know what we are doing. Hamlet doesn’t struggle to decide a course
of action because he’s young or because he’s an academic or because he’s a narcissist.
He struggles because he’s human. We’ll continue our discussion of him and the play
next week. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you then. Crash Course is made by all of these nice people and it exists because of your support
at Subbable.com including Subbable subscriber, and Crash Course supporter, Kevin Lee who
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