Shakespeare's Hamlet, written around 1600, is one of the most problematic texts in all of literature. With the exception of certain Biblical texts, no other work has produced such a continuing, lively, and contentious debate about how we are supposed to understand it. In fact, one could very easily construct a thorough and intriguing history of modern literary criticism based upon nothing other than various interpretative takes on Hamlet (a task which has already been carried out by at least one historian of ideas).
Given this critical confusion, we might as well admit up front that we are not going to arrive at anything like a firm consensus on what the play is about and how we should understand it. However, wrestling with this play is a very important and stimulating exercise, because it puts a lot of pressure on us to reach some final interpretation (that is, it generates in us a desire to make sense of all the elements in it, to find some closure), and, even if that goal eludes us, we can learn a great deal about reading poetic drama and interpreting literature from a serious attempt to grasp this most elusive work. If one of the really important functions of great literature is to stimulate thought-provoking conversations which force us to come to grips with many things about the text and about ourselves, then Hamlet is a particularly valuable work.
I should also add that many of the difficulties we wrestle with (like the age of the characters, for example) can only be temporarily resolved by witnessing and responding to a production of the play. Because there is so much ambiguity and uncertainly about many key elements, Hamlet offers a director a great deal of creative scope, and hence the variety in productions of this play is unmatched in all of Shakespeare, perhaps in all tragic drama.
In this introductory lecture (and I stress the word introductory) I would like to discuss three things: (a) first, I would like to outline... [continues]
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