First off the play. Do I really need to write the plot? I guess I should in case people do not know it. Here goes: Something is rotten in the State of Denmark. The king Hamlet Sr. has been killed by his brother, Claudius, who has taken over the thrown and married Gertrude, the former and current queen. Just to make it clear, Claudius married his sister-in-law. The prince, young Hamlet, is very annoyed by this. He is sulking around making everyone feel bad. He has come from Whittenberg where he has been studying. The ghost of Hamlet Sr. begins prowling around and scares some guards who tell Hamlet's best friend Horatio who tells Hamlet. They all see the ghost and the ghost tells Hamlet how he died and demands that Hamlet revenge him. Hamlet take some time trying to get up the nerve to kill his uncle, the new king, He does this by making everyone think he is crazy including treating Ophelia, the girl he's been flirting with, like shit. The king enlists Hamlet's boyhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildestern to help find out why Hamlet is all crazy. Some players come along and Hamlet gets them to do a play closely resembling the murder of Hamlet Sr. Claudius freaks out. Hamlet is now convinced that the ghost wasn't lying, He yells at his Mother and kills Polonius, a counselor to Claudius and Ophelia's dad. For this Claudius sends Hamlet to England where he plans to have Hamlet killed. Hamlet improbably escapes. Meanwhile Ophelia goes mad and kills herself. Her brother Laertes shows up and wants to kill Hamlet for killing his dad and driving Ophelia insane. Laertes and Claudius plot to kill Hamlet in a duel. The duel goes awry, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet all die. End of play. Basically.
There are lots of little nuances and some truly great writing along the way. I find the play to be both great and over-rated. One thing I find odd and hard to buy is Hamlet's rescue from England by pirates. Very odd and strangely convenient. I also find Hamlet hard to sympathize with. He treats Ophelia awfully for no apparent reason. He treats Rosencrantz and Guildstern poorly as well. I feel bad for those poor guys. They are asked by their friend's uncle to see if they can help their friend in his insanity and for that Hamlet has them killed. They were accompanying him to England with letters asking the English to kill Hamlet when he arrives. R &G have no idea that that is their goal just that they are to help their friend. hamlet forges a letter telling the english to kill R &G. When Hamlet discovers that Ophelia is dead, he professes to love her, yet he treated her like crap. He's not a great guy; more of a whiny brat.
Strangely, though, I have always felt an affinity toward Hamlet. I first played him for for a directing student at Emerson College. I had been cast as Horatio in the ghost scene, but the actor playing Hamlet vanished three days before the showing. The directing student asked me to take over. Playing Hamlet in that scene felt like second nature. I seemed to understand the role intuitively. I next played the Nunnery scene at Trinity Rep Conservatory and again I felt as though I had already played the scene before. I did it quite well and some of my fellow actors told me that I was a good fit for Hamlet because of my depressive nature and moodiness.
Many years later I played Hamlet in a very difficult and production. The edit was very strange and there were difficult personal aspects created by the director. The director had led my then girlfriend to believe she would be playing Ophelia and then cast something else. My girlfriend felt that, in loyalty to her, I should not do the play. I was 38 at the time and chances to play Hamlet in a full production would be fewer and fewer so I did not want to drop out, This led to crazy tension and arguments. All while trying to learn Hamlet. I did like that it was a very bare bones production with limited set pieces or costumes and instead focused on the words and the story. I got some good reviews never the less and it was through this production that I developed my negative opinion of Hamlet. I still did feel that odd feeling of knowing the part well intuitively. Another odd part of that production, that made Hamlet less sympathetic, was that Laertes was played by a woman. This made the advice Laertes gives to Ophelia about not believing Hamlet's wooing seem to come from personal experience, as though Hamlet were always leading women on and then toying with them.
My favorite aspect about the play is the first scene. Because the ghost is seen by the guards several times and Horatio once, it establishes the ghost as an actual entity and not just part of Hamlet's imagination. Whatever you may make of Hamlet's behavior, the ghost is real. I also felt that the problem of Hamlet's sanity was less profound than people seem to make out. I had always heard that you have to decide one way or another that Hamlet is insane or not. I felt that was not the case. In my opinion Hamlet himself is unsure of how far his role playing craziness is in his control. I found several moments where he realized that he might be out of control and is unsure himself whether he is insane or not.
The famous "To be or not to be..." speech is always hard. I didn't commit to it as fully as I could have when I did it at Trinity, but I did make a strong and strange choice. I had seen a number of actors do the scene with a gun or a sword and actually try to kill each themselves. This seemed wrong and odd to me because if I hold and unloaded prop gun to my head, I know it does not present actual danger to me so I still have to pretend that is might kill me. The same goes for a dull prop sword. I thought that to give myself an actual look right at death, I should do something actually dangerous. To that end I held myself over a thirty foot drop onto a cement stairwell. I wasn't going to let go and kill myself but if I slipped or if I let go death was right there staring at me. It was actually scary to me to do that. The second time I did it I felt that that kind of choice was not right and that he really is just thinking and talking about death and suicide rather than actually preparing to do it. It made it easier and less fraught and felt more honest.
All that said I do like the play, It is so full of profound and active speeches that it has a great energy about it. Everyone should read it.