Hamlet

MOTHER CULTURE SELECTION FOR JANUARY 2017

Shakespeare’s Hamlet almost needs no introduction.  Most of us are probably familiar with the basic storyline—or at least parts of it. This play probably has the most well-known quotes and phrases of any of Shakespeare’s plays, which means it probably has the most of any work in the English language. You will constantly find yourself saying, “That’s where that came from . . . ” 

The teacher version we use at Providence Prep is the Oxford edition (click on image at left for Amazon affiliate link), although we use the inexpensive Dover edition with no commentary for students.

We give our students these standard instructions for reading Shakespeare:

If you have never read Hamlet, first read the excellent retelling in Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb for the storyline—you can read it free at Gutenberg, although it is quite worthy to be on your bookshelf! Read the full play Hamlet aloud at home with your family, with everyone taking a part or two (or three…). If you cannot read it aloud for some reason, the second best option is to listen to a recording, like this one. Listen with the book open. If all else fails, read it out loud by yourself! Please, do NOT watch a movie version of the play. Read and/or listen instead.

As always, your first priority should be just to enjoy the story! The ideas below for a close reading of this book build on the principles and practices detailed in this post I wrote for Scholé Groups:

TOWARD A LIFE WELL READ

The master aim of literature study should be to read and delight in the story. Keep these reading helps in their rightful place as servant to that master.

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT

Find out a bit about Shakespeare’s life and times, including what famous authors and thinkers through the ages have said about him. G.K. Chesterton said, “That Shakespeare is the English giant, all but alone in his stature among the sons of men, is a truth that does not really diminish with distance.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him, “our myriad-minded Shakespear.” Some critics accuse Shakespeare of being unoriginal—he borrowed his plots. “If he did, he jolly well paid back,” storms Chesterton.

It is from Shakespeare’s works that we get the clearest picture of Elizabethan times.
And yet, although we learn from him so much of what people did in those days, of
how they talked and even of how they thought, the chief thing that we feel about
Shakespeare’s characters is, not that they are Elizabethan, but that they are human,
that they are like ourselves, that they think, and say, and do, things which we ourselves
might think, and say, and do.

There are many books we read which we think of as very pretty, very quaint, very
interesting—but old-fashioned. But Shakespeare can never be old-fashioned, because,
although he is the outcome of his own times, and gives us all the flavor of his own times,
he gives us much more. He understood human nature, he saw beneath the outward
dress, and painted for us real men and women. And although fashion in dress and
modes of living may change, human nature does not change. “He was not of an age
but for all time,” it was said of him about seven years after his death, and now that
nearly three hundred years (now more than 500 years – ed.) have come and gone we still
acknowledge the truth of those words. ~ Henrietta Marshall, English Literature for Boys
and Girls

If you wish to have a commentary to accompany your reading, I recommend Leland Ryken’s Christian Guide to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Read “The Play at a Glance,” “The Author and His Faith,” and “Shakespeare’s Theater” before you read the play, but save all of the rest of the interpretation in the opening pages until after you read the play. I found it helpful to read the plot summary and the commentary each scene AFTER I listened to it read aloud.

Another good commentary is Peter Leithart’s Brightest Heaven of Invention, but due to spoilers, you should definitely read it after you have finished the play.

COMMONPLACE BOOK ENTRIES

If you are new to commonplacing, read this series of posts which includes lots of practical advice and specific how-tos for the practice of commonplacing.

THE ART OF COMMONPLACE

You might also enjoy my personal reflections on a lifetime of commonplacing.

Always read with a pen in hand! Mark possible passages for commonplacing at a future time.

Copy passages from Hamlet that

  • highlight Hamlet’s dilemma and his response to it
  • point to biblical or gospel themes
  • point to Shakespeare’s thoughts on his craft

And always, as you read, record favorite passages, and those that

  • spark your interest, remind you of something else, or bring up questions in your mind
  • delight you – especially figures of speech and eloquent turns of phrase
  • point you to the good, the true, and the beautiful

REFLECTIONS AS YOU READ

Review the  general reading journal options. In addition, here are a few specific Reading Journal prompts to consider. This is not meant to be a deep analysis. Use this kind of guided journaling only as a way to enhance enjoyment of the story!

  • Before you read any commentaries, make a list of questions you have about this play (or keep a running list as you read). Journal your thoughts on possible answers to your questions.
  • C. S. Lewis says that Hamlet  is a “mystery play in the sense of being about mystery.” Comment on this. What mysteries are left in your mind after finishing the play?
  • Lewis also said that “we read Hamlet’s speeches with interest chiefly because they describe so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed.” Reflect on this.
  • Is Hamlet a tragic hero or a martyr?
  • If you believe Hamlet’s madness is completely or partially feigned, compare it with that of Odysseus and David.
  • Is this a play about revenge or justice?

CONNECTIONS AND THE GREAT CONVERSATION

Write a response to the reading and/or community discussion. What did you find most interesting (or odd, or convicting…)? Are there any common themes or ideas from this reading which remind your of other books you have read? Are there any common themes or ideas from your Bible reading or recent sermons you have heard? Always be on the lookout for references to earlier or contemporaneous authors, ideas, and events—the ongoing Great Conversation.

LINKS WORTH A LOOK

  • Hamlet: A Man In Black – Dwight Longnecker at the Imaginative Conservative compares the court of Elsinore in Hamlet with the court of Elizabeth in England and draws parallels with today’s cultural “court”
  • Hamlet Discussion at the Circe Quiddity Podcast – I am in the process of listening to these now; podcasts from Circe are always thought-provoking!

MOTHER CULTURE COMMUNITY

Mother Culture Community is an online fellowship of Christian classical home educators and other reading mothers (and aunts, and sisters, and grandmothers, and daughters), sponsored by The Reading Mother. Our mission is inspire our students in the pursuit of a life well‐read. We believe our own pursuit of a life well‐read is the best place to start.

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Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, Eugène Delacroix, 1839
Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, Eugène Delacroix, 1839

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