The Relevance of Hamlet in the Modern Age

Image

Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be. (175)

This speech is a defining moment for Hamlet. He is telling Horatio that he is not going to waste time on a bad feeling or omen. It is his duty to fight Laertes, regardless of the outcome. He tells him that no one knows when or how they are going to die, but he is ready if that’s what is meant to happen. Hamlet is essentially entering into a situation in full control of his emotions, which is in stark contrast to his indecision and introspection in the rest of the play. Much is also made of his madness. Is his madness real or an act to disguise his true purpose?

William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is a classic revenge tragedy that is hard to forget. A king has his wife, crown and his life stolen from him (“murder most foul”) by his brother. His young son Hamlet is the only one who properly mourns him, and who is left to avenge his father’s murder when the conspiracy is revealed to him. In the process of carrying out his revenge, Hamlet loses everything and everyone dear to him and ends up poisoned. Throw in a little bit of madness, (both Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s) a ghost, and a lot of oratory and that rounds out the story. Plot is extremely important in Hamlet, but it is not the most interesting part of the play.

What is really incredible is that Hamlet is still relevant almost five-hundred years after it was written. The story wasn’t even original to Shakespeare, as he rewrote it from a well known Norse legend. Oral tradition is what kept the story alive before Shakespeare, and in truth, it is part of what solidifies this play and makes it stick in our consciousness even today. Before I sat down to read Hamlet, I had never been exposed to it formally and yet I almost magically knew the play’s twists and turns. Of course magic has nothing to do with it. Hamlet has been fed to us since childhood through stories and cartoons (remember Bugs Bunny quoting To Be Or Not To Be?). Popular culture has made Hamlet as familiar to me as Little Red Riding Hood, though it was never one of my childhood bedtime stories.


(The quote starts at 5:59)

I think the most important reason why Hamlet is still relevant is that it has peppered our speech patterns and turn of phrase. Some of the quotes that are most familiar include:

  • “For the apparel oft proclaims the man” (the clothes make the man).
  • “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”
  • “This above all, to thine own self be true”

These are just three of the many examples of how Hamlet has influenced our modern society. These are of course taken from Polonius’ speech to Laertes (pg. 75) when he is leaving for France. They were meant as words of caution and guides for life, and they are still used this way today. I would argue that they are some of the most used (and overused) quotes of our time. Did any other quotes stand out to you as strongly?

If after reading Hamlet, the themes still escape you or you find it too dry I would recommend watching the 1996 version starring Kenneth Branagh. It is an incredible portrayal, and shows the play word for word. It really helped me discover meaning in scenes where I found myself lost during the reading. Hamlet’s introspection and brooding become palpable, and his pain can be read in his face instead of just on a page.

20 thoughts on “The Relevance of Hamlet in the Modern Age

    • I considered watching the Ethan Hawke version, but wasn’t sure I was ready to see it in a modern setting – now i am glad that I avoided it. I love that you brought up poor Yorick, because he is probably the most memorable character from Hamlet (for the general population) besides Hamlet himself. Hamlet talking to the skull is such a vulnerable moment. He is remembering his childhood friend.

  1. Your question, “Is his madness real or an act to disguise his true purpose” seems to be the foremost question for most of us. I am really torn between Hamlet’s madness being feigned or actual, but I tend to to lean towards the latter. He gives such a convincing portrayal of madness that it’s hard to see it all being an act. Also with the amount of loss and tragic events surrounding him, it would seem anyone would border the edge of sanity.
    “I think the most important reason why Hamlet is still relevant is that it has peppered our speech patterns and turn of phrase.”, I really loved this part of your post and how you tied in the effect of “Hamlet” in our modern society. It really is amazing that Shakespeare’s works have thrived for hundreds of years. I too watched Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” as well as Mel Gibson’s: I preferred Branagh’s performance and thought it was incredibly well done!

    • I agree that there are moments where I couldn’t help but think that Hamlet was certainly mad, but then the light shone through and he seemed normal. Of course, madness is something which even psychology barely scratches the surface of. This lack of concrete knowledge of what madness really is leads us to question even our own judgements about it. I am sure that 400 years from now people will still be debating the subject, and no closer to an answer.

  2. Meg,

    Kudos! Hamlet is one of my favorite, and impressively, is taught in many private schools (not sure about public schools). I learned new things new things from your essay and how Hamlet has ingrained itself in modern society. — I think some cartoons, like Bugs Bunny, primarily for entertainment purposes, were often quite educational. I was a Bugs Bunny fanatic, and I remember that episode.

    Your essay makes me want to pick up Hamlet and read it again. I think I just might do that.

    • I went to public school, and we read Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth but never Hamlet. I am fairly certain that it is part of Idaho’s required curriculum, but don’t quote me on that. The fact that we still feel that there is something tangible in Shakespeare; something to be learned, that is the real magic.

      • I am at a public school at the moment and we are reading and watching Hamlet, and doing an analytical essay on it.So yes, public schools do it, but only the advanced class.

  3. The last time I read Hamlet was in high school, so I don’t remember much. Reading it again was like my first time, and it was hard for me to absorb due to its language and my literary sensibilities. But yet your comment: “I had never been exposed to it formally and yet I almost magically knew the play’s twists and turns” is absolutely true for a lot of people. A big part of why it’s pervasive is because many of the play’s themes are universal and still relevant: morality, death, faith, etc. After centuries, we still ponder questions around these ideas. The other part of why it’s popular, I think, is its susceptibility to interpretation – hence, why we’re reading it for class. Overall, the play is just a great literary standard filled with intrigue and thought.

    • I completely agree. It has all of the things in it that we are afraid of – death, madness, treachery. It makes us question our own definitions of what morality and even madness are. Reading it definitely has not clarified anything for me, but I love the wit and humor Shakespeare used to show the humanity of his characters.

  4. Watching the movie after really helped me too! There were so many quotes in Hamlet that I recognized from other places, I couldn’t believe it. I never realized how many sayings have their origins in the play.

    • I felt like the entire conversation surrounding it was an incredible commentary on the circle of life. I know that I am going to end up food for worms, but to have it laid out in such graphic terms is a bit unnerving. It seems like Shakespeare is trying to inject a little humor into a topic that few find humorous. It is really fun to see this particular bit acted out.

  5. My wife (a big Shakespeare nerd) and I will be sitting down to Branagh’s film over the next couple days. I loved reading the play, but when it comes to drama you cannot beat watching an actor digest the Bard’s words and intentions. The fact that Shakespeare left so little in the way of stage directions to chain down retellings and interpretations allow for endless versions of his work, and create the juiciest parts for actors to play. A good friend of mine was in a production of Othello here in Portland last year, playing the great villain Iago, and seeing Shakespeare performed rather than reading it on the page is such a great enhancement.

    • I also loved reading the play, but I must admit there were passages that completely stumped me, or that I thought I understood but wasn’t sure. Seeing it acted out or hearing it read provides as much insight in plays as it does with poetry.

  6. “Plot is extremely important in Hamlet, but it is not the most interesting part of the play.” I couldn’t agree more. Most of Shakespeare’s plots, like Hamlet, were retellings and re-interpretations of age-old stories. It’s Shakespeare’s characters, and their humanity, that are responsible for the preservation of these stories for another 400+ years and counting.

    • Yes of course, I should have expanded my interpretation to include this. The complexity of characters was definitely Shakespeare’s strong suit. Their innermost thoughts and struggles (specifically Hamlet’s) continue to draw in readers and to inspire debates long after Shakespeare’s death. Hamlet alone is this incredible driving force in the play through which everyone else’s lives are altered or ended. His disillusionment and heartbreak is impossible to forget.

  7. I enjoyed Hamlet, in fact his story seems similar to mine. That is what I get from reading stories. Today’s Hamlet is probably another misunderstood individual, even though people read the play they still don’t recognize it, or try to take life lesson from it.

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The Relevance of Hamlet in the Modern Age

Image

Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be. (175)

This speech is a defining moment for Hamlet. He is telling Horatio that he is not going to waste time on a bad feeling or omen. It is his duty to fight Laertes, regardless of the outcome. He tells him that no one knows when or how they are going to die, but he is ready if that’s what is meant to happen. Hamlet is essentially entering into a situation in full control of his emotions, which is in stark contrast to his indecision and introspection in the rest of the play. Much is also made of his madness. Is his madness real or an act to disguise his true purpose?

William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is a classic revenge tragedy that is hard to forget. A king has his wife, crown and his life stolen from him (“murder most foul”) by his brother. His young son Hamlet is the only one who properly mourns him, and who is left to avenge his father’s murder when the conspiracy is revealed to him. In the process of carrying out his revenge, Hamlet loses everything and everyone dear to him and ends up poisoned. Throw in a little bit of madness, (both Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s) a ghost, and a lot of oratory and that rounds out the story. Plot is extremely important in Hamlet, but it is not the most interesting part of the play.

What is really incredible is that Hamlet is still relevant almost five-hundred years after it was written. The story wasn’t even original to Shakespeare, as he rewrote it from a well known Norse legend. Oral tradition is what kept the story alive before Shakespeare, and in truth, it is part of what solidifies this play and makes it stick in our consciousness even today. Before I sat down to read Hamlet, I had never been exposed to it formally and yet I almost magically knew the play’s twists and turns. Of course magic has nothing to do with it. Hamlet has been fed to us since childhood through stories and cartoons (remember Bugs Bunny quoting To Be Or Not To Be?). Popular culture has made Hamlet as familiar to me as Little Red Riding Hood, though it was never one of my childhood bedtime stories.


(The quote starts at 5:59)

I think the most important reason why Hamlet is still relevant is that it has peppered our speech patterns and turn of phrase. Some of the quotes that are most familiar include:

  • “For the apparel oft proclaims the man” (the clothes make the man).
  • “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”
  • “This above all, to thine own self be true”

These are just three of the many examples of how Hamlet has influenced our modern society. These are of course taken from Polonius’ speech to Laertes (pg. 75) when he is leaving for France. They were meant as words of caution and guides for life, and they are still used this way today. I would argue that they are some of the most used (and overused) quotes of our time. Did any other quotes stand out to you as strongly?

If after reading Hamlet, the themes still escape you or you find it too dry I would recommend watching the 1996 version starring Kenneth Branagh. It is an incredible portrayal, and shows the play word for word. It really helped me discover meaning in scenes where I found myself lost during the reading. Hamlet’s introspection and brooding become palpable, and his pain can be read in his face instead of just on a page.

21 thoughts on “The Relevance of Hamlet in the Modern Age

    • I considered watching the Ethan Hawke version, but wasn’t sure I was ready to see it in a modern setting – now i am glad that I avoided it. I love that you brought up poor Yorick, because he is probably the most memorable character from Hamlet (for the general population) besides Hamlet himself. Hamlet talking to the skull is such a vulnerable moment. He is remembering his childhood friend.

  1. Your question, “Is his madness real or an act to disguise his true purpose” seems to be the foremost question for most of us. I am really torn between Hamlet’s madness being feigned or actual, but I tend to to lean towards the latter. He gives such a convincing portrayal of madness that it’s hard to see it all being an act. Also with the amount of loss and tragic events surrounding him, it would seem anyone would border the edge of sanity.
    “I think the most important reason why Hamlet is still relevant is that it has peppered our speech patterns and turn of phrase.”, I really loved this part of your post and how you tied in the effect of “Hamlet” in our modern society. It really is amazing that Shakespeare’s works have thrived for hundreds of years. I too watched Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” as well as Mel Gibson’s: I preferred Branagh’s performance and thought it was incredibly well done!

    • I agree that there are moments where I couldn’t help but think that Hamlet was certainly mad, but then the light shone through and he seemed normal. Of course, madness is something which even psychology barely scratches the surface of. This lack of concrete knowledge of what madness really is leads us to question even our own judgements about it. I am sure that 400 years from now people will still be debating the subject, and no closer to an answer.

  2. Meg,

    Kudos! Hamlet is one of my favorite, and impressively, is taught in many private schools (not sure about public schools). I learned new things new things from your essay and how Hamlet has ingrained itself in modern society. — I think some cartoons, like Bugs Bunny, primarily for entertainment purposes, were often quite educational. I was a Bugs Bunny fanatic, and I remember that episode.

    Your essay makes me want to pick up Hamlet and read it again. I think I just might do that.

    • I went to public school, and we read Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth but never Hamlet. I am fairly certain that it is part of Idaho’s required curriculum, but don’t quote me on that. The fact that we still feel that there is something tangible in Shakespeare; something to be learned, that is the real magic.

      • I am at a public school at the moment and we are reading and watching Hamlet, and doing an analytical essay on it.So yes, public schools do it, but only the advanced class.

  3. The last time I read Hamlet was in high school, so I don’t remember much. Reading it again was like my first time, and it was hard for me to absorb due to its language and my literary sensibilities. But yet your comment: “I had never been exposed to it formally and yet I almost magically knew the play’s twists and turns” is absolutely true for a lot of people. A big part of why it’s pervasive is because many of the play’s themes are universal and still relevant: morality, death, faith, etc. After centuries, we still ponder questions around these ideas. The other part of why it’s popular, I think, is its susceptibility to interpretation – hence, why we’re reading it for class. Overall, the play is just a great literary standard filled with intrigue and thought.

    • I completely agree. It has all of the things in it that we are afraid of – death, madness, treachery. It makes us question our own definitions of what morality and even madness are. Reading it definitely has not clarified anything for me, but I love the wit and humor Shakespeare used to show the humanity of his characters.

  4. Watching the movie after really helped me too! There were so many quotes in Hamlet that I recognized from other places, I couldn’t believe it. I never realized how many sayings have their origins in the play.

    • I felt like the entire conversation surrounding it was an incredible commentary on the circle of life. I know that I am going to end up food for worms, but to have it laid out in such graphic terms is a bit unnerving. It seems like Shakespeare is trying to inject a little humor into a topic that few find humorous. It is really fun to see this particular bit acted out.

  5. My wife (a big Shakespeare nerd) and I will be sitting down to Branagh’s film over the next couple days. I loved reading the play, but when it comes to drama you cannot beat watching an actor digest the Bard’s words and intentions. The fact that Shakespeare left so little in the way of stage directions to chain down retellings and interpretations allow for endless versions of his work, and create the juiciest parts for actors to play. A good friend of mine was in a production of Othello here in Portland last year, playing the great villain Iago, and seeing Shakespeare performed rather than reading it on the page is such a great enhancement.

    • I also loved reading the play, but I must admit there were passages that completely stumped me, or that I thought I understood but wasn’t sure. Seeing it acted out or hearing it read provides as much insight in plays as it does with poetry.

  6. “Plot is extremely important in Hamlet, but it is not the most interesting part of the play.” I couldn’t agree more. Most of Shakespeare’s plots, like Hamlet, were retellings and re-interpretations of age-old stories. It’s Shakespeare’s characters, and their humanity, that are responsible for the preservation of these stories for another 400+ years and counting.

    • Yes of course, I should have expanded my interpretation to include this. The complexity of characters was definitely Shakespeare’s strong suit. Their innermost thoughts and struggles (specifically Hamlet’s) continue to draw in readers and to inspire debates long after Shakespeare’s death. Hamlet alone is this incredible driving force in the play through which everyone else’s lives are altered or ended. His disillusionment and heartbreak is impossible to forget.

  7. I enjoyed Hamlet, in fact his story seems similar to mine. That is what I get from reading stories. Today’s Hamlet is probably another misunderstood individual, even though people read the play they still don’t recognize it, or try to take life lesson from it.

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