Today I want to talk about Hamlet. I mean, I’ve got no particular reason for wanting to talk about Hamlet now except that I always want to talk about Hamlet. It would make more sense for me to talk about, I don’t know, Dance Academy or something, given that I watched the whole of series three in less than a day this week. But nah. Hamlet.
At the beginning of year twelve (my penultimate year of school), I went through a phase of absolutely loving Simon & Garfunkel. That isn’t to say I never listen to their music any more, but I was, like, obsessed. Bear with me — this is relevant to the Hamlet stuff. And I quickly figured out that the two things I liked best about their songs were the harmonies and the lyrics.
Leaving aside the harmonies, the lyrics were pretty important to me because of how they were basically poems set to music. At the time, I had an English teacher who would assign us a character from the Duchess Of Malfi, which we were studying, for whom we had to figure out a ‘theme song’. I immediately started trying to figure out songs for every character I came across.
And it was round about then that I was also studying Hamlet. Yeah, you’re seeing where this is going now.
For me, the one song that is totally wound up in Hamlet’s character is Patterns by Simon & Garfunkel. Maybe not more than To Be Or Not To Be from Hamlet! The Musical, but that’s understandable. This song sums up so much about his character, despite being far too modern for the play’s setting.
When I look at the character of Hamlet, I see someone who is intensely vulnerable. Sure, so he’s a prince, and he’s capable of violence and fighting, at least physically. But mentally, that’s not how he works. This guy is psychologically fascinating. He spends the whole play trying to figure out who he is and what he’s meant to do, and hating himself for it.
Hamlet is a play about expectations and duty versus one’s actual personality. Hamlet himself is an angsty procrastinator who can’t bring himself to take action. He wishes he was more like Laertes, who is powerful and manly and fulfils all these ideals, all while he can’t even live up to his own expectations, let alone his father’s. He sinks further and further into a pit of self-loathing for his own failure even to feel anything.
“Is it not monstrous?” he asks, when an actor can imitate emotions that he can’t even bring himself to feel. Hamlet sees himself as a monster, as something despicable, because he can’t mourn for his father and he can’t take action, either. He begins to feel like his only way out is either to change and become something he’s not, or to die, and he’s not sure he knows how to change.
But he then hates himself even more because he doesn’t have the courage to die. He’s afraid of what comes afterwards — you can see it right there in the to be or not to be soliloquy. So he starts looking at what makes him him, and how he could become something else.
Impaled on my wall
My eyes can dimly see
The pattern of my life
And the puzzle that is me.
Hamlet’s trying to figure himself out, but he can’t separate himself from the violence and war that is everywhere in his life and in the royal court. The whole play revolves around a murder, and he comes pretty close to going the same way before his eventual death by poison/duel. Even his own personality and this puzzle of himself is impaled; the violent imagery suits him well.
From the moment of my birth
To the instant of my death,
There are patterns I must follow
Just as I must breathe each breath.
He’s of royal birth. There are expectations on him, and he’s got to follow those set roles. Just as Polonius tells Ophelia not to get too attached to Hamlet because he’ll never be able to marry her — he’ll have to marry for diplomatic reasons, not for love — so he himself recognises that as a prince and as a son, he’s got responsibilities. The play is the conflict between what he wants and the patterns he must follow, as well as his recognition of the fact that he’s not doing brilliantly at actually following them.
Like a rat in a maze
The path before me lies,
And the pattern never alters
Until the rat dies.
There’s no way out of this, though. He can only make peace with everything by dying — what’s that line about his quietus make with a bare bodkin? I should just get the play down and look it up, but dude, that’s effort. We’re doing this from memory here. Princes, in these circumstances, aren’t like Hamlet. They’re strong, capable leaders, like Fortinbras. They’re violent, passionate men of action, like Laertes. They don’t sit and think the whole time. Altering this pattern is never going to lead anywhere except death.
And the pattern still remains
On the wall where darkness fell,
And it’s fitting that it should,
For in darkness I must dwell.
Do I even need to explain this one? Hamlet is morbid as anything, and these lyrics fit perfectly with his mourning clothes at the beginning, which he refuses to stop wearing despite everyone else feeling kind of like he’s bringing them down as they celebrate his mother’s marriage to Claudius. He’s “too much in the sun” — a pun on “sun”, most people think, since he’s being obliged to welcome a step-father. He wants to wear black, and he likes the emo look. Don’t mind me, he’s saying. I’ll just sit here in the corner, in the dark, and think about death. Maybe I’ll write some angsty poetry.
Remember that Hamlet’s the Renaissance man. These lyrics could’ve come straight out of one of Dowland’s songs, like ‘down vain lights, shine you no more / no nights are dark enough for those / that in despair their lost fortunes deplore / light doth but shame disclose’. And that song (“Flow My Tears“, something else I studied in year twelve), is pretty much contemporary with Hamlet. Cult of melancholy much? This guy was the original emo.
The lyrics from Patterns could also signify Hamlet recognising that the path that’s been laid down for him isn’t going to take him to Oz. It’s a dark road, involving revenge and heartbreak. Maybe he can see the tragic ending coming, and knows that he’ll be dwelling in darkness before too long.
My life is made of patterns
That can scarcely be controlled.
In the end, he doesn’t really get to choose what happens. The scheming of others and his own behaviour sets of a chain-reaction of murders that spreads through the cast and leads to the final scene — his rash murder of Polonius leading to Ophelia leading to Laertes seeking revenge leading to the duel leading to the meaningless death of Gertrude as well as those of both Claudius and Hamlet. He might have set that pattern into motion, but it is far from being under his control.
Want to dispute my choice of Hamlet’s theme song? Go ahead! But you’ve got to be prepared to spend 1200 words defending it just like I have… ;)