“Hamlet” is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s most well known works. It easily ranks amongst his most popular right up with “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” (or the Scottish play for those of you who actually believe the old curse). Its popularity is in part due to its powerful themes about uncertainty, taking action and the influence a corrupt government can have on its people.
The first theme is the problem of uncertainty. Hamlet is unsure if the ghost he saw was really his father, he is unsure whether the ghost is telling the truth about the murder and he is unsure how to kill his uncle. The play brings up the troubling fact that many aspects in our lives are built on assumptions. This is a problem that has become more problematic in the technological age we live in. With computers and communications technology we can communicate and make plans faster than ever before. However despite all the new technological tools we have, we still face the inevitable problem of uncertainty, nothing can be certain. Most recently in United Kingdom elections all the polls showed the Labor party and the Conservative party to be tied in the polls. The election came and went on May 7th with result being a major win for the Conservative party. Despite what the polls showed the Conservatives beat the Labor Party by almost 2 million votes. Clearly the polls were wrong.
The chart on the left reflects the opinion poll of the U.K. days prior to the election. The chart on the right represents the actual results. The conservatives won a clear majority despite the polls.
Journalist Markham Nolan gave a brilliant Ted Talk about the importance of separating fact from fiction in our new digital age. To quote him
“We have algorithms that are smarter than ever before, we have computers that are quicker than ever before. But, here’s the thing. Algorithms are rules they’re binary, they’re yes or no they’re black or white. Truth is never binary truth is a value truth is emotional its fluid and above all its human. No matter how quick we get with computers, now matter how much information we have we’ll never be able to remove the human from the truth seeking exercise cause in the end it is a uniquely human trait.“ – (Nolan, Nov 2012)
In other words we can’t really on computers for everything. Even with all the tools in the world the truth is still uncertain without proper judgment.
This leads into the second theme of the play, which is the problem of action. Due to the uncertainty in his life Hamlet is constantly wondering how he should act. When Hamlet has the opportunity to kill his uncle early on in the play he hesitates because his uncle is praying. Hamlet questions if killing his praying uncle would send the wicked soul to heaven. “To take him in the purging of his soul when he is fit and seasoned for his passage? (Shakespeare Hamlet Act 3 Scene 3 page 4). Hamlet wants his uncle to go to hell so he decides to kill him later “My Mother stays this physic but prolongs thy sickly days. (Shakespeare Hamlet Act 3 Scene 3 page 4). The play looks at how conditions and people affect our actions. Laertes swears that he will seek revenge on Hamlet. Despite this he is manipulated by Claudius and finds himself another pawn in the corrupted politicians schemes. The Japanese animated show “Psycho-Pass” featured a very similar theme. The series itself makes many reference to Shakespeare’s works including “Hamlet”. The title of the eighth episode “And then, silence” is a reference to Hamlet’s last line in the play ”The rest is silence” (Hamlet Shakespeare, Act 5 Scene 2, page 17) “Psycho –Pass” takes place in a world where a computer system can called the sibyl system can read the emotional state of all people and judges them based on their state. The police’s job is to take out people whose emotions are reaching dangerous levels that threaten society. The problem is that the system does not take the causes for their emotions into consideration. The first episode focuses on a case involving a rapist and his victim. The sibyl system determines that the rapist is too dangerous for society and the police kill him. The victim however is also considered dangerous due to her emotions skyrocketing to dangerous levels because of post-traumatic stress. The police agent must make the decision on how to deal with the woman. The agent wonders whether she should cooperate with the sibyl system and kill the woman or spare her because her emotionally spike is just the standard post-traumatic stress caused by rapes. Her actions are influenced by the computer system in addition to her own human experience and thoughts. The question of how the detectives should act given the unique circumstances of crimes and human emotions are examined constantly throughout the series.
The most interesting connection between “Hamlet” and our modern culture is the theme that a government ‘s condition is linked to the condition of the country as a whole. Shakespeare seems to be telling us that a corrupted government leads to a corrupted society. In the beginning of the play the guards (who represent the populace of Denmark) are nervous because the king has died and the power is being sent to a new politician. The play itself says “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” (Shakespeare Hamlet Act 1 scene 4 page 5). The play continues to make hints that Denmark is in disarray as the government becomes more and more chaotic. It is not until the end of the play when all of the ruling classes are killed and a new one brought in that stability finally comes to the country. It’s easy to see this theme in our modern day culture; the United States is a perfect example. Between the 2013 government shut down, the 2011 debt ceiling crisis and all the gridlock, Washington has become a chaotic place. Many view the U.S. government as nothing more than a group of angry old people shouting at each other. That same kind of animosity has made its way down to the masses and has caused a similar effect. If you look at the big news stations in the U.S. very little news is reported. In an interview on Q radio Shane Smith co-founder and host of the Emmy and Peabody award winning news show Vice stated “Look at the States, there is no news anymore. Its just the right yelling at the left and everybody making fun of everybody”. (Smith, May 30th 2012) In 2009 renowned journalist Charlie Rose was involved in a summit to try and get Bill O’Reilly (a politically right wing news anchor) and Keith Olbermann (a politically left wing news anchor) to stop insulting one another
Hamlet is not the only story to focus on how a corrupt government creates a corrupt society, the Japanese comic book “Akira” also looked at this issue. In “Akira” the government is conducting inhumane experiments on its citizens in secret. This results in a society filled with student protests, youth gangs, corrupt arguing bureaucrats, drug abuse and coup d’états. The conflicts end when the government is brought down with the main characters promising to rebuild a better country. The comic ends with the new leaders driving off into the remains of the city with the sun shining down on them.
The best modern day representation of “Hamlet” is “Disney’s The Lion King”. The movie follows “Hamlet” almost to a T. The comedy/education YouTube series “Earthling Cinema” aggress. “The movie is loosely based on the movie “Hamlet”, directed by William Shakeshack. Loosely based in the sense that it has the exact same plot and characters. A king murdered by his brother? Check. The son of the murdered king visited by the ghost of his father? Double check. Two comic foils who aid our hero by helping him chill out? Check please.” (The hidden meaning of the Lion King – Earthling Cinema, Wisecrack. July 5th 2015).
The Lion King also looks at the problem of corrupt government affecting the land. When Scar (the evil brother) takes control of the kingdom it transforms from a lush savanna to a grey wasteland. This is similar as stated before to how in “Hamlet” Denmark is in a state of chaos as a result of its corrupt government.
You can catch this legendary play at the Stratford Festival until Oct 10th