Is Hamlet still relevant today? What does the modern reader gain from reading Hamlet? and should students today continue reading this play?
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Let's take a closer look at what Hamlet faces in his daily life. First of all, his father has died suddenly and his mother has remarried before Hamlet is finished mourning the loss. He has a girlfriend who breaks up with him without a good explanation, and then turns up drowned in the brook and possibly pregnant. Friends have come and gone, each with his own agenda. And to top it all off, Hamlet is so reflective that he has become indecisive, maybe even paralyzed in his decision making.
In so many ways, Hamlet seems like young people I have known. Luckily, most of them grew up without causing their own death and that of those around them.
I think that the play and the characterizations offered are highly relevant today. Hamlet, himself, endures much of what adolescents today endure. His divided consciousness, lack of solidity in striving for identity, and the constant calculations of how he perceives himself and how others perceive him are notions that are reinforced in modern adolescents. I also believe an essential idea about individual character can be seen in how one deals with sadness and adversity. Using his characterization as an example of how someone should or should not act in a time of crisis could be worthwhile. A common experience of adolescence is the disloyalty within one's social setting, and through Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, this can be seen. Finally, the character of Ophelia should be studied by modern readers. The suffering she endures and her sense of self is something that can be studied by modern readers, particularly adolescent girls. In her rendering, many can critically examine if they represent any of the same tendencies and, if so, how they should be avoided. Ophelia, as a character, has become something of a cry for solidarity in the hopes that more women do not experience what she did.
Hamlet is still relevant today because of the questions the protagonist asks both himself and others throughout the play. The main question is, of course, “to be, or not to be,” as Hamlet contemplates suicide. Ultimately, he chooses life, which is relevant to any age. As far as what the modern reader can gain from reading Hamlet, this play is considered by some scholars to be the touchstone text in all of literature written in the English language. While this is debatable, I would agree, and I teach it every year. Students should continue reading this play for it’s language, persuasion, themes, and applications. One recommendation I would make is to watch the Canadian series “Slings and Arrows” to see the relevance of Hamlet for today’s audience. Remember, too, that a play is a performance piece, so read it for class, and then watch it performed to get the full experience. Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet 2000 is an excellent adaptation that shows much of the relevance of the play to our time.
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