Shakespeare had the good fortune to write Hamletbefore anyone could tell him how to fix it. Were he working today, the playwriting system—in this country, at least—would exhaust itself trying to improve the thing. In workshops, his fellow playwrights would nudge him to be more specific: "So is Hamlet mad or isn't he? And what did Gertrude know? Right now it feels a little general." Artistic directors would shift uncomfortably when faced with a script this long and sprawling: "You know we love ambitious writing here, Will. But in these tough times, let's cut Guildenstern. Also Act IV." The critics would acknowledge Shakespeare's gift for phrasemaking, but assail plot twists—e.g., the unlikely pirate attack that sends Hamlet back to Denmark—that keep the play from completely "working." If the author would "do some editing" and "decide what he's trying to say," his play might one day be almost as profound as Gypsy, though "the songs aren't as good."
Deprived of this assistance, Shakespeare did the best he could, delivering the opaque, peculiar play that is, according to many, the seminal masterpiece of Western literature. Year after year, breathless tributes to Hamlet appear, such as Harold Bloom's contention that Shakespeare invented the human. But our tendency to treat the play as a carved-in-marble classic obscures some of its weirdness, and does it a disservice.
However lofty its stature, Hamlet remains a script for the stage: a show horse that's still in harness. Night after night, it has to win over a fresh audience, one far removed from the play's Elizabethan origins. As a revival starring Jude Law prepares to open on Broadway, it's worth exploring how this strange and formidable tragedy goes on transfixing us. Sure, we revere it—but why do we want to keep seeing it, and what about it speaks to us, in 2009?
For one thing, Hamlet isn't a character. He's a real person—or might as well be. To this day I have a crisp memory of the high-school English class in which I realized, with a jolt, that the conversations we'd been having about Hamlet were exactly the same as conversations we'd have about a classmate who had just left the room. Both students were equally vivid, equally puzzling. So what if one of them was a product of 12th-century Danish folk legend?
One source of Hamlet's marvelously lifelike quality is a modern sense of dislocation. What is this sensitive man doing in such a corrupt and violent world, egged on by a ghost to kill his uncle when he ought to be writing brainy verses for Ophelia? While Claudius and Laertes leap at the chance to kill, Hamlet's conscience stays his hand. His procrastination expresses a very modern confusion: how do you live when your values clash with those of the society around you?
Three possible answers present themselves: go crazy, kill yourself, or develop an exquisite sense of humor. The last of these—the "gloomy Dane" tag has never done him justice—is another way in which the play appeals to us today. Hamlet is a master ironist, which means he's funny in a way that we, in this Age of Irony, are well suited to appreciate. But unlike the prevailing tone today, Hamlet's irony isn't mere knowingness, a tool for cutting people down to dismissable size. In Elsinore, some mysteries remain. In fact, a large part of the play's fun lies in working on the same puzzle that obsesses all the characters: figuring out why he's acting the way he's acting. Even Hamlet doesn't know what Hamlet's problem is.
Nowhere is the play more intriguing, or more timely, than in its treatment of mortality. As Stephen Greenblatt has noted, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet at a time when the rituals of mourning had been damaged by state edict. (Saying certain traditional prayers for the dead was viewed as a dangerously Catholic pastime by Queen Elizabeth.) Today, when American religious belief is ebbing but cable news conspires every few weeks to shove a funerary rite into our living rooms, Hamlet's careful, far-seeing meditation on "the undiscovered country" seems both increasingly rare and increasingly helpful. A theater presenting Hamlet is one of the best places left in a noisy world for the quiet contemplation of mortality.
The play's greatest value in this regard lies not in hearing what Hamlet thinks, but in seeing how he's changed by thinking it. When he returns from his dubious pirate adventure, he has undergone a psychic change: he has achieved an Elizabethan form of Zen. "The readiness is all," he tells Horatio. A present-day literary manager would insist that a playwright tell us how such a change occurred. But Shakespeare didn't, leaving us with a tantalizing challenge. If Hamlet, who is so remarkably like us, can somehow go from being tense, scared, and angry in Act I to serene and philosophical in Act V, then we should be able to do it too. Four centuries have brought us no closer to his wisdom. Put on enough revivals, though, and we may catch up to him yet.