After the seriousness of Brave New World and the craziness of Hitchhiker’s Guide, I needed something a little more poetic and predictable. So the third book in my 100 book challenge was Hamlet, by none other than William Shakespeare.
Now, I’m going to be straight with you all: reading Shakespeare is hard. To me, it’s like it’s written in a completely different language. A language where I know the basics – how to order a coffee and ask for directions to the central train station – but where I have to fill the gaps with my imagination.
I’ve learned a few languages over my time. Linguistics have always fascinated me: the different words, grammar structures, letters of the alphabet. It blows my mind how languages can begin at different times and in different locations across the globe, but fundamentally be very much the same – with nouns, verbs, adjectives, past tense, present tense… etc.
I started off learning Japanese and German at school when I was 10, living in Japan for 6 months when I was 16, learning Spanish and German at university, then living in Spain for 12 months when I was 21. My brain is just one giant mish mash of partly-mastered languages.
So I’ve had a lot of experience filling in language gaps with my imagination. Sometimes it works perfectly, and other times I completely miss the point. Like the time I toured an old Spanish convent with my mum and aunt, and translated for them what the Spanish-speaking guide was saying as we walked around. It was all going well and we were learning lots of interesting facts, until all credibility flew out the window when my mum questioned how it was possible that one particular nun had had 32 children. She made a good point.
But on a positive note, all my experience with languages did help me immerse myself in Hamlet and not get caught up on the direct translation. And this made it such a delight to read. I let the words wash over me, understanding some, simply feeling the rest. And you know what? I actually understood the story.
The version I’d put on hold from the library turned out to be a ‘No Fear Shakespeare’, which is a pretty cool concept. On every left page there’s the original Shakespeare text, and on the right there’s a line-by-line translation into everyday speech. Although I mostly avoided looking at the right pages, there were a few moments where checking a word here and there was just enough to get immersed back into the story.
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around the year 1600. That’s a long time ago. But my goodness I felt a connection to young Hamlet in the play! How he feels about his stepfather brought back all these memories of when my parents divorced and I suddenly found myself with two extra parents and 6 step-siblings. Now I better make it clear: I didn’t see ghosts nor did I stab anyone through a tapestry, but I did feel some pretty strong emotions about the change.
In Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet talks to his friend Horatio about how quickly his mother remarried following the death of his father:
Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meatsDid coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.Would I had met my dearest foe in heavenOr ever I had seen that day, Horatio.
The idea of the funeral meats being served cold at the wedding is such a wonderful metaphor for how he felt about the situation. Magnificent!
When you see your parents marry someone new, it can really upset things. I remember being a 12 year old in the bathroom at home, raging with jealousy over having to share my mum with a new man and rearranging the toothbrushes so his toothbrush wasn’t anywhere near mine and mum’s.
It’s kind of pleasing to discover this type of reaction to stepparents has been happening for hundreds of years… and that I managed to get through it all without the inconvenience of a poisoned sword fight.