To: W. Shakespeare,
Re: Critique of Hamlet

By Barbara McHugh

Critiquing fiction requires more than the blind application of the rules of craft. See below, and come to your own conclusions as to how the author should have received the criticism of his play.

Dear Bill,
Although your play has potential, it requires work. You've written some exciting scenes with good conflict, and you've chosen a setting appropriate for this type of drama. Your use of language is inventive, and the basic story -- that of a son seeking to avenge his father's death -- is a compelling one. However, your characters often act at less than maximum capacity; many speeches are verbose and over-written; and there are far too many coincidences and contrivances for any audience to swallow.

The play opens at the right place: with the hero in terrible trouble, which immediately becomes worse when Hamlet receives the hero's "call to adventure" -- that archetypal event that launches almost all stories, from ancient epics to modern novels. In true heroic fashion, Hamlet brushes off the "guardians at the gate" and confronts his father's ghost. However, when the ghost demands that Hamlet avenge his murder, Hamlet whines and waffles, indulging himself in intellectual monologues that fail to move the action and tell us nothing new about the protagonist. Why not have Hamlet simply tell the ghost he mistrusts him, and that he requires some sort of proof? Instead, we get a wimpy monologue where Hamlet complains that the ghost might have come from his own mind, or be a trick of the devil.

When Hamlet finally decides to act, he fails to engage our sympathies, because he is not at maximum capacity -- that is, he fails to act with the intelligence that audiences have a right to expect from a person in his particular circumstances (see J. Frey’s definition of this term). He starts out well enough, with an ingenious idea (although some audiences might think it contrived) to put on a play where a man poisons his brother, a king, in precisely the same way Claudius murdered Hamlet's father. Hamlet hopes that Claudius, while watching the play, will reveal his guilt by faltering, turning pale, or even breaking down and confessing. But then Hamlet does a very stupid thing. Had he been at maximum capacity, he would have gathered a group of followers to witness Claudius' guilty behavior and thereby become Hamlet's allies in his quest for justice. Instead, Hamlet alienates all would-be allies by pretending to be mad!

Worse, after Hamlet decides on his course of action, we are subjected to a whiny, self-indulgent soliloquy that interrupts the play for no apparent reason. This speech starts out by using the most abstract verb possible. "To be, or not to be," followed by another passive construction, "That is the question." Why not simply say "Should I kill myself?" The monologue whimpers on, full of self-pity and mixed metaphors. "Take arms against a sea of troubles" -- how does one take arms against a sea? Cut this whole silly speech: this play is about revenge, not suicide.

All too often the play avoids conflict, violating the first rule of effective drama. For instance, Hamlet approaches Claudius, meaning to kill him, only to stop (without Claudius even seeing him!) because Claudius is at prayer. Why not have Hamlet follow Claudius after his prayers and confront him? Later, as the play is supposedly rising to its climax, even more conflict is avoided when the hero is sent off to England! Major scenes occur off stage: Hamlet's escape from the ship is a contrived mess (something about pirates!). Also, the scene where Hamlet tells the story of his adventures in England is an example of hack writing at its worst. We learn -- out of nowhere -- that Hamlet is an accomplished forger, and therefore he was able to substitute the sealed letter ordering his death for a letter instructing the deaths of Rosencranz and Gildenstern. Also, he informs Horatio that he can easily vanquish Laertes in a duel because he's been practicing swordsmanship in recent months. However, except for the one scene where he kills the unarmed Polonius, we have not seen him so much as pick up a sword.

The female characters also suffer from a lack of maximum capacity. Ophelia is a passive victim, submitting to Hamlet's cruelty in a static way, praying for heaven to help him (she utters essentially the same line twice), and never once exhibiting spunk or fire. Her final solution is to go mad, which is bad orchestration, because we already have one madman (Hamlet) on the scene. Note also: Ophelia's death is yet another key event that occurs off stage.

Gertrude is a murky, static character. She manages to confront Hamlet, but backs down when Hamlet displays portraits of her present and former husband and demands that she compare them. Are we to believe that she has never before noted the physical differences between them, so that now she realizes that Claudius is not nearly so attractive as she formerly thought? And what sort of reason is this for her to conclude that she has been wrong about her husband -- after failing to do so before now, even when confronted with Claudius' own guilty behavior? Perhaps she is only humoring Hamlet: certainly in later scenes she appears unchanged by what went on between them.

Claudius is a decent villain, although one might well wonder why he didn't make more of an effort to conceal his guilt to begin with by postponing his hasty wedding -- especially since in other respects he does seem a religious man. His inner conflict adds dimension to his character. But like Hamlet and most of the other characters, he engages in excessive self-pity.

Polonius, although he is a good device for humor, is inconsistently drawn. He seems to act foolishly according to the author's needs. At other times, he seems a pragmatic sort -- certainly he was right to warn Ophelia about Hamlet.

Laertes, unlike Hamlet, is a hero who acts. As soon as he learns of his own father's death, he sets about to seek revenge. Consider making Laertes the hero of this play.

The entrance of Fortinbras and his army at the end to bury Hamlet is coincidental to the point of absurdity.

Overall, I liked this play in spite of the many changes you need to make. Eliminate contrivances! Murder those darlings! I strongly advise making this play a one-act, starring Laertes.

[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]