One-Minute Book Reviews

September 22, 2008

A Few Words on ‘Hamlet’ — Were Your English Teachers Right When They Told You That the Prince of Denmark Was a Man of Inaction?

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:22 pm
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A lot of people may be returning to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy now that Oprah has selected the Hamlet-influenced The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for her book club. And I may say more about that play closer to the date of the discussion of David Wroblewski’s novel. For now, I’ll mention one of the most perceptive scholarly comments I’ve read about the play: Many of us learned in school that Hamlet is “a man of inaction,” defined by his hesitations, but you could make a strong case that the opposite is true.

After becoming suspicious that his uncle killed his father in order to marry his mother, Hamlet vows revenge and devotes himself to achieving it. When traveling players arrive at Elsinore castle, he arranges quickly for them to put on a play that will confirm his beliefs, giving us the line: “…the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet certainly deliberates, as in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in which he ponders whether it’s better to live or die when we don’t know what death will bring. But it might be more accurate to describe the Prince of Denmark as contemplative, meditative, or ruminative, words that describe his thoughts, rather than as a man of “inaction,” which describes his behavior.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Not really related – but I just wanted to mention that the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of Shakespeare’s plays are by far the best I’ve ever found. I own every single one in paperback, and that set was among the few books that made the move with me from Washington back home to Texas.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — September 22, 2008 @ 6:37 pm | Reply

  2. Yes, they’re great. That’s why I showed the Folger edition of “Hamlet.” The Folger Library is also an excellent Shakespeare resource.

    While looking for a Folger cover to show, I noticed that there are “Folger” and “New Folger” editions, and I haven’t compared the two. I’d love to have comments from a librarian or scholar who has used both.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — September 22, 2008 @ 7:45 pm | Reply

  3. Well, I’m no scholar, but I’ve got some of both. The “New” editions are thicker and edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, while the originals were edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. Lamar. I’ll get back to you later with a comparison of “New” and original for the same play.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — September 23, 2008 @ 8:47 am | Reply

  4. Any comparisons would be great. Oprah’s book club has 2 million “members.” And I’m sure many will be wondering which edition of “Hamlet” to get. Thanks.

    When looking into classics, I often read a page or two of the introduction in bookstores or libraries before I pick up the book. A great introduction can be worth more than supplemental materials that are available online.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — September 23, 2008 @ 11:38 am | Reply

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