You can’t read Hamlet. Try taking it out of your bag in a doctor’s waiting room or sitting on a train. There is no edition out there that can ambiguate that heavy-weight six-letter title or ameliorate the feeling you are somehow being silly and somehow up to something, the ultimate milquetoast pretending to read. I don’t think you could even take it out near the office of your favourite English professor without sensing you’ve committed a grave social error. Hamlet is the kind of thing only Hamlet would read (surely someone has said this before). Perhaps Hamlet would read Hamlet while waiting to renew his mental health care plan; I can imagine Polonius-the-GP’s motivational poster printed avec serif, ‘TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE’, on the background of a stock image sunset. I reckon Polonius would make a great GP. I hope the mental health care plan will help.
You can’t buy Hamlet either. Well, you can, but it won’t feel right. It won’t feel like you’re buying what would be considered a normal book. I bought a copy last year somewhere in the middle of Melbourne’s hard lockdown; I had struggled to find the copy I thought I already owned at home (shouldn’t everyone own Hamlet?), fucked around with the bizarre open-access editions you can find online, considered texting friends to source a borrowed copy, and finally settled on a plan to buy a new bloody copy that day. Because getting to the library was out of the question or at least beyond comprehension at the time, I bought a lot of books this way, following just this sort of process. But no other time felt as forcefully awkward as buying Hamlet. Readings’ click-and-collect function was either not working that day or I was impatient, because I remember how I got them on the blower. ‘Hello, Readings’, said the young man who took my call. ‘Hi. I’d like to pick up a copy of Hamlet.’ This already seemed wrong. My partner sniggered at me on the couch. ‘What was that?’ ‘Oh. HAM-let’, I said emphasising the trochee. ‘Sorry?’ I tried it as spondee: ‘HAM-LET’. I paused. ‘You know. The, um, play.’ Finally understood yet vaguely defeated, I agreed to pick up my copy later that afternoon. The man who served me took the liberty of selecting the Popular Penguins edition, quite a bold choice if you ask me. I’ve never seen a Shakespearean edition without a lengthy introduction, without annotations. I kind of like it. Quite provocatively, this edition doesn’t even retain consistent lineation. For instance, for no discernible reason, that great gloomy passage in II.4 looks like this:
… I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why it appears no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
Weird, right? But not necessarily bad. Perhaps, even, kind of great? Hamlet in paragraphs is a radical proposition—is it still blank verse? Still a play? Or just a written thing?
It is the most quoted of Shakespeare’s plays and quite possibly the most written about thing in the English language. If the play’s the thing and the thing is also the king (if I’ve understood the logic of rhyming, as well as Hilary Mantel, correctly), then Hamlet is the king of written things. So where on earth (this goodly frame) do you buy it, read it and, if you’re lucky enough to find the opportunity, write about it? It’s the kind of specialisation that you adopt if you want to one day end up Provost at a fancy Uni, but what about everyone else? When do we read Hamlet? I’m moved to ask this because I feel, on the one hand, vestiges of my refusal to be a canon-bootlicker in my hesitancy to add my attention to Hamlet. ‘Hamlet? More like ham-LIT!’ I laugh to myself at this barely funny iamb, thinking about how ‘hammy’ and performative certain acts of reading feel. But if there is such a thing as literature for hams, on what grounds should Hamlet qualify? What do we do with the extremity of its language, its heightened regard for inner worlds? I think of the institutional group email me and my colleagues received from HR during hard lock down. Sent to remind us of the perils of burnout and fatigue (inevitably reminding us we were burnt out and fatigued), the email began with a question, which I will paraphrase here: Have we ever wondered, the email wondered, why some of us cope with the slings and arrows of life more effectively than others? Cope, aye? The slings and arrows of life, aye? Whatever happened to suffering, to outrageous fortune? Who could fail to take offense at such a limp bureaucratic transposition? Except, this was very funny.
Since it seems unlikely that we read Hamlet in the more ordinary ways of reading, I might as well share with you that I have, of late, a specific reason for reading Hamlet. This is because I’ve been reading the brilliant long poem Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip. For all its linguistic innovations, Zong! retains the poetic convention of using epigraphs, perhaps to emphasise its grand experiment by leaning on and exposing source texts for reasons I’m yet to fully understand. One of these epigraphs is taken from a couplet in Hamlet I.5. You know it, even if you’ve never read the play:
The time is out of joint: O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.
(Naturally, the edition I now own has ‘cursed’, not ‘cursèd’.) We have seen this line as an epigraph before—both Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida have used it—and with this in mind, I think about how this play seems to have provided so many other texts a place at which to rest. I think also about how cleverly the epigraph connects Philip’s poem with Arendt, and especially with Derrida. But passing through Act 1 of Hamlet also gives me pause: on the most basic reading, Hamlet is talking about setting bones to heal dislocation. Reading Zong!, which is driven by a search for the location of ancestors’ bones (‘I want the bones!’ urges the narrator in the poem’s ‘Notanda’), has placed me on high alert for references to bones in Shakespeare’s play. Hamlet I.4:
… but tell
Why thy canoniz’d bones hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements …
‘The past is ever present’, reads another epigraph in Zong!; Augustine’s Praesens de praereritis fits the handling of the revenant and the logic of hauntology in Specters of Marx. But where is the noise of bursting cerements in Specters, which parses French translations of the line for over four pages—turning intensely over the words ‘time’ and ‘joint’—but never once mentions the word ‘bones’?
I have been wondering about this idea of time being out of joint. When was the time not out of joint? When was justice ever served, when were the wronged avenged? When were we not able to speak the language of kings, or the language of the dead? Despite my misgivings about the tradition of history as breaks in tradition—and my extreme jealousy of the title of a book published last year by Aleida Assmann, Is Time Out of Joint?—I decide to let poetry intuit the nature of modern temporality for me. It just sounds right, I thought to myself recently. The time is out of joint. Why does this line sound reassuring to me now?
Lucy Van is an Honorary Fellow with the English and Theatre Studies program at the University of Melbourne, where she is working on a monograph called The Beginning of the Poem. Her spoken-word EP in collaboration with Laila Sakini, Figures, was released by Purely Physical (UK). Her poetry collection, The Open, was published by Cordite Books in 2021.