Hamlet's complex adolescence


Marsden, John, Hamlet, A Novel. Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2008, RRP $29,95. ISBN 9781921351471

Hamlet, A Novel, by John MarsdenI don't particularly like Hamlet. I love Shakespeare's play, and thoroughly enjoyed reading Marsden's novel adaptation of that play, Hamlet, A Novel. But there's something about young Hamlet that annoys me.

Perhaps it is his reckless ego, which I see as a product of an over-privileged upbringing. Where others read his soliloquising as the musings of a tortured humanist, I read them as indulgent admissions of egocentricity and adolescence.

Adolescence, however, cannot be overlooked as a central feature of Hamlet's angst. Marsden's Hamlet, A Novel, examines this.

Hamlet's place in the canon is largely due to the focus Shakespeare puts on Hamlet's interiority; the plot, refusing to pander to the populist lust for action, instead focuses on the psychology of inaction and melancholy. Marsden's novel further examines Hamlet's angst, which is brought on by the appearance of the ghost of his father, whose murder he promises to avenge.

It's the same with everything. I don't pick up the knife because I think too much about it and thinking paralyses my arm. Action is hot, and thought is cold.

It's our inability to understand Hamlet's deep privacy and his complex layers of madness (or feigned madness) that drives the play. His most famous soliloquy in act three, scene one, 'To be or not to be ...', popularly epitomises this complexity, and is rearticulated in a more adolescent language by Marsden's Hamlet:

Whether we are to live or not to live. To dance or to die. To breathe the painful air, or to sleep.

While his motive for writing the book was to 'try to get to know Hamlet better', Marsden doesn't completely satisfy the reader's desire to understand Hamlet. Instead, he responds to this desire by providing glimpses of Hamlet's personal history, adding new layers of ambiguity.

In one chapter, Marsden shows us Hamlet, Horatio and Ophelia as children playing in the forest. They come across a dying badger and agree that it needs to be euthanised. Hamlet stalls, and then violently attacks the badger, causing it more pain, and frightening his friends.

Hamlet realised the enormity of his mistake and stabbed wildly now, three, four times, until blood was everywhere across the ground and breath was leaving the spasming animal.

Hamlet, A Novel deals with the emotional complexities that young people face, in concise and unpatronising prose. For instance, Marsden examines Hamlet's perpetually (and inevitably) unconsummated relationship with Ophelia, capturing the irrational lust and dependence of adolescent love that is not realised in any tangible form.

Hamlet dreamed of Ophelia ... He dreamed in prepositions: beside, with, on top of, in, under, out. The dreams were unbearable sometimes, they sent him crazy, but he could not stop them, nor did he want to.

She turned to him and said, 'He has gone far away.'

The language of the novel, while written in Marsden's emotive narrative voice, occasionally adopts aspects of Elizabethan dramatic expression. For instance, when Hamlet, in a rage, articulates his feelings of angst concerning his uncle, the new King of Denmark:

That traitor. That bastard. That bloody bawdy villain, remorseless, treacherous, lecherous and vile.

Hamlet, A Novel, brings Elsinore to life richly and imaginatively. Marsen gives us new insight into familiar characters, allowing each flesh and substance enough to arouse the reader's interest and empathy. This is a gripping, fast-paced and delicately executed novel.

Official site — Text Publishing

Ellie SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer. She is studying Arts at the University of Melbourne.

Topic tags: ellie savage, john marsden, hamlet, a novel, shakespeare, ISBN 9781921351471



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Existing comments

Ellena, thank you for your review. You are right to see Hamlet as an adolescent. But isn't that exactly why we can never understand him? He has no centre to his being that gives predictability, and so enables understanding. And lacking it, he lurches from impractical introspection to fits of action that are not thought out. So they have disastrous consquences. His tragedy is that he is too young to play the part he is given.
Celestina Mariposa | 24 October 2008

I am writing a research paper on Hamel as I write this. I find myself asking throughout my research why do people like the character Hamlet so much. When I read the first paragraph of this article I instantly felt relieved that someone feels the same. Thank you!
Shelley Cole | 20 April 2011

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