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Hamlet's complex adolescence

  • 24 October 2008

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

I 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