Back when we were doing our A Levels, I remember loving the topic of our English Literature AS: The Struggle for Identity in Modern Literature. We studied some amazing poems, a wide range of prose, and selected non-fiction. It was an all-round great topic that has a large part to do with how much I love literature now.
It always seemed odd to me, however, that there was no option for further scope and, through the lens of modern identity, to examine historical struggles. It’s not like there would be a lack of narratives; if anything, it would be harder to find literature without it. But that struggle for identity is so relevant and so powerful, it seems to me to be missing the point when we teach historical texts without viewing it through – at least in part – a more modern lens. Sure, it’s great to know why Shakespeare wrote Macbeth the way he did (to make sure King James didn’t chop his head off for being gobby about the Scots), but surely the real point of that play is to examine Macbeth’s sense of self, how he goes from being so loyal to his King and mentor to murdering him in his sleep?
But I didn’t love Macbeth as much then. What I had just fallen in love with was Hamlet.
I was a relative newbie to Shakespeare: I knew I loved Henry V (thankyou, Branagh!) and that Hamlet was a really engaging story (thankyou, David Tennant!). I had also read Ophelia by Lisa Klein and found the retelling of the Hamlet tale through her eyes fascinating. And I knew that I wanted to study Hamlet properly, to immerse myself in that story.
But to me, Hamlet is a play that is always mis-sold. Yes, it has murder and revenge and betrayal and conspiracy, but it also has friendship and, most importantly, that struggle for identity. Hamlet is a young prince who has been away studying in Wittenberg, has had his father die prematurely, and who now must surely return to Elsinore and take on the laborious task of ruling. Yet he returns to see his uncle on the throne, newly married to his mother – “The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” – and himself being subtly but deliberately pushed out of place. That was the story I wanted to investigate – not who had killed Hamlet’s father and why. Not that it isn’t a worthy narrative in itself, but it wasn’t the narrative that grabbed sixteen-year-old me.
Growing up, your identity is based on your surroundings, your friends, and your family. Hamlet is back at Elsinore now: a familiar surrounding. He knows this palace. He has friends returning to spend time with him: Horatio, his best friend, as well as some rather more false friends in the form of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet absolutely trusts Horatio to have his back; they are the closest of companions. In contrast, however, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are “sent for” and must be rebutted: “you cannot play upon me”.
The first comparison with Hamlet that struck me was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when Harry curtly tells Malfoy: “I think I can tell the wrong sort for myself, thanks.” It is the modern phrasing of Hamlet’s words to his ex-friends. Harry could have buddied up with Malfoy and spent his time revelling in his celebrity and being surrounded by false friends who are only after a bit of his fame. But Harry chooses Ron, because he knows the value of loyalty and friendship – just like Hamlet knows that Horatio will have his back: Horatio who saw the Ghost first, Horatio who was the one to tell his friend as to the presence of the Ghost, Horatio who supports Hamlet when he disguises himself in madness to weed out his father’s murderer. And it is Horatio who Hamlet sticks with in this play, who holds Hamlet as he breathes his last. Hamlet can be himself with Horatio because they know each other so well; they are comfortable enough to not mask themselves in performative identities for the sake of others who would mislead them.
The identity Hamlet assumes when in company other than his best friend, however, is strikingly different. While some may argue that Hamlet descends into madness rapidly, it can be perceived as yet another element of Hamlet’s performative identity. He doesn’t want any of the court to know his thoughts because “Denmark’s a prison… one of the worst”. He especially doesn’t want his own mother, to know him, for her marrying his murderous uncle is a betrayal so profound it cannot but shake Hamlet’s identity to its very core: “You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife; / And – would it were not so – you are my mother.” Family should be Hamlet’s bedrock, Hamlet’s safe house – and yet it has crumbled beneath him.
When viewed in this light, Hamlet is in fact a profoundly modern play about the struggle for identity. Remove the idea of kingship and still you have a young man who, having been told he has one purpose, finds the world so changed and altered that his way is hardly visible. And when you’ve been told there is but one beaten path to tread all your life, it is hardly surprising that Hamlet struggles to find himself amongst the chaos. This is the stuff that most YA fiction is made of – yet Hamlet seems to get exceptionally short shrift because he was written by a certain bard, over four hundred years ago.
But there are certain stories that are timeless. And the struggle for identity in Hamlet is one of them.
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YA books that are about struggling to find your identity / diverging from the beaten path… (there are gazillions, so here are a few of my favourites):
Radio Silence by Alice Oseman
Harry Potter by JK Rowling
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Half Bad by Sally Green
Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
Do leave any further recommended reads you think I’ve missed in the comments!
Disclaimer: This post was originally published on a previous Shakespeare project of mine, but it seemed silly not to bring it back for the purposes of this, one of my favourite of all Shakespeare plays.