Hamlet is bored and restless. His friend Horatio can't work him out-but who can? His father has just died, and his mother has already remarried. He seems damaged by the sudden changes in his life. Or maybe he was always a little damaged. Or maybe he wasn't.
Then, on a still night, the ghost of Hamlet's father comes walking, his long silver hair blowing wildly . . .
This wonderful book, by one of Australia's most loved and most read writers, takes Shakespeare's famous play and makes it into a moving and full-blooded novel. John Marsden follows the contours of the original but powerfully re-imagines its characters and story lines, rather as Shakespeare treated his sources. We are aware not only of the strength of Marsden's own writing but the sensitivity of his insight into Shakespeare. Hamlet, A Novel will be adored by adults whether young or old.
As one of those uneducated people who have never actually read Shakespeare, other than some wonderful quotes, the odd “scene” acted out at school, or a glimpse at some of his beautiful poetry, I approached John Marsden’s Hamlet: A Novel full of anticipation, blissfully ignorant but waiting to be told just what was so rotten in the State of Denmark. Oh, joy, Marsden has absolutely done it for me with this one: I feel that I want to go out now and read the Bard’s version myself. Isn’t that a great writer, one who can open doors to give you a glimpse of other undiscovered goodies.
I am so glad that I purchased a copy of this book and didn’t just check it out from the library, because there are so many lines and passages which I have underscored, or highlighted, lines where I felt the writing to be particularly beautiful, or amusing, or just plain masterful, the sort of lines where you interrupt your partner, who is himself busy reading, to say, “Listen to this; isn’t this fantastic”. A few are:
“He was quickness and light, a shadow on the wall, an illusion, a dream, a fancy. He was a glimpse, nothing solid. How could she anchor her boat to a wave?”
There we have Ophelia talking of Hamlet. “How could she anchor her boat to a wave?” Wow, indeed.
Next, one of those amazing passages which I think is an amalgam of Shakespeare and Marsden:
“Oh, to oneself, always to oneself. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio, or in mine, but somehow we are expected to make it all intelligible; to carve statues from air and make books from bark. It is too much. This is the proper work of gods and we are not gods, indeed all our human errors come from the vain belief that we are.”
Powerful stuff, isn’t it, and who can say where the edges lie.
Is this just a cheeky passage, or does it appear in the original work, I wonder, where the manager of the visiting acting troupe, speaking of the performance they plan on giving:
“… but we can do Romeo and Juliet if that is your wish. It’s not a bad bit of work, although a bit far-fetched.”
And now, just because it’s a fabulous little metaphor:
“…busy as a line of laundry in a windstorm.”
Can’t you just see those sheets getting whipped hither and thither? And who but a skilled writer would think of such a domestic scene to use in such a manner?
Some great philosophy here, something which I myself would put my hand up to second:
“It’s a terrible thing to be a coward, but it is not so bad to be prudent.”
Kenny Rogers could write a song along those lines, methinks.
If the purpose of teaching is to make people want to learn more and more, writers such as John Marsden achieve this beautifully. Because Hamlet says, on page 87, in reference to the/his play which the visiting acting troupe is to perform, “… I am calling it The Mousetrap”, I then Google that famous Agatha Christie play to see whether she did name her play according to that reference in Hamlet, and find that, yes, indeed, being unable to run the play as Three Blind Mice, which was the title of the original short story, her son-in-law suggested The Mousetrap, the title suggested by Hamlet, because “the play’s the thing”. Fantastic.
My next note is one where I’ve added exclamation marks to my underscoring just to show how brilliant I find the words. Here, after having killed Polonius, Hamlet says to his mother:
“’There’ll be trouble with this one’, he remarked. ‘He may weigh more in death than he did in life.’”
Weighing more in death than in life – so superbly put, and so fitting to more than just an old man in a play by Shakespeare.
I think John Marsden put his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote, on page 147, when Hamlet’s mother/aunt and stepfather/uncle are discussing where to send him:
“Further than England. To Australia. No, he’ll end up marrying some unsuitable girl.”
Oh, as if a Danish prince would marry an unsuitable Australian girl! Preposterous, isn’t it.
Master of the understatement, page 152:
“And then Ophelia went mad.”
That’s not just a sentence; it’s a whole paragraph. Look and learn, oh wordy ones (self included).
The last passage from Hamlet: A Novel that I want to share is another where Shakespeare and Marsden meet, and do so like old friends, I feel:
“’There’s a divinity that shapes our ends’, Horatio muttered, ‘rough-hew them how we will.’
Hamlet looked at him with surprise and pleasure. ‘Yes, that’s it! Where did you get that from?’
‘I don’t know. I read it somewhere.’
‘I’d like to get that book.”
And so, I really hope, will you now like to get this book. I believe that John Marsden took 12 years to write this book, and it is the one of which he is most proud. He should be; it’s wonderful stuff.