Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, click below:
In David Lodge’s comic novel Changing Places, the main characters—all literature professors—play a game called Humiliation. The point of the game is to admit to not having read a famous work of literature, and in a flush of excitement, one of the professors admits he’s never read Hamlet. Soon after, he loses his job. There’s something justifiable in this.
Hamlet is so famous that people think they know it even if they don’t. Almost everybody knows bits of it like “Alas, poor Yorick” or, of course, “To be or not to be.”
But be honest: have you actually read that scene, thought about it, or seen it performed properly? If you have (and you need only admit it to yourself here), you will know that it is more than a cliché but a moving meditation: the poet Sylvia Plath used to wonder what her father might look like after his time in the ground. Hamlet actually meets his childhood companion again, and answers the question for himself.
I remember the exact moment I really saw Hamlet. I don’t mean when I first read it, watched it, or studied it. I suppose I had seen excerpts—including the Laurence Olivier version, and, alas, the Mel Gibson version (does anyone remember that?).