For high school students, the works of William Shakespeare are not the easiest literature to grasp, much less to get them to care about. The first hurdle, of course, is the language. With all the “LOLs,” “ridics,” and “OMGs” used in a teen’s daily vernacular, Shakespearean verse such as “to be, or not to be: that is the question” can sound a lot like Charlie Brown’s teachers to the ears of adolescents. Wha wha whoamp whoamp.
The next difficulty is seeing how the complex writings of a 400-year-old dead guy with a dog collar are relevant to today’s teenager. So how can teenagers best get down with Shakespeare? One word: Hamlet.
Literary scholars love to expound upon Hamlet’s psychological struggles with mortality and madness, his inability to act or make decisions, or a perennial favorite topic of discussion: whether Hamlet has the hots for his mom. But fancy-pants critics always seem to forget that Hamlet acts a like a typical sullen teenager who has major beef with his parents, his girlfriend, and this whole thing called life. He may or may not be an actual teenager, but the Danish prince certainly wears a teenaged “trappings and the suits of woe” like a boss.
Teens can find many ways to relate to Hamlet and his existential suffering. He could be the gateway character to the score of Shakespeare’s other eternally conflicted and philosophically complex players. Hopefully, teen readers do not find common ground through the whole uncle-killing-the-dad-and-then-marrying-the-mom-thing, but perhaps they can feel comforted by the utter confusion, grief, and angst that incessantly troubles and stalls Hamlet. He’s the Elizabethan Era’s Holden Caufield. While it is such an anachronistic stretch of a comparison, the similarities between the The Catcher in The Rye protoganoist and Hamlet are there. Surely, J.D. Salinger might have had Hamlet’s nasty “Get thee to a Nunnery” speech to his gal-pal Ophelia in mind when Holden flips out over Sally Hayes (rightfully) refusing to run away with him, calling her a “royal pain in the ass.”
Moreover, both protagonists are mired in a sort of limbo in their lives, unsure of who they are and what they should be doing. Should Hamlet try to find out check up on some ghost’s claim that his uncle/stepfather poisoned his dad? Is that ghost even real or is he just going mad? What’s more, should Holden try to be human and reach out to the “phony bastards” or continue feeling lonely and abandoned, just like the ducks in the pond must feel every winter? Decisions, decisions, and neither are quick to take action.
Such similarities point to how valuable Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be to a puberty-stricken teenager grappling with the uncertainty and confusion of growing up. Forget Romeo as the quintessential Shakespearean teen role model. Of course, Romeo and Juliet is a bit more accessible, especially with a 1996 modern film remake with a young Leonardo Dicaprio cast as the dreamy Romeo. Yet, most teens do not have passionately poetic outpourings with their star-crossed lovers and get married within days of meeting each other. Hamlet, on the other hand, tackles the real problems teens face every day: parents, girlfriends, confusion, depression, loss, loneliness, and even mortality. And some also go through the wearing-all-black stage.