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Hamlet (a novel) by John Marsden

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Oh what a mess! John Marsden (of Tomorrow When The War Began fame) has written a novel version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Or, more accurately, a smutty version. Featuring lots of Ophelia and Hamlet masturbating scenes (as well as surprisingly irrelevant asides featuring servants with large penises (??)), God knows what on Earth he’s doing.

The book purportedly makes the great play more accessible to a teenage audience. Marsden supposedly uses modern language and plain language description to retell essentially the same story. If you assume teenagers perk up at the mention of sex, then I suppose this is true. But Marsden, if he truly believes he is keeping to the story of the play, misunderstands it.

Ophelia and Hamlet are lusty young lovers in his version of the tale. Hamlet spends his time lusting after her, peering through her windows, brooding over sexual escapades and avoiding crotchety old Polonius. Marsden has blurred the central thrust of the play with these titillating scenes. Hamlet is essentially about a son agonising over how to avenge a murdered father. At no point in Shakespeare’s play is there any subplot involving trying to get it off with Ophelia – in fact, the complete opposite. Hamlet famously spurns women, “Frailty thy name is woman!”; “Get thee to a nunnery” etc. He sees his mother’s marriage to his uncle, his father’s murderer, as the ultimate sign of corruption and deception, never mind that Gertrude probably does not know of the murder. Hamlet’s reaction is a classic Shakespearean tragic overreaction. He sees the attraction of women as a whorish bewitchment. No longer can he view the sexual and emotional pull of the women in his life as the force of beauty or purity or maternal care. He tragically takes this distrust in Gertrude to its extreme – then goes so far as applying it to the entire female gender. His lover, Ophelia, is treated first with distance then with aggression. The situation is indeed not helped by Polonius’s conniving and spying, but a comparison with Juliet suggests Ophelia is hardly the ardent lover herself. Ophelia’s father puts pressure on her not to mix with her lover. In Romeo & Juliet, Juliet’s father does the same. Juliet defies her father and elopes. Ophelia obeys Daddy like a good girl.

We relate to Hamlet somewhat more than other tragic figures in Shakespeare’s plays because he is so terribly alone. He is let down by almost everyone around him: his mother is sleeping with the enemy, his lover spurns him in his time of need, and his old school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are visiting simply to spy on him for his father’s murderer. Having fudged Hamlet’s spurning of Ophelia, Marsden portrays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as simply ‘pompous lords’ rather like Osric in Shakespeare’s play. There is no mention of their earlier relation to Hamlet.

These teething difficulties aside, Marsden’s language is a complete mess, juxtaposing, “My bum hurts; let’s play football,” with “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” He can’t seem to make up his mind whether he is quoting Shakespeare or not. He frequently paraphrases half a sentence then quotes directly the rest. In the latter half of the book he seems to get tired of adding “he said” and “he replied” to Shakespeare’s text and resorts to play format:

‘Guildenstern: “Highness, I do not understand you,”
Hamlet: “I am glad of it.”‘ etc.

There are also a number of bizarre references (they can’t be in-jokes since they are not funny) – Claudius considers sending Hamlet to Australia rather than England; Hamlet considers whether Alexander the Great and Shakespeare would have rotted away just like Yorrick. Whatever he means by these odd references, they sure are clumsy and distracting.

His novel certainly does inspire me to read the play again, if only to mentally clear up the mess Marsden has made of it.


Written by tomtomrant

18 April 2009 at 9:56 pm