November 3, 2011

New Hamlet disappoints

by John Marsden

Many teens know the story of the melancholy Dane; he is a mainstay of many high school English courses. Thus we know that Hamlet can be an exasperating read. Not only is he a mad procrastinator, but he has to speak in the obscure language of Shakespeare. So I had high hopes that this version, which the book's cover proclaims as "a wonderful treatment of the play" would modernize and shed new light on its characters and situations. 

I assumed that since the book is called Hamlet and Ophelia, we would hear the story from both Hamlet's and Ophelia's perspective. Most readers would expect a first-person account in alternating voices. Instead we get a juvenile beginning with short sentences and pedestrian dialogue, written in the third person. The point-of-view tends to jump around between characters, entering the thoughts not only of Hamlet, but of Horatio and Bernardo as well. Unfortunately, their thoughts tend to be very obvious or unintelligent. Hamlet's inability to act is revealed in a flashback (where he's unable to efficiently dispatch an injured animal). As for Ophelia, she goes mad all too quickly, and we never really figure her out. Both she and Hamlet express lustful desires, but since neither acts upon them, the scenes merely exasperate and distract (or cause unintentional laughter). 

The book doesn't come to life until the appearance of the acting troupe. Then it sounds more like the play, with Marsden using Shakespeare's words and cleaning it up a bit. It makes the plot easily discernible, which is a definite improvement on Cole's Notes. Just don't expect any new insights or Twilight-like yearnings. 

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