When I was a teenager, I couldn't quite understand Hamlet's delay in avenging his father. Perhaps my mind was still too steeped in the Homeric tradition, thirsty for violence and longing to uphold codes of honor and loyalty. In my 20s, I viewed Hamlet's inner turmoil more philosophically, examining his existentialism much more closely and picking apart the nuances of his conflicted words, ideas, and actions--mostly because professors made me. But as I near 40, with my wisdom of real life slightly more honed, I think of Hamlet a bit differently.
I read his words and watch the chaos he creates (within himself and across the entirety of the play's participants) and I think to myself, "That seems about right." I'm not angered by his inaction, and I don't much care for parsing out his craziness as real or manufactured. I simply see a man stuck, as we all are stuck in some way or other. He knows a lot, yet he knows he doesn't know a lot. And that is, in its own way, the most important quality he attains over the course of the play. We can never know everything, so the best we can do is come up with ways not to destroy everyone, as well as ourselves in the process. When we assume to know it all, that can lead to as many disastrous consequences as knowing nothing. We are perpetually in the middle between omniscience and obliviousness. Truth is the only option for a relative version of salvation.
So when Hamlet first does nothing, then tries to manipulate others, then resigns to murder at the end, each of these options neglects the revelation of truth. Through his circuitous maneuvers, all roads are bad because they all end up in destruction. The choice he avoids, speaking the truth from the outset, is sometimes the easiest, yet most scary, path of all. And at this point in my life, that is what I get from Shakespeare's masterwork: live my life so that I speak the truth without destroying myself and everyone around me. Not always an easy task, but a worthy goal, I say.
Try re-examining a work of literature from your past this week. While the words and pages will look the same, see if you are any different this time around.