Has your dad’s ghost ever told you that your uncle, who is now married to your mum, killed him in his sleep and usurped your kingdom, prompting you to go slightly insane and resulting in a largely accidental killing spree that leaves everyone close to you dead? No? Fair enough. But have you ever thought about why we’re really here? The sheer awesomeness of what it is to be human? What could possibly come after death? In those last three ways, if not the first one, you are, in fact, more similar to one of literature’s most famous characters than you might realise. 

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, consisting of a whopping 29,551 words. Written at some point between 1599 and 1601, shortly after the death of his son, not-so-coincidentally named Hamnet, in 1596. It is a five-act meditation on what causes countries to fall apart, the impossibility of knowing anything for sure, the mystery of death, and the ultimately fatal nature of indecisiveness.

Hamlet, in many ways, mirrors the popular Elizabethan/Jacobean convention of revenge tragedy, a genre of theatre which tends to include bloody murder, adultery, and, you guessed it, revenge. However, the main difference between Hamlet and traditional revenge tragedies such as The Duchess of Malfi (John Webster) or Women Beware Women (Thomas Middleton), is that, until the end of the very last act, there is no actual revenge. Hamlet spends the majority of his eponymous play musing about the nature of humanity and the tranquillity of death, etc etc, and occasionally accidentally killing people and then musing about that, but does not do what we expect him to do from the very beginning, namely avenge his dead father, until the play is about to reach its dramatic close. 

Hamlet’s indecisiveness is undeniably a familiar human experience - I’m sure we’ve all once been so torn between homework and TV that you ended up doing neither - only most of us don’t have the added pressure of traitorous friends (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), a murderous uncle (Claudius), and a dead girlfriend (Ophelia). Hamlet’s character is an amplified and exaggerated version of a part of all of us, and acts a vessel for Shakespeare to show us not only just how dangerous inaction can be, but also the superfluousness and folly of revenge. 

Not only does Hamlet explore themes and feelings well-known to most people, especially teenagers, it articulates them in what is widely regarded as some of the most beautiful language in all of English literature. Existential crises are no stranger to those experiencing the terror and tumult of adolescence, and I have found that when I’m brooding over questions of love, death, madness, power, or self-doubt, I only have to leaf through my battered copy of Hamlet for a few minutes before I find the swirling thoughts in my head perfectly expressed in exquisite iambic pentameter. 

In reading Hamlet, we can learn a lot about life, the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and death, that abstract idea that none of us will ever truly understand until we ourselves have ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’. But we can also learn a lot about ourselves. On those tough days, when the world no longer seems like ‘a majestic roof fretted with golden fire’ but a mere ‘quintessence of dust’ (I’m pretty pleased to have managed to slip in some of my favourite quotes here), we can find comfort in the knowledge that Hamlet, a fictional prince of Denmark who was written into existence more than 400 years ago, once felt the same. 

There is a reason that Hamlet has consistently been one of the most performed Shakespeare plays, with more than 15 film adaptations besides. Aside from the beautiful language, which is more accessible and far less daunting than it first seems, Hamlet represents the universal and quintessential human condition and experience of uncertainty. Through the ruminations of a mopey teenage prince, crafted by one of the greatest minds to ever walk the earth, every one of us can see a reflection of ourselves, regardless of who we are or where we come from. We cannot all be as articulate or intelligent as Hamlet (in fact, very few of us can), and we cannot all live his short but absurdly melodramatic life (which is probably a good thing). But we can all feel the things he feels, and in reading his words, we can understand more about ourselves than we could from any Buzzfeed quiz or self-help book.

I think that within every one of us lies a little piece of Hamlet, an extraordinary character in an ordinary world. It is the responsibility of our generation to take Shakespeare and turn it on its head, to reinterpret and question and analyse, and to view his works through a modern lens. We cannot let Shakespeare’s work die, for with it dies Hamlet, and a tiny part of us all.