Ham and Sharp: First Contact

When I ask students how they first became aware of Hamlet, their answers are vague. Some of them remember seeing the Simpsons parody, while others recall being informed that the plot of The Lion King borrows heavily from something called Hamlet. Mostly, there seems to be a gradual, generalized awareness, like pieces of a vast cultural puzzle slowly coming together to form a picture.

I may have had some of that going on during my earliest years, but I can actually remember one specific event which first made me realize that (a) there was a play called Hamlet, and (b) it sounded cool. I have Games Magazine to thank for these life-changing revelations.

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I’m guessing I was about 13 years old. We had a subscription to Games, and while I enjoyed leafing through it, I found most of the puzzles too difficult, especially those which relied upon cultural knowledge (Trivial Pursuit presented the same problem). But I read them anyway, and then usually just looked up the answers in the back.

The puzzle in question involved several lists of props from famous plays. You were supposed to read each list, and guess what play they came from (I don’t remember if there was a list of play titles provided; knowing Games Magazine, probably not). The list that caught my eye read something like this:

A suit of armour. A bundle of wildflowers. A poisoned wine goblet. Two fencing foils (one poisoned). A skull.

I must have read that list a dozen times before looking up the answer. The one-word solution meant nothing to me, of course, so I went back to the list. I found it captivating, and I spent hours rearranging the props in my mind, trying to imagine a story which employed them all. For me, it was the first of Hamlet’s big questions: how do all these unlikely and macabre objects fit together to make a plot?

Small wonder that, for me, Hamlet has ever since seemed like a play about puzzles and mysteries.

Can you remember when you first became aware of Hamlet — as a play? As a character? As a cultural phenomenon?

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