If extraterrestrials were to visit Planet Earth, we'd probably put a copy of Hamlet in their welcome basket. It's that good. Well over 400 years after William Shakespeare wrote the play between 1599 and 1601, readers and audiences are still connecting with it.
Shakespeare was a groundbreaking pioneer in his time and wrote plays that were totally different from anything the world had ever seen before. He explored the human spirit and what happens when it is challenged. He also tested the limits of language, inventing new words and phrases. (You want an example? How about: "eaten out of house and home" or "one fell swoop.")
Hamlet, in particular, has a lot of "most famous" things in it: it's Shakespeare's most famous play about Shakespeare's most famous character (that would be Hamlet), and it contains Shakespeare's most famous line: "To be or not to be, that is the question" (3.1).
The play tells the story of Prince Hamlet. But Hamlet's no party-boy prince. When the action begins, we discover that his dad (the King of Denmark) has been murdered by his own brother and Hamlet's uncle, Claudius. Ouch. Talk about sibling rivalry. And it gets worse: not too long after the murder, Claudius married Hamlet's mom, Gertrude. So, what's a prince to do?
If you're Hamlet, not much of anything. He's got a big to-do list (and only five acts to complete it), but he just can't figure out how to get himself moving. Honestly, we understand. It's hard enough to make it through our to-do list, and our biggest item is "Laundry." In comparison, Hamlet's to-do list is epic. For starters, there are the obvious things: hang out with Dad's ghost, feign madness, dump girlfriend, accuse Mom of treachery, plot the convoluted details of your elaborate revenge. Then, of course, there's the big item: kill Uncle/Stepdad/King.
Whew. No wonder he drags his feet.
Hamlet is such a complex character that playing him is the actor equivalent of going to the Olympics. Check out the super-famous roster:
Shakespeare didn't come up with this story all on his lonesome. (Don't call the plagiarism brigade just yet: most of Shakespeare's plots are borrowed, and people in the 16th century didn't think about "originality" in the same way we do.) The story of Hamlet dates back to at least the 9th century. It centers on "Amleth" (sound familiar?), a young man who fakes being crazy in order avenge his father's murder. Saxo the Grammarian included the tale in a 12th century text and later, François de Belleforest translated the story from Latin into French in Histoires Traquiques (1570), which is where Shakespeare may have found it.
The story didn't end with Shakespeare, either. Other people followed in Shakespeare's footsteps and further adapted the story, including legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (in The Bad Sleep Well), Disney (in The Lion King), The Simpsons, and tons of English students on YouTube. And who knows? Maybe your adaptation will be next.
Hamlet is having a teenage crisis. Okay, so he doesn't dye his hair and plaster pictures of Fall Out Boy all over his walls, but he does start wearing all black and talking to himself a lot—the 16th century equivalent of keeping a video diary. He's got a crush on a girl who might be cheating on him; he doesn't like the guy his mom remarried; and he feels a lot of pressure to live up to his dad's expectations.
In other words, Hamlet is just like us. Sure, he's got bigger problems. (And ghosts.) But his mysterious inner life, his roller coaster of emotions, his struggle to figure out what to do with his life, his conflicted feelings about his parents—this is the stuff that every coming-of-age novel (and movie) is made of.
If you want the scholarly version, we can say that you should care about Hamlet because it just might mark the beginning of a new kind of literature that focuses on the struggles and conflicts within a single individual, rather than on the external conflicts between individuals. Or we can make it even simpler, and say that Hamlet just might be Western literature's first modern man—or modern teenager.