What to Steal from Hamlet

Style Notes

"hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." -Hamlet act 3 scene 2

Okay, so let's just address the elephant in the room: Hamlet is a play and not a novel, but it was on the list so here we go.

Hamlet is Shakespeare at his best. Shakespeare. The Bard. "Well, you're no Shakespeare," is the thing people say about bad writing. Basically, he name is synonymous with good writing the same way Einstein is synonymous with mathematical genius. And Hamlet is regularly considered Shakespeare's best work.

You know the plot, even if you haven't read the play because it's wormed its way into every form of media.

Hamlet: The real never-ending reboot

 All of your (my) favorite actors have played Hamlet or wanted to play Hamlet at some point because it is considered one of the best roles ever created.

Did you notice the whole "best" thing again?

So, what can we learn from the best play by the best playwright to ever live?

What to Steal


The plot has been stolen many times to great effect. A story full of ghosts, vengeance, murder, incest, and lust is always in style. Add a tortured, possibly insane Edgelord as the protagonist and you're on track for a bestseller.

The only problem is that it's been done...to great effect...many times. Modern era? It's been done. World War II? It's been done. Hamlet in space? Done. With lions on the African Savannah? Twice.

I'm sure someone could squeeze out another version, but it would have to be very nuanced not to come off as a knockoff of a knockoff.

My proposed theft is more direct. Instead of reusing the plot, steal the allusions. Hamlet is burned into the public conscious by now, so every little stolen beat adds texture to a story. It also acts as shorthand for knowledgeable readers. Want to foreshadow a death? Add a little 'rosemary for remembrance.' What to say your protagonist is brooding? Compare him to Hamlet. Those are the most used examples, but it's a start.

Hamlet is also a tragedy. By the final act, almost everyone, including Hamlet is dead. And yet the story doesn't leave you feeling empty or murderous (you know the movies and series finales that will not be named). The story has concluded, and it feels like this is the only way it could have ended. The pieces fit together.

It you can steal one thing to steal from Hamlet, steal that sense of inevitability, plant the clues early and often. Craft a plot that serves the character and not the other way around.



Hamlet wasn't the first of Shakespeare's plays and it wasn't the last. It sits comfortable in the center. According to Mark Forsyth in his book The Elements of Eloquence, Shakespeare wasn't blessed by the writing gods--he learned just like us. "Shakespeare was taught how to write. He was taught it at school...[he] had to learn the figures of rhetoric."

Shakespeare used the figures of rhetoric to craft all those memorable lines everyone loves to quote even if they don't know what they mean. This includes what Forsyth refers to as  the most famous line in English literature:

To be or not to be?

It's all just a matter of the rhetorical device called diacope.

More on the rhetoric that shaped Shakespeare can be found here.