William Shakespeare wrote around thirty seven plays, more or less. The exact number is in some dispute, but most people seem to agree that this is a good ballpark estimate.
Some of the plays are rather obscure, and some are considered towering achievements. But one in particular seems to stand out — “Hamlet”. It’s not that others aren’t timeless classics. “Lear”, “Macbeth”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Twelfth Night”, “Much Ado about Nothing”, the list can and does go on.
But “Hamlet” is different. Its hero is so modern, so resonant to us on many levels. His crisis of indecision, the oddity of his existential role: He is at times a royal who kills royalty, a lover who kills his love, a fool who kills a fool, and at each step we find ourselves in his head, sympathizing with him, loving him even more for his flaws.
If you hear a phrase from a Shakespeare play, the odds are pretty high that it is from “Hamlet”. That is how thoroughly it has seeped into our culture.
Many authors seem to have their “Hamlet” — that one work which is the apotheosis of what they are about. Woody Allen has “Annie Hall”, Oscar Wilde has “The Importance of Being Earnest”. If you think about it, half of the times we quote a line from a Woody Allen film, we are quoting “Annie Hall”. The same goes for Wilde and “Earnest”.
I wonder how many other creators have that one signature work, their “Yesterday”, or “Star Wars”, their “Taxi Driver” or “Luxo Jr”, one creation which most perfectly exemplifies and distills their particular genius.