It was the worst of plays; it was the best of plays
Hamlet is either the best play ever written or the worst, depending on your perspective. I have, at different times, held both opinions. T.S. Eliot was very critical of the play and of critics of the play. Ultimately he was categorical that “the play is most certainly an artistic failure” (Hamlet and His Problems. T.S. Eliot. 1921. The Sacred Wood; Essays on Poetry and Criticism).
The problem of many Hamlets
Eliot reminds us that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a “revised” version of earlier Hamlets, most notably one by Kyd—and Eliot seems convinced that the play is inferior for this among other reasons. Eliot also points out the tendency of “creative critics” (he mentions Coleridge and Goethe) to imagine a Hamlet character rather than the one actually in the play. Hamlet is so vague and inscrutable that the character invites speculation, confabulation and imaginative interpretations of his “true” nature. Hamlet is a young man's play--at least, that's when it spoke most deeply to me. Suicide is a young man's disease--the second leading cause of death in the 15-to-35-year-old age group behind accidents, but a lot of accidental deaths could easily be interpreted as suicides. "To be or not to be" is bound to have purchase with this age and gender.
Hamnet and depression
In Shakespeare: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd suggests that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in a fit of depression over the death of his 11-year-old son, Hamnet. I see lots of evidence in the play to support this view. When you stop to consider, as objectively as one can, the various elements of the play, it turns out to be incredibly self-indulgent.
Hamlet: the model not to follow
If you were giving a play-writing course and wanted a model to show students how not to write a play, Hamlet would work. We teachers of English are accustomed to referring to "Hamlet's procrastination," but what about Shakespeare's procrastination? "Come on, Will, get to the point!" The play is too long, the mood is morose, meandering and depressive, the plot travels all over the place (literally) without any sense of direction (Eliot suggests it was written by a committee), the playwright (through his central character) criticizes the audience (the Globe theatre smells foul) and actors (they tear an emotional line to shreds).
Holding a mirror up to HamletIt amazes me that Shakespeare uses the play to give fairly condescending instructions to actors. It amazes me even more that in the typical production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directors don’t seem to know what Hamlet’s instructions about “holding a mirror up to nature” mean. The allusion is to Renaissance painters who used mirrors as a trick to get the proportions right in large scene painting. The instructions are "don’t exaggerate the emotions" and "maintain perspective," but still I’ve seen Hamlet writhing on the floor over and over again in paroxysms of emotions in both amateur and professional productions. On the other hand, in this play, the playwright didn’t seem to follow his own advice either.
HAMLETSpeak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it toyou, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,as many of your players do, I had as lief the [enunciate, don't mumble]town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air [don't shout]too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; [no excessive gestures]for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and begeta temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it [understate emotions]offends me to the soul to hear a robustiousperiwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, tovery rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who [don't shout, then Shakespeare/Hamlet insults the audience]for the most part are capable of nothing butinexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have sucha fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; itout-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it. [overdoing exaggerated characters]First PlayerI warrant your honour.HAMLETBe not too tame neither, but let your own discretionbe your tutor: suit the action to the word, theword to the action; with this special o'erstep notthe modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is [don't exaggerate]from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at thefirst and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the [maintain perspective, get the proportions right, as they are in nature, "nature" here means in the neoclassical sense]mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,scorn her own image, and the very age and body ofthe time his form and pressure. Now this overdone,or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful [overdone is lowbrow]laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; thecensure of the which one must in your allowanceo'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there beplayers that I have seen play, and heard otherspraise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely,that, neither having the accent of Christians northe gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have sostrutted and bellowed that I have thought some ofnature's journeymen had made men and not made themwell, they imitated humanity so abominably. [act normally; in short, avoid exaggeration, avoid excess in volume, manner and gesture]