This is as much a rant as review. Don’t read it if you are easily triggered. You have been warned.
I heard about Hamlet’s Father because of the controversy surrounding it, and I decided to read it for myself to see what all the fuss was about.
Verdict: not much, in my opinion.
But I’ll get to that later. First I’ll say what I think of the story itself, independent of the author’s (alleged) Views on Homosexuality.
To start with, I had a heck of a time getting my hands on this book at all, as bookstores seem to not be selling it, presumably because of its “controversial” content, since apparently in a liberal democracy it is the role of corporations to decide what is and is not suitable for their readers to consume (gotta love “progress”!). But it’s totally not censorship because they’re Private Companies!! I wasn’t going to pay 50+ USD (plus double that for postage) for a 100-page novella, but in the end up managed to find a library copy of the anthology this work originally appeared in–but I could only read it in the (very very VERY shitty) Overdrive app, which has no scrolling/chapter select/page find function, so I had to go through the whole bloody thing one page at a time to get to the bit I actually wanted to read. I was less than chuffed about all that.
As for the novella itself, the first thing one notices when one begins reading Orson Scott Card is his extremely distinctive writing style. I’ve only read two of Card’s works previously (Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead), though I plan, eventually, to read them all. Even so, his prose was immediately recognisable–spare to the point of sparseness; stripped-back to the point of being bare-bones. And I’m really not sure if I like it. Normally I’m a big fan of simple, understated prose–I prefer it infinitely to the over-the-top, flowery, trying-too-hard style that seems so prevalent in literary fiction. It’s just…too much. But with Card I almost feel like there’s not enough–not enough to sink your teeth into, as it were. And this is related to my other primary ambivalence regarding this novella–the characterisation. The characterisation I felt was…thin. This might be a product of the length (and honestly I feel like Hamlet’s Father could have been significantly better if Card had taken the time to flesh it out into a full novel–but I’ll get to that later) as much as of the style, but I really had a hard time feeling any of the characters. They weren’t vivid, they weren’t lifelike. The dialogue was excellent: lean and sharp and demonstrating Card’s signature flair for the philosophic–you can tell this was based on a play. Unfortunately all the characters talked the same; none of them had distinct voices, which is partly why they fell flat. I just couldn’t believe in them as people with discrete personalities and independent lives of their own. Again, a novel-length treatment might have afforded the space to develop them properly.
Even Hamlet, our main man (protagonist? I really don’t know if you could call him that. He’s certainly not a hero; a tragic hero, maybe), who got the most attention, I just couldn’t connect with. He wasn’t relatable to me; I couldn’t inhabit his head. This wasn’t necessarily because he was unlikable (though he kinda was)–I’ve long since gotten past the stage when I needed a protagonist to be a nice or good person (I even, in my juvenility, DNFd Gone With the Wind because I found Scarlett O’Hara so insufferable). But I do need something to give me a “way in”, a foothold in their mind, so to speak, something which I can latch onto, so I can empathise with them. And for some reason I just could not empathise with Hamlet, his struggles, his choices, his fears, his desires–which I really didn’t get a sense of.
I don’t know that all this is Card’s fault; as I said, I usually worship subtle characterisation (probably my favourite author in this regard is Mary Renault, who’s also just one of my favourite authors full stop), so maybe it’s just my personal issue that in this case I couldn’t connect with his writing.
As far as critiquing this novella as a modernist retelling of Shakespeare is concerned, I really can’t comment since I can’t stand Shakespeare (blasphemy, I know. But Tolkien didn’t care much for the Bard either, so I feel like I’m in good company). In a way, not having read Hamlet, and thus not having more than the vaguest sense of the plot made the twists, such as they were, more enjoyable.
So far I’ve come across as very critical of the novella, but, believe it or not, I actually quite liked it (even if I can’t really explain why). It has many fine qualities. The concept is actually rather interesting, and fairly original, as “subversive takes” on Shakespeare go. It all revolves around misunderstanding–the inevitable but also entirely avoidable misunderstandings that true tragic irony is always built on. Hamlet misinterprets his father’s coldness toward him, his companions’ jealousy of him, the identity of the murderer; Ophelia misinterprets Hamlet’s behaviour toward her, Horatio’s misinterprets Hamlet’s understanding of the situation–and in a truly dramatic (and tragic?), but oddly appropriate (inevitable?) ironic twist, readers have misinterpreted Card’s portrayal of homosexuality. But, as I said, I’ll get there.
So: good concepts, they just don’t feel fully developed.
The ending was mildly heartbreaking–though that’s probably just me being a sucker for tragic m/m romance, last-minute/too-late declarations of love, and lots of characters dramatically dying. The very last paragraph was nicely horrific. Overall, it didn’t blow my mind; I was left feeling pretty cold, but Card is clearly a talented writer (even if his writing isn’t always to my taste). If I were judging this book based purely on my personal enjoyment of it, I would give it maybe 3 stars–
That’s not the rating I’ll be giving it, because of the meta-discussion that surrounds this book, i.e. concerning OSC’s supposed “homophobia”.
So, the crux of this story, and source of all the irl drama is that a) Hamlet’s father is an (allegedly) homosexual pædophile and b) Hamlet and his friends are (allegedly) presented as being homosexual as a result of his direct or indirect influence. Honestly, if I hadn’t known about the furore before I started reading I might not have even picked up on either of these plot points for most of the book, OSC’s hints in that direction being as subtle as they were (maybe I’m just an oblivious idiot). I even wondered if people were just reading too much into it/misinterpreting it… right up until the end, when Card ever so subtly smacks you in the face with it.
As far as Hamlet’s father (the character) is concerned, Card himself wrote “there is no link whatsoever between homosexuality and pedophilia in this book. Hamlet’s father, in the book, is a pedophile, period. I don’t show him being even slightly attracted to adults of either sex.” I think that’s fair enough, though I’m not sure I buy his further statement that Hamlet’s Father “contained no homosexual characters”.
However, the assertion by reviewers that “Old King Hamlet was an inadequate king because he was gay, an evil person because he was gay” is utterly false, and maliciously so. He is evil because he is a CHILD RAPIST, not because he is gay. The equation of homosexuality with pædophilia has been made by ignorant readers and disingenuous reviewers of the book, not, and I cannot emphasise this enough, by Card. So, you are demonising and attacking a man based on something that is not even present in the book, something that you have fabricated in your own minds to justify your vitriolic hatred of him and your refusal to engage with the book, on its own terms, as a work of art–that is, those of you who have even bothered to read it, which many of you haven’t, though that hasn’t stopped you from a shitting on it anyway. Reprehensible swine. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.
Furthermore, even if Card had made such an association, it would not be in any way illegitimate or unrealistic.
Newsflash: plenty of pædophiles are gay: around a third of all pædophiles in fact, which means they are hugely overrepresented compared to their proportion of the general population (2-4% in most Western countries). This is no surprise when one takes even the most cursory look at history. Wherever male homosexual relations have appeared as a social institution, it has been in the form of pederasty, i.e. sex between older men and young boys. This was true in Classical Greece, Rome, China, Japan and even in modern tribes such as the Papua New Guinean Etoro.
Nor was this confined to the ancient world. I am appalled reading about Western homosexual figures from the 19th/20th centuries, how many of them had affairs with underage boys, and how completely uncontroversial this was in the homosexual milieu in which they existed, and even among the “queer scholars” who write about them. It’s remarked on so casually, offhandedly, as though it were no big deal. Next time you want to call out a public figure for doing or saying or something “problematic”, think about how many of your beloved “queer icons” were in fact child molesters. Even into the 1970s, there were “gay rights” organisations that campaigned for the abolition of age of consent laws.
In conclusion, pædophilia has historically been dangerously normalised and accepted in the “gay community”, and even today there remains a fetishising of youth that verges on the disturbing. Obviously not all gay people are pædophiles–most modern gays are as disgusted by pædophilia as straights. Most gay people are not pædophiles and most pædophiles are not gay. But some. are. and you can’t pretend that isn’t the case.
So, the bottom line is a truth so obvious it shouldn’t even need to be stated: gay people can be pædophiles. Gay people can gasp be bad people. Gay people are people. Not angels, not demons, just people. And any work of fiction that wants to portray homosexual characters honestly and authentically must reflect this reality.
Admit that the reason you are angry about this is because your own political convictions regard a homosexual orientation as being somehow inherently virtuous and demand that homosexuality only ever be portrayed in a wholly positive light. You want reality to conform to your ideology.
As for Hamlet’s father (again, the character, not the book), turning the other characters gay through rape, I want to say regarding this is that it is a sad but indisputable fact that many–not all (#NotAll) or even most, but many–gay people did indeed suffer sexual abuse as children, and that this abuse contributed, at, least in part, to them becoming homosexual. Human sexuality is a complex and nebulous thing. Obviously to a degree sexual orientation is something that’s encoded in people’s DNA, but you can’t dismiss out of hand the role potentially played by upbringing, social environment, childhood experiences, etc. Otherwise, how do you explain pædophilia/pederasty being so prevalent in past cultures, when today the overwhelming majority of people do not experience attraction to minors?
I personally believe it probably differs with every person–I certainly wasn’t molested, nor did I have a bad relationship with my father or anything like that.
Ultimately we still don’t know why the phenomenon of homosexual behaviour exists, from an evolutionary perspective. But, like most things, it’s probably a mixture of nature and nurture.
If Card were saying that homosexuality is always caused by abuse (or by a too-distant relationship with the father, or a too-close relationship with the mother’–even the magnificent Mary Renault seems to favour this particular theory. Maybe it was true in her case), that would be plainly wrong.
But I don’t believe he is saying that. For one thing, Laertes isn’t (discernibly) homosexual–the aftereffects of his trauma manifested in erectile dysfunction. For another, Hamlet was not abused like the others were (except for that one time when he was a baby 🤮, which he wasn’t old enough to remember, and didn’t seem to be implied to have had any effect on him), but still turned out gay (or possibly bi? Idk, to me he felt completely asexual, but there was that thing with Laertes, so…), and I believe it’s implied he has been since childhood, which would indicate he was born that way. So if Card’s thesis was that being abused as a child makes you gay, both these cases would directly contradict that.
Now, all that said, was it handled well? Well, it definitely could have been handled better.
Ironically, the very thing that has made this book so hated–its treatment of homosexual themes–is this the very aspect I found most compelling. The unrequited love of Horatio for Hamlet, and Hamlet for Laertes was barely there, but I FELT it.
In answer, Laertes got up and plashed out into the water. Hamlet watched him, thinking two things: Why is there no one I can talk to about the things that matter most to me? How beautiful he is.
Oh Hamlet bby
“Do you want my heart, Laertes? You had it all our lives; it still belongs to you. Take it now, if you can!”
As he fell to his knees, he could hear Horatio weeping. “Live,” Hamlet whispered one last time. “I will,” said Horatio. ‘Ah, Hamlet, I love you!”
I know it’s just my slash-loving self, but, and hear me out here, I genuinely feel like there’s the bones of a devastating, messy m/m romance buried in this pile of semi-garbage. Novellas don’t leave much room for nuance, and this sorta circles back to my critiques in the first part of the review–Card I think was a victim of his own storytelling here; his minimalist, unemotive style is both too blunt and too terse too handle this sort of subject matter effectively and sensitively.
A proper novel would have the scope to delve into each character and their sexuality, and their individual ways of coping (or not coping) with their trauma (It could be called “Hamlet’s Husband”. Yes, I am–somewhat–serious). Card gestured toward some very complex, deliciously angsty dynamics between Horatio and Laertes and Hamlet, the young prince who they have isolated in order to protect from his father’s evil–who they both love and resent because of that, but who is nevertheless in some ways the most damaged of them all. And then all the political plot stuff, the assassination, the stuff with Ophelia, etc. on top of that would just have added more interweaving layers of messiness and emotion–which as it is feels so glaringly absent from the book. Hamlet’s Father has the potential for some truly fascinating, convoluted, ambivalent characters and character relationships, but as things stand they don’t feel fully realised. A longer work could have been they way to do that, rather than this half-modernist play, half-concept piece we got.
Instead of representing the Companions’ homosexuality as an irreparable brokenness, it could show how Hamlet/Horatio/Laertes, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, seek affection and intimacy in their relationships with each other, as a way of overcoming their abuse–NOT of erasing it; the idea that the power of love (dick) can magic away trauma is a terrible and far-too-prevalent trope in its own right.
I don’t know how the love triangle would be resolved tho. Hopefully with a threesome. Or murder. Or suicide. Suicide is good too. Maybe even a murder-suicide. It is a tragedy, after all. Basically, either sex or death (or both).
As far as what was up with Horatio is concerned, replication of abuse is absolutely a thing, though I’ll admit I didn’t find Card’s portrayal of it with Horatio particularly plausible–I mean, it seemed to be implying that Horatio was blissfully heterosexual until he picked up a pretty page boy, at which point he started to molest him essentially on autopilot, which doesn’t seem very, um, realistic? (I mean, it could be, idk how these things work) Though, having said that, it’s possible that Horatio did have pædophilic urges all that time, he had just managed to successfully repress them. And this is the problem–the novella is too short and too skeletal to give us real insight into these characters. In a Hamlet’s Husband novel, on the other hand, pædophilic impulses might be something Horatio struggles with, and eventually manages to overcome by finding emotional and sexual satisfaction with Hamlet, his true love whom he had been pining for since childhood. And then they both die. Tragically.
Ophelia could actually be a character, rather than a minor plot device. Hamlet’s mother, and his relationship to her, could also be more developed.
And it could have been so good. Now, granted, OSC is probably not the person to write that story, and I doubt he would want to, but still, a gay can dream–there are enough glimpses of the gorgeously dark love story this book could have been (in an alternate universe where OSC writes slash). Basically, this novella made me realise that I want a gay retelling of Hamlet (I’m sure there must be one out there; Shakespeare’s been spliced/subverted in seemingly every way imaginable).
I’ll finish by saying this. All the time I read authors whose worldview is both deeply opposed to mine, and deeply ingrained in their work (for instance, George R.R. Martin, Stephen King and most of all Iain M. Banks, whose political views are literally the direct inverse of my own–his utopian Culture is the most nightmarish dystopia I can imagine–but who I nonetheless consider an absolute genius in Science Fiction–probably the best SciFi writer I’ve ever read.) but I am still able to appreciate the story for its own sake and in its own right–as a work of fiction, not as a political tract, and something that stands independent from the author and whatever they have done. This is just part of being a mature reader– part of being a mature human, in fact. The fact that a writer disagrees with you doesn’t make them a bad writer (or a bad person, for that matter, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion), and it shouldn’t inhibit your enjoyment or appreciation of their work. If it does, that is a flaw in you (poor emotional boundaries, a sadly endemic condition nowadays), not in the author or their work.