Thursday, May 2, 2013

5 Parenting Lessons We Can Learn from Hamlet


One of my personal goals this year is to read 50 books, 13 of which are part of the Quirky Bookworm's "Classics Catch-up" Challenge. I spent March and April immersed in Shakespeare, reading Othello, Macbeth, and most recently, Hamlet. {For my reviews of Othello and Macbeth, see this post.}

Although this was my third reading of Hamlet, it was my first as a mother. I must admit that in prior readings, I wanted to throttle Hamlet for taking FOREVER to avenge his father's death. My desire for justice did not coincide with Hamlet's contemplative nature. But as a mom and a more seasoned Christian, I learned some great lessons on parenting from Hamlet that I think are still very relevant in the 21st Century.


5 Parenting Lessons We Can Learn from Hamlet

1. Protect your kids; don't use them for your own advancement.

The pandering Polonius is no different than a modern-day politician. Status and power are his MO, and he will stop at nothing to curry the murderous king's favor. But Polonius goes too far when he brings his daughter Ophelia into his scheme as the pawn to prove to the king that Hamlet's madness is due to being in love.

Polonius arranges a secret meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia where he and Claudius can observe unseen. Hamlet is very harsh to Ophelia, denouncing women and telling the poor girl he never cared for her. But instead of coming forward and standing up for his daughter, Polonius lets Hamlet ridicule her, all in an attempt to prove to the king he is right and, hopefully, achieve more status. For Polonius, it's all about pleasing the people at the top even if those at the bottom--even your own daughter--suffers.

Polonius says to the King & Queen:
"At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him..."

For a father to refer to his daughter as an animal to be set loose for the hunt is sickening; yet, how often do parents put their children in situations where their physical and emotional health is jeopardized in an effort to advance themselves? Sure we see it on "Toddlers & Tiaras" but in every day life? We may not think it happens very often but it does. One minor example is when I promise my children we will do something but later change my mind. When I lie to them, I tell my kids that their feelings don't matter and that hurts.

 2. Keeping up an appearance is not nearly as important as the state of our children's hearts.

Besides using his kids as pawns for his own advancement, Polonius is constantly checking up on them. Sure it's good to know what your kids are up to, but do you really need to send a servant to spy on your son while he's overseas? Polonius isn't concerned with his son's welfare but wants to make sure Laertes isn't getting too out of control, which would hurt his own personal reputation. He even tells Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet for fear she will lose her virginity. His concern isn't for her purity so much as it is for his own appearances.

He tells his young daughter
 "Tender yourself more dearly, / Or ... you'll tender me a fool."

I know for a fact my kids will embarrass me; they already have and will inevitably do it again and again. Family pride is important to teach to our children. When our kids sin, they need to know that not only is their reputation sullied but so is the family name.

But even more important--and where Polonius missed the boat--it's not about how good or bad my kids' behavior reflects on me; it's about their hearts. I don't want my children to obey out of fear of me. I want them to obey out of love for the Lord. Polonius is all about appearances, not the heart.

3. Don't be condescending. Really listen to your kids.

Clearly Polonius would not be in the running for "Father of the Year" in my book. When Ophelia admits to her father that Hamlet has been showing her "many tenders of his affection," instead of listening and offering wise counsel, Polonius shuts her down, ridiculing what Ophelia perceives as signs of Hamlet's love. He compares her to a woodcock, a bird thought to be stupid and easily caught, and instills his daughter with fear so that she will stop seeing Hamlet. 

Polonius doesn't listen to her heart at all. He only warns her to get over Hamlet and avoid him because he fears Hamlet will seduce her and make a mockery of himself.

As a mom of three daughters, I know there will be lots of suitors calling in the coming years. I want my girls to feel comfortable talking to me, knowing I will listen to their hearts and not be condescending by telling them to get over it when a boy doesn't return their affections. We have to really listen to our kids and treat them like people worthy of respect and attention. Otherwise we risk our children being deceptive, rebellious or, in the case of Ophelia, dead.

4. Seeking revenge is never the answer.

I'll get off my Polonius soapbox and move to Hamlet's dad, the king who was poisoned by his own brother. King Hamlet was apparently a great king, husband, and father, yet when he appeared as a ghost and demanded that his son avenge his death, I lost respect for him. King Hamlet isn't interested in the well-being of his wife and son; he only wants revenge on his brother Claudius for robbing him of his life, his throne, and his bride.

While Hamlet, the loyal son, wants to get revenge, he is very slow in exacting it. The ghost of his father appears on a few different occasions to spur his son on

"Do not forget. This visitation/ Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose."

Contrary to the world's view, revenge is NOT ours. My job isn't to teach my kids to fight back when they've been wronged but to pray for those who persecute them. Bullying and violence are never the answer. Hamlet reveals that quite plainly: at the end of the play, nearly everyone has been killed, all in the name of murder and revenge.


5. Be a rock for your kids.

Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, is a sketchy character who presents more questions than answers; yet, one thing that struck me is her lack of resolve to do what's right. Within only one month after her husband is murdered, she remarries his brother. {It's questionable if she had something to do with King Hamlet's death, too.} Perhaps she remarries so quickly out of fear of losing her station, but clearly her son perceives her actions as disingenuous and lacking virtue.

Before leaving his mother, Hamlet advises her to:

"throw away the worser part of [her heart], / And live the purer with the other half! . . . / Assume a virtue if you have it not."

Gertrude seems penitent in her response: "What shall I do?" She seems to want to do what's right, knowing in her conscience her son is right, but as we soon see, she doesn't follow through.

When my children chastise me for my sinful ways, I'm humbled. If my daughter calls me out for breaking my word or speaking in anger, then I have to ask for her forgiveness, and I have to resolve not to repeat that sin again. Our children need to know we are fallible and prone to sin, but they also should be able to expect parents with conviction who strive to do what's right even if they mess up on occasion. We need to be a rock to our kids, so they'll know they can depend on us.

Hamlet is dynamic play filled with humor, sadness, depth, and levity. The lessons I have gleaned as a mom clearly demonstrate why the play is a classic in every sense of the word.

Which is your favorite Shakespearean play?


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  1. Wow! I love these parenting lessons you gleaned from Hamlet. Isn't it amazing how revisiting a great work of literature at different stages of our lives presents new insights?

    1. I agree,Kelly. I think that's how you know something is a classic; it resonates with you on a new level at each new season of your life.

  2. Keri,

    Isn't amazing how we can see truth everywhere? I read King Lear for the first time when I was teaching it to homeschooled students in a British Lit. class and I LOVED it! I've never been a real Shakespeare fan, but perhaps reading it in depth so I could lead the kids to understand helped. Or maybe I'm just growing up and able to related to it more as an adult than an adolescent like in my previous attempts. Wisdom and life experiences do give us a better perspective :) Visiting for the first time from Hungry for God; Starving for Time and glad I did!

  3. I love these lessons too! I haven't re-read Hamlet since becoming a parent, and now I'm really intrigued to try to fit it in and see if I have a similar reaction to you!

    Although, I do remembering wanting to kill Polonius last time around, so I'm sure my opinions there haven't changed much. :)

    1. Yeah, Polonius made my skin crawl. Shakespeare was a genius at a creating creepy characters--Iago, Macbeth, those witches--he must have had some real insights into psychopaths and deviants.