“He may not, as unvalued persons do/ Carve for himself; for on his choice depends …”

by John Holbo on August 18, 2013

If you are only going to read one book on Hamlet this week … well, I guess it could be Stay, Illusion, by Critchley and Webster. (If you’d like to read about it, go here.) But it could also be To Be Or Not To Be, a Chooseable Path Adventure, by Ryan North, Shakespeare, and You! (If you would like to read an interview with Ryan North, click here.)


The girls and I explored a few paths yesterday. I thought maybe it would be a bit too old for the younger one. It is the story of Hamlet, ‘a teenager in his late thirties’, after all. But she really liked it. Later she asked for the iPad. ‘I was the ghost and I had a chance to explore the bottom of the ocean some more, but I didn’t take it. I wanna do that.’ Fair words! “The ocean, overpeering of his list/ Eats not the flats with more impetuous haste!” than a young lady, playing as Hamlet, Sr., in a chooseable path adventure. “Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-choice, via author’s snarky voice.”

(Just so you know: it’s not written in mock-Shakespeare-ese. Ryan North is a writer for “Adventure Time” comics, and he goes more for that tone.)

I think it works quite well. Yes! It’s like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There needs to be some distinctive feature of the source material that invites the violent genre mash-up treatment. In Jane Austen’s case, there’s a hole. What’s going on in the wide world outside this story? There’s so little about that in the original that there’s remarkably little internal resistance to filling the hole with zombies. With Hamlet … you see where this is going. I’ll just quote from the review of Critchley and Webster. “What sane person, finding himself in Hamlet’s position, wouldn’t delay? Perhaps there’s something a little unhinged about the whole problem. In the nineties, in a brilliant essay called “Hamlet’s Dull Revenge,” the writer René Girard faulted critics for writing as though ‘no more was needed than some ghost to ask for it, and the average professor of literature would massacre his entire household without batting an eyelash.'” As we now know from Ryan North’s research, it is possible for Hamlet to do that at dad’s behest – well, I’m pretty sure. I haven’t explored that thread yet. But it’s probably out there.

But mostly the fun is in playing for pointless delay. Or playing within the play. What a great joke! A plan-your-own adventure story within a plan-your-own adventure story!


If you do want the hyper-violent option, try Ophelia, turns out. She’s aggressive. Get her to England and watch her turn all Keyser Soze. Who knew?

It’s actually not out in print yet, but you can buy it for Kindle



Luis 08.18.13 at 2:37 am

It is out in print if you supported the kickstarter :) I look forward to enjoying it on my long flight Monday…


John Holbo 08.18.13 at 2:42 am

Yeah, I was going to mention that, but I’ve made a couple ‘yay kickstarter’ posts already. I missed this one myself, when it was getting funding.


Yan 08.18.13 at 11:30 am

Thanks, I had no idea this was out!

And sure, he’s a writer for “Adventure Time,” but his true claim to eternal greatness is writing Dinosaur Comics, which absolutely everyone should read: http://www.qwantz.com/index.php.

He’s also the author of a less essential, but pretty fun, page by page commentary on the weird novelization of Back to the Future: http://btothef.tumblr.com/.


John Holbo 08.18.13 at 1:04 pm

Yes, Dinosaur Comics! But this Hamlet thing has more of an Adventure Time-y feel, methinks.


Main Street Muse 08.18.13 at 1:16 pm

How old is your youngest? Would two 9 yr old girls like this?


Peter Erwin 08.18.13 at 2:15 pm

From the interview with Ryan North:
And just how do you improve Hamlet? Easy. You turn it into an 800-page Choose Your Own Adventure style gamebook and raise enough money to stock it with illustrations by amazing webcomic artists, and make sure to actually put the pirate battle in there this time.

You know, I’ve always felt there was something missing from Hamlet, and now I finally understand what it was: not enough pirates! Glad to see that this has been remedied.


pedant 08.18.13 at 3:25 pm

Then do we also get an interlude of combat sapping, where we can watch Hamlet delve one yard beneath their mines, and see the enginer hoist with his own petard?

Cause that would be as good as pirates, to my mind.


Ben 08.18.13 at 3:47 pm

For anyone in the Chicago area wanting additional erudite Hamlet silliness, there’s a 75 min. play called Ghost Dad where two improv comedians play all the parts.

It finishes up its run this week. ‘S very good.


Yan 08.18.13 at 4:51 pm

Oh, and fans of Kate Beaton’s marvelous history comic, “Hark, A Vagrant” (http://harkavagrant.com/) will be happy to know that she illustrated To Be or Not to Be.


bianca steele 08.18.13 at 9:18 pm

Strangely, the gap in age between my daughter and your youngest seems to have shrunk since I started reading this blog.

It’s weird what will or won’t put them off. She put up with a chapter book version of A Little Princess, but only until things started getting dark.


John Holbo 08.18.13 at 10:12 pm

There are pirates somewhere in here. We started with Ophelia and the dad, which is fun. But I think the most intricate options involve Hamlet himself. We haven’t really explored them yet.

Youngest is 9. I wouldn’t be surprised if other 9-year olds found it a bit over their heads. Mine may have decided to enjoy it because she could see the 12-year old really enjoying it. You know how it goes.


Belle Waring 08.19.13 at 10:10 am

One of the best things about this is that if you play Ophelia, your brother comes to the door to shout: ‘I just wanted to let you know that if you sleep with Hamlet you’re a total slut and your life is over!’ I LOLed because it was true.


John Holbo 08.19.13 at 12:03 pm

Belle makes a good point. Which reminds me: hey kids, some of this stuff is kind of PG-13! (I hope no one’s 9-year old asks ‘mommy, what’s a slut?’ on the strength of my recommendation of this fine book!)


Main Street Muse 08.19.13 at 1:32 pm

John, my 9 yr old girls (twins) have a 13 yr old brother. And they have parents who are a little fast and loose with certain forbidden words. So no worries on the PG-13 nature of the language… Thanks for the recommendation!


bianca steele 08.19.13 at 2:09 pm

But pirates are cool. We just borrowed Jane Yolen’s “Ballad of the Pirate Queens” from the library, which might be more for eight than five year olds. I’m not sure whether “Oh, you may be a pirate’s wife, or by a man beguiled, but never would I hang a maid and kill the sinless child” is more or less difficult than “The tunny fish all leap and sport around the bustling cay.”


LFC 08.19.13 at 5:48 pm

If you are only going to read one book on Hamlet this week … well, I guess it could be Stay, Illusion, by Critchley and Webster.

It’s been much too long since I’ve read Hamlet itself, and I would be far more inclined to re-read the play than to read Critchley & Webster’s book, which sounds, despite the New Yorker write-up’s efforts to praise it, pretty ******* awful.


LFC 08.19.13 at 5:58 pm

P.s. Would you pay $150 an hour, or whatever analysts charge these days, to be brought toward “a gap in yourself, a place of radical loss in the abyss of desire”? (to quote from the passage from the bk excerpted at the end of the New Yorker piece)


John Holbo 08.19.13 at 10:43 pm

““a gap in yourself”

Seems a bit steep!


rea 08.19.13 at 11:13 pm

The pirates come in the form of a letter to Horatio from Hamlet, in Act IV Scene 6, where they accidently save Hamlet’s life . . .:

‘Horatio, when thou shalt have overlooked this,
give these fellows some means to the king:
they have letters for him. Ere we were two days old
at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us
chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on
a compelled valour, and in the grapple I boarded
them: on the instant they got clear of our ship; so
I alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with
me like thieves of mercy: but they knew what they
did; I am to do a good turn for them. Let the king
have the letters I have sent; and repair thou to me
with as much speed as thou wouldst fly death. I
have words to speak in thine ear will make thee
dumb; yet are they much too light for the bore of
the matter. These good fellows will bring thee
where I am. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their
course for England: of them I have much to tell


Peter T 08.19.13 at 11:43 pm

Most people here have probably seen it but if you have not check out the 1964 Russian film of Hamlet by Grigory Smoktunovsky. Changed my view from ‘indecisive neurasthenic git hesitates until everyone is dead” to “heir to throne performs very delicate political brain surgery operation but tragically hand slips at last moment”.


John Holbo 08.20.13 at 4:01 am

A year ago I showed Zoe the Last Action Hero “To Be Or Not To Be” scene and she loved it.


That movie is underrated. I mean: exploding milk truck! (Of course, it’s only underrated because it’s a so-so action comedy falsely reputed to be utterly unwatchable.)


Belle Waring 08.20.13 at 5:25 am

I think 9-year-olds can know what sluts are? You just explain that all grownups have sex sometimes, but people are really mean and horrible to women who have sex if it isn’t exactly the way their dad and all the other grownup men in their society said because SEXISM. Even though they had to be having sex with a man at the time, think about it?! And nowadays especially teenaged boys and girls are mean to each other about this and say mean things that make girls very sad, and it doesn’t really matter if the girl had sex with anyone or not, it’s just a mean thing they’re doing. Alternatively, I BLAME THE PATRIARCHY. You don’t need to go into any detail about the sex, and presumably your 9-year-old already knows that humans, like all other animals, reproduce by having sex, right? (Shut up about some fucking worm. Non-fucking worm. Budding. Whatever.) Explaining about the patriarchy is way harder, boy howdy. Last night I explained about concealed ovulation, though, so, you know, things are coming along. No, really.


John Holbo 08.20.13 at 10:48 pm

Just to clarify: I hope no one’s 9-year old asks ‘what’s a slut, mommy?’ and blames me for it, because they didn’t want to have that conversation just then, and they figured this Hamlet thing was basically as innocent as Pinky Pie, on the strength of my recommendation.


Substance McGravitas 08.20.13 at 10:52 pm

The Lovely Daughter is now 11 and looks up whatever she likes. So sometimes in the morning I will hear something incomprehensible and say “Huh?” and be informed that it’s “suck my cock you fucking faggot” in French.

The Lovely Daughter then receives a stern warning about the use of “faggot”.


Belle Waring 08.21.13 at 3:06 am

Unless she’s waxing poetic about a bundle of sticks, it isn’t really such a nice thing to say. Perhaps you just need to disambiguate. Last night we all watched episode 3 of Drunk History with Oney Judge, Martha Washington’s slave; the word “fucking” got a workout there, I can tell you what! But it’s sooooo funny. Our 9-year-old really liked the part with the hiccups.


Meredith 08.21.13 at 6:03 am

I (speaking first as parent, then as remembered child) miss that age. It’s a lovely age. (What age is that? I guess it varies somewhat between cultures, individuals. Some pre-adolescent age.) Anyway, I recommend something quiet, like FHB’s The Secret Garden. Children need their secrets, which later they will figure out were our secrets, too.

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