Will-he Nil-he?

I first tried to read Hamlet in junior high school. It wasn't assigned. I just thought I had better read it because everyone said it was such an important work of literature. So I got a copy from the library and tried to read it, but I gave up after three pages because I had a hard time remembering who was supposed to be talking. And, to be honest, much of what was being said didn't make sense. Amazingly, Hamlet didn't show up in high school, but when I got to my freshmen English course in college, there he was.

Now I had to read the play (if only to finish my term paper). Still, I must confess, that I wasn't terribly struck by the play's genius, nor was I bowled over during my four years as an undergraduate when I had to read it a few more times. I tended to prefer Shakespeare's history plays. Henry V had some interesting battles and great speeches, and I also liked Julius Caesar, which, by the way, is one of Shakespeare's shorter works.

Then it was off to graduate school where all English majors are supposed adore Hamlet. I was too sheepish to admit I did not see the point. After grad school I found myself teaching a freshman literature class and what do you know? Hamlet was a required text. But how could I, of all people, explain to my students that reading the play was worthwhile? Was there something wrong with the play or with me? Not wanting to look like an idiot, I sat down to read Hamlet one more time and slowly I began to come to grips with Shakespeare's astonishing work. For the first time I started to get it. Maybe it was because I was closing in on 30; maybe it was because I had gone through a few rough times, but Hamlet at last started to make sense.

I can't possibly say anything about the play that hasn't been said before (and most likely said better). The library shelves groan with criticism. But I've never dipped too deeply into this critical mountain, so whatever take I hold on the play is my own however many times it's been said before. (In truth, I suspect mine is a fairly generic existentialist view.) So for what it's worth, here is my take on Hamlet.

I love the play a great deal for its language, which on its own merits our appreciation. But Shakespeare offers us more than just beautiful language. He provides us with a compelling metaphor for human experience. Think of it this way. We have a hero, Prince Hamlet, who through no fault of his own finds himself in a situation without any good options. A ghost has told him that his Uncle Claudius has murdered his father and stolen the throne of Denmark. As heir to the throne -- not to mention a grieving son -- he should seek vengeance. And yet all he has is the word of a ghost. Poor proof indeed. What's more, Claudius has all of the power of the state behind him. So even if Hamlet believes the ghost, he can't act too rashly or he'll likely become the next victim. Taking out the king is not to be undertaken lightly.

So Hamlet hesitates before acting and people always wonder why. Part of the answer, it seems to me, is that he's in a tight spot, one that necessitates a pause for consideration. But there seems to be something more worrying Hamlet. At his very first appearance in the play, he comes across as deeply cynical about life. He calls the world "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable" even before he meets the ghost. It's also clear that he has seriously considered killing himself.

Hamlet actually is so cynical about the world that he seems to doubt whether there's much point in doing anything. So when people wonder why Hamlet hesitates, I always wonder what they expect him to do. If you really believe the world is hopelessly screwed up, why should you take action? It won't change anything. Thus even before the ghost's revelation Hamlet has arrived at the philosophical dead end of nihilism, a philosophy that holds that life is ultimately devoid of purpose and meaning. And if the nihilists are right, why bother to kill Claudius?

Nevertheless, Hamlet does promise the ghost he will seek revenge, although he does wait long enough to test Claudius' guilt with the play within a play; after which, assured of the guilt, he takes action. But look what happens when Hamlet does take action! Instead of setting things right, he inadvertently kills his girlfriend's father, triggers her insanity and suicide, and makes a mortal enemy of Laertes. Even worse, he tips his hand to Claudius, who then sets another murder plot in motion. Instead of solving the problem, he's made it ten times worse.

Many years ago I had a disturbing dream. I was standing on the balcony of a tall high rise apartment building, perhaps some 40-50 stories above the ground. Next to me was a large, very heavy dog attached to a 50-foot leash. For some reason the dog decided to leap off of the balcony. Instinctively I grabbed for the leash to save him from falling to his death. I braced myself and managed to stop his fall, but now the poor thing was swinging by the neck. I started to pull the dog back up and it began to strangle on its collar. It was clear I would kill the dog long before I got it back onto the balcony, yet my only alternative was to let go of the leash and allow it die upon impact. I have often thought of this dream as a direct analogue to Hamlet's dilemma.

You come into this world through no actions of your own, and what do you find? You find yourself in a no win situation. There are no guarantees that anything you do will make much difference. Bad people prosper, the good suffer needlessly, and all of your efforts won't change human stupidity, greed and cruelty. They might even make things worse. To any person who isn't kidding himself, life seems an absurd, meaningless series of nasty experiences; then you die.

Maybe, just as Hamlet speculates in the "to be or not to be" soliloquy, the only rational thing to do is kill oneself and have done with it. Hmm, suicide rational? It has been a philosophical assumption at least since Aristotle that every rational activity aims at some good. We do things because we are trying to improve our lives in some way. And now, in Hamlet, Shakespeare seems to be asking the rather mind-blowing question but what if there is nothing rational or irrational that we should be or can be aiming at? What if it is all meaningless? If this really is the case (and let's face it, we have no hard evidence it isn't) what should we do as we crawl between earth and heaven, the grave and the sky? It's a disturbing question indeed.

In the play, however, Hamlet does eventually slay Claudius, managing somehow to chose action over suicide. He even tells Horatio near the end of the play that he has found a kind of peace within himself. So what happened? How did he go from thinking all actions are meaningless to finding the courage to act? Curiously, the transformation happens off stage. While Hamlet is on his way to England, he discovers Claudius' plot to kill him. Literally and figuratively, then, he is at sea. But somehow coming face to face with the reality of his own death seems to give him a clearer understanding of his situation. Yes, maybe everything we do is futile. Maybe life is meaningless, but there remains a kind of heroic maturity to acting in spite of our inability to know if life has meaning.

In Act V he says to Horatio (the only person in the play who knows his heart), "Since no man knows of aught he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?/ Let be." Here, then, is the answer to his question of to be or not to be, but note his formulation of the answer. One must let be. Simply to be is not enough. It is mere existence, while the act of "letting" is by definition one of conscious choice.

Still Shakespeare will not wimp out. He will not say that now Hamlet has accepted his lot all will be fine. No, Shakespeare refuses to compromise with our desire for a happy ending. Hamlet may have accepted his absurd position, but his peace of mind won't matter much because his decision to act still only makes things worse. Think of it this way: if Hamlet had died ignominiously in England, his mother and Laertes would have lived, and perhaps Claudius would have been in a better position to save Denmark from Fortinbras. Hamlet's return, however, unintentionally dooms his mother, Laertes and Denmark. Once again, his actions don't improve the situation at all.

I find it interesting, too, that the awareness of his death's immediacy is again tied to his ability to act. In the final scene Laertes tells Hamlet that he has been poisoned: "Hamlet," he says, "there is not half an hour's life left in thee." And for once Hamlet doesn't speak. He doesn't philosophize. No more words, words, words. The second he knows death is upon him, he acts, slaying Claudius. Here, his awareness of his mortality seems to lend meaning to his actions, not rob them of meaning.

And even now Shakespeare won't give in to our desire for the universe to make sense. Near the play's end a dying Hamlet begs Horatio, "Tell my story aright." He is hoping, I suspect, that the story of his life may at least provide a lesson to those who come after him, and so the play closes with Horatio setting off to tell Hamlet's story to Fortinbras, Denmark's new leader. But Fortinbras is no deep thinker. Throughout the play he's been presented as an unreflective, hotheaded thug, and it's pretty obvious that Hamlet's story will mean nothing to him. So even the tale of Hamlet's struggle with life comes to nothing. Looked at this way, the play's ending is far darker than even a stage full of corpses might suggest. At least the corpses find rest. Life and all its ignorant cruelty, Shakespeare brutally assures us, will continue unabated.

This, then, is Shakespeare's dark metaphor for human existence. We are creatures capable of realizing there are no guarantees but the inevitability of death, and how we face this inevitability is, for each one of us, our lonely choice. And yet Hamlet -- flawed not by indecision but by the very fact of being born human -- does somehow seem heroic to us. After all, he does something instead of nothing. He vainly attempts to assert meaning into the very face of apparent meaninglessness. That he fails is tragic; that he tries is heroic. Indeed, without deluding himself, he realizes that the uncertainties of this life do not absolve him from action. There is an intellectual and moral heroism to this, although it's not one with much comfort.

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