August 29, 2012


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If I collected a fraction of the available analyses on Hamlet I could organize a Bite of Hamlet the size of a small town.  Hamlet hamlet.  Every block would feature a different flavor and some of us could spend the rest of our lives wandering through the Mandela of ideas, trends, arguments, and responses this play has elicited.  Here are some of mine:

I didn’t use to understand why everyone says Polonius is such a bore.  Now I understand why I couldn’t see it before.  It was because he has that one really great line:

*This above all, to thine own self be true,

And it must follow as the night the day

That thou canst not then be false to any man. (I, iii)

It’s wonderful line. It’s a line to tape on the bathroom mirror so I see it every day.  When I was younger I couldn’t reconcile such a meddling old fuss-pot with such wisdom.  I needed my villains and my heroes to be separate.  Shakespeare has so many levels that if someone needs fundamentals, she can find them.  If she can tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, there’s comfort available for the discomfort of doing so.

My most personal response to Hamlet came at a time when I was deeply depressed.  Reading his most famous speech, I stopped at the line, “. . . the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to.”  Energy and empathy from 400 years ago rushed through the words.  I wasn’t alone on the road.  Someone was there who understood, even called it “natural.” As I am reading all the plays this summer I find there is almost nothing Shakespeare didn’t understand about what it feels like to be alive.

This reading I was drawn to the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia but I had a lack of empathy for Ophelia that surprised me.  I felt impatient with her.  Apparently Hamlet did, too.  He is a frightened young person, trying to keep his wits about him, and trying to separate from his parents.  Ophelia’s fragility rattles him.  There was time when I felt as crazy as Ophelia, and when I attempted what she accomplished.  I know what it’s like to have a meddling, critical, controlling parent.  I know how infantilizing that is, and how much paralysis and fear it breeds in a developing young woman.  Hamlet knows what Polonius is like, knows the power he holds over his daughter.  But his own immediate crisis is so great that he wants Ophelia to be a steadying person, not to be the person she is.

Hamlet is thinking hard.  He doesn’t want to be sidetracked with Ophelia’s angst.  Ophelia is unhappy and bewildered.  She will soon spin out and not be able to think at all.   Like Hamlet I have thought about suicide.  Thinking about it is what saves one from following through.  Ophelia can’t think.  When Hamlet erupts the two of them are split off from each other.  Cutting off connection and feeling may pull one back from the brink of suicide, but it’s a survival measure that doesn’t make for good decisions about how to live.  To deny either connection or individuation dis-empowers both.

Reading Hamlet gets me thinking about death.  I want to stare death in the face and go down fighting if that’s what’s required.  But if I take my last breath in this world and float into the next, I hope both thinking and feeling states are there.  The readiness is all.

A point about Hamlet and Ophelia that I wanted to clear up is the extent of their relationship. I thought I had “ocular proof” of it being sexual until I realized I had misread a line.  Ophelia is reading her “orisons,” her prayer book, when Hamlet asks her to remember all his sins in her orisons.  Except this was how I read the line:

“Nymph, in thy orifices be all my sins remembered.”

I thought my line sounded better.  It even sounded Shakespearean. I bet I’m not the first to make that slip.

Which reminds me of another slip, a very poignant one.  My beloved high school English teacher Carlye LaBell, had Alzheimers late in her life.  Out for brunch with her family, she studied the menu.  “Omelette,” she said.  “I don’t know what that is but I think I used to teach it.”

Sit down with a cup of tea and put your feet up.  Here are lines from Hamlet:

*How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

. . . ‘tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely. (I, ii)


*. . .frailty thy name is woman. (I, ii)


*Neither a borrower or a lender be. (I, iii)


*. . .to the manner born. . .

. . . it is a custom more honored in the breach than the observance. (I, iv)


*Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (I, iv)


*Murder most foul. (I, v)


*There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in our philosophy. (I, v)


*Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth. (II, i)


*Brevity is the soul of wit. (II, ii)


*More matter, with less art. (II, ii)


*Though this be madness, yet there is method in it. (II, ii)


*. . . the indifferent children of the earth. (II, ii)


*There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. (II, ii)


*What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god; the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. (II, ii)


*I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw (II, ii)


*The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king (II, ii)


*To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. . .
. . . who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. . .  (III, i)


*Get thee to a nunnery. (III, i)


*Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.  (III, ii)


*‘Tis now the very witching time of night

When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out

Contagion to the world. (III, ii)


*The lady doth protest too much methinks. (III, ii)


*You would play upon me, you would

Seem to know my stops,

You would pluck out the heart of my mystery. (III, ii)


*A king of shreds and patches (III, iv)


*Hoist with his own petard (III, iv)


*. . . cruel to be kind ( III, iv)


*How should I know your true love know

From another one?

By his cockle hat and staff

And his sandals shoon. (IV, v)


*The say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. (IV, v)


*Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day

All in the morning betime

And I a maid at your window

To be your Valentine (IV, v)


*There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. . .

there’s pansies, that’s for thought. . .

there’s fennel. . . columbines.

there’s rue. . . we may call it herb o’ grace on Sundays. . .

there’s a daisy. . . (IV, v)


*For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy. . . (IV, v)


*And will ‘a not come again?

And will ‘a not come again?

Oh no, he is dead,

Go to thy deathbed;

He never will come again. (IV, v)


*There lives within the very flame of love

A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it. (IV, vii)


*Long purples. . . our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them. (IV, vii)


*Alas poor Yorick! I knew him Horatio. (V, i)


*Sweets to the sweet. (V, i) (I’m not sure how many people realize this is Gertrude’s line as she throws flowers into Ophelia’s grave.)


*The quick and the dead (V, i)


*The cat will mew, the dog will have his day (V, i)


*There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will (V, ii)


*There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come.  The readiness is all. (V, ii)


*Now cracks a noble heart.  Good night, sweet Prince,

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. (V, ii)


*Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. (V, ii)


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