Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On Hamlet

Nearly twenty years ago, my mom bought me a book called 'The Friendly Shakespeare', by Norrie Epstein.  If my memory is right, she got this for me right about the time I was in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.  It's a fun book, which tries to help people past the enormous aura of Shakespeare so that they can simply enjoy his work.  I recommend it.
In the section on Hamlet there are some lists of quotes about the play.  I thought I'd share some of them here. 
  • In the tragedy of Hamlet, the ghost of a king appears on the stage. Hamlet becomes crazy in the second act and his mistress becomes crazy in the third. The Prince slays the father of his mistress on the pretense of killing a rat, the heroine throws herself into the river. In the meanwhile another of the actors conquers Poland. Hamlet, his mother and his father all carouse on the stage. Songs are song at the table. There's quarrelling, fighting, killing. It is a vulgar and barbarous drama which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France or Italy. One would imagine this pieces to be the work of a drunken savage. - Voltaire
  • So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others. Of all the plays it is the longest and is possibly the one on which Shakespeare spent most pains; and yet he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed. - T.S. Elliot
  • I am trying to recall attention from the things an intellectual adult notices to the things a child or a peasant notices-night, ghosts, a castle lobby where a man can walk four hours together, a willow fringed brook and a sad lady drowned, a graveyard and a terrible cliff above the sea, and amidst all of these a pale man in black chothes with his stockings coming down, a dishevelled man whose words make us at once think of loneliness and doubt and dread, of waste and dust and emptiness and from whose hands to our own, we feel the richness of heaven and earth and the comfort of human affection slipping away.  - C.S. Lewis
  • This monstrous Gothic castle of a poem with its baffled half-lights and glooms. - C.E. Montague
  • One of the reasons audiences admire the play so much is that everybody in their own lives almost every day faces the kind of crisis that Hamlet faces, that is, do you behave like a reactive savage or like a rational and sensitive human being? - Michael Pennington
  • It's nonsense to pretend that Hamlet is the story of Everyman. It isn't. It's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. And that's the whole motive of the story; it's not just you or me growing up in a corrupt role, it's somebody who's obliged to take a public role. - Richard Eyre (director, Royal Shakespare Co.)
  • What's really getting him down is that his mother has gone and married the other guy straight off the bat, like within two months. He loves his mother, and she's like deserting him in his really grief stricken time of need. He's only about fifteen years younger than her. He's pretty upset about the whole family thing... He's in a pretty heavy mood. - Mel Gibson

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Poetry - 9

For the first in the poetry series, go here

Poem number nine is a named 'Moonlight Night' and is by another Chinese poet that I haven't heard of before, Tu Fu.

In Fuzhou, far away, my wife is watching
The moon alone tonight, and my thoughts fill
With sadness for my children, who can't think
Of me here in Changan; they're too young still.
Her cloud-soft-hair is moist with fragrant mist.
In the clear light her white arms sense the chill.
When will we feel the moonlight dry our tears,
Leaning together on our windowsill?

I can't help but wonder at how mature the love is in this poem.  It isn't young or desperate at all.  And yet it has a passionatle longing to it.  Very nice.  I may need to look into a serious guide to old Chinese poetry.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hyperion to a Satyr

I doubt that any play has inspired the depth of study that 'Hamlet' has.  I'd like to point out an example of this, a blog called 'Hyperion to a Satyr'.  The blog has taken several movie versions of Hamlet and is comparing them scene by scene.  It's all very well done and worth reading. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Hamlet 'To Be or Not to Be'

(I meant to post a bunch this week but work schedules, kids and my daughter's fifth birthday party ate up all my time and a considerable amount of sanity.)

I've read that 'to be or not to be' is the most quoted line in the English language.  That's probably fitting since it's a question that deals with one of the most basic questions in life.  I know that when I was younger, more than once I questioned that balance and asked if it was all worth it or not. 
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?
 What's the better thing to do when given an unbearable situation?  Fight back or give in?  What if you can't win?  Does the mere act of fighting mean a victory of sorts?
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.
 The lure of giving in, of dying, and simply being out of pain is very tempting.  To finally get off the wheel and the daily grind of awful surprises.  Wouldn't that be wonderful!
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: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life
 But what if the pain doesn't end there?  What things are even worse after death?  Keep in mind that when Shakespeare wrote this, there was a pretty uniform view that suicide was sin and in some ways an ultimate sin.  A man who killed himself would have no chance (no time!) for absolution.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?
 Who can blame these people for saying enough is enough?
who would these 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,
 And why would they keep living unless it was a fear of the unknown that stopped them?  It's very interesting to me that Hamlet doesn't consider any other possibilities.
puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know naught of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. 
 And Hamlet talks himself out of suicide.  He won't take that avenue because he doesn't know where it will lead.  Conscience has made a coward of him and he won't take that action. 
Of course, to our modern eyes, there are many reasons not to commit suicide.  Hamlet might have been stopped if he'd thought about how his mother or girlfriend would feel.  He might have thought about the effect on the state of Denmark to have another monarch die.  He could also have worried about letting a villain like Claudius get away with murder most foul. 
None of this is meant as criticism of the writing.  Shakespeare does an invaluable service in taking one argument and really exploring it.  Again (and again) he asks big questions and only provides partial answers.  It's up to us to try and figure out the rest.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Greatest Stage Play of All Time?

It is often said that Hamlet is the greatest piece of theater ever.  That may reflect some Euro-centrism but again, maybe not.  Hamlet has penetrated other cultures all over the world.  It's very likely the most well known play in the world. 
Is it the greatest?  That's subjective of course and I don't really know how to answer that.  I will say that it's not my favorite.  That's probably 'Cyrano de Bergerac'.  It's not my favorite Shakespeare; there are several comedies that I prefer.  (What I can say, I'm a sunny person.)  It isn't even my favorite tragedy from Shakespeare.  The passion of 'Romeo and Juliet' speaks to me more. 
But these are just my opinions.  Is there some consensus about Hamlet's place in the rankings?  I decided to ask Google and see what it thought. 
First result top ten:
Importance of Being Earnest
Waiting for Godot
Midsummer Night's Dream
Romeo and Juliet
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
King Lear
Death of a Salesman

Second result top ten:
Death of a Salesman
Importance of Being Earnest
Long Days Journey into Night
The Cherry Orchard
Waiting for Godot
The Glass Menagerie
A Doll's House

Third result top ten:
King Lear
Oedipus Rex
Long Days Journey into Night
Waiting for Godot
Twelfth Night
At the top, or very near to it, in all of them.  From what I can tell, Hamlet really does earn it's reputation.  Now why is that?  I've got a theory that the reason Hamlet ranks so highly is because it's a giant question mark of a play.  We know why Romeo does what he does.  We know why Macbeth does what he does.  Hamlet?  There is debate on nearly every single action he takes (or doesn't take, as the case may be).  More than four centuries after it was written, we still question the whole thing.  In fact, the biggest question for each production is how they will interpret. 
There's more to it than that, of course.  There is a beauty to Shakespeare's language that is hard to match.  You'll notice that Shakespeare dominates the lists above.  I'll also note that he had the good timing to come along just as the printed word became a widespread thing.  I'm sure that helped establish an early #1 ranking too. 
And seriously, it's a damned good play.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Is there any more tragic character in the story of Hamlet, than Ophelia?  The poor girl (with a pretty name) suffers, suffers and suffers some more.  Her king has died.  This is her boyfriend's dad so it is something of a family matter for her.  Her brother is leaving but before he leaves he carefully warns her that Hamlet is only trying to get her into the sack.  Her father also tries to warn her off.  And then he dies.
The cruelest thing of all though has to be the whole 'get thee to a nunnery' sequence in Act 3.  In short order, Hamlet:
  • denies giving her gifts
  • accuses her of dishonesty and unfairness
  • tells her "I used to love you once"
  • tells her that she never should have trusted that love
  • accuses her of being a slut
  • curses any future marriage that she'll have
  • and finishes by hitting her with a boatload of insults
It's widely believed that Hamlet is only playing at being mad.  "I am but mad north-north west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw."  But if he was playing, why hurt poor Ophelia so badly?  He's been hurt by his mother and that's given him a general distrust of women.  But shouldn't his love, Ophelia, be given some benefit of the doubt?  Or is he simply hurt so much that he can't afford to do so?
Or, and this is what read true to me this last time, Hamlet really is losing it.  He isn't simply playing at being mad.  He's got a fingernail grip on sanity.  And in his madness, he's lashing out at just about everyone.  Hamlet's actions at the graveyard can be read in this fashion too.
And then she dies of course, poor thing.  I understand that Ophelia has become something of a metaphor for troubled teen girls.  And indeed, she is a very sympatheic figure.  Adored and then thrown away.  Told not to trust in love by her father and brother.  Suffers close and sudden deaths.  Emotionally run over by Hamlet. 
I know it's Hamlet's tragedy, but Ophelia is really the most tragic of them all.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Poetry - 8

For the first in the poetry series, go here

The next poem in the book is by a Chinese poet that I've never heard of before, Li Po. 

Beneath the blossoms with a pot of wine,
No friends at hand, so I poured alone;
I raised my cup to invite the moon,
Turned to my shadow, and we became three.
Now the moon had never learned about drinking,
And my shadow had merely followed my form,
But I quickly made friends with the moon and my shadow;
To find pleasure in life, make the most of the spring.

Whenever I sang, the moon swayed with me;
Whenever I danced, my shadow went wild.
Drinking, we shared our enjoyment together;
Drunk, then each went off on his own.
Bur forever agreed on dispassionate revels,
We promised to meet in the far Milky Way.
What a lovely poem!  I love the idea of inviting the moon to a party.  For me personally, it has always been easiest to commune with nature late at night.  I've just never thought of going so far as extending a drink.  After I'm done writing this, I think I'll go get a glass of brandy and see if the moon would like some company.
As to the actual poetry, I've instantly fallen in love with the last line of the first stanza.  'To find pleasure in life, make the most of spring.'  I can tell you that here in the upper midwest, spring can be a tough commodity.  Many years we go right from winter to summer.  I treasure those few days. 
A note about the author.  According to traditon, Li Po supposedly drowned while attempting to embrace the moon's reflection in some water.  So . . . I guess, be careful out there.  That inconstant moon can sometimes be troublesome.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hamlet's Tragic Flaw

One of the staples of theatrical tragedy is the idea of the 'tragic flaw'.  The protagonist (usually the title character) has some thing that wrong with him that ultimately leads to his downfall.  It has long been suggested that Hamlet's tragic flaw is his hesitancy.  He doesn't react quickly enough to the kill his uncle.  This gives Claudius enough time to plot Hamlet's death.
Hamlet's prime opportunity comes in Act 3, Scene 3.  Hamlet has seen the king react to the players, he is convinced of his guilt.  He comes upon Claudius praying.  The stage direction has Hamlet enter as he finishes (though obviously you could play this so Hamlet hears the whole confession).  Earlier Hamlet heard the ghost of his father complain that he was in hell because he had been taken unawares.  Now if he dispatches Claudius while he's in a state of grace then the villain will go to heaven. 
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
So in his speech he decides to wait a bit:
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At game, a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes.
That's the straight reading of course.  We don't have to take it at face value.  This could be Hamlet's way of avoiding a conflict.  That's one of the beauties of Shakespeare, there is plenty of room for interpretaion. 
What's interesting to me is that if you changed the title of the play to 'Claudius, King of Denmark' you would have the classic tragedy.  Just picture it, a man seeks the throne.  Maybe he just wants power.  Maybe he thinks that the king is unworthy.  Maybe it's a scheme born out of lust with Gertrude.  Who knows?  Anyway, he has taken the top spot through poison and in the end, by poison he dies. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Hamlet - Shakespeare

The story of Hamlet is fairly well known so I won't bother with a point by point plot recap.  As I've written before, I've seen the play several times and I've read parts of it, but I've never read it all the way through.  I've never studied it.  This time I tried to empty my head of prior expectations and theories.  I tried to see the character of Hamlet in the freshest possible light.
This is what I saw.  Hamlet has had the foundations of his life shaken.  His beloved father has died suddenly.  His mother has betrayed the father by quickly remarrying.  Hamlet is smart and quick witted and completely overwhelmed.  He has great trouble coming to grips with the new situation.
He then meets the ghost of his deceased father, who tells Hamlet that he was murdered.  This brings about two specific sets of doubts.  One, Hamlet isn't certain that he can trust the word of a spirit.  Two, Hamlet isn't certain that he isn't going crazy.  The second point surprised me a bit.  I know that Hamlet 'plays' at being crazy but really, how much of an act is it?  In fact, until Act 3, when Claudius confesses to God, you could chalk the whole story up to Hamlet's madness.
Several things happen fairly quickly:
  • Hamlet seeks evidence by having a traveling troupe of actors portray the murder.  Claudius acts guilty and Hamlet is convinced.
  • Hamlet rejects his girlfriend, Ophelia, in a particularly harsh way.  The actions of his mother have seemingly poisoned his relationships with women.  He can no longer trust their love.
  • While confronting his mother, Hamlet strikes out in anger and kills Polonius.  He thought (hoped, really) that it was Claudius.  
  • Claudius believes that Hamlet is too dangerous and seeks to have him sent to England and executed.
Hamlet finds out and escapes back to Denmark.  He arrives to find that Ophelia has committed suicide.  Her brother, Laertes, wants to kill Hamlet.  These are more emotional shocks and by this time Hamlet has completely lost control of the situation.  He allows himself to be goaded into a playful duel or at least what he thinks is play. 
Before the duel he apologizes to Laertes and tries to start mending fences.  But it's too late.  The swords are poisoned.  The drinks are poisoned.  Rather famously, everyone dies.

The beauty of the play is that so much of the motivations of Hamlet are in question.  His actions make sense through several different interpretations.  Norrie Epstein wrote of Hamlet analysis:
Romantics read Hamlet as a sensitive poet, morbidly filled with thoughts of death. To the Victorians, Hamlet simply brooded too much: all he needed was a good tonic. In the age of Freud, Hamlet's failure to act was not so much explained as diagnosed: he was a neurotic, obsessed with his mother's sexuality. During the mid-twentieth century, Hamlet became an existential hero, clad in jeans and a black turtle-neck, who peered into the abyss, saw the fundamental absurdity of existence, and concluded that all action, including revenge, was meaningless.
Rereading what from above, I can see that I've added to this tradition above by concluding, in the understanding of our time, that Hamlet was emotionally overwhelmed by the various shocks in his life and didn't have time to work his way through them.  (I wonder what scholars will suggest a hundred years from now?)  You can make supporting arguments for any of these actions.  In this way, Hamlet is probably the most three dimensional character in Western theater.  He provides a mirror to to the way we perceive human actions. 
It's not surprising that this is considered Shakespeare's masterpiece.  Some of his other plays are more enjoyable.  I don't know that any of them provide as much fodder for discussion.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Poetry -7

The seventh poem (or poem fragment) is a bit of Ovid from Meamorphoses.  Ovid lived from about 43 BC to 17 AD.  This translation was done by John Dryden.

Of bodies chang'd to various forms, I sing:
Ye Gods, from whom these miracles did spring,
Inspire my numbers with celestial heat;
Till I my long laborious work compleat:
And add perpetual tenour to my rhimes,
Deduc'd from Nature's birth, to Caesar's times.
Before the seas, and this terrestrial ball,
And Heav'n's high canopy, that covers all,
Once was the face of Nature; if a face:
Rather a rude and indegested mass:
A lifeless lump, unfashion'd, and unfram'd,
Of jarring seeds; and justly Chaos nam'd.
No sun was lighted up, the world to view;
No moon did yet her blunted horns renew:
Nor yet was Earth suspended in the sky,
Nor pois'd, did on her own foundations lye:
Nor seas about the shores their arms had thrown;
But earth, and air, and water, were in one.
Thus air was void of light, and earth unstable,
And water's dark abyss unnavigable.
No certain form on any way was imprest;
All were confus'd, and each disturb'd the rest.
For hot and cold were in one body fixt;
And soft with hard, and light with heavy mixt.

It's a creation poem and a pretty good one.  I find it very interesting that Ovid would call out his contemporary Caesar, as if he understood his importance even as he lived.  The second half of this, from 'No sun was lighted up...' is very impressive.  It might be all of the recent reading of Shakespeare that I've been doing, but I couldn't help hearing Brian Blessed's voice. 
I'm not crazy about this translation though.  I found the constant apostrophes distracting.  And the punctuation at the end of lines is nearly random.  I'll score that against Dryden. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Getting a Jump on 'Paradise Lost'

If you're following along with the bloggers in the sidebar, you may be familiar with 'The Western Tradition' blog.  Over there Dr J is making his way through the Great Books but he's doing it in a slightly different fashion than I am.  He is covering more ground (much more) and at a faster pace. 
Each week he announces what he'll be working on for the next week and offers comments on the previous pieces.  Yesterday he mentioned that he's starting 'Paradise Lost', which he calls the greatest poem in the English language.  As I've mentioned before, poetry is something of a blind spot for me.  Long, epic poems intimidate me and 'Paradise Lost' is something I've been dreading a bit. 
With that in mind, I'm going to follow along with Dr J.  It looks like he's covering one 'book' per week.  If so, this will be done over the next twelve weeks.  If you're also intimidated by long poems, this might be a good way to help yourself out. 
'Paradise Lost' comes up on our list in August of year three.  I plan on simply taking notes and leaving them in a journal so that I can brush up and be ready again two years from now.  You can easily do the same. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Biography of Shakespeare

The whole idea behind doing regular biographic sketches was to try and get a larger feel for each writer.  That doesn't seem as necessary with Shakespeare as it does with many others.  He's one of the best known individuals of his time period and even a casual fan is probably very familiar with his story.  So I'll hit the high spots and see if I can find anything that I didn't know before.
Shakespeare was born in 1564, probably on April 23rd.  He almost certainly attended  grammar school.  There was one near his house.  At school he would have been well educated in Latin grammar and classical Latin authors.  (Between Montaigne and Shakespeare, I'm wondering if I should be pushing classical stories on my kids!)  When he was 18 he married the much older Anne Hathaway.  Only six months later, the couple had a daughter.  A few years later they had twins and a few years after that he split for London.  No one is certain why he left.
By 1592 his plays were being performed in London.  Apparently, and I didn't know this, he probably acted in some of them.  He was successful enough that by 1598 his name was a selling point.  He became at least somewhat wealthy.  He died in 1616.  Tradition suggests that he died on his birthday but that's disputed.
There is a lot that we don't know about Shakespeare.  I lot that we probably never will.  For centuries, various scholars have pored over his works to try and find clues to his personal life.  But clues are all that they really have.  There is even controversy over whether the man 'William Shakespeare' wrote the works that are attributed to him.  (For the record, I haven't ever seen any convincing evidence that he didn't.)  There is speculation over his marriage, his sexuality, his education, and even over his death.  He left his 'second-best bed' to his wife, prompting some to think that he still needed to use his first-best. 
Shakespeare was a first rate poet and playwright, probably the finest that the English language has ever had.  No wonder we keep trying to get to know what happened to produce such a wonder.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Author Timeline

Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322

Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augistine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

August Reading

Shakespeare: 'Hamlet' Kindle/Nook/Google

I'm a big Shakespeare fan but I've never read through Hamlet before.  I've seen about four versions of it and read some of the famous parts before but I've never studied it before so this will be new for me.  When it comes to Shakespeare, I suggest watching the play before reading.  It helps to get past the language barrier and increases understanding.  You can find a recent performance with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart online here.  
I haven't mentioned this here but I was very much a theater rat when I was young.  From age 11 until about 22 I was in about 50 different shows (community theater, children's theater, high school and so on).  This included my two favorite all time roles, Puck in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and Romeo in 'Romeo and Juliet'.  I loved the challenge of translating the Elizabethan patter into something that a modern audience could easily understand.  I loved the high drama and absolute absurdity that each role permitted.  There is a reason that Shakespearean actors are so highly valued, even in other genres.

And while I'm talking about Shakespeare, I want to recommend this post from Stan.  I laughed while reading it!