But I couldn't help thinking, yesterday, how futile it is to try to "teach" Hamlet, how impossible, really, how absolutely ridiculous in this day and age of "professional" higher ed; because the fact is, I don't "get" him. I don't understand him, I don't know if he's mad, I don't know why he so coldly offs Rosecrantz and Guildenstern, I don't begin to get why he's obsessed with his mother's sex life, and I don't know--I really don't--why he doesn't do what every last patron of the Elizabethan stage expected him to do once the ghost told him the story: why he doesn't forthwith kill Claudius the murderer. I don't understand Hamlet--the prince or the play. I really don't.
But I love it. What a show. What an incredible character, what a brilliant, quick-witted, wonderful madman. What a piece of work he is, "how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving--how express and admirable." Really. What an incredible play.
I've been through it a dozen times at least, probably more. On my desk at school lies a library copy of John Dover Wilson's What Happens in Hamlet, a book I walked out of a city library with forty years ago when, in college, I had to read the play for the first time in my life and found it absolutely beyond me. I've read that stolen book over and over again--in college, in graduate school, and a dozen times at least as a prof. But the fact is, even that book doesn't help. I didn't "get" him as an undergraduate, and I don't "get" him now, even though today I know and love that massive, five-hour piece of stagecraft inside and out. I know the play. I love the play. I just don't know him.
And here's my horror yesterday, in front of my students. I told them that "getting Hamlet," understanding him, isn't the point at all. His greatness is his confounding mystery. The point of the play's genius isn't what "Shakespeare is trying to say," as students like to characterize literature. The point is that Shakespeare has given us every last bit of felt life he can in the character of Hamlet, but when it comes right down to it there's nothing we can do but stand back in awe at this young prince and his hasty death. He's just too human.
Look--who can doubt that Mr. Jerry Sandusky did a ton of good with this charity he set up? Who can doubt that there weren't dozens, maybe hundreds of needy kids who were blessed by the work of his hands? And yet, demonically, he preyed on some of them, used them for his own damned ends. How do you understand that?
How do we appreciate the complexities of our own humanity? How do we understand our own motivations, our best behavior, our worst? Do any of us "get" who we are?
It's futile, really--teaching Hamlet, if the best I can do is tell students they're blessed if they understand that they'll never understand. After all, how is such mystery going to help them get a frickin' job?
And yet, every time I go over that play, every time I work my way through it, every time I hear that ill-fated prince rant or rhapsodize, I'm even more taken by the genius, the sheer beauty, the express humanity that's there on the page in front of me.
A couple years ago, some Christian school teachers asked me to talk about the nature of Christian education, an endeavor I've been in for just about my whole teaching life. What is it, really? they said.
I could give a ton of textbook answers. I come from from parents who sometimes tacitly assumed that not putting your children into a Christian school was renegging on perfectly sacred baptismal vows.
But I wanted to know for myself--and here's what I came up with. Christian teaching--Christians teachers, Christian schools--must somehow teach awe, must somehow teach humility before the radiant face of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, must somehow help students see that they aren't much more than cold hard clay in the massive, loving hands of the Potter.
But how do you teach awe? How do you teach grace? Can't be done, can it? Can we shape a curriculum for humility?
I don't know. But I know I felt it yesterday when, once more--but not for the last time--I tried once again to show my students what a piece of work Hamlet really is.
Honestly, I don't know if I can do better, really, than to have them walk out of class going "wow." I don't know if any did yesterday--I certainly didn't forty years ago.
Maybe I was a miserable failure. Maybe.
But he wasn't--Hamlet, I mean. Good night, what a character, what a story, what a play. What a genius Shakespeare was. Amazing.