Monday, April 23, 2012
The fact is, this morning some of the drama is gone--after all, we finished Hamlet on Friday, finished it in the sense that we went through the fifth act. If my students have kept up, they've seen the whole thing now, stem to stern, watched Claudius catch his fate, seen the Prince himself skewer him but good, saw Gertrude swoon, then die, the poisoned cup fall from her hand. Just about everyone is dead at the end of Hamlet, which is why, I suppose, Young Fortinbras gets the crown, the outsider from Norway, who just happens to be storming through town, or so it seems. Something's been rotten in the state of Denmark all right, but, by Act V, the pestilence is dead, as is everyone else. For my class--one week from exams--the play is over, even though I'll do some summing up this morning. The drama is gone.
It's his birthday today--Shakespeare's, that is, a man more read than anyone, save Moses. We know very little about him really, although most of those who study such things claim that once upon a time he got a girl named Anne Hathaway pregnant, then married her. He wrote plays and probably went on stage himself before my Puritan forefathers closed up the theaters and burned down the Globe--good Calvinists on the march against worldliness.
He's been in my class for all of forty years, but long ago already I gave up on forcing students to read him. It seemed impossible then, maybe more so today. For years, kids could struggle through because what they knew of the Bible came from the King James version, Shakespeare's own language. Today, with a dozen modern translations, the KJV is as foreign to them as the Bard.
So years ago already, I got some taped versions and played them in class so that my high school students could hear intonation, the emotion of lines that seemed to them more and more indecipherable. This year, a Korean student came up to me after class with agony in his eyes. I told him native speakers found him just as baffling. One day in class last week when I asked for questions, a kid sitting right up front just threw up his hands: "It's over my head," he said, innocently.
I don't care. I told them they weren't citizens of this world if they didn't at least know something about that world's most well-known piece of dramatic literature. That line and a dollar could have got me a cup of coffee at McDonalds, even with a senior discount. I think I told you, what they loved was The Hunger Games. I told them to watch the Branagh production of Hamlet; after all, Shakespeare didn't write the place to be read. I hope they did.
I've been at Hamlet for so long I should know the thing by heart, but I'm just a slow learner. Every time I read it again I swear there's something new. For instance, there's always been, for me, a kind of comfort in the lines Hamlet gives Horatio just before the duel at the very end:
. . .there's 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: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't it leave betimes?
I always knew that those lines suggest Hamlet is at peace with himself and role and his fate and his life and his death. Morbid as that may sound, to know that kind of peace is, for him, a great, great blessing, just as it is--yes, indeed--for all of us. Me too. It's a great moment in the play.
But not until last week--I swear it!--did I ever plainly see that these wonderful lines are the answer to the question Hamlet himself poses in the most famous soliloquy of all, "To be or not to be." It took me forty years of Hamlet to think that through--forty years! In Act V, after the graveyard, he finally has the answer to the most famous question he couldn't help asking.
Figuring that out made me feel like a kid, made me love it--the play--even more.
This morning's morning thanks are for Hamlet, a man whose gorgeous speeches I've been hearing for forty years. The world is a better place because of him, and, of course, the sinner who created him, the man born on this day in 1642.
Today is the last time I'll teach either of them, and that's okay. They're not leaving any time soon.