A few weeks ago, when the world’s crazy was on the horizon but only if you were looking, I had to decide what I wanted to do with Hamlet. I added it to my AP Literature syllabus last year, swapping it in for The Tempest. I make our Shakespeare the last major work we do before the exam. It’s the oldest strata of language the students are responsible for, and it’s good to have that in their “ears” as they get ready for their cold reads. Hamlet, in addition to its place near the heart of the English-language canon, is a really versatile play that works for a variety of potential “Question 3” topics on the exam. (That’s the one question that asks students to deal with a work they read before the exam.)
Anyway. Last year, I got through the nuts and bolts of the play, focusing on language and performance issues without really building a whole unit around it. (Spring break and high school ultimate season kept a lot of potential elaboration away.) This year, I wanted to give the play its proper due and put it at the center of something substantive. So—and again, this was at a point where even the reports coming out of China were just starting—I decided on “uncertainty.”
Sometimes life can be a little too on-the-nose, yeah?
My district has now officially added two weeks to our scheduled spring break, putting us off campus at least until early April. Like most of you, I’ve been wrestling with what to do, with fears of what may come, with the “pale cast of thought” that “sicklie[s] o’er the native hue of resolution.” So did Hamlet.
That doesn’t mean we’re suddenly all Hamlet—at least no more than we already were troubled Danish princes. The more I think about Hamlet’s uncertainty, the clearer it becomes that he’s phenomenally self-centered, probably the most self-centered protagonist in Shakespeare. Hamlet’s driving questions are all about himself: what should he do, what’s right for him, what’s his place in the universe. Even when he has seemingly committed himself to vengeance and the guidance of the “divinity that shapes our ends,” he’s still thinking about how it affects him.
He does, sometimes, reach for abstract principles of justice and duty, but only intermittently and not always productively. The Act 4 soliloquy he delivers as Fortinbras’ army marches by is generally read as inspired, but it has never quite clicked that way for me. If you haven’t read the play or don’t remember it (buried as it is in a transitional bit where Hamlet’s headed for the ship to England), the gist of it is that all the soldiers marching by, as well as the Poles they’re going to fight, do not hesitate when honor is at stake. They are ready to die for a piece of land that is too small for them to all fight on at the same time. This quickness to violence in defense of honor is what inspires Hamlet to give all his thoughts o’er to vengeance.
It’s a selfish and self-centered uncertainty, Hamlet’s, even when there’s method to his madness.
That’s part of the reason why the play is praised, of course. Hamlet’s easy to read as the “modern” individual, struggling to navigate an unjust world without the pole star of moral certainty. He trusts only Horatio, and Horatio only as a kind of metaphysical sidekick and sounding board for his digressions. Hamlet’s so smart that he doesn’t know what to do. (He’s also pretty consistently a jerk to people over the course of the play.) The questions he wrestles with, as I told my class, are questions we all wrestle with.
But there are limits to what we do as individuals. A melancholy cliffside castle might seem attractive right now (or the Italian countryside of Boccaccio’s Decameron), but that’s not how we live, nor was it how people lived in Elizabethan England. Our uncertainty right now is individual, but it is also painfully collective. We don’t know what is going to happen to us—to our family and friends, to our society, to our economy, to our governments. 2020 was already going to be a messy year. Now there’s a fog thickening over the mess.
Collective uncertainty is easier and harder to deal with. Easier, now, because we have so many ways to communicate that don’t rely on physical proximity. Harder because we don’t have experience. We have experts; hopefully people are paying attention to them. But we haven’t done this before. It’s not influenza in 1918. It’s not SARS or Swine Flu. We are all of us making this up as we go along.
Last Friday, my students wanted answers I couldn’t give them. They’re high school seniors. Their worlds can be as narrow as Hamlet’s, but also as big and sweeping as any of the Romantic or Enlightenment dreamers. They’re already engaging with their communities and the world, but most of them still want to keep a few lifelines to authority. They want to know about prom and graduation and AP exams. They want their rites of passage. A lot of them want to know that, if push comes to shove, the olds will have some answers for them. None of us do. The best I could manage was to remind them that Twitter’s not the best place to get your information, to explain to them the necessity of flattening the curve no matter how cheap plane tickets might be. To remind a room full of 17 and 18-year olds that it’s not necessarily about them, but rather about us.
We’re in this counterintuitive position right now of needing to lean on one another by staying apart. So many things have been cancelled, but people are putting ingenuity and empathy to work to support one another. Virtual concerts and collective education aren’t going to put more masks and ventilators in the hospital, but they can remind us what we’re saving people for. They help us remember that even if we’re stuck in our homes as individuals, we’re all in this together.
(And hopefully none of us, individually, are planning to pass the time with poisoned swords or poisoned wine.)