by Julia Buckley
When I became an English teacher, I assumed I'd be teaching it all the time. But somehow, in twenty-three years of teaching, I never once taught HAMLET until this year. My class just finished the play, and I have to say that I understand why it's sometimes called the greatest work ever written.
It's not just that HAMLET has many layers for interpretation--mystery, ghost story, psychological tale, philosophical treatise, love story, dysfunctional family yarn, Oedipal triangle, life and death conflict, revenge drama--one could go on with this list for quite some time. After all, the play has kept the public's interest for more than 400 years.
But what stays with me now, after my first adult examination of HAMLET, is how beautiful the words are, and how they tend to stay imprinted on the mind.
I thought my students might feel this way, too, but they're eighteen, and it's not the same at that age. I remember that my own high school teacher gave us a sheet of lines to remember so that when he called on us in class, we could recite something by heart. But he didn't want any of us to repeat a quote that someone else had already said, so it was a terrifying experience, hoping I memorized enough things to be sure I said an original line. The one I finally said out loud was "A little more than kin, and less than kind," which is Hamlet's first line in the play, and his description of his uncle-now-father, Claudius.
My teacher, Mr. Wooddell, wasn't thrilled with my choice, since it was the shortest one on the list. I fell into disfavor that day.
Yet this year I tried to encourage my students to do something similar, except instead of demanding that they memorize something (I'm not as tough as Mr. Wooddell), I offered two extra credit points to the student who could repeat one rhyming couplet from the play. "They're easy to remember," I assured them, "because they RHYME."
So the first student to try was asked if she could repeat what Hamlet said about time after seeing his father's ghost.
"Uh--something about being out of joint, and something something about being born."
"He actually said 'Time is out of joint; o cursed spite/that ever I was born to set it right," I told her.
Her friends rallied around. "You're not going to give her the points?"
"No. She didn't come anywhere close. And it was only two lines," I said.
"But she had the idea," said one stubborn young woman (demonstrating that special quality that theorists say is prevalent among "millenials," or the students of this generation who are said to be the product of doting parents and an excess of rewards).
"You're not appreciating Shakespeare's own words, which was the goal of this challenge," I said.
They looked at me disapprovingly. Some suggested that it would be nigh on impossible to memorize those words, and for some students it's true, because their vocabularies have shrunk with the lack of reading, and literally every word of the play is unknown to them (barring articles and prepositions).
But the words are SO beautiful that it remains worth the effort. I nearly cried each time I read Hamlet's soliloquies, not only when he longed for death and feared what might come after it, but also when he explained the existential malaise that had become his worldview:
"How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!"
Yet Hamlet lives on and suffers, because Hamlet is a THINKER. He is a university student, a reader and a life-long learner, and thanks to his training as such, he cannot commit a brutal act of revenge simply because his father tells him to. He must think about it, and examine it and think some more, and this vacillation is identified as his tragic flaw. He must decide whether "it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
But that's just it--Hamlet has a noble mind, a worthy one, which is truly what elevates this play to the level of great thought. Hamlet goes from his "To be or not to be" soliloquy, a fearful examination of his options, to a "Let be" speech delivered to his friend Horatio, in which he acknowledges that he is ready for whatever may happen, even his own death. "There is special Providence in the fall of a sparrow," he tells his sad friend. "The readiness is all."
Here the beauty of Hamlet's words reflect the pared-down philosophy of his thinking. He has faced the slings and arrows and has come much closer to facing eternity itself.
Hamlet goes on to fight a duel which everyone loses; as with all Shakespearean tragedy, circumstance litters the stage with bodies, and Hamlet lies dying in the arms of his true friend, Horatio, who wanted to die with him. Hamlet insists that Horatio stay alive, but asks him to "Absent thee from felicity awhile/and in this harsh world, draw thy breath in pain/to tell my story."
This final concession to death even as he begs his friend to stay alive for him is, for me, one of the most beautiful parts of the play, but the most lovely, the most golden sentence in the play is Hamlet's last line: "All the rest is silence."
How long, I wonder, did Shakespeare ponder what last wisdom Hamlet should impart, and how many things did he consider that might best capture the mystery of the universe in contrast with man's potentially meaningless existence on earth?
The play begins with the words of a guard: "Who's there?"
The end of HAMLET echoes the same sentiment, as a man searches for his identity on earth and eventually must take his question to Heaven.
(Photo: Kenneth Branagh in his grand 1996 film version of HAMLET).