I was reading Hamlet recently. You know the story – he comes home from studying at university on the occasion of his father’s funeral, only to find that his mother has already gotten remarried to Claudius, the brother of Hamlet’s father. And as if that isn’t bad enough, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and tells Hamlet and two of his friends, that Claudius murdered him!
Hamlet is such a huge personality that he’s living out events from multiple simultaneous points of view.
We’ve probably all had the experience of something dramatic happening in our lives, and even while we’re in the middle of it, we’re still calmly thinking about it as if we’re outside of ourselves. It reminds me of the line from a classic rock song: “Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’.”
Hamlet has this going on big-time. Even while he’s full of passion, he’s looking at things from a calm, remote, “outside himself” point of view.
Here’s an example. Hamlet has to make sure it really was the ghost of his father, and not the devil sent to mislead him. So Hamlet writes a short play and gets some visiting actors to perform it. The play written by Hamlet duplicates the events of his father’s murder – right down to the detail of the poison being poured into his father’s ear, a detail that the murderer thinks no one else knows about. The plan is that, if the play is really portraying what happened, then the murderer, Claudius, should freak out and Hamlet will notice.
Sure enough, shortly after the poison is shown being poured into the ear of the victim, King Claudius leaps to his feet.
The king rises.
What, frighted with false fire!
How fares my lord?
Give o’er the play.
Give me some light: away!
Lights, lights, lights!
Exeunt all but HAMLET and HORATIO
The trap worked. King Claudius freaked out and gave himself away. Now Hamlet knows that the ghost told the truth. And what’s Hamlet’s first response? First he has this very distant, philosophical, poetic thought:
Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play;
For some must watch, while some must sleep:
So runs the world away.
Some of those words are unfamiliar to us, so I’ll quote the notes from the awesome Barnes & Nobel Shakespeare edition of Hamlet. (If you want to read Shakespeare, get these editions. They’re fantastic.) “It was believed that deer wept when wounded.” A “hart ungalled” is an “uninjured male deer.” “Some must watch” means some people have to stay awake. Hamlet’s saying there are winners and losers, and that’s the way it goes.
After this poetic reflection, Hamlet starts kidding around about how well it all went:
Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers– if
the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me–with two
Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a
fellowship in a cry of players, sir?
Half a share.
A whole one, I.
For thou dost know, O Damon dear,
This realm dismantled was
Of Jove himself; and now reigns here
A very, very–pajock.
You might have rhymed.
Horatio is saying Hamlet ought to have rhymed “was” with “ass.” They’re kidding around about it. Then in the very next line, Hamlet suddenly shows how he really feels about it:
O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a
thousand pound. Didst perceive?
Very well, my lord.
Upon the talk of the poisoning?
I did very well note him.
Then Hamlet immediately starts acting distant again. The very next line:
Ah, ha! Come, some music! come, the recorders!
For if the king like not the comedy,
Why then, belike, he likes it not, perdy.
Come, some music!
Hamlet is full of rage; he’s cracking jokes; he’s putting everybody on, pretending to be crazy; and perhaps he is just about to go truly crazy over what’s happening in his life. His mother married his father’s murderer! Hamlet is such a huge personality that he’s living out events from multiple points of view, all at the same time.
Do you feel it?