Reading Andrew Sullivan's new book The Conservative Soul (reviewed in the last issue of National Review by Jonah Goldberg), I was interested to see that Andrew, when in high school, acted in a performance of Hamlet. He played one of the minor roles, the foppish courtier Osric, who shows up in the play's last act to tell Hamlet of Laertes' challenge, and to serve as the target of some unkind quips by Hamlet and Horatio. Andrew goes on to use the play as a starting point for reflections on the incompleteness and transience of our understanding: "Over four decades, I changed, and the play changed …each experience is a kind of mystery … If this is true of a play, how much truer is it of life itself?"
These passages stirred up some guilt about my own lack of acquaintance with Shakespeare's tremendous masterpiece, all the more inexcusable because I have a DVD of it on my shelf — the 1980 BBC production, with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, Patrick Stewart as the king, and Claire Bloom — still stunning at age 49 — as Gertrude.
Not that I am unacquainted with Hamlet. Nobody who has had anything like a decent education can arrive at middle age without having seen at least a handful of Hamlets. I saw, but did not act in, a performance at my own school, sensationally glamorous to us freshmen because a real fencing master had been brought in to coach the senior boys playing Hamlet and Laertes. At college I caught the fine Soviet 1963 movie, of which the thing I most clearly recall is the peal of round, fat, gloomy Slavonic phonemes rolled out by Innokenty Smoktunovsky's prince in reply to Polonius's inquiry about his reading matter: Slo-VAA, slo-VAA, slo-VAA. I suppose I have seen three or four performances since, as one does in the course of life.
Partly from idle curiosity, but mainly from a desire to avoid a tiresome work chore I really should have been busy with — which is to say, in a spirit of true Hamletian procrastination! — I pulled out the DVD and sat with some cookies and a pot of coffee to watch it. There went my day.
It is of course impossible to say anything about Hamlet that has not already been said. I amused and flattered myself by noticing things I had missed before, or forgotten, but this little pleasure is dulled by the knowledge that someone, somewhere, has written a Ph.D. thesis on every point, and that a hundred other things I shall never notice have been similarly worked over by the scholars, revealing wonders of art and understanding I shall never know. This is fine old wine, its subtleties mostly wasted on a mere dinner-table tippler. (The Straggler household's vin de table actually comes in a large cardboard box from the local supermarket.)
Nor was my viewing strategy ideal. Hamlet is a famously long play — the BBC production runs three and a half hours. To watch a recorded Hamlet on a device with a pause button, while sitting in one's study, surrounded by reference books, with the internet a few keystrokes away, takes much longer than the listed performance length. The temptations to explore are just too great. Was Shakespeare the first person to note that "dog will have his day"? (No, says an internet source, the phrase was proverbial at least as far back as Plutarch.) What does my 1911 Britannica have to say about Wittenberg? ("The Capitulation of Wittenberg (1547) is the name given to the treaty by which John Frederick the Magnanimous was compelled to resign the electoral dignity …")
Without stirring from my chair I can find out how many movie and TV versions of the play have been made (62), read C.S. Lewis's famous essay, "Hamlet — The Prince or the Poem," and debunk a tale that was going round in my schooldays and that I went on believing up to a few hours ago: that "I am thy father's spirit" translates into Dutch as Ik ben din papas spook. According to the most reliable online translation website — which, to be sure, is only a tad more reliable than schoolboy folklore — the correct Dutch would be Ik ben het spook van uw vader.
Hyperlinks are the great timewaster. The sight of Ophelia brought to my mind a theatrical anecdote told of the great nineteenth-century actor-manager Beerbohm Tree. When a playgoer approached Tree after a performance of Hamlet to ask whether the prince sleeps with Ophelia, Tree is said to have replied: "Invariably, in my experience."
Curious about Tree's curious name, I looked him up on Wikipedia. There I learned that Tree was the illegitimate grandparent of the late English actor and hellraiser Oliver Reed, one whole section of whose Wikipedia entry is headed "Drinking and Death." Shakespeare would have smiled at that. (Of Reed's passing in 1999, Wikipedia reports: "He died suddenly from a heart attack … reportedly after drinking three bottles of rum and beating five sailors at arm wrestling.") One wants to press on further, but while it is tempting to lose an hour or so surfing the hyperlinks, as Horatio cautioned Hamlet: "'Twere to consider too curiously."
At last there is the play itself, ever fresh, ever fascinating, one of the greatest of all productions of the human imagination. It is of course about death — more exactly, about the soap-bubble-thin yet opaque membrane that separates this place from the other. And Hamlet is of course us, all of us, each of us — a mirror. Peter Saccio, in one of his Teaching Company lectures, pauses to remark that he, Saccio, a literary critic who spends his working days among students, has been describing Hamlet as a literary critic and a college student.
Caught up with Hamlet and his hesitations, I found myself thinking of the thing not done. Does everybody have a thing not done? Perhaps not. I have one, and think of it daily — hourly, at dark times. For most of us, the thing not done is far better left undone, carried in silence to the other place; but Hamlet's is too imperative. After trying to keep his doubt alive by feeding it all the learning of the ages, and the new understandings of his own time, he goes and does the thing not done, taking us with him to the edge of the world.
I think I shall put Hamlet back on the shelf for a while, a long while.