But if I don't blog about it, it doesn't count so: I haven't read Hamlet since high school, so I was surprised to find how familiar it was to me. It's so full of great moments, but I've re-encountered them recently in Bloom, or Ron Rosenbaum, or in other places, yet I found very little I liked that seemed new to me. In that sense, and only that sense, reading it was a little disappointing.
In every other sense, of course, it's amazing. Lear has a special place in my heart, but if you were to say that Hamlet is the best Shakespeare offers, I wouldn't argue. I think, besides merely being Shakespeare at the height of his literary powers, Hamlet is so revered because it manages to encapsulate what it means to be a modern human being. I'm thinking about what Hamlet says about thoughts and actions:
Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
The line on Hamlet, if I'm remembering correctly from high school, is that his "fatal flaw" is that he thinks too much; he dithers and plots and plans instead of getting right down to business. What a meager, shrunken vision that is of the Prince of Denmark. I see in this passage and the play as a whole the best expression of that strange feeling that there is no immediacy in actions, that the groundlessness and mystery of being calls the very importance and urgency of action into question, the feeling that the life of thought is so much more vital than the life "out there." Hamlet seems as if he laments the dissolution of "enterprises of great pitch and moment," but doesn't he simultaneously compel us to question the very worth of those enterprises? The "fatal flaw" perspective on the other hand is too dependent on Aristotelian ideas about tragedy that Hamlet annihilates completely. What does Hamlet have in common with Oedipus, for example, whose character is so completely circumscribed by his actions, by the things that he's done?
That feeling, of course, as Hamlet understands, is connected to the fundamental dilemma of death--if the living world seems burdensome, yet that burden is balanced or even overcome by the fear of "the undiscovered country." I think Hamlet shows us the way that we retreat into our own minds as a way of escaping these two poles.
Okay, there are some incoherent, rambling thoughts about Hamlet. Do you think I could get next year's sophomores to react to these ideas in the form of a diorama?