It’s probably a reflex action to dismiss difficult language, especially when it’s not part of a present drama. The world runs on drama, and there’s no drama like present tense drama. What if the president’s brother secretly poisoned him, got instated as president, and married his brother’s wife all within two months?
Imagine also that the president’s highly visible son, and likely successor, spiraled into depression over this because of his uncle’s debauched character and his mother’s attraction to such. This would be tabloid material where the coffee is poured every morning for citizen pundits.
Basically, the script would be Hamlet except that Hamlet is set in medieval Denmark when kings ruled, not democracies. Other than that, there’s a lot we identify with. My interest got piqued afresh since Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is featuring Laurence Olivier this month and showed Olivier’s Hamlet (1948).
When I was in college, one of the dorm guys would often get very dramatic, and my
roommate would say, “He thinks he’s the next Laurence Olivier.” After hearing this several times, I asked, “Who is Laurence Olivier?” I got dissed over that!
Back to Hamlet…TCM host, Robert Osborne, introduced the film and told how Olivier used what we call pleasure in learning to get Shakespeare viewers, “opening a door to Shakespeare for the first time.” Basically Olivier reduced a four hour play to two and a half hours and made it a black and white masterpiece focusing on “action” and the “ghost story,” said Osborne. It worked, netting the film seven Oscar nominations and four trophies, including best film and best actor, with Olivier as Hamlet.
The film’s opening focuses on how one character fault can spoil a person’s whole character and turn it all sour in everyone’s mind. Though Shakespeare’s original language is tough to read, the film script does a beautiful adaptation both simple and elegant. Here is the adaptation that opens the film:
“So oft it chances in particular men
That through some vicious mole of nature in them
By the outgrowth of some complexion
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit grown too much that these men—
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect.
Their virtues else—be they as pure as grace
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.”
This speech is relevant today on the modern political stage, but it could also as easily be your own life or the person’s next to you. Actually the speech doesn’t occur until Act 1 scene 4, so the lines are spoken twice. In the opening version of the lines, Olivier acts as an unseen narrator who then tells the viewers that the play is about a man who could not make up his mind. We all know the clichés about people who vacillate to maddening extremes.
Hamlet’s uttering of the lines comes later as a sidebar to his father’s ghost appearing—who tells Hamlet about the murder and adultery. Murder and adultery—those sound like Law and Order or some other crime drama.
But before Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, a ruckus breaks out below the rampart near which Hamlet is standing, and his friends ask him about it. A drunken revelry is underway, hosted as usual by murdering brother, and Hamlet says that the Danes have sunk to so much regular carousing that neighbor countries now disrespect Denmark, and Denmark no longer achieves like it did under Hamlet’s noble father.
What does this have to do with pleasure in learning? Don’t we all know what it is to see excess erode the achievement? It can happen to anyone.
Then comes Prince Hamlet, the voice of conscience, who can restore order. Yet something equally destructive enters in—indecision—and indecision leads to more downward spiraling. For all the philosophical inquiry and the beauty of language, Hamlet falters because he doesn’t listen to the wisdomof Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” He doesn’t remember Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Taken.”
Learning isn’t always immediately pleasurable; that can come later—after making a decision and sticking with it; but it’s also true that in tough times of walking out a difficult situation, the pleasure of self-respect is there in our spirits. That’s worth fighting to maintain.
- Hamlet In Converse: Giamatti Rises To The Challenge (newhavenindependent.org)
- Hamlet (morningstaronline.co.uk)
- You Never Forget Your First…Hamlet! Paul Giamatti at Yale Rep (usedbooksinclass.com)