“Soooo, Hamlet.” Mr. Dame stared at his class. Simply warming up with introductions was one thing, digging into their cognitive capabilities was another. “Jenny,” he said, hoping to get a politely uneventful synopsis, “what happened?”
Jenny stopped whispering to Diane, looked up, blinked prettily, and cleared her thoughts. “King Hamlet is murdered by his brother, Claudius who then marries Queen Gertrude to become King. The ghost of King Hamlet tells Prince Hamlet about the murder, so Prince Hamlet fakes insanity to cover to his intentions of assassinating his uncle Claudius. Lots of bodies later, Hamlet kills Claudius, but is killed in the process,” she concluded, cocking her head slightly to gauge the correctness of her answer.
Mr. Dame nodded perfunctorily at her. “Very succinct, thank you. But…” — he reconsidered his satisfaction — “two named bodies do not a tragedy make. Who else died?”
Diane chipped in “Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia. And her brother and her dad. And Hamlet’s Mom. And his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Sort of.”
“Well a guy showed up and said they were dead,” she said.
“And King Hamlet,” added Jenny.
“Doesn’t count; he was dead before the play started,” injuncted Heidi with legal certitude.
“Even though he left a ghost?” suggested Diane, trying to defend her friend.
“Nope, especially because he left a ghost. It’s almost like he never left.”
“So what did the ghost do?” said Mr. Dame, hoping that these sessions would develop into more than just softball Q-and-A.
“The ghost told Hamlet that Claudius had murdered old King Hamlet,” said Diane, folding her hands properly.
“… in a way eerily similar to how Hamlet had seen a king assassinated in a play, but we can ignore the similarities because the ghost totally confirmed Hamlet’s suspicions about his uncle, never mind that Hamlet was the only one who heard a thing,” said Sofia, tiring of the activity and opening a book. “Doesn’t quite qualify as a star-witness for the prosecution, I think,” she added, tossing a meaningful look to Heidi.
Mr. Dame hadn’t been hoping for that sort of tangent, but was ready with the guidance of his lesson plan. “Ah, but isn’t that why Hamlet has the actors put on the play? To determine the ghost’s honesty? And Claudius flees the scene hollering for light, proving it?” he countered.
Sofia gave him the sort of pointed glare reserved for people who have missed the point. “It’s not a valid test,” she stated. “You have to look at it from King Claudius’ point of view: your psychotic nephew, who has a reasonable claim to your throne, has invited you to a play about — and is on the stage explaining in lurid detail how — a nephew (that’s him) is going to kill the king (that’s you) to get the throne and seduce queen (that’s his mom and also totally gross). And your nephew’s friend has been staring fixedly at you this whole time. I’d call out for light to ensure there weren’t any assassins sneaking up on me no matter who I was, that’s for sure.” She gave a theatrically helpless shrug and turned back to her book.
Dear Houston, thought Mr. Dame, the fecal matter is in our HVAC and we’re not even past the summer reading. He did his best to smile patiently while hoping a counterpoint would leap to somebody’s lips.
“But he immediately turns around and confesses,” observed Christie.
“To nobody but himself, so it’s still covered by his right against self-incrimination and inadmissible,” Heidi extended, taking the point out of bounds.
“The other thing,” added Ken with a strained look in his eye as if he were re-reading the play in his mind’s eye to confirm a suspicion, “is that it’s the only soliloquy that isn’t Hamlet’s, and then Hamlet wanders right through the middle of it while thinking about how guilty Claudius is. If Hamlet was occasionally delusional, this would be a good candidate for a trick of his imagination.”
“But Hamlet wasn’t insane, he was just pretending — he said at the end of act 1, scene 5, that he would ‘put on an antic disposition’ to fool people,” protested Joey.
“It’s usually not best to trust the crazy people to tell you when they’re sane,” observed Brett, nudging his glasses back into a focused position.
“And he also agreed that he was at least mad north-northwest even if he claimed to be sane when the wind was southerly,” Jacob added, “though Shakespeare never bothered detailing the air currents for us to know.”
“Interesting,” said Mr. Dame. “So what does it mean if Hamlet was sane?” he asked, trying to refocus their attention.
Christie spoke up, “If Hamlet was sane, then the story is about his working up the courage to pursue justice at any cost, and the tragic end of that pursuit.”
“And that ghosts are real,” added Sofia without looking up.
“And if not?” Mr. Dame asked, trying to ignore Sofia’s remark.
“Then Hamlet engaged in accidental judgments, casual slaughters, purposes mistook, et cetera — as Horatio described at the end. And the point of the play is that it’s not safe to let crazy people play with swords, especially if psychotherapy hasn’t been invented yet,” suggested Jacob to the approval of his chums. Sofia was unusually quiet, even for her, seemingly intent on her extracurricular reading material.
“Anything to add, Sofia?” Mr. Dame asked as payback for her previous remark.
She hesitated slightly, set her book aside and said “I think it is particularly worth remembering that schizophrenics often hear voices. More often than not, the voices seem to be particularly malicious — at least in the cases where the schizophrenic is driven to seek therapy. It could be suggested that Hamlet heard voices twice, first his father’s saying that he’d been killed by Claudius, then Claudius claiming to have killed old Hamlet — in both cases, young Hamlet’s schizophrenia is driving him to kill and kill again.”
Her response had been pretty much the opposite of what he had been hoping for. “And why do you say that?” he replied, hoping to have at least slightly masked the exasperation in his voice.
She held up the book she had been reading so he could see the title. A predatory smile spread wryly across her face as the title Just like someone without mental illness, only more so: A Memoir crawled in his eyes and up into his brain. “Jesus Christ,” blasphemed the voice in the back of his head. “Um, yeah,” was what he managed to say out loud. Some of the students were glancing nervously at the difficult girl with her deranged reading material. One would have to be crazy to think the contents of a book with a cover like that were just so many words, words, words. “Let’s get back to the easy questions,” he said, clapping his hands to draw the attention of the class forward. “Where does the play take place?”
“In Elsinore!” said Jenny.
“In Denmark!” enthused Diane.
“In Fear,” said Sandy.
“In a World…” added Ken, providing what would surely be a voice-over for the trailer of the summer-blockbuster version of Hamlet — featuring orcs and ninjas, no doubt.
“Thank you,” Mr. Dame said to Ken, trying to pitch his voice to be dismissive without being discouraging. Then what had previously been said hit him. “Wait, what?” he asked Sandy.
“Fear,” replied Sandy, in her most reasonable of tone of voice. At Mr. Dame’s hesitation, she elucidated: “The first line of the play is the guard who isn’t on duty calling out for the identity of the guard who is on duty. Under normal circumstances, it’s the other way around — and the second line where the guard on duty responds shows it. But in the larger scale, Fortinbras has assembled an army to wage war on Denmark, as Horatio informs Marcellus later in the scene; in the personal scale, they’ve seen a ghost wandering about in front of the castle for the past couple nights. Bernardo may just be a lowly guard, but he starts the play and he starts it in fear.”
Ken began rocking back and forth in his chair mumbling “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration…”
“In front of the castle?” asked Joey. “I thought they were in the castle. Like, on a parapet.”
Brett checked the front of his book. “Act I, Scene I. A platform before the castle,” he read aloud. Joey made an awkward face and shrugged.
“Does it strike anybody else as odd,” mused Heidi into her text, “that the ghost of King Hamlet is wearing 30-year old armor?”
“How do you get that?” asked Jacob.
“Well in the scene with the gravedigger, the gravedigger claims that he’s been a gravedigger for 30 years, which is when old Hamlet defeated Fortinbras of Norway and young Hamlet was born. But Horatio says that the armor that the ghost is wearing is the very same armor that old Hamlet had on when he went mano-a-mano with Norway’s king. It’s strange enough that Horatio could both be Hamlet’s college chum and recognize armor that was in battle when Hamlet was born, but if we use how fat England’s King Henry VIII got over a similar period of time as a guide then I’m not sure that the armor would fit at all,” she replied, carefully stringing the anomalies together.
“Thirty years is a long time,” replied Jacob, following her train of thought. “I mean, as far as I know, people enlisted in the military are generally under 25. To be a palace guard out front when a neighboring country is on the war-path… They wouldn’t be using some kindly old night-blind men for midnight guards; they’d be using kids who could see enemies but wouldn’t recognize that armor at all.”
“And they don’t,” interjected Mr. Dame, “It is Horatio, not the guards, who recognized the armor.”
“Because Horatio is a decade or two older than Hamlet and happened to be serving near the front during the war before going off to Germany to be a scholar of Roman history for no readily discernible reason?” replied Heidi with disbelief. The timelines weren’t adding up.
Then came the suggestion: “Of course it is possible that the armor is particularly well renowned — kind of like former President Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ flight suit.”
Mr. Dame smiled with pleasure at this turn of conversation. And then he realized that it was Sofia who had turned it. But the other shoe was already dropped.
“Which would mean,” she continued, her lips tightening into a wicked conspiratorial purse, “that Fortinbras could also know what the armor looked like, certainly well enough to put a spy with a false beard in it and have him scout the castle.”
“But the ghost talks to Hamlet!” protested Joey.
“No, Hamlet heard a voice. Which is common among schizophrenics, as I’ve noted. And that voice merely confirmed Hamlet’s suspicion of his uncle, weakly cross-referencing a play about assassinating a king with which Hamlet was familiar,” replied Sofia dismissively before turning about to pile more on. “It is also worth mentioning that the ghost, which is visible to guards that didn’t intimately know the king, is not visible to Gertrude when Hamlet sees the ghost again later in the play. Early on, the ghost is a real thing; later it becomes just a figment of Hamlet’s woefully deranged imagination. Shakespeare does nothing but play on peanut-gallery superstition to suggest that the ghost is Hamlet’s dead dad being roasted in purgatory for having not been praying when he got assassinated, according to what Hamlet heard.”
“If Hamlet believed the Ghost, then why did he claim that nobody came back from being dead in his big ‘to be’ speech?” Jenny whispered at Diane. Diane pondered this, but ended up shrugging helplessly.
“But even if Shakespeare did believe in ghosts,” redirected Ken, “I find it exceptionally odd that the ghost wanted to be avenged, but didn’t mention ‘oh, but make sure my kingdom doesn’t fall to Norway in the process — they’re sneaky bastards, you know.’ Because that seems like it should be super-important to a king, you know?”
Mr. Dame made a mental note of the students who looked confused; they’d almost certainly watched a version of Hamlet from which Fortinbras had been omitted rather than reading the source material. It dawned on him that they’d be able to provide the most stock-and-standard demonstrations of comprehending the source material by having never actually consumed it. It was strange how the play evolved: a choppy edit becomes the popular version and suddenly the content from the director’s cut is apocryphal. The students who studied the material the least could well be the ones determined to have comprehended it the best. The words “Not to be” popped into his head as he stared into a mixture of faces — some confused by a lack of guidance, some inquisitional and demanding answers.
“It seems the royal court kept track of Norway, by immediately installing Claudius as the king instead of waiting on Hamlet to get back from Germany,” suggested Heidi. “After all, somebody’s got to be demanding to see Bernardo and Marcellus and them-all on a regular watch schedule with Fortinbras out on the prowl and all. Marcellus asks about this, and Horatio gives the exposition before we even see Prince Hamlet.”
“Seems, madam?” Sofia growled incredulously at Heidi. “Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems.'” The tension held for a second before the two grinned at each other over the quote-of-opportunity and resumed their usual modes of participation. “But the other thing to consider,” Sofia added in her casually bored way, “is that Claudius relied on the majesty of his position to stare down an assassination attempt. That’s not the sort of thing that somebody who doubted their divine right to a crown would do, especially not somebody who had assassinated a rightful king. It’s in act four if you want to look it up.”
“But doesn’t analysis run directly counter to Claudius’ confession in act three?” Mr. Dame replied.
Sofia looked up, almost surprised. “What, the one Hamlet probably only imagined?” she asked plaintively before going back to her book.
“I find that confession odd,” said Sandy abruptly, as if still piecing thoughts together. She paused for a moment and then continued. “I find it odd because it’s the only significant guilt in the play at all. Hamlet kills Polonius and blames the victim for being a rash and intruding fool. He mistreats Ophelia but only talks of how much he loved her at her funeral. He sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths but says they were ‘not near’ to his conscience and blames them for serving the king. The closest he comes to feeling guilty is being ‘very sorry’ that he ‘forgot’ himself to Laertes.”
“Uh yeah… sorry I slaughtered your dad, but it was totally his fault,” mumbled Jacob.
“And even in his actual apology, he claims that it was his insanity — not himself — that did it, despite us supposedly believing that Hamlet was sane and in control all along,” Heidi added. “Either Hamlet really was quite mad, or Hamlet was one bad-ass sociopath and possibly a pathological liar.”
“Yet when Horatio responds to news of how Hamlet dealt with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he says ‘Why, what a king is this!’ — as if that sociopathic disregard for the rabble is expected of the nobility?” suggested Christie with a sultry callousness she almost certainly didn’t actually feel.
“So Claudius is a bad king for caring about people to the detriment of his kingdom, while Hamlet would’ve been a good king for killing people on a whim on his way to… cause the downfall of his kingdom?” asked Joey. “I don’t get it.”
“If I were Horatio,” Brett suggested, “I’d be looking at Hamlet slagging his friends off for having obeyed an order from their king and been a bit worried that the king might give me an order too. I’m not sure he was impressed with Hamlet’s leadership abilities, so much as he was horrified by them.”
Mr. Dame refrained from mentioning that he’d been transfixed with the falling of sparrows in act 5, scene 2, and had completely missed the lines that his students were mulling over.
“Hey,” said Ken, his eyes blatently glued to a device beneath his desk, “didn’t we say that Horatio had a thing for Rome?”
“He is described as a ‘scholar’ and recounts the mythology of Julius Caesar’s death in his first scene,” confirmed Sandy.
“You guys totally need to go look up the Top 10 Worst Roman Emperors. This stuff is sick, man. Uh, not now, I mean,” he hastily added, realizing that he’d advocated for a forbidden class disruption. “But the point is that when Horatio says ‘Why what a king is this!’ he could have been particularly well-informed about guys like Tiberius, or Nero, or Caligula. Who are on this list.”
“Well compared to Commodus in Gladiator, both Claudius’s and Hamlet’s behavior is normal — almost genial,” returned Christie, unsure of what moral lessons could be learned when nobody was a hero.
“Wasn’t Claudius also the name of a Roman emperor?” inquired Sandy.
Ken checked under his desk. “Yeah, apparently one of the better ones. Do you think Shakespeare was hinting at something with that?”
“Shakespeare? No,” said Joey, “Shakespeare was the guy who said ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ I wouldn’t read too much into his use of names.”
“The tragedy of Exceptionally Small Town,” agreed Brett quietly.
“I’d go a bit mad if my parents named me ‘Village’ too,” replied Jacob.
“How did Yorick agree with King Hamlet? ‘Oh, yes-s-s Shire!'” whispered Brett loudly enough to get a comfortable radius of smirks.
“But I think we got to something interesting there,” said Mr. Dame, “with regards to how Horatio handled the death of his dear friend Hamlet: what does he mean ‘I am more an antique Roman than a Dane’?”
“Well he said it while going after Queen Gertrude’s poisoned wine; he was trying to commit suicide, wasn’t he?” clarified Jenny.
“Yeah. Apparently Romans did that a lot,” replied Diane with a shrug.
“But Horatio implies that Danish people didn’t — like how Hamlet didn’t, and Ophelia ‘didn’t’?” asked Jenny uncertainly.
“The context is that his best friend and political protector had just assassinated the king, and killed a popular usurper (see act four), and was in the process of dying,” Sofia re-framed coolly. “He was about to be at the center of an imploding nation, and his closeness to Hamlet looks more conspiratorial than coincidental. Drinking the poison would’ve been a relatively comfortable way for him to exit, except that their religion made suicide a damnable offense and a cultural taboo.”
“But that isn’t what happened at all,” interjected Heidi, “because Fortinbras shows up and takes over.”
“True. Fortinbras shows up two lines later. Lucky escape for Horatio after all.”
“But wouldn’t the nation just implode on Fortinbras?” asked Jacob, confused at how anybody could consider this a neat resolution after all.
“If I were Fortinbras,” opined Sandy, “I think I would want Hamlet’s last friend to hang around and explain to people why I’m a more rightful ruler than anybody else. Which is kind of what he volunteers to do anyway.”
“You say that as if he was betraying Hamlet, not sticking around to tell his story,” lamented Joey.
“Wasn’t he?” mused Jacob. “I mean, he says ‘I’m a friend to this crown and leigeman to the Dane… but I’m a better Roman than a Dane… wait, no, I’m Norwegian! That’s the ticket!’ — it’s kind of cosmopolitan of him, really.”
Mr. Dame was suddenly gripped with fear as he realized that Sofia was visibly paying attention. “But for all that,” she said cautiously as if discovering an unexploded bombshell on the last page of the book, “doesn’t this make this not the story of Hamlet, or the story of Horatio, but rather the narrative of Fortinbras ascent to authority over Denmark?”
Mr. Dame watched illumination radiate out across the students like a particularly virulent meme.
“It all fits!” declared Heidi with delight. “The truth isn’t the story at all. The story is just what Horatio tells people from an eye-witness point of authority to explain the truth, with the truth being that Fortinbras just marched right in and took over the nation. It doesn’t matter whether or not Hamlet was insane or Claudius assassinated his brother, what matters is that the people accept Fortinbras as king without him having to violently suppress revolts all over the countryside. The inconsistencies in the story, the back and forth of who and what may reflect flaws in the narrative, or they may well be intentional to mire people in doubt about their history so they’re ignoring the present. It’s brilliant!”
“And no small coup d’etat, either, that Fortinbras has Horatio as a mouthpiece — Horatio, who will proudly confirm that Fortinbras’ spy was actually old King Hamlet’s ghost. This is a total propagandist brainwashing, not a really tragedy of Danish nobility per se,” Sofia concluded.
“But that isn’t what Shakespeare was writing about at all!” lamented Mr. Dame.
Heidi remained determined. “So prove it. History is written by the winners, after all, and in this case it’s Fortinbras who is the winner… unlike most tragedies which don’t feature winners at all. Which is why they’re tragedies. This isn’t a tragedy at all; it’s propaganda that tells people there’s been a horrible tragedy that they should be weeping and mourning, but totally not fighting, over.”
“And the propaganda team may very well be the troupe of actors,” appended Sofia, “that Hamlet blesses with the authority of being ‘the abstract and brief chronicles of the time,’ noting that ‘you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live,’ right before getting them to amend their report based on his agenda.”
“So it’s kind of like the opposite of Julius Caesar,” opined Brett, “where Brutus allows Marc Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral and it bites him in the butt. In this case Fortinbras has Horatio rolling a speech that makes him a mighty conqueror who came to fight, but found the palace in such shambles that he’s really doing Denmark a favor by annexing them.”
“In this election season,” Ken voiced-over, “you have your choice of rulers. But do you really? Hamlet is insane! Claudius is a womanizing assassin! Laertes is dead! But Fortinbras is a mighty warrior who will protect you from ninjas, because he’s Norwegian like that. Vote Fortinbras for king.”
I am so fired. in bright lights marqueed through the darkness of Mr. Dame’s despair while the class laughed cheerfully. I’m going to be fired because these damned kids are just too cynical accept culture as given. The grand tragedy of Hamlet was now a satire of a 30-second political advertisement for the character most likely to be edited out of the script.
Joey was not so ready to discard the rest of the play. “Okay, so maybe it’s only the official story — but what would the real story be?” he asked.
“I think the real story starts with old King Hamlet being alone and withdrawn,” Sandy suggested as if recalling a fading dream. “With his dear and only son away in Germany, he’s sunken into depression.”
“Claudius contradicted Polonius’ evaluation of Hamlet’s madness, and also indicated that other great people around him had been insane,” Jacob whispered to Brett, beginning a line-by-line analysis of Sandy’s exposition.
“With her husband turned frigid, Gertrude turned to somebody who could help her: Claudius.”
“So there’s their o’er-hasty marriage getting cooked up,” Brett scoffed back to Jacob.
“But King Hamlet catches on to this, and filled with rage and depression, he commits suicide leaving a note full of hatred and bile.”
“Suicide while insane? That’d leave a vengeful ghost if anything would,” conceded Heidi.
“But nobody would ever actually say the king committed suicide, regardless of what a gravedigger might deduce,” added Jacob.
“The rumor mill starts up, and the court — wanting to calm things down — installs Claudius as king. Claudius hadn’t ever intended to be king…”
“So he totally disclaims his position to Hamlet, practically saying he’ll die soon and Hamlet will become king, and repeatedly expresses concerns about Hamlet’s depression,” associated Brett.
“… but Claudius accepts it as his temporary duty and elevation, partially for the favor their parents gave to their elder son but also out of guilt for having having cuckolded his brother,” Sandy posited. “Meanwhile, off in Germany, Hamlet is being a college student of the sort Polonius didn’t want Laertes to be, enjoying himself but not really blending in. He gets the message to come home because his dad died, and his mind associates to The Murder of Gonzago because a common ordinary death for a not-terribly-old king would be unheard of, right? So when he gets home, he finds the throne he was expecting to ascend to occupied and guesses that that must be the murderer because that’s the guy who had something to gain, all before he hears or hallucinates what the ghost or whatever tells him. And that’s how Hamlet can be the villain that brings down his father’s kingdom by not seeing past what he expected to be true, even in a mostly straight reading of Hamlet.”
“Look, that’s great. Really it is. And very interesting. But please remember that I’ll be grading you according to what’s on the curriculum. Because if principle Apple has any difficulty seeing past what she expects to be true, she’d going to do to me what Hamlet did to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, okay?” pleaded Mr. Dame gently.
“What, send you to England?” smirked Sofia. “Goodness no, we’d never let her do that to you. Certainly not at this time of year.”