Can Hamlet help us?
Could anything be more screamingly irrelevant, right now, than a play written 400-plus years ago, by an elite white male about the problems of elite white males?
And if Hamlet is irrelevant, is any of the literature of the past useful? Hamlet himself, after listening to an actor perform a long speech about the fall of Troy, asks “What’s Hecuba to him?” He declares that the actor’s tears are “all for nothing.” That is a complaint still made by people who think everyone should be getting degrees in business and science.
But Hamlet’s encounter with Hecuba in fact represents a turning point in his own story. By the end of that speech, Hamlet has decided to take the initiative, and realized that “The play’s the thing” that will clarify his options and allow him to “catch” his adversary. He calls that play The Mousetrap--and the trap works. Hamlet is, among many other things, a defense of literature.
Or is it just a defense of white literature?
Last week, three black men changed my attitude to the world’s most famous white tragedy. The first was my son Michael, marching in a Black Lives Matter protest, and talking with me (again) about racism and the police in New England. The second was Adrian Lester, who played Hamlet in a production directed by Peter Brook in Paris 20 years ago. Lester is indisputably the world’s leading black Shakespeare actor; indeed, with ground-breaking performances of Henry V, Hamlet, Othello and Rosalind (in an all-male As You Like It), Lester is arguably the most original and important Shakespeare actor of our time. I first watched the film of Lester’s Hamlet the same day I watched online video of the rapper, activist, and son of an Atlanta police officer, Michael Santiago Render--better known as Killer Mike: he was “mad as hell,” talking about the police who “assassinated” George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Here’s what I learned from the three wise men Adrian Lester, Killer Mike, and my son Michael. Hamlet is not the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind (as the poet Coleridge and the actor Laurence Olivier believed). Shakespeare’s play is not an English remake of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (as the psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones believed). It is not a treatise about Purgatory (as the scholar Stephen Greenblatt believes). No, Hamlet is primarily about the stubbornness of injustice. The seeming impossibility of justice. The psychological and social cost of fighting crime.
Someone Hamlet loves has died, unexpectedly and quickly. Hamlet is still grieving, still in shock. But the people in power just want to get straight back to normal. Get over it, kid, the authorities say. Everyone dies eventually, they say. There’s nothing remarkable about your loss. We need to move on. We need to get back to partying. And we need to get back to business. In particular, we need to get back to manufacturing armaments, and threatening our national enemies.
Lesson No. 1: Don’t trust people whose highest priority is returning to normal. Some people are making a killing off of “normal.” Those people don’t want you to realize how abnormal their favorite “normal” is.
The official explanation for Hamlet’s father’s death is that he died of a freak accident. Taking a nap in his garden, he got bitten by a poisonous snake. Sad. But what are you going to do? Prosecute the snake? The dead man was just unlucky. Although, to be honest, it was kind of his own fault. He should have taken fewer naps. He should have inspected the garden more thoroughly, making sure to exterminate every species of venomous reptile. The dead man, truth be told, was lazy and careless.
Lesson No. 2: Don’t trust powerful people who blame the victim. It’s so convenient to pin responsibility on someone who is already dead. It lets you bury the corpse and the guilt simultaneously. It also distracts attention from the survivors. Very important people don’t want you to think too much about why the survivors survived, when someone else stopped breathing.
In fact, it turns out Hamlet’s father was murdered. That makes his death even more traumatic for his son. What’s worse, the man who murdered Hamlet’s father is now head of state. The country's chief law enforcement officer. Hamlet's first soliloquy is all about himself and his family; but later, his most famous soliloquy laments "the oppressor's wrong" and "the law's delay." His private grief turns into a recognition that "Denmark's a prison." The personal has become national.
Lesson No. 3: Fake news usually comes straight from the top. Guilty people in power have the strongest incentive, and the best tools, for disseminating misinformation. One classic disinformation tactic is to insist that the political is just personal: only one or two bad apples, rather than a dark, vast, tangled forest of injustice.
How is justice even imaginable when the crimes have been committed by the people with power? Hamlet is haunted by the knowledge of an injustice he cannot punish or undo. Is it surprising that he becomes so depressed, and so stressed out, that he starts acting like a lunatic? That he comes close to suicide?
Lesson No. 4: Justice costs more than most people are able or willing to pay. The pursuit of justice is exhausting even for the most multi-talented and courageous of our kind. Injustice makes people crazy. Injustice breaks even the strongest hearts, shatters even the sharpest minds.
“The time is out of joint,” Hamlet realizes---and in the next breath recognizes he is "cursed" to have been “born to set it right.” (Killer Mike said, "I don't want to be here.") Can anyone carry, alone, the weight of the dead? Isn’t it predictable that Hamlet becomes increasingly isolated, erratic, anti-social, and finally violent? Is it surprising that his first victims are not the people responsible for his father’s death?
Lesson No. 5: The guiltiest people are the ones hardest to reach. The guiltiest people are surrounded and shielded by a society’s apparatus of legality, its infrastructure of normality, its water-cannons of rhetoric and flash-grenades of rationality. And the guiltiest people are cowards, willing to murder people in their sleep, betray, manipulate, defame and sacrifice anyone who threatens their power, and lie, and lie, and lie. As the murderer acknowledges, “In the corrupted currents of this world,” the privileged hand of the offender can often “shove ... justice” aside.
That's why Hamlet has to (in Killer Mike's words) "plot, plan, strategize." But Hamlet also, in the end, personally kills three people, and signs an order for the execution of two of his old friends. A white killer can still be a tragic hero. In Adrian Lester's performance, a black killer can also be a tragic hero.
The optimist will emphasize that Hamlet finally succeeds in exposing and punishing the man who murdered his father. The pessimist will point out the price of justice is Hamlet’s own life, the destruction of his family, the collapse of the country’s government, and a foreign invasion.
“Taint not thy mind,” the ghost of Hamlet’s father warns him. Easier said than done. If we are going to avoid the apocalyptic ending of Shakespeare’s tragedy, we have to find ways of seeking justice that bind us together without infecting us.
Lesson No. 6: Soliloquies won’t save us. A dialogue between repentance and forgiveness might. But dialogue is always harder than talking to yourself.
Gary Taylor is general editor of The New Oxford Shakespeare, and chair of the English Department at Florida State University.