There is a special place in the innermost circle of hell reserved for high school English teachers who should have taught gym. Their crime against humanity is making Shakespeare radioactive to legions of impressionable pubescents such as myself. Thanks to them, I didn’t go near the guy for years and years to come.
This is what I missed out on:
“This brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire …”
Willie, my man, I’m sorry it’s been so long.
Some of you may recognize the quote. Let’s flip back a few lines:
“I have of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth seems to me a sterile promontory …”
The speaker is Hamlet, of course, and he is either severely depressed or doing a damn good job faking it. “This most excellent canopy,” he rages on. “The air – look you …”
No stopping him now. The full majestical roof treatment, leading to … “why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.”
Melancholy Dane is the wrong term. This is one extremely angry young man:
What a piece of work is man!
How noble in reason!
how infinite in faculties!
in form and moving, how express and admirable!
in action how like an angel!
in apprehension, how like a god!
the beauty of the world!
the paragon of animals!
And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?
Depression is extremely difficult to figure out, especially if it is tinged with mania, especially if, just for the hell of it, Hamlet is occasionally faking it in order to throw his enemies off the scent. No wonder the people who study Shakespeare for a living cannot agree about what is going on. The Bard of Bedlam knows madness and human nature all too well. By contrast, centuries of scholars can only scratch their heads and quibble.
Somehow, our hero has to get over his grief and harness his anger long enough to elicit the facts, figure out who his enemies are, then lie low and bide his time for the right opportunity to strike, assuming he can summon up the nerve to act against his true nature. Complicating matters are the two women in his life - his mother, now married to the man who probably murdered his father, and fair Ophelia.
Clearly Hamlet is becoming unhinged, but if his enemies think he’s crazy then its curtains for Hamlet. (Actually it turned out to be curtains for Polonius – yuk-yuk.) We’re talking about an age when men wore swords as fashion accessories and secreted knives where we now keep cell phones. One slight misstep, one indiscreet glance the wrong way, one blown syllable in one soliloquy, and cue up the grave diggers for the first act.
Hamlet clearly knows he cannot hide his perfectly logical and dangerous madness. No, his survival depends on showing the Danish court a different kind of crazy, a harmless crazy, a crazy so crazy that even fair Ophelia is confused. The life and death game of wits is on. Cue up the hautboy music. The greatest psychological thriller of all time is about to begin in earnest.