Keanu Reeves, seems perfect to have played Hamlet
Hamlet is such a famous and celebrated play that it was dubbed a ‘collection of quotes.’ Who has not heard: “This above all: to thine own self be true,” or “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” or “Words, words, words,” or “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” or “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” and countless other famous ones. The melancholic Danish prince is a literary character that has always held a special fascination with me. All of us book lovers probably have a character that strikes them at a deep level perhaps because we recognize some of our own essence in theirs. ‘My’ Hamlet is enigmatic, complex, very hard to figure out, and very mysterious. He comes across as extremely refined, and his philosophical speculations are quite astounding. He is a master of elaborate and witty discourse, puns, metaphors, double meaning; in short – all that my Gemini nature rejoices in.
On the other hand, his intellect is accompanied by unquestionable emotional depth; he seems to be torn by the deepest emotions and conflicting feelings. He wants revenge but he starts to feel compassionate towards his potential victim, and he is the only one who genuinely and deeply mourns the dead king, his father. After Ophelia dies he confesses: “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum.” What I also find fascinating about him is his inner duality and conflicting characteristics: he is deeply melancholic and yet he makes hilarious jokes and pranks, he is determined to get revenge and yet he hesitates and procrastinates, he is passionate and loving at times, and cold, erratic and indifferent shortly after. He always seems to sense more than he gives away. T.S. Eliot, one of the major poets of the twentieth century, summed up Hamlet’s emotional life in an incredibly apt way: “the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action.”
Astrologically, Hamlet has been assigned to the sign Pisces, which also incorporates an inherent duality and conflict. He is Piscean to me in a sense that he embodies the rage of Poseidon; he has found out that the new king, Claudius, murdered Hamlet’s father and married his mother Gertrude. This imbalance and injustice need to be rectified, Hamlet feels. Yet, in the course of the play, his consciousness expands, he sees how complex reality is because he is able to perceive all the connections, all the motives of various characters and in addition he is endowed with a deeply feeling nature. Suddenly revenge seems primitive, simple, too straightforward, and as a result of this realization he becomes locked in his musings and inaction. His thoughts soar to heaven and he finds himself increasingly divorced from reality. In the end, the evil is indeed redressed and Claudius has to die, such is the inescapable rage of Poseidon. Yet Hamlet also pays the price. We, the readers, feel that death is the only possibility for the evolution of this character, but it is hard to rationalize why. I found the answer I was looking for in a poem, which I will be quoting later.
Hamlet is very much a mystical play to me, as are indeed all of Shakespeare’s plays. In a book Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet, Kenneth Chan has tried to grapple with the spiritual message of it. He enumerated the following themes of the play:
1. The need to recognize the mystery world we are all in and the importance of accepting the inevitability of death and facing the profound.
My thoughts: This resonates with another famous line by Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Being humble in the face of great mystery that the universe poses is definitely very marked in this particular play.
2. Our propensity, instead, to hide from the truth by indulging in distractions, and by artificially beautifying what is rotten inside.
My thoughts: This is the psychoanalytic Hamlet, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging the truth and owning the shadow, however ugly it may be.
3. How, as a result of being false to ourselves, we become false to others.
My comment: This ties in with the previous theme but also emphasizes the need of honesty in relationships and the need of being true to our Selves.
4. Why revenge and condemnation of others is wrong.
My thoughts: the play seems to convey a very strong ethical message. The last point actually ties in with the poem I would like to present. The ‘I’ of the poem is Fortinbras, who is going to take over the throne of Denmark after Claudius and Hamlet die at the end of the play. He is an important foil for Hamlet, also seeking to avenge his father’s death. He is very decisive and active, however, while all Hamlet seems to be doing to Fortinbras’ understanding is contemplate, hesitate, sit and wait. I find this poem very touching because Fortinbras acknowledges that he does not ‘get’ Hamlet, he has no understanding of him, but nonetheless he shows respect and he tries to reserve his judgement. This brings to mind the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and his ethics of the Other we should embrace without judging or rejecting. Also, the poem has a few deep symbols and haunting images and I could not resist quoting it in full. It was written by Zbigniew Herbert, a brilliant Polish poet, who frequently engaged themes of myth and literature.
Elegy of Fortinbras
for C. M.
Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers
You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a little
There will be no candles no singing only cannon-fuses and bursts
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses drums
drums I know nothing exquisite
those will be my manoeuvres before I start to rule
one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit
Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe
Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial
Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy
It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince
I am particularly struck by the image of the knight’s feet in soft slippers because feet are actually ruled by Pisces in astrology. In his soft slippers, Hamlet was not fit to walk this earth, he was floating above the ground in his realms of lofty contemplation. Another thought I have is connected with the role of the dead father in Hamlet’s life. The ghost of the father told Hamlet to take revenge and kill uncle Claudius. How many knights in soft slippers are trapped in other people’s expectations of what it is to be a ‘real’ man, a ‘real’ knight? Don’t we need more knights in soft slippers to get out of the circle of violence in the world today?