A few years ago (three to be exact) I was a couple of weeks away from being handed an empty diploma cover. I participated in the graduate ceremony. My name was called. Anyone paying attention who didn’t know me would have thought that I had successfully completed every required element and earned my MA in English. Little did they know. I was still laboring furiously to write and revise the six chapters of my thesis in Late Renaissance drama. The finishing wouldn’t take place until eight weeks after the ceremony. The trouble spots?
I blame Shakespeare.
The thing is, you can’t pretend that his works are wholly irrelevant to the ideas floating around during the late sixteenth/early seventeenth centuries. His contributions are crucial to understanding the age! So there I was, including not one but two of his plays in my studies. Two. (Ask anyone. I was slightly out of my mind.)
I blame Hamlet.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. What a tragedy. By that I mean, what utter lunacy did I suffer, that I thought I could successfully include this, this, this monstrosity of greatness in my thesis work!?!?! William Hazlitt, noted 19th century scholar and literary critic says of the play,
“We have been so used to this tragedy that we hardly know how to criticise it any more than we should know how to describe our own faces.”
Still. How can we leave it alone? It’s so beautiful. The words. AHHHHHH. The WORDS!!!
And so I give you today a small piece of this play. You know, the play about a man “haunted by his father’s ghost”? (Gwynn)
Well… Marcellus, Bernardo and Horatio are keeping the watch in the middle of the cold dark night, looking for what they believe might be a reappearance of a ghost. (Bernardo and Marcellus had seen the spectre the night before, and summoned Hortatio, Hamlet’s dear friend to verify their own eye’s understanding) Mind you, tensions are high in Denmark. Claudius has recently ascended to the throne after King Hamlet’s sudden demise while Prince Hamlet was most conveniently out of the country, attending University in Wittenberg. (you’ve gotta love the Reformation/Renaissance emphasis on learning here) The country seems to be gearing up for war, and Norway will most assuredly be involved. The state’s in a state, or, as Marcellus will soon observe, “something’s rotten in the state of Denmark” (1:5). And how.
But first, the ghost.
These men, keeping watch, are used to defending their king and country. They’re willing to fight if anything should be amiss….
Shall I strike at it with my partisan?
Do, if it will not stand.
We do it wrong, being so majestical,
To offer it the show of violence;
For it is, as the air, invulnerable,
And our vain blows malicious mockery.
It was about to speak, when the cock crew.
And then it started like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine: and of the truth herein
This present object made probation.
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill:
Break we our watch up; and by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
Do you consent we shall acquaint him with it,
As needful in our loves, fitting our duty?
Let’s do’t, I pray; and I this morning know
Where we shall find him most conveniently.
If that isn’t poetry, I don’t know what is. First — a magnificent allusion to a most stunning betrayal (a key to understanding Claudius) in the crowing of the cock, that “trumpet of the morn.” Secondly, the collision of the natural and supernatural (spirit) worlds — men on the ramparts with swords tilted at a thing “so majestical” — offering it “a show of violence” as was their most familiar “duty.” Lastly — the words. The “morn in russet mantle clad”; the “hallow’d gracious time” of the “Saviour’s” birth; the “malicious mockery” of the human condition. Oh, the imagery. Oh, the language! Oh, the meaning of it all…
How could I leave Hamlet out of my thesis?
How could I not include the poetic majesty of Hamlet in my weeklong tribute to Shakespeare?
Even when it’s “most [in]convenient]” ….