11. A Sound Bite Of Hamlet

I don't own a TV. I haven't had a TV in my home for over a decade. I'm not a sound-bite person. I like depth, not superficiality. Life has depth; TV is superficial. Sound-bites are for TV, not theatre. One of my favorite scenes in Shakespeare is the graveyard scene in Hamlet. It is layered with resonance. This is the scene when Hamlet finally understands and declares his identity: "This is I, Hamlet the Dane" (V.i.)! But then you must ask what or who was Hamlet before he was aware of his identity?

At the play's beginning Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, scolds him for his excessive grief at the loss of his father. I know there are other things going on Gertrude is concerned about, but what if Gertrude is correct? What if Hamlet's grief is excessive or unnatural in some way? What if Gertrude is correct, for all the wrong reasons? What if Hamlet has never learned how to process grief in a healthy way? And if he hasn't, is there a reason for it? I think there is. I think Hamlet was wounded as a child. I think his wound was left open and never dressed, so it never healed properly and it left Hamlet incapable of processing his emotions, including his grief, in a healthy way.

When Hamlet first encounters his father's ghost, he gives us a clue to his problem by telling us he's going to put on "an antic disposition" (I.v.). "Antic" in Shakespeare's day could be defined as something wild, fantastic or even grotesque, but it could also refer to a clown, a jester or even a jester's cap. When Hamlet puts on his "antic disposition" he is playing a game, a game only he knows the rules to. He taunts and toys with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with Polonius, with Ophelia, with Gertrude and with his one-time uncle and now his stepfather and king, Claudius. Hamlet's game keeps everyone off balance and gives him some control over the situation or so it would seem.

What Hamlet discovers in the graveyard scene is love. Not the love of his father; not the love of his mother; but the love of his surrogate-father, the person who played with him, carried him on his shoulders, joked with him, kissed and cared for him when he was just a boy. When a skull is thrown from the new grave being dug, Hamlet is asked if he knows whose skull it is, but the graveyard is unconsecrated ground and having never been there Hamlet says, "Nay, I know not" (V.i.). The skull belonged to Yorick, Hamlet's father's jester and Hamlet's boyhood companion. A flood of memories come forth of days long gone. Hamlet's wound of unresolved grief from having lost his dearest childhood friend, whom he likely didn't even know had died, is dressed and healed in a few moments.

As the scene continues, Ophelia’s body is brought in and all of the emotion in Hamlet's life that he's been unable to process or understand is now at his fingertips: "This is I, Hamlet the Dane!" "I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not ... make up my sum" (V.i.)! In a seeming moment, Hamlet’s "antic disposition" has disappeared along with his games. He is healthy. He is clear. He is direct. He has become an adult and is ready for his adult responsibilities: he is, as the rightful heir to the throne, ready, willing and capable of defending, with his life, Denmark from its usurper, Claudius.

originally posted September 2012
reposted March 2018

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