Why the Play: Where Hamlet and Syria Meet

147 Dead in Kenyan university attack.

Explosions kill 40+ in Beirut, Lebanon.

Unknown number shot in Paris attack.

There is death.

 

Act II. Hamlet.

Just at the end of this act, Hamlet is left alone on stage. He’s just arranged for a performance for the royal court by a traveling troupe. And one of the actors just gave a soliloquy at Hamlet’s request. When left on his own, Hamlet begins to wonder about the value and meaning of plays and theater.

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
…Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!

Or in other words: how can an actor present suffering when it is not real? How can an actor act out of no emotion at all when Hamlet suffers by his own inaction? He says it is “all for nothing”!

He continues his thought and finds that theater shames him, that his father was murdered yet he can only speak and speak and speak instead of act. He decides to take action in response to acting. And his action is to direct the players to perform something that will recreate the murder of his father to guilt the murderer into revealing himself.

“the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The very form he just questioned is the very same that he chooses as an action to shame the kind.

 

**

This semester, in Literary Theory, I’ve been challenged on the value of art again and again. Why do we make art? Why is there literature? What is the purpose of our voices on the pages?

I struggle each week to answer.

My answer changes. Again and again it shifts. To teach. To instruct. To grieve. To speak. To… what? What?

When there is death, I find it hard to answer.

 

***

 

Last Saturday, I had the chance to go see Hamlet via the National Theater Live Broadcast at the State Theater in State College. This is really nothing quite so marvelous as settling in for a 3.5 hour play with hundreds of people in a gorgeous theater, local beer in hand. Conversation stirred around me before the performance, in the intermission, and afterwards. Experts in theater attended; they commented loudly on the costuming, the lighting, set design, acting, diction during the intermission. It was beautiful to hear the play through their experience.

I loved it. I love experiencing art with people around me.

Hamlet stumps me. I remember feeling profoundly confused by the play when we discussed it in high school English. What was Ophelia doing? Did she feeling anything? What exactly made her go made? What was Hamlet’s deal? Was the ghost real? If so, did the ghost lie? Did Hamlet love Ophelia? WHY did they suddenly have a sword fight at the end? And why did everyone commit suicide who wasn’t already stabbed with poison tipped rapiers?

Hamlet is not a play you attend without knowing the end. Most of the audience had clearly read and seen other adaptations. There was careful attention and well timed laughter. Oh yes, there was a lot of humor in this adaptation. Benedict Cumberbatch played a wide range of emotional notes in his character—similar, really, to the kind of on-your-toes games he plays as Sherlock.

And there is no getting away from the darkness in Hamlet. It is a play that looks at death and struggles to find coherence in the process. Nothing “happens” in Hamlet. The plot is shockingly, wildly lacking. When things do happen, they seem to happen from nowhere. What is this? What world are we in?

 

**

Makoto Fujimura says the following in his introduction to “Culture Care”:

The assumption behind utilitarian pragmatism is that human endeavors are only deemed worthwhile if they are useful to the whole, whether that be a company, family or community.  In such a world, those who are disabled, those who are oppressed, or those who are without voice are seen as “useless” and disposable.  We have a disposable culture that has made usefulness the sole measure of value.  This metric declares that the arts are useless.  No-the reverse is true. The arts are completely indispensable precisely because they are useless in the utilitarian sense.

Refugees are useless. The dead are useless. Grief is useless. Is there an art that opens up for us room for all that is homeless, for all that is lost?

 

***

 

At the end of the production, Cumberbatch gave a short plea to audience members to donate to nonprofits helping Syrian refugees. There has been some criticism of Cumberbatch giving this request—he is wealthy, he is privileged, he is politically ignorant.

What is theater for? To move us in the play itself? Can art act as the stage from which we bring to light the world’s deep trouble?

See Benedict Cumberbatch respond to these criticisms in this video.

 

There is a relationship between “Hamlet” and Syria, between this play and all countries rotting at the core. There seems to me an appropriate plea to help those running from the kinds of horrors that Hamlet himself could not escape, kept running back to, longing to sort out all the madness of his own heart and the home he once had.

 

I hope a play can be some response to all we cannot use, a response that is not decadent or needlessly wasteful alone, but can somehow ask us to act.

At the end of the play, only Horatio, Hamlet’s closest friend, is alive to tell the tale. He says:

And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventors’ reads: all this can I
Truly deliver.

 

Horatio will tell the story. He will tell that went wrong, what purposes were undone and twisted into evil, of the casualness with which death comes.

But let this same be presently perform’d,
Even while men’s minds are wild; lest more mischance
On plots and errors, happen.

Horatio survives. He survives to tell us a story. He survives to tell us this story to stop it from ever happening again. Our minds are “wild” from hours of theater and from our own humanity. Perhaps we can avoid this disaster if we listen to his story. We are the ones who survived Hamlet. We have a responsibility like Horatio.

We who are still alive at the end of “Hamlet”, we in the West: some of us have already lost those we love to terrorism whether by military service or 911 attacks or kidnappings of reporters. The rest of us who have not yet lost those we love, I fear that no one is this world will be spared long. What I mean is that we seem to live in an age when it grows rare for death to come by age alone. Instead, we lose our loves to violence alone.

I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do.

Here is the goodness of art: it stops. There is silence as the curtain falls. The story is told. Maybe we can still plan for a future where our children do not know these kinds of terrors.

 

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