Knowing what stories are for and how to use them


It is perhaps timely that today’s post concerns Shakespeare’s great play, “Hamlet.” It is, after all, a ghost story. The British mythic storyteller Martin Shaw says the stories we most need now are here; they arrived right on schedule, three thousand years ago. “Hamlet” debuted in 1600, a mere 415 years ago, but Shakespeare drew from the much older medieval story of Amleth, which itself may have derived from an Old Icelandic poem.

While I’m fascinated by the impressively diverse sources of Shakespeare’s plays, I’m even more interested in how they are presented to modern audiences. I recently saw a production of my favorite play, “Hamlet,” that revealed far more of the director’s wish to be “relevant” to a modern audience than of the timeless themes and lessons inherent in the play itself. Her loyalty to our current cultural fascinations eclipsed the mythic struggle of the Prince of Denmark to live up to the pledge his father’s ghost forced from him.

As David Mamet reminds us in Three Uses of the Knife, the purpose of drama is “to increase our store of practical knowledge about the universe.” We undergo the same trials as the hero so that we may learn, from the safety of our seats, the same lessons. Mythic stories remind us that our reason must be tempered by instinct and force us to confront our powerlessness in the face of death.

“. . . the purpose of the theater is not to fix the social fabric, not to incite the less perceptive to wake up and smell the coffee, not to preach to the converted about the delights (or the burdens) of a middle-class life. The purpose of theater, like magic, like religion—those three harness mates—is to inspire cleansing awe.”

I was first introduced to “Hamlet” in High School English class by Mrs. Alexander, one of the five best teachers of my life. She helped us to appreciate Hamlet the man, to notice his scholarly tendency to over-think everything, while drowning in self-doubt for his inaction. One of the best aspects of this play is how tightly Shakespeare spins the relationships between the characters. They advance the narrative as well as reveal psychological strengths and weaknesses that we can recognize in ourselves.

Before going to London to see “Hamlet” last month, I studied it again. So I was in a position to observe that the director had cut some of the text! She even dared to move Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy to the second act instead of the third, where it belongs. I read later that, in previews, she had chosen to open the play with it, but the outcry was too great.

What is Hamlet doing in that speech? Contemplating his own mortality, wondering about the futility of his promise to his father’s ghost, feeling so imprisoned by it he might just end it all, right now. Railing against his powerlessness over death. Not a bad perspective for a future king, but it takes him a while to get to it. A tad over two acts of the play, in fact.

When we observe that a story is “Shakespearean” or “Greek,” we tap into a rich storehouse of archetypal characters and lessons that guide our lives. The Greek myths weren’t mere entertainments. They helped people to place themselves in time and space and history. They raised and answered questions about who we are, why we are here and what we are to do while here.

If the “Hamlet” currently running in London doesn’t tap into this rich storehouse of material, what is the director after? A reviewer on the website speculates:

“Hamlet is not a play known for its magic. It is Shakespeare at his most entrancing: a spooky ghost story full of “Is he mad?” questions; a small, intensely felt family drama; a bloody revenge play; a psychological meditation; a thriller. Shakespeare keeps all of these balls in the air as the narrative drives inexorably on. Great productions of the play make each ball bounce with precise energy and vigour. Turner, inexplicably, ignores them all. Her approach is much more filmic—how something looks is more important than what is said.”

As written, Hamlet’s character has a heart-wrenching arc from self-absorbed, melancholic student isolated by grief over his father’s death to a rightful monarch who puts his people and kingdom first. After all his dithering and hand wringing and acting crazy, he is finally willing to sacrifice himself to the greater good. His transformation doesn’t happen easily or quickly. Indeed, this may be Shakespeare’s longest play because Hamlet puts up such a fight the whole time.

The textual hacks are not simply an affront to Shakespeare’s genius; they omit crucial interactions and reveal a shallow lack of appreciation for Hamlet’s inner arc. Cutting Horatio’s comment to Hamlet in Act 5, “Why, what a king is this!” may have seemed an innocuous time-saver for the attention-deficit Twitterers in the audience, but it shows an utter disregard for their relationship and for Hamlet’s transformation.

The word that keeps ringing in my ears is humility. Shakespeare has given us the great gift of living with Hamlet this journey from overly rational ego-bound intellectual to selfless leader informed by loss, humble in the face of the unknown and willing to value his intuition. We are Hamlet and he is us. Here is the man who gave us, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And, in a quiet moment with his good friend before the fateful duel in which he dies, Hamlet says:

“Not a whit, we defy augury; there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”

If this isn’t the definition of the threshold between stories that we now occupy, I don’t know what is.

Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain Project makes the point that we tend to see history as a dusty storehouse of “failed prototypes.” This is a mistaken Story of Progress that the time we live in, here and now, is the pinnacle of human civilization. Our current culture is the result of continual improvement building upon past cultures, settling in layers like a geological formation. Armed with this conceit, a modern director “reinterprets” a Shakespeare play, and ends up with a series of rote encounters between individuals, rather than the drama of emotional entanglements and relationships that break our hearts open and reveal profound truths about our lives.

Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Riane Eisler in The Chalice and the Blade, Karen Armstrong in A Short History of Myth, and many others, all make the case for the power and importance of mythic stories in the human experience. Such stories remind us of the gifts of kinship and reciprocity with the whole of life and help us imagine a more humble role for ourselves, other than the present one of being the exceptional species in charge of it all.

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  1. Pingback: Triumph of mythos over logos, or, Nate Silver is not all that | Thriving on the Threshold

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