Re-reading Shakespeare: Hamlet

(1) In his book On Shakespeare Northrop Frye talks a bit about problems and pseudo-problems in Hamlet. By pseudo-problems he basically means the kinds of thing that are open for debate but that you shouldn’t be worrying yourself about. However, he then goes on to say that “there’s no boundary in the play between the actual and the pseudo-problems” and that “there’s no other play in Shakespeare, which probably means no other play in the world, that raises so many questions of the ‘problem’ type.”

I’ve always had this warning running in the back of my head when thinking of problems I’ve had with Hamlet over the years. Am I only imagining pseudo-problems, or are they real?

Well, I think they’re real, if only because they’ve never gone away. Here are some examples:

First: why, in the opening scene, does Marcellus have to explain to Barnardo why he has brought Horatio along with him to see the Ghost? We’ve already been told that Barnardo was expecting Horatio and had already discussed the matter of the Ghost with him. So why does he need to be filled in again now? Of course, the short answer is that it’s a way of informing the audience about what’s going on, but this seems a really awkward way of doing it and Shakespeare usually isn’t awkward in his handling of such things.

Second: Before he takes his leave, Laertes makes a long speech to Ophelia warning her about Hamlet’s intentions and the gap in their respective stations. Then, right after he leaves, Polonius keeps after her on the same point. Why the repetition, especially when what’s being said doesn’t seem that well-grounded in the first place? Gertrude later says that she expected Hamlet to marry Ophelia, and apparently she was fine with that.

Third: why does Claudius get so upset at the action of the play-within-a-play when he’s just seen the dumbshow? He already knows what’s going to happen and how closely it mirrors his murder of Hamlet Senior. I’ve seen various explanations for his delayed reaction – that, for example, he tries to play it cool during the dumbshow, knowing what Hamlet is up to, but loses it as the story is fleshed out on stage – but I find such explanations unconvincing. The dumbshow serves no good purpose I can see, and only makes Claudius’s later guilt-ridden meltdown more confusing.

(2) Hamlet is a play that’s full of lines so well known that reading it seems like skimming through an anthology of famous quotations. But am I the only one who finds the whole “To be or not to be” speech flabby? Meanwhile, my favourite line in the play, for its sheer quotability, is one I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say outside of a theatre. It comes when Horatio sadly reflects on the fate of the court ass-kissers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They “go to’t” (meaning go to their deaths). Hamlet responds “Why, man, they did make love to this employment.” In other words, they were asking for it by taking on the job in the first place. I find I use this line a lot, as it has many everyday applications.

It’s weird how some lines become adopted into the cultural consciousness while others don’t. I mean, how many people really think about suicide the way Hamlet does? And yet “to be or not to be” lives on.

(3) Every time I read Hamlet I find myself struck by something new. In this latest re-reading here’s something that I smiled at. It comes when Polonius is warning Ophelia about Hamlet’s lovemaking:

The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.

The conceit being worked here is that Ophelia’s virginity is like a bud in the spring that a blight may kill. But those “contagious blastments” . . . I mean, given that the whole tenor of the passage is sexual I don’t think there’s any way he couldn’t have meant what in our day goes by a legion of pornographic euphemisms. It’s the money shot!


On the utility of truth

Over at Goodreports I just posted my thoughts on Timothy Snyder’s little book On Tyranny. While I sympathize with a lot of what Snyder says, I think things are more complex than he makes them out to be (something I think he would agree with, as the book is meant only as a primer). One point in particular has to do with his warning about entering a post-truth era.

10: Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual — and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.

We have heard a lot about this in recent years: the rise of “truthiness,” the rejection of the “reality-based community,” the branding of any story one doesn’t agree with as “fake news.” And I agree with Snyder about the dangers of giving up on truth. What I’ve found myself wondering about more recently however is the utilitarian value of the truth for many people. For example: it’s widely accepted that man-made climate change is real. To be a climate-change denier is to reject the truth. But I’ve known such people and whenever I engage with them I come away thinking that believing in climate change is something that is of no use to them. It does them no good at all. I’m not talking about oil company executive or coal miners here either. These are just regular people for whom the truth is of no value. Or, if anything, it’s a negative. This isn’t to deny Snyder’s broader point, but it does highlight the difficulty in doing anything about it.

There’s a saying, I’m not sure of its origin, that when the facts turn against us we turn against the facts. More and more when I find myself talking with people who can’t believe the ignorance or stubborn resistance to “what is actually the case” among those they disagree with I find myself asking them why they think such holdouts would even want to believe the truth. We like to think of the truth as being its own reward, an objective good, something that will set us free. This may be overstating its worth.

Censored books

Over at Goodreports I’ve added a brief review of the latest Project Censored yearbook, Censored 2018. I’ve covered quite a few of these over the past fifteen years, sometimes in depth and sometimes with only marginal notes. Here’s a list: 2003, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2018.

Given that it’s such a long-running series, and that each volume is a bit of a grab-bag of material coming after the annual list of the top 25 censored (or underreported) stories of the year, there’s been a lot of variation. There have been missteps, like giving too much play to some 9/11 theories and crediting a story on the fallout from the Fukushima disaster that didn’t stand up to full scrutiny. There was also a brief experiment with categorizing the stories into different “news clusters” that was ill advised. But overall I think they’ve done a great job of highlighting important news that was largely overlooked by the mainstream media. In the 2018 edition I was actually surprised by several stories on the top-25 list, which made me glad I’ve stuck with the Project through all its ups and downs.


My review of Guillaume Morissette’s The Original Face is up now at the Canadian Notes & Queries website. I think it’s a book worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in the current state of millennial malaise. Note: this does not mean that it’s gloomy or dull. It’s often quite funny, and it’s a very quick read.

Re-reading Shakespeare: Othello

(1) We all know about goats and monkeys. But what about wolves? Iago throws them in too, talking of lovers who are “as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, / As salt as wolves in pride.”

I had forgotten all about the wolves, and not without reason. I think in a lot of productions they get dropped. I was recently watching the 1951 and 1995 film versions and both leave that line out. The meaning is the same as for the goats and monkeys, but I don’t think the particular usage was ever common. “Salt” for lecherous seems to have been known, but there aren’t many instances of “in pride” being used to mean “in heat.” Today, of course, I think it’s a line that doesn’t register at all, which is why it’s usually cut.

(2) Iago is so good at what he does. He is the arch seducer, which means that he understands that people only ever seduce (or fool, or deceive) themselves. You just have to give them a bit of a nudge, or tug, and they’ll do all the work.

And you don’t even have to be dishonest – just selective in your telling of the truth, and the timing of it. This is the point Iago makes when, after leading Cassio on, he says to us

And what’s he then that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give, and honest,
Probal to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moor gain?

In much the same way, it’s because Iago is a jealous man himself that he can be so earnest and convincing in warning Othello of the green-eyed monster. Who can play an honest man so well as someone who is being honest?

(3) I find Emilia to be one of the most frustratingly short-changed characters in Shakespeare. The text gives a great deal of leeway in interpreting how she is to be played. Is she just a silly tool of Iago? She suggests as much when she finds Desdemona’s handkerchief and remarks that she’ll have the work taken out and give it to her husband. Then, “what he will do with it / Heaven knows, not I: / I nothing but to please his fantasy.” I suspect we’re supposed to read this ironically. Emilia isn’t as innocent. If she were she wouldn’t express herself in such a way.

But how much is she aware of? Is she like Carmela in The Sopranos or Skyler in Breaking Bad: an enabling wife who chooses to look the other way when it comes to her husband’s villainy? She does get one big speech at the end of Act IV, but this is usually just read for its declaration of a feminist principle akin to Shylock’s defence of Jews. Men should be aware that women have feelings too, and that “their ills instruct” women on how to be bad. I think what’s more telling, however, is the earlier part of that speech, which reveals a certain level of cynicism, bitterness, ambition, and duplicity that give us some idea of what Iago might have seen in her. She definitely has a rough edge, and she knows her husband. She’s mad at him at the end because he went too far and wrecked the good thing they had going.