Friday, June 8, 2012
Somehow I managed to make it through high school and half of college without ever having read Hamlet. Chance played a role in this. I simply never happened to register for a class in which the play was assigned, even despite taking a required course at Fordham called "Chaucer, Shakespeare & Milton" my sophomore year.
I finally did read it during my junior year, in preparation for a course on Joyce's Ulysses. Over the winter break, we were told to prepare for the course by reading Hamlet, The Inferno, The Odyssey, as well as Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It was a pretty hefty reading load for a three-week vacation, but I was quite motivated by the challenge and managed to get through most of the list.
Looking back, I am pretty sure that I never formally studied Hamlet. I remember seeing the Mel Gibson version of the film at the Paramount theater in midtown. A couple of years later, the much-anticipated Kenneth Branagh version came out. I saw it opening night at Plaza Theatre with my friend, M., who later became a literary agent. We both hated it. I taught the book a couple of times, at both the high school and the college level.
It never ceases to amaze me how deeply the language of this book has become embedded in English culture. Practically every line in the play has become a cliche. Fortunately, the play itself has so far resisted this transformation, if only just.
A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.