Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Shakespeare Satori

The most intensive period of study in my life - so far - was for my A-Levels. For English Literature I suppose we studied about 6-8 key texts, one of which was Hamlet, so the damn thing is in there for good. From time to time I find myself thinking about it or drawing on it, and today it came to me that Hamlet's very last line, "The rest is silence", which can be taken to mean that Hamlet is saying, 'here is the end of my life and there is nothing more to be said - everything has been acted out - make of it what you will', can be heard as "Th' arrest is silence"; in other words, death is the end of speech.

This obviously resonates with the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, and it struck me that although Hamlet is a play very much taken up with and informed by ideas of death, most of what Hamlet does is talk, an activity solely the preserve of the living. At the end of the play, when he's confronted with the actuality of what he's so far considered exclusively in theory, he finds, ironically, there is nothing to say.

I've always had a problem, as I suppose many people have, with Hamlet's inactivity. Four or four-and-a-half acts of doing bugger-all, and then he finally gets it together. Laertes, by contrast, learns of his father's death and immediately sets out with sword in hand. But the whole revenge and retribution thing is really only what George Saunders calls the Apparent Narrative Device, and what he calls the dirt, the thing the writer loves to do and which the reader only gradually realises is the thing that s/he actually came for, is this exploration of Hamlet's character; this growing-to-awareness is actually what the play's about.

If this seems obvious to the point of scarcely worth mentioning, I can only apologise and cop to being a bear of little brain, but it did solve for me a problem I've had for twenty years. I may have been able to articulate the above argument before now, and for all I know I have done, but I think this is the first time I've had a solid gut feeling about it.

I doubt if I'd have come to it if it hadn't been for reading Sara Paretsky's Writing in an Age of Silence, wherein she says something along the lines of, we write because not to do so is to give in to death, and to those who would control our lives through our silence. (I paraphrase greatly.)

Incidently, if you haven't read Saunder's essay on Huckleberry Finn in The Brain-Dead Megaphone, I commend it highly. I admit to not having read any of the rest of the book, so can't say what it's like overall.


Having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man last year, and holding firmly onto Uncle Anthony's hand, I have begun Ulysses. On the advice of Marvin Exobrain, I started at Chapter 4, the Calypso episode, and have so far managed two and a half chapters. So far, it doesn't strike me as being beyond the capacity of the average reader, but by God you have to apply yourself to it, with full attention; also, I am gently tending toward the opinion of those who believe that Dubliners marked the high point of Joyce's achievement, with each subsequent book being more self-regarding and reader-unfriendly. I don't, so far, see anything which Joyce didn't tell us about ordinary lives in Dubliners, the advance (if one can call it that) being in technique. But I admit this is very early days and I am perfectly willing to be convinced otherwise.


I first came across Joyce in a conversation being held (appropriately enough) in the toilets of the student theatre during my first year at university: I remember the name Stephen Daedalus being knocked back and forth, and someone saying that Joyce believed (or possibly that Joyce demonstrated) there was no such thing as a boring person, someone whose life wasn't worth examining. It was a pocket-sized idea which I carried away, though most of the discussion was completely lost on me, and eighteen years later, reading Dubliners, it seemed to me to be entirely justified.

No comments: