Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Spiritual Fruits of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

The one time we see Atticus Finch in an act of worship in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” his daughter Scout tells us that he likes to “be by himself in church,” rumbling the notes of “Nearer My God To Thee” a few beats behind the congregation. So even in the “fake peace” of Sunday, as Scout calls it, Atticus is as he appears throughout the novel, an outsider with his own way of conducting himself. 

I’m not going to call “To Kill a Mockingbird” a Christian novel. Christianity permeates it, like the fake peace of Scout’s Sunday, because the characters within call themselves Christians. There are scenes of Christian devotion, and the Bible is directly and indirectly referenced throughout. But the book’s tone is perhaps more accurately called humanistic, and one of the book’s qualities is that Atticus is at once the most Christian of all the characters and the least like any of the people he sits among in church. 

“To Kill a Mockingbird” tells the story of Scout and Jem Finch, the children of the small-town lawyer Atticus. He raises the children by himself – or more accurately, with the help of his black housekeeper Calpurnia and later, his sister Alexandra – in Depression-era Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus is a state legislator, a learned man, an aging widower, a dead-eye shot and an enigma to almost everyone who knows him. Scout, who tells us the story, says that he treats his children with “courteous detachment.” He is content to nudge them in the directions he wants with only a little instruction. When Alexandra insinuates that he could be a much better parent, he angrily insists that he is doing the best he can. 

The Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Galatian church that the fruits of the Spirit, to be sought after by Christians on a daily basis, are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These things are unattainable in their totality apart from God. He then adds that “against such things there is no law.” Any reader will recognize these qualities in the lawyer, though he occasionally seems too pensive, formal and withdrawn to be joyful. But Atticus, if he’s anything, is civilized, one character states. So we might well wonder if Atticus’ sensibilities aren’t so much Scriptural in character as cultural. As a lawyer, named for a learned Roman, he is concerned with the preservation of civilization. 

Then again, Atticus takes the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. He knows he will lose, yet he says that real courage is seeing something through even in the face of certain defeat. Why does he take on this client? “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man,” he says. He won’t “let this cup pass” from him, quoting Christ.  

But what is the only thing Atticus says is a sin? According to Scout, that would be shooting a mockingbird. In fact, the one defining quality of Atticus Finch seems to be that he won’t render an unqualified judgment on anyone. Just as he does the best he can, he expects others will too. Even when he faces down a mob, he says almost benignly – and a little acidly – that all mobs are “made up of people you know.” 

Christ hovers in the background in Maycomb. Jem tells Dill that the only movies that play in Maycomb are Jesus pictures at the courthouse. Miss Maudie tells Scout she is a Baptist, though not a hard shell one, and she was even accused by the foot-washing Baptists of immorality because of the care she invested in her flowers. At Aunt Alexandra’s Missionary Circle party, we see Scout told how lucky she is to be part of a Christian home in a Christian town. We are also treated to the judgments of the circle ladies, who disdain the benevolence shown the town’s blacks through the Robinson case. Those up North with their expressed openmindedness are dismissed as hypocrites, the same judgment Jesus rendered on the Pharisees. This is interrupted inevitably by the news of Tom’s death. 

The most spiritual moment comes earlier when Scout and Jem accompany Calpurnia one Sunday to First Purchase African M.E. Church in “The Quarters.” In the house of worship, the children encounter an experience mildly familiar to them and yet different. 

The music superintendent leads the congregation in hymns from a single book, speaking the lines first so they can sing. This illustrates the church’s poverty and the illiteracy of its worshippers. The Rev. Sykes gives a sermon on the evils of sin, but points out individuals from the pulpit who are on thin ice spiritually. He even shuts the doors of the church to insure that Tom Robinson will get an adequate love offering, insisting on more giving until the appropriate amount has been reached. Three more weeks of collections will follow for the accused.  

First Purchase is the only church in town, Scout tells us, with a steeple and a bell. Its name is significant, as it was the first thing bought with money earned by emancipated slaves. Paul told the Corinthians that they “were bought at a price” through Christ’s sacrifice. And perhaps because of the humbleness of the setting, this congregation seems a fitting “first” purchase, as they are last in the calculus of the county’s social equations.  

There’s been enough ink spilled in turning Tom Robinson into a Christ figure. He suffers and dies, wrongly accused and easily dismissed by the town’s whites. One way of looking at the construction of the novel is that Harper Lee spends two-thirds of it telling the story of a small town through the lives of one family, then takes one incident of crisis to illustrate how each member of the community responds to or ignores the moral and spiritual imperatives Tom Robinson presents. 

At the novel’s close, it is Atticus who has a crisis – the white trash Tom Ewell is dead after attempting to kill the Finch children in a fit of revenge, but Atticus believes Jem is responsible for the man’s death. Sheriff Tate knows that Boo Radley is the killer, but he insists on the fiction that Ewell fell on his knife. Why? Because it would be “a sin” to subject Boo to the scrutiny that would follow. Heck Tate decides that Ewell’s death is just, because Ewell was responsible for the death of Tom Robinson. “Let the dead bury the dead,” he insists. 

These are the words of Jesus. In Matthew 8:22 and Luke 9:60, Jesus is recorded as saying this to a man who insists he will follow Jesus once he has first buried his father. Jesus is telling the unnamed man the price of being one of his disciples - one must follow Him above all else with no regard for even the closest family connections.

We could believe that Heck Tate is saying that Ewell’s death is somehow atoning for Tom’s death, or perhaps Heck believes, like a disciple, that following his conscience at all costs means doing something that forsakes even his oath as a lawman. Or maybe it’s just an ironic turn of phrase.
Has Atticus’ unshakeable benevolence been changed by his children’s brush with death? It’s possible, just slightly. Only a few pages before, he seems unable to grasp that Ewell would really have killed his children. Tate assures him that some men deserve shooting, even though it would waste a good bullet. 

Atticus’ famous admonition – that you never really understand a person until you climb up in his skin and walk around in it – seems inadequate to this moment. Not every person appears worthy of this respect, and not everyone is understandable. He as much says so at the very end of the novel, when he tells Scout that most people are good “when you finally see them. “ Most, not all. A grudging admission? Maybe. 

Scout earlier tells us that one of the few decorations at First Purchase is an engraved print of William Holman Hunt’s painting “The Light of the World.” It depicts Jesus, crowned and enrobed, knocking on an overgrown door that can only be opened from the inside, as there is no handle. The painting depicts Christ’s outreach to the obstinate mind, and reminds us that not everyone will respond to salvation. 

The incomprehensible aspect of salvation, of course, is that Christ is the ultimate expression of God Himself walking around in our skin. And though there are Bob Ewells and Missionary Circles the world over, Christ felt their purchase was worth it.  

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

'12 Years a Slave' - The Price

One moment in particular in Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” stood out for me. The slave Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has run afoul of the carpenter Tibeats, played by Paul Dano. Returning with two other men, Tibeats strings a noose around Northup’s neck and attempts to hang him from a tree branch, but the men are prevented by the timely intervention of the overseer. Tibeats runs away, with the overseer in pursuit, leaving Northup still suspended by the noose, breathing only because he is standing on tiptoe. 

A minute passes, with no one else on the screen in a wide shot except Northup, still hanging from the branch, his feet balanced precariously in mud. Then a few of the other slaves stir out of their cabins. They walk around. No one lends a hand. After an excruciating amount of time, a female slave runs up with a cup of water for him, but she does not attempt to get him down. Only the owner Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) can free him, which he eventually does. Ford sells Northup to another slaveholder in order to preserve his life, for Tibeats will surely kill him. This presumed act of mercy sends him into the care of Edwin Epps, a tyrannical owner played with skillful malevolence by Michael Fassbender.

“12 Years a Slave” takes a well-regarded biography written in the 1850s and uses it to tell the story of American slavery in all of its multi-layered evil. It portrays the dreadful human cost not only to the bondsman but also the owner, the dehumanization on all sides that must take place in order for it to survive. It shows the disruption of families, the degradation and rape, the isolation and insensitivity bred in owner and slave, and the upside down logic that must be employed in order for it to survive. The horror of slavery is juxtaposed with one man’s struggle to preserve as much of his dignity as possible, while the institution works tirelessly to strip him of it. It is very hard to watch, as it should be. It also stands out in the history of American filmmaking for its essentially truthful depiction of the institution, a part of American history that Americans of all races have tried hard to forget. 

Compare it, for example, to Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.” When it was made in the late 90s, “Amistad” was considered by some commentators as Spielberg’s attempt to do for slavery what he had done earlier for the Holocaust with “Schindler’s List.” But while Djimon Hounsou and Morgan Freeman show the African-American perspective, the screen time is largely dominated by Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins and the white actors engaged in the court case. Other films have touched on slavery, but rarely through the eyes of those within its grasp. This is presumably for commercial reasons. Other films, such as “Beloved,” did not see success because slavery is still considered a shameful part of history both for whites and blacks. 

But in addition to its value as a historical document, “12 Years a Slave” has a spiritual story to tell.  “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin,” Jesus is quoted as saying in John 8:34, and “12 Years a Slave,” if it wasn’t a historical fact, would function well as an allegory for the wages of sin. Solomon Northup is a free man living in the North who is tricked into coming to the nation’s capital, where slaveholding is legal. He is kidnapped and sold into slavery by men he trusts, then shipped South without his wife or children knowing what became of him. The business of slavery forces him to make terrible choices in order to survive, knowing that death will almost certainly be his only outcome. 

But I keep coming back to that scene of him, hanging by the noose, standing on his toes on slippery ground in order to insure his next breath, the world continuing around him because that is the nature of the world. It is the 21st century, and even though it survives to this day, it is almost universally accepted that slavery is wrong – indeed, that it is, even in our secular society, a “sin.” But as I watched him struggle for breath, it made me wonder – how much evil do we tolerate in this world, how much do we facilitate; indeed, how much evil do we celebrate because we are used to it? 

On Sunday mornings, Master Ford reads to his slaves from the Scriptures, and even Northup himself calls Ford a benevolent man. But he is a slaveholder who separated one woman from her two children and is dumb to her weeping. Epps is an awful man, who believes in the necessity of slavery and that it is his God-given right to own them. When he beats a slave later, he announces, “There is no sin. Man does what he pleases with his property.” Since he feels his slaves are soulless creatures no better than animals, he may mistreat them without result. We may be tempted to regard Ford as the better morally of the two, but they are both utterly wrong, with regard to slavery. They are unable to see, or unwilling to see, that their system of labor is an abomination. 

We, here in our homes or theaters look back on the slaveholders of the 19th century and pass a fair judgment on their conduct, but we also smugly pronounce ourselves righteous because we presumably don’t live by the sweat of another man’s brow. But I wondered as I watched, what are we tolerating in our own lives that might bring just indictment from a future observer? There is the temptation to think, because we are dealing with slavery, about the question in purely political terms, and many will. But in moral terms, if we aren't blind to them, "12 Years a Slave" reminds us that quick and easy choices, willful ignorance of another's pain, and intentional cruelty, mixed with individual and collective selfishness have consequences that can span generations. Time, which we feel heals, can carry and perpetuate wounds. Pain will doggedly find an everlasting nerve, as a miner searches for a deep and inexhaustible vein. What sins are we slaves to, and what will it take to free us?

Any discussion of Christianity in the context of slavery should include what the character of Epps points to – the use of Christianity to justify the institution of slavery in American society. It is a historical fact that many of those who owned slaves used the Bible to justify the system and relied on Christian teachings of benevolence, tolerance, meekness and forgiveness to keep their slaves docile and pacified. We kid ourselves in believing this strategy was successful, because historical research is constantly uncovering how slaves themselves undermined the institution, not only through open rebellion but by simple acts of individuality, and through the construction of an African-American culture that survives and thrives to this day. 

But that same discussion of Christianity should include the almost inconceivable fact that the oppressed embraced the same faith, and found within those teachings the seeds that made them free. Remember, the abolitionist movement in America, as in England, was largely helped along by the church, and abolitionists made appeals for slavery’s end based on it being “a moral sin.” Another vivid moment in “12 Years a Slave” comes when Northup participates in the burial of a slave. As the other slaves gather for his burial, they begin singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Northup, himself a Christian, slowly begins to sing. Unlike past depictions of slavery in film, this is not the dull, unnaturally happy spiritual sung by docile servants, but an angry, persevering, affirming faith in song, a faith that something imperishable and enduring awaits him – that he who hopes in the Lord will not be disappointed. 

And by the film’s end, Northup is saved through the intervention of Bass, (Brad Pitt) a Canadian who hears Northup’s story. Authorities in New York are alerted to his presence, and he is eventually returned to his freedom. He walks into his home and is reunited with his family, and his new grandchild. Though he has done nothing wrong, Northup tearfully says to his daughter, “Forgive me.” Just as with all suffering, there is inside the question of “what did I do to deserve this?” It would be almost impossible for someone to pass through the awful experience of slavery and not feel some of its residual evil has attached itself. Northup, at one point, is given the whip to beat another slave, and threatened with death if he refuses. He has had to make a thousand compromises every day just to stay alive in order to eventually enjoy this moment with his family. And yet, he feels he must ask forgiveness. 

What evil do we tolerate? We should all search it out, and do what we can in order that we may also return home, and hear the words of a Loved One saying, as does Solomon Northrup’s daughter, “There is nothing to forgive.” It is all forgotten.

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Noah" - Surviving the Flood of Expectations

It probably means something that my wife and my 14-year-old daughter disliked “Noah,” while I sort of liked it. The distance between those two impressions – outright hostility and grudging acceptance – might let you know what you will think of it.

(By the way, what follows are spoilers. Now, if you don’t know the story of Noah, you might want to investigate it, as well as the larger story it’s a part of… There are places all over the world to do this. You’ll note the large cross on the roof…)

First of all, the story of Noah is one of the more familiar and popular stories we are told in Sunday School. Take Noah and his family, his sons and their wives, herding the animals by twos into the ark to be preserved against a terrible flood. The image of the bearded, kindly man building the ark and then trusting in God for his preservation warms the young heart.

But one of the most compelling scenes in Darren Aronofsky’s film, and one of the most well-presented, is the moment when the ark is adrift on the water and Noah sits, stoic and grim with his family, listening to the screams of the doomed outside in the rain and the waters. The truth is, the story of Noah, like almost every other story of the Bible, testifies to sin, and this was one of the pleasant(?) surprises of the film. Sin has consequences, and not everyone can – or will, or wants to - escape them.

When I heard Hollywood was attempting a big screen film on the Deluge, I figured there would be some modern retelling of the story giving another reason for the flood that consumes an unrepentant world. I was not surprised when early reports said humanity was being judged for its effect on the environment. 

But this wasn’t the case. Sin is front and center the reason God is judging mankind, and indeed, Noah’s consciousness of God’s displeasure with man is one of the major plot points of the story.

But consider the source material, as translated by Everett Fox:

Now (God) saw
That great was humankind’s evildoing on earth
And every form of their heart’s planning was only evil all the day.
Then (God) was sorry
That he had made humankind on earth,
And it pained his heart.
(God) said:
I will blot out humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the soil
From man to beast, to crawling thing and to the fowl of the heavens,
For I am sorry that I made them.
But Noah found favor in the eyes of (God).

In the passage above, you’ll notice God is in parentheses. That’s because Fox translates the divine name as YHWH, as it is in the original Hebrew. By using the original, Fox decides to preserve the mystery of the divine name. The movie makes a similar decision – God is always referred to as “The Creator.” 

What’s good about “Noah?” It should be remembered that nearly every human civilization has some kind of story about the Deluge – a great flood that a particular man survives along with a host of animals on a boat. But the story recorded in Genesis is different from the other versions – the flood is a decision by God and a direct response to the sinfulness of mankind. Noah and his family survive because he found favor in God’s eyes, and the family that survives will make a fresh start.

This part of the story is preserved. The look of the film is familiar to anyone who has seen a Hollywood movie depicting scenes of great antiquity. At times, “Noah” looks like yet another chapter in “The Lord of the Rings.” Costumes are not the traditional Sunday School bathrobes but wardrobes consistent with, say, the Krypton scenes from “Man of Steel.” The ark is as you would expect – a long, rectangular boat built to house humans and a menagerie.

But this telling of Noah is contemporary – which means it must render God in a contemporary context. Instead of the Lord speaking to Noah and giving him direct commands as to the dimensions of the Ark, Noah receives the impression of the coming flood in a dream, which he must then find help interpreting. He and his family journey to the mountain of his ancestor, Methusaleh, played by Anthony Hopkins with a needed mix of whimsy and ancient wisdom. The picture of the antediluvian man climbing a mountain to seek out the words of a wise man is familiar to anyone, even those unacquainted with the Bible. 

It is there, in another vision, that Noah understands what he must do. Leaving the mountain, he plants a seed from the Garden of Eden given to him by Methusaleh, and a forest sprouts up to provide trees to build the Ark that will preserve his family’s life. 

That’s a miracle, and there are many miracles in “Noah.” But the Creator does not speak. When Noah looks to the sky, the sky is silent. When God moves, His acts are undeniable – to those who have faith. But those waiting to hear perhaps the voice of James Earl Jones speaking the familiar words from Genesis will be disappointed.

One other aspect of “Noah” that was a pleasant surprise – Aronofsky preserves the larger context of the Biblical story in the telling. Inside the Ark, Noah recounts to his family the creation of the world by God, and the fall of man – first in the eating of the forbidden fruit, then in the killing of Abel by Cain. The serpent that tempted them is a snake, viewed in flashback in a series of images. The killing of Abel is crucial, and the movie keeps circling back to it as a symbol of man’s wickedness. Yet Noah also has to kill to preserve his family, so apparently murder is OK in those instances? The movie isn’t clear.

But there are a few other liberties with the story, and this is where those expecting the traditional version will undoubtedly be disappointed. Readers of the Bible will recall that Noah and the Flood comes immediately after one of the more challenging portions of Genesis – the meaning of the first four verses of Genesis’ sixth chapter. Let’s look at the King James translation:

Sons of God? These are sometimes referred to as the Nephilim, and there are several theories as to what the phrase means. One common interpretation is that these were fallen angels, and that their cohabitation with human females is one reason God brings the Deluge. But the screenwriters of “Noah” make these creatures into “The Watchers,” a group of fallen angels who earlier watched over human beings until the creation grew too evil. It is a group of Watchers which help Noah build the Ark, probably for cinematic reasons – in order to quickly construct the craft.

My quibble with this is both theological and cinematic. This conception of the Nephilim make them seem more like Prometheus, guardian of mankind’s acquisition of fire from the Greek gods. (Of course, Prometheus figures in the Greek version of the Deluge stories, so...) But fallen angels wouldn’t necessarily be interested in helping mankind for any reason, would they? My cinematic objection is that the Watchers are a race of rocklike creatures which resemble every other CGI creature you’ve ever seen in a movie.

One other quibble has to do with the animals. The good news is that no animals were harmed in the filming of "Noah." The bad news is that there are no real animals in the picture - they're all computer generated, and many of them are species dreamed up by the filmmakers for the story. That's not my objection - there are many elements in the story that speak to its primitive origins. But the animals miraculously come streaming into the ark, where Noah and his family put them to sleep with the use of a magical kind of incense. What's wrong with that? By doing so, it effectively removes the animals from the story. This is a storytelling decision, obviously - since it allows us to concentrate solely on the human remnant alive in the Ark. But the animals, I would argue, are a vital part of the story - not just in the more familiar Biblical version, but every other retelling in every other culture. Obviously, it would have been a much different movie to have Noah and his family shoveling out the Ark every day, but I missed what effect they might have had on things. The Ark, teeming with life and the needs of life, would have rescued the plot from the very dark turn it takes.

The tension of the final half of “Noah” comes after the Ark is loose on the water. For reasons of conflict, Shem is given a wife, Ila (Emma Watson), who they believe to be barren. Ham, however, has no wife, and Japeth is too young to want one. (Bible readers will easily recall that in Genesis, all of Noah's sons have wives and families.) Noah attempts to find wives for his other sons in the village of Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), but he is so struck by the evil of the place that he flees. His plans are thwarted when the Flood comes. So he decides that they too are to be judged – humankind will die with them.

But Ila – through the work of Noah’s wife and Methusaleh? Or is it God? – soon becomes pregnant, and Noah assumes that God will want him to kill the child. This is further complicated by the fact that Ila bears twins, which enter the world at the moment the Ark comes to rest on the mountains of Ararat. Will Noah kill his own grandchildren? (There’s also a ridiculous subplot involving Tubal-Cain as a stowaway on the Ark, which has an all-too-predictable ending.) At first, I wondered if this was setting up some kind of foreshadowing of Abraham and Isaac’s near-sacrifice. But Noah finds only love in his heart for the two babies, and spares them, believing he has failed at the task God gave him. He survives the Flood, as does his fragile family, though the rainbow halo at the end only promises hope without actually letting it be glimpsed.  

I wondered, as I was watching this, why Noah doesn't see Ila's babies as another one of God's miracles? Surely, if God can wipe out mankind with water and keep his family alive, then he can cause not one but two children to be born. There is one way to look at this - that God is infinitely more forgiving of us than we are of ourselves or each other. One of the Christian interpretations of the story is that the Ark itself is a foreshadowing of the grace we find in Christ. Deep down, we understand punishment. We want it for everyone else - but we expect grace for ourselves. We have no reason to expect it, but God grants it. 

So is “Noah” worth seeing? As cinematic spectacle, yes, though I find myself continually losing patience in theaters with epic battles involving thousands of people fighting giant creatures. Russell Crowe’s Noah is perplexing and inspiring, maddening as we imagine men to be who have heard the voice of God. He struggles with what he believes his faith demands, which makes him recognizable, yet not as we remember him from Sunday School.

And like we continually do in life, we long for him – and us – to hear the overpowering voice of God, and for an ending that wipes away all doubt. Instead, we receive not the miracle we were expecting, but mercy, and grace to go on.  

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Hamlet Project: The Play's the Thing

I'll be watching nine different film versions of "Hamlet" over the next few months. But before beginning, I went back to read the play.

My first exposure to “Hamlet” came when I was a senior in high school, listening to Richard Burton’s performance on a phonograph record that was probably thirty years old. It wasn’t my first Shakespeare – I believe by that time I had been exposed to “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth.” Of the three, “Caesar” was and is my favorite. I also revisited “Hamlet” when I got to college. But about 10 years ago, I began collecting film versions of “Hamlet.” More on that later. 

My aim here is to read “Hamlet” again, just for the surface details, and see if anything new pops up for me. I’m obviously not a scholar, nor an actor. I’m just an interested reader with a slight familiarity around the play. I don’t make any claims that any of these observations are new, unique, or for that matter, interesting…

If I remember correctly, the first few times I read “Hamlet,” I wondered just how much Gertrude was in on the murder of King Hamlet. Shakespeare doesn’t say – he only allows the ghost to tell his son not to harm her in his drive for revenge. The answer to this seems to be revealed later when Hamlet confronts Gertrude in the closet scene and, at the mention of murder, she seems surprised. From this point in the play on, Gertrude follows Hamlet’s direction in maintaining the fiction of his insanity. But it’s also telling that she doesn’t abandon Claudius immediately after; in fact, she seems protective of him when Laertes returns to exact revenge for his father’s death. This gives her a rich, marvelously complicated character – consider, Gertrude is a newlywed and a new widow at the same time, with unresolved feelings perhaps in both directions, and concern that her son, now a murderer in her own sight, might be insane despite any protestations to the contrary. Then again, does she suspect that what he tells her about the king might be true? 

The death of Hamlet’s father is obviously a breaking point for the prince. We can assume from the play’s words and action that it changes every relationship in his life. For starters, Hamlet does not become king. One wonders how much of his melancholy stems from this. But we learn from others that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were his friends from childhood, and yet he sends them to their deaths for perhaps no other reason than their association with Claudius. We might suppose he was somewhat close to Polonius, given that he loves the man’s daughter. Yet Polonius’ proximity to Claudius makes him untrustworthy in Hamlet’s sight. We sense by his behavior later, raving at Gertrude, that it is only the ghost’s injunction to leave her unharmed that saved this relationship. I also find myself wondering what Hamlet's feelings in the past might have been for his uncle. We believe at the play's beginning that he is not at all happy with the marriage. Is his anger later because of what the ghost tells him, or might he have been unusually close to Claudius and feel betrayed? The largest break comes with Ophelia, for he turns on her for reasons that are unclear. We accept, for the sake of the play, that Hamlet wants to appear mad. Yet one would think he might take her into his confidence, given their relationship. Instead, he casts her out of his planning and leaves her to think whatever she will about his behavior. 

Instead, we get the nunnery speech, where Hamlet speaks of honesty, beauty, chastity and fidelity on at least three different levels, all at the same time. He is raving, we presume, because he knows Claudius and Polonius are watching. But his anger – and it is anger – seems directed not so much at them but at her. Or is it simply because she is a woman, and she is before him, that she gets a rant that might otherwise be directed at his mother? In the end, Ophelia and the two voyeurs come away convinced that he is insane, which was his whole purpose. But it also leaves us questioning just how much Hamlet can care about anyone.

Is it just me, or does Ophelia get over Hamlet’s “nunnery” speech a little too easily? The two of them have an irregular relationship (to put it mildly) throughout the play – Polonius tells her to keep him at bay, then Hamlet has his moment of wordless distraction, which she reports to her father.  Hamlet leaves her a note, after which she returns all of his notes, provoking the nunnery speech. Their next encounter, though, is when he flirts with her at the performance of “The Mousetrap,” and she seems to return this, or at least allow it. (There is no direction to spell anything out - so here I may be assuming things depending on how I've seen it depicted in the past.) One scene earlier, she was devastated. Now, is she just playing along, thinking this is yet another turn in his turbulent attitude? Immediately after, Polonius is killed, and her descent into madness is sealed. By the way – is she crazy because Polonius is dead, or because of Hamlet’s actions, or both? Hamlet seems devastated by her death, but with the kind of emotion that makes his earlier actions seem capricious. There are two ways to look at this – in real life, people seldom have plausible reasons for the way they treat the people closest to them, especially in moments of extreme anger or grief. Then again, how is one supposed to react when he learns, by way of a ghost, that his father has been murdered by the man who is now married to his mother?

Perhaps the only relationship that does not change for Hamlet is his friendship with Horatio. Why is this? Because it is Horatio who first breaks the news that the ghost of his father has been seen on the watch. We might also believe it is because, unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio has no connection to Claudius. But this also brings up a set of interesting questions. We assume that Hamlet knows Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Wittenburg, and as stated earlier, his association with his doomed friends has been longer. There is only one scene, prior to the play, when all three of Hamlet’s friends are together, and there is no interaction between them. This might lead us to believe that Horatio’s connection came later. (Interesting thought then: Would there be jealousy for the two other friends now that Hamlet seems closer to Horatio?) Horatio strikes me as someone Hamlet met at the university and has not known as long. Yet Horatio is recognized by the men on watch at the very beginning of the play. Why? We do not know.

As a villain, Claudius more than does the job. His moment of confession, when Hamlet comes so near to killing him, is compelling on several levels. We see that Claudius has some regrets for killing his brother, and that he blames his lust for power. (Left unstated, at least by him, is whether lust for Gertrude entered into the picture – for the ghost, there is little question that this was his brother’s motivation.) He wants forgiveness, but immediately after, he contrives a way to kill Hamlet without having to do the dirty business himself. When this fails, he hatches another plot. Why? Because he knows Hamlet is on to him. What could Claudius have thought when he sat down to enjoy a play, staged for his nephew’s benefit, and saw an exact representation of the dark deed he has so far gotten away with? “He knows! But how could he know? Who else could know…”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard throughout my life that Hamlet is so endlessly compelling because he is a complete portrait of a man in thought, the classical Renaissance man. Some go so far as to say a completely rational man, or as Ophelia terms him: courtier, soldier, scholar, “expectancy and rose of the fair state, the glass of fashion, and the mold of form.” His manner and words testify in our time to Enlightenment. (Incidentally, I don’t think Hamlet would have made a very good king. People often speak of wanting intellectual leaders, forgetting that at the end of “Hamlet,” practically everyone is dead as a result of both his vacillation and action.) One of the reasons we sympathize with Hamlet is because he has some of the melancholy about him that we associate with modern life.

But how is he spurred to action? By a completely “irrational” moment – the appearance of the ghost of his father. Lost in the discussions of Hamlet’s rationalism is the fact that “Hamlet” the play is a supernatural work. Hamlet’s later action, his inability “to make up his mind,” is caused because he doubts the truth of what he has seen and heard. (By the way, I’ve often felt there is very little set-up in the play itself for Hamlet’s question as to whether he has seen his father or “the devil.”) But he never doubts that what he has seen was real. He as much as says so when he chides Horatio that “there are more things in heaven and earth” than can be rationally understood.

We know that Hamlet hesitates in killing Claudius later because he does not wish to enact revenge on his uncle while the villain is in the act of prayer. That would seemingly forgive him of all sin and “send him to heaven.” Heaven figures greatly in the play. The ghost tells Hamlet to leave his mother to either its accusations or its mercy. The sensibilities of the characters are all calibrated to a pseudo-Catholic-Christian context. As Stephen Greenblatt wrote in “Hamlet in Purgatory,” the appearance of the ghost wailing at his imperfections means that he is in Purgatory, waiting for his sins to be “burned and purged away.”

But Hamlet being a rational man, we suppose, he forgets one of the most vivid Old Testament commands of Jehovah Himself: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” The Biblical reason for this injunction is that mankind is not righteous as God is, does not know all the facts of any given situation, and can easily overreach into unrighteous judgment or willful violence for ends other than retribution. God corrects, while man inflicts. Of course, Hamlet’s call to revenge came from his earthly father, not his heavenly one, which might in fact explain Hamlet’s skepticism later about whether this truly is his father’s shade moving him to murder. But one might assume, from a theological standpoint, that Hamlet cannot trust God to judge Claudius. God offers mercy and grace, and there is little room for that in the heart of a son robbed of his father. Monarchs cannot go unmourned. Hamlet is also caught up in the exuberance of the events around him, which is why he is able to say unashamed that a divinity shapes his ends - indeed, shapes everyone’s. 

 But why do I care so much about the play? Because it was some years later when Hamlet spoke to me personally. I began collecting films of “Hamlet” more than a decade ago, for various reasons – actor’s performances, cinematic history, curiosity. It was while watching Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” that I came across this familiar passage:

“I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.”

It came to my mind that I was feeling the same way, and for the same reasons. I had recently lost my father. He wasn’t murdered, and his ghost had not visited – in fact, I was disappointed when I could no longer feel his presence in the world. I frankly expected more of him. It was only some time later that I did feel something – the part of him that he left with me every day he was alive. My father died of the lingering effects of a stroke, and by the time he was gone he no longer had the power of speech. By the way, he had no patience for Shakespeare.

But I didn’t need a ghost come back from the grave to tell me the world, beautiful though it may be, is a cruel place. And so, I felt a sudden brotherhood with the black prince of Denmark; both of us mourning our departed fathers, appalled that the world could dare to go on without them, groping our way forward with frustrated ambition dogging us the whole way. 

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