I am teaching Hamlet. This is a first for me, and it has given me a chance not only to revisit the play, but also Almereyda’s messy, masterful adaptation (2000); and one summer in my own life when the time felt most terribly out of joint.
It seems to me that Hamlet is not so much a guy who couldn’t make up his mind, nor a man who thought too much, or who lacked resolve, or any of those things—or maybe all of them. The guy was just too totally into himself. That’s what makes Hamlet so compelling. The lure of drama, whether a play, a book, or a film, is the desire to be seen. We wait for that moment when we become real in the eye of the character, when what they say, or how they look, makes us suddenly real to ourselves. But Hamlet refuses. There’s the rub. He obliterates us the way he feels obliterated. That’s how up-himself he is. It’s very frustrating.
Oh, he can see himself, up to a point. ‘I’m an errant knave’ he brags to the lovesick Ophelia, without really ever seeing the girl in front of him. All he can see, all he can be, is himself. He just doesn’t get, that in order to be, as Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh says in one of the most extraordinary scenes in the film, we have to inter-be. In so being, in being so himself, Hamlet cannot inter-be. He can only be, as the murderous Claudius says, his ‘character, naked’—a contradiction in terms. So be it. If I cannot see myself in him, then I cannot be either. Watching Hamlet is being Hamlet…. unable to be because of not being able to see oneself in the gaze of another.
Hamlet takes twenties-something slacker solipsism to a whole new level; Ethan Hawke nails it. His Hamlet is self-reflection to the point of self-obliteration. He would extinguish himself and thus aspire to the extinction of all.
This is not the first time the Dane has gotten to me. When I was twenty-three I dropped out of school for the last time. Or so I told myself. Fuck them and the donkeys they rode in on. I broke up with my boyfriend, moved into a place by myself, and stopped seeing friends. But before I did, I did something kind of kinky. In love with Shakespeare, I approached my professor and asked him if he’d tutor me privately. I’d pay, I said, whatever he thought was fair. I just didn’t want to live if I couldn’t live without Shakespeare. Astonishingly, he agreed. An astonishing man. Diminutive and rail thin, pasty, with a reputedly critically ill wife that no one had ever met, he agreed to read with me over one weird summer every Thursday in a restaurant near his house and we would discuss Shakespeare. Macbeth, Richard III, Twelfth Night, Hamlet.
Of course, Almereyda had not yet made his movie. Last Action Hero was just a twinkle in John McTiernen’s eye … I watched and wept with Withnail. My ex wanted to get back together. I sent him a note, quoting Viola from Twelfth Night. ‘O time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me to’untie!’ Nerdy, right? The ex went off and bought himself the biggest most complete Globe Shakespeare he could find. It must have set him back a pound of flesh. It’s one of those big tomes with gold-edged pages and cheesy line drawings. I didn’t know this at the time, and the only reason I know about it now is because it sits on our bookshelf and whenever anyone in the family wants to check up on a quote, we refer to it. Our kids love the illustrations.
But that was all in the future. Like Hamlet I was too into into myself to really see my boyfriend, or a future with me in it. I was too concerned with my own character, naked, whatever that was. I couldn’t inter-be for the same reason Hamlet couldn’t: I was bereft. Like Hamlet I was grieving over a loss with ‘impious stubbornness.’ My best friend had died three years earlier, and I just couldn’t get past it. In the winter following her death I’d locked myself in my apartment and played old Beatles albums over and over again. Especially, ‘Here comes the sun,’ because I knew it never would. Even though there was no suggestion of foul play, she’d died in an ugly, unnecessary way, and above all, without me, a terrible betrayal. I too thought that if I sat there for long enough on my own, my ‘too too solid flesh, would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,’ or adieu. Either or.
My only comfort were the dreams in which she’d appear, month after month, year after year, and for a few precious moments, or days, or however long the dream seemed to last, we were together again, yes, but it wasn’t the same. There was something wrong. A distance between us. She scared me a little. Remember me, she’d say, and there was something else.
Remember death, the undiscovered country, impossible dream. Memento mori, sixteenth century manifesto and the most paradoxical message of all. Remember your death, say our ghosts. Like that’s even possible. Sam Shepard is the ghost in Almereyda’s film, materializing in front of a Pepsi Lite vending machine. ‘Wondrous strange,’ says Horatio, Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend. The ghost appears and reappears. Don’t kill yourself, he tells Hamlet. Don’t go crazy. I need an untainted mind. Here is my story. I love you. Remember me.
Is that why they come, our ghosts and dream girls? Hamlet’s ghost, Yorick’s skull dug up by the clumsy gravedigger—we knew him once, didn’t we? Good night, sweet lady.
In dreams she’d be and wouldn’t be—alive and not alive—and she’d want something from me. Like Hamlet, I couldn’t give it to her. I wanted to, but it she wouldn’t look at me, not really. I’d crane my neck, will her to meet my eyes, but she’d turn away. That was the dream. Remember me, she’d say. And something else. And then she’d leave. And between her visits I’d do my damnedest to forget. I spiralled into the madness of not-forgetting. That’s all I could do.
The weekly meetings with my professor were therapeutic and instructive, but over time I sensed him becoming distracted and distant. Maybe it was because of his wife. I don’t know, but the summer ended and so did our Shakespeare sessions. I continued to be haunted by my dead friend. I had cut off all ties with her family, and with our group from school. I tried to go to a couple of reunions but was so traumatized by her ghostly presence that I hit twenty-something excess with a vengeance. I never talked about her and surprisingly I never wrote about her until very recently. Last year. Oddly enough it was a poem, the first real poem I ever wrote, and even more oddly, it was published, and stranger still, it was read and admired by the man who would become my agent. There are indeed ‘more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’
We are teaching our students that Hamlet just doesn’t get the whole political thing. He can’t or won’t play the game. He is too into being true to himself. Maybe if he was savvy he would have been able to get rid of Claudius while he had the chance. And then he could have taken the throne and lain the ghost to rest. But maybe that’s kind of what he didn’t want, not what he wanted to be—to be King and to still be bereft. To have the whole world and have nothing, to be and not to be. After the publication of my poem, the dreams stopped. Every night, I’d go to sleep and think, please, maybe tonight. But she’s gone. Gone and not forgotten. Her story, finally, told. Memento mori. The impossible dream.
When Hamlet lies dying, Horatio would drink of the poisoned cup that killed his best friend. Like Horatio, all I ever wanted to do was to throw myself into the grave and shovel dirt over the both of us. But Hamlet, and maybe my friend, have a better idea. Stay, says Hamlet to the weeping Horatio. Stay alive. Tell my story. Remember me.