Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet’

happiness is sad song

July 1, 2017

Happiness is a sad song
Charles Schultz, from the book Happiness is a Warm Puppy

Everything was beautiful
Until it went wrong
Happiness
Is sad song

Weeping for Hecuba
And all those hurts beyond
Happiness
Is sad song

Poking ancient agony
Clutching what is gone
Happiness
Is sad song

Accepting my reality:
I loved you all along
Happiness
Is sad song

by Richard W. Bray

Cruel to Be Cruel

May 9, 2016
Frank O'Hara

Frank O’Hara

 

J.K. Simmons garnered an Academy Award for his portrayal of the cruel, exacting, excellence-obsessed music teacher Terrence Fletcher in the movie Whiplash.  Fletcher tells his struggling student that “there are no two words more harmful in the English language than ‘good job.’” In other words, Fletcher argues, he is merely hard on people for their own good, pushing them to achieve new levels of excellence.

Fletcher is echoing Hamlet’s assertion that “I must be cruel only to be kind.” Today in our success-worshipping culture the clichéd notion that we are doing people a favor when we are hard on them is repeated often by parents, teachers, and others who suggest that they only want the best for us while they are abusing us.

But we should ask to whom, exactly, is Hamlet being kind. Notice that Hamlet makes his famous cruel-to-be-kind assertion right after he stabs Polonius in fit of rage. Yet Polonius was merely guilty of eavesdropping, hardly a capital offense. However, Hamlet demurs when presented with an opportunity to kill Claudius, the man who murdered Hamlet’s father.  (Claudius is certainly a much more appropriate target for Hamlet’s sword than Polonius.)

Hamlet is a cruel, insufferable, whimpering coward who, like Terrence Fletcher, is usually cruel just to be cruel. For sport, Hamlet badgers poor, innocent Ophelia, a woman who simply wants to love him. Later Hamlet whines when he discovers that Ophelia has committed suicide.

So Hamlet abuses people for fun and Terrence Fletcher abuses people because he wants to win jazz competitions. They’re both losers in my book.

However, the obviously hypocritical and self-serving sadism of Fletcher and Hamlet notwithstanding, there certainly are times when it is necessary to be hard on people.

But when is outright cruelty justifiable?  I’m not a big fan of fussing and fighting, yet Alfred Kazin notes in his memoir A Walker in the City that sometimes a healthy screaming row is necessary in order to clear the air, so to speak: “In Yiddish we broke all the windows to let a little air into the house” (119).

And the poet Frank O’Hara makes a similar point:

Hate is only one of many responses
true, hurt and hate go hand in hand
but why be afraid of hate, it is only there
think of filth, is it really awesome
neither is hate
don’t be shy of unkindness, either
it’s cleansing and allows you to be direct
like an arrow that feels something

out and out meanness, too, lets love breathe

Some people enjoy hurting other people; I don’t.  It sounds pretty wacky to me, but according to physicists, all matter is connected. So maybe when we attack others we are actually attacking ourselves. Or maybe Allan Seager’s description of poet Theodore Roethke also applies to me: “his despair seems to prove that he already had the prime requisites of a poet, a tingling sensitivity as if he lacked an outer layer of skin.”

by Richard W. Bray

 

A Few Thoughts on Virtue and Vice

May 17, 2014
Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Many vices have corresponding virtues. Consider the following pairs of adjectives.

Confident/Cocky
Trusting/Gullible
Audacious/Impudent
Candid/Indiscreet
Gallant/Foolhardy
Deliberate/Dithering

In each of the above examples, there is a point where excess converts virtue into vice.

Consider the Wooden Paradox from basketball coach John Wooden: Be quick but don’t hurry. In other words, give maximum effort without losing control. Expedience is good; reckless haste is not. Thus we excel by straining a virtue to the edge of the border where it becomes its corresponding vice.

Controlling our appetites is a key to maximizing virtues without rendering them vices. As philosopher Phillipa Foot* notes, “Virtues belong to the will” (13).

For example, there is virtue in Hamlet’s impulse to redress his father’s murder; however, the mindless barbarism of Hamlet’s hunger for retribution obliterates a guiltless family—Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes. Enraged recklessness is the vice which transforms Hamlet’s valor into senseless carnage.

To his credit, Hamlet is aware of such folly. That’s why he salutes Horatio’s staid and sober equanimity:

Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee

It is not good enough simply to act upon justifiable impulses because, as Foot notes, “almost any desire can lead a man to act unjustly” (9). Like Hamlet’s ill-fated quest for justice, much death, loss, and destruction is perpetrated in the name of love, charity, temperance, and security. Alexander Pope warns us to be wary because

The same ambition can destroy or save,
And makes a patriot as it makes a knave.

It is difficult to discern the corresponding virtues for “moral failings such as pride, vanity, worldliness and avarice” which “harm both their possessor and others” (Foot 3). Pride is a fundamental flaw bred in the bone of humanity. Excessive self-satisfaction puffs us up; it distends the ego and smothers benevolence. But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Before destruction the heart of man is haughty (Proverbs 18:12)

Whether we credit our existence to God or evolution, there is no such thing as a self-made man.

Let’s imagine a man who comes into the world with a massive endowment of skill and will who also happens to be born at that right time and place to garner great fortune and esteem during his lifetime. Shouldn’t this man be immensely grateful for his fortuitous circumstances? Why does pride so often trump modesty in the solipsistic hearts of the fortunate?

Compassion and humility are the best antidotes to our capacious appetites and our rampant self-love.

*All Philippa Foot quotations from Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy

by Richard W. Bray

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet

September 14, 2011

Harold Bloom

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.

Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (178)

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral.

D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (180)

When Kurt Vonnegut was working on Slaughterhouse-Five, he told movie-producer Harrison Starr that it was going to be an anti-war novel.

“Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Starr quipped.

Vonnegut found the comment amusing, agreeing that wars are “as easy to stop as glaciers.” This knowledge did not dissuade Vonnegut from completing his masterpiece because he realized that no work of art could ever rectify the human situation, and only the silliest sort of fool creates a work of art hoping somehow to fix the world. (This is what logicians refer to as assigning an irrelevant goal.)

But literature has its uses. And W. H. Auden notwithstanding, poetry makes all sorts of things happen. Great works of art render our world a lot more beautiful and slightly less confusing.

Harold Bloom, one of America’s most acclaimed literary critics, has released a curious collection of musings on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet entitled Poem Unlimited. According to Bloom, “of all poems” Hamlet is the “most unlimited,” and, as a “meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death,” the play “competes only with the world’s great scriptures” (3).

Bloom has long been an idiosyncratic critic, cocksure about his own brilliance and emphatic about the singular authenticity of his opinions. His general predisposition towards even the most revered literary figures is often miserly in terms of handing out approbation. For example, Bloom dismisses Matthew Arnold’s oeuvre in one sentence: “Arnold, long admired both for his poetry and for his literary criticism, was not particularly good at either” (The Best Poems of the English Language 684).

And like the notoriously fussy Mikey from the Life Cereal advertisement of my youth, when Bloom finally comes across something that pleases him, he really likes it.

Hamlet remains our world’s most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Beckett. You cannot get beyond Hamlet, which establishes the limits of theatricality. (7).

Of course, Bloom is hardly the first critic to gush over Hamlet.

It is perhaps not necessary to emphasize the quality of the prose in Hamlet. Here are passages which represent the highest point Shakespeare ever reached in this medium….it is the excellence and the importance of the prose which separates Hamlet from, and in many ways above, all the other plays (George H. W. Rylands, Words and Poetry 159).

So Bloom, a devout secularist who considers “Bardolatry” to be “only another name for authentic response to Shakespeare,” is ecstatic about Hamlet (7). This play’s the thing for Bloom, and its eponymous hero is the pinnacle of literary achievement, eliciting rapturous bellows of praise from the usually cantankerous critic:

[Hamlet] himself is a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed (7);

Hamlet always has had nothing in common with his father, his mother and his uncle. He is a kind of changeling…fathered by himself (9);

Hamlet becomes the freest artist of himself in all literature (51);

We cannot play upon him: he is cleverer than we are, and more dangerous (54);

[T]he likes of] whom we have scarcely encountered before (82);

[H]e is more intelligent than you are, whoever you are (88);

[H]e is a mortal god in an immortal play (90);

Hamlet is the truth, insofar as any hero of consciousness can be (96).

Thus inebriated in adoration, Bloom almost completely ignores the enigma at the core of Hamlet’s personality which has confounded and infuriated critics for centuries: Yes, Hamlet is a devilishly clever young man, full of all sorts of wonderful words. But he is also cruel, capricious, and ditheringly indecisive. Indeed, the very expression “playing Hamlet” is a synonym for indecisiveness.

No one could seriously question Bloom’s assertion that Hamlet is a font of fabulous words. But if, as D. H. Lawrence argues, the moral function of art is paramount, then there is no escaping the fact that Hamlet is an abject failure as a man. If Hamlet had simply killed Claudius (the man who murdered Hamlet’s father), so much senseless death and mayhem could have been avoided. The Polonius family—who, whatever their faults, were decent, loyal and loving human beings—is utterly destroyed due to Hamlet’s vacillating stupidity.

Unlike Hamlet, Laertes has no need to navigate a sea of words in order to determine the right course of action. Hamlet himself speaks of Laertes as a “great gentelman,” and Hamlet admires the “bravery of his grief.” Furthermore, the similarity of their plight is not lost on Hamlet, who says of Laertes, “by the image of my cause, I see/The portraiture of his.”

Yet Harold Bloom will have none of it: “Laertes is too absurdly slight to be Hamlet’s ‘second self,’ as many critics aver (104).

Along with Laertes, the other heroic figure in Hamlet is Horatio. According to Hamlet, Horatio is

A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well commedled
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As i do thee.

Again, Bloom is unwilling to listen, not even to Hamlet:

Though critics have asserted that Hamlet finds qualities in Horatio that are absent from himself, they are plainly mistaken. Hamlet is so various that he contains every quality, while Horatio, totally colorless, has none to speak of (15).

Alan Lerner jested that “The French don’t care what they do actually/As long as they pronounce it properly.” Similarly, Harold Bloom doesn’t care what Hamlet does, actually—whom he berates, whom he stabs, whom he has murdered, whom he brutishly badgers to the point of suicide, how many ways he contradicts himself, how many people die for his indecisiveness—as long as Hamlet collocates his lovely words better than anyone else.

by Richard W. Bray