Peter Brook must be psychic. No sooner did I post my last blog entry than I flipped open The Shifting Point for more nourishment and found, at least in part, an answer to my question.
In his essay, “What is a Shakespeare?,” Brook writes:
“…authorship as we understand it in almost all other fields…almost invariably means ‘personal expression.’ And therefore the finished work bears the mark of the author’s own way of seeing life…Now it’s not for nothing that scholars who have tried so hard to find autobiographical traces in Shakespeare have had so little success. It doesn’t matter in fact who wrote the plays and what biographical traces there are. The fact is that there is singularly little of the author’s point of view – and his personality seems to be very hard to seize – throughout thirty-seven or thirty-eight plays.
“If one takes those thirty-seven plays with all their radar lines of the different viewpoints of the different characters, one comes out with a field of incredible density and complexity; and eventually one goes a step further, and finds that what happened, what passed through this man called Shakespeare and came into existence on sheets of paper, is something quite different from any other author’s work. It’s not Shakespeare’s view of the world, it’s something which actually resembles reality. A sign of this is that any single word, line, character or event has not only a large number of interpretations, but an unlimited number. Which is the characteristic of reality…What Shakespeare wrote carries that characteristic. What he wrote is not interpretation: it is the thing itself.”
Exactly. No writer has covered more facets of humanity or life than Shakespeare has. His reflection, his imitation of life is so vivid and accurate that it has come closer to giving us the real thing than anyone else’s has before or since. They say truth is stranger than fiction? You betcha – especially in Shakespeare (Cymbeline, anyone?). The invention of the human, indeed.
I think Brook’s comments go a long way towards answering, in a general sense, Shakespeare’s enduring popularity. But what about Hamlet, in particular? Why this play now? Fellow blogger and Hamlet junkie Gabriele Schafer weighed in with some terrific thoughts on that here. I definitely agree with her about the play’s motif of deceit, and the lies we tell others and ourselves. In today’s current climate, there is something about that motif that resonates throughout the political aspect of Hamlet: a man ruthlessly attains power through villainous means without giving any thought to who or what it will affect (wouldn’t it be interesting to sit down and discuss this with President Bush, Al Gore, and John Kerry?).
And yet, there are other ways of looking at Hamlet‘s appeal. One of the things about it that jumps out at me these days is its function as the archetypal dysfunctional family story. In a culture that has now been overrun by such tales, from Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to American Beauty and Little Miss Sunshine, no one does it better than Shakespeare. In a sense, Hamlet is the original moody goth; his mother and stepfather are the predecessors to all those beastly parents who’d rather spend the weekend dining at the country club than having quality time at home with the family.
The other aspect of Hamlet that stands out for me is its depiction of a man who is heartbroken by everything he holds dear to him – life, his family, his friends, his girlfriend, etc. The aggregate amount of misfortunes that fall on Hamlet’s head simultaneously short circuit both his ability to mend himself and his sense of social decorum. Politeness goes out the window as Hamlet lashes out at the world for his pain. Such emotions are familiar to anyone who has ever lost a parent, gone through a divorce, been dumped by a partner, or [insert your choice of hardship here].
Of course, that’s just how I feel today. Ask me again tomorrow and I might say something different. But, as Brook so astutely points out, whatever I say tomorrow would most likely be supported by the text.
I eagerly await more comments and feedback about this. What do you think makes Hamlet the play of the moment? Or is it? You tell me.