Hamlet and the Grief Counselors
Larry Allums, Ph.D.
As Dr. Glenn Arbery pointed out last week during the first lecture of this Fall’s City of Imagination eries, one of the readiest associations in the popular mind today is between violence and the school, in which psychological specialists have come to play a primary role. It is not my intention tonight to disparage the grief counselors or their counterparts prior to a violent event, the school guidance counselors. In truth, I know no more about their work than does the average person who reads the newspapers and the journals, which means that I have had occasion to read quite a lot about them recently because of the increased demand for their particular work during what is frequently called the “crisis in violence” that we are now experiencing. I could cite examples of the quirky ideas of some “social transformers” for effect, but that would be implicitly to deny the worthy work that the majority of counselors are called on to perform in the tense environment of our schools today. Rather, I would like briefly to comment on the function of this kind of counseling as a way into a broader exploration of violence itself. It is my sense that the focus of such counseling has to do with the causes and effects of physical violence but not with the phenomenon of violence itself, the understanding of which is essentially metaphysical. But this metaphysical understanding must, in order to be perduring, come not directly but by indirection, through the artistic medium of the image. And, as I hope to show, this knowing by the indirection of art is of enormous consequence both to individuals and to the city as a whole.
The goal of both the guidance counselor and the grief counselor is catharsis, the elimination of powerful passions that may, if blocked and kept inside, explode and do violent harm to the victim of the passions and perhaps others as well. The guidance counselor with his “anger thermometer” drawn on the familiar poster paper, ranging from “annoyed” at the bottom through “mad” and “angry” to “furious” at the explosive top, wants students—geeks, athletes, members of cliques—to say aloud such things as “I feel angry when you take my belongings without asking” (Gutloff 8). Similarly, students who have survived incidents of violence are encouraged for a variety of reasons to let out their feelings, not hold them back but get them out in the open and deal with them: in order to prevent the impulse to revenge, withdrawal, abnormal social adjustments, and so on. Statistics indicate that these strategies work, that violence and its aftermath decline in the presence of pre- or post-event catharsis brought about through counseling. The school is calmer, and learning can proceed. As one guidance counselor puts it, “To teach academics, we have to make sure the kids are with us emotionally” (Gutloff 8). The desire of course is that all school counseling become pre-event counseling.
It may be, however, that such strategies have their limits in being situational or occasional: in their attempts to reach catharsis, nothing necessarily occurs to orient the soul lastingly toward the irrefragible reality of violence. Elementary schools nationwide are increasingly instituting programs designed to detect and defuse potentially violent behavior at an early age. The intent is good, but there are also indications that since young students are aware of the adopted strategy, they are thus “in on” the plan and, wishing to please, tend to react in a certain way so that the announced goals will be achieved. The danger is that although results may be strikingly positive, they may be illusory in the long run, since children in such programs are part of a presentation, or a “show,” in much the same sense that survivors and mourners of school shootings are unable to escape the “showtime” atmosphere, including the inevitable appearance of grief counselors on the scene, created by the media. At this stage in our crisis of violence, everyone involved in or associated with a violent event knows what to expect.
Thomas de Zengotita makes this point in an interesting way in a July ’99 Harper’s essay entitled “The Gunfire Dialogues”:
Sally Satel, a Yale psychiatrist, had an op-ed piece about the busloads of “grief counselors” who are as much a feature of such scenes as are SWAT teams and flower shrines. She focused on the “commodification of grief,” the “unholy therapeutic alliance” between the talk-through-your-feelings-and-get-to-closure counselor and the empathic servants of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. And can anyone doubt that stricken mourners, no matter how authentic their feelings, respond at some level to implicit expectations when the cameras roll? Especially since they have seen this show on TV before; now, suddenly, they are in it. (55-6)
Zengotita goes on dryly to suggest that “senseless school shooting” is now a genre, as is “coverage of senseless school shootings,” in which the “correspondents are in moved-to-the-breaking-point-but-professional mode. The anchors are in grave-demeanor-reserved-for-inexplicable-evil mode. The expert guests and other commentators are also grave, but inexplicability is not their provenance, and I-told-you-so and now-maybe-you’ll-listen drives their spin toward gun control or family values or psychological-intervention programs” (56).
Such contemporary “shows,” Zengotita maintains, indicate just what a “reflexive entity” they are, and he points out that our massive reflexivity in the face of such violence indicates how much of a piece these shows are with “all things postmodern.” All involved are acutely conscious of possible motives of exploitation: “correspondents asking interviewees about their grief now also ask how they feel about being interviewed about their grief” (56).
One of the letters to the editor in response to Zengotita’s article reads as follows:
As a teenager, I resent Thomas de Zengotita’s essay on the murders at Columbine High School and youth violence generally for the self-assurance with which he claims to know me, the same kind of smug self-assurance exhibited by those who dominate our media, the psychiatrists, politicos, and reporters Zengotita resembles but so harshly criticizes. None of them knows what is wrong (or right) with today’s youth because they are not a part of today’s youth, and they have allowed their age and experience to limit their worldview instead of expand it. They are certainly not qualified to tell me why I play violent video games, or to label me either “the shooter” or a politically “apathetic” teen. (7)
Finally, the writer asks the predictable questions:
Also, how is the content of video games worse than the content of some great literary works? Lolita, of course, is about pedophilia, and Crime and Punishment is a study of murder, as is, in part, To Kill a Mockingbird. Are we corrupted by these texts? Is it evil to become so engrossed in the story that one imagines seeing Boo Radley’s knife plunge into the back of Scout’s kidnapper? (7)
All of this, from the strategies of school counselors to Zengotita’s emphasis on the reflexivity of our age and the teenager’s response to it, reveals among other things how central the self has become for us at the expense of a communal life, not only in dealing with violence but in virtually all matters of individual and social consequence. In our postmodern age, the “I”—the self—is devastatingly, cripplingly present, so much so that its overwhelming presence is the greatest hindrance to understanding—coming to know a thing and therefore possessing a power of control and restraint in relation to it.
My comments from here on assume that an understanding of violence is a valuable possession, and that to understand it in a certain way is to be protected from its excesses. That “certain way,” I suggest, is through art, and more specifically through poetry or literature, the proper study of which effaces the self from the center of things and invites it to witness and participate in something that simultaneously doesn’t involve it directly and has everything to do with its existence in the world—of its having life, and having it more abundantly.
To begin with, the artist finds it an essential part of his work to be honest about violence as he is honest with all things, by which I mean to acknowledge its fundamental existence in the scheme of things, the natural order. The artist doesn’t feel the need to deny violence, to condemn it, or alter its aspect by pretending it is something other than itself. At the inmost heart of the artist’s work is honesty, the representation of truth as he discovers it to be. The artist’s method for this representation is, to use the Greek term, mimesis, which we normally translate imitation, but which is vastly different from “reproduction” as in the camera’s ability to reproduce faithfully a landscape or a street scene. Rather,mimesis involves a kind of imitation of an action in such a manner that its interior contours and valuations are “captured” even more faithfully than its exterior surface. This principle is most starkly grasped, perhaps, in modern art, something by Picasso, say, where the surface may be all but unrecognizable to the representation-loving eye but tremendously alive with meaning beneath that surface.
For the artist, then, violence is in its inevitability; to repeat myself, it is an irrefragible reality. This is true for the most benign-seeming of pastoral poets insofar as even the pastoral poet will not deny that the wolf lurks about the sheepfold as a potential violator of the provisional peace within. Mythically, violence is presented in Genesis as the defining act in the Garden of Eden: violence is an act of violation, and man’s violation of God’s sole command results in his expulsion from the Garden and his subsequent entrance into history—into the fallen world, which is the world we know. This reminds us that violence extends far beyond physical violations and may be even more devastating: violations of the law, of privacy, of civil rights, and so on.
In the Genesis account, the act of violence that begins in disobedience culminates in nothing less than death, not at all the original promise of God’s first covenant with man but the promised consequence of the prime violation, which is literally iterated outside the Garden not with the eventual death of Adam and Eve—from natural causes, we would say—but with the violent death of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain.
In Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost, just before his expulsion from the Garden Adam is treated by the Archangel Michael to a panoramic view of the future up to the time of Christ, which is of course history for us as readers. What he will see, Michael tells him, is what follows from his disobedience—his initial violation—and it turns out to be a prolonged presentation of violence throughout the ages—war, vice, disease, betrayal—with the ultimate violence being done to Christ, the Son of God, from whose violent death, paradoxically, comes man’s eventual deliverance from violence and death, which rouses Adam from his guilt and despair and causes him to exclaim, from his position at the fountainhead of all time and human history:
“Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done and occasioned, or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
To God more glory, more good will to men
From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.” (12.473-8)
Because the poet confronts violence as a reality in the fallen world that has as legitimate an existence as birth or love or death, he presents it as he finds it in his subject, which means that it is sometimes overwhelming, as in Odysseus’ indiscriminate slaying of the more-than-one-hundred suitors of Penelope, which Dr. Arbery talked about last week, some of whom are much more deserving of the violence than others. In Homer’s earlier epic, the Iliad, the violence is even more pronounced, insofar as his subject is war, an activity that mankind has not found a way to eliminate and that is hardly more graphic in contemporary films than in Homer’s austere and beautiful representation of it outside the walls of Troy. In this respect, it would be worthwhile to compare the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan with the intense battle scenes between the Greeks and the Trojans. The intensely realistic, unrelievedly violent opening of Saving Private Ryan lacks the strange beauty of Homer’s violence, because, like contemporary film in general, Saving Private Ryan takes realism as its primary goal and shock as its primary effect, whereas Homer’s language provides the aesthetic distance necessary for us to be able to keep back and be “saved” from the savage proximity of the violence portrayed. Actually, the most powerful scene in Saving Private Ryan in terms of this aesthetic distancing comes later, after the initial assault of the Normandy beach-head, when we come upon the young man with the invisible chest wound, apparently from a razor-sharp piece of shrapnel: we see the alarmingly rapid flow of the blood but not the rent place from which it flows, and in comparison with the exploding bodies and torn-away limbs of the opening sequence, the utterly silent violation of this young man’s body is much more poignant as his comrades wipe away the blood again and again, only to have it reappear, as if directly through his skin, again and again.
Homer’s gift for investing violence with the strange beauty of its irresistible being is my first point in what I mean by art’s capacity to teach us by means of effacing the self in the presence of the image—what Donald Cowan has called the introduction of the “third thing,” which relieves us of our self-appointed, self-deluding role as the central actor in the world’s drama (the world being whatever is happening to me here and now). In his book Unbinding Prometheus, Dr. Cowan says that in order for the education of “a person of significance” to be full and complete, he must “experience a submergence of the self, a loss of ego,” which occurs only in the presence of some reality larger than the self (146). The act of learning involves not an assertion of or a focusing upon but a submission of the ego to a reality it has not encountered before. It is an acknowledgement that the ego doesn’t define but is enlarged by the reality it encounters. This essential point is memorably made by the Southern writer and critic John Crowe Ransom in his essay “Forms and Citizens,” in which he says that the submission of the self in all profound matters of life to a larger, containing form ultimately protects the self from the tyranny of “the direct approach” (32).
Art offers us such a reality, but only according to its own demanding strictures, by which I mean that all art is not good art, although one might just as well say that only good art is art. But more specifically I am thinking now of poetry’s property of form, or of the poet’s capacity to impose, through language, form on a formless mass of material such that it appears to us as a new creation, an addition to the already created order. We might think of form as the property of the poem responsible for the fact that the whole of the poem exceeds the sum of its individual parts—far exceeds them in such a way that we keep coming back again and again to the same works, without completely knowing why. Form is finally mysterious in the way it works on the imagination; it is that quality in a work that resists final formulation but leaves one with a sense of the work’s coherence and fullness and of its intimate contact with the truth about something important to us.
The philosopher Jacques Maritain speaks of this quality as the “radiance of form,” which he says must be understood as
. . . an ontological splendor which is in one way or another revealed to our mind, not a conceptualclarity. We must avoid all misunderstanding here: the words clarity, intelligibility, light, which we use to characterize the role of “form” at the heart of things, do not necessarily designate something clear and intelligible for us, but rather something clear and luminous in itself, intelligible in itself, and which often remains obscure to our eyes, either because of the matter in which the form in question is buried, or because of the transcendence of the form itself in the things of the spirit. The more substantial and the more profound this secret sense is, the more hidden it is for us; so that, in truth, to say with the Schoolmen that the form is in things the proper principle of intelligibility, is to say at the same time that it is the proper principle of mystery. (There is in fact no mystery where there is nothing to know: mystery exists where there is more to be known than is given to our comprehension. (28)
This “radiance of form” in the poetic image thus reveals the things of the world truly, but in such a way that we are stopped by their manifest appearance and made to contemplate them, to ponder both their inexhaustible reality and their unfathomable mystery. If violence is one of these realities and mysteries, then it is to be expected that it is most fully revealed in the poetic image, yet without our attempting to seize upon any knowledge of it for practical purposes; that is, the knowledge of poetry, while as real as scientific, rational knowledge, is not of the sort that can be put immediately into service as a preventive measure. For this reason, it seems rather useless for directly ameliorating conditions in a time of crisis, as in our present “crisis of violence.” We are not likely to see busloads of poets, or even busloads of poetry or novels, hurried to the scene of one of our violent catastrophes.
For the next few minutes I want to explore how all this might work in some actual poetic instances with regard to violence; that is, I want to see what kinds of things—what kinds of truth—about violence poetry might be able to reveal to us.
To return to the Iliad: in that poem there is the violence of war, which I have already mentioned, and then there is another kind of violence, a different kind entirely—the violence that rises up in Achilleus after his friend Patroklos has been killed by the greatest of the Trojan warriors, Hektor. When Patroklos is killed, Achilleus is not on the field; in fact, he has given Patroklos his armor to wear so that the Trojans will believe that he, Achilleus, has returned to the battle and will retreat back into the city. The plan has a disastrous consequence and Patroklos falls, whereupon the most immediate concern of the Greeks is to find someone willing to take the sad news to Achilleus.
Antilochus is chosen, and he actually turns out to be the first “grief counselor.” After delivering his message, Homer writes, “Antilochus mourned with him, letting the tears fall, and held the hands of Achilleus as he grieved in his proud heart, fearing Achilleus might cut his throat with the iron” (18.32-4).
When Achilleus rejoins the battle, clad in new armor provided by the gods, it is with an unimaginable violence, a deep and intimate desire for revenge that cuts a swath through the Trojan army and single-mindedly zeroes in on Hektor. And when his hated enemy is finally dead, Achilleus enacts a further violence that commands the attention even of the gods, tying Hektor to the axle of his chariot and dragging his body before the walls of Troy, an atrocity witnessed by Hektor’s father, mother, and wife. By the time Priam goes to Achilleus’ shelter to ask for his son’s body, the violence is still within Achilleus, hovering just below the surface, like an entity in and of itself over which Achilleus himself doesn’t seem have control, so that when Priam pushes a little too forcefully for the return of Hektor, Achilleus warns him: “You must not further make my spirit move in my sorrows, for fear, old sir, I might not let you alone in my shelter, suppliant as you are; and be guilty before the god’s orders” (24.568-70).
Achilleus’ violence in the last books of the Iliad, then, is so pure, absolute and unmeasurable—unquantifiable—that one is forced to regard it as a “thing unto itself,” more than human, as a god-like wrath that moves toward some purpose of its own and is unknown fully even by its agent, like the divine anger of Jehovah in the Old Testament when he is stirred through Elijah or Moses against a faithless people. To study the Iliad is in one sense to attempt to see into the mystery of this kind of violence, which is respected by the gods, feared by mortals, and the cause of the war’s end, the emptying out of violence into the calm that is still only provisional in the encounter between Achilleus and Priam that I have just mentioned.
Could such a violent wrath actually exist? Through the “radiance of form,” Homer portrays this Achillean violence in the Iliad in such a way that we must submit to it as an undeniable reality, though we are not likely ever to see anything like it in the actual world. The point here is that the image of Achilleus’ violence, if we surrender to its portrayal within the context of the poem’s entire movement, strikes to the center of ourselves as a knowing, an understanding. As Ransom has written, such an image “cannot be used, it can only be known” (196-7).
One might object that Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme has gone on equally devastating rampages on the big screen, but then one must ask whether that violence operates poetically; that is, is it situated within a larger action that reveals to us something metaphysically true about the phenomenon of violence—its unfolding presence in the world? The nature of Achillean violence is discoverable only within a rich, complex milieu that includes the omniscient will of divinity and the absolute limits of mortality contained within the half-mortal, half-divine figure of the hero Achilleus.
Taken together and considered in this way, the great works of our culture may present a kind of panoply of violence as it emerges over the centuries within the context of what might be called a Divine Intention, which is another way of saying that poetic violence is not only never gratuitous but always is connected to some purpose outside our immediate selves. According to this formulation, there is no such thing as “senseless violence.” As the Greek playwright Aeschylus has the chorus say in his play Agamemnon, “from the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench there comes a violent love” (183-4). Or from the New Testament: “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.” (In this context we might remember Dr. Arbery’s discussion last week of Flannery O’Connor’s saying that her characters were so intractable that the grace they desperately required was necessarily attended by violence.) In the Aeneid, to move forward in time from the ancient Greeks, there appears a kind of violence apparently unknown to Homer in either the Iliad or the Odyssey: a violentia, to use the Latin term, motivated by the invasion, the encroachment, of one people by another, a violence attended by hatred and resentment, which suspends the warrior’s code of conduct according to which violence maintains a kind of sanctity. And in Melville’sMoby-Dick, Captain Ahab abstracts the single instance of inscrutable violence he suffers personally—the loss of his leg to the whale, but why?—into a violent quest for the truth of being itself.
But the literary classics haven’t registered violence in its multiple masks once and for all. Violence itself is archetypal, which means it appears in its various guises at all times and in all artistic media. A late instance of an Achillean kind of violence, for instance, is vividly present in Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven, in which Eastwood’s character Will Munny, a former alcoholic gunfighter but presently a pig farmer, cleans out the town of Big Whiskey, Montana, after the brutal sheriff, Gene Hackman’s character Little Bill, beats Munny’s friend Ned (played by Morgan Freeman) to death with a bullwhip. In this circumstance, though Will Munny acts for revenge, his violent killing of the sheriff and his deputies evokes the stark image of the biblical Angel of Death, enacting the cleansing of a town that has become hardened and rigid under the tyranny of Little Bill. Even in this contemporary film, the violent act is seen to reside within a larger constellation of meaning, connected ultimately to something outside the act itself, its victims, and its perpetrators. The violence is very personally suffered, but its existence in the world, its reason for being, doesn’t begin and end with the self. At the end of the movie, when Little Bill lies helpless and wounded, he says, “I don’t deserve to die like this.” Will Munny, standing over him with a rifle barrel inches away from his throat, responds, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
In all these instances, the portrayal of violence as a “good” insofar as it is subsumed within a larger field of action and meaning, while losing none of its harsh particularity as image, must be accepted if the poetic work in question is to be taken seriously. The poet does not turn away from what he discerns as one of the properties of violence, but it is his creative gift—his capacity for imposing form on his subject matter—that guides his poetic eye and hand. This is precisely what the teenager who described Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as a “study in murder” does not understand: that Raskolnikov’s brutal axe murder of two women has its poetic meaning within the context of his interior anguish at having performed the deed, imagined beforehand as a liberating act of courage, and the eventual salvation of his soul precisely as a result of his violent act: violence as the violation without which he would not have come to God. And simply to say that that does not balance the scales is to miss the point.
In the contemplation of the poetic image, we ultimately come to a place of judgement about such realities as violence, which the Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden says fascinates us so compellingly precisely because it does occupy a fixed and ineradicable place among the ontological certainties that surround us. We gaze on the real thing, the actual event in the world—the dead or wounded body—because we know intuitively that every instance of violence somehow bespeaks our own destiny and therefore our own participation in it. In terms of coming to a knowing, however, our poetic experience is superior to the actual event in the poet’s offering it up as it were in a contained and therefore a ponderable form. Never a moralist and never interested in morality, the poet in his form-making role nevertheless situates us so that our moral judgement—which is necessary for the living of life—is continually being developed, our imaginations matured toward a habitus, a spiritual habit of the soul without which our capacity to negotiate violence in the actual world is greatly diminshed.
I had better get to Shakespeare’s Hamlet or my title will have been a deception. Prince Hamlet is a fertile figure for a consideration of violence because he is so unlike any of the other figures I have so far mentioned. In fact, he seems to have more in common with the Columbine shooters than with Achilleus or Will Munny.
The play Hamlet is remarkable for depicting an atmosphere in which the signs of violence are everywhere—”Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90)—threatening to erupt into a kind of apocalyptic plenitude at any moment. There are violent deaths interspersed in the action: the fool Polonius’ “accidental” murder, Ophelia’s death by drowning, Rosencrantz and Guidenstern’ ignominious end. But all of this seems to point us toward the climactic eruption of the finale, when Queen Gertrude is poisoned, Ophelia’s brother Laertes and Hamlet himself are mortally wounded by a poison-tipped sword, and King Claudius is rather decisively cut down by Hamlet just before he dies beside or in the arms of his friend Horatio, who famously pronounces, “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” (5.2.344-5)
The play is also remarkable for having as its tragic protagonist a man who is notably non-violent. A lot of thought and time have been given to analysis of Hamlet’s character, much of it by psychologists. Here is a sampling of estimates from the 18th and 19th centuries (all taken from the Norton Critical Edition of the play):
- Henry MacKenzie: “The basis of Hamlet’s character seems to be an extreme sensibility of mind . . . . We perceive gentleness in his demeanour, wit in his conversation, taste in his amusements, and wisdom in his reflections” (148-9).
- John Wolfgang von Goethe: “To me it is clear that Shakespeare meant to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it . . . . A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away” (153).
- Augustus William Schlegel: “But in the resolutions which he so often embraces and always leaves unexecuted, his weakness is too apparent. . . . Hamlet has no firm belief either in himself or anything else” (155)
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge: in Hamlet one sees “great, enormous intellectual activity, and a consequent proportionate aversion to real action, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities” (163).
- William Hazlitt: Hamlet’s “is not a character marked by strength of will or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment. Hamlet is as little of the hero as a man can well be . . . . He is the prince of philosophical speculators . . . . His ruling passion is to think, not to act: and any vague pretext that flatters this propensity instantly diverts him from his previous purpose” (165, 167).
These estimates make it clear why Hamlet is widely regarded as the first “modern hero.” He is not disposed to violence yet ends up being as bloody as any of Shakespeare’s other major tragic figures, and while the nature of his violent acts remains to a large degree inscrutable, his motivation toward those acts seems fairly clear and also revealing about the nature of violence itself.
The play begins with his grief over the death of his beloved father, and even before he learns the nature of that death—”murder most foul” (1.5.27)—he is moved by it and his mother’s “o’erhasty” marriage to his uncle Claudius to the point that life has lost its meaning; all ontological certainties have vanished for him, and he sinks deep into a melancholy, from which he delivers his first of several famous soliloquies: “oh that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (1.2.9-12). Hamlet has his own team of counselors, though they work surreptitiously and not from pure motives. The unknown murderer Claudius, fearful of being found out, first puts Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, Hamlet’s childhood friends, to work to cheer him up and find him out if possible, and the two obsequious young men, rather harmless sponges (as Hamlet calls them later), accept the duty. Then Claudius puts Polonius, the father of Hamlet’s sweetheart Ophelia, on the case at the busybody’s own urging.
But by this time something decisive has happened: Hamlet has seen the ghost of his father, who reveals the circumstance of his death and charges him to exact revenge in his father’s cause. Nothing could seem simpler, yet Hamlet’s delay—the focus of critical speculation about the play—extends from the moment of his receiving the command of the ghost to the final scene during which the stage is littered with corpses. It is clear that Hamlet does not want to take up the sword, but not because of cowardice. The very intellectual nature of his disposition—which reveals itself in both his melancholy and his unparalleled wit—leads him almost immediately from the ghost’s simple command to a much larger, momentous insight: that this is not to be a simple matter of revenge but a world-changing event of which he has been designated the agent and which can be effected only by great violence. He sees more, and more clearly than, the ghost, which appears simultaneously with its own agenda (to lie quiet in the earth) and with a message from a realm of greater scope and significance. “The time is out of joint,” he says when the ghost has disappeared. “O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right” (1.5.7-8).
From this point onward, Hamlet leaves the region of ordinary mortals to ponder the cosmic choice before him. He would rather die—”to be or not to be”—but that doesn’t seem to be one of his options. He would rather discover that the ghost was a false fire, a sign from some demonic agency that he is supposed to reject; but he can’t bring himself to that conclusion either. He wants to blame his mother, or, more generally, woman, including Ophelia, but he comes to see that his obligation now has little to do with the conventions of family or romantic love. In the end, finally, he seems simply to surrender to the overwhelming summons from beyond himself, from beyond grief and mourning. We can ponder the ineffable, try to divine the meaning of mortality and death, yet at some point, when we are given a great work to do, we must submit to the command. “Let us know,” he says to the stoic Horatio just before going to the fatal swordfight, “Our indiscretion sometime serves us well, / When our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us / There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.7-11) Since “we defy augury,” then “the readiness is all” (5.2.199-202).
In finally submitting to that which is squarely against his nature, he fulfills the summons that he himself has articulated: his violent cleansing of the palace of Denmark, to which he is a sacrifice, marks the setting right of the time that has been thrown out of joint by Claudius. Within the context of the connection between heaven and earth—in which there are more things than are dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy—Hamlet’s embracing of violence is seen to constitute much more than revenge, much more than a self-involved struggle of a modern, ego-enclosed self; in fact it is only when Hamlet can get outside the self that he can enact the violence that turns out to be nothing less than the necessary agency of the reassertion of right order in the world.
If we are in the midst of a “crisis of violence,” we could do far worse than instituting Hamlet and Shakespeare’s other tragedies as standard resources for understanding the nature of violent behavior. There is no doubt the objection that attending to Hamlet’s story might be a dangerous dignifying of a young man who responds to strange voices from beyond the “real world.” How is Hamlet different from Terry Nichols who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, the boys from Columbine, Barton in Atlanta? Isn’t Hamlet simply insane, at least temporarily, as is anyone who would openly resort to violence? My answer would be that in each of those instances, we can learn nothing valuable about the nature of violence—but that in each of them there perhaps resides a potential poem, which, once given the “radiance of form,” will reveal something else of the truth about the phenomenon that so troubles us today. Until then, however, it remains simply a catastrophe, inexplicable and maddening, which summons forth the counselors to do their noble work of effecting an immediate catharsis by focusing on the self as victim or perpetrator—which is not at all the catharsis of poetry about which I have been speaking.
In conclusion, in our age poetry cannot speak convincingly for itself, but then poetry has never considered itself a product or a program answerable to market demands. The poet is not interested in convincing by rhetoric; rather, he is interested in getting the image right, by which I mean in finding words for something true he has perceived about the world. The task of enabling poetry to do its work and poetic form to exert its perduring influence on the soul falls not to the counselor but to the teacher in the classroom and the critic in the city. It is through these two figures, themselves in service to art, that we will be led to the threshold of poetry from which we may have insight into not only violence but all other true things in the cosmos.
Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1977.
Cowan, Donald A. “College Education and Leadership.” In Unbinding Prometheus: Education for the Coming Age. Dallas: The Dallas Institute, 1988.
de Zengotita, Thomas. “The Gunfire Dialogues.” Harper’s (July 1999): 55-8.
Gutloff, Karen. “Anger in the Halls.” NEA Today (October 1999): 8-9.
Homer. Iliad. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.
“Letters.” Harper’s (October 1999): 4-8.
Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry. Trans. Joseph W. Evans. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1974.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: Norton, 1975.
Ransom, John Crowe. “Forms and Citizens.” In The World’s Body. Louisiana State UP, 1968: 29-54.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. New York: Norton, 1963.
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