Thursday, May 22, 2003

Tragedy of Hamlet, Danish Liberal 

There was a clear ray of hope this week when students from Rockford College refused to let New York Times reporter Chris Hedges turn their graduation address into an anti-war tirade. I saw another hopeful sign in my Shakespeare final papers this semester.

The way people react to Shakespeare is a subtle but clear indicator of the ways in which they are seeing and judging their worlds. Life changes and people�s experiences change, of course, and sometimes it�s hard to gauge how people are judging life because we are all judging our private slices of it. But we all read the same Shakespeare plays, and when we compare how we see and judge the plays we see a good deal about how we judge our lives.

A paper I got from an excellent student on Macbeth examined the forces acting on Macbeth to kill Duncan, but then finally said, �He did it. It�s how own fault. He�s not a victim of anybody or anything. Be a man, take responsibility, don�t whine.� After years of students who saw Macbeth as victim (as they see most everybody as victims) this was very refreshing.

But an even more significant paper was on Hamlet. Here the writer, one of the very best of the 40 in the class, looked at Hamlet as, in essence, a modern liberal. He hears voices from the past telling him he needs seek vengeance in the present, he thinks he is �born to set it right,� he doesn�t think the rules that apply to others apply to him, he is ultimately unconcerned about other people as individuals, he is terribly concerned about himself and sees himself as very special, and all that he does finally results in all sorts of people being destroyed or killed and all of Denmark being turned over to Fortinbras.

The woman who wrote the paper didn�t use words like �liberal� or �conservative� � and I suspect she�s living in her own social and political world where the words from my generation have no more real meaning to her than WPA or �New Deal� had to me. But she has seen the world and what her liberal teachers and mentors are doing to it, and she responded naturally to Hamlet.