Thankful not to be the Prince of Denmark

A final one today from the archives…
[What follows is a Vespers talk from Asheville School]
December 5, 2004
Readings: Psalm 23
Hamlet 2.2.318-333
That Hamlet is a pretty smart guy, and in the audience we know it from the first moment he speaks to us. Indeed his first line of the play is directed not to his uncle-slash-step-father-slash-King, Claudius, and not to his mother Gertrude, but rather to us, out in the audience, sitting in row E, seat 12, nervously wondering if we forgot to turn off our cell phone. Claudius, after dealing with the business of the court, turns finally to Hamlet and says, “And now to my cousin Hamlet and my son.” Hamlet, leaving Claudius’ attentions hanging awkwardly in the air, turns to us…US, who are now fidgeting uncomfortably under his stare, and, while pointing his thumb back over his shoulder at Claudius says, knowing that we’ll understand: “A little more than kin and less than kind.” English IV students, I will leave it to you to analyze all this for your ignorant lower former friends, but know this—I’ll say it again—that Hamlet is a pretty smart guy. And with that thought, now also hanging awkwardly in the air here in beautiful Boyd Chapel, I say to you GOOD EVENING!
Thought number One: Hamlet is a pretty smart guy, but all his wit, savage intelligence, and stichomythic repartee is not enough to save him. By the time we first meet him his clock is already ticking: he does not have long to live—3-4 hours tops… and his death will be painful—certainly for him, and, if not acted well, painful for us as well. Intelligence is not enough, not by a long shot—intelligence is not enough for Hamlet and not enough for us. Friends, people who must live by their wits alone rarely have long to live. We need more. Alas, this is bad news for you all because you are a smart crowd, and if intelligence was all you needed, you would be set.
Thought number Two: Hamlet’s intelligence is not enough to save him, and he is missing things that he must have to survive: A) support from people who truly care about him, B) sustainable and guiding faith in something greater than himself. He is the definition of alone. The young man is so alone he has no one to talk to honestly but us, and as much as Hamlet intrigues us, many of us in the audience are possibly more focused on whether the bathroom will be too crowded during the intermission to get out of there in time to get a coke-cola before the curtain rises again than we are the fate of our protagonist. On stage, everyone, even the lovely Ophelia, has an ulterior motive. And to be honest, no matter how much Hamlet talks to us (he has more than 200 lines in the play directed to us and us alone), no matter how much he talks to us, we can’t do a thing for him. He is desperate, and we are frozen in our seats. We can’t get to him, and he can’t quite see us though it seems, particularly in the lines that Mr. Kussrow read to us this evening, that Hamlet is trying to see us. I can’t blame him. Here he is—the smartest guy in most every room he enters—without a shoulder to lean on, except his friend Horatio who is a philosopher and who seems to have the personality of boiled cabbage…ever tried to get good advice from a philosopher?…from a cabbage?
As this is a chapel talk, the next point is important—our kind chaplain will take my license to give such talks away if I miss this next step—Hamlet has no comfort in faith. My wording here is careful though I remain uncertain of how to say what I am thinking. I’ll try to mine more deeply: Hamlet says some things that represent a kind of faith in the existence of a divine being…of at least something eternal, and he believes in a soul; however, he can not translate this amount of faith into anything that is useful to him. Perhaps it even works against him and paralyzes his ability to take action in the world. The world, the real world of murder, despair, hate, and grief in which we find him, has the man spooked—literally (once again, English IV scholars, please don’t hesitate to explain the “spooked” part to your colleagues in lower forms). Hamlet’s God is only good for making rules, hard rules, and for setting up the unhappy situation in which Hamlet finds himself. His God is not love; his God is not a resource of hope. Hamlet’s God is the one Christ thought for a moment he was dealing with when he intoned in the desperate moments on the cross—“My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”…indeed the same God to whom San Manuel Bueno, Martir dice, “Mi Dios, mi Dios, porque me ha abandonado?” in Miguel de Unamuno’s story that some of our Spanish students read entitled, “Saint Emmanuel, the Martyr.” Hamlet clearly desires something of his faith. In fact, when he first sees the ghost of his father he begs in somewhat of a frantic prayer—“Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!” Unfortunately for Hamlet, no one, certainly not “angels” or “ministers of grace,” is coming to his aid. My hope for you who are now sitting in our worn wooden pews or standing back there in the foyer is that you can find the comfort in faith that Hamlet lacks. Comfort in faith for me means that not only do we have faith, but that this faith is useful to us. In times of struggle, this kind of faith supports and nurtures us, and in times of ease and success, it humbles us. In short, it keeps us balanced so that our best self has the chance to do what our best self can do—share love and serve others without intellectualizing or calculating the sacrifice we think we are making.
Thought number Three: Hamlet’s intelligence is not enough to save him from catastrophe, he is missing some things he needs, and you have a couple of things that Hamlet does not have or, perhaps more accurately, has forgotten he has. A) you have, if you choose to have it, a family here, and B) you have the chance to make the world better. Hard to believe isn’t it?—but just listen to the seniors who have stood in this pulpit this year. Each seems to reference his or her connectedness to the people of this place. They celebrate teachers, staff, and students not as acquaintances but as family members, connected in powerful and therefore lasting ways. It is difficult to recognize the rarity and beauty of these connections until we find ourselves without them…this might just be part of Hamlet’s problem—that is, he once was connected, too, but once the connections are taken away, he has no idea how to rebuild his place in the world. Finding himself without connections, Hamlet cannot unify the world he once knew with the fallen world in which he feels he has been somewhat helplessly and unfairly cast. Hamlet does not have the ability to adjust and to make new connections, and while we can empathize with this flaw, we do not have to share it. My hope for you is that you take not only the specific connections to this community/this family with you when you graduate, but even more importantly, you also take the ability to create and to value connection, so that you can make them in your future life and indeed help others make them as well. In a sense Asheville School forces you to make connections, real connections, with other people. Like it or not, people know you here. Because he didn’t want anyone to know him, this might have driven Hamlet crazy but in the end being known should be a comfort to you. In your life after Asheville School (trust me, it does exist), you will have to work hard to make quality connections with others, but you can and will do it. You don’t have to be nearly as alone as Hamlet.
At the same time you are making these quality connections with people, you have the chance to help build the world into a better place whereas Hamlet is in the position of having to tear the world down. Our world is ready and willing to accept all the good we can do. In the play Hamlet, the only thing the character Hamlet thinks he can “pay forward” is violence—his inheritance from his family is murder and sin. Your inheritance from Asheville School is, to say the very least, neither as horrifying nor as crushing, and we can pay forward better things than poisoned cups and razor sharp swords.
The idea of paying something forward reminds me of this statement: “Those to whom much is given, much is expected.” To my ear, the logic is undeniable and the sound is threatening. This sentiment certainly threatened Hamlet. Hamlet would tell us that he didn’t ask to be given so much…to inherit so much, so then he should not have to meet anyone’s expectations for him. We should not be threatened, however. The world needs us to share what we have been given. In fact, the gifts we have been given are strangely both gifts and loans. The truth is we can’t take anything with us when we die—everything we have is a loan, including our material wealth, our health, and our strength. Sometimes we hold onto material wealth…or self-obsession…or hate so tightly in one hand that we neglect to see what is slipping away through the fingers of the other. For Hamlet, he holds onto hate in one hand, so he can not loosen his grip enough to see what gifts he has to offer the world in the other. My hope for you is that you will not make the same mistake. Don’t let your gifts slip through your hands—pay them forward.
Whatever we have to give can’t help Hamlet whose slain body at the end of Act V is an emblem of wasted potential. Whatever his faults, he also has generous doses of the best qualities of human kind, yet he dies a murderer in the tragic heap of a bloody stage. He could have been great and benevolent; he could have been a diplomat and a leader; he could have been a devoted husband and a loving father. His final act obviously is not yours, however, and fortunately, Act VI will be the one in which you are a player. What will your play be?
A Final Thought: Hamlet’s intelligence is not enough to save him; he is missing some things he needs; you have a couple of things working for you that Hamlet does not have or perhaps has forgotten he has; and the world ahead of us is ours to make. Hamlet’s play has gone on too long, and in Row E, seat 12, we are ready to stretch our legs.