Sometimes I like books or movies for the wrong reasons. Or, at least the reasons don't sound impressive. And I didn't read Hamlet for the first time until well after college.
I remember one time in the hallway at school, a fellow staff member jumped out of nowhere and asked me what my favorite book was. No pressure. . . right? Well, she had her phone out and was recording. . . So, yes! Pressure. Without time to think, I sputtered out: Hamlet. She was satisfied, and I was too.
I’m so glad I didn’t say Hunger Games.
But what the staff member didn’t know were the reasons I liked Hamlet. I wish I could say something like this. . . “Well, I studied all of the Great Works of Western Civilization. . . and the Great ones from the East (during a summer break). . . and I’ve concluded that Hamlet is the greatest dramatic work of all time.”
The Real Reasons
No, the truth is just a little bit different. In grad school I was tasked with creating a course. I liked theatre, so I did some research to find out what play stood out among the rest. Ok. I'm sorry that wasn't true. I just googled. . . “greatest play of all time.” Hamlet appeared at the top again and again.
The course I was tasked with creating was a tutorial -- just the professor and me. And during that season, I vividly remember reading Hamlet in a number of different locations. . . in a cubicle at a seminary library and at a table waiting to see a movie at the theater. I bought the student edition at a secondhand bookstore...the type of edition that defines the tough words for you in the margins (like hamlet -- not only a prince, but a small village. Good to know!). It had pictures too.
I remember during one of our talks my professor shared the story of when his 12-year old son saw Hamlet for the first time on stage. The boy was affixed. Why? Because in the opening scenes he discovered he was watching a ghost story. Hamlet is a mystery.
Agreed! It’s also a mystery in another sense: I had, and still do have, lots of questions about this story. Was Hamlet truly mad or just pretending? Did he ever love Ophelia? Should we trust the ghost? In the final act, did Hamlet repent? Is Hamlet a hero or anti-hero?
Like Cannons at a Circus
I’ve learned that having questions, or learning to discover the right ones, is nearly the most important part of the reading process. Do you remember seeing those circus cannons that shoot a man through the air? That’s what the right questions can do: catapult your imagination into the work itself.
For hours and hours, I talked with my professor about the many questions that came to mind by reading Hamlet. And it was fascinating because my professor appeared to be reading and dialoguing with Hamlet as if he were a student as well. I can look back now and understand why I liked Hamlet so much: yes, it’s a great play, worthy of its esteem, but it was the unforgettable experience of studying it that made it stand out so clearly in my mind.
Since that summer, I’ve read and re-read Hamlet, and even had opportunities to teach it and write about it. I'm working through it right now with my senior students, and I’ve also seen it staged.
The reasons I cherish the play aren’t terribly scholarly or sophisticated, but sometimes I think those things get in the way of us enjoying the timeless, classic works. We imagine that we must read them with white gloves and a monocle or only as students in classrooms. We’re adults now, so the time for those impractical things are past.
Those assumptions are wonder-killers; I mean they kill the wonder that comes -- pretty naturally -- from reading and dialoguing with these types of works. Don’t beat yourself up if you find them difficult. You're not alone. Maybe that's one reason they're considered great. When you dig, you don't hit the bottom after the first, second, or third attempt.
No, for me, I’ve found that I enjoy works like this much more when I give myself a break, approach them as a child, and inquire about them the way a child might. Approaching a work like this with questions forces me to embrace humility and offers me an opportunity to investigate glimmers of what is beautiful, true, or good in them.
Like an Interested Child
“Unless you turn and become like children,” Jesus said.
He’s referring to the Kingdom of God here, but I think there's a principle we can apply. Cast off the weight of pretending you know it all and clothe yourself with humility. Ask honest questions about mysterious things.
I like G.K. Chesterton's statement from Heretics, “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”
It's easy to remind our students and children of this. Why not do it ourselves? I know many of you already are. But reminders are good: so, here you go: be an interested person and let wonder propel you to pursue God's interesting world.
If you've never read Hamlet, here's a fantastic recording of the play from Bob Jones University. It's abridged and a great place to start.