For the last 30 winters I have taught Hamlet to high school seniors. Obviously, this cat Hamlet has his issues — we all do — but I think the world of him, and unlike a lot of people, I don’t judge him, don’t consider him a coward or a misogynist.
Let’s face it: Professor Naysayer Ph.d. might not be so rational if he lost a beloved father, had his mother remarry of all people his uncle within the time frame of one menstrual cycle. Follow up that trauma with getting dumped by your girlfriend — and to escalate matters to the unbearable — receiving a visitation from your dead daddy who informs you your mama was fucking the above uncle before that uncle offed your daddy by pouring a leprous distillment into the porches of [his] ears.
Oh, yeah, and the ghost daddy guilt-trips poor Hamlet into promising to go all Beowulf on the uncle’s ass by revenging his murder, even though Hamlet, unlike Othello, has moved past all that Medieval shit into a more progressive, less-tribal sensibility.
But I’m not here to sparknote the play but to share with you some ways you can have fun with the text of Hamlet because what I love most about the poor boy is his way with words.
Not surprisingly, I have recorded in the book and volume of my brain many of the Prince’s quotable quotes, so much so that when I’m teaching the play I can recite in context line after line with my eyes fixed, not on the text, but on my students to determine who’s got a soul and who ain’t or who might be thinking about transmitting some surreptitious text neath the seminar table.
But here’s the thing; you can take Hamlet’s words out of context and slip them into your rap and nobody knows you’re echoing or alluding — they just think you’re incredibly articulate or incredibly weird.
Before I give you an example, I’ll go ahead point out something I reckon should be obvious: I express myself differently at school than I do at home, and I speak differently when I’m hanging with real cats like JT Williams, JT Crow, Keefus Sanders, Mr. Jim Klein, Ed Burrows, and Furman Hurry-Curry Langley than I do when I’m talking to my wife Judy Birdsong. In fact, this is the first post in the history of this blog where I’m indulging in my [warning: Un-PC terminology alert] redneck negro lowcountry gumbo patois.
Okay, here’s an example of co-opting lines from Hamlet to spice up (or obscure) your speech in everyday life. This morning I’m walking at a brisk pace from the faculty parking lot towards the vaguely Disneyesque facade of the school, walking briskly because it’s -5 degrees C. in Charleston, South Carolina, and we ain’t used to Arctic air.
I enter the double doors of the lobby and somebody says “good-morning, how ya’ doin’,” and I say, “Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart.”
They smile, I smile, and head to my room. Truth is, though, not only is it bitter cold but I am truly sick at heart. After school I’m driving straight to Summerville to visit my mother who’s lying in a hospice-supplied hospital bed and on a sort of bummer LSD death trip in which she thinks I’m her daddy, can hardly utter an intelligible word, and tries vainly time and time and time again to rise from bed to be somewhere else.
But back to the exchange of morning greetings. By copping Francisco’s lines to Bernardo from 1.1 in the play, I can comment on the weather in a more interesting way than my typical “damn it’s cold,” I can be completely honest in my answer about how I’m doing without being specific, and I can treat me and my greeter to metrical music:: tis BIT-ter COLD and I am SICK at HEART: bum-BUMP-bum-BUMP-bum-BUMP bum-BUMP bum-BUMP.
Or, you can use it as I did forty years before as a pick-up line in a university bar. Talking about an ice-breaker.
But you can also take quotes completely out of context and apply them to completely different situations. For example, dig this great prose speech when Hamlet’s explaining to his treacherous college acquaintances Rosencrantz and Guildenstern why he’s been out-of-sorts, the most eloquent description of clinical depression out there:
I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
Okay, let’s go with “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”
Colleague: You think this Congress might get something passed this term?
You: What? That foul and pestilent congregation of vapors?
Or somebody has farted and you demand to know who is responsible for the foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
Ever been hunched over a book in an outside venue and some total stranger comes up and asks, “What you reading?”
Look up at him looking crazy and say, “Words, words, words.”
I could go on and on, but it’s been a rough day so I’m bidding adieu, but returning to my poor mother’s condition, no one has ever put it better than my princely pal:
If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all . . .
She’s headed, of course, to that undiscovered country where no traveller returns, and a helluva lot of people are going to miss her.