Boon Companions on the Road to Stoicism

John Austen

Over my long reading career, I have come to esteem several fictional literary characters and consider them, if not friends, boon companions, individuals whose company I continue to enjoy. I’m talking about people[1] like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Joseph Conrad’s Charlie Marlow, and Richard Ford’s Frank Bascomb.  

When you come to revere such characters, finishing a novel or play becomes somewhat bittersweet because you really hate to see them hit the road. 

My favorite, given his high intelligence and depth of feeling, is Hamlet the Dane. I wouldn’t go so far as Harold Bloom and claim that Shakespeare via Falstaff and Hamlet “invented the human” by setting in motion “the spark of human consciousness.” However, to me Hamlet is as real a person as my barstool companions at Chico Feo or my Great Aunt Lou, a formidable woman, but one not nearly as self-aware as the black clad prince. 

Come to think of it, Aunt Lou is dead except in the minds of a diminishing number of Social Security recipients, whereas Hamlet has been alive now for over 400 years. The bottom line is that I feel great affection for him, and in an excellent stage performance, his death can still bring me to tears, and I don’t cry easily.

Of course, not everyone likes Hamlet as a person, which makes sense given that he is multifaceted and possesses an abundance of flaws.

Here’s the critic, director, and playwright Charles Marowitz:

I despise Hamlet. He is a slob. A talker, an analyzer, a rationalizer. Like the parlor liberal or paralyzed intellectual, he can describe every facet of a problem, yet never pull his finger out. Is Hamlet a coward, as he himself suggests, or simply a poseur, a frustrated actor who plays the scholar, the courtier, and the soldier as an actor (a very bad actor) assumes a variety of roles to which he is not naturally suited? And why does he keep saying everything twice? And how can someone talk so pretty in such a rotten country given the sort of work he’s got cut out for himself? You may think he’s a sensitive, well-spoken, and erudite fellow, but, frankly, he gives me a pain in the ass.

“Sensitive, well-spoken, and erudite,” but also witty, Churchillian in his ability to instantaneously whip up a bon mot or devastating insult. For example, here’s Polonius confirming to Hamlet that he acted in the university.

LORD POLONIUS: 

I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’ the

Capitol. Brutus killed me.

HAMLET:

It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf
there. Be the players ready?

Here he is in so many words calling his “uncle-father” a piece of shit:

King Claudius: 

Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?

HAMLET

At supper.

KING CLAUDIUS

At supper! where?

HAMLET

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain
convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your
worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all
creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but
variable service, two dishes, but to one table:
that’s the end.

KING CLAUDIUS

Alas, alas!

HAMLET

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a
king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

KING CLAUDIUS

What dost you mean by this?

HAMLET

Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
progress through the guts of a beggar.

KING CLAUDIUS

Where is Polonius?

HAMLET

In heaven; send hither to see: if your messenger
find him not there, seek him i’ the other place
yourself. But indeed, if you find him not within
this month, you shall nose him as you go up the
stairs into the lobby.

KING CLAUDIUS

Go seek him there.

To some Attendants

HAMLET

He will stay till ye come.

“He will stay till ye come” could have come out of the mouth of James Bond.

To harken back to Bloom, how’s this for a 21st Century diagnostic catalogue of symptoms of depression delivered in the early 17th Century:

HAMLET:

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 but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.

I could go on and on, but the point is that multifaceted fictional characters and poetic personae can provide for us in times of trouble some solace. One of the great fortunes of my life was stumbling into a teaching job at Porter-Gaud School where by necessity I was forced to reread time and time again great works of literature that provided vicarious lessons in the wisdom of stoicism. As I have said elsewhere:

“What I discovered in Thebes and Elsinore and Yoknapatawpha is that suffering is universal. To quote Rick from Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”   In other words, suffering doesn’t make you special; it makes you human.”[2]


[1] Yes, I consider them people, people with complex inner worlds who change as they strut and fret through plot entanglements, finding at last (in most cases ) resolution, whether it be at their wedding or among the carnage of a corpse strewn stage. 

[2] “The Art of Grieving.”