Hamlet and My Problems: Infinity, Madness, and Literary Paralysis

“Horatio, Hamlet, and the Ghost” – Henry Fuseli, 1789

While much of this site has primarily concerned itself with the nexus of film and screenwriting, I expect that this will change more and more in the near future. I’ve had a religious conversion of sorts back to the written word. A repentance brought on by night visions and fever dreams. For anyone interested in the story leading up to this, feel free take a look at my sports blog article here. I battled with frequent bouts of illness in the earlier part of the year which for some reason led me to a fascination with the foundational texts of English poetry, which grew into an obsession with various expressions of old literature.

I started reading A LOT more. Not just the usual fiction that I put up on my Goodreads page (friend me!), but thick, heavy, meaty texts—plays, poems, epics, romances—all sorts of things that my 20-year-old undergraduate self would have been shocked to see me reading. My most recent obsession with literature has led me back to one of the most well-known plays not only in the English language, but in the whole world. Yes, my friends, I’m daring to tread upon 400 years of well-worn territory, covering ground that has been discussed, examined, picked over, and worn down to the nub. Add me to a list of disgruntled critics. Put me in a footnote. Sharpen your pencils and get ready to fight back. The time has come. I have something to say about Hamlet.

The truth is, I’m finishing up the final touches on the start of a book series right now. It’s a process that is nasty brutish and long. (What other kind of masochist would prefer to spend an afternoon ruminating on Hamlet if not to escape something worse?) However, the origins of this blog are rooted in escape. My first posts here were written as a means of delightful distraction while struggling against the pains of writing my senior thesis or the confusion of cranking out screenplays or, as it is now, the examining and assessing of student essays. This has always been a helpful free space in which to work and think and (hopefully) entertain and even occasionally (I’m flattered to say) educate.

So before you get too invested in what you might think of as an article (or let’s be honest, a rant) on Hamlet, it’s really not so much a literary meditation on Shakespeare as it is a way for me to work out some story issues that I’m going through right now.

Of late, I’ve found my mind reverting to its basest form of thinking—a sort of rudimentary coded way of seeing the world. The basics of syllogism, if A’s and B’s and maybe C’s so therefore D’s and all of that logic. My brain has been working in the crude instructions of binary switches, and I’m finding this mathematical way of thinking spilling over into my writing. I don’t like boiling down art to simple formulas, but at the same time, what beautiful thing in this world can’t be described mathematically?

I often think of writing like chess—each piece on the board is a story element (or when it comes down to poetry, each piece is a word). A well-crafted story has an opening, a middle, and an endgame. After just a handful of moves in any chess game, the future holds over 200 billion game scenario possibilities that only grow with each additional move. The reason that so many chess masters descend into madness is because they’re always attempting to hold so many of these scenarios in their mind at any given moment. Writing is similar in this way, and is likewise driving me into madness.

If the drafting stage of a story is a particularly barren and immense desert, then the editing stage does offer some relief. Structure exists but pruning is still required.  Words spread to their multitudes, but fortunately, once they’re there, the only choice is to keep them or cut them. Should I delete this chapter or expand it? Should I restructure this conversation? What are the pros and cons of moving my pawn to D4 or E4? Should I open with the Italian Game or the Sicilian Defense? How do I turn my opening into an endgame?

But there are times when imagining a chess board feels too linear, too two-dimensional, and I feel the need to take my metaphors a step further. Enter the Rubik’s Cube.  A Rubik’s Cube holds a finite 43 quintillion possibilities of color combinations, but an infinite number of ways to solve the dang thing. Interestingly, the Cube is not a competitive game in the way that chess is. Your goal is not to beat an opponent, but to beat the Cube itself. There is only one home, one possible victory. Chess has a variety of available checkmates, but the Cube still only has one true completion.  Chess grows, stretching from nothingness into infinity while the Cube starts and ends at the finite, and does so by way of traveling through infinity.

So which is a more accurate representation of story and the writing process? Starting with nothing and creating the universe? Or attempting to harness finite infinity into one singular goal? What does it mean for a thing to hold so many possibilities but at the same time so few means of reconciliation? Or as we call it in narrative terms, resolution?

Math used to scare me in high school. Not because I was bad at it, I actually loved it! But I loved it in an awesome sensefull of reverence, adoration, and terror. I recognized the infinity in math and feared it. The magnitude of all that math presents was frightening, and as I reached the higher echelon of calculus, difficult to keep up with. As such, I lost interest. I thought I had chosen a safer path with literature but I’m finding that that’s not the case.

Aristotle gave us Poetics, which over the years has become filtered down into what we think of as the plot paradigm—often depicted as a triangular arc meant to help us visualize a story’s journey from conflict to resolution. I won’t belabor this, and there are others out there who will take the time to explain it better than I care to.

In any well-crafted story you’ll find the usual checkpoints—inciting incidents, calls to adventure, climaxes, denouements. Most of us recognize these patterns innately, and more usefully, recognize the breach of these patterns rather than the observance (sorry, I had to). But after years of struggling with the beast of storytelling, I say that the arc is still too limiting in much the same way that chess is. It’s too two-dimensional to be a useful tool for aiding with the actual writing process.

Perhaps stories resemble arcs upon completion, but in the trenches of the writing process, I believe they are actually cubes, with each twist of the axis spinning your newly created fictional world into new and vast territory.  As part of my own editing process, I twist each axis in a variety of directions in an effort to find the path that will take me closer to the true resolution. But when I write, much like chess I must attack while I defend—remembering the steps I take forward so that I can just as easily retreat should I end up writing my way into a dead end. I must remember every twist and turn and hold all of the infinite possibilities in my head with more mental strength and will than I’ve ever had to do anything (including finishing an Ironman).

So why on earth did I open this article by talking about Hamlet? With my own eye so focused on the grinding of these axes, I find it at times comforting (but at other times maddening) to examine the works of others in order to reverse engineer the crafting of story development. I now set my sights upon Hamlet and wonder why Shakespeare did so much of what he did, and why he didn’t do the things he didn’t, and why so many of these questions remain unanswered.

Daniel-Maclise-The-Play-Scene-from-Hamlet

“The Play Scene from Hamlet” – Daniel Maclise, 1842

So for anyone who hated this play in high school (don’t be shy, I hated it too!) here’s a quick summary:

Hamlet is the prince of Denmark. His father (the King) dies mysteriously. Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (father’s brother) quickly marries Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and becomes the new King, which gives Hamlet all sorts of feelings. Hamlet is soon visited by what he believes to be his father’s ghost. The ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius and demands that Hamlet avenge him by killing the new King.

Hamlet proceeds to take the rest of the play dragging his feet by using all sorts of delaying tactics—pretending he’s had a mental breakdown, being a jerk to his girlfriend, accidentally killing the wrong guy, getting sent away for a bit, and then finally returning to do what he needs to get done.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in five acts, drawing from stories based somewhat in history, somewhat in legend, and somewhat (ethically dubiously) on the works of contemporaries. For the most part Hamlet the play sticks to the bare bones of the plot paradigmwe meet our character, we throw some rocks at him, we watch him climb his way down.

Like any effective story, our stakes are established good and early. We’ve got a dead father, a grieving son, a questionable ascension to the throne, issues with the girlfriend, and a whole host of mother-son issues with interpretations ranging from potentially Oedipal to explicitly matricidal. There are lots of palpable elements for high stakes drama and it certainly delivers.

Around the middle of the play, a lot of action happens. Like, A LOT. For all of the dallying and delaying that we observe in the first two acts, the action ramps up considerably.

Hamlet (through his own convoluted methods) concludes that his uncle did indeed kill his father which therefore justifies his plan for revenge. He’s delighted upon hearing this but then through a series of mishaps, accidentally kills an innocent man and is quickly sent away for it.

Hamlet_stabs_Polonius

“Hamlet Stabs Polonius” – Coke Smyth, 19th Cent

This is where the story dips into murkinessClaudius decides to send Hamlet away for a few ostensible reasons. Mostly because it just won’t do to have a murderer running loose and free in Denmark, but there’s also the fact that his step-son is seriously going through some dark stuff right now and needs a change of scenery. This is the surface explanation. Hamlet disappears for a little bit, but over the course of the next few scenes, we see him come right back. But why?

After Hamlet returns we learn through more convoluted means that Claudius had intended to have Hamlet killed while he was away, and that Hamlet discovered this plot and was able to save himself. We learn this not by seeing it, but by listening as Hamlet relays the tale to his buddy Horatio. He explains how he was able to reverse the trap on his trappers (thereby resulting in the deaths of his friends Rosencrantz and Gildenstern) and ultimately get away. Once he’s back in Denmark, we learn that he is ready to do what the ghost of his father asked him to do right at the beginning—avenge his death.

FINALLY.

Much has already been written about Hamlet’s so-called “delay” between receiving his instructions and finally carrying them out, so I won’t add much to that conversation here. There are some interesting theories that are worth reading (denial, fear of his own madness, uncertainty, reluctance, cowardice, etc) but I don’t have much to add except to say that this delay gives us the set up towards our resolution. It creates spaces for things to happen. Without the delay there would be no reason for a play to exist. Hamlet would learn about his father’s murder, kill Claudius, and then we would all be back home before intermission. A Rubik’s Cube is neatly ordered when you unwrap it from the boxwhy else would you mess it up if not to solve it again?

But in order for me to explain why these moments are so significant, let us back up to ruminate on the character of Hamlet himself. This play is the ragged tale of a young man who begins this story in pain, takes a flight through madness (feigned or real or quite possibly a bit of both), and then finds his peace. Hamlet’s journey is a Rubik’s Cube of circumstance, but with some very important elements missing.

William_Blake_Hamlet_and_his_Father's_Ghost_1806_British_Museum

“Hamlet and His Father’s Ghost” – William Blake, 1806

Hamlet’s personal story arc opens with him in a place of severe distress. He exhibits a perverse fascination with death and suicidal ideation that is tempered only by the fear of not knowing what lies beyond the grave (“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all”). He sums all of this up in his most famous words: “To be or not to be.”

I’ll add the “To be or not to be” soliloquy to the “list of things already frequently discussed about Hamlet that will not be discussed further here”except to dwell just briefly on the dual natures of infinitive and infinity. Critics typically interpret the main points of this speech as a straightforward question, “To be or not to be?” “Should I exist or not exist?” “Should I do it or not do it?” and so on and so forth. Several of these interpretations have merit. From there, a handful of answers are intimated, and it is implied that Hamlet is not happy about any of them.

“Should I do it or not do it? I should do it but I don’t know how to do it.”
“Should I exist or not exist? I don’t think I should exist but I’m scared to not exist.”
“To be or not to be? I don’t want to be, but I’m scared not to be.”

The speech is an expression of uncertainty, of doubt, of wonder, and ultimately of fear.

Whatever interpretation floats your boat, I see this as our opening move in the play. This is our pawn brazenly striking out on its own to D4.  At this stage in the play, Hamlet is an open chessboard, glittering with all of its billions of possibilities. This famous speech is awash in a sea of auxiliaries and infinitives (the word ‘infinitive’ derived from the same Latin root as the word ‘infinity’) that vacillate over the possible, the unlimited, the infinite. The language here, much like Hamlet himself, refuses to commit but instead hedges with an eye toward the future, nursing the seductive possibilities inherent in what “could be.”

Hamlet is stalled by his confrontation of infinity and infinite possibilities, infinity in the form what exists upon entering death after life, and infinite possibilities in the manner of how to orchestrate his own death as well as his uncle’s death. This is the most straightforward expression of the inner turmoil that will plague Hamlet throughout the rest of the play and influence everything else that followsthe delaying, the schemes, the meditations on nunneries, the hasty murder of Polonius—all of these elements are a manifestation of this singular conflict.

hb_2011.452

“Hamlet and the Ghost of his Father” – Adam Vogler, 19th Cent

Because I believe that the resolution in a story is no more than counterbalancing (much like with equations)—Where do we find the resolution of this particular conflict?  I say that it can be found in the beautifully symmetrical answer presented to the question initially posed by “To be or not to be?”

In the final moments of the play, we find ourselves in the pits of a dark scene. Hamlet has just been offered the opportunity to duel with Laertes. Horatio has a bad feeling about it (which he should since Claudius has been trying to kill Hamlet for a minute) and suggests that he go and tell everyone that Hamlet just isn’t feeling up to it. Hamlet scolds him with the following:

“Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. 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. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.” (Act V, Scene II)

This is legit my favorite quote in the whole play (and maybe even the whole Shakespearean canon). Not only has Hamlet finally answered is own question (“To be or not to be?”—> Neither, just “Let be”) but the wording itself is yet one of many beautifully written Shakespearean tongue twisters. It creates perfect balance and symmetry against the language and structure of the original “To be or not to be” soliloquy. This new language is reminiscent of the movements of a Rubik’s Cube, the center square of “be” remaining stable amidst the turning axes of conditionals, temporals, conjunctions, negations, and reversals as Hamlet realizes that he’s landed upon the right combination.

This moment represents everything about the machinations of solid story making—the final twists of the cube, the final rank and file jumps of chess pieces to snare the King in a checkmate. This is the resolution. Finding an answer when it seems like none could be found. We realize that all of those earlier instances of delay have actually provided opportunity for providence to intervene. After this moment, yes, perhaps, the rest is truly is silence. Hamlet has managed to overcome the paralysis presented by idea infinity and infinite possibilities in order to let providence guide him back to the finite, his singular goal, his one resolution.

So why did I start this post by talking about writing, then games, then Hamlet? Because this is where Shakespeare has done something that no matter how I try to spin it (or twist it! ha ha…), I still can’t make sense of it from a storytelling perspective.

Much like the Cube, Hamlet is such a puzzling device. It’s a decent story on the surface, but in this moment of revelation and resolution we realize that it’s lacking a great deal of itself. There is so much that we don’t get to see between the asking of the question and its answer. Most troublingly, we don’t see the full process of how Hamlet comes to answer his own question. There is enough there to surmise a conclusion (appearances of divine intervention are rife throughout the story) but the recognition of these moments is buried beneath lines and lines of awkward text. Why is it that we don’t get to witness Hamlet’s experience at sea? The deaths of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern? His escape back to Denmark?

2Eugène_Ferdinand_Victor_Delacroix_018

Gravedigger scene, Eugene Delacroix

Some say that Hamlet’s encounter with the gravedigger and Ophelia’s subsequent funeral scene is enough to spark him to his moment of serenity, (ie, the notion that life is fleeting and meaningless, it exists and persists beyond our control, without our consent or influence, etc). But the more germane elements of how a series of chance developments engineered our resolution (the lucky arrival of the players, Hamlet’s hasty and accidental murder of Polonius, the unexpected encounter with the pirate ship, Hamlet’s fortune in having the King’s signet in his pocket and therefore completing the deception that saved his life) are not given their full due. What does it mean for so many of Hamlet’s crucial moments to remain unseen to us? And why does Hamlet rush through the elucidation of this conclusion in a few quick lines with Horatio? This is what’s bugging me.

I’m sure there are many explanations for this, some more official than others. From a practical standpoint, for a play that’s already four hours long, why make it longer? In the limited space of Elizabethan theater, do we really need to add a pirate ship to the demands made of imagination?

I don’t have an answer for this question, but it’s one that bothers me greatly as someone currently debating the merits of what scenes to keep or remove. I’m experiencing own private literary paralysis of “to be or not to be?” which I suppose Shakespeare himself likely asked at one point regarding the inclusion of a scene dedicated to depicting Hamlet’s water-bound heroics, and for some reason he ultimately decided that it was “not to be.” But why?

It’s a black hole of imagination, one of those very rips in the space time continuum that scared me about math. It presents a suggestion of infinite possibilities for what Hamlet the play could have been, or as we sometimes encounter in math—a problem with no solution.

I suppose it could be said that storytelling takes the view that time flows like a river and that throwing a single stone into the water might momentarily divert it, but in the end the water will get to where it needs to go. In which case I suppose that it doesn’t really matter what gets taken out and what gets left in as long as the story goes where it needs to go. Narrative is both the Cube and the chess board—there are many ways to get there, and many visions of success, but only one true resolution.

But I still like the idea of an alternate universe where we actually get to see Hamlet suffer through the slings and arrows of his outrageous fortune, and perhaps finally come to realize that fortune isn’t quite so outrageous after all.

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