Day One: King Lear

Day Two: Hotspur

Day #3: Your favorite hero

I would love to go with something obscure and edgy here, but my favorite Shakespearean hero — in the ‘character at the center of the drama’ sense, skirting the question of whether he actually counts as heroic —
is Hamlet. Hamlet was also the play I took most seriously when I was 19 or 20, the one I read and reread and learned large chunks of by heart. I was captivated by the dilemma of a character forced by circumstances into a revenge scheme that was never really his own, risking his own soul in the process. I was also, at that age, just learning to understand the realities of grief and loss. The conflict of Hamlet facing an experience as universal as the death of a father, and yet feeling it as particular to himself.

I think, in this sense, the appeal of Hamlet was destined to fade a little over time. With some distance from my self-absorbed 20-year-old self, I can see the downside to Hamlet’s inwardness. His obsession with figuring everything out before he acts only makes things worse than if he’d acted right away. (This is axiomatic, really; it’s what people mean when they talk about Hamlet, but I was very resistant to the idea when I first read the play. He’s just very thoughtful, okay, and killing the guy who murdered your father isn’t as easy as it sounds!) I can also see more clearly the other characters who get hurt by Hamlet’s choices, and as I’ve grown up I’ve gravitated to stories that are more about interconnections than single characters.

If I’m less drawn to Hamlet as a person, though, I’m more aware of his dramatic possibilities. I used to complain I’d never seen a good Hamlet performed, but recently I’ve seen several. (Kevin Kline and David Tennant lead the pack.) Hamlet is addicted to performance and he’s addicted to words. Early in the play, he says, “Break my heart, for I must hold my tongue,” and I can’t think of a better explanation for his maybe-not-so-feigned madness except to say that it lets him get the words out. Hamlet’s the only Shakespearean hero who serves as his own jester — the highlight of Tennant’s performance, for me, was a reminder of how funny the character could be, and it was tempting to save my discussion of him for the later category “favorite clown”. Likewise, while there are a lot of philosophical explanations for the character’s final words, “The rest is silence,” it seems glaringly obvious to me that he’s saying, “Death is the only thing that will get me to shut up.”

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