Disconnecting Hamlet

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Growing as an artist and creative thinker in a highly industrialized city can be a real challenge. Where I live, there is a tendency for art to be packaged; and thinking follows set patterns. So it helps that I work in solitude. My life is an experiment that is slightly Darwin-esque, and I wonder how ideas might form and develop without the influence of the mainstream.

The influence I am more interested in is accessible through creative communities online and the websites of writers I admire. The digital, online space is an intellectual playground, and anyone can play. The wonderful thing is that I can disconnect anytime, usually once an idea or inspirational nudge has come my way. And off I go to play by myself, toying with what I’ve learned, watching an idea (hopefully) grow into something unexpected.

The need to disconnect can be misunderstood by those who aren’t creative types. I have missed opportunities to gather and mingle “on the ground” (as opposed to “online”). Friends have fallen by the wayside. It makes me sad sometimes.

This review, of Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, caught my eye. Actually, the title of the book did. The writer, a journalist with a Harvard degree in literature and history, explores the past for tips on disconnecting and reclaiming privacy. Plato had to contend with technological breakthroughs in the ancient world, as one reviewer says, as did the people of Gutenberg’s day.

Cover of "Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practica...

Cover via Amazon

We don’t need to go too far back in history when we think about disconnecting, and getting away in order to create. Was it any easier for people of our grandparents’ generation to break away when they needed to, without alienating those around them? My grandmother did that once, when I was very little; she went to Georgetown to study law for a while. I take it back: it couldn’t have been easy for her, but that’s a story for another time.

To Read, To Think; Perchance To Grow

Bedside Reading
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Mine was not an extraordinary childhood. It was in many ways idyllic: car trips in the summer to Wisconsin, the Statue of Liberty, Six Flags; weekend visits to small towns; the smell of bran, oats, and barn; pony and bike rides; apples in September and snow on Christmas Eve. It was a childhood I wanted to recreate for my own children; a reality reflected and fashioned by the conventions and happy endings I found in books.

But books have always surrounded me, forming a landscape both topographical and intellectual. They are portable keepsakes, one of few constants in my moves from country to country. One possession that has not lost its way is A Time For Old Magic, a collection of fairy tales compiled by Chicago educator and critic May Hill Arbuthnot. It sits in my father’s house, dusty but safe. Its permanence there is a source of comfort to someone who moves often.

My need to travel and live in different places reflects the explorations and visitations my mind makes when I read. Whenever I tell myself that studying the Great Books is “for fun” I undermine the value of reading – not as a hobby, but as vital to our growth as human beings.

By the end of last week, I had read Hamlet four times. Besides the fact that finals are in five weeks, close reading has revealed themes that go beyond most classroom interpretations. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. Society still debates over what’s right and wrong; the relative goodness of people; the flaws in even the best intentions, and the moral ambiguities that challenge our governments.

This week I’m rereading Chaucer and the Gawain-Poet. I’d stopped reading fairy tales for a long, long time. I know most of the happy endings by heart. Only now I’m seeing the darker themes beneath the stories of faerie enchantment and knights. I started thinking about compromises driven by gender, institutions like marriage and religion, and how tradition still shapes the thinking of even the most advanced cultures.

So I read and relearn how to think. Perchance to dream, but more importantly to grow.

Rethinking Hamlet

Yorick
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When I first attempted to read Hamlet, before Christmas last year, it was tough as bone. Impossible to crack, secrets withheld. No thanks, I believe now, to the classic screen adaptations that mostly got it wrong. There was something rotten in the state of Hollywood, and it was interfering with my appreciation of the play.

I need to do a paper on Hamlet now, and find support in my claim that he wasn’t crazy or suicidal as the very early critics said he was. Hamlet was a kid that got in the way of his stepfather’s shady dealings, but the Prince of Demark was one step ahead of everyone the whole time.

Once I understood that, the image of Kenneth Branagh‘s face faded from my head. I began to dream up a casting for my own version of Hamlet, and how I might teach it someday. And just like that, the cinematic quality of Shakespeare’s work (that I knew had to be there all the while), and my appreciation of the play, came shining through like “the morn in russet mantle clad”. Here is whom I would cast as my Hamlet, remade Bildungsroman-style.