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I’ve spent my whole life soaking up Western culture, with a good dose from the East as well, and now that I am 72, I am wondering if it was all worth it. 

To what end all this reading, all this music and art, all this delving into history, psychology, science — this collection I have amassed of Ovid, Livy, Homer, Hesiod and the rest, the reading of modern novels I began in high school, the vast commonplace book of my brain, the syncretization of all national arts and philosophies? I have only a decreasing fraction of my time on the planet remaining to me, and when it is reduced to zero, all this accumulation of cultural clutter will evaporate. Poof. Gone. 

I see my granddaughters at the beginning of their accumulations, making all the same mistakes I made (well, not all of them, and some that are entirely original to them), and I know that if I have acquired any knowledge — I hesitate to call it wisdom, for really, it is only the giant ball of string I have collected through living — it can not save them an ounce or tittle of the troubles they will have to pass through. 

There are people who I admire with infinite appreciation who have avoided all this “high culture” and have contributed meaningfully to our lives. The teachers, nurses, chaplains — to say nothing of the mothers and the uncles and aunts — who have, through compassion and the service they have given to the benefit of others, are so much more directly worthy of praise. Even so simple a job as waiter seems to me now a more meaningful metier than my own life of page-turning and thought-gathering. 

William Yeats, in his A Vision, postulates two conflicting sensibilities for humans, which he names the “primary” and “antithetical.” All of us, he says, are composed of bits of each, in different ratios. The Primary sensibility understands the here and now, the useful, the social; the Antithetical comprehends the mythic, poetic, the psychological, the parts of our psyche that might be called the “hard wiring.” The ur-profession of the Primary is nurse; that of the Antithetical is the poet. 

Yeats measures the ratios of these two urges in the symbol of the phases of the moon and counts 28 tinctures — and that’s the word he uses — with a growing proportion of Antithetical as the moon waxes, and a decreasing proportion with the waning. No one, he says, is either all Antithetical or all Primary, but always an intermixture. 

 He goes on to apply this metaphor not only to psychology, but to history and I’m afraid he has lost me there. Yeats can get a little wacky at times. But I am looking for a purpose to my own Antithetical inclinations. Can this lifetime of lucubration have any wider value? Can I justify the ways of me to humankind? 

I am reading George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” in which he very thoughtfully takes to task Henry Miller, not for his obscenity or for his ability as a writer, which he admires, but for his quietism, Miller’s refusal to consider the political consequences of the times. Orwell, of course, was famously committed, having gone so far as to fight in the front lines of the Spanish civil war, and been shot in the throat for his efforts. 

Miller, on the other hand, is, in Orwell’s words, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” He is, in another passage, a Nero fiddling while Rome burns, although unlike other such fiddlers, Miller does so while facing the flames, not denying them. Miller’s ultimate stance is “a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is.” 

Orwell was writing in 1940, when “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putches, purges, slogans, Badaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things of course, but those things among others.”

Miller, he says, would hardly disagree with him. 

And, while I do not share Miller’s anarchism, I, too, have come to feel the individual has almost no effect on the historical machinations of his age, and that the recognition that little can be done means that the best approach is to let the universe move on its way and to accept whatever is dished out, including the annihilation of the self, which is death. Not so much that whatever is is good, but rather, that whatever is, is. What Joseph Campbell calls “the willing participation in the sorrows of the world.”

It is what Krishna counsels Arjuna to do in the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata, before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is to signal the beginning of the fighting, but stops short, considering the bloodshed and the misery that will ensue, including the slaughter of his own relatives. Krishna, disguised as his charioteer then more or less stops time, like Joshua halting the sun, in order to give the warrior a lesson in Dharma. You must do what you must do, he says in essence; the world will continue anyway. 

And so, I value those who with practical efficiency ameliorate the suffering. Surely, they are willingly participating in the sorrows of the world, and doing their best to lessen that suffering. 

But there are those of us who have other functions in the world. Scientists, for instance, aim to understand the world. Their work may be useful latterly, but their primary aim is understanding what is not known. Pure science precedes applied science. We value the work of pure science for what it tells us about the universe; the knowledge gained may — or may not — lead to practical application. 

There are, however, other paths of study that further the human endeavor, and these, too, may or may not ultimately be helpful. 

Science is the test we give to the objective world; art is the test we give to everything else. If we want to understand what happens inside another’s brain, we look to a neuroscientist; if we want to understand what happens in another’s mind, we read a novel. 

Each of us has a world inside us, TARDIS-like, bigger inside than outside, and that teeming interior world governs what we feel about the outer world, how we act in it, what we believe is true. It is in the arts, literary, visual, musical, physical such as dance, that we explore that interior and attempt to plumb its depths. 

And, as a pure scientist’s work can lead to an applied use, so the work of an artist, philosopher, historian, can lead not only to a better understanding of our humanity, it can have practical effects in the world. One has only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe or so simple or ephemeral thing as the way Jean-Claude Belmondo hangs a cigarette off his lip in Breathless. 

The effects are normally less world-shaking than the shift in attitude toward race-slavery, but those effects are measured in each individual life, and how much a psyche is opened and bloomed in the world. 

Delving into that interior, one finds its mirror in the books one reads. One studies them to study the self. Such is a lifelong process of discovery and whether it has real-world uses or not, must be attempted, just as pure science must be continued. 

I began my adult career as a teacher, and after that, as a writer; but in either job, the goal was the same, to spread knowledge. I fervently hope that my efforts have been, in at least some tiny smidgeon of a way, a benefit to humanity. 

As I write this, I am conscious that all this may very well be pure rationalization, making for myself an excuse for my life. But I will offer this apologia. When I was young, I was so much more self-absorbed — as young people tend to be — but a life of reading, listening, and looking have opened my emotions to much that was little more than words, words, words when I was beginning. I have been cracked open. I have become infinitely more compassionate and more sympathetic to others than I was. I see peoples’ emotions on their faces in ways that were invisible before. The pains and joys of others have become my own. Perhaps not to any great extent, but enough to make me aware of how others must navigate their lives. 

And when my wife became ill, I became her caregiver until the end, and doing so was, with not a shred of doubt, the most meaningful thing I have done in my life. I believe I would not have been capable of such empathy, such caring and devotion, if it had not been for a life opened to all that was outside of myself, and opened by art, literature, music, dance, reading of history, philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and all else that would otherwise have been blank to me. 

As I watched her decline, I saw all of suffering humankind in her, and all of aspirational humankind in myself, and they were the same thing. And so, when she died, I did, too, with the exception that I am still here. But then, so is she. 

There is the echo of this in all of the books that I have ingested, all the music, with its sonic analog of emotion, all of the perennial philosophy. “Alle menschen werden brüder.” 

For most scholars, as with most scientists, a career is built specializing, knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller angle of the whole. They become tenured professors and further the knowledge of the world in meaningful particulars. I have, in contrast, attempted to know more about a wider range of things, in effect seeking a unified field theory of the humanities. The endeavor has been so far as fruitless as that of physicists, but it has been why I read Dante and Saul Bellow, study Raphael and Francis Bacon, listen to Bach and Glass, feel in my own muscles Petipa and Pina Bausch. 

Someone has to put it all together. Our outer lives are vital; we need to aid the suffering, feed the hungry, still the wars, cool the fevers. But we also have inner lives, and they need attending, also. Human beings “shall not live by bread alone.” 

If all I have said here is nothing but rationalization, a kind of weaseling out of my responsibilities in the practical world, that does negate the truth. Motives are one thing; truth is another. 

And finally, if none of this counts, if none of this weighs on the good side of the scales, I can only say: It is my nature. Learning ever more is the satisfaction of an insatiable hunger. May those I love and those who love me forgive what I have made of it. 

How did I ever become such a sobersides? An old fogey? So donnish?

My late wife used to call me “the man who can’t have fun.” But I do have fun. I have lots of it; it’s just that I get pleasure out of things most people find impenetrably dull. I find them incredibly fascinating. I watch C-Span Book TV on weekends, for instance. I read Homer and Dante, and listen to Paul Hindemith. I pine for ballet. And little makes me happier than digging into some arcane research. 

It goes way back to when I’m this kid, see. When my classmates were listening to Cousin Brucie on the AM radio and loving the Drifters or “Splish-splash, I was takin’ a bath,” I was spinning Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the Sears Silvertone. 

In third grade, I enjoyed diagramming sentences. Why?

 These things come to mind because I recently came across an essay written by Artsy editor Casey Lesser about how seeing Guernica when she was 15 years old changed her life and set it on its course. I had an instant reaction to her piece because when I was about the same age, I also came across the painting. 

It was in the early 1960s and I was a high-school student in New Jersey. I took the bus to Manhattan as often as I could and practically lived in the city’s museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, where I became lifelong friends with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A and, of course, the wall-spanning expanse of Picasso’s Guernica. 

Back then, when I would exit the elevator on the third floor of MoMA, the painting — more than 11 feet high and 25 feet wide — dominated the view to the right, on the far wall through two other galleries. It was on “permanent exhibition,” and I was confident it would always be there for me to see. Nothing is permanent in this life, and in 1981, the painting absconded to Spain. 

With its powerful and painful imagery, the painting was proof to my adolescent mind that there was a world more real and more meaningful than the suburban life I was stuck in. And like countless young “sensitive souls,” from Wilhelm Meister to Holden Caulfield, I urgently and earnestly yearned for something that cast a larger shadow on the screen. I was a little too conscious of being the hero of my own Bildungsroman. 

That early exposure to the art at MoMA, and especially Guernica, aimed me at my eventual career as an art critic. Parvis e glandibus quercus. Or, as Pope had it, “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.”

But this recognition also set me off to consider what other early exposures bent that twig. Of course, some of the most transformative influences were people: teachers, friends, and eventually, wives. But I am concerned here primarily with arts and books that yanked the steering wheel from my hand and sent me in new directions.

I was in high school and my new exposure to history, poetry, foreign languages, both Latin and Spanish, all kindled a growing sense that there was more to life than sitting in the living room watching Bonanza and eating Oreos. 

Many of us rebel as adolescents against the banality of our lives, and that of our parents’. Most of that rebellion is inchoate and poorly aimed, leading to teen drinking, minor car theft or simple sullenness. But in some few cases, such as mine, there was a clear alternative: For me, the life of the mind. 

Art and literature spoke of an existence that was not banal, but intense and meaningful. I began eating it up. 

For instance, theater. I had little experience of live theater until my freshman year in high school, when the class was bussed down to Princeton, N.J., to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the McCarter Theatre. It was the perfect introduction to the Bard; the story was clear and simple, so, while the language was baroque, we could still follow the play easily enough. 

McCarter Theatre Center

Then, the following fall, we went back to the McCarter to see O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. What crazed educator thought that a three-and-a-half hour play about a screwed up family in 1912 was a good one for high school sophomores, I don’t know. But it struck just the right note of high seriousness for my nascent psyche. I loved it. I wanted more. 

I’ve already written about my high school girlfriend, who became a professional musician, and how we used to make out on her couch while listening to Stravinsky on the phonograph. We went to countless concerts and recitals in New York and I came to love classical music. I bypassed the doo-wop: My Four Seasons were Vivaldi’s, not Frankie Valli’s. 

I took up reading contemporary literary fiction: Updike, Bellow, Pynchon. Two books especially hit the mark. I was bowled over by Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I sought epiphanies. It’s a book I still read again every few years. 

Then, I discovered Kazantzakis after watching the movie of Zorba the Greek, where I read the book and found in the novel a deeper level of Buddhist thinking, which sent me on to discover Zen via Alan Watts and poetry via Matsuo Basho. 

Each taste made me seek out more. Haiku eventually expanded into Paradise Lost — an inflation equivalent to the early seconds of the universe after the Big Bang. 

All this was heady stuff for a pimply-faced teenager, but even if only dimly understood at the time what I was reading and experiencing, I knew it was bigger and more important than my paper route or the Reader’s Digest. The desire for a richer, deeper, more profound life has been the driving force behind my inclination toward what used to be called high-brow culture.

There has been an ersatz distinction between high-brow and low-brow. But that distinction is characteristically middle-brow. There is a snobbery of the middle classes that seeks to distinguish itself from the uneducated tastes, and an aspirational striving for the status (and wealth) that seem to mark the upper classes. In this dynamic, there is an inherent self-loathing to the middle class, at least when it is self-aware. 

And no doubt my allegiance to fine art was originally spawned by this loathing of what seemed a mundane and insipid upbringing. Art told me there were more serious concerns in life, and bigger adventures. If I didn’t want to be squelched by the 9-to-5 life, hanged by the necktie and imprisoned by my own front lawn, then I would have to take on Bach, Joyce, Hokusai, Zora Neale Hurston, Laurence Sterne, Miles Davis, Correggio, Xenophon, and Philip Glass. Gobble them all up and look for even more with an incessant appetite. 

That was all a half-century ago. I have sucked up every bit of knowledge and wisdom I could find, only to discover that I knew less and less, and was more foolish than I ever knew possible. Now at 72, I no longer feel intolerant of the middle class that gave birth to me, but find it is the foundation of a society that allows me space to be an outlier. Only with the solid support of a functioning culture could I have found a means to leave it behind. Its tolerance allows me my eccentricity. I know I would have found none in Stalin’s Moscow nor Pol Pot’s Phnom Penh. 

So, I have been allowed to read what I want, see and hear what I want, and if that has led me away from the class that a-borned me, it has led me to a place where I find it hard to judge anyone. Not impossible, but difficult, knowing how little all my education and cultural exposure has taught me. Much information; little wisdom. 

But it has informed my life, made it richer, provided endless pleasure, occupied a mind that hated inactivity, and, as all great art and literature does, nurtured compassion and forgiveness, an awareness of others both locally and globally. It has been the key to let me step out of the prison of myself. 

I once wanted to change the world. Most of us did in the 1960s. We knew we could make it a better place. That has all collapsed. Now, my idealism is drained from me, my expectation for the future and future generations is quelled. I expect no better than life can serve up. There is no end, only perpetual churn and change. I cannot fix the world; it needs no fixing, it only needs accepting, faults and all. And my need for improvement turns in on myself. 

Someone once said in defense of our youthful enthusiasms that what is called maturity is made up of equal parts of cowardice and exhaustion. I once would have agreed. Exhaustion, maybe, but cowardice, no. Maturity is acceptance. “The wrastling for the world axeth a fal.” 

I still find myself bored by the simple and simple-minded, and find myself excited by the complex and the beautiful. And so, I read Tolstoy, listen to Bartok, examine the canvases of Titian and Francis Bacon, weep over the dance of Pina Bausch, and soak in the films of Tarkovsky. These may not be plebeian tastes, but they are my tastes. They satisfy. 

It is is not just the life of the mind, it is life to the mind. 

“Do not move. Let the wind speak.” 

May those I love try to forgive what I have made of it. 

Poetry is as much about not saying something as it is about having something to say. There are words that come too easily to us, words that, once we have uttered them, we realize are either meaningless cliche, or simply do not say what we mean with any exactitude. They are commonplaces, or shorthands meant to avoid the truly difficult. 

Reams of bad poetry rhyme the thoughts we believe we share, or worse, believe we ought to share: emotions that are expected rather than actually experienced; ideas that were once current that have outworn their truths; expressions we overheard rather than discovered. 

And so, we struggle to find the real, the exact, the fresh, and instead, out on paper appears the tired, the familiar, the trite, and we scratch out the lines and try again. It is what we don’t want to write that drives us.

As T.S. Eliot write it in “Burnt Norton,” “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.”

Each attempt at a poem is, in Eliot’s words, “a raid on the inarticulate.”

You can see it in a page of his draft for “The Wasteland:” Lines penciled through, sharp comments scribbled in the margins, even a heckling at himself — “Perhaps be damned.” 

Allen Ginsberg liked to preach the wisdom of the first draft. “First thought, best thought,” he repeated, like a mantra. Yet the published draft of his best poem, “Howl” is a mass of rewriting and crossing-outs. One tries very hard not to waste our time by saying something that is boilerplate, that is obvious, that is inelegant or imprecise. 

Which makes a successful poem all the more powerful. 

There are two ways in which poems can be essential. The first and easiest is that it delights us. These are poems we carry with us for life the way we remember a lovely tune. They are fun to recite and we very likely have memorized at least a few lines. 

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge. “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. A whole Palgrave’s Treasury of poetry that over and over, we come back to. 

They can be light, but they can be serious also, take us along with them past everyday concerns. Some are longer, some are just ditties. Robert Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,/ Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” 

The bulk of poems that give us pleasure fit into this category. 

But there are other lines that more than delight, hit deep into the most central part of our selves and smack us with a kind of revelation. The first group — that delight us — are poems that we date, but these others are the poems we are married to. They speak to us with the clarity of a gong and hammer our nerves flat, and leave us moved and our our bodies full with emotion, ready to burst like an overfull water balloon. 

You will have your own candidates, poems that whisper in your ear something that can make you weep. They are poems that feel not simply true, but personal. Those that crash into me won’t likely be the same ones that hit you. But if you love poetry you must certainly have your own list of “holy of holies.” Here are a few of mine:

There is no poem I reread more than William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I know; I know. Wordsworth can be tedious. One thinks of Rossini’s smackdown of Richard Wagner: “He has beautiful moments, but godawful quarter-hours.” But those bits. It is like taking the red-eye to New York and you are bored and sleepy most of the way, but just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, the plane banks and the blast of light through the window blinds you with brilliance. 

There is a reason he has the fourth most quotes in Bartletts after Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John Milton. 

The “Intimations Ode,” as it is usually known, is his poem that speaks to me most heartbreakingly. I don’t share his strained Platonism about life before birth, but the central description of how childhood comes “trailing clouds of glory.” The world is lit from within when we are young. Now that I am 71, that transparency of light is clouded over as by emotional cataracts. But I can clearly remember the brilliance. And Wordsworth’s poem is not only about the “splendor in the grass,” but also about the comfort of that remembering.

No poem speaks to me more personally, more directly, more heartbreakingly. Unless that poem is…  

Three things are central to human life: Love, loss and death. One poem has them all and tears me to shreds each time I read it. Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” 

Yes, we need food, shelter and air to live, but life gives back always those three pillars: love, loss and death. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker remembers childhood when he came to know two sea birds, a mating pair. They came back to Long Island each spring from migration, until one year, only one came back. The sense of loss is palpable, and painfully familiar. The recognition of the loss, and of the death that caused the loss, drives the speaker to poetry. 

This poem has always moved me deeply, but now that my wife of 35 years has died and left me alone, the poem is nearly unbearable. This is what I mean about a poem speaking personally. It is no theory I feel on rereading it, but the recognition of truth. 

Then, there is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is perhaps the most pessimistic poem in the canon. It recognizes the abject aloneness of life, and the slim but necessary comfort of sharing that aloneness. 

The speaker calls to his share-mate to look out the window at the English Channel and consider the “eternal note of sadness,” and the “ebb and flow of human misery.” He muses on the loss of any sense of divine order or providence and posits the only help is that they “be true to one another.” For the world offers nothing permanent or positive beyond that.

It is such a beautifully written thing, that the misery in it almost comes across as transcendent. The receding waves of the Channel on the beach shingle makes a hissing sound that makes the whole thing utterly palpable.

Conrad Aiken is usually thought of as a minor poet, and most of his work is known only to scholars nowadays. But one of his poems speaks to me as much alive as Wordsworth or Whitman, and that is his poem about death, “Tetelestai.” 

The title is the Greek word that the Christ spoke as his last on the cross: “It is finished.” In Aiken’s poem, he parodies the grand trumpets that blast at the death of heroes and the triumphal cortege that celebrates the heroic life, but then pleads that even a profoundly ordinary man — meaning himself — deserves the same ceremony, the same sense of importance. 

Say, he says, “two great gods, in a vault of starlight/ Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end/ One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor/ And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece/ Forgotten there, left motionless, is I.”

Yet, he pleads, he has had the same emotions, the same drives, the same failures, as the trumpet-hailed hero. Does he not deserve to be remembered for these things? Of course he is being ironic on one level, but underneath, he is certainly sincere — Each of us, after all, is the hero of his or her own life, the center of the subjective universe. 

It is a poem of sadness, of frustration, of recollection of a life too insignificant to be grieved, yet, deserving of grief. 

The last poem I will mention here in detail was written in German by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841. It is a poem I would not have come across in my normal reading, but it is the text set by composer Richard Strauss as the finale of his “Four Last Songs,” one of the most intensely beautiful and heart-piercing cycles of music ever written, lush, shadowed, personal. Strauss wrote it at the very end of his own life and his text choices — the Eichendorff and three poems by Herman Hesse — are each as full as a cup  brimming over. 

There are many translations — at least as many as there are recordings of the Strauss songs and printed on the CD insert — but for me, most fail be either being too literal or too conventionally “poetical.” So, I made my own translation, which for me carries the weight of the poem as I feel it in the music. I give it here:

There are other poems I could mention that move me as these five do. I love the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden;” Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli;” “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. There are others. And I continually find new ones to add to the list. 

Poetry can say with precision what we mean to say but our words fail us. Yes, it can also camouflage our fuzzy thought with pretty words, but those are the words I said a good poet fights to shake loose from. Poetry is not vague clouds of unclarified smoosh. The best is made by intense thought and concentration, and a fear of uttering cant, the commonplace, the banal. 

When the useless marble is chiseled away, the David is left for us to marvel at, and recognize as ourselves. 

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora.

With these words, Publius Ovidius Naso begins one of the most famous and influential books of the ancient world, his Metamorphoses. 

“Now my spirit brings me to speak of changing forms into other bodies.” In the poem, he recounts hundreds of mythological stories, all to do with transformation. Nothing in his universe is permanent; everything seems to change into something else, women into birds, men into horses, gods into bulls. The poem recounts such tales with the wit and fizz of a supreme ironist. 

The Metamorphoses is a compendium of Greek and Roman mythology. It is the primary source for later writers who use it to retells the stories of Echo and Narcissus, Daphne and Apollo, King Midas, Venus and Adonis, Pyramus and Thisbe and Phaethon and the sun chariot. Some of the myths are found only in Ovid. He is primary source for Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and hundreds of others, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales. 

He was popular in his time, largely derided as “pagan” in the early Christian centuries, rediscovered in the Renaissance, enjoyed in the enlightenment, again avoided in the Victorian era of high-mindedness and didacticism, and only again come out of the shadows after mid-Twentieth Century with a spate of new translations. (The most recent trend is away from him once more, in a “Me-Too” era that takes umbrage at all that rape and patriarchy.) 

With all that shapeshifting, it makes me think of how I manage to read the poem: in English. In the past year, I have read three different translations, plus I have re-read Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. And I have loved every moment. 

And so, now my spirit brings me to speak of changing language into other words. Specifically, how can we translate from one tongue to another, from Ovid’s Latin to my English. It should be simple: Just take the ancient words, one by one, and turn them into English words. But if we do that, we get gibberish. “In now bring spirit change to speak forms bodies.” 

To say nothing of the multiple meanings of each of the Latin words. A few bits: animus can be “mind,” “soul,” “feelings,” “heart,” “spirit,” “courage,” “character,” “pride,” or even “air.” Corpora may mean “body,” but it also means “person,” “self,” “virility,” “flesh,” “corpse,” “trunk,” “framework,” or “collection.” So, which of each of these do you choose. A possible, but nonsensical translation, borrowing synonymous meanings from the words in the opening sentence, could read, “Within the extraordinary, pride wins a substitute for pleading a collection of patterns.” 

Huh? Of course, no on thinks that is what Ovid was trying to say. It is completely unidiomatic. But how do you make meaning in English from a language spoken 2000 years ago? 

One of the first translators into English was Arthur Golding. In 1567, he gave the first line as, “Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreate.”

The most famous translation, by John Dryden in 1717, makes it short and sweet: “Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing.” 

In 1899, Henry T. Riley gave it as: “My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies,” which is fairly literal. 

“My soul is wrought to sing of forms transformed to bodies new and strange!”  Brookes More, 1922.

 Horace Gregory, in 1958 has it: “Now I shall tell of things that change, new being out of old.”

William S. Anderson, rather clumsily makes it nearly unreadable in 1978 with: “From bodies various form’d, mutative shapes my Muse would sing.” 

I have collected (a “corpus” of data) some 20 different versions of this single sentence, including Hughes’ “Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed into different bodies.”

Ovid’s Latin is not only light and ironic, it is often self-consciously poetic, and other times comically demotic. Because of the different structures of Latin and English — the Latin being built of case endings, declensions and conjugations — it is impossible to recreate accurately the tone and content of the original. Parallels must be found, and those vary from age to age, mandating new and current translations. 

Outside of Hughes, who is near perfect but only translates barely a tenth of the whole, my current favorite is Charles Martin, which is easy to read, idiomatically English, but able to shift tones when needed. It is also in a swift pentameter, unlike those hexameters so many try to match Ovid’s own verse form, which is oddly ungainly in English. 

But, what I started out to say, before shifting off into all this about language, is that the same piling up of version in language has its counterpart in imagery. Ovid’s tales have been subject matter for countless painters and sculptors. 

So, now I am moved to write about verse changed into other art media. I wanted to take a single tale and decided, since I feel so European, I might consider the continent’s eponym, Europa. 

In the Metamorphoses, Jupiter, head god, gets the hots for the young woman, Europa, and seeing her among her herd of kine, plots to abduct her. 

“The great father and ruler of the gods — whose right hand is armed with the three-forked lightning, who shakes the world with his nod — puts on the appearance of a bull, and having mixed himself with the bullocks, he lows and walks about beautiful on the tender grass. 

“He is as white as the untrampled snow before the south wind turns it into slush. His shoulders brawny, his dewlap dangles on his broad chest. His horns are curved but as if they were hand made and flawless as pearls. 

“He seemed unthreatening and his eye filled with no anger; he was all peaceful. 

“And so Europa, the daughter of Agenor, wondered at him that he was so beautiful and gentle. At first she was afraid to touch him, even though he promised no threat, but she did approach him and held out flowers to his white mouth. The would-be lover rejoices and biding his time till he gets what he wants, he kisses her hands. It isn’t easy for him to hold back. 

“And so, he fawns upon her and gambols on the green grass, he lays down his snowy side on the yellow sands; her fear evaporates slowly. He offers his breast to be stroked by the virgin’s hand and his horns to be snared by her garlands. She dared then to sit on the back of the bull, not knowing who he really was. 

“The god by slow degrees plants his foot in the sand, leaving prints there, moving incrementally to the edge of the waves, and then suddenly he goes off farther through the waves into the wide sea. She trembles and being carried away, she looks back on the shore left behind, holding his horn with her right hand while the other was placed on his back. Her windswept garments shook behind her. And so, the god, having then changed back from his lying bull form, confessed himself to her.”

The story is later picked up in Book 6, in the story of Arachne, challenging Minerva to a weaving contest. Arachne weaves a picture of Europa “deceived in the form of the bull: You would have thought it a real bull and real waves in the tapestry. Europa is seen looking back to the shore she has left and calling to her companions, afraid of the surging water and nervously lifting her feet.” 

 It’s in little details, like the feet, that Ovid makes his stories palpable. 

I have now collected more than a hundred images of drawings, paintings, sculpture and relief depicting Europa and the bull, usually with the girl holding the animal’s horn and her clothes sailing off behind her. 

The earliest of these predate Greek mythology: There are Babylonian figures of a woman riding a bull, and others from the Middle East. 

And of course, there are all those images of bull umping in Mnoan Crete.

There is a depiction on red-figure Greek vases and on the walls of Pompeii

and numerous floor mosaics — The Rape of Europa seemed to be a popular image for Roman homes. 

But it was later, in the Renaissance and Baroque ages that Europa exploded with painters and sculptors. Every artist who was anybody did at least one version of the story, usually a vast mythological scene with the bull and the virgin, but also various putti and godlets swirling around. 

The iconography is fairly uniform: The bull is usually white, the girl hangs on for dear life to a bull horn, and her clothes sweep away in a grand gesture. In some, the shore features her distraught friends, in others she sits lovingly on the gentle beast, before the mad dash. 

There are modern versions, too. Some are by serious artists, such as Gauguin, Max Beckmann and Hans Erni.

Some are more kitschy or popular.

There are modern sculptures.

There are figurines by the dozen.

And there is at least one drawing that, compared with the Rococo version of Jean-Francois de Troy, make absolutely clear the brutality of the story as rape. 

It needs to be pointed out also, that the bull shows up over and over in mythology, like with Hercules and the Cretan Bull, or, closely paralleling the story of Europa, there is Dirce, who is punished by her twin nephews by being tied to a bull and ridden to her death. 

But I want to end with a version that may not have been intentional, but has a wonderful resonance as it makes a contemporary political point. It is the girl facing the bull on Wall Street. Called “Fearless Girl,” by Kristen Visbal, it was originally a kind of publicity gimmick for a Wall Street firm, erected in 2017, but became a symbol for feminism and anti-capitalist protest, as it was first positioned in front of the iconic 1989 “Charging Bull” by artist Arturo Di Modica. Complaints from De Modica and support from protesters and NY Mayor Bill de Blasio ended in a 13-month standoff, but eventually, the “Fearless Girl” was moved. 

I think of it as Europa gets her own. 

Click on any image to enlarge 

  

 

It was 1965, the year that ran from the last half of my junior year in high school through the beginning of my senior year. In between, I spent the summer traveling through Norway and Europe. I mention that last because it made that year quite distinct in my memory, and I can recall all the books I read that year. Or all I can remember; there may be a few I’ve forgotten. 

It was a year of promiscuous reading. I picked up most anything. I have a list of them. I couldn’t get enough. Schoolwork suffered because I was largely bored by my classes, other than my English classes. I rebelled against doing homework — nothing worse than the questions at the end of a chapter, a tedious exercise. But reading on my own, outside curriculum, held me rapt. 

That year marked a change in the direction of my reading. When I was younger, I buried myself in non-fiction. One subject after another would overtake me and I would immerse myself in it. When I was in the eighth grade, my mother got me a young-adult novel, thinking I would enjoy it. But I didn’t read fiction. I remember I told her, “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.” But history, biography, essays — even cookbooks — they were “true.” They wouldn’t clog my head with fictional effluvia. 

For some reason, that changed in 1965. I picked up novel after novel. Not those assigned in school, of course. That was dry, tired, musty old fustian. I wanted to read what was current, new, on the biting edge. There was James Purdy, John Updike, Hubert Selby Jr., Thomas Pynchon. Needless to say, all of them were well above my meager level of understanding as a 16-year-old. 

Some of the reading came in clumps. I read Saul Bellow’s Herzog when it came out, and followed that with Seize the Day and Dangling Man. To let you know how little I understood what I was reading, I reread Herzog earlier this year and was surprised — pleasantly — to discover it is a comedy. A very funny book. I’m afraid the thick layer of irony that makes the book such a delight was invisible to my adolescent mind. I think I saw it the first time as a window on the academic life I was planning to lead after I got out of college, after I got into college. 

I had a Kerouac streak, soaking up first Big Sur then Dharma Bums. When I was in Oslo, I found a British paperback of Lonesome Traveler, a series of essays. For a kid my age, this was catnip. When I got home, I finished off On the Road — which I have managed to reread every decade or so, the last time in its original scroll version with all the names undisguised. No, it doesn’t hold up, but what an effect it had on me as a wimpy pimply-faced kid. 

The series I probably read the most of was Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. I ate them through like Mars bars. I can’t remember most of their actual titles, they were all sequels like “son of,” and “daughter of” or “return of,” and the plots were interchangeable, but I loved the adventure and the atmosphere of London’s Limehouse district, with its opium dens and insidious “Yellow Peril.” The racism of the books was not yet apparent to me, and when I tried rereading one of them a few years ago, I couldn’t wade through the Victorian-style prose. 

A few appealed to my burgeoning hormones and growing anti-bourgeois prejudices. Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy was hot stuff to a teenager and so was Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding. Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit from Brooklyn was another one way above my pay grade in understanding, but I knew it was subversive. 

(In the same vein, among my other reading were two periodicals. I subscribed to both the Evergreen Review and Paul Krassner’s The Realist. Couldn’t wait for the next Phoebe Zeit-Geist. Such things were puerile, but then, I was a puer. A couple of years later, I was publishing a sophomoric underground newspaper at my college, called the K.M.R.I.A Journal. But then, I was a sophomore.)

There was literary fiction I read, beyond Saul Bellow. I tackled Thomas Pynchon’s V., although I have no recollection of what I might have made of it back then, but I knew the character names were clever. There was Louis Auchincloss and Walker Percy. 

Not all of it was high-minded. In Norway, I found a copy of Pat Frank’s Mr. Adam, a post-apocalyptic lampoon, and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. At that age, I also thought John Lennon was not only clever, but profound. At that age. 

There were memoirs by Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway, and social and philosophic essays by Marshall McLuhan and Eric Hoffer. And something in-between: Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings. 

The film, Zorba the Greek, came out the year before, and so I picked up the book. It launched me into a series of books about Buddhism (Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys, D.T. Suzuki) which kept me going in the spring of 1966. But it also dumped me deep into Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, which I read in my stateroom on my transatlantic shipboard trip to Norway. There was a lot of time to kill and a very fat book to murder it with. 

I imagine my teenage years were peculiar. I came from a quiet middle-class family. I doubt there were as many as a dozen books in the house, outside the grocery-store-premium Funk & Wagnalls. We lived on the New Jersey side of The Bridge (GW, that is — George Washington) and I spent as much time as I could on the non-Jersey side of that bridge, visiting art museums, concert halls and bookstores. In particular, I took the subway down to the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, a tiny, crowded store with books piled high on all walls. (There was also the Hudson News at the 178th Street bus terminal, where I stopped every time before getting on the Public Service bus to go home to the benighted other side of the Hudson River.)

There was a time, many years later, when I was unemployed and nearly homeless (praise be to dear friends), that I dove back into the books and for a period of six months or so, read a book a day. I cannot say that such speed-reading provided the same depth of experience, but I soaked up a great deal that has served me well in the 40 years since. Reading has been my life, and has come out the other end as writing. 

I suppose I mention all this Proustian self-absorption because I look around the house now that I have turned 71 and see my walls held up by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and know that a lifetime of constant reading began in those years that — at the time — I considered a complete waste. High school was a torture I absolutely hated. Books taught me a billion times more than those classrooms ever did. It must say something that I remember so many of the books I read in that one seminal year. And have reread so many of them as a grown-up. 

These are the covers of the editions I read in 1965, click on any image to enlarge

Some years ago, when we were looking for a new cello for our daughter, we visited a luthier who took the time to answer our questions about the differences among all the instruments he had. 

What exactly is the advantage of the $40,000 violoncello over the $1500 student piece? The luthier picked up a beginner model and played a few notes. It sounded good; clear pitch and nice tone.

“But notice this,” he said, drawing the bow back over the C-string. The tone began, clear but muted. In a moment, the instrument seemed to wake up and the tone became richer, louder and more resonant. 

He then picked up a better instrument. The bow drew over the same string and immediately, the tone popped. 

A third cello was the high-end he had on hand, a French instrument from the mid-19th century. One touch of the bow and the thing sang like a Pavarotti, clear, bright, loud, rich as foie gras. It almost seemed to vibrate before he moved the bow. It was electric, alive. It was as if the cello was paying as close attention to him as he was to the cello. 

The difference is resonance. Resonance is when one vibrating body causes another, usually larger body, to vibrate sympathetically, which often amplifies the effect — in this case, sound. 

Resonance may be vibrating air, or, as in the cello, the interior and back panel of the instrument. If you bow a naked string, you get a puny sound that cannot project. But let that string’s vibration be carried down through a bridge into the body of the cello through soundposts and it causes the back of the cello to vibrate sympathetically and become, essentially, a speaker, to let the music fill a concert hall. The French cello we heard had a more subtly planed and constructed back panel, of graded thickness, which allowed it to resonate throughout the range of pitches playable on the cello.

Resonance isn’t just for music, though. It is one of the means by which art and literature amplify their meanings. The words say one thing, but behind them, larger and peeking through, are the ghosts of all literary history. 

One of the most famous example is the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. “April is the cruelest month … stirring dull roots with spring rain.” The poem ironically borrows its resonance from Chaucer: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote …” 

When I was a sophomore — like most sophomores — I believed that the “trick” was to spot the allusions intellectually, as if they were footnotes (Eliot did not help by including footnotes with the poem). As if being clever were the point of poetry. 

But that is not it at all, that is not what is meant at all.

Poetry such as Eliot’s assumes a familiarity with a wide variety of literature of the past, but not as a sort of Jeopardy quiz — rather, if you have a chest stuffed with the rags and bones of your culture, the meaning rather vibrates sympathetically. You feel it rather than think it, more like weather than like a weather report.

Consider, say, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “Fourscore and seven years ago…” He could have said, simply, “Eighty-seven years ago…” But his audience was a Bible-familiar one, who would have heard in that cadence an echo of the King James version of Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore and ten.” Listeners to the speech would not have smiled and told themselves, “How clever, he’s referencing the Bible,” but rather, the organ-tones of the Authorized Version would have resonated in their limbic system, adding heft to the president’s words. 

Lincoln also frequently couched his rhetoric in the words of birth and death, which would resonate deeply with his audience at the dedication of a cemetery, when death had undone so many. Few Americans, North or South, escaped losing family members in that conflagration. 

So, when he continues: “brought forth,” “conceived,” “created,” “conceived” again, “endure,” “gave their lives,” “that the nation might live,” “new birth of freedom,” and “shall not perish,” that personally shared sense of accouchement and mortality pushes up from underneath the words, giving the republic blood and veins, nerves and bones. 

This is not a policy speech, filled with abstractions and empty words, but rather, a text resonant with the power of birth and death. That and the biblical tone give it its solemnity and power. 

In English, how much more resonant is the title of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — an echo of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 — than a simple English translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“in search of lost time” — which sounds more like someone trying to catch a missed train). 

In the English-speaking world, the sounding board of so much resonance comes from Shakespeare (Brave New World; Band of Brothers; Pomp and Circumstance; The Winter of our Discontent; Slings and Arrows), the King James Bible (Absalom, Absalom!; The Children of Men; Clouds of Witness; East of Eden), and the Book of Common Prayer (The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Ashes to Ashes; Till Death Us Do Part; Peace in Our Time.)

Resonance overflows in culture, usually passing unremarked, but obvious — at least to those who have absorbed their history, their literature and art, even popular art.

Consider King Kong, captured and shackled with “chains of chrome steel” in New York. The curtain rises and there is our ape, crucified. Kong is not simply a nightmare monster ravaging a city, but a sympathetic sufferer. 

Or take Jeff Koons porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles. Behind that monument to banality is the historical power of the Elgin Marbles and the East Pediment of the Parthenon. 

The resonance can also work in reverse, as a pop culture image can enlarge a high culture image: That wide-shoulder, spindly-leg Richard III of Olivier was built from the image of Disney’s Big Bad Wolf. Olivier has remarked on this several times. 

In music, there are quotes from previous music, such as Rachmaninoff’s constant use of the Dies Irae of plainchant. But such a quote is meant to be recognized immediately for what it is. 

More to the point of resonance is the half-hour finale to Gustav Mahler’s enormous Third Symphony, a deeply moving adagio that can bring a sergeant-major to weeping. Hidden in its main theme is the slow movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet — the one with the epigraph: “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (Must it be? It must be!) When Mahler says his symphony must contain the whole world, this is the resonance behind it. We might not recognize the tune until it is pointed out — when it becomes obvious — but it works its weight upon us in the audience anyway: a faint remembrance of things past that makes the present music glow from inside. 

The problem with all this is that it posits a cultured audience, one reasonably familiar with the art, poetry, literature, music and theater of at least 2,500 years of European culture, something increasingly rare. In the past, those who read poetry or collected art had also read the Bible and Homer. Now it is rare to find even a professed Christian who has actually read the whole Bible, or remembers stories from it that a hundred years ago were common heritage: David and Jonathan; Ruth and Naomi; Balshazzar’s feast; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; Balaam’s ass. So now, when reading Melville, the name Ahab or Ishmael require footnotes when, in the past, they carried a rich resonance on first reading. 

Of course, no one can have such a complete familiarity of English and European literature and art to catch all of the baited hooks that authors and artists drop down. And some writers (I’m talking about you, Ezra Pound) are so obscure that you would have to be Ezra himself to understand all the buried treasure he has left in his Cantos. This is overkill. Hang it all, Ezra, there can be but one Cantos, and thank god for that. 

But, in the past, even a reasonably well-read audience felt the presence of the pulse underneath the skin of what they were reading. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to what we read and see.

It is the literary equivalent of “Da-da-da-Dum” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “2B or not 2B.” Everyone knows it, whether they have seen Hamlet or not. It would be hard to find another phrase as often quoted or as immediately recognized by a wide public. “Call me Ishmael.” “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” “In the beginning was the word.” Even these lag behind the opening of Hamlet’s soliloquy as cultural roughage. 

Because it is so deeply buried in the culture, it is hard to even hear it anymore. It glides by not as information, but as a kind of tune, hummed thoughtlessly while sanding a table top or cutting carrots in the kitchen. 

But that soliloquy, just as the play it sits in the middle of, can be performed many different ways, with very different meanings. There are Hamlets that are Oedipal, Hamlets that are schizophrenic, Hamlets that are hot-blooded, those that are indecisive, those that are crafty — and at least one Hamlet played as a stand-up comedian. Take the words the playwright wrote and you can construe them myriad ways. In Ulysses, James Joyce has his character Stephen Daedalus prove that Hamlet is his own father. Sort of. 

Likewise, the “to be or not to be” speech can be spoken theatrically, like Master Thespian — this is too often the case — or emotionally, or enunciated with clinical precision. It can be spoken to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, or whispered under the breath. It can be done as a voice-over, as if we are hearing Hamlet’s thoughts. 

Benedict Cumberbatch; Mel Gibson; Thomas Hiddleston

(The one thing that seldom changes is Hamlet holding up poor Yorick’s skull in Act 5. Everyone has to do it, and what is more, be photographed doing it. Even publicity photos for provincial productions have to feature the Dane and his moldy jester.)

Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest play. It certainly has his wittiest hero: Hamlet, the Dane, is in fact too smart for his own good. In part, that’s what the play is about. 

In it, Claudius has killed his brother, the king — Hamlet’s father — and usurped the throne and queen. 

When the dead king’s ghost tells Hamlet to revenge him, Hamlet enters a storm of uncertainty: How, when, why and if to kill Claudius. In the process, Hamlet alienates most of the people he knows, even killing several. 

When Claudius contrives to murder Hamlet before the young prince can kill him, the whole Danish court is thrown into violence and death. 

You can just keep turning this play around and the light will keep catching a new facet. The more you look at it, the more you see. An actor has to decide: At any moment, is what is driving the character? 

Hamlet is the single most complex, multilayered and confusing character in any play. Is he insane? Is he pretending to be insane? Is he sane at some moments and mad at others? Is he obsessed with his mother? Is his inability to act caused by fearfulness, thoughtfulness, indecision or a desire to kill Claudius only when murder will do the most harm to Claudius’ eternal soul? 

None of these versions is ruled out by the text, but none is sufficient of itself. 

“As an actor,” one Hamlet said, “I’m going to try to illuminate as many facets as I can. But you can’t do it all, or you’ll lose focus. I feel sometimes I’m trying to cover myself with too little blanket: If I cover my head and shoulders, my feet stick out.” 

Critics have argued for 400 years about Hamlet’s inaction. But the reason the character refuses to go away is that he is at least as complex as we are in the audience: Hamlet is real. 

Hamlet has a line, when he’s talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “You would seem to pluck out the heart of my mystery,” and that is what most scholars and critics try to do.

Not only actors, but whole ages have their takes. In the 19th century, Hamlet was often played as effeminate, or at least as one easily in touch with his feminine side. 

Edwin Booth brother of Lincoln’s assassin, and considered the greatest American actor of the 19th century, himself wrote in 1882, ”I have always endeavored to make prominent the femininity of Hamlet’s character and therein lies the secret of my success — I think. I doubt if ever a robust and masculine treatment of the character will be accepted so generally as the more womanly and refined interpretation. I know that frequently I fall into effeminacy, but we can’t always hit the proper keynote.’’

Edwin Booth; Sarah Bernhardt; Asti Nielsen; John Barrymore

In fact, there were many notable actresses who took on the role then, most famously, Sarah Bernhardt, who said, ”I cannot see Hamlet as a man. The things he says, his impulses, his actions, entirely indicate to me that he was a woman.’’

The practice actually goes back further. In 1775, Hamlet was played by the young Sarah Siddons to great acclaim (she continued to play the role until she was 47). Two decades later, the role went to Elizabeth Powell in London’s Drury Lane theater. 

These women achieved great praise. The stuffy Dr. Samuel Johnson saw Kitty Clive in the play and compared her performance with that of the famous actor David Garrick. “Mrs. Clive was the best player I ever saw,” he noted. “What Clive did best, she did better than Garrick.” 

Ruth Mitchell; Frances de la Tour; Lisa Wolpe

In 1822, Julia Glover played Hamlet in London and fellow actor Walter Donaldson said, “Her noble figure, handsome and expressive face, rich and powerful voice, all contributed to rivet the attention of the elite assembled on this occasion; while continued bursts of applause greeted her finished elocution.” The greatest actor of his age, Edmund Kean, came backstage to congratulate her: “Excellent. Excellent,” he said. 

In 1820, the first American female Hamlet was Sarah Bartley, in New York. At mid-century, Charlotte Cushman took on the role in New York and Boston, wearing the costume Edwin Booth had lent her. 

The sentiment was not unanimous, however. The New York Mirror disapproved of Nellie Holbrook’s Hamlet in 1880. “This absolutely masculine character is not capable of proper presentation by a woman, however great or talented,” the reviewer wrote. “We are, however, free to say that Miss Holbrook’s Hamlet is eminently respectable.”

That is better than the patronizing review of critic William Winter in 1911. “It is difficult to understand why Hamlet should be considered feminine, seeing that he is supereminently distinguished by a characteristic rarely, if ever, discerned in women: namely that of considering consequences, of thinking too precisely on the event.” 

Christopher Eccleston

In the 20th century, Hamlet took a decidedly macho turn (say it like the British: “Match-oh”). He becomes a swashbuckler or a sadist, by turns. Olivier, Mel Gibson, Christopher Eccleston, who makes him look like a soccer hoodlum. 

Yet, there have been actresses who took the role. Maxine Peakes is available on DVD. Frances de la Tour, Ruth Mitchell and Lisa Wolpe played the Dane. In 1982, Joseph Papp produced a Hamlet with Diane Venora. 

“There are men who have played Hamlet very effeminate and there are those who played it macho; the male spectrum goes from the very tough to the effete and very delicate,” Papp said. “Most English Hamlets from the 19th century on were quite delicate, while American Hamlets were much tougher — like Barrymore. Diane is a strong Hamlet, but not a macho Hamlet; vulnerable, but not hysterical.

“For years I have wanted to do a female Hamlet,” Papp said. “I have always felt that there is a strong female side to Hamlet — not feminine so much as female. To me that has to do with an easier capacity to express emotion. The person playing Hamlet should be able to weep unabashedly and unashamedly. There are men who can do that, but they should be young; Hamlet is a very young person, an adolescent, a student.”

In 1937, it was Eva LeGallienne, who said, “I think psychologically one feels Hamlet was a youth … He’s still going to Wittenberg, to college, you know. He can’t be a mature man. The whole thing points to a very young youth, and therefore because a boy of that age might not be technically equipped to play the role, this is why many women in their thirties who can look like a youth, and had the technical skills to play this great role, have played it.”

Top row: Campbell Scott; Alan Mahon; Danforth Comins; Jonathan Douglas; Bottom row: Nathan Darrow; Rory Kenner; Tobias Fonsmark; Holder Bulow; Michael Benz

But, of course, Hamlet can be played all of these ways. The part is supremely plastic — you can stretch it this way and that and it still makes theatrical sense. 

But this divigation has gone on too long. Back to the soliloquy. To be or not. To be? That is the question. Nothing can stale its infinite variety. Let’s take a few different versions. Olivier, in his 1959 film, does it mostly as a voice-over, set on a precipice overlooking roiling surf. It is Hamlet on the edge of a breakdown. (Link here).

Gielgud was an enunciator. The clarity of his delivery overtakes the overt emotionalism that Olivier brought. (Link here).

Kevin Kline gives it the Master Thespian touch, emphasizing every word as if it were the most important. It becomes monotonous. But, soft, he doth drop a tear. (Link here). 

In the entire opposite direction, Benedict Cumberbatch speaks the lines as if they were spoken off the cuff. This is the way real people speak. I especially love the way he makes sense of the line: “to sleep. No more.” He makes it into “death is to sleep, no more than that.” His is my current favorite version. (Link here). 

One last version. John Barrymore was the great Hamlet of the early part of the 20th century. The bulk of his career was before sound film, so it was only in his decline that he filmed the speech — or part of it — in a silly comedy starring Kay Kyser as a hick bandleader attempting to learn to be an actor. He hires Barrymore, playing a parody version of himself, to be his mentor. At one point, the comedy stops and Barrymore gives his bit of the soliloquy and you can see the majesty of his talent peek through the alcoholic puffiness. The take is almost ruined by his uncontrollable eyebrows, looking like two marmots fighting over a cheese. But the words, the words, the words. (Link here). 

Papa Essiedu, Simon Russell Beale, Paul Giamatti, Grantham Coleman

As for the words, they can be difficult for modern listeners. What the hell is a fardel? Would you bear fardels with a bare bodkin? Sometimes you wonder what Shakespeare meant, although the problem isn’t as apparent when the words are spoken on stage, as when you read them in text. An actor can make the meaning clear in context. When Hamlet says, “with a bare bodkin,” he draws his dagger and the audience understands. 

But language has changed in the past 400 years and even words that are still in current usage often had different meanings then. A careful reading of Shakespeare’s work demands an attention to lexicographical detail, if we are to avoid confusion. 

And even when we know what the words mean, we are still faced with the fact that the Bard often uses the words metaphorically, as when he has Hamlet talk of “taking his quietus,” which doesn’t literally mean to kill himself, but rather means, having finished an enterprise, or having paid off a longstanding debt. Such is life, he implies.

The most famous soliloquy in Hamlet is a profound meditation on death and suicide — the question Albert Camus said is the only philosophical question that really matters. But what do the words mean?

To be, or not to be: That is the question:/ Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;/ No more; and by a sleep to say we end/ The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep:/ To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ Must give us pause: There’s the respect/ That makes calamity of so long life;/ For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/ The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/ The pangs of despised loved, the law’s delay,/ The insolence of office and the spurns/ That patient merit of the unworthy takes,/ When he himself might his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,/ To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/ But that the dread of something after death,/ The undiscover’d country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns, puzzles the will/ And makes us rather bear those ills we have/ Than fly to others that we know not of?/ Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/ And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry,/ And lose the name of action.

Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Pryce

A quick glossary: 

Rub – actually, an obstacle on a lawn bowling green.

Shuffled – cast off, like a snake skin

Coil – Turmoil

Respect – consideration or regard

Of so long life – long lived.

Time – The world as we know it.

Contumely – Contemptuous insults

Despised – Rejected.

Office – Office-holders; bureaucrats.

Spurns – Insults.

Quietus – the paying off of a debt; the resolution of an enterprise.

Bare – used here, “bare” may mean “mere.”

Bodkin – a sharp object, sometimes a hatpin, but here a dagger.

Fardels – Burdens, as a bindle or an army’s dunnage.

Bourn – Region; boundary.

Conscience – Used in an older sense of consciousness; thought.

Native hue – Natural color.

Cast – shade of color.

Pitch – The height of a soaring falcon’s flight; before falling on its prey. 

Moment – Importance.

Regard – Consideration.

It is poetry, in iambic pentameter, with rhythm and melody. But we can translate the whole into modern American tapwater. And so, if we take the poetry out of this soliloquy, what we are left with is the bare-bones meaning:

The only question that counts is suicide: Should one put up with the suffering of life or do something about it and end it all? Death is like sleep: And if as in sleep, the troubles go away, that would be wonderful. But when we sleep, we also dream. And if we dream after death, the way we do in sleep, well, that’d make you stop and think wouldn’t it? That’s why this disaster we call life goes on: For who would put up with life’s crap if he could end them all through suicide? Who would bear the burdens of life but that the threat of something much worse after death makes us hesitate and makes us put up with the troubles we have rather than fly to others we don’t know anything about? And so, thinking makes us cowards; And the will to action is weakened by thinking, And what mighty deeds we would perform come to exactly zip.

And that is why Shakespeare is Shakespeare. 

The Arnold, Buster Keaton, David Bowie, Weird Al Yankovich

Photo at top: Top row, L-R — Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Nicole Williamson; bottom row — Kenneth Branagh, David Tenant, Ethan Hawke

Click on any picture to enlarge