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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Hamlet: What's it worth to you?

Hamlet: "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?"

This quote always reminds me of another by the famous British classicist, HDF Kitto, who said, "Often, the things most worth having, can only be had at the risk of life itself."

Hamlet stands faced with a daunting choice: confront his uncle, revenge his father's death, and risk his own life OR remain silent, let the treachery pass, and try to live with the "sea of troubles". Ultimately, of course, Hamlet decides to fight, because this is at the heart of his nature as a tragic character. But for most of us, our decisions are not this dramatic. Shakespeare is using hyperbole here to make clear the tension we all feel between that question of: "How bad is this situation? Can I live with this? If so, for how long? Or must I do something about it, even if it costs me?"

I think everyone has situations in his or her life that can be described as a "sea of troubles" thrust upon them by "outrageous fortune": the employee who is tormented by his or her boss, the student who is bullied by his or her classmates, the person who is diagnosed with cancer, the pregnant woman who miscarries, etc. (I'm not saying, by any means, that all these examples are comparable to one another, and hold equal weight. These are merely all examples of people who have unfortunate situations thrust upon them by the whim of fate, by no fault of their own.) And how does each of us deal with such a situation? When work is miserable, do we accept it, and deal with it, or do we try to fix the problem, even if it costs us our job in the end?

I think Shakespeare is trying to get us all in touch with our own life struggles through Hamlet's difficult situation, which is really the root of all great literature: it is grounded in our experience in our own lives. I may not have an uncle who killed my father, married my mother, and stole my crown, but I have my own minor tragedies in life (as do we all), and great tragedy puts me in touch with the tragic elements of my own life, and reminds me that sometimes I must "take up arms against a sea of troubles".

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