Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Viva President Hamlet!

There is a moment in the 1999 high school film Election in which student Tracy Flick comments on the life of her social studies teacher, Mr. McAllister. As she speculates about what it must be like to teach the same material year after year, we see a series of shots of him drawing the same balance of powers triangle on the chalkboard (legislative, judicial, executive), each time wearing a different tie-and-short-sleeve-shirt ensemble. Perfect. When people think about what can make teaching a drag at times, discipline problems and low pay may come to mind first, but there’s a certain mental repetitive motion syndrome that can plague teachers too.

But repetition has its rewards. In English, if you read a layered text enough times, it starts to reveal things to you that aren’t evident upon a first reading. Last month my Obama’s reading list class read Hamlet. It was my first time teaching it in several years, but I’d taught it five or six times before, so the text is quite familiar to me. The timing was good from a current events standpoint: just as we were reading it, the President was being accused of Hamletesque irresolution on the question of what to do about Afghanistan. You know – just as the Prince paralyzes himself with angst and delays avenging his father’s murder, so Obama uses endless deliberation to put off a tough choice as long as he can. But when Obama’s opponents use Hamlet to criticize him, they’re just revealing how poorly they understand the character and the story.

Because Hamlet chastises himself repeatedly for not getting revenge in a timely fashion (“I do not know / why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do.’”), it is easy for the reader conclude that he really has dawdled. But has he? There is powerful evidence that his self-imposed guilt trip is undeserved. To be sure, Hamlet does plenty that is blameworthy - his abusive treatment of his girlfriend comes to mind - but his reluctance to go off half cocked and kill his uncle just makes sense. After the ghost of his father first charges him with avenging the murder, Hamlet prudently decides to confirm the story before proceeding. After all, he's not a natural-born killer, and “A ghost told me to do it” won’t stand up in court as justification for a murder. He needs corroboration. Claudius’ guilty behavior during a play recreating the alleged murder serves as a smoking gun. Now Hamlet just needs an opportunity. One emerges promptly, but Hamlet thinks his revenge would be poorly served by killing the villain while he’s at prayer. That same evening he stabs viciously at what he hopes is the king, but it turns out to be the king’s adviser, Polonius, spying on him. Before he gets another chance, Claudius has Hamlet hustled aboard a boat for England, presumably never to be seen again. So where’s the delay? He’s got blood on his hands, but up until he saw conclusive evidence of Claudius’ guilt he wasn’t delaying: he was just making sure.

And Shakespeare does provide us with an example of what happens when we act rashly. Laertes, son of the murdered Polonius, comes back to Denmark sword drawn, an action hero ready to take his father's killer. Unfortunately, he’s so rage-crazed that his reason fails him: he allows Claudius to lure him into a murder plot that ultimately means ruin for everybody. Laertes may be decisive, but he perfectly illustrates the perils of decisiveness untempered with judgment (Laertes would have been right at home on the White House national security team in 2003). As Hamlet says

Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unus’d.

Hell yeah. Time will tell whether President Obama made the right choice about Afghanistan, but I'm glad we have a leader now who makes thorough use of his "large discourse." If Obama was being like Hamlet in his deliberations, that ought to be a compliment. As another great Shakespearean character tells us, “The better part of valor is discretion.” I’ll take discretion in my President, even if some mistakenly see it as irresolution.

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