Monday, September 09, 2019

'Never Afraid of a Good Platitude'

Chief among our teachers is Shakespeare. He taught us the glory of our language, its vast potential, of course, but also educated us about the ways of our fellows and ourselves. Thanks to him we can better recognize the Iagos, Angelos and Lady Macbeths among us. I nearly added Hamlet to Shakespeare’s templates of human nature but in my reading, Hamlet has been radically misinterpreted. He is a type, but not as commonly understood. From my first encounter with the play as a boy, I disliked and distrusted him. His self-centeredness makes him insufferable. We see Hamlets everywhere, especially among adult males who act like spoiled Mommy’s boys and refuse to grow up. Hamlet is a punk. When he says to Rosencrantz, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” we hear echoes of a thousand rationalizing relativists. He treats Ophelia as though she were a whore.

Because Hamlet has been misinterpreted, so has Ophelia’s father, Polonius, commonly understood as a pompous, self-satisfied blowhard. Not so, Rebecca West suggests: “It is a mistake to regard [him] as a simple platitudinarian.” She writes in The Court and the Castle (Yale University Press, 1957):

“Shakespeare, like all major writers, was never afraid of a good platitude, and he would certainly never have given time to deriding a character because his only attribute was a habit of stating the obvious. Polonius is interesting because he was a cunning old intriguer who, like an iceberg, only showed one-eighth of himself above the surface. The innocuous sort of worldly wisdom that rolled off his tongue in butter balls was a very small part of what he knew.”

“A habit of stating the obvious” is an essential truth-teller’s gift. As Orwell phrased it, “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.” We confuse novelty with truth by condemning Polonius. He didn’t deserve to be collateral damage. West ranks Hamlet very high, as do I. She says the play is “as pessimistic as any great work of literature ever written,” and adds:

“Literature cannot always do its business of rendering an account of life. An age of genius not of the literary sort [c. 2019] must go inadequately described unless there should happen to exist at the same time a literary genius of the same degree, who works in circumstances enabling him to accumulate the necessary information about his non-literary contemporaries.”

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