Saturday, September 30, 2017

Greek Tragedy 
Presently there is a debate in education over the value of studying the humanities. What can you gain from the knowledge of history, literature or art from the distant past? Should schools and universities spend diminishing resources to teach students in the 21st century about events that happened thousands of years ago, or ask students to read the literature or philosophy of people who lived in that "dark backward and abysm of time" (Tempest 1.2) ?  To what purpose?

This is a photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson listening to a tape from his son-in-law, Marine Captain Charles Robb who was serving in Vietnam. In the tape, Robb is describing the deaths of American soldiers as Johnson collapses in anguish. The photo was taken by Jack Kightinger in 1968. This was the deadliest year of the war with 16,592 American soldiers killed. The high losses of American soldiers in the Tet Offensive in February and the moral depravity of the Mi Lai massacre in March of that year put mounting pressure on the American government to end the war. Johnson had already announced that America should take steps to limit the war in Vietnam and that he would not seek re-election. There were massive antiwar protests raging in the streets and on college campuses.

In the years before however, Johnson had been instrumental in escalating the war, believing that he needed to save Vietnam from the spread of communism and from falling under the power of the Soviet Union, a nuclear threat at the time to the United States.  But this was a war that Americans increasingly did not support, and American hegemony was unwelcome in Vietnam. 

The decision to wage war and sacrifice the lives of many is a brutal burden that our modern world has not erased. It is the decision that plagues Agamemnon in Euripides play, Iphigenia at Aulis, when Agamemnon must decide if he would sacrifice his own child in the war he is about to wage in Troy. His inconstancy of moral commitment is something that perhaps should not plague humankind, yet we are creatures who persevere in misguided truths. Knowing this is enlightenment. (See article on cognitive dissonance.)

Indeed, when Robert Kennedy ached to understand how he could announce the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968, Jacqueline Onassis advised him to turn to Greek tragedy.  He looked to Aeschylus' Agamemnon to find a character who, after sacrificing his child for political gain, returns home destroyed by grief at his own actions. (Link to speech.) Kennedy's words to a nation broken by racism included these powerful lines derived from this play: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Robert Kennedy would himself be dead in less than two months. In June of this violent year, on his way to winning the Democratic primary for the presidential election, he would become another victim of political assassination.

Presented in Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy are eternal themes: In Oedipus Rex, it is of finding the courage to face trauma and the disease that infects us when we do our best to bury heinous truths. In Oedipus at Colonus it is the excoriating path to finding forgiveness and reconciliation for self and others. In the Antigone, it is the struggle to understand what is right when what you are threatened with death for your beliefs. 

Perhaps more than any other genre of literature, the brilliant tragedies from ancient Greece provide catharsis for the suffering from error caused by our inability to see clearly where our choices will lead. They provide the means of understanding that through human frailty, we inadvertently cause others harm, and must live beyond our own sins and find atonement. Aristotle, in his Poetica makes the claim that art has the moral obligation to edify society and help us all live better lives. As Edith Hamilton, a famous translator of ancient Greek wrote, the literature inspires us "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world." These plays indeed provide ways to for us to heal the soul, and are as such perennially worth the effort to bring to students of all ages

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet 2.2)

About a month after the death of Michelangelo in 1564, Shakespeare was born, and the ideals of Renaissance humanism flowed from one creative genius to another. In this monologue from Hamlet, Shakespeare poignantly praises the wondrous power of humanity, matching Michelangelo's humanist portrayal in The Creation of Adam, where Adam and God float in almost the same plane.

Shakespeare's character Hamlet, however while acknowledging the infinite power and beauty of humankind, is suicidal and desperate, and cannot comprehend his own wretched state of existence. This astonishing play leaves 17th century Renaissance and catapults into 20th century anomie and moral relativism:  Hamlet declares sarcastically, "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," but in his tormented view, corruption has poisoned everything; he is suicidal and the world seems "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable." And while the notorious "To be or not to be" speech begins with a contemplation of suicide, it ends with questioning the very purpose of taking action, "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/And thus the native hue and 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."

As with most of Shakespeare's plays, the story from Hamlet had appeared in an earlier work, a simple revenge story called The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. In this play, a the wife of a man murdered by his brother marries the murderer while her son plots revenge by feigning madness. Shakespeare of course, has the reputation of taking your average popular story and turning  it into a staggering work of genius. From a standard story of a son's revenge, albeit with feigned madness as a ploy, Shakespeare incarnates a densely dysfunctional family whose darkest secrets will never be told. Indeed, Shakespeare eliminates not only the answers, but the questions. Hamlet is in despair, wishing his own flesh would dissolve, obsessed with his mother's sexuality and "incestuous" relationship with his uncle. He is haunted by the ghost of his dead father, whom he reveres and fears, feeling that he himself is a "rogue" and a "slave", a "dull and muddy-mettled rascal". Why can't he avenge his father? Why did his mother remarry so quickly? Why is he so deeply depressed?

As readers, we need to find the darker questions: Why is Hamlet so repulsed by female sexuality? Does Gertrude know that Claudius killed her husband? What are the "black and grained spots" on her soul? What truths does she refuse to uncover? What memories must Hamlet erase about his past life? What secret is it that he must never tell? Indeed, "the rest is silent" at the end of the play, as this story is buried with Hamlet. The psycho-sexual aspects of this play alone seem so shockingly modern. The story of a family torn by possible sexual abuse, suppressed memories, denial, emotional trauma, mental illness and tragic lack of validation for the victim is not only a work of genius in a time before modern psychology, but it is a courageous and astoundingly insightful narrative through which we might see in Hamlet's mirror our own dark traumas, perhaps come to understand the unspoken and denied secrets of ourselves and others, and as Hamlet pleas, uncover the poison within. In the play, these many dark secrets poison all of Denmark.  

For actors, English teachers, intellectuals and literary critics, touching Hamlet is a milestone of accomplishment. All literary critics must tackle this play, all actors strive to play this role, as soul sucking as it might be. Philosophers such as Nietzsche are drawn to him. Everyone wants to claim a bit of Hamlet. He has been described as an existentialist, a Buddhist, a Christian. He has been psychoanalyzed by Freud himself and others as being Oedipal. Lately, he has been diagnosed as schizophrenic or bipolar. The play has been called a dark comedy. And, as Harold Bloom points out, someone who is reactionary, paranoid, angry, brooding, abusive and suicidal -- really is NOT a very nice person.  So why do we forgive him? Why is he so bewilderingly seductive and sympathetic? At the end of the play are our hearts with Horatio's as he watches this extraordinarily troubled young man die and cries,  "Goodnight, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."