Friday, September 14, 2012

To Be OR Not To Be: How Shakespeare Charted the Path to the Modern

To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Thus begins the big speech from the play Hamlet. This speech and play are universally accepted as being the best, most profound, most significant (add your superlative here) play in the English Language, or of the Millennium, or the History of Man (add your frame of reference here). 

The big question has been: Why is to be or not to be, the question?  Like most people, I’ve always focused on the “to be” and “not to be” parts.  Lately, I’ve come to understand the most important word in the sentence is the “or”. The speech offers two opposite and mutually exclusive options.  It’s not sort of this and sort of that.  It is this or that. It is a choice.  Hamlet has a choice.  It is for him to make.

The version of the play we know is not the first rendering. The story originated in Germany in the 14th Century.  It was retold many times and performed as a play.  Each writer changed it. Shakespeare based his version on a lost play scholars call the Ur-Hamlet. It was performed in London in the late 1580s. Shakespeare started writing his Hamlet in the early 1590s. It seemingly was performed many times over the decade. One of his early drafts of the play was stolen and printed in 1601.  Scholars call it the “Bad Quarto.”  The thief was capitalizing on the success of the Shakespeare’s newly revised work that was burning up the stage of the newly built Globe Theatre.  Shakespeare’s company quickly printed a “true and perfect copy” of the play the next year, called the “Good Quarto.” [Follow this link to: Ay, there's the point: the Bad Quarto of Hamlet]

The Bad Quarto, like the early renderings of the play, was a straight forward revenge drama.  The Ghost of the King, Hamlet's father, tells Hamlet that his uncle has murdered him and taken his throne and wife.  He commands his son to revenge him.  Hamlet plots his revenge, acts crazy as a diversion, and eventually gets the job done.  There are dramatic twists and plots (otherwise the play would be about fifteen minutes long), but in the end Hamlet exacts his revenge as any good Medieval son should do.

The Good Quarto of Hamlet is a different play.  Sure, it’s still a revenge drama, but it is about something else.  Earlier Hamlets did not question whether they should revenge their dead fathers, the question was how.  This new improved Hamlet (or as I like to think, the Hamlet Reboot, since the treatment he got from Shakespeare is not unlike the current reboots of superhero franchises we see today: Hamlet, the Dark Prince.) questions everything especially whether he should kill the king. 

Whether to revenge or not creates the huge difference between the Bad and Good Quartos. Shakespeare changed the play. This was more than a few additions and notes from a producer. While the plot remained essentially the same, the play changed. He added complexity. The play got longer. The text got sharper, but also more complex. Hamlet’s path is less clear. He watered down Ophelia and made her weaker. Gertrude’s is more of an accomplice to Claudius. Every place where he could Shakespeare made the play more ambivalent.  Yes, he made a better play.  But "why" is the question? 

The biggest change is that the “to be or not to be” speech is moved from the second act to the third act after he has made the plan with the players to perform the a play like the murder of his father to catch his uncle.  (It's all very Perry Mason, if you remember that sort of thing.) In the Bad Quarto: Hamlet says he's going to act crazy; he does the speech acting crazy, the Players show up, he makes a plan to catch Claudius and he stops acting crazy.  In the Good Quarto: he does the speech after he has made the plan with the Players.  This speech is not an acting crazy speech. It's different. This speech is an argument for himself and the audience.

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 wished to die to sleep, [i]
This is no revenge drama speech. Hamlet's questioning whether he should kill Claudius. He realizes he has a choice. He will also bear the responsibility for his choice. He has two opposite paths. His “to be or not to be” is:
TO BE (to Live)
OR NOT TO BE (to Die)
TO BE (Suffer through one’s life dealing with whatever the world throws at you)
OR NOT TO BE (End your life or the life of someone else, to murder, to kill)
TO BE (Be in civilization and absorb the pain of being in community)
OR NOT TO BE (Be a violent barbarian forcing your will on others)
TO BE (Live and be present, feeling everything that it is to be human)
OR NOT TO BE (To shut off one’s feelings/emotions and be numb in the world)
Or it could be all of the above, plus anything you can imagine “be” to be, all at the same moment.[ii]
The “to be” and the “not to be” are very important, however, the “question” is in the “or”.  There is a choice. Hamlet must make a choice.  This is the difference between the two versions of HAMLET. In the “bad”, Hamlet doesn’t question whether he should revenge his father’s death. It’s his duty. In the “good”, he realizes he has a choice. This is huge. Hamlet has a choice. He has control of this decision. He, not God, has control of his fate. Either choice is valid. He can go either way.

Four hundred years later it’s hard for us to appreciate how remarkable choice is for Hamlet. We post-modern folk, or post-post modern folk or postie-tostie modern folk make decisions and choices every day. But for someone coming out of the Medieval Era, for Hamlet to have a choice and realize it, it is world changing.

Over the ten years of writing this play, Shakespeare came to this understanding because choice was the story of his life.  He understood how new, complex and amazing choice actually is. He had made a choice about becoming a poet and player that changed his life. In the time between starting to write HAMLET and it being a huge hit in the newly opened Globe Theatre some ten years later, Shakespeare’s life changed.
  • He had left his small town, his wife and kids.
  •  He had turned his back on his father’s trade as a Glove Maker and had become an actor and a poet. (One step above prostitute)
  •  He had matured in age from 27 to 37.
  •  He had gone from being a minor playwright, an “upstart crow”, to the chief playwright and an actor in the top theater company in London.
  • His only son has died at home while Shakespeare was away in London.
  • He had made a fortune.
  • He had become an Elizabethan Rock Star.
Shakespeare made a choice and his life changed.

Choice was profoundly new for Shakespeare and his age. The Medieval era did not contain options and choices for people. The Medieval Man (I use the term generically though it would have never occurred to the Medieval Man to do so. I’m also speaking in broad generalities. I know this and can argue with myself on any of these points, so please hang with me); the Medieval Man understood his place. He knew where he was in the world. He knew what his job was. If he stayed in his place and followed his predetermined fate, he would go straight to heaven when he died. Life was preordained. Fate was set. Everything was clear. If your father was a stone mason, you would be a stone mason like your grandfather was a stone mason. If you were a serf, you would spend your life working in the dirt, eating the dirt, you would return to the dirt. A Serf was a Serf. A Duke was a Duke. Even the royalty had their place in the wheel, the “great chain of being.” 
You had a responsibility to stay in your path. Life was ordered. There was surety, but no control. A higher power outside the system had control and responsibility for each and every life. There was a minimal concept of individuality and personal identity. Everyone was a cog in the wheel. You were identified by your place in the system. It even became your last name. (The Medieval version of “We are the Borg”) Within this pre-ordained world of fixed hierarchies every person, high or low, would look around and be able to say with absolute certainty: “I have my place in the system.” Life was fated; time was fixed; space was insurmountable. A thing was what it was. This led to that! This was this!

If a person questioned or failed to follow God’s will, he would end up damned for eternity in Hell. You might get there anyway if you were fated by God to go to Hell, but mostly it was reserved for those who didn’t stay in their place, those people who thought they had choices. You could make a choice to be a villain, rogue or actor, but the consequences were completely clear. [Richard III made the most of this. God made him a villain and he committed to it in a big way.  Read: The Last Medieval Man: Richard the Third]

The transition from the Medieval to the Renaissance began as early as 1200. The Crusades, the discovery of Classical writing and rise of the merchant/middle class helped. In England, when King Henry VIII decided to toss out the Catholic Church so he could marry Anne Boleyn, everything went into disarray. Which church do you follow, the Pope’s or your King’s? It created doubt and choice. It didn’t help that the monarchs switched religions back and forth for the next twenty-five years. When Elizabeth I took the throne, she also did something that impacted the creation of the English Golden Age more than anything: Literacy. Due to the installation of public schools, the literacy rate in England went from 20% of the men to 80% in thirty years.[iii] (Only wealthy women were taught to read, even a female monarch couldn’t change things that much.) These elements and many others affected this idea that a man could make a choice about his life. It was a rising tide. [Look for my coming article on Left and Right Brain Architecture: The Teeter Totter of the Brain.]

When Richard Burbage, playing Hamlet, spoke “To be or not to be” on the platform of the Globe Theater in 1601, he embodied the major question of the age. Shakespeare charted the path for the creation of the modern era. For it all begins with having a choice and the challenge of consequences.

Following Hamlet, Elizabethan Man embraced his control over his life. Everything changed. He was on his way to becoming Modern. He now had to choose his path. He had to deal with the consequences. His choice made him unique, an individual. This was the birth of individual identity. “I am a person. I chose this over that. I made this choice. I caused this to happen. I created my life. My future is created by my present." Time became linear. Space could now be crossed in time with effort. Distance became fixed.

(Of course, in a few decades after Shakespeare a group of people thought this was all bullocks, beheaded the King and started to follow God’s will.  It was the type of backlash that always happens when people think they have control over their lives.)

If there was no Shakespeare, then we might not have had a Newton. Classical Mechanics is the physicist expression of Shakespeare’s work. Without Shakespeare, we probably would not have had the Enlightenment. Or, the United States. We don’t get to the Modern. I know I’m overreaching, we probably would get to now without Shakespeare, but it was his clear embodiment of causality and individual choice that gave us the path to the Modern.

With choice came consequences. Hamlet really got this. He became paralyzed with the consequences of his choice. It is the source of modern angst, depression and schizophrenia. Hamlet says so much at the end of the “to be or not to be” speech.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hew of resolution
Is sickled ore 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.
In the end of the play, Hamlet’s confrontation of causality and his cowardice cause him to throw up his hands and accept that he has no real control of the circumstances.  He needs to remain true to what is right.  Toss the dice and see the way they come up.  He does this, get’s his revenge, kills a few more people and dies, “the rest is silence”. [for more on this read: The Readiness is All]

It has been a four hundred year journey from that day in the Globe Theater to our time that some call post-modern. We are leaving the Modern because about a hundred years ago the painters and the physicists started to suggest that the world works in a different way than we thought. Rather than fixed, everything behaves in a relative way to everything else. It depends on observation which causes entanglement, because as soon as we are involved in the observation it changes the observed. The same thing can be two opposite things at the same time. An electron can be a wave or a particle depending on how we look at it. Time, light and space can bend upon itself. Time is spontaneous and simultaneous. Space bends and can be transgressed instantaneously. “I am both separate and equal. I am both an individual and fully part of the community, I am universal. [I'll have to say about this in the coming month.]

Our experience of our world is changing. The challenge for the writers, dramatists, screenwriters today is to embody the question of our age in the same way Shakespeare embodied his age. For us to get to the Next, the quantum era, we need the human example. Since theatre, films and television are the most human of the art forms, it is dependent on us to lead to the new era.

Knowing that the question is no longer one of choosing opposites, the new question is living in the duality of opposites being true at the same moment. This and that, rather than this or that. The new question might be:

To be and not to be, that is our challenge.

[i] Full text of Quarto 2 “To be, or not to be” speech, in original text:
To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Whether tis nobler in the minde to suffer
The slings and arrowes of outragious fortune,
Or to take Armes against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them, to die to sleepe
No more, and by a sleepe, to say we end
The hart-ake, and the thousand naturall shocks
That flesh is heire to; tis a consumation
Devoutly to be wisht to die to sleepe,
To sleepe, perchance to dreame, I there's the rub,
For in that sleepe of death what dreames may come
When we have shuffled off this mortall coyle
Must give us pause, there's the respect
That makes calamitie of so long life:
For who would beare the whips and scornes of time,
Th'oppressors wrong, the proude mans contumely,
The pangs of despiz'd love, the lawes delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurnes
That patient merrit of th'unworthy takes,
When he himselfe might his quietas make
With a bare bodkin; who would fardels beare,
To grunt and sweat under a wearie life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country, from whose borne
No traviler returnes, puzzels the will,
And makes us rather beare those ills we have,
Then flie to others that we know not of.
Thus conscience dooes make cowards,
And thus the native hiew of resolution
Is sickled ore with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard theyr currents turne awry,
And loose the name of action. Soft you now,
The faire Ophelia, Nimph in thy orizons
Be all my sinnes remembred.
[Adapted from Internet Shakespeare Edition:]

[ii] This list of “to be’s” are inspired by the work of Tina Packer, Founding Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company and one of my mentors. While she has spoken often of this speech often, this bit was taken from Women of Will, Tina's lecture/theatrical on the feminine in Shakespeare.
[iii] The actual percentage of increase in literacy is highly debatable. A low number would be an increase of 5% to over 30%. I picked a higher number. The basic idea is that far more men could read and write in 1600 than could in 1560. And this made a huge difference in the culture.

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