Hamlet, Hillary and Obama…Words vs. Action – 400 years later

February 26, 2008 at 10:42 pm | Posted in Musings | 2 Comments

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!

-Hamlet II.ii

Whoa!!! Stay on this blog! As shocking as it is to see the words ‘ass,’ ‘hell’ and ‘whore’ on a blog committed to kids’ music, let me explain (by the way, all those words were written by stuffy old Shakespeare, so they should be ok…right?) …It may come as a surprise to the three of you who read this blog regularly that I am more than my kid’s music credentials. I actually have another life, as an English teacher. It is not uncommon (and actually it’s desirous) for the world and the classroom to intersect. But this campaign season, as I’ve watched the primaries unfold, it just so happens that I have been teaching Hamlet; the intersection between real world and classroom has witnessed a crash (apparently no one heeded the stop signs).

I know what I said I’d write about on this blog, but, this has been so monumental that I need to at least acknowledge it – here we are, 400 plus years after Shakespeare penned Hamlet, and Barak and Hillary are slugging out the same debate that Hamlet held in his own head (that’s why he was a hero – he could hold two presidential candidates in his psyche and still have intellectual room to spare…). Hillary (and Bill) accuse  Barack of using his rhetoric to weave false hopes and fairy tales while asserting that she (they) can get things done. They are, they seem to suggest, the Fortinbras to Barack’s Hamlet.

Hamlet – Words vs. Action?

Just to review, Hamlet is about a young man who is visited by the ghost of his dead father, Hamlet (ok, so they weren’t awfully creative in the name department in the 12th century…). Hamlet Senior tells Hamlet Junior that he was murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle – STAY WITH ME HERE! The rest of the play is Hamlet Junior debating between words and action…most of the words are in his own head – BUT (and this is important for Hillary to understand) some of his words ARE action (apparently, the two aren’t mutually exclusive) – Hamlet uses a play to “Catch the conscience of a king…” – In other words, he uses words to achieve a really important end.

Hamlet is a poet – he talks a lot – he uses more than any other Shakespearian character. He uses words to catch the king, to free his mother from her self-imposed moral corruption and to set Denmark on the right path after his death. Unlike every other character in the play, Hamlet does not simply act – he thinks and talks before he acts. By creating such a talkative character, Shakespeare sets Hamlet apart from every other character in the play. They are lost in the Middle Age mentality of responding without thinking. Often, when Hamlet does act, it’s an indication of his decline – he shuns Ophelia, he accidentally kills Polonius, he has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed.

It’s not that Shakespeare (or Hamlet) completely trust words. One of the central metaphors of the play is pouring poison into someone’s ears. The wonder of words is that they can bring redemption – the danger is that they can be used to manipulate and corrupt.

A close reading of Hamlet would be instructive for both Hillary and Obama. She would be reminded that words are not always bad… I suspect she may be figuring that out with the recent polls. They allow us to define our world – and our experience. Unfortunately, for the the Clintons, words have been used over the years to defiine them unfairly and inaccurately. Obama might learn that his considerable gift to use words as poetry is not enough. When (and if) he moves into the general election, he has to use his words to explain how he will act.

In a recent article for “The New York Times,” Frank Rich compares Obama’s poetic language to JFK’s (you can find it here ) – it’s a frequent comparison, and it reminds us how a very young and oratorically gifted president can reshape the reality of our national experience – and can use words to great effect.

The great irony of all of this is that Hillary is using words to discredit Barack’s words. She should be careful, however, because at times, her acerbic rhetoric feels a little like poison in the ears.

If this post was too wordy for you – stay tuned – I’ll get back on the kids’ music and post an MP3 of “Twinkle,Twinkle Little Star,” as promised, tomorrow.



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  1. Interesting post – have you seen the column by Leonard Pitts about this subject? Worth a look. (I guess this makes me the 4th reader of your blog…)

  2. The article is here Thanks for pointing it out!

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