In my last post I talked about Hamlet as a story of the transition from childhood to adulthood. Today I’d like to discuss how a related theme, the disparity between appearance and reality, is relevant to our lives today.
Almost from the play’s outset, Hamlet discovers that the world he thought he knew was more of an illusion than a reality. First comes the discovery of his mother’s seeming fecklessness in hastily marrying her brother-in-law Claudius, a union considered incestuous at the time. As things progress, Hamlet learns about other types of betrayal. The woman he loves, Ophelia, rejects him at her father’s behest, and two childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, essentially spy on him to curry favor with Claudius, who wants to know why Hamlet has been acting so strangely. Ultimately, the Prince is able to ascertain that Claudius did commit fratricide, as claimed by the ghost early in the play, and therefore is a usurper. All of these discoveries send the young prince into a depression and a despair of paralyzing proportions.
So how is any of this relevant to 21st century life? Today, isn’t it becoming increasingly difficult to discern truth from lie, illusion from reality? Most people, of course, on some level understand the nature of advertising, with its beguiling yet completely illusionary promise of happiness and fulfillment through a better dust collector, brighter teeth, or, ‘six-pack abs,’ so I think I’ll skip that discussion. The more serious and insidious gulf between appearances and reality, in my opinion, lies in how the government, aided by much of the media, shapes our view of the world, both domestically and internationally.
If we go back to the play for a moment, Claudius is the consummate politician – adept at reading and manipulating people, and skilled in the discharge of foreign policy. He uses these skills to hide his corruption. In his very first speech in Hamlet, he addresses his court, acknowledging national sadness over the passing of King Hamlet, making reference to the possible impending war with Norway, and implicitly justifying his incestuous marriage to Gertrude (“Th’ imperial jointress to this warlike state”) as a way of ensuring continuity in these difficult times. Indeed, this speech and an analysis of it should be required reading for all those who aspire to power! (Actually no, since I have no interest in electing more such politicians.)
When contemporary politicians fail to find public support for policy initiatives, their most common explanation is, “We haven’t communicated our message effectively enough.” Never is there a consideration that the policy might be flawed or should be reconsidered, the subtext being that they just have to find a more effective way of manipulating the people, of spinning an illusion or half-truth to get the people ‘onside.’
One example from my own country illustrates this succinctly: since Canada’s participation as part of the NATO contingent in Afghanistan has become increasingly unpopular here, there has been a shift from the earlier, bellicose rhetoric of the chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, about killing “scumbags and murderers,” to greater emphasis on aspects reminiscent of more traditional Canadian military operations, such as helping a school open and handing out food to displaced Afghans. This public shift does not mark a change in the mission, which is to hunt down terrorists; the loss of Canadian soldiers’ lives continues, but such is the contempt in which the public’s intelligence is held that the government hopes the voters will be fooled by a few treats handed out to Afghan children as being in the Canadian humanitarian tradition, and we’ll forget the realities of the war.
In my next post I would like to continue examining this facet of Hamlet’s relevance to our lives.