In retrospect it probably wasn't fair. To thrust that sort of expectation and pressure upon a young boy. But none of it was of malicious intent. I know they were all proud of me. My mom was a Child Life specialist in a hospital and my aunt worked as an ICU nurse. For them, the all-powerful doctor represented the pinnacle of achievement. I understand it all, of course. I may not have chosen my path, it may have been thrust upon me, but no matter. After my parents divorced, my dad moved to Arizona and started a new family. We grew up in relative poverty. We were on welfare for a time. I was a latch key kid until I could drive. Absent the realm of hunger and true squalor, you never realize relative paucity of material well being until you get older. I may have represented something for the older women of my family, something beyond the hum-drum mediocrity they had known. (What they didn't realize was that life can be hum-drum and drab and mediocre no matter your station, but that's another topic...)
A couple weeks ago I saw Hamlet again on stage. It is a work I have always returned to over the years. I'm a dork about Hamlet. I memorized the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy when I was 17 and haven't forgotten it since. (From time to time, usually in the car, I'll randomly spout it out to no one, and usually, for some strange reason, end up veering into a bizarro Australo-Irish brogue by mid-speech) Hamlet speaks to me, as the wise asses say. The melancholic, brooding youth paralyzed by fear and time and inaction. Knowing there is but one chance along the path of time, that every decision we make is fraught with loss, life as a series of paths untread.
The older I get the more Hamlet stops "speaking to me" and simply informs me of who I am. It isn't a conversation, it's "here you are, take it or leave it". And that's fine. I keep coming back to it so there must be some good to be had.
Hamlet, as per Harold Bloom, is the only character in Shakespeare we can conceive writing any of the actual plays of Shakespeare. He is human in a way that most flesh and blood, most of the quick can only hope to aspire to. He speaks and acts his way into existence. He is the sort of character that, as Holden Caulfield says, we wish were a friend of ours, someone we could call up on the phone and talk when we wanted or needed to. He has been my friend for an awful long time. Sad as that is to say. (I never "mixed" well).
The transformation that occurs in Hamlet from the time he sees his father's ghost to the final duel with Laertes at Elsinore is really quite astounding. I never noticed it in younger days. We too easily deposit Hamlet into the bin of "moody adolescent anti-heroes" without paying attention to what happens to the young Dane, the maturation that erupts forth, the flesh and blood human who rises from the pages by Act 5. Too often we over-focus on the woe-is-me ninny in the first couple of acts who yearns that his "too, too solid flesh would thaw and melt itself into a dew" without recognizing the new man emerging at the end who stoically accepts the dictum of "let it all be".
In the beginning Hamlet is wracked by indecision and guilt and rage. His father, the noble warrior King Hamlet, has been murdered, it is revealed, by the jealous scheming Uncle Claudius, who then seduces the grieving widow Gertrude; she, "with such dexterity to incestuous sheets", brings the mourning son of a king shame beyond description. The ghost appears to Hamlet, reveals all and demands vengeance. It is incumbent upon Hamlet alone to right the wrongs of a foul, foul murder. None of these events are caused by any act or idea of Hamlet himself. He is appropriated by filial duty, obligation, social and cultural pressure and urged into action. He must exact revenge for his murder, but in doing so, risk losing his soul. His manhood hangs in the balance. Hamlet swears in writing "adieu, adieu, remember me!" as his ghost father passes into oblivion. And then we get 3 acts of equivocation. To be or not to be. The anguish that an actor could weep over fictional Hecuba with such volcanic emotional range while Hamlet himself is frozen despite having the "motive and cue for passion" to carry out his dead father's final plea.
In the end he never initiates, just reacts to events as they occur. He forces Claudius to ignite the fuse with endless schemes and walks into traps willingly. He stops giving a damn about what others might expect. He stops trying to manifest the ideal foisted upon him by the Other. He finds himself in predicaments of the moment and begins to face them with a newfound dignity. The transformation is completed when he holds the skull of Yorick aloft:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, : a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Memento mori. All shall pass into dust. The clay of the remains of even Alexander the Great could be used to plug up a hole in a beer barrel. All pass into nothingness. The cat will mew and dog will have his day. Death becomes a tangible inevitability for the young Dane, not something abstract to theatrically fret and shed tears over. Life will go on until it stops; whether we act or abstain, whether we lash out or hide behind ramparts, the end will come, far into the future or prematurely. Life will end. The path we have trod cannot be retraced and we find that the reasons for our steps assume less and less importance as the years elapse. All reasons are forgotten in time. There is only the moment of the eternally recurrent present in which you reside, briefly, before you die.
We find ourselves in places chosen by others. We never had a chance to weigh in. But a moment arrives and we make the best of it. We choose to be, we embrace our fate with indifference, with what Harold Bloom calls a "noble disinterestedness". By the time Hamlet kills Claudius, he has forgotten all about the ghost of his father. The events that have driven him to the precipice no longer matter. He has transcended the boy, become a man, by turning away from filial and social expectation. His duty is to himself. Once his fate has been sealed by the sharp tip of Laertes' rapier, he acts, fully in control of himself, for himself.
I still have those envelopes addressed to "Dr J" from years ago. I keep them in a chest in the attic. They remain a part of who I was but no longer impact the choices I make, no longer feel woven into my being. I make my rounds not for those lost whispered promises from my youth, but for the sick, for mine own ends. I have become the compilation of the days I have lived. No longer am I an animated projection of the dreams of others. And each dawn will bring the opportunity to add fresh material to the narrative of a life.
Hamlet walks knowingly into the final trap, despite Horatio's protestations:
We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.Yes, let be. We shall be ready. Hamlet learns that the question of "to be or not to be" is no longer a question about living versus dying; at some point along a lifespan it becomes about taking ownership of your own being. Let it all come rumbling down from the mountain tops and let us rejoice in our transient freedom of the now, to choose to be our own best version of ourselves. Doctor, husband, father, citizen, son....