Monday, March 26th, 2012

Hamlet's Arrested Development: Teaching Shakespeare and the Bluths

I’m almost the same age as Hamlet.

This occurred to me at 3 AM on the night before I had to teach a class on Hamlet and Arrested Development. I had started to fall asleep on top of my computer, and dragged myself to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face.

When I looked up from the sink, the news in the mirror wasn’t good.

A patch of white hair in my right eyebrow had marched eastward, a thickening index of the unchecked free radicals cartwheeling through my body. Purplish circles sagged under my eyes, fed by lack of sleep and grief at the recent death of my grandfather. Eight days of facial hair had grown unchecked into a spindly patchwork of black and blonde. And a pint of post-midnight coffee had set my left eyelid aflutter.

It’s dangerous business to read Hamlet after midnight, given the play’s constant considerations of mortality and the ethics of suicide (cf. Act III, Scene 1: “what dreams may come, / when we have shuffled off this mortal coil / must give us pause,” etc, etc).

But if you’re going to teach Shakespeare, I figured, you might as well look insane.

Usually, I lead the discussion sections attached to intro-level humanities courses—the kind of thing I remember attending at nine AM on Friday mornings with Jupiter-grade hangovers, wrists still bearing the neon orange bracelets applied by bouncers the previous evening. But one or two times per term, I teach the actual class sessions, charged with the intimidating task of explaining Freud, or Plato, or Kafka. Almost without exception, my students seem to take college more seriously than I did when I was a teenager, so it’s not hard to find ways to capture their attention. It’s more challenging to argue that literary interpretation matters—that there are outside-the-classroom stakes to theory, to the analysis of texts, and to the clear communication of difficult ideas.

That it’s not just some twitchy sleep-deprived weirdo standing in front of them, hungry for approval, worried that he might share some deep, sweaty insecurities with the loathsome product of Shakespeare’s imagination. Teaching is a standup comedian’s nightmare, the one where he gets onstage only to realize his jokes are all about Ferdinand de Saussure.

“I said semiotics,” the comedian says, tugging at his collar as the crowd boos.

The joy (and relief) of teaching comes when one figures out how to get the students to engage with the material, often in unexpected ways. The terror of it—really, the absolute worst part—comes during the prep stage, usually at around that 3 AM mark, when the similarities between Buster Bluth and Prince Hamlet (crystal clear just hours before) suddenly seem like distant, vague memories, or like the nonsensical product of someone else’s imagination.

In this case, I’d intended to wrest from Hamlet and Arrested Development a conversation about humor’s place in a Shakespearean tragedy; about the ludicrous notion that indecisiveness is something new to so-called millennials; or about why certain texts are worthy of “serious” attention while we deride others as “popular culture.” Couldn’t a reading of Arrested Development in the context of Hamlet enliven both texts?

After all, George Sr. haunts the Bluth model home from the attic like King Hamlet’s Ghost haunts the Danish palace. Lucille’s affair with George’s brother Oscar seems like a reinterpretation of Gertrude’s marriage to her dead husband’s brother Claudius. Michael has to fight off Stan Sitwell, just as Hamlet must contend with both his usurper uncle and Fortinbras the invading Norweigian. And when Buster finally “finds out” about the relationship between his mother and his uncle, his reaction smacks of Hamlet’s indignation: “You lied to me!” he screams, “You said my father was my father, but my uncle is my father. My father is my uncle!”

Of course, it’s one thing to argue that these parallels exist. It’s quite another to say that they should mean something to anybody—let alone to an 18-year-old future economics major completing his or her second required quarter of HUMA-16000: Media Aesthetics.

I wanted to make the investigation of these parallels enjoyable—a rollicking good time to break up our two-weeklong slog through a play about death and suicide and failed revenge (which, incidentally, we were reading in the heart of February, the most dismal winter month in Chicago, a city famous for dismal winter months). So I’d focus on Act Five of Hamlet, which opens with the funniest—and probably weirdest—scene of the play. It’s often called “The Gravedigger Scene,” in deference to the fool who plays a fleeting but central role.

When the curtain goes up, we find Hammy and his best friend Horatio in a cemetery. Our laconic hero has just returned safely from England, where he dodged an assassination attempt by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two hitmen hired by his Uncle-Father Claudius. In the meantime, his would-be girlfriend Ophelia has killed herself—thanks in part to Hamlet’s fairly rude rebuke of her love (after denying that he ever loved Ophelia, he feigns insanity, calls her a whore, tells her to become a nun, then leaves the country). It’s under the happy circumstances of his return that the Danish Prince runs into the salty and sarcastic gravedigger, whose cavalier attitude toward death scares the hell out of Hamlet.

The gravedigger sings while he works, tossing skulls in the air as he digs fresh graves. An astonished Hamlet picks up the skulls and asks Horatio, “Has this fellow no feeling of his business? He sings in grave-making.” The fact that the gravedigger feels so comfortable around the business of death seems to both offend and intimidate the delicate Prince. He’s spent the previous four acts whining about whether to exact revenge against his father’s murderer, lamenting the enormous burden of trudging through royal life with the weight of paternal expectations on his shoulders. Now he weeps over a pile of skulls, even though to him they’re simply anonymous hunks of rock that used to be politicians, lawyers, landowners, and other Danish one-percenters.

He wants dignity and gravity in the presence of death. What he gets instead is laughter.

To the gravedigger, cemetery work has become a simple fact of everyday experience. Bone is his medium. He knows how to identify bodies, speeds of decomposition, former occupations—all by looking at skeletons. This kind of macabre expertise takes time to develop. Hamlet asks how long he has been employed in the graveyard. “Of all the days i’ th’ year,” the fool replies “I came to ’t that day that our last King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras […] that very day that young Hamlet was born.” That is, the lives of the gravedigger and Hamlet—the peasant workman and the Prince—have been intertwined. “I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years,” he says, revealing Hamlet’s age in the process.

That’s right. Hamlet is thirty.

He isn’t just a sullen teen—a fact that’s easy to forget throughout the play. One can’t chalk up his moodiness to raging hormones or bad grades. He’s a thirty-year-old grad student who’s never had a real job. He’s directionless and depressed. Still dependent on his mother. Still incapable of pleasing his father. And incapable of confronting the possibility of his (or, really, anyone else’s) mortality in any real way.

It’s Arrested Development.

I didn’t have a moment of revelation staring at a blurry image of my face in the mirror. I think I came back out to the living room and typed a little while longer before falling asleep on the couch.

In the morning, I showered and shaved. I put on a blazer and a pair of Levi’s 511’s. I bought a large coffee before class (which exacerbated the eye twitch, but some things can’t be helped). I tried to look the part of the confident TA with the white stripe in his eyebrow. In our discussion, I suggested that the gallows humor of the Gravedigger Scene occasions Hamlet’s most important insights into the nature of death: that only in the figure of the fool, the clown, the seventeenth century Joe the Plumber does Shakespeare deliver something that sounds like a sincere truth: that, yes, death scares the hell out of us all for good reason.

But the gravedigger offers a kind of choice. We can hem and haw about it, wallow around in the skulls with Hamlet and lament our collectively unknown and terrifying fate. We can pluck the white hairs out of our eyebrows and snivel at the ridiculous notion that our youths are spent in our twenties.

Or we can laugh in death’s face with the gravedigger and the Bluths.

Maybe that wasn’t convincing enough evidence that we should all read Hamlet and watch Arrested Development.

If not, let me know. I have some pretty good semiotics jokes you might enjoy instead.

A-J Aronstein isn’t quite thirty. He teaches (most of the time) writing in Chicago.

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  • Timothy Johnson@facebook

    Hamlet isn't contemplating suicide in III.1. He is clearly aware of the presence of his uncle and Polonius behind the curtain. He's acting for them, trying to show that he's gone crazy enough to consider it. But he isn't. Also, Hamlet isn't moody; he's not "whining about whether to exact revenge against his father’s murderer, lamenting the enormous burden of trudging through royal life with the weight of paternal expectations on his shoulders," he's wrestling with the very difficult decision of whether to believe a voice from the grave that tells him to enact revenge. Both the spectral voice and the call to the sin of revenge are worth doubting on their own right. This is why Hamlet continues to challenge the ghost when it appears. And yet, the words of the ghost seem to ring true. That's tough stuff to deal with, but it's not whining. It's finding your whole world shattered (your lack of expected kingship in there too), and trying to pick up the pieces and right wrongs. That ain't easy.

    There's the parallel. Michael thinks he's got this strong house, and it's actually shoddy as hell. And so is Denmark. The system they have always depended on is broken. I guess the parallel then brings up the obvious question. If Michael is Hamlet, who is Fortinbras? Who is actually following the rules, and being honorable if Michael is breaking the rules and "revenging out of turn?" And what is his tragic flaw to counter Hamlet's?

    Also, I readily await any and all semiotics jokes.

  • AJA@twitter

    Awesome. Dorkout time.

    I'd go easier on Hamlet precisely if he were younger. But he's 30. He's an adult. Here's what I'd say: "You know what Ham? Grow up. In the Imaginary Denmark you inhabit, you have responsibilities to attend to. Regardless of whether the Ghost tells you to exact revenge on your father's murderer, YOU EXACT REVENGE ON YOUR FATHER'S MURDERER. WWFD? [What Would Fortinbras Do?]. Oh. I already know. He'd find a huge freaking axe and bury it in Claudius's back. Then summon the lords to demand oaths of fealty, and raise taxes. Cuz he's a bad motherfucker."

    And on the "Is he insane, is he not insane" thing: it's not a neat and tidy issue at all. But I'm also not saying that he's *actually* contemplating suicide in the famous soliloquy. Regardless, he's definitely weighing the ethics of taking one's life–whether it's for Claudius and Polonius behind the curtain, or not. He's at least performing the reasons why we're foolish enough to choose "whips and scorns," when we might easily make our quietus with a bodkin (aka: find eternal peace by cutting our wrists, or whatever). But then we get:

    "the native hue of resolution
    Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
    And enterprises of great pith and moment
    With this regard their currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of action."

    Here, we get good ol' whiny, indecisive Hamlet (and I say whiny in comparison to, just to use an example with some contemporary cultural purchase, Prince Joffrey, who would have absolutely no problem with offing the man who poured poison in the ear his father–what a SPINELESS way to commit regicide btw). Hamlet laments that thought prevents us from acting, and then talks more about thought! Get it over with Hamdawg. You're the prince! You have a kingdom to inherit!

    (NB: Sitwell is Fortinbras)
    (NB2. Semiotics joke:

    Roland: What do you get when you cross a mafioso with a deconstructionist?

    Jacques: I don't know!

    Roland: An offer you don't understand. lulz)

  • Timothy Johnson@facebook

    But that's taking a non-Elizabethan approach to revenge. Revenge is a sin in the eyes of the time. Justice would be good. Justice would be exposing the sin to the court. Justice might even kill Claudius at "prayer." I doubt anyone could second guess him having just seen the play. Revenge stabs the wrong man through a curtain. He's not whining and waffling, he's working out how best to act on the knowledge he has been given without overstepping the bounds given to him by God. Also, even today, is meeting violence with violence really the "adult" thing to do?

    Hamlet isn't crazy. He's pretending. Especially To Be or Not to Be. That speech is all bullshit to keep up the appearance that he's not on to Claudius. He can clearly see Ophelia is right there. She is there for that whole speech. He knows something is up. Those who think he is crazy are coming from a strictly academic point of view, and have never approached it to figure out how would a person act this out. If you don't have to stage the play, you don't have to figure out what to do for three hours. This is not a boring play. But if Hamlet is maybe crazy, it is boring. In the scene right before this, we see a very sane Hamlet put on a show for Roz and Guildy, and arrange to catch Claudius up in this scheme of his. The dude even switches back and forth between sane pentameter and blank prose as he sees fit.

    Or look at it this way: Hamlet comes home from his long academic career to find his dad dead. He's put out by his uncle being on the throne, but there's no legal way around it since his uncle maried his mom, getting the throne, so he holds off. A demon shows up in the guise of his father and says there's proof that Claudius actually killed Hamlet Sr., and that Hamlet Jr. should just kill Claud. But Hamlet knows that the grave speaks lies in truth, and that revenge is bad news. This is dangerous knowledge, enough that he'ss afraid he's going to tip his hand in front of Claud, so he pretends to be crazy so he can figure out how to prove it for real, not just on the word of a spawn of hell. He has to look like this to everyone that might have the ear of the king, esp. his GF, since her dad is a controlling bastard. Some friends from school show up, he almost tips his hand, but he quickly figure out they're not the sort to just show up unannounced. Just then, a group of actors shows up, and he makes the connection that he can use a classic play to try to trip up Claudius. But before he can, he's wandering around the castle, and bumps into Ophelia, just hanging out. Of course he's suspicious. All he can do is assume that Claud and Polonius are right there. There's even good reason to think he's been spying on THEM, and knows what they're up to. Hamlet's not crazy, he's scared of getting killed by the guy who just poisoned his dad.

    I think the point that Arrested Development mirrors a popular understanding of Hamlet is accurate, but I think it misses significant parts of the play itself. It's more of a O Brother Where Art Thou/Odyssey reference than a direct one.

    Re: NB2: Ha! Also, facepalm, heh.

    • Shaun Robinson@facebook

      @Timothy Johnson@facebook I don't think Hamlet is actually mad, either, but there is no reason to think that Hamlet is faking madness during the "To be or not to be" speech. He's speaking quite clearly and logically–nothing mad about it. Besides, when he's playing mad he only speaks in prose, and this is verse.

      And as for the idea that he can clearly see Ophelia, I don't think it's really safe to take the Elizabethan stage as a literal space–the audience understood that sometimes characters they could see weren't all visible to one another.

      Hamlet himself seems to disagree with the idea that he's not "not whining and waffling":

      Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
      That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
      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!

      In other words, "I should shut up and just get on with it." And if he is not procrastinating, then why does he agree to go to England with Roz and Guil, epsecially after his plan has succeeded with the play? AJ is absolutely right that Hamlet has no resolution and fails to act until after he confronts death in the gravedigger scene.