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.