Springtime greetings to all Troppo Armadillos from your newest blogger! And for my first post, I’d like to start with a piece which began life inspired by the reactions of some Troppo critics to my recent piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, about Satanism. I don’t intend to directly counter individual criticisms¢â¬âtit-for-tat is not one of my interests–, or even to defend my thesis in that piece, merely to give you a sense of where I’m coming from, in general. I welcome all discussion¢â¬âfor, against, or bemused!
When Hamlet tells Horatio that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’, what does he mean?
People have argued about it for years. Is he saying, crossly, ‘you are a boring, earth-bound type, Horatio, who will never understand anything’? Is he saying, smugly, ‘I have powers you don’t have, Horatio, so shut your mouth?’ Or is he saying, meditatively, ‘The rational philosophy you’ve learnt and I’ve learnt, Horatio, while we were away studying, is not equal to what we’ve seen tonight.’?
Well, to understand it, it’s necessary not to take that statement in isolation, but look at in its context. And when you do, you notice something very interesting. It is actually part of a response Hamlet makes to an exclamation of Horatio’s, after Hamlet has talked with his father’s ghost, and before Horatio swears to keep the secret of the ghost:
Oh day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore, as a stranger, give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
From this give-and-take, it seems clear to me that Hamlet and Horatio are not at loggerheads about the reality of their supernatural experience; equally clearly, though, Hamlet¢â¬âwho has always suspected something was rotten in the state of Denmark, and for whom the apparition is visible proof of his suspicions, as it were¢â¬âtakes the actual disruption of normal physical reality much more calmly than Horatio does, who is excited and scared in equal measure. You can see that even in the way they speak¢â¬âHoratio’s almost-incantatory, awestruck exclamation, Hamlet’s wittily sharp repartee. There’s that interesting glide, too, from Horatio’s ‘strange’, to Hamlet’s ‘stranger’. The Ghost is a strange manifestation of those ‘things on heaven and earth’; but Hamlet reminds Horatio that human beings are themselves both strange¢â¬âa theme he returns to frequently in the play¢â¬âand strangers in the strange world. The ghost, as a form of reality, is every bit as welcome in this world as a creature of flesh and blood. Then there’s that association of ‘dreams’ and ‘philosophy’, as if to say it’s those rational thinkers who are themselves much more fanciful than they might imagine¢â¬âan association that leads one back to Plato’s famous image of the man trapped in the cave who thinks¢â¬âdreams¢â¬âthat the shadows cast on the cave wall are the real world.
As always with Shakespeare, there’s layers of meaning, which have made scholars happy and frustrated in various measures over the centuries: but at its heart is an understanding with which I am very much in sympathy: an understanding of the divided nature of humanity and the complex, extraordinary world we live in, a world which is not only of the everyday, but which is also part of larger schemes. We are actors on more than one stage, but like all actors, eventually we have to scrub off the makeup and go home.