Suggestions to High-School Students for Reading Shakespeare -- Part 4

04/05/2015 10:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015

Read Not to Judge, But to Understand

There are several ways of reading. We can read to escape or to be entertained; to be confirmed in our own point of view or be challenged by another; to be inspired or attack; to evaluate critically or challenge; to judge, condemn, or simply to understand. It is this last way of reading - of wanting to understand the human heart in its many permutations in Shakespeare that interests us here.

We are always judging and evaluating what people are doing and saying, but judging can sometimes be a form of aggression that makes it impossible to listen and understand. While reading Shakespeare, try not to judge, but simply to understand his characters, opening yourself up to them as human beings and to their view of themselves. Listen intently as they tell you their story.

Beware the Moralist

Try not to be a moralist, who wants to know whether characters are good or bad, or worthy of your approval. Be silent and don't interrupt them. If you do want to be someone, be a psychologist, who simply wants to understand why they are saying what they're saying.

Learn to look at the world through their eyes, rather than yours. Let them tell you how they see themselves and the world in a way that makes sense to them, although perhaps not to you. Forget about yourself, and just listen as you would to a friend.

If they're different, or strange, or even repellent, or if you wonder how they could possibly have become this way, respect what they're saying and let them make a case for themselves.

Never listen as an inquisitor, who wants to damn them for whatever they say. Rather, learn to listen with the heart, and let them tell you everything in their own unique way.

Love Begets Understanding

"Man lernt nichts kennen, als was man liebt," is an old saying by the German poet Goethe. "You don't learn to understand anything unless you love it." If you tend to be a judgmental person, try to check this tendency in yourself, and listen to every character as a self-contained universe.

Be as fair with them as you would with yourself, giving them the benefit of every doubt, and taking into account every extenuating circumstance. Ask yourself how their past might explain what they're saying or doing.

More importantly, don't condemn them, but view them with compassion and empathy. Set aside whatever bias you may have and enter into their vision of things to become their explainer and advocate.

If you do feel the need to prejudge or condemn a play's characters, you'll never derive any benefit from reading, but simply have your own views confirmed. Ask yourself why you can't calmly listen to another person with a different viewpoint and remain silent.

Not judging others is a big step toward maturity that frees us from the tyranny of our own point of view. If you feel that you can't do this, you'll have learned an invaluable lesson about yourself.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's boyhood friends, for example. They are usually judged as villains, who opportunistically betray Hamlet to gain favor with King Claudius and Hamlet's mother, the Queen. They spy on Hamlet and routinely report back to the King about what they've been able to learn about him.

Students loathe these two young men for selling out their friend to advance their own interests. When they're later executed in England, students feel that they've simply received their just reward. This, of course, is the way they're usually played, which reflects a directorial judgment about what odious hypocrites they are; yet there's nothing in the text that supports such a view.

What readers forget is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern haven't read the play and don't know what the readers know about King Claudius, who has, indeed, called them to court to spy on Hamlet, but this is not what he tells them. He says that he and the Queen are concerned about Hamlet's strange behavior owing to the sudden death of his father.

While this reason is doubtless true for the Queen, it is not for the King, who wants to ferret out whether Hamlet suspects him of foul play in the death of his father. He also wants to keep him under surveillance lest he leave Elsinore and return with an army to dethrone him as king.

Seeing Things through Their Eyes

Imagine yourself as either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, and ask yourself what you would have done any differently. The King and Queen, Hamlet's own mother, have summoned you to court and entrusted you with the delicate mission of finding out what might be troubling Hamlet since the death of his father. You've been Hamlet's friend since boyhood, and you're naturally concerned about him. You trust King Claudius and especially Hamlet's own mother about what they're telling you, and why wouldn't you?

So you enter upon your new duties, visit Hamlet, and discover that he is, indeed, acting strangely. As time passes, he even disdains and insults you. You have no idea about the King's sinister intentions, or about how you're being used as a spy, and in time you find yourself caught up in a situation beyond your control. Hamlet never takes you into his confidence about the apparition of his dead father, whom the King has murdered, and never hints that the King and Queen's story isn't true. In fact, his behavior seems to confirm it.

All you've done is to obey the King since your arrival and you now escort Hamlet to England, where the change of scene may restore him to a measure of sanity after his killing Polonius. You have no idea of what's in the sealed letter you're carrying that calls for Hamlet's execution and, now, for your own.

Do you see how different the story looks when seen through their eyes?

The Enigma of Hamlet

You may recall that Hamlet feels badgered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and unleashes upon them a torrent of sarcasm for trying to "pluck out the heart" of his mystery by intruding too closely upon his soul. For four centuries Western tradition has accepted his misunderstanding of his two loyal friends by denying the integrity of these two innocents, who are beheaded for their devoted friendship and service to him.

As if Shakespeare would deny Hamlet or his boyhood friends their mystery by reducing them to a theory that would make us feel comfortable in dealing with them, instead of luxuriating in their infinite indefinability. We cannot even understand ourselves, let alone others like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who do their best by Hamlet, yet cannot quite trust his sanity lest he harm others or himself.

Even we who have read the play aren't quite sure of his sanity. Is he mad to begin with and only believes himself sane, and then, ironically, decides to act mad by wandering insanely about the court to gather information about his father's murder?

He seems so pathologically self-obsessed that, as brilliant as he is, he seems incapable of seeing the events as others view them, or to recognize the human devastation he leaves in his wake. He shows no remorse when accidentally killing Polonius, or in his heartless treatment of Ophelia, who he later confesses was the love of his life. Finally, what are we to make of his exultation in sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their graves?

Or was he sane and then driven mad by the sudden death of his father; his mother's hasty remarriage, which he sees as unseemly and vile; the apparition of his father's ghost, whose shattering revelations about the King's murder of his father and his mother's infidelity plunge him into rage and depression; and Ophelia's rejection of his love that leaves him broken? We can only sympathize with his disillusionment as his world implodes and he lashes out at those nearest to him.

No one has ever unraveled the enigma of Hamlet, and it is precisely his mystery that is the source of the perennial fascination about both him and the play. Shakespeare doesn't explain him, or judge him, or condemn him, but simply presents him. This is why the play is so modern, resisting explanations and theories, although critics for generations have gerrymandered "evidence" to support their claims.

Letting Things Be

"Non scholae sed vitae discimus," said the Roman philosopher Seneca. "We learn not for school, but for life." While we're young and still open to the world's enchantments, we know that great literature prepares us for life by bestowing a self-awareness beyond our years in looking behind the surface of things. It portrays persons and problems we'll later encounter and offers timeless lessons in dealing with them.

One of the many lessons taught by Shakespeare is listening to the mystery of things, becoming silent and empty and one with creation, where one never judges, but allows everyone and everything to be what they are. His plays invite us to look upon everything and to understand everything as we learn to see with his vision whereby, like every creator, "he makes his sun to rise on all his creatures, be they good or bad, just or unjust," the contented or tortured, and those in search of the light.