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Bard Blog -- Coping with Uncertainty

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"We know what we are, but not what we may be," comes Ophelia's flash of insight within her madness.

Uncertainty reigns today. As the ole' non-Shakespearean cliché has it, it's hard to predict, especially about the future.

Granted, there's always an element of uncertainty in life. But today's level seems downright gut-wrenching. Just watch the price of gold, the market's measure of uncertainty, soar nowadays.

To wit: How will the Gulf oil spill ever stop? Will the European financial structure hold or collapse? What in the world caused that stock market plummet a couple of weeks ago? Are political officeholders walking toast? Will November produce a political tsunami?

Even the dependable, almost dowdy British political system has entered new territory. How will (or can) whose "strange bedfellows" in the Tory-Liberal team work?

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" remarks the night watchman in Hamlet -- to me, the greatest creation of the human mind. And a veritable study in uncertainty, from the very opening line.

That's where the relieving guard, Bernardo, shouts out "Who's there?" That's a question, just as all of Hamlet is a question. At its center comes the most famous ten words in English: "To be, or not to be. That is the question..."

All the key characters in Hamlet reiterate Bernardo's question. Claudius wonders "Who's there?" with his new wife Gertrude, who does likewise with him. Hamlet wonders "Who's there?" when seeing the ghost of his father. And the huge bedroom scene, smack in the middle of the play, is one long posing by Hamlet of "Who's there?" to his mother, Gertrude.

Likewise with the three members of the Polonius family, and even the drama's lesser characters. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are "sent for" by the King, after all, to learn "Who's there?" with Hamlet.

The play involves espionage, as characters strain to decipher one another. So it's fitting that the recent PBS "Great Performance" Hamlet, starring David Tennant, featured surveillance cameras all around Elsinore.

Yet most of the uncertainty of life -- in Denmark then, and America now -- cannot be captured through surveillance by cameras. For that uncertainty happens within.

And, fittingly, the main characters in Hamlet wonder "Who's there?" about themselves, as well as each other. Each reflects the play's second line, "Stand and unfold yourself."

At critical junctures, Claudius stands and unfolds himself -- to us and, most surprisingly, to himself, as he's most uncertain about his core character. Likewise with Gertrude, Ophelia, and -- obviously, above all -- Hamlet himself. The play is one stunning episode of "Stand and unfold yourself" of his own character. Why, he wonders, does he say what he says? Do what he does? Not do what he should do? Be what he isn't? What kind of person is he? Could he be?

Coping with a flood of uncertainty prompts Hamlet to pose fundamental questions on basic values and the nature of life.

I see scant probes in our world likewise hit by a rush of uncertainty. Without succumbing to Hamlet's analysis/paralysis, we nonetheless could benefit from more probes into "Who's there?" and moments where we stand and unfold ourselves.