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I won't be Hamlet, he told himself as he dialed Bess's number. I'll get a good part, like Horatio or Laertes, but I won't get the big one. I can handle that. The phone rang at the other end. Good. He'd tried to reach Bess twice before, but the line had been busy. She'd been using it, making call-backs.
"Check's in the mail," said the voice at the other end.
"Hi Bess. It's Will, returning your call."
"Hey, Will, I've been waiting to hear back from you. I'm happy to inform you that you've been cast as Hamlet, if you're willing to accept the part."
Will nearly dropped the receiver.
"Hey, Will-you there?"
"Yeah-I don't know what to say."
"Say you'll take the part and work like hell to make us glad we cast you."
"I can't believe it. The part was Randy's. Everybody knew that. He's got the talent, he's got the moves-he even looks good in tights."
"Oh no it wasn't, my low-self-esteemed friend. The part was yours from the beginning."
"Randy's all flash. He's got great tricks. I'd cast him in a minute as Richard III, or Ariel, or Puck. But Hamlet is the greatest part in the greatest play in the English language-maybe the greatest play in the world. It calls for more than nice legs and ballet moves. You're wrong. Everybody knew the part was yours-everybody but you.
"And by the way, you don't look so bad in tights yourself."
Will accepted the part formally and hung the phone up. He announced the casting to the other teachers, who gave him a loud standing ovation, so that he was sorry he'd mentioned it.
Wanting time alone, he headed out into the hall and toward an exit. As he turned a corner he ran into Principal Hellstrom. Each of them took a short jump backwards.
"Still with the white shirt and tie, Will?" asked the principal. He was a large bald man with a goatee. He wore a black "NO FEAR" T-shirt, jeans and a reversed baseball cap. Will frankly didn't consider that appropriate attire for a school administrator, but he kept his mouth shut about it.
"The students'll never listen to you unless you get into their world," said Hellstrom.
Students were coming down the hall. No point in pursuing this in public. No point in pursuing it at all, when it came to that. Will said he'd think about it and went on his way again.
He made a detour for the nearest men's room. When he pushed the door open he found a large sophomore boy and a small junior boy inside. The large sophomore, a young man named Eric Smedhammer equipped with a shaved head, several tattoos and innumerable piercings, had the junior (a boy named Jason Something) up against the wall next to the paper towel dispenser, one big hand around his throat.
At the sight of a teacher, Eric let his victim go. He followed the victim out, walking straight forward so that Will had to move out of his way, a small smile on his face. Will found himself staring at the boy's black T-shirt, silk-screened with a picture of Yggxvthwul, the tentacled monster-antihero of a popular video game.
Will let him go. He should have talked to him, put him on report. But Eric had been through a terrible ordeal. Everyone was cutting him slack for the time being.
The face Will saw in the mirror as he washed his hands was one he'd never been able to categorize, though categorizing faces was a hobby of his. The brown hair was a little longer than the current fashion. The face was neither round nor long, and its nose could only be described as "average."
He thought it was a good kind of face for an actor.
He could be anyone.
* * *
Not entirely by coincidence, Will's sophomore English class was beginning a study of Hamlet.
"Will we have to go to your play?" asked Jason Nordquist, a red-haired boy.
"I suppose there might be some kind of extra credit if you wrote a report on it."
"And what happens if we give the star, like, a thumbs-down?" asked Jason Weber, a fat boy.
"You'd have to give a good reason, and demonstrate an understanding of the play that would justify your review."
"Hey, that's blackmail," said Jason Nordquist.
"No, extortion. Now let's look at the play itself. You've all read it, I hope-or at least started it. Who can give us a short synopsis-what's the plot of the play?"
After a silence in which students looked at each other nervously, Jason Weber said, "Hamlet's the prince of Denmark. His uncle killed his father and married his mother, and the uncle's the king now. His father's ghost tells Hamlet what happened. Hamlet pretends to be insane so his uncle won't look for any trouble from him. He kills an old man, Polonius, who was spying on him. The king sends him to England. Polonius' daughter Ophelia, who was Hamlet's girlfriend, goes nuts with grief. Her brother-what's the name?"
"Laertes," said Will. "Go on. You're doing great."
"Laertes plots with the king to kill Hamlet. Hamlet comes back quicker than expected, and fights a duel with Laertes. The king and Laertes poison the tip of Hamlet's sword, and also poison a cup of wine that they figure he'll drink from. But Hamlet's mother drinks the wine first and croaks, and Laertes gets stuck with the sword before Hamlet gets wounded with it. When Hamlet figures out what's happening, he kills the king before he dies himself, and by then the stage is full of dead bodies. Kinda like the Denmark Chainsaw Massacre."
"Good," said Will. "Concise and accurate. So why do we still read Hamlet, and perform it, after three hundred years? What is Hamlet about?"
"It's about a man who couldn't make up his mind?" hazarded Kimberly Olson, a good student.
"You've seen the Laurence Olivier movie, I take it?"
"My dad rented it once."
"I saw part of the Kenneth Branagh one," said Jason Weber. "I liked the part at the end where Norway conquered Denmark."
"That was an interesting way to do it," said Will. "It's something we Norwegians dreamed about for hundreds of years in real life, but never quite managed. It's not quite as good for me though, because I'm part Dane myself. My ancestors came from Norway, but some of their ancestors came from Denmark, and brought the name 'Sverdrup' with them.
"But back to Olivier. He's a bit out of fashion just now, but his is one point of view. Even so, to say Hamlet can't make up his mind begs the question. The real issue is, why does Hamlet hesitate? Why does he have trouble just going ahead and getting revenge for his father's murder?"
"Because it would be immoral?" asked a girl named Kimberly Engel.
"That's an interesting point." There were groans from the class. "All right, it's an interesting point to me. The original Hamlet, who may have been a genuine historical character, was a Viking, or maybe a pre-Viking.
"The oldest version of the story we have comes from a Danish historian named Saxo Grammaticus, who wrote in the early thirteenth century. It's impossible to date the story-assuming it actually happened-because Saxo was an incredibly sloppy historian. He threw every legend he could find in a hat and pulled them out in whatever order he grabbed them-"
"You mean Shakespeare stole the story? He was a-what do you call it-plagiarizer?" asked Jason Nordquist.
"No. Not at all. If you ever read Saxo-and don't worry, I'm not gonna put you through that-you'd see that Shakespeare made gold out of lead. Saxo's Hamlet story is a kind of Clever Jack fairy tale, and a bad one. Even on its own terms it doesn't hold together."
"But wasn't there a Hamlet play before Shakespeare's?" asked Kimberly Olson.
"There seems to have been. A playwright named Thomas Kyd may have written it, but we don't have that play, so we can't tell what, if anything, Shakespeare may have borrowed."
Somebody said something Will didn't catch, and there was giggling.
"Look," said Will. "Any writer will tell you that there are only about a half dozen basic plots. Nobody comes up with entirely new stories-not understandable stories, anyway. It's what you do with the material that counts. Was The Magnificent Seven a bad movie because it was based on Seven Samurai?"
The blank looks he got told him nobody had heard of Seven Samurai, so he let it go.
"I was talking about revenge. There was no taboo against it in the original Hamlet's culture. On the contrary, avenging a father's murder would have been a sacred obligation.
"And for Shakespeare, well, even though he lived in a nominally Christian culture, most Elizabethans made a moral exception for revenge. An Elizabethan gentleman who failed to avenge a murdered father would probably have ended up a social outcast.
"So where's the problem? Why can't Hamlet just kill the king?"
After a moment Jason Nordquist said, "Maybe he wants to go on living. Look what happened to John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald."
"Good point. This may be the real meaning of the most famous passage in the play. Any idea what passage I'm talking about?"
Kimberly Engel said, "To be or not to be?"
"Right, the soliloquy. Most people think he's contemplating suicide. That's how Olivier played it. But I think it's more complicated than that. Hamlet knows he will probably die if he kills the king. He's torn between his normal desire to survive and his ethical duty to get revenge. To get full price for his father's life, he has to discount his own life-throw it away.
"So he asks, 'what is a human life worth?' What is a human being? Why do we put a high value on a human life? Again and again in the play, Hamlet talks about what's natural-'foul and unnatural murder'; 'this is most foul, strange, and unnatural.'
"You've got to understand what natural means in the play. Nowadays we think about nature-animals, the environment, the rain forests. But for Shakespeare it meant natural law. Natural law is a concept that's so far out of fashion nowadays it's actually taboo. It holds that there is a universal moral law-constant in all times and places and cultures-which everyone understands, or ought to. A few years ago a Supreme Court nominee got in big trouble because he'd written opinions that defended the idea of natural law. What was ironic was that his biggest critic was a Roman Catholic, and Roman Catholics still believe in natural law, officially."
Will picked up his book.
"'What a piece of work is man,'" he read, "'how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties; in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?'"
He turned a few pages. "'Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times. And now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.... To what base uses may we return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till 'a find it stopping a bunghole?... Thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is of earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop up a beer barrel?'"
He put the book down. "Now you can groan all afternoon about how irrelevant Hamlet is to your lives, but if you think this is irrelevant you're just not paying attention.
"Modern people live in a state of contradiction, what the psychologists call 'cognitive dissonance.' That means we believe one thing in our heads, and another in our hearts. On one side we believe that human beings are the purely accidental products of chance and evolution. On the other hand, we believe that every human being is infinitely valuable and endowed with inalienable rights.
"These two ideas don't work together. One or the other can be true, but not both. But we try to believe in both of them at once."
He saw only blank looks on the students' faces.
"Okay, look at it this way," he said. "Let's imagine a scene we've all seen on the news. There's a man standing on a lawn in the middle of the night, and behind him his house is a smoldering ruin, destroyed by fire. But his family has been rescued.
"A news reporter, with all the legendary sensitivity of his profession, asks the man how he feels. What does he say?"
"Come on, you all know what he says."
"He says, 'Well, the house and all the stuff inside, that's just stuff. The important thing is, we have our lives,'" said Kimberly Johnson, a star of the girls' basketball team.
"Exactly. But have you ever analyzed that statement scientifically? The house-the furniture-the belongings-they're all matter. What do scientists tell us about matter?"
"It's made up of energy?" asked Jason Weber.
"Yes, but I was thinking of how long it lasts."
"You can't destroy it, except with a nuclear reaction," said Kimberly Engel.
"Right. Scientifically, matter is the most eternal thing we know about. People, on the other hand, are personalities. When you love a person, it's the personality you care about, not the matter that makes up their body. But scientifically, you can't verify that personalities even exist. A lot of scientists believe that personality is a sheer illusion.
"So looking at it scientifically, what that man says to the reporter is silly. He's valuing an illusion that lasts maybe eighty or a hundred years over a substance that lasts from Big Bang to Big Bang."
"Wait a minute," said Kimberly Engel. "That's not exactly true. A house isn't just matter-it's a certain arrangement of matter. And people are another kind of arrangement of matter. We value some patterns over others. What's wrong with that?"
"That's exactly my point. On what basis do we value one random pattern over another? Break things down too far and matter doesn't matter anymore."
"Do you really believe that?" asked Kimberly Johnson.
"It doesn't matter what I believe. It's precisely this issue that Hamlet agonizes over in this play. And that's why Hamlet matters in the twenty-first century just as much as he did in the seventeenth. Hamlet says, 'What a piece of work is man-' in other words, what a work of art-and then he describes Alexander the Great rotting into loam and being made into a clay barrel stopper, or a king being eaten by worms and ending up part of a beggar's lunch.
Excerpted from Blood and Judgement by Lars Walker Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 2, 2004
There's at least one author out there writing fantasy in the manner of departed American wordsmiths like Leiber and Poul Anderson. I was particularly reminded of Leiber. First, BLOOD AND JUDGMENT brought THE SWORDS OF LANKHMAR to my mind -- Leiber's longest novel of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser; not just because of a little bit of plot-device affinity (traffic between universes), but because of the style -- heroic fantasy that recognizes heroism but also has a wry quality. But once I thought of SWORDS there was something else about BLOOD AND JUDGMENT that made me think of Leiber -- and made me want to say 'I wish he could have read this!' It's the Shakespearean element. I have to think Leiber would have relished this. To readers of this review who aren't readers of Leiber -- don't worry about that, but do consider giving this fast-paced, inventive novel a read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 23, 2003