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When There’s 'Something Rotten in the State of Denmark,' It’s Time To Be Horatio, Not Hamlet

By Hannah Sole | Think Pieces | February 22, 2017 |

By Hannah Sole | Think Pieces | February 22, 2017 |

Picture the scene: There’s just been an election, and the guy who won was a bit of a surprising choice. The previous leader was a much-loved figure, but times have changed. The country is rapidly becoming an “unweeded garden,” possessed by things “rank and gross in nature.” The new leader is suspected to have come to power in shady circumstances, and he is obsessed with enjoying the pomp and ceremony of his new position. Compared with the “Hyperion” who ruled before him, he is a “satyr,” perceived as monstrous for his lusty behaviour. He is insensitive to emotion, calling grief “unmanly”. The wife of a leader isn’t viewed very sympathetically either.

The state becomes paranoid, and spying becomes the norm; even those in power, who should find it undignified and unseemly, are joining in. The leader surrounds himself with yes-men, who are set up to take the fall for his mistakes.

When this leader watches a parody version of himself, cracks start to show. He develops complex plots to get rid of his enemies, and his wife starts to look disgusted with him. There’s a chance she might want to switch sides.

He has long thought he could do a better job of preventing war than his predecessor, but war is coming anyway. When his enemy finally kicks down the door, like a Scandinavian Captain Flashheart, there is little left but a pile of bodies. His own schemes defeat him in the end.

Sound familiar?

As an English teacher, of course I’m going to argue for the ongoing relevance of Shakespeare, but bear with me. There are plenty of lessons to learn from ‘Hamlet,’ and not all of them are literary.

If ‘Hamlet’ sounds like it’s a mirror of world politics, that’s because it always has been. Just two years after the play was written and first performed, Elizabeth I died, and James I came to the throne. James’s mission to unite England and Scotland (or to “make Britain great”-sorry) had sparked some interest, but he was not popular with the people; the Jacobean era is renowned for its corruption and tension, and as a result, there was a clear social and cultural nostalgia for the Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth. We think of Shakespeare as Mr Establishment now, but he was a writer who trod that fine line between offering political critique and getting past the censors.

I’m a little unusual at not worshiping at the altar of Hamlet the Dane himself. For me, Hamlet is problematic. He is judgmental and misogynistic with Gertrude and Ophelia, reckless when he kills Polonius, and coldly brutal when he postpones killing Claudius until he can catch him in the midst of a terrible sin and be totally sure he goes to hell. He is petulant and ridiculous in the graveyard scene with Laertes. He sends his childhood friends to their deaths with barely a shrug. For all his plotting, he only really achieves his goal by accident.

No, for me, Horatio has always been the one to love without reservation. Horatio is the only one who manages to navigate the poisonous court at Elsinore; he evades suspicion without compromising his morals, his loyalty or his integrity. He is careful. He is sensibly cynical about the idea of ghosts, but when presented with proof, he accepts that he was wrong. He is open-minded, not dogmatic. He is not afraid to question the actions of a prince. He tells the inconvenient truth - he is not a yes-man, even when what he has to say is not what Hamlet wants to hear. He weighs up situations diplomatically - and accurately - before he acts. He is party to sensitive information and does the right thing with it. He can keep secrets. He is the only one trusted to provide an objective second opinion on Claudius’s behaviour. He knows where the line is between resistance and treason. He is prepared to sacrifice himself for the cause. And perhaps most importantly, he is the only main player who survives to tell the tale.

The play teaches us that crimes cannot be covered up forever; sneaky senior advisers will get their comeuppance before too long, and engaging in a conspiracy will lead to your own downfall. It tells us about the importance and value of objective proof rather than hearsay, and it teaches us that we should never turn on our friends.

But most importantly, it tells us that if we want to survive to tell the tale of 2017, we need to take a few tips from Horatio.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.