I have been studying philosophy in the era of Shakespeare. As part of that I watched Kenneth Branagh’s excellent full-length version of Hamlet, set in 1800s, later than the original setting of the play, which was Elizabethan England. In this video clip is a soliloquy from act II scene 2. The same soliloquy in a very different, and fascinating rendition of Hamlet, with Ethan Hawke in the lead role, this latter is set in the modern times and in ‘Denmark Corporation’ rather than the court in Denmark.

On a light note, as I listened to this soliloquy I could not believe it, when I heard these words: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties…”, by this time music from ‘Hair’ was playing in my mind. ‘Hair’ happened to be one of two LPs I played over and over when I was about ten years old. The other one was Carmen Jones. Weird, huh!

HAMLET, Act II, Scene 2

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your

discovery, and your secrecy to the king and queen moult

no feather. I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost

all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises: and indeed

it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly

frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this

most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging

firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden

fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent

congregation of vapours…What a piece of work is a man,

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? man delights not me, no,

nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to

say so.

The works of Shakespeare, H. Evans, P. Leyris, Cambridge University Press, 1957

What a piece of work is a man! Is this positive or negative? Is it a pessimist speaking or an optimist?

Is Hamlet angry or hopeful for human kind? Or a bit of both? For Hamlet things were sliding fast down… Here is one analysis on what the text is about.

From the Preface to “the works of Shakespeare” by Karl Jaspers:

C’est la condition humaine qui se révèle à travers les métaphores d’Hamlet. Peut-on trouver la vérité ? Peut-on vivre avec elle ? Considérant la condition humaine, on en vient à répondre ainsi : la force vitale croît chez ceux qui restent dans leur aveuglement, qui accordent foi à des mythes, ou aux succédanés de mythes fournis par une prétendue science : qui ignorent les problèmes, qui laissent des pseudo vérités borner leur horizon.

Loose translation: It is the human condition, which reveals itself across the metaphors in Hamlet. Can we find the truth? Can we live with it? Considering the human condition, we would respond like this: the vital force grows in those who stay in their blindness, who put their faith in myths, or to substitutes dressed up as pretence science; who ignore the problems, who allow the pseudo truths limit their horizon. [end of translation]

What a piece of work is man: Lyrics in musical Hair

What a piece of work is man
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

I have of late
But wherefore I know not
Lost all my mirth
This goodly frame
The earth
Seems to me a sterile promontory
This most excellent canopy
The air– look you!
This brave o’erhanging firmament
This majestical roof
Fretted with golden fire
Why it appears no other thing to me
Than a foul and pestilent congregation
Of vapors

What a piece of work is man
How noble in reason

How dare they try to end this beauty?
How dare they try to end this beauty?

Walking in space
We find the purpose of peace
The beauty of life
You can no longer hide

Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Our eyes are open
Wide wide wide!

Hamlet, Hair and Here&now

How is it, I wonder, that I am so keen on these words in Hamlet and why did I listen to Hair, on and on and on, when I was ten years old?

When Hamlet was played and written, it was a time of transition, a time of challenging some accepted truths, which caused pain and suffering. Existence in Elizabethan England and during Shakespeare’s time was fraught with danger. You had to hide your beliefs and try to balance in the heavy winds of changing official allegiances. The questions of truth, whom to trust and what to believe were serious life and death questions.

Similarly Hair was created and performed at the time of challenge and when truth was again under questioning. The war in Vietnam, make love not war, transition from strict conservative ideas: ‘you are supposed to behave in this way, dress this way, place your legs this way, cut your hair this way, think this way……’ all created an ill in the society, which had to come out and say stop!

Today we are faced with the fact that many of the supposed truths we had accepted over many years are crumbling and we have yet to find suitable alternatives to feed our sense of purpose. Our economic, financial, political, environmental and religious systems are all floundering in providing a meaningful framework for humanity. Each of these systems is challenged to get real, to be relevant and to face the facts.

Their truth just like our truth is slippery and we’re still looking. The answer will not look the same as what it looked like when the problems were caused. Unfortunately I do not know how many people are truly working on the solutions, which have humanity’s best interests at heart.

Perhaps I am fascinated by the beautiful and astute texts in Shakespeare plays, by the story and music in Hair and even Carmen Jones due to the passion in the characters, fulfilling their lives as they see a life should be lived, regardless, at times, of the consequences to themselves…but wouldn’t it be nice if we could have ways to build towards truths, however slippery truth is, we can live with rather than having truths we cannot face and feel ill about.

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