Saturday, September 8, 2012

Hamlet Vs. Oedipus in the World Series of Love

I have essentially checked out of this election season, and that makes me sad.  It’s not that I don’t care about who is in the White House come January – quite the contrary, I have a fairly strong opinion about whom I want in that seat and why.  Nor is it that I don’t care about the issues that seem to be at stake in this election: the economy (obviously), foreign policy, the future of healthcare, issues of gender and marriage equality, etc.  I do, and I chime in when I have something useful to add to the conversation.  The problem is, I rarely have anything useful to add to any conversation, because it is so rarely a conversation.

So here’s the thing: I begin each semester of my Theatre Appreciation classes with two classic plays, which we read in their entirety in class.  The plays are Oedipus Rex and The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  I chose those two plays because they are masterfully written and extremely engaging, certainly.  But I also chose them because they are polar opposites that share DNA.  The heroes of both stories are young princes who have lost their fathers to murder.  Both men are famous for their intelligence.  Both men seem to have mommy issues (and in the case of the 1990 Mel Gibson/Franco Zeffirelli production, “I know not seems.”)  The stories they occupy are both, in essence, detective stories with an element of the revenge play.  But the lessons about human nature the two plays offer are diametrically opposed.

On the one hand, you have King Oedipus.  He’s a man who knows his place: born to be a king in Corinth, fated by the gods to enact a horrible deed and decides he’s going to escape this divine fate by hook or by crook, establishes his might and dominance first by killing an impudent traveler along the way and then seizes control of Thebes through a brilliant act of mental heroics against the Sphinx.  He gets rewarded with the throne and its spoils – the queen’s hand in marriage.  When everything goes to hell – when the city of Thebes starts to fall victim to a plague, and it becomes more and more evident that the plague is Oedipus’s own doing – Oedipus begins by launching an investigation.  But when the investigation doesn’t tell him what he wants to hear, he charges conspiracy, impugns the authenticity of a once-trusted source, ignores all the evidence that doesn’t support his own interpretation of reality – in short, tries his damndest to find some narrative that supports the view he wants to keep.  The figure of reason in the play is his brother-in-law Creon, whom Oedipus accuses of conspiracy.  Creon’s response is to say, “try me and execute me if you must.  But not without evidence.”  Oedipus is too slow to learn the lesson of hubris: that our most-trusted “gut feelings” can be wrong, and we must take into account all the available information.

Here are some of the aforementioned guts.

On the other hand, you have Prince Hamlet.  He’s a man who is almost always the smartest guy in the room, and this makes him enemies.  He is called home from college for his father’s funeral, only to find his mother already remarried to his dead father’s brother, who now sits on the throne.  He suspects foul play, but is unwilling to act.  And then he hits the jackpot – his father’s ghost returns from hell to tell him it was his uncle who killed him, and he commands young Hamlet to avenge his death.  Boom!  Hamlet immediately kills the uncle and the play’s over, right?  No, it’s the end of Act 1, and we’ve got four acts and three more hours to go.  Hamlet deliberates: was it really my father’s ghost – can I trust my senses? – or was it a demon sent to tempt me to act on my own murderous impulses?  He’s not sure, so he has to acquire more information in an environment we discover to be filled with espionage and corruption.  Hamlet starts a disinformation campaign by acting crazy in order to throw his Uncle-Daddy off the scent, and then stumbles upon the extremely unlikely experimental technique of ascertaining his Uncle-Daddy’s guilt by putting on a play and gauging the King’s reaction to a murder scene that resembles his own alleged treachery.  Somehow it works, and he is assured of his uncle’s guilt – he even overhears the man admitting his misdeed to God – and then Boom!  Hamlet immediately kills the uncle and play’s over, right?  No, it’s the middle of Act 3, and we’ve got two acts and an hour and a half to go.  He hesitates because the time isn’t exactly right.  He wants to exert maximum vengeance on Uncle-Daddy.  And in the process of berating his mother for her poor judgment, Hamlet has one impulsive Oedipus-like moment and accidentally kills his girlfriend Ophelia’s father, thus becoming the exact bad guy he is fighting.  Keep in mind – though we all believe that murder is wrong, most of us can think of a circumstance where it is justified.  And we know absolutely nothing about how good or bad a king the Elder Hamlet was.  All we know is that he brought the country to the brink of war, which Uncle Claudius seems to have averted diplomatically in his very first act as king.  For all we know, King Hamlet may have  been the worst king in the history of Denmark, and a genocidal maniac to boot.  In any case … now Hamlet is a murderer, and Claudius has to get him out of the way, so he sends him to England and hopefully to his death, only Hamlet is saved by a Deus Ex Machina named Long John Silver (probably.)  Finally, Hamlet comes back and falls victim to someone else’s avenging-my-father mission (Ophelia’s hothead brother Laertes), and everybody dies.  Fortunately, one of the dead is King Claudius.  Unfortunately, Hamlet is also one of the dead, and the rest is silence until Norway shows up and starts firing guns in tribute.

This guy ... this guy's got it all figured out.

In other words, we have the prototypical Conservative Oedipus and Liberal Hamlet.  The former seems to genuinely want to save his country, but doesn’t take anything into consideration except his own opinion in the face of the Growing Obviousness of Fact.  The latter takes far too many factors into consideration, and his indecisiveness cleans out the House of Hamlet in quite a bloody way.  The former is given information that we in the audience know to be true, and when it doesn’t line up with his instincts he dismisses it as biased – thus allowing Thebans to continue to die en masse from an otherwise easily-averted plague.  The latter loops around his ass to get to his mouth, and causes the deaths of many corrupt people (Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Gildenstern, Laertes, possibly Gertrude), one innocent (Ophelia), and himself. 

So if we have to choose, which one of these men do we wish to be?  That is the question.  Neither one of them are perfect heroes, and both men have a lot of blood on their hands.  In this particular presidential campaign, I don’t know that there is really that much difference between the two men – election hyperbole aside, they’re both moderates who are closer than they are apart.  But when we elect a president, because of the sheer presence of the job, we are endorsing a philosophy of life and behavior, even if we don’t mean to be.

I’m putting this question to you, and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  But let’s let it be a conversation, not a rant, and let’s keep it reasonably intelligent.  No “Obama’s a socialist Muslim” or “Romney’s a fascist with magic underpants,” please.