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We Be. The Embodied and Relational Mind

Nay, It Is Common

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Taking a note from a common question asked by Shakespeare scholars, "Is Hamlet mad or only pretending to be?" - I love Oscar Wilde's follow-up question, "Are the commentators on Hamlet mad, or only pretending to be?"  Here I think Wilde wittily addresses both the necessity and the folly of critique, of breaking down the structure of a story or a journey in order to fully understand it, but also the madness of it.  That we do need to understand but the joy of immediate experience should remain the goal.  The experience of life is the point of reflection.  Hamlet, as a character and a play, is a testament to the folly we face.  In the end, it is impossible to 'pluck out the heart' of life's mystery without feeding on something that is dead.  Life always dances away and leaves us holding bones or a skull.  Hamlet even tells his father's ghost that he has come in a 'questionable' form and begins a journey where he questions all forms - be they intentions, society, roles played or imposed, love, family, even the form of his own body as it exists now.  He faces kings and lovers and mothers and friends and clowns and players and a skull.  The evidence of life that is constantly passing away.

Before Hamlet's final challenge, someone sends in clowns and then.. well.. sort of the über-clown, Osric, comes in wearing the face of appeasement and concealing teeth behind a smile.  He would have Hamlet believe that what comes next is merely another show or empty contest of formality.  

This is not to disparage clowns or even Osric.  Shakespeare manages to poke fun or reveal frailty without passing judgement.  I think one of the 'points' may be how we are all both enchanted and deceived by the layers of disguise presented to us in life.  "To be or not to be" is not so much the question as the bitter, common, and divine truth that we both 'be' and 'be not.'

After Hamlet sees the skull of his jovial caretaker, Yorick, he nears his own move into the place of the skull.  Osric brings word of it without explicitly or perhaps even consciously knowing that is what he is doing.  And Hamlet both acknowledges and dismisses Osric and turns his focus to the "special providence" of the sparrow - a common bird.  He has passed through layers and layers of odd deception and disappointment.  He has bemoaned this eternal march we all make into change and change and change and all the varied corpses, and the fact that all of us die and then disappear - kings, lovers, mothers, brothers, friends... all as common as the sparrow.  But he calls attention to the sparrow and attaches 'special providence' to its fall.  Indeed, in Matthew it is said that two sparrows can be purchased for a farthing.  Perhaps this is the key.  It is not God or providence that gives a nominal valuation to a thing.  It is us.  This is worth a farthing.  That is worth a trip to the mall.  And this is worth a dinner for two.  But truth, it seems, can be difficult, illusive, and even seem disappointing because it is so often preceded by the masks of sugar and smiles and a parade. Who doesn't want sugar and smiles and a parade?!?!  Who doesn't want a trip to the mall or dinner for two?

I suppose part of the point is that the sparrow IS the parade.  Yes life is as common as the sparrow.  But this 'commonness' unites the division of life and experience.  It is a gift freely given to all of us lucky enough to have it.  People try to quantify and give a dollar value to every visible and conceivable thing.  We even try to give a dollar value to hope.  The message of the sparrow is that this is folly.  All of us die and no amount of make-up or commentary or summersaults can change that fact.  But all of us are counted in the eyes of providence.  

Happy Easter!