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The Danish physicist Niels Bohr once wrote, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Bohr was talking about the newly-emerging quantum theory of physics, in which events that don’t seem possible become, if not commonplace, then common enough to change the way we see the world.

I wonder, though, if this native of Copenhagen and champion of Danish science might also have been thinking of that other famous Dane, William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet. I’ve spent a lot of time with the sad prince recently, and some of my ideas about Hamlet, and Hamlet, are changing. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is my opinion that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s second best play.

There is no doubt that Hamlet’s soliloquys are exquisitely written, packed with meaning and insight, and reveal Shakespeare’s most complete and vibrant character. Hamlet feels like a real person written into a play (a play he doesn’t much like). Puzzling out Hamlet’s motivations in the first four acts is intellectually daunting, as well as rewarding. The “to be or not to be” speech is some of the most challenging writing I’ve ever encountered, and I discover new gems in it every time I read or listen. For instance, consider the last sentence (which maybe gets lost in all the wonders that come before).

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Harold Bloom tells me that “conscience” means “consciousness”; in other words, being conscious of our own mortality causes us to fear death so totally that we’re afraid to do anything. Not just suicide, but anything. So that all “enterprises of great pitch and moment,” (avenging a father’s death by killing his murderer, for instance) the “currents” of consciousness “turn awry”. Hamlet isn’t asking here if he should kill himself. He’s asking if he should live quietly, ignoring the ghost’s exhortation, or if he should “take up arms against a sea of troubles” (try to kill Claudius) and likely die in the attempt. This is heady stuff, not just some oversized adolescent moping about how woe-is-me he is.

So why second best? It is because the profound truth Hamlet discovers in Act V has as its opposite another profound truth, the truth revealed throughout the play I’ve called the anti-Hamlet, the most optimistic of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m talking, of course, of King Lear.

King Lear? You mean the one where Lear’s whole family dies? The one where Lear’s daughter Cordelia, newly strangled, is carried onto the stage by a howling old man, soon to die of grief before our very eyes? That feel-good play of the year? OK, you’re thinking, Hamlet was just feigning madness, but you’ve got it down pat.

Let me explain why King Lear is optimistic. If you’re an atheist like me (and if you’re not, why not? No, seriously, I’d really like to know), King Lear gives us the best we can hope for in this indifferent universe. We make our world. We create our futures. We decide to divide kingdoms, or bring them together. We choose to go out in the storm, or to seek shelter. We decide whether to forgive, and who to love.

We don’t need gods to kill us for their sport. We do just fine on our own. There’s no one and nothing out there to rescue us. We must endure. The ripeness is all.

And this means (stay with me here) every bit of beauty we can find in the world of humans, every bit of love, every bit of forgiveness, every washing away of sin (“no cause – no cause” Cordelia says magnificently), that’s us. We did that. And we can be proud.

Now consider the opposite of that profound truth.

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will-

This is the signal Hamlet gives to Horatio after the graveyard scene in Act V. It says, “Let be.” Hamlet accepts what will come.

We defy augury. There is special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to
come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the
readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t
to leave betimes, let be.

This is a profound truth. What will happen will happen. Let be.

It’s the truth of Eastern mysticism. It’s the truth Joseph Campbell talks about when he quotes Sri Krishna Menon in The Power of Myth. When Campbell was in India he was asked by the guru, “do you have a question?”

“Yes, I have a question.” I said, “Since in Hindu thinking all the universe is divine, is a manifestation of divinity itself, how can we say ‘no’ to anything in the world, how can we say ‘no’ to brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness?” And he said, “For you and me, we must say yes.”

It is not my answer. Perhaps someday it will be. For now, I hope that day never comes. I hope I never stop fighting against brutality, and stupidity, and vulgarity. I hope I never say, “Let be.”

My tradition is the tradition of Huck Finn, saying, “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!” It’s the tradition of Ahab on the deck shouting into the lightning, “Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.” It’s Lear (who of course inspired Melville in his creation of Ahab), saying “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” It’s Dorothy, shouting at the Wizard as her voice trembles, “You should be ashamed of yourself, frightening him like that when he came to you for help!” And it’s Jean-Luc Picard, refusing to give in to his torturer: “There are five lights!”

Hamlet is a great play – maybe the greatest. But for me, for now, I must say, “no!” Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Give me Lear!

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
April 2019
A blog by Stephen Whitt

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