Hamlet, Sarcastic Classics

Hamlet – Act I, Scene V

 

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This week’s header comic is by Kate Beaton, of Hark, a Vargrant! who is wonderful and I recommend you check out right now.

Now they’re alone, Hamlet demands to know just what the ghost is playing at and it reveals itself to be his father…or so he says. If you take the text at face value then sure, but as I said in the last post Elizabethan audiences knew not to just trust when strange ghosts told you they were your father. Mr. Ghosty claims he’s stuck suffering in Purgatory and wants vengeance on the scoundrel that murdered him.

Murder? This is news to Hamlet. High death rates and lack of medical knowledge meant that it wasn’t particularly surprising when old Hamlet Sr. croaked, even though he’d been apparently healthy just before. It also meant that poisoning was much easier to get away with, and that’s exactly what the ghost claims killed him. As for who carried out this “Murder most foul”, the ghost points the finger at his own brother. Apparently – emphasis on apparently – Claudius seduced Gertrude, then dripped poison in Hamlet Sr.’s ear while he slept, claiming “my life, my crown, and my queen all at once”. Worst of all, because he was murdered Hamlet Sr. didn’t have a chance to repent of his sins or recieve last rites so he’s stuck in Purgatory, which by all accounts is not a Nice Place.

A brief history aside: at the time Denmark’s monarch was not dictated by hereditary succession like the English crown was, but was chosen by Parliament (interestingly known at the time as their ‘Thing’). They usually stuck with the traditional way of the first born son succeeding their father, but if a preferable alternative was available they could diverge from this. There are lines throughout the play that suggest that Hamlet Sr. had indicated that the country should pass to Gertrude when he died (she’s described as “the imperial jointress to this warlike state”) and because this is Ye Olde Olden Days when women were obviously too weak and stupid to own things they would pass on to any future husbands she may have i.e. Claudius. Add the fact that Hamlet was out of the country at University when his father died and it would seem reasonable for the ‘Thing’ to decide that Claudius was a good choice for the new king. All very convenient for Claudius, is it not?

It’s also very convenient for Hamlet, who is the President of the Anti-Claudius Club. If you’re a supporter of the Mad Hamlet theory then the man you resent for stepping into your father’s shoes, marrying your mother and trying to play Dad also turning out to be a conniving murderous snake seems a little too opportune. That said, it is worth noting that Claudius did actually murder his brother (spoiler alert), so it’s possible that Hamlet is just an unusually good judge of character.

Dawn arrives and the ghost vanishes, leaving Hamlet with instructions to avenge him. Hamlet swears to do so, and gets off to an interesting start when his first step is to write down in his little notebo that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”. Clearly he’s new to this whole revenge thing.

Horatio and Marcellus arrive and ask what happened with the ghost, but Hamlet isn’t much more forthcoming than ‘bad people are bad’ and then makes them swear not to tell anyone what they’ve seen. They do, but Hamlet is weirdly insistent that they swear on his sword. Then begins a weird almost slapstick sequence where the voice of the ghost follows them around from under the stage, although interestingly the others don’t seem to be able to hear it. Ghostly powers of telepathy or a sign of a cracked mind? You decide.

The friends are obviously concerned by this odd behaviour, and Hamlet muses that playing crazy might be a useful trick to have up his sleeve. Clearly we’re in for crazy shenanigans in the future. Tune in next time on this wacky family drama!

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Book Reviews, Reviews

Our Numbered Days Review

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I was introduced to Neil Hilborn by a friend during my I Hate Poetry phase that I had in high school, and I credit him with providing the turning point when I realised just how stupid and stubborn I was being.

Hilborn writes mostly from his own experiences with a heavy focus on mental illness. He’s found a cult following amongst those with their own struggles and as one of their number I can absolutely see why. Hilborn is refreshingly honest throughout his poetry. It’s definitely not all sunshine and puppies because mental illness isn’t like that and it’s wonderful to hear someone expressing that instead of trying to paint over the painful moments. Our Numbered Days embodies one of my favourite quotes from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met […] And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

But he doesn’t fall into the very common trap – which I know I have – of writing about depression as though everything and everyone is terrible with the paradoxical sense of superiority that can only come from feeling worthless (for examples of this see The Catcher in the Rye, or literally anything ever written by a teenager). Hilborn comes across as a man who knows that the world is good even if he can’t feel it. His work is punctuated with moments of true hope and emotion, and many of his poems had me bawling. I would be interested to hear what someone without experience of mental illness makes of his work seeing as how deeply rooted a lot of his poems are.

Hilborn’s style manages to be sophisticated without seeming pretentious or overworked. Reading his work feels like talking to a friend, albeit one who has a wonderful way with metaphors (and boy does he have some beautiful ones. Plus there’ll always be a place in my heart for the “slutty chicken” simile.) His roots in slam poetry are evident in his writing, but this works to create a personal connection with the reader rather than being distracting. That said, if you have the chance to see him read his work I would absolutely recommend you leap at it. I had the pleasure of hearing him at the Bullingdon in Oxford at the end of August and he is a brilliant performer as well as one of the funniest people I’ve met.

To finish, here are two of Hilborn’s poems. The first is OCD, his most popular poem and the one that went viral to gain him his following. It’s based on his own experiences with the illness and is a captivating performance from him (and it’s just as spellbinding in real life):

The second is The Future, which isn’t in Our Numbered Days but is my absolute favourite of his. It’s another personal look at his struggles with Bipolar Disorder, and the final note of hope never fails to make me cry.

Book Reviews, Reviews

The Psychopath Test Review

 

 

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Believe it or not, I’m actually reviewing a book on this book blog! Shocking, I know.

When I tell people I’m interested in true crime, I usually have to follow that up with the caveat that I’m not a serial-killer-in-training or one of those naïve weirdos who think they can change mass murderers through the Power of Love. My main fascination with the subject lies in the psychology behind it: what circumstances would drive someone to do something so abhorrent, how the police use profiling to catch a criminal, and how the justice system deals with people who have done awful things but might not be entirely accountable for their actions.

The Psychopath Test focuses, as the title suggests, on psychopaths i.e: people who feel little to no emotion or empathy. It’s a mental illness that has caused a lot of divide in the psychiatric community, and that’s just amongst those who believe it is a mental illness. Ronson approaches the subject very openly, talking to a wide range of sources from Robert Hare, the man who developed the list of criteria currently used to diagnose psychopaths, to CEOs he believes may have utilised their psychopathic tendencies to climb the corporate ladder, to Scientologists who believe that psychology and those who practice it are evil and corrupt. Possibly the most interesting is ‘Tony’, a man who claimed to have faked insanity to get out of prison for a GBH charge and ended up in Broadmoor diagnosed as a psychopath and desperately trying to prove his sanity. Tony’s story is an intriguing look into the nuances of the psychology, how difficult it is to really quantify mental illness with a series of boxes to check, and how terrifyingly easy it would be to get it wrong and ruin someone’s life. (As it turns out, Tony’s diagnosis may not have been so entirely wrong. Ronson revealed in an AMA on Reddit that Tony has been incarcerated at least three more times since he met him.)

It’s common for people writing about mental illness who don’t have experience of it to become hysterical and fall into the trap of fear-mongering, but Ronson thankfully has a much more sympathetic approach. He himself struggles with anxiety, so he’s aware of how mental illness can affect the way you think and act and doesn’t place blame with the sufferers. There are a few places where he clearly begins to think of psychopaths as ‘other’, especially when he’s in the presence of Emmanuel ‘Toto’ Constant (founder of the Hatian death squad FRAPH), but interestingly he catches himself doing this and turns it into a very interesting discussion point. It’s a much more sympathetic approach than many journalists would take to the mentally ill and criminals, and I find this open mind set much more enjoyable to explore the subject through.

I have a lot of love for Ronson’s style as he explores all of these issues. It’s light and friendly, and it doesn’t feel like he is trying to push an agenda; instead it feels more like he’s leading you on a treasure hunt for information, taking you on the same journey of discovery he went on because he found it fascinating and hopes you will too. There’s no opening statement telling you how you should be approaching the book, just the story of how Ronson himself was introduced to it and how that story progressed. It’s my favourite style of non-fiction and Ronson’s witty voice makes it a highly entertaining read.

There is a distinct lack of satisfying conclusion which I can see as being irritating for some people, like this reviewer for the Guardian comments, but for me the lack of certainty is part of the fascinating quality of the subject. It seems a little unfair to ask Ronson, a journalist, to answer questions that generations of trained professionals have failed to agree on. However, I can understand that this sort of open-ended investigation may not be for anyone, so if you want any kind of conclusive answers then this may be one to avoid.

This is the first I’ve read of Ronson’s work and I am absolutely going to be seeking out more. The Psychopath Test manages to balance information with effortlessly readable style and leaves you with a lot to think about, which for me is the mark of an excellent piece of journalism. There aren’t always easy answers, but investigation for the thrill of the chase will almost always provide an entertaining read.