Why Hamlet Still Matters… Netflix and Kill? (Part 2 of 3)

 

(This post contains some Hamlet spoilers. But come on now, the play has been out since the dissolve of the Tutor Dynasty. And if you’ve seen the Lion King (and who hasn’t) you’ve seen Hamlet… minus the swordplay and incest of course).the-lion-king-thumb-560xauto-26079

I love revenge movies. They’re a guilty pleasure.  They make great entertainment.  Kill Bill, Mad Max, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I Spit on your Grave (I’ve haven’t seen this yet,  it’s next in my Netflix queue, but I love the title and I think the title offers a meaty jist regarding the premise of this film).

The revenge story is old art. The genre premiered in the open-aired Greek theater and is currently playing at your air- conditioned AMC.

Sure  we have advanced–  with our denim and deodorant– from the ancient Greeks but just like the days of  antiquity, revenge tales are still box office gold.   We love characters who have the audacity to rise above the limitations of the law, trash their morality, wield badass weaponry and do what avengers do…kicks ass.

By definition, Hamlet, is a revenge play. But unlike our Hollywood revenge films Hamlet runs almost four and a half  hours long and it takes three hours for our sulking protagonist to take action.  And that action– mistakenly murdering the wrong man.

Imagine if you paid $13.50 to watch The Rock contemplate and mope and  speak in iambic pentameter for 3 hours and then, when he finally musters up the will to act, he accidentally  kills the innocent pizza delivery man.

Modern revenge films are brisk and decisive. The hero speaks declaratively (often in a snarling whisper) and carries a big stick or sword or machete or bazooka.

But we should be intelligent enough to understand that modern revenge tales are not realistic. They are visceral fantasies. However Hamlet, written over 400 years ago, is incredibly realistic and modern.

Once the opportunity for revenge presents itself, Hamlet wrestles with his own morality. He knows revenge is wrong and the act will lead to earthly repercussions and corrupt his eternal soul.

Like you and I dear reader, Hamlet is a decent person trapped in an indecent world.

However, like any good director, Shakespeare knew his audience. He knew they would burn the Globe Theater if  after four and a half hours Hamlet was like, “you know mom, you’re a bit whorish but I love you anyway.” Boom forgiven. “And Uncle Claudius, the cat hair sweater you gave me for Christmas sucked, and you killed my dad, which sucked even more, but  I’m going to be the bigger man and move on.” Boom forgiven. The end.

So  for the safety of himself and his theater, Shakespeare had to turn Hamlet into a murderer. Yet what sets the play apart from other revenge tales is that Hamlet  concludes with the dying Hamlet exchanging forgiveness with his rival  Laertes ( who is also dying).

Look I’m no holy roller. I don’t go to church. I don’t pray– except on 4th and long.  But I’d like to consider myself  a moral person who, at 35, understands the difference between right and wrong. Who navigates life with a moral compass.  And like Hamlet I’m trying to be a decent man in an indecent world.

From what I remember from my Catholic schooling, forgiveness is divine– Heaven’s Fast Pass– the best way to secure a meet and greet with the great animator in the sky.

I think the act of forgiveness blurs religious and secular boundaries. You don’t need to devout to feel the pangs of guilt and remorse. You just need to be human.

Unfortunately, hardness has always been celebrated. Forgiveness never sold tickets. Shakespeare knew this. Tarantino knows this.

But in the dying moments of the Hamlet,  after he’s mortally wounded  Hamlet  exchanges forgiveness with Laertes. He then lies in Horatio’s lap and instructs his friend to “tell my story”. A story that is messy– one ripe with murder, madness, incest and revenge and but one that ends with forgiveness.

Hamlet still matters because it’s a revenge story with heart. The play exploits what we feel when we have been wronged and examines our perpetual wrestling match with morality.  Strip down the play  and you will find that it’s a play about forgiveness and how forgiveness initiates healing, and healing allows us to get on with the art of living. Something all of us– from the ancient Greeks to Simba– are trying to do.

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Why Hamlet Still Matters (Part 1 of 3)

1997. I’m sitting in a stuffy classroom in Conwell- Egan Catholic High School, pretending to listen to my English teacher drone about why Hamlet is the most important play ever written. I don’t remember her rationale and it’s not to discredit her attempt but I was 16 years old and I didn’t care.

I, like most high schoolers, didn’t understand why we had to agonize over a play written over 400 years ago. I remember having to memorize and recite the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. I remember Hamlet and Gertrude’s oedipal relationship and thinking—well that’s kind of weird. I remember everyone dies. And, I remember not being impressed.

I thought that this “great play” was simply about a malcontent 30 something prince who may have a thing for his mother and who can’t make up his mind. I was 16. I was an idiot.

hamlet

Now– cough, cough– here’s the rub—17 years later I’m 35 years old and indecisive and as the fickle engine of fate would have it –I’m a high school English teacher and I recently began the perilous journey of not just teaching Hamlet but attempting to get my students to understand why Hamlet still matters.

And thus begins my three part blog odyssey on why Hamlet still matters:

Reason #1-Pink Floyd

Yes, that Pink Floyd. The same trippy British rock band whose sounds have tranquilized college dorms since Timothy Leary started handing out LSD at pep rallies in the tumult of the 1960’s.

When Pink and the boys returned from the dark side of the moon, they began construction on their 11th studio album—The Wall. On the slowly building track six, Mother—a track that captures the albums themes of abandonment and confusion—Mr. Floyd asks his mother, “Mother should I trust the government?” A question, for a few reasons, I found myself mulling over recently.

Hamlet begins with Denmark in crisis. King Hamlet- Hamlet’s father- is dead. And within a month of King Hamlet’s death, the cheeky Uncle Claudius has swooped in, obtained the Danish crown (which contrast to popular belief does have a hole!) and seized Gertrude–his dead brother’s wife and Hamlet’s mother– all for himself.

There’s disorder in the Danish house. Time is out of joint. Hamlet is confused and lonely. Sure his misery stems from his father’s sudden death and his mother hasty marriage, but digging deeper into Hamlet’s desolation, I think it can be fitted to the fact that the he simply can not trust the government– since the government killed his father and married his mother. He’s a man without a country. A sediment that is incredibly modern and incredibly familiar.

History has shown us that in times of national crisis—Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, 9/11—it’s instinctual to rally together, stand united behind a common voice, a trusted visage.

In room A205 we began our study of Hamlet on the heels of the Paris massacre and as we analyzed King Claudius’s address to the Danish Court, San Bernardino happened.

As a father and an American citizen I’m concerned. Check that—I’m scared. I’m no political maven and have no desire to be. Maybe I’m getting old, but it seems as if the world has become a powder keg and the American government is doing the Ney -Ney with a gas can in one hand and a semi -automatic in the other.

Citizens have lost trust in the police. Churches and schools are no longer safe havens. And in spite of the recent mass shootings—which we seem to growing more comfortable with- our nation’s gun control remains looser than Gertrude.

Furthermore, I don’t know if there is a democratic shoulder I trust to lean on. The parade of presidential hopefuls seem clownish—Globe theater intermission material. Like Pink Floyd, our leaders are talking about protecting us by building walls, except theirs would be made of concrete and steel not progressive sounds and poetry. Our leaders seem nervous and desperate. Their reassurance seems shallow and manufactured.

Hamlet still matters because in 2015 we are Hamlet. We are unnerved and wary of our leaders. Desperately looking for someone, something to believe in.

“Mother should I trust the government?”

It’s a question Hamlet would surely ask his mother if she wasn’t off bumping uglies with the government.

It’s question I would ask my mother– but since she has expressed her desire to buy a gun– something cute and small, something that would fit in her purse in case ISIS goes hunting for her at Wegman’s–I already know her answer.

 

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WoFo in the news…

Inspired by teacher, RHS students take the write path

By Meagan Douches
December 1, 2015

The following article was originally published in December 2015 edition of the Robbinsville Advance and it can be viewed in its original format at http://www.mercerspace.com/features/inspired-by-teacher-rhs-students-take-the-write-path/

 Robbinsville High teacher Jay Armstrong works during the Nov. 23, 2015 write-a-thon. (Staff photos by Meagan Douches.)

Andrea Youngken, Nellie Baran, Sam Macomber and (back) Sreenija Nalla participate in the Write-a-thon Nov. 23, 2015 at Robbinsville High School. (Staff photo by Meagan Douches.)

 

In September 2013, Jason Armstrong had an overflowing plate.

The Robbinsville High School English teacher was coaching the school soccer team, finishing up a master’s in education administration with Lamar University, and his wife Cindy had just given birth to their third child. When he started experiencing dizziness and blurry vision one day on the soccer field, he had a feeling something was off.

After he visited several specialists and had an MRI taken of his brain, Armstrong received some bad news.

“He asked me, ‘How are you sitting here right now?’ and I told him that I didn’t understand the question,” Armstrong said. “Then he explained, ‘If I’m looking at your MRI, you’re either dead or you’re in a hospital bed.’”

Armstrong’s MRI revealed signs of serious degeneration in the cerebellum of his brain. Though the test produced this worrisome result, the doctors didn’t know what was causing the condition. It took a year and a half of tests and doctors visits until a muscle biopsy in Spring 2015 revealed that Armstrong had sarcoidosis.

“I went from September of 2013 all the way to the spring of 2015 all without any answers,” Armstrong said. “When it was revealed that I had sarcoidosis, it was a shock to everyone.”

Sarcoidosis is a chronic auto-immune disease which causes bodily inflammation. Typically, it isn’t life-threatening.

While Armstrong’s fate was being determined through a series of medical tests, he says that the thing that got him through was writing.

“You hear that about your life and it puts things in perspective,” he said. “I got to a point where I was like, if I’m going to go out, I don’t want to go out with these stories in my head. So I just want to get everything out that I possibly can and that’s essentially what it was- a sort of therapy.”

Armstrong developed a website called writeonfighton.org to share his stories and to encourage others to use writing as a therapeutic and creative outlet. He also had the idea to establish a write-a-thon community outreach project to encourage others to find solace in writing.

Fortunately, Armstrong has been able to receive treatment for his sarcoidosis, which he says has changed his ability to function. Now, he’s back to teaching and has a newfound appreciation for his craft which he is eager to share with his students.

Last summer, he approached Robbinsville High School’s administration with his idea to host a write-a-thon. Everyone was in agreement that the event would be beneficial for students and the community alike. It was held for two hours at Robbinsville High Oct. 23.

Armstrong says that the goal of the write-a-thon was to help students develop their writing style and voice.

“It’s giving young kids the opportunity to explore writing in a sort of non-threatening sense,” he said. “It feels like in high school everything you write gets criticized, and that’s not really what it’s about. The write-a-thon is about the power of storytelling and the power of voice, or even exploring and finding your own voice.”

As Armstrong was conceptualizing the details of the event, he knew he wanted to help support a good cause. He decided that the proceeds would benefit the high school’s Special Olympics members in their endeavor to create a bowling team.

For this year, Armstrong decided to open the event only to seniors and those involved in the school’s literary magazine. Fifteen students signed up to participate in the event, though Armstrong says that many more, including faculty and staff, were interested in contributing.

For many, it was Armstrong’s evident love of writing that encouraged them to get involved with the write-a-thon.

“I decided to participate in the write-a-thon because I could see the passion that Mr. Armstrong has for writing,” said Christopher Massi, a senior at RHS. “I think schools don’t focus enough on helping students develop their personal voice. The write-a-thon will provide me and my peers with the resources and time to work on our own writing style, while under the guidance of a teacher that truly loves writing.”

Others began to recognize the importance of developing their writing skills while working on their college application essays.

“The college application essay process was long and grueling for me,” said senior Hadley Flyge. “I was surprised with the difficulties I faced while trying to mold my original and what seemed like unexplainable thoughts to fit a template for the eyes of a college admissions officer. The struggle of writing my first creative style piece made me realize the potential of my writing after revision, and therefore has prompted me to write more often.”

Armstrong’s efforts turned out to be a success; the school was able to raise $1,300 to help kickstart its new Special Olympics Bowling Team.

The Special Olympics team members showed their appreciation by giving a brief presentation at the start of the write-a-thon. The four members presented photos of the group and shared what Special Olympics means to each of them personally.

Participants in the write-a-thon were encouraged to submit their work to a schoolwide writing contest by Nov. 30. The winner will be selected to complete a semester-long internship with local writer Nancy DePalma and their work will be featured in New Jersey Meetings & Events magazine.

Many students who participated in the write-a-thon were excited by the chance to write freely, without a prompt or graded assignment to guide their work.

“When I heard about the write-a-thon, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of getting not only the opportunity to write, but the opportunity to write without instruction,” said senior Kylie Renner. “Writing is a crucial way to keep our imaginative minds rolling. I think it’s great that we are finally being given the chance to do so without boundaries.”

Armstrong also took advantage of the time during the write-a-thon and worked on some of his own stories, many of which follow his journey to resolve his medical issues.

Throughout Armstrong’s long road to a diagnosis, the doctors debated over different diseases and cancers that Armstrong could have. He says that the doctors initially believed he might have ALS, Parkinson’s disease or Multiple Sclerosis. When those didn’t check out, they thought it was Huntington’s disease, then they ultimately determined it must be cerebellar ataxia. The test results continually came back negative.

“When Jay was struggling to find out a diagnosis, it was really tough on him,” said Cindy, Armstrong’s wife. “Through his stories he allowed us to experience what he has experienced. It was a time of great confusion and fear, for all of us, but Jay found solace though words and writing down his pain.”

“I couldn’t control the diseases, but I could control the story,” Armstrong said. “I could control the words, and I guess that’s sort of powerful in a sense.”