A Line From Hamlet

Some sentences inspire and cause the reader to pause and take note. They draw the reader deeper into a book or film or television show. In this ongoing segment I comment on sentences I find inspirational, intriguing, or revealing of human nature in some way. What does the sentence mean in the context of the story from which it is drawn? What does it mean to me? What we can take from it and apply to the real world? Without further ado, I wish I wrote…

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Hamlet is arguably one of Shakespeare’s greatest and longest pieces of literature. The lead character Hamlet is dealing with the murder of his father. The scene in which the line is spoken takes place when the ghost of Hamlet’s father advises that he, the king, was murdered. In comes Horatio and Hamlet explains the conversation he’s just had with the ghost.

Horatio and Hamlet are both university educated, rare in Shakespeare’s time and rarer still in the time depicted in the play, and Horatio finds it difficult to believe in a talking ghost. Hence Hamlet’s line, which paraphrased, means there are things even the most educated of us do not know. If you think you know everything you’ll miss an awful lot in your life.

Hamlet’s sentence still resonates today. In science it reminds me of the English botanist J. B. S. Haldane’s 1927 line about the universe: “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” In this case the use of the word queerer is the traditional one, meaning strange, rather than the contemporary one, meaning homosexual. The line has been recast many times with the word stranger replacing queerer, which is an edit I prefer.

The knowledge that we, as a species, don’t know everything is powerful. It provides humanity the fuel to search for answers to our deepest questions, which leads us to further questions we never would have asked in the first place. It’s what drives us to the stars, to the depths of the oceans, to the tops of mountains, to different countries and ultimately to further understanding.

Yet today, we as individuals don’t want to admit we are wrong let alone admit we don’t know something. Each side to any debate or controversy is so certain they are correct; they alone have the right answers. We have become thoroughly invested in our belief of being right that it becomes part of our being. So much so that even when confronted with solid facts proving we are wrong the facts are ignored, diminished and mocked.

This attitude carries over to debates between differing perspectives. This is where some don’t want to admit that someone else has a completely different, yet valid, view of society borne out of their own experiences. The marginalized must fight for their own perspective to be accepted by the general public. The plight of LGBTQ people is a prime example. People who believe their sexuality is different from the norm are experiencing hate from many in the general population for having the audacity to fight for their way of life, to fight for their right to exist as they, themselves, see fit.

Everyone has a right to exist, a right to safety, and a right to be protected under the law. Yet everyone seems bent on pushing their rights to the detriment of another’s rights. Religion feels particularly hard pressed right now. Diminishing attendance in a secular west is leading to a fight response by many religious sects. I empathize. Religious people feel attacked, belittled and threatened. So too, do LGBTQ people. Everyone in some way or another feels attacked. This phenomenon doesn’t make for a harmonious community.

Forcing a Christian bakery to bake a gay wedding cake does nothing but fan the flames of indignation. Forcing LGBTQ people to conform to a simple dichotomy of sexuality that others deem correct, is demeaning. Both acts create walls and chasms between the two groups.

Dialogue, education, and acceptance are needed: dialogue with those that disagree with us, education about an opposite perspective or point of view, and acceptance that not everyone will agree. This isn’t easy and as always the age old problem of stubborn ignorance will always be a factor.

I’m reminded of the trip my wife and I were fortunate enough to take to Fiji to help build homes with Habitat for Humanity. We were living in Japan at the time and my wife wanted to do more than just be a tourist. So, fresh off my Anthropology degree we landed in beautiful Fiji. We were driven to a little village to build two homes for which we had raised money. I was being an ethnographer of sorts, noting rituals and mannerisms, observing interactions between the villagers, trying to log everything. To my horror I thoroughly shamed myself when I, in a panic to remember the rituals of drinking kava, ended up spilling it all over myself. I thought I had insulted them, but the villagers were kind and simply handed me another. I felt embarrassed.

Over the week we were there I saw the old, traditionally built huts and how they used the local trees and leaves to construct them. They felt cooler and better to me. I suddenly felt that we were dictating to the Fijians how to build their homes with concrete and steel. I felt I was invading in some way. It was a difficult time for me, being in a paradise such as that with concern about what we were doing. Until, that is, I spoke with a family for whom we were building a home. I asked if they were happy with their new home. The father burst out into a wide smile and vigorously nodded yes. He explained it will last longer, provide more protection, and help him raise his family.

My own hubris led me to a perspective or view that was not the case at all. An honest discussion cleared that up. Some people think talk is cheap, but without it everything else becomes much more expensive.

How do you think we should bridge the deepening divides between us? How do we help ourselves see the perspectives of others in a non-threatening way? A civil discourse about our civic strife is the only kind accepted here.

Thanks for reading.

Photo by Jan Sundstedt from FreeImages

6 thoughts on “A Line From Hamlet

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