“O my prophetic soul!”

Here in Hungary I have taught Hamlet three times, to three different classes. My students will be performing a scene from Hamlet in the Shakespeare festival. But what is it about Hamlet that pulls me back again and again? Hamlet’s dark wit, his encounters with the beyond, the complexity of the characters, the beloved memorized passages, is that it? All of that, but there’s something more too. Hamlet is burdened by his own intuition; he knows things he is not supposed to know. When the ghost of his father reveals how he died, Hamlet exclaims, “O my prophetic soul!” This prophetic tendency is his gift and his weight to bear.

I do not believe in ESP or fortune-telling; as far as I know, divination goes wrong at least as often as it goes right. But I do believe in intuition; I have a modest amount of it. A person can sense things without being informed of them directly. This brings up a quandary. What do you do with knowledge that you are not really supposed to have? Most of the time, it’s possible just to set it aside; it is not our business to do anything with it at all, and it might not even be correct.

Hamlet does not have the luxury of setting it aside. Because of who he is, he knows he must act on it, but he hesitates, fearing that the ghost was just a hallucination and that its message was false. It is fascinating that he hits upon the idea of testing it through a play: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” So-called reality will not bring the truth out, but art will.

But he still hesitates; he sees the king praying and says to himself, “Now might I do it pat”—but realizes that if he killed him now, Claudius would be sent to heaven. Ironically he is fooled by the image, the outward form, of prayer; Claudius knows too well that his prayer is insincere.

It takes the rest of the play for Hamlet to become ready (not just for action, but for whatever might come with it); his words “the readiness is all” are in a sense the story of his life.

In some sense or other, does it not take each of us our whole life to be ready for the completion, whatever it might be? Some are not ready when they die; their lives are ripped away from them too soon. Others are ready long beforehand. Some have much to go through, many peaks and valleys, openings and closings, before they can be ready. The readiness of this kind cannot be rushed. It has to take its own time. In Hamlet’s case, maybe months; in the case of others, maybe decades.

The readiness cannot be known except through intuition. It is not detectable through medical devices. It might not be expressed in words. It is not necessarily readiness for death. It is, rather, a readiness to be mortal, like everyone else, and through being mortal, maybe, just maybe, step over into a different level of life. Maybe not. But the willingness, the opennness, is there. The prophetic soul opens up.

Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a 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 has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii

I think I have many years before that readiness. I feel nowhere near ready now. But I see it in Hamlet, and it glows so brightly that through the play it becomes part of me too.

Engraving: Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost, by Robert Thew, after Henry Fuseli. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.

Past the bourn, and a translation of “Tágul”

This morning I woke up with a different idea for my translation of Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára” (which I wrote about earlier, and which will be part of the program at the Pilinszky event next Sunday). I had been bothered by the tenth and twelfth lines (“He turns to the waves and hurls it far and fast” and “And yet a breakless ocean booms it back”). “Far and fast” seemed padded; the “fast” seemed extraneous, even though I liked its subtler meanings. But the real problem lay in the last line: a “breakless” ocean seems like an ocean without waves, rather than a whole ocean. Also, the iambic pentameter was a little too regular and placid compared to the Hungarian (also regular iambic pentameter, but with a little bit of friction at “egy egész tenger”). Those problems, though, seemed worthwhile for the sake of the whole. Then I thought of a different way of doing it. Here’s the last stanza as it was before.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it far and fast.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a breakless ocean booms it back.

Here’s the new version:

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

The word “bourn” (“limit”) evokes Hamlet’s soliloquy (“The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns”) in an appropriate way, in that the action of throwing the stone is irrevocable. Neither the stone nor the throwing can return. That striking line “Nem szabadul már soha többé tőle” (“Never again will he get rid of it”) puzzles the mind at first; you might expect “Never will he get rid of it” or even “Never again will he find it.” But there’s a singularity to the very act of throwing the stone away. As for the last line, I like how “whole” and “sea” struggle against each other slightly, each one claiming rhythmic stress. And “booms it in return” brings out the paradox of noise in the voicelessness. Also, you can hear a parallel between “mute breach” and “whole sea.”

So the whole translation reads as follows:

A boy who likes to walk along the beach
always finds one among the many pebbles
that has been his for all eternity
and never could become anyone else’s.

He grips unlosability itself!
His whole heart is throbbing in his palm,
the stone’s so one-and-only in his hand,
and with it he has grown so alone.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

I started thinking about catharsis in this poem. There is a purification in the throwing of the stone. The verb “szabadul” (“to be freed of, get rid of”) is very close in meaning to “rid,” which derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *reudh-, “to clear land.” The stone becomes too much, I think; it has to be thrown. But this will come up at the event, so I won’t say more here.

What I will do now, though, on a somewhat different subject, is provide a loose translation of “Tágul” from Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó.” The song is indirectly related to the poem; the two juxtaposed say something to each other. “Tágul” has so much of what I love about Platon Karataev: lyrics, sounds, the duet of Sebő and Gergő, atmosphere, eternity. I have heard this song played by the whole band and by Sebő and Gergő in acoustic concert. Each version brings out something different. I think a cello cover would be beautiful; I will keep that in mind for the future.

While my translation is mostly literal, more so than my translation of “Partért kiáltó,” I took some liberties to convey the rhythm and richness of the words. I translated “elmém egy hangyaboly” as “this my mind is an anthill” to keep the stress on the first syllable of the line, since this is so important to the music.

I initially translated “tágul az űr belül” as “spreading within, the void” to convey both the rhythm and the continual motion. I think there’s supposed to be some ambiguity about what is spreading: the void itself, the moment, the shadow, the self, the non-self? But then I changed my mind, and changed it to “the void expands within.” (“Spreading within, the void,” requires the commas, but those can’t be heard. So the meaning was too unclear.)

I translated “ez a pillanat most minden pillanat” as “this moment is now each moment of all time,” for the sake of emphasis (that is, both a strong final beat and a strong statement).

The translation as a whole is imperfect (what translation isn’t?), and I might see reason to revise it later, but I think it conveys the essence and could work with the rhythm of the music.

az égbolt köldöke a Hold
elvágom a köldökzsinórt

az éjjel szitálja az énem
nem-énem kitárja, elérem

elmém egy hangyaboly
kisgyermek vizet önt belé

elmém egy hangyaboly
kisgyermek vizet önt belé

látok már a víz alatt
ez a pillanat most minden pillanat

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

talpam alatt már szűkül az árnyék
lépek, mintha vízen járnék

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

látok már a víz alatt
ez a pillanat most minden pillanat
the heavens’ navel is the Moon
I sever the umbilical cord

the night dissipates my self
pours forth my non-self, I touch it

this my mind is an anthill
a child pours water into it

this my mind is an anthill
a child pours water into it

now I see below the water
this moment is now each moment of all time

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

beneath my soles the shadow thins
I step as though walking on water

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

now I see below the water
this moment is now each moment of all time

I made a few changes to the translation of “Tágul” after posting this piece (most recently on March 23).

Art credit: Cloudy Day (1871) by Alfred Thompson Bricher.

The Right to Be Astonished

Lazy days do not come often for me, but I love them when they come. A time for slow movement and stillness. A time to look at the paintings on my wall. A time to think things over. A time to listen to music without having to rush anywhere afterward. A time to go on a longer run than usual. I do have a few things to do today, but with the exception of one assignment I need to create for my students, there’s no immediate deadline. And the winter break (short but substantial) is around the corner.

Thoughts pass through my mind, weaving around each other. I think about an essay that a student wrote about human abilities. The essay concludes (I am quoting with the student’s permission): “In the end we shouldn’t forget that to be amazed by something or give an opinion on it is also an ability. Day after day we keep getting impressed by others. We should keep going like this, and affect the future, who will also have the right to be astonished.”

The right to be astonished! I was astonished by the phrase itself. Astonishment is often put down as naive. People hesitate to show it or even feel it. What a shame and loss. People hold back from astonishment because they don’t want to be embarrassed or look like fools. But the world would be better with such fools. Awe and astonishment are indeed abilities, and they are real. They mean that something reached you, some kind of beauty or meaning, and that you were able to receive it. No single person receives it everywhere, but each of us takes part in a larger perception.

If we hold back out of shame or self-consciousness, the student suggests, we are not only denying our own astonishment, our own ability, but affecting the future too. To say (in words or otherwise) that “this is beautiful” is to allow such things to be said.

A few things have astonished me in the past week, including Cz.K. Sebő’s album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?, the Torah portion that I chanted yesterday (Genesis 50:15-26), the Sándor Csoóri event that I attended yesterday (a discussion, held at the Petőfi Literary Museum, between Miklós Vecsei and Gergely Balla, with music by Balla—a song he wrote that draws on nine Csoóri poems), a video premiere of the Platon Karataev duo performing “Partért kiáltó,” and passages in Hamlet, which my eleventh-grade students are close to finishing now.

Then last night I came upon something that topped it all off. A student had posted a new photo of herself on Facebook. (Here it is common for teachers and students to be “friends” on Facebook and even to use Facebook for classroom-related communication, so I see these updates from time to time.) Another student commented, “you caught my eyes just like the pirates caught Hamlet.” (We had just read the scene where Hamlet tells Horatio in a letter about having been captured, and thereby rescued, by pirates.) What a beautiful Hamlet reference! That’s why it’s possible to read Hamlet again and again; there’s no end to what it can evoke, what associations it can form in different minds, lives, stages of life.

Oh, and I forgot one other thing. After the Csoóri event, I had a little time before my train back to Szolnok, so I walked to the Keleti station and had two slices of pizza at a nearby chain restaurant. It isn’t always easy to find good pizza in Hungary (by which I mean pizza with a crackling thin crust and light, fresh toppings), but this place has them, and this time they had plain (tomato sauce and cheese) slices. And those slices were so delicate and delicious that I could have eaten two more, but by then it was time to catch the train, which was just as well, because I also had chicken soup waiting for me at home.

So yes, I claim my right to be astonished, and I will not give it up.

The photo is of three paintings by Cz.K. Sebő. Instead of selling physical CDs, he is selling a series of tiny mood-paintings, which come with download codes (so that they include the full album as well as two forthcoming demo songs). I bought this series of three and intended to give two away as gifts—but love what they give to the room and will not part with them.

From Hamlet to Csík: Bring the Bringa!

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My laptop is still in repairs (I should get it back tomorrow), so I am writing on the phone. To make this easier, I wrote a draft on paper first, a good idea in general. The pen is a kind of mediator, the typewriter too. The electronic keyboard somehow shirks this role. Moreover, the pen and typewriter are messy in an enjoyable way. You get to cross things out, squeeze things in.

First of all, congratulations to everyone who took part in the Hamlet performance—three scenes and discussion—at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár on Friday! I was sitting next to Katalin Cserfalvi, who works at the library and made this event possible. At moments we gaped at each other in awe. These scenes came alive, not only in the actors’ expressions and gestures, but in their rendition of the language. Last year’s performance was full of spirit and enjoyment, but this year’s reached a new level.

 

 

This took long and intense work. We have been rehearsing for about two months (mostly in class, and not in every class session), but before that, we read the entire play and then reread a few scenes multiple times. The students who weren’t in the performance—who served as audience members during our classtime rehearsals—deserve commendation too, because without their attention, listening, and comments, not only would we have been unable to rehearse, but we would have missed some of their insights. Also, the two students who introduced each scene at the performance, Luca Regina Gazdag and Dorina Kata Nagy, helped out in numerous ways behind the scenes, as did Petra Rónafalvi, who provided some of the costumes. When putting on a play, even a few scenes, one becomes aware of the different kinds of work that go into it and the importance of each.

After Hamlet, I went upstairs to hear a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son): stories and songs alternating in a kind of dialogue. There seemed to be connections between Zsolt Bajnai’s stories and Marcell Bajnai’s songs; while not explicit or obvious (to me), they brought the separate works togethet into something new. I didn’t understand everything—some songs were familiar, some not, and I had read just one of the stories, the wonderfully satirical “Korrupcióterápia,” but I loved the different tones and the atmosphere of enjoyment in the room. Next time, whenever that may be, I will understand much more. (I didn’t take pictures, but there should be some coming from the library soon; when they appear, I will add the link.)

One exciting thing: the last song that Marcell played was one I hadn’t heard before. I was so taken by it that I tried to find it online later (by looking up the few words and phrases that I remembered). I had no luck, so I wrote to him to ask about it. He replied that he had written the song a week before and that this was the first time he played it in public! I now realize that he said this when introducing the song, but I didn’t catch it at the time. I hope to listen to the song many times.

All of this would have been enough for me for a weekend, but the festivities continued at full tilt. Yesterday, late in the afternoon, after a quiet day at home, I took the teain to the nearby village of Zagyvarékas for the Margaréta folkdance festival, followed by a concert by the band Csík. One of my students, an accomplished folk dancer and a member of the Rákóczi dance group, was in three of the dance performances—and I was eager to see them all and hear the band. It was my first real folkdance event in Hungary. I have seen a few short performances here and there, but nothing like this. I eas moved not only by the dancets’ skill (in singing as well as dancing), not only by the colorful costumes, not only by the gorgeous rhythms and melodies, but by the vitality and “nowness” of it all. Folkdance in Hungary is not some relic of a dying tradition; people of many ages put their hearts and lives into it.

 

 

What to say about the Csík concert? It was fantastic; they played so many instruments, and combined musical styles with such ease and in such interesting ways, that I wanted to rush home and start playing too. Their music opens up possibilities. The audience adored them (except for one disgruntled drunk man on the sidelines who ranted in a few brief sputters about how he wanted pure Hungarian music, not music from all over the place). Many songs were the band’s own, others by others; many had folk motifs, while others had a jazz, blues, rock, or other feel, or a mixture. One song (by Gábor Presser) I had heard before; Marcell Bajnai had played it in his recent solo concert, at the very end. It was exciting to recognize it and hear it in these two different ways.

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Mosquitoes were swarming all around—it has been a bad few weeks, mosquito-wise—and audience and musicians alike were getting bitten every split second, from every angle. But we stayed until the end and beyond, cheered for an encore (which they played), and kept on applauding after that.

It was a long journey home (but a pleasant one, except for the mosquitoes). I had made the uncharacteristic mistake of leaving my bike at the Szolnok train station (or rather, train stop), thinking that the Zagyvarékas train station would be near the village center. Wrong! They are about four kilometers apart; in fact, you have to leave Zagyvarékas and then enter it again. The walk didn’t feel long, but on the way back I just barely missed the train I had hoped to take and had to wait an hour for the next one. Lesson learned: bring the bringa!*

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*”Bringa” is one of many Hungarian words for “bicycle.”

P.S. On top of it all, this evening I went to Pest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event, which brings Roma and non-Roma, economically advantaged and disadvantaged children together from all over Hungary to dance to music played by the orchestra. This year, the BFO played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7; in the final movement, the children performed a dance. This Beethoven symphony, and especially the outdoor performance, brought back strong memories of playing it in high school, at Tanglewood—the thick summer air, the feeling of being in the middle of the music, all of this came back—but the performance made me hear the work in a new way. It is hard to describe, but I have it in my ears. The dancing worked so well with the fourth movenent, the children danced with such glee, that it turned into something more than I can name, something that goes with the rest of the weekend. We do not have to hold back in music, stories, poems, dance, plays. So much is waiting to be created, performed, and heard. So much is already here, in the air, on stages, in books and notebooks, in the feet and hands, in the mind. The train back to Szolnok has stopped, the window is open, and I hear the loud wind in the leaves. They are there too, the  songs..

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Different Kinds of Rest

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Rest will be scarce over the coming months (or plentiful, from some perspectives), so I will be looking to make the most of it. I have three different translation projects ahead and am excited about them all. I am participating in two literary events in the U.S. in October: the ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a series of events at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture featuring two of my Hungarian colleagues (more about that soon!). In addition, I have a few writing deadlines, will continue my synagogue responsibilities as usual, and may hold another event at the Szolnok Gallery/Synagogue in September. The event on May 23 went beautifully. The audience was enthusiastic, everyone joined in the singing, and the acoustics lifted the voices.

Yes, and there’s the upcoming Hamlet performance and discussion–by some of my tenth-grade students–at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library on June 14! They will perform three scenes from Hamlet, followed by discussions and interviews with the characters. We are now heading into our final rehearsals.

All of this is in addition to regular teaching, which is in an irregular state right now, since I am meeting frequently with seniors to help them prepare for their oral exams.

The next few weekends will be packed. Next Saturday I go to Esztergom to enjoy the Comedium Corso festival–where 1LIFE will be performing–and explore the surroundings, which look stunning in the photos I have seen. (I will take my bike on the train so that I can explore more easily.) From there I go to Budapest to lead Szim Salom’s Shavuot service on Sunday. The following weekend, we have the Hamlet performance on Friday; right after that, also in the library, there will be a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son)! On Saturday, June 15, I plan to attend a folk dance festival in Zagyvarékas; one of my students, Dániel Lipcsei, will be performing in three groups, and there will be many more groups from all over the country. Some of it might look and sound like this:

Then on Sunday, June 16, I go to Budapest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event. Later in the week, Szolnok’s Tiszavirág Fesztivál begins; I look forward to its concerts–including an acoustic show by 1LIFE–and other festivities. The following Shabbat (on June 22) I lead a service–with a bat mitzvah ceremony–in Budapest; on June 30, I leave for the U.S.  I will be teaching, for the ninth consecutive summer, at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers; this year we focus on tragedy and comedy, as we always do in the odd-numbered years (the even-numbered summers are devoted to epic). Those will be an intense, focused three and a half weeks, with lectures, seminars, panel discussions, films, and more. A few days on either end for visiting people–and then back to Hungary on August 5!

Back to the topic of rest: there are different levels and kinds. One of the reasons that I find Shabbat challenging (and important) is that it takes me about a day to wind down from the week. Resting on Friday evening and Saturday takes planning, focus, and determination (and I don’t always succeed at it). On Sunday, a greater calm sets in, but by then it’s already time to gear up for Monday. I have found it difficult, even in “free” time, to read books unrelated to my teaching, projects, and other preparations; several books have been waiting for months, not because I lacked time for them, but because my mind would not fit them in. I have now returned to The Book of Why by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie; this time I hope to stay with it instead of letting more months go by. It gets more and more interesting as I get farther into it; I will have more to say about it later. I am also overdue with Cynthia Haven’s biography of René Girard, Evolution of Desire, not to mention books in Hungarian, which I read especially slowly.

Reading a long book (for pleasure and interest) takes a particular kind of  restfulness. It’s different from reading a poem or short story; while these require intense focus and attention (and time), they tend to take less time on the initial reading than a novel or nonfiction book; thus you can reread them many times. I enjoy rereading more than I enjoy first-time reading, because of the new understandings that come with the repetition. To come to know a long book, you have to be willing to dedicate many hours just to the first reading. This is especially true for slow readers like me. I know people who can read a 350-page book in an afternoon or two; I am not one of these.

So there’s the rest that involves unwinding and the rest that makes room for reading. What other kinds are there? Writing, playing music, and other creative activities require stretches of time for trying things out, going back and revising, etc. There’s also the rest that comes through exercise: biking, for instance, over long distances. There’s the rest that comes from spending time with others: laughing with them, playing music with them, sitting down for a meal with them. There’s the rest that comes from doing something different: going somewhere on vacation, for instance. There’s the rest that comes from attending a concert, reading, or other performance. There’s the rest that comes from sorting things out in the mind: reflecting on the week, remembering important things, and putting less important things in their place. Then there’s the rest that comes with pure laziness: puttering around, doing what you feel like doing, whether or not it’s productive. There’s the rest that comes from sitting quietly and doing nothing. There’s structured, time-bound, hallowed rest, such as the rest of Shabbat. Finally, or near-finally, there’s sleep, and, at the end of life, death.

These all overlap, yet they are distinct, taking different forms and playing different roles. Yet each one can be well or poorly carried out. It’s all too easy to compromise rest, to try to make it serve something else. To rest well, you have to rest with all your heart. Or maybe that’s what makes something restful in the first place: doing it with all your heart, instead of pulling it this way and that.

I end with Walt Whitman, “A Clear Midnight“:

THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

A Way of Hearing the World

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Isn’t reading literature in the original one of the fundamental reasons for learning a language–and not just a side benefit or frill? Isn’t reading Shakespeare one of the great rewards of learning English? You can’t come close to Shakespeare in a translation, no matter how good, or in “Shakespeare made easy” editions (which are hopelessly watered down). You have to plunge into Shakespeare’s language, struggle with it a bit, and then start to see it make sparkling sense all around you.

Overall, I admire the gimnázium curriculum here in Hungary. What students learn will help them not only with their careers, but with independent thought and life. Literature is central to their learning; they read poems, novels, stories, and more (in Hungarian). They also learn math and sciences (to advanced levels), history (in depth and detail), grammar, technology, languages, arts, and physical education. My two criticisms are (a) that the curriculum is crammed, with little or no flexibility or choice, so that students have no time to absorb what they are learning; and (b) that in the language courses, literature is treated as an extra, something the teacher may add to the lessons if time and inclination permit. (My school has been very supportive of my Shakespeare projects–but still, in relation to the official curriculum, they are added on.) Language instruction–and all the textbooks I have seen–focus on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation on everyday topics (health, food, family, nature, school, the environment, technology, etc.), which repeat and repeat, at increasingly advanced levels. All of this is good and important–but language instruction without literature is like music lessons without music. I am not the only one who brings literature into class–many teachers do–but still, it may seem an appendage, not an internal organ.

I have sometimes been asked why I am having students read Shakespeare in the original, when they will not need to use Shakespeare’s language later in their lives. My response: they will use it! They will recognize words, phrases, quotes, allusions all around them; they will gain a way of hearing the world; and they can return to the plays and poems throughout their lives.

But to the point: this year, the tenth-grade students (who last year adored A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are getting a little restless with Hamlet, or many are. The reasons are understandable: we read only in class (since the books stay at school, and I am reluctant to add to their already hefty homework); we meet only twice a week, and have not always devoted both sessions to Hamlet; there have been various interruptions and absences, so many students have missed at least one key scene of the play; it’s longer and more difficult than Midsummer; and in my desire to continue onward through the play (so that we can later go back and focus on certain scenes), I have not explained certain passages as well as I could. But we are close to the end; and I am confident that when we go back, reread, and enact particular scenes, the experience will be different.

Also, they have fond memories of Midsummer–and this is a very different sort of work. Comparing the first to the second, they may well feel some disappointment at first (though some have said that they find Hamlet more interesting). Last year their readings and performances were joyous and funny, and here a different mood sets in, though there is plenty of humor in Hamlet too.

Why Hamlet, out of all of Shakespeare’s plays? Well, for one thing, Hamlet is a play of the mind; it takes us into thinking itself. It is also full of play and trickery; the play itself is full of plays, not only the play within the play, but other enactments too–so that we are not always sure whether Hamlet is speaking his thoughts or acting for a perceived audience. Also, there is the question of metamorphosis: what must happen to Hamlet, how must he change, to do what he has set out to do? And the question of “minor” and “major” characters: might Polonius and Laertes be more important than they seem? The whole play has to do with “seeming” and “being”–so that when Hamlet first replies to his mother (in Act 1, Scene 2), his words, in a sense, introduce the play:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

And there you have the beauty of Hamlet: despite all the changing appearances and illusions, despite all the plots and tricks, there is an integrity, something that cannot be reduced to “just” this or that. It can only be revealed, though, through the illusions. We see Hamlet playing with Polonius here (in Act 3, Scene 2):

LORD POLONIUS
My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET
Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS
By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET
Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS
It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET
Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS
Very like a whale.
HAMLET
Then I will come to my mother by and by. [Aside.] They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
I will say so.
HAMLET
By and by is easily said.

Here Hamlet tests Polonius (craftily) to see whether he will continue to agree with him. But Polonius’s continued agreement reveals to Hamlet that he himself is being played with, in a more serious manner–that is, that Polonius has made some plan with the king and queen (or a larger “they”). So the play reveals the play–and Hamlet speaks through it all: “They fool me to the top of my bent,” suggesting that even his outwitting of Polonius may be partly an illusion, as there may be something beyond Polonius that he cannot outwit.

In some ways Hamlet cannot be a group experience. Last year, a few students took strongly to the play, not together but alone, and their responses set the tone for classes. I see this happening this year as well, but it has yet to come through. I believe that this will be worthwhile for everyone, not only now, but later. But to make it worthwhile, I have to think more about the scenes that we will study closely: how to interpret them, stage them, “character” them. Then, I think, good memory will be built.

Image credit: M. C. Escher, Metamorphosis I (1937 woodcut printed on two sheets).

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

Speaking Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s language may seem daunting at first (“His discretion, I am sure, cannot carry his valor, for the goose carries not the fox. It is well. Leave it to his discretion, and let us listen to the moon“). Even after reading his work for decades, you may walk into verbal thickets. Still, through these very burrs and thorns (and leaves and petals and bugs), you find out how immediate Shakespeare’s language can be.

That has been happening in these final rehearsals: everyone has been involved, whether as listeners, actors, or supporting actors (the ones who play parts in rehearsals but not in the event). This afternoon, in the classroom, I saw that someone had written on the board, “Jó munkához idő kell” (“Good work takes time”). I don’t know whether that was a comment on the performance or a remnant from a previous class, but it applies here; day by day, the language has been catching on. I sense it in the audience as they watch their classmates perform scenes and monologues for the dozenth, twentieth time. They listen, laugh, turn pages, give cues, murmur along, call out mistakes. When the main actor is not present, they step in and read parts too.

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Students have been memorizing their lines in spades–and each memorization takes the scene to another level. Yes, there are still some giggles and lapses–but even in the past two days, the performers have come far. We have practiced in classrooms large and small, in the schoolyard (as pictured in the two photos above), and in the park; each place brings out something different.

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One student urged me to ask the drama teacher for additional costumes and props. He accompanied me during a break between classes and acted as interpreter–but after the beginning, we had no difficulty communicating. She took out a veil and said, “Ophelia”; she took out a sword and said, “Polonius.” Everything was clear.

We’re just a dress rehearsal away from the performance. “You shall see, it will fall pat as I told you. Yonder she comes.”

 

Shakespeare Around the Corner

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The Shakespeare event is just three days away. A few days ago, I posted some short videos of ninth-grade rehearsals. Here are the tenth-graders (who read Hamlet this semester) heading up the stairs to our venue.

They will perform excerpts of two scenes from Hamlet: the scene where Hamlet encounters the Ghost (Act 1, Scene 5) and the scene of the play within a play (Act 3, Scene 2). Here is a rehearsal of the “dumb-show” at the start of the play within a play.

They practiced it again today (this time with the one who will play Lucianus in the actual event):

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As we approach the event itself, it’s exciting to see and hear subtleties entering the performance. Students have been figuring out their words and gestures, giving them more life each time. Some have taken on the role of assistant directors, offering ideas about the blocking, costumes, delivery, and more.

Everyone has helped out in some way. In the many rehearsals where we did not have the full cast (because the two halves of each class have English at different times), students stepped in to play the parts of those who were not there. Others helped out as audience members; they listened and watched, day after day. Many contributed drawings to the classroom wall.

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There is little more to say and much to do; the next few days will ascend the stairs.

“I see a voice: now will I to the chink….”

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We have been practicing, day by day, for the May 31 Shakespeare event–just a week away now–which will include three excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two excerpts from Hamlet, a simple Renaissance dance, and a few introductions and interludes. The rehearsals have built and built; each time, something has improved, and the mistakes have made memories too.

It has been fun to pull costumes together; a homemade lion costume (in the works–thanks to a student’s mom), plastic wreaths and vines, a lanthorn, a not-so-thorny thornbush, a (stuffed) dog, some crowns, and other props and accoutrements.

Here’s a dialogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1 (recorded May 17):

Here’s one from Act 3, Scene 2, with a different Hermia and Helena (recorded May 22):

Here’s the Wall (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a Wall….”)

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I don’t have any Hamlet photos or videos yet (aside from the drawings I posted recently), but that may change soon.

Forms and Meanings of Praise

Last week, while some of my tenth-grade students were taking a make-up test, the others illustrated scenes from Hamlet, in preparation for our event. I had compiled a list of possible quotes; many students chose quotes of their own. There were drawings of Ophelia, the ghost, King Claudius, the play within a play, the slaying of Polonius, the “Words, words, words” scene, and many more.

As I walked around the room and pointed out what I saw in certain pieces, I often met with the response, “No, it’s terrible! I can’t draw!” Some students explained what was wrong with their pieces; some burst into giggles; some stared at the emerging arm on the page, erased it, and stared at the blank page. Here I saw a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary; while everywhere you will find students who take pride in their work and students who do not, the proportions differ, with American students being, in my experience, a bit prouder of their work than Hungarians. This difference has something to do with the messages they receive from teachers and others.

First of all, in American schools, just about anything may go up on the wall. Teachers are required to display student work on bulletin boards around the classroom and in hallways–so anything from a Venn diagram to an algebra proof to an essay can end up in public view. Second, there’s an underlying belief that all student work–at least in its final form–should be celebrated. Every student has talent and a voice, according to popular wisdom; all voices should be seen. (I am channeling Pyramus here: “I see a voice.”) Here in Hungary, from what I have seen, not everything gets displayed and celebrated; overall, student work receives more criticism than praise. There’s a basic assumption that all students need to improve (and that they have a long, long way to go). There are exceptions to this–but that’s the overall tendency, at least in comparison with what I have seen in the U.S.

I see promise and problems in both ways. The American attitude (or collection of attitudes) can become too blithe and exuberant, too fixated on the “wonderful.” (When everything is “wonderful,” there’s not much more you can say.) The Hungarian attitude (or collection of attitudes), in contrast, can leave some students thinking that they can’t draw, write, etc., at all. Yet both approaches hold a possible middle way: looking at what is actually going on in the students’ work and considering how to challenge it. Here, in this class assignment, I found an abundance of interesting things. (All the pieces that appear here are posted with the students’ permission.)

Consider the clowns: I am struck by the symmetry between cross and spade, the contrast between the standing and sitting clowns (one big, one little; one with spade, the other with flower); the solemnity of their faces, the colors, and the quote itself. Or the two praying scenes–how did those stick figures become so evocative (in the first) and the crown and cross so luminous (in the second)? Or Hamlet and Horatio: Hamlet with his eyes closed, as though he were seeing a world no one else could see, and Horatio, troubled, looking askance. Or the ghost scenes, ordered and unnerving. Or Ophelia, her thoughts full of water.

If I were an art teacher, I would have more to say, possibly, about the proportions, shading, and so forth–but I am bad at drawing and have little sense of how to improve it. Rather, as a language and literature teacher, I would take cues from the pictures and devote lessons to Shakepeare’s clowns and ghosts. Here, given our time constraints and upcoming event, I have worked to incorporate “pictures” into our rehearsals–that is, to help students imagine and work out the details of the scenes, with attention to every word in the text.

What kind of praise is appropriate in the classroom? Those of the “growth mindset” persuasion often say that teachers should praise students for effort, not for ability or accomplishment. That strikes me as too rigid; different situations call for different kinds of praise. Sometimes students do need to hear that they have a particular ability or that their work stands out. What matters is that the teacher praise and criticize thoughtfully, not automatically, and that she avoid using praise (or criticism) as a way of exerting control. When students depend too much on teachers’ praise or take it too much to heart, they lose their own critical sense. A teacher’s praise should help students find their way.

Praise, like criticism, can do good or harm; what matters is that both teacher and student keep it in perspective and turn it toward the good. It is not an ultimate decree. A teacher can point out what she sees without claiming the last word.

Image credit: The eight drawings are by students in class 10C at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok; they are posted with the students’ permission.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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