I’m still reading Anna Karenina, which, as you may know, contains one of the most famous opening lines in the history of literature:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
That got me thinking about other opening lines that I especially like, and before long, I had a list. For now, we’ll focus only on works of fiction, and maybe first lines of poetry will be its own post.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
BERNARDO: “Who’s there?”
For Shakespeare especially, opening lines were extremely important. Because Elizabethan theater typically lacked backdrops, creative lighting, and costuming, it was all up to the actors and the playwright to establish the atmosphere of the play. In this case, we begin with a brief exchange between Bernardo and Francisco, two guards at Elsinore, who, meeting each other in the dead of night, aren’t certain of who the other person is. From the very beginning of the play, there’s a sense of unease, suspicion, and wariness that carries on throughout.
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
For a story that’s as intense and emotionally-charged as Jane Eyre, I always thought this was a really prosaic way to begin. But like the first lines of Hamlet, this helps set the tone for us: this is the only world that young Jane knew, one that was dark, dreary, and confining. One that, at every turn, tries to stifle her self-determination.
Charles Williams, War in Heaven
The telephone was ringing wildly, but without result, as there was no one in the room except the corpse.
Although Williams can sometimes seem labyrinthine and exclusionary, he does know how to pique a reader’s interest if he wants to, in this case, mixing a shocking crime with a kind of droll, black humor.
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
I’ll confess right now that I haven’t read the whole Narnia series, and that I wasn’t a terribly big fan of the books that I did read. Still, I can’t forget this line, if only because it tells you everything you need to know about the insufferable Eustace Scrubb in the least space possible.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
It was a pleasure to burn.
Here’s another short and sweet line that cuts to the heart of who this book’s protagonist is, or at least, who he is at the beginning of the story. For Guy Montag, burning books is not just a job or a duty that he performs for the good of his fellow citizens, it’s recreation. It’s fun. This gets to the root not just of Guy’s problems but of the problems of the entire society he lives in: not only have their mind been corrupted, but their hearts have as well. They get joy from the wrong things, they see value in what is senseless and are blind to it where it truly exists.
That’s all for now. How about you? What are some of your favorite first lines from literature? Let me know in the comments!
Since this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a free-for-all, I thought I’d go back in the archives and do a topic I missed a while ago, “Books and Music.” Below is a list of songs that, for one reason or another, I associate with certain literary works. Some were directly influenced by said works, and some have no relation to them whatsoever except in my own mind.
Let’s see how this goes.
1: “On Raglan Road” by Glen Hansard
We start off with a song whose connection to literature is strong indeed, on account of the fact that its lyrics are Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “On Raglan Road.” It was first set to music by the Irish folk singer Luke Kelly, as Hansard explains in the video.
2: “Carry the Fire” by Andrew Peterson
According to an article on Peterson’s siteThe Rabbit Room, the line “I will carry the fire / Carry the fire for you” was inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. Writing about the creative process behind the song, Peterson said:
Right away, for reasons I don’t know, I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road. It’s an amazing (and amazingly dark) book about a father and son trying to survive the apocalypse. They’re traversing the wasteland of America with hunger at their heels and man-eating wretches on their heels, too, trying to reach the ocean where the father believes they’ll find help. Along the way, he tells his little boy again and again that they have to “carry the fire.” It’s a simple, beautiful metaphor that can mean quite a few things.
3: “Great Expectations” by The Gaslight Anthem
Obviously, this song shares its title with one of Charles Dickens’s best-known and best-loved novels. I thought the similarities would end there, until I listened to the second verse, which goes:
And I never had a good time.
I sat by my bedside
With papers and poetry about Estella.
I confess that I only made it halfway through Great Expectations, but I did read enough to know that Estella is the name of the beautiful and haughty young girl whom the main character Pip falls in love with. Of course, the song isn’t about Pip, but the singer certainly seems to be comparing his love for an unattainable woman to Pip’s love for Estella.
That’s close enough for me.
4: “Running for Cover” by Ivan and Alyosha
True, there’s nothing especially literary about the song itself. The band, however, is named after Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, two of the main characters in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
5: “Winter 1” by Antonio Vivaldi and Max Richter
Late last year, I talked a friend into reading Hamlet about the same time he introduced me to Max Richter’s “recomposition” of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. At some point, he mentioned that the menacing tone of the first movement of “Winter” seemed perfectly suited to Hamlet. Ever since, I’ve associated this version of the song with foggy battlements and princes draped in black.
6: “Shadowfeet” by Brooke Fraser
Before she got her new sound, Brooke Fraser wrote pretty singer-songwriter stuff like this. According to the artist herself, she was inspired to write this song after reading C. S. Lewis’s novel The Great Divorce. She pointed to this passage specifically:
“Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”
7: “Calamity Song” by The Decemberists
The Decemberists are known for their quirky, sometimes challenging lyrics, but on this track, they outdid themselves.
“Calamity Song” was written shortly after The Decemberists’ lead singer Colin Meloy finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Although Meloy claims the song isn’t exactly about Infinite Jest, it does contain an oblique reference to the book at the end of the second verse, when Meloy sings: “On the road / It’s well advised that you follow your own bag / In the year of the Chewable Ambien Tab.” Wait, what?
As it turns out, Infinite Jest takes place in a future American dystopia where, among other odd features, every calendar year is sponsored by a different corporation and is named after one of that corporation’s products. So one year becomes “The Year of the Whopper” whereas another is “The Year of the Perdue Wonder Chicken.” Following Wallace’s lead, Meloy set his song in “the Year of the Chewable Ambien Tab,” which is purely his own invention and not mentioned in the book.
As far as I know, this song is not related to Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine. But with that title, I can’t help but think of Green Town, Illinois in summer.
9: “Ulysses” by Josh Garrels
As one might expect, references to Homer’s Odyssey are scattered throughout. Indie rock meets Greek mythology? You bet I’m into it.
10: “Ghetto Defendant” by The Clash
For young’uns like me who aren’t too familiar with ’80’s music, “Ghetto Defendant” is one of two songs that came out of a famous collaboration between the British punk rock band The Clash and American poet/Beat Generation superstar Allen Ginsberg. (The other song was called “Capital Air.” It was performed once at a concert and never released on any of The Clash’s albums.) In addition to writing much of the lyrics, in tandem with The Clash’s lead singer Joe Strummer, Ginsberg also performs the spoken word portions of the song. I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of Ginsberg or The Clash, but nevertheless, I love the idea of a rock band collaborating with one of the most influential poets of his day.
That’s it for me. Do you have any favorite songs with literary connections? Let me know what they are in the comments.
Since April is National Poetry Month, I decided that this post would focus solely on poetry-related links. But, because this month also saw the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (and the 452nd anniversary of his birth, although no one knows exactly when it was), I threw in some Shakespeare links too.
The Hamlet read-along is still underway, and as expected, it’s given me plenty of opportunities to consider the play from different angles. Almost since the beginning of this read-along, one question in particular has nagged at me: is the ghost really who he says he is?
On my first reading of Hamlet, I pretty much took the ghost at his word. Both Hamlet and Horatio raise suspicions about the ghost’s identity early on, but I always found a way to dismiss their doubts. In Horatio’s case, I took it for a type of intellectual snobbery that wouldn’t admit the possibility of anything “not in [his] philosophy.” In Hamlet’s case, I believed that his doubt is less genuine than it sounds: he knew he should be cautious of the spirit, but what he really wanted to do was run straight to it (1.4.44-50).
After taking a second look, however, I’m the one who’s starting to have doubts.
The social climate of Elizabethan England, for one thing, makes it likely that the ghost isn’t as benign as he seems. Ghosts, as it turns out, were a very popular topic among scholars and theologians during the Renaissance. There were even formal treatises written about the nature of ghosts, whether they existed, and how to approach them (if you must). Ghost theory (if I can call it that) was also one of the main issues that divided Protestants and Catholics. While the Catholic Church had taught for centuries (and to some degree, still does teach) that dead people sometimes return to earth in order to deliver messages, ask for help, etc., Protestants generally believed that any disembodied spirit was likely a demon and should be avoided. Since Elizabethan Catholics were a minority–and not a very well-tolerated minority, either–this play was probably written with a Protestant audience in mind.
And even if, as some critics like to conjecture, Shakespeare was a closet Catholic whose plays are rife with pro-Rome propaganda, that still doesn’t mean that the ghost is a good guy. According to Catholic clerics of the day, one of the tells of a good spirit is that it will never say or do anything that contradicts Scripture or church doctrine. Contrary to what many people assume, vengeance was strongly condemned both by Elizabethan law and by ecclesiastical authorities. This doesn’t mean that revenge killings never took place, but nevertheless, Elizabethan society as a whole was making progress away from more barbaric concepts of justice like revenge. This means that even the most fervent of Catholic ghost-believers would have been horrified as Hamlet accepts the ghost’s demands implicitly.
Far and above all of this, I think that the way the ghost operates in the play itself suggests most strongly that he’s an impostor.
First, there’s the textual evidence of the ghost’s actions and reactions in scenes 1 and 5 of Act 1. For example, when Horatio bids the ghost “By heaven” to speak, he stalks away and, in Marcellus’s words, “is offended” (1.1.57-62). One scholar claims that this–the invocation of heavenly authority scaring the ghost away–is evidence enough that the ghost is an evil spirit. I find it hard not to believe her. Also in Act 1, we learn that the ghost is only seen at night (1.1.76-77; 1.4.3-7; 1.5.65-66) and that he vanishes as soon as he hears a rooster crow (1.1.162-164). As Marcellus describes in scene 1, both traits were believed, in the Middle Ages and beyond, to denote a demon.
When I studied Hamlet in school, I was told that the definition of an Elizabethan tragedy is a story in which forces outside of the protagonist conspire to destroy him (physically, spiritually, or both) and, through some serious moral flaw on his part, he allows them to succeed. The best example of this that I can think of comes from another Shakespearean play, Macbeth: in this play, the malevolent spirit Hecate, acting through her servants the Weird Sisters, takes advantage of Macbeth’s innate ambition and uses it to bring about his ruin. Macbeth is still entirely culpable for the crimes at his door, but without that malignant influence, they might never have happened.
That led me to wonder: what if the ghost is Hamlet‘s version of Hecate? What if it was his design all along to destroy Hamlet and his family? If you think about it, most of the terrible things that happen in this play flow directly from the ghost’s directions to Hamlet. Without his interference, Hamlet would not have felt compelled to kill Claudius and the chain reaction that eventually leads to his and several others’ deaths would have never taken place.
We do learn later that the ghost’s account of the Elder Hamlet’s murder is completely factual (3.2-3), but does that really prove anything? Couldn’t a demon have just as easily come by the same knowledge? Maybe more easily? Suppose this is the very demon that tempted Claudius to murder!
And that gave rise to another thought. In Act 1, Horatio tells the guardsmen (and consequently, the audience) about what a mighty king Hamlet I was (1.1.92-101); at the end of the play, however, his greatest achievement has been undone when Fortinbras comes to overthrow Denmark. We also see throughout the play that the old king’s son and possible heir is clever, dogged, and resourceful. Suppose, then, that this play isn’t about a prince whose personal struggles destroy him and two whole families, but about a devil whose mission is to stand in the way of all of the good this dynasty did and could have done? What if what’s lost here is not only several lives or Hamlet’s mind, but also the glory and the honor which could have belonged to Hamlet and his family if only they had not given in to their baser instincts? To me, the narrative makes far more sense when viewed through this lens. It also gives the audience fewer opportunities for self-indulgence. It teaches us to identify not with Hamlet in his woes so that we can commiserate, but with Hamlet in his corruption. It turns the focus onto the evil of man rather than on his troubles, which, to my mind, is what tragedy plays are meant to do in the first place.
So much for my own interpretations. Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have some of your own interesting thoughts on the ghost in Hamlet? Let me know in the comments.
To be very blunt about it, I love Hamlet. I didn’t think I would when I first read it in my high school English class, but whatever effort it took to get through it was worthwhile: it’s now one of my favorite books. Here are just a few of the reasons why you might want to give Hamlet a try in October.
1: The Setting
This, of course, is a play, usually encountered these days with splendid backdrops, props, etc. But in Shakespeare’s day, props were minimal and backdrops were almost nonexistent. The whole atmosphere of the play depended on words rather than on visuals. For that reason, Hamlet establishes an atmosphere of dread and suspicion from the very first line. If, like myself, you are enamored of shadowy eeriness, you will like this play.
2: The “Big Questions”
Unsurprisingly, there’s more to talk about in this play than could be sifted through in ten readings. We’re only four scenes in, but already, we’ve had tons of fodder for discussion, whether it was about the play’s context in history, conflicting views on the characters, or the ideas and views represented by the play itself. Maybe that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly kept this reader happy. 🙂
If nothing else, read it for the language. Read it for exchanges like this:
HORATIO [on having a ghost speak to him]: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”
HAMLET: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.”
or for the verbal tricks that Shakespeare pulls in order to make his hero seem insane while also keeping him truthful. (I might add that anyone who appreciates sarcastic humor will love Hamlet’s exchange with the grave-diggers in Act 5.)
4: The English Language Would Not Be What It Is without Hamlet
I knew that Shakespeare is responsible for many of the phrases and expressions we use today, but I didn’t realize just how many of those came from Hamlet. Sayings like “my mind’s eye,” “to the manner born,” “hoist with his own petard,” and of course, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” all find their roots in this play. It makes Hamlet quite an interesting read if, like me, you have any interest in the origins of idioms.
Of course, Shakespeare isn’t the sort of things that most people think of when they think of pleasure reads, but I wonder if that has more to do with what people expect Shakespeare to be like than what he’s actually like. So, to that point, I will attempt to answer a few of the most common complaints about Hamlet.
1: The Language Is Too Difficult
Language is a problem, especially since there are places in this play where Shakespeare uses words that we still use today, but whose meanings have changed drastically in the last 400 years. Luckily, most printed editions of Shakespeare’s plays are awash with footnotes, definitions, etc. Or, if you don’t have that, there are websites that function the same way. ShakespearesWords.com was indispensable when I read Hamlet the first time, and when I read The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare-Online.com also has the full texts of Shakespeare’s plays (Sonnets too!) and even more in-depth notes than are to be had with Shakespeare’s Words. (Just don’t be a jerk and lift one of their essays for your school project).
But vocab is only half the problem: besides the words themselves, the way they’re strung together can be awfully confusing. I find the best way to deal with it is, first, to read the sentences aloud. I don’t know why, but passages that I read four times silently without making progress make perfect sense once I read them out loud. Other people have claimed that the same is true of them when reading Shakespeare, poetry, or anything else difficult, so it can’t just be me. 😉
I find it also helps to break up especially long sentences. There are lots of parts in Hamlet that use a sort of sentence within a sentence, with the second sentence set off by dashes in the first. This, for example:
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as ’twere with a defeated joy,–
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,–
Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr’d
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along.
When faced with this kind of monstrosity, I usually read around the dashes the first time, then go back and read the lines inside the dashes, and finally read the whole thing together. Hopefully, that should make these jawbreaker sentences a little easier to tackle.
2: It’s Going to Be Depressing
The odd thing about this play is that, while it certainly is very dark and eerie, the darkness never becomes oppressive (At least, I don’t find it so.), and there are even some light moments mixed in with all the darkness. In an extreme twist of irony, the grave-digging scene ends up being rather amusing. So does the scene in which Hamlet [SPOILER!] discusses the method by which he disposed of Polonius’s body. A person who enjoys a bit of spookiness and some black humor should find this play very entertaining.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering that I’ve devoted much for this blog space to praising classic authors, but I believe that the age of a work of literature has exactly no bearing on its value. That’s not to say that there’s no value to be had from more recent books, but rather, a book’s publication date should be one of the last things we consider when we decide whether or not to read something. Older books have stuck around not just because they appeal to a certain sense of aesthetics or because they speak to current events, but because they are true. They speak truth about their subjects, whether those subjects are human beings themselves, or ideas like honor, revenge, evil, and repentance, things we still grapple with to this day and, likely, always will. I could probably devote a whole post to defending older books and stories, but that’s a topic for another time.
Meanwhile, has anyone read/seen Hamlet already? If so, what did you think? Are you planning on reading it? Let me know in the comments.
I bought these two on impulse about a week ago. The Weight of Glory still sits in its pretty cream-colored Barnes and Noble bag, while I’ve already started on Surprised by Joy. Autobiography is one of my favorite genres, so I really couldn’t pass up an autobiography of one of my favorite authors.
I will be re-reading this in conjunction with “Hamlette” of the blog The Edge of the Precipice. Starting October 1, she’ll be reading and posting about the play a scene at a time and holding discussions about the story, the characters, Shakespeare, etc. Depending on how those conversations go, you might see a few Hamlet-related posts here in the month of October.
I suppose fall is the season of Shakespeare for me. 🙂 I’ve been rather eager to read this play, as it’s one of Shakespeare’s plays that I know the least about and is also one of only three Shakespearian plays to feature an original plot. (All of the others besides Love Labors Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were based either on historical events or on a previously written story. Can you believe that?)
Author Eric Metaxas was in Oxford last week to interview several authors and scholars, among them Michael Ward, Peter Hitchens, and Walter Hooper (C. S. Lewis’s former secretary). The audio of those interviews is available here on Metaxas’s SoundCloud page.
About a week ago, my younger brother asked me quite earnestly why Hamlet and his father have the same name. When I read Hamlet, it never occurred to me that the double name could have any special significance: after all, it was common enough in the Middle Ages and afterward for sons to be named after their fathers. Still, the more I thought about my brother’s question, the more I began to wonder whether there is something behind the two Hamlets and what Shakespeare was trying to say through them, if anything. So, like the “gentle prince” of Denmark, I spent a good deal of time thinking, and like him, I may have gotten lost in my own thoughts without really accomplishing anything. For that reason, I consulted the experts as well.
One critic, Alexander W. Crawford, contends that Hamlet was given the same name as his father to point out the similarities between the two men. Crawford believes that Hamlet’s father represents an ideal king, while Hamlet represents an ideal prince. By having the two characters share a name, Shakespeare encourages the audience to think of them as one and the same.
In his book Hamlet in His Modern Guises, English professor Alexander Welsh claims that the double name is used to establish “a theme of inheritance.” It also helps the reader (or viewer, as the case would have it) to draw a comparison between the younger Hamlet and Fortinbras, whom Welsh sees as Hamlet’s foil. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is a young prince whose uncle is a king. Unlike Hamlet, however, Fortinbras is single-minded and shows a dogged determination to right the wrongs committed against his family. Because Fortinbras is named for his father, naming Hamlet for his father serves merely to give the two princes one more trait in common.
Yet another critic, one David J. Gordon, believes that Shakespeare went out of his way to give Hamlet and his father the same name so that Hamlet would be doubly bound to his father’s wishes. Being his father’s namesake tightens “the noose of responsibility around him,” drawing him even further into a fate he wishes to avoid.
Personally, I wonder whether having two Hamlets is not meant to point to one of the great tragedies of the younger Hamlet’s story: that he is wholly unsuited to the roles thrust upon him. By naming the son after the father, Shakespeare forces a comparison between the two, a comparison in which the son does not fare well. By all indications, the first Hamlet was a strong leader and a fearless warrior (1.1.63-66; 1.1.81-96). Even after death, he is eager to see justice visited upon his enemies (1.5.81-83). Juxtapose that with his son Hamlet, the last person to whom the words “strong” and “fearless” could apply. For goodness’s sake, he was so distraught following his father’s death that he hardly even noticed Claudius stealing the throne right out from under him, and since then, he has done nothing to take back what is rightfully his (5.2.65-66). He doesn’t take command of a situation, he lets the situation command him. Clearly, he is no more the bold, confident man his father was than he is the swift avenger his father wants him to be. In a way, the elder Hamlet is his son’s foil: having been a strong person in life, he is everything the prince wants to be and everything he is not. Giving them both the same name only makes the situation more ironic.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that I completely object to the opinions quoted above, or anyone’s opinion for that matter. Likely, I’m far off the mark, but it wouldn’t be a proper blog if I didn’t give my two cents too. 🙂
What do you think? Which of these is true? Are all of them true? Do you have a fifth theory you’d like to advance? Let me know in the comments.
The rest of the internet celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday a few days ago, but I had been told that Shakespeare was born on April 26. Apparently, the exact day of Shakespeare’s birth is unknown, but the day of his christening–April 26–is. So, I choose to mark the Bard’s birthday today, but really, any day is good for reveling in Shakespeare. 🙂
First, how Shakespeare is supposed to sound:
From the BBC’s The Hollow Crown: Richard II:
From Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Henry V:
At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about having Doctor Who play Hamlet (and in a bright orange T-shirt, no less!), but I actually quite enjoyed this soliloquy:
Here, we see Jonjo O’Neill, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, giving an incredibly creepy rendition of King Richard’s opening monologue from Richard III. Watch at your own peril.
I saved the best for last. Here’s Orson Welles’s stupendous interpretation of The Merchant of Venice‘s Shylock, captured on his home movie camera: