Slarrow

"Slarrow" refers to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" from Hamlet's soliloquy. Here are the chronicles of such darts and whatever attempt there may be to take arms against such a sea of troubles.

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Location: Ozarks, United States

Friday, October 22, 2004

Slarrow

I've been at this for a few months now, so I might as well write up the post that I started the blog to publish in the first place. Besides, it's a nice break from the political stuff as I head into the weekend (where I usually don't blog.) It's quite long, though; be warned.

Why Slarrow? Well, it's short and would show up easily on a blogroll (hint hint!). It's got a nice round sound to it with a little bit of bite. But mostly it's a reference to a lesson I think I've learned from Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" speech where he refers to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." (Why not Slings and Arrows, then? Because there's already an excellent blog by that name. I'm not them, though I wouldn't be ashamed if I were.)

My approach to the soliloquy runs like this: the conventional wisdom is that it's about suicide, but I think the conventional wisdom is wrong. It's about risk. Rather than being incrutable and mystifying, it seems to me a very logical evaluation of the alternatives Hamlet faces and thus is applicable to anyone dissatisfied with their current state of affairs. It also says something about the limits of human knowledge and courage.

First, the soliloquy in whole:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.--Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.
Let's remember to set the stage. Hamlet's returned from abroad to find his father murdered and his mother in the arms of his murderer. In order to buy some time to assess the situation, Hamlet feigns madness. He's not totally convinced of his new stepfather's guilt and decides to compose a risky test by hiring an acting troupe to reenact his father's murder and see how the new king reacts.

At this point, Hamlet hasn't committed to anything. He's feigning a madness he could plausibly come out of and regain his place in society, though it be less than he deserved. Granted, he would never really know whether Claudius murdered his father, but as long as there's doubt there is excuse for inaction so that he doesn't put himself at risk. On the other hand, if he succeeds, he has avenged his father's murder and regained his rightful throne.

Thus it stands: do nothing, or press on. The decision must be made soon.

This is the dramatic setting for the soliloquy. This choice is what Hamlet's talking about when he asks "whether it's nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune [just take it, in other words] or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. [fight the demons and conquer]." The traditional understanding of this passage referring to suicide falls apart here, I think. In the typical context, "to be" seems to be interpreted as "to exist", so that the question may be rephrased, "should I live or die?" But that reading would require that opposing troubles and ending them was code for killing yourself (or that suicide was the only "enterpris[e] of great pith and moment"), and I just don't see it.

Now, if "to be" is understand as "to remain", then the contrast is much clearer: should I stay as I am with my present circumstances, or should I act to change them and so conquer? I think this is a far better reading of the "slings and arrows" passage.

If this is the case, though, why is the next bit about death? Hamlet seems at first to desire death for the release from heartaches, which lends credence to the suicide reading. But what's going on here, I think, is an implicit chain of logic that flows from the stark contrast established in the "slings and arrows" passage.

I think Hamlet reasons like this: I do not like the current state of affairs. I have a desired state of affairs. If I act, I will either improve my standing toward my desired state, or I will reduce my standing from the rough situation I'm already in. Then I have the choice again, and again and again until I either attain my goal or I die, thus reducing his options to a binary option. (Hamlet, being young and strong, does not account for worsening his situation beyond his capacity to act--not in this life, anyway.) Obviously attaining my goal is a great good and requires no further thought; is death, then, such a corresponding evil that it would encourage me to stay where I am? It's this chain of reasoning that leads so quickly to Hamlet's thoughts on death.

He begins by saying that if death just means release from all the ills of life, just as sleep is sanctuary from troubles, then the price for failure is low. But then he recalls dreams and is frozen: does he dare risk the continuance of consciousness in a situation where he might have less power to change events than he does now? Yes, there's a way to escape all those insupportable wounds to his spirit, but he might just be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

So there's the rub: in an attempt to analyze his options with certainty, Hamlet instead finds that he cannot in fact quantify the worst-case scenario, so his exercise in logic leaves him little comfort. Instead, he too is stymied, lacking the full confidence in his plans,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action...
Despite Hamlet's hope, it's still a gamble. His attempt to explain away risk fails, and he must act without the reassurance that would come from knowing that death is no fearful thing.

Therefore, this is not a question of whether it's preferable to live or die but rather a beautifully poetic analysis of whether risk arising from major actions can be explained away. It cannot. That, however, makes Hamlet more heroic as he presses ahead without the guarantee of success or surcease from sorrow. Such ignorance of "The undiscover'd country from whose bourn/No traveller returns" thus lends heroism to any enterprise that seeks "to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them[.]"

Then there are those of us who "suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and live fairly quiet lives with an occasional cry into the darkness (like a blog.) But that's okay. I don't wanna be king.

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