Thursday, December 11, 2008

goodnight, sweet ring-giver

So yes, I will write that post about Beowulf and Tolkien one of these days, but for now what's on my mind is Hamlet.

Surely not. Beowulf doesn't wear black. Beowulf is the supreme embodiment of strength and will. Beowulf ripped off Grendel's arm with his bare hands, for god's sake, and Hamlet can't even decide whether he wants his cornflakes in the morning.

It's the transience of the drama that strikes me. One of my favorite things about Hamlet has always been the very end, which most productions omit. My geopolitical context, let me show you it. Or rather, let me cut it because I'm afraid some of our more venerable audience members might not make it out alive if we force them to remain seated for one. more. moment.

ANYWAY, the end of Hamlet. We've been so focused on this dysfunctional family for three hours -- who's incestuous, who murdered who, why the hell the aide-de-camp who described Ophelia's half hour floating time before she slowly drowned didn't just PULL HER OUT OF THE POND -- and finally the bloody denouement comes. Everyone we care about is dead, but Shakespeare didn't forget that Denmark was a kingdom, and that when the royal family goes and implodes, someone is going to come in and take over. This whole ridiculous incident was just a blip on the Northern European radar screen. Dynasties come and go. The prince of Norway marches in after beating the crap out of Poland, sees that everyone's dead, and decides that it's time to be king.

I guess it always surprised me that in something so epic, so tragic, so heightened, the final message is basically "Life goes on."

Beowulf is the same ... the final scene in which Beowulf's body is burned has such grandeur:
On a height they kindled the hugest of all
funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
and drowned out their weeping, wind died down
and flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
burning it to the core. (ll. 3143-3148)

But immediately after:
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke. (ll. 3150-3155)

Beowulf's reign is over and someone else is going to come in and take over. It makes the whole story seem smaller, more personal. And yeah, Beowulf is primitive literature, but you go write an intimate epic and bring it back in your pocket and show it to me. Yeah, some anonymous poet from the 10th century (or thereabouts) just owned you.

No comments: