Susan Russell, associate professor in the School of Theatre and 2014-15 Penn State laureate, was a speaker at the "All In at Penn State" kickoff event in October 2016. This is the fifth installment in a six-part series that is part of the University's ongoing focus on diversity and inclusion. In it, Russell talks about working with middle school students. To read the fourth installment, go to: http://news.psu.edu/story/452833/2017/02/24/all-leaping-faith-part-iv
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.
Nobody in the room thought Hamlet was considering dying. In fact, the kids thought Hamlet had figured out that death was not the answer to the question. It was a beautiful circle for them.
Hamlet begins with a question about who he is. Then he thinks about all the bad things he has seen, he contemplates some bad outcomes for everybody, and then he returns to the place he started from. Back at square one, but with some new thoughts swimming around, Hamlet has to decide what to do. He has to be careful because the actions he takes will show everybody who he is. Actions are thoughts in motion. Sometimes people do things without thinking, that happens a lot, but Hamlet is thinking, and those 12 lines are about him deciding whether he believes in what has happened or what could happen.
Deciding what you believe in is the initiation part the Hero’s Journey, and then choosing actions and trying to implement them falls under the Obstacle part. Obstacles are there for a purpose. The obstacles teach you about Truth, and when Truth walks into your life, the result is one of my new favorite words: “Woke.”
At this juncture, I have to leave the kids behind because I don’t know where they are or what they decided to do or whether they woke up or not. I do know that my experiences with Teacher Mom and the kids helped me decide to become a teacher and the memory of my time with them helps me stay connected to Truth. I use capital T because the Truth I am talking about is True for everybody and everything everywhere, and all the lights, cameras and actions of a nightmare cannot make the nightmare Real. Note the capital R.
Hamlet’s story is all about Truth and Reality. Hamlet keeps seeing the ghost of his Father and that ghost keeps repeating the same old line: “if you are a good son, you’ll avenge your Father’s death.” Every civilization on the planet has grappled with this line of thinking, and the ancient Greeks wrote play after play about revenge. So did Shakespeare.
Revenge is something that has whispered in our ears for thousands of years. We know it doesn’t work — check out The Oresteia by Aeschylus if you like — but we keep listening to that ghost and deciding to believe in that nightmare. How crazy is that. How crazy and human and simple. We know what is Real and what is Truth, all those Youtube videos showing people helping/saving/feeding/sheltering each other prove it, but sometimes we feel so guilty and bad about ourselves that we do bad things in the hopes that our pain will stop. It never does. And we keep repeating that decision, which is insanity in motion. Truth is true for everyone and everything, and seeing the Truth begins with taking responsibility for our own actions. Actions are beliefs in motion, and if you decide to believe in Truth, your actions have to show Truth in motion.
If Truth is true for everyone and everything, then Truth must be Real, and if Truth is Real, then all of the divisions we have created are a nightmare, a ghost story, something unreal demanding that we do something we don’t believe in. Hamlet decided that the nightmare was real (little r), and that does not make him evil, it makes him afraid that the Truth does not apply to him.
That’s the tragedy of this character and the nightmare that propels his actions. Hamlet had love, but he chose revenge instead, and his choice kills everyone, literally everyone in the play. We keep telling these tales, we keep making the same errors, we keep stumbling around in the dark, BUT we also keep looking for flashlights and friends and we keep helping/saving/feeding/sheltering each other. The Truth does make an appearance in Hamlet, Truth always does. Laertes asks Hamlet for forgiveness for all the wrongs he perpetrated on Hamlet, and Hamlet forgives him. If only that had happened in the first scene, right? We would have one less ghost story to tell, one less tragedy gathering dust and devotees, and I’d be all right with that.
Truth plays big because we all deserve it. Truth has principals, principals have actions, and actions illustrate Truth. When you break it down like that, Reality must be that light at the end of the tunnel. See you there, Heroes.