I’m frequently asked what fits the title of this post. When I answer, people usually don’t believe I’m serious, but I’ll tell you my opinion anyway. The best books on education are The Bible, Plato’s Republic, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Unquestionably the worst ever is Rousseau’s Emile.
For a book to be good if it is about education, it must educate you. It must give you the ability to perceive reality more clearly. It is not enough to present a two dimensional, rational description about education. you won’t be able to educate after reading such a book much more than you could before you read it. it will inform you, but it won’t educate you.
But spend a few months in Hamlet or Plato or Dante and you’ll become a better teacher. And if you want you can analyze them too, as long as the analysis follows the actions of a living thing rather than the configuration of a dead carcass.
For example, when Hamlet asks The Question, what does he mean by it? To be or not to be… Does he mean the normal interpertatin: whether I should kill myself? Probably.
But why does he use the language he uses? Does he expect to cease existing after he pricks himself with his bodkin? Then why not say something like, “To die or not to die?” Why place the issue at the absolute highest possible level of generality?
He has been contemplating this issue for the whole play and even before it started. When he spells out the issue, he frames it as choosing between nobility of mind on the one hand and taking arms against a sea of troubles and ending them by standing up against them.
The play echoes on itself in these words. “Oh What a noble mind is here o’erthrown” cries Ophelia after seeing Hamlet’s madness only minutes later. It may be that she heard his To be or not to be soliloquy.
Is he thinking about suicide? He doesn’t suggest that until much later in the meditation. At the beginning he suggests opposing the sea of troubles so that by so doing he will bring them to an end, no doubt by dying, but not suicidally. Perhaps a heroic last stand.
So I have to correct what I wrote above. it’s not that on the one hand he proposes a noble mind and on the other an ignoble. What he said was, “Whether tis nobler” to “bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or to oppose them even to the point of death.
Which option will be nobler, that is what he calls the “necessary question” when he is talking to the play actors.
On that occasion he complains that clowns who won’t stay within their lines amuse silly audiences, but distract them from the necessary question. Another echo. So who is the clown in Hamlet? After slaying him, he calls Polonius a fool. Perhaps he is using the terms (clown and fool) interchangeably, but it’s an interesting context because in it Hamlet is tearing his own “passion to tatters,” which is what he condemned the clowns for.
The entire play is an echo chamber of continual self-referential reverberations. Everything is repeated and inverted and diverted and reconsidered.
So what does he mean by to be or not to be? One can “not be” by seeming as well as by dying. In Hamlet’s discussion with his mother in I, 2, he challenges his mother’s assumption that his father’s death seemed so horrible to Hamlet.
“Seems madame, nay, it is. I know not seems, for I have that within which passes show…”
Yet, something is rotten in the state of Denmark, in which “virtue itself of vice must pardon beg.” To his mother he advises, “Assume a virtue if you have it not… for use almost can change the stamp of nature.”
It is an age in which perception itself has disintegrated: “Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,/ ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all/ Or but a sickly part of one true sense.”
Why are things so? Because tyranny has taken over the kingdom in the person of Claudius. Consequently, everybody must beware of their words. Hamlet’s best childhood friends are used by Claudius to spy on Hamlet. One he claims to have loved ever, Laertes, is turned by the king into a pawn to destroy Hamlet.
In such a world, governed by the will to power in denial of the claim’s of nature, there is one great matter: “words, words, words.” What will they do? What will come of them? What can they do to you? And is it so that there is no matter but words? Do they refer to nothing but themselves?
Then is it safe to be? Or are we better off seeming?
Suddenly we realize that the play Hamlet is a study in rhetoric. Is anybody genuine? Hamlet seems to think Horatio is, but does Hamlet go beyond seeming in saying so? Does he really have “that within which passes show?”
Polonius thinks very highly of rhetoric. He continually uses a showy, decadent form of it, even with the queen, who famously appeals for “more matter and less art.” But what is Polonius? “A foolish prating knave” in Hamlet’s opinion.
If you want to understand rhetoric, I’m not sure there is a better source to study its use than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But never imagine that you’ll learn what it has to say by analyzing the rhetoric out of the play. You must enter the world of the play and stay there for a time and times. If you do, it will make a teacher of you.
It will give you more matter so you are less dependent on art (what we now might call technique). It will enable you to be and not to seem. It will deliver you from the dreadful and frightening status of the foolish, prating knave. It will enable you to reintegrate your senses, to better perceive yourself and others, to attend to what most needs attention, and to follow the noble path.