Yesterday, in Cocoa Beach, Florida, a chameleon gave me a key, freezing on a sidewalk as I passed by.
Hamlet famously adopts what he terms “an antic disposition”, in order to conceal what he has learned from the Ghost, and the resultant intent to revenge “O’er which his melancholy sits on brood.” This posture of insanity is not a creation of Shakespeare, but figures centrally in the commonly acknowledged source of the play, the story of Amleth contained in Saxo Grammaticus’ GESTA DANORUM. It goes, however, well beyond this source.
Those interested in the ancient and varied springs of the story might immerse themselves in de Santillana and von Deschend’s HAMLET’S MILL. I’ll go the other direction, to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece DUNE.
Over the past year or so I’ve become aware that ideas can recur across stories in vastly different forms. There is wide awareness, of course, of archetypal figures and scenes. What has only recently dawned on me is how altered these can be without losing their intrinsic identity. In fact, I suspect that what makes and archetype and archetype is exactly this seemingly paradoxical combination of extraordinary flexibility and intrinsic stability.
I first glimpsed this in the tenth and final chapter of Robert Louis Stevenson’s STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, which, I was amazed to realize, is a version of the same archetypal story contained in Hamlet. I won’t go into proving this assertion here, but will only say that the language employed by Stevenson clearly establishes his awareness of the connection. In fact, I’d say that it is a mark of Stevenson’s greatness that he was able to reach through the specific form of the play and lay hold of what we might call its prima materia, it’s archetypal essence, which he then refashioned into a tale told within the context of his times.
This is quite different, and vastly superior to, the common practice of taking the very text of Shakespeare and casting it into some more modern setting that does violence to the specific logic of that text.
But, before I go off on any of these tangents, back to playing dead and DUNE:
My first assertion is that Hamlet’s antic disposition, his loss of his wits, is a form of playing dead. That sanity is an analog of life is suggested many times in the play. I’ll offer just one instance, Laertes outburst at finding – when he returns to Denmark to avenge his own father’s murder – his sister Ophelia gone mad:
O heavens, is ‘t possible a young maid’s wits. Should be as mortal as an old man’s life?
In DUNE, by contrast, the Hamlet-figure, Paul Atreides, plays dead in a more obvious sense, in effect faking his own death by flying into a unsurvivable sandstorm.
To this point, as I see it, the comparison is fairly typical, with a little extra credit for recognizing loss of wit as an analog of loss of life. Both render the would-be avenger inert. Where it gets fascinating, to my mind, is in recognizing that Paul Atreides ‘death’ culminates in the death-like coma brought on by his ingestion of the Water of Life. And, further, this perilous immobility offers a path to understanding Hamlet’s infamous inaction.
Hamlet, in essence, gets locked in playing dead. Expanding this beyond these fictional contexts, it seems to me there is some deep connection here to the dissociative state entered into by those who survive some trauma. These states are a sort of roach motel, a Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave.