“O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”
“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.”
This exchange is, of course, spoken by Hamlet and his friend Horatio, and Hamlet follows it by saying, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The occurrence that Horatio finds wondrous strange is the visit of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, clearly an odd and awe-inspiring event–Horatio’s response makes perfect sense. But it’s Hamlet’s answer to it that I find so thought-provoking: “As a stranger give it welcome.” Are he and Horatio are the strangers, in this interpretation? When he shifts from strange to stranger the many meanings of the words peel away and twist together beautifully.
Aside from all of the complications attached to a visit from your father’s ghost, fraught with a tangled web of murder and betrayal, I do believe that somehow this idea…the notion of the strangeness of what it means to be human, to be alive, to think and feel, is more important than any of the more obvious plot points in the tragedy of Hamlet. I love the idea that a “stranger” is not just a new or unfamiliar person, but a wondrous strange person as well. And strange doesn’t just mean odd or weird, it means outside; outside of our knowledge or understanding, outside of our experience and expectation, beyond even our dreams. Eccentric, off-center. And the word “weird,” originally meant having the power to control destiny, as in Macbeth’s weird sisters. At its root it meant to wind, to turn, to be changed, to become. These words didn’t always have a negative connotation, and in this scene Hamlet seems remarkably unafraid of this strange and unknown thing, though he clearly recognizes the power and significance of it. He knows that it will change him completely. He tells Horatio that he will henceforth pretend to be strange–put on an antic disposition. But I think it’s fairly clear that Hamlet is strange, he is a strange, charming, witty, melancholy person. I sense that he has spent most of his life acting “normal,” and in a manner expected of the Prince of Denmark.
The Elizabethan era was one in which people were delighted to try to understand things. They wanted to explain body and mind and soul, thought and emotion and humor. They wanted to explore connections and distinctions, to fathom their depths and revel in their complicated melancholy. Hamlet and Horatio are students of Wittenberg University, and are presumably deep in the study of rational thought, they probably both believe, as most students do, that it’s their job to understand everything and explain everything. But the ghostly visit teaches them that this isn’t possible for anyone. Nobody’s ideology is broad enough to hold everything on heaven and earth, nor even to hold dreams of everything. And this is why it’s important to welcome what you don’t understand, and make room for dreams of it in your own philosophy, because you’re asking others to make room for you in theirs.
I love the implication that we’re all strangers, we’re all strange. We’re all full of wondrously inexplicable ideas and emotions and inspiration. We’re all new somewhere, we’re all unusual to someone. And therefore we should welcome strangeness in others. As a person who grew up feeling strange and weird, sometimes being called strange and weird, I welcome the power of redefining these terms. I welcome the strangeness of my mind, and all that that implies. And though I can’t control or predict the future, I love to try to understand the idea, to understand what it means to hope, or how a moment I’m anxious about next week will soon be the past, and then farther past, until I might not remember it. I love to try to understand memory and dreams.
Hamlet, as a lover of wordplay might have enjoyed thinking about these distinctions, but I’m not sure he would be comforted or vindicated by them. His strangeness frightened him, and he was haunted by memory and dreams. Some combination of character, expectation, illness, and truly miserable circumstances make these searching thoughts, of mind and body, life and death, the natural and the supernatural, unbearable to Hamlet. Which sometimes feels like the true tragedy of the play. I’d like to see him revel in his oddness, in his wit and passion. Ophelia, too, strikes me as someone whose humor and eccentricity is strangled by her circumstances. I imagine they were friends in childhood, that they had secret worlds and inside jokes.
In his melancholy, Hamlet is not persuaded by the scope of man’s understanding or imagination, as it was understood at the time (and it was man’s) because all he can think of is our bodily mortality: “What a piece of worke is a man! How Noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In forme and mouing how expresse and admirable! In Action, how like an Angel in apprehension, how like a God! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
The oft-used phrase “a handful of dust” comes from a meditation by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne, part of a series of meditations and prayers called Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and seuerall steps in my Sicknes. Donne wrote these meditations while recovering from a nearly fatal illness, and to him the scope or our imagination was a great comfort. His meditations are about health, pain, and sickness, and they’re quite melancholy, but redemptive in the end. In this particular meditation, number four, Donne starts by describing each person as a little world, which is an idea that I love. But “It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is a diminutive to nothing. Man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world; than the world doth, nay, than the world is. And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in man as they are in the world, man would be the giant, and the world the dwarf; the world but the map, and the man the world.” And what is it that makes us so immense, that makes the air too little for this orb of man to move in? It is our thoughts, our imagination. The world is because we imagine it to be.
“Enlarge this meditation upon this great world, man, so far as to consider the immensity of the creatures this world produces; our creatures are our thoughts, creatures that are born giants; that reach from east to west, from earth to heaven; that do not only bestride all the sea and land, but span the sun and firmament at once; my thoughts reach all, comprehend all. Inexplicable mystery; I their creator am in a close prison, in a sick bed, any where, and any one of my creatures, my thoughts, is with the sun, and beyond the sun, overtakes the sun, and overgoes the sun in one pace, one step, everywhere.” No matter how confined our bodies are, whether it’s because we’re sick or imprisoned or merely stuck in traffic or a waiting room, there’s no limit to where our thoughts can travel.
We believe that through science and technology we have much more knowledge now about the way our minds and bodies work, that we can explain processes and systems. But will we ever truly be able to comprehend our ghosts, our memories our dreams, the living of life and the loss of it, what makes us dear to each other and what makes us strange to each other? Will we ever understand the workings of the world beyond the world of our imaginations, so much bigger and stranger than anything within human comprehension, whatever John Donne may have believed. Will we ever know how time winds and bends, how it changes, or what it will become? It will always be weird to us, and wondrous strange, and as strangers we must welcome this.
Hamlet and his Father’s Ghost, William Blake, 1806
The mind is truly a mystery and the last medical frontier.