“Crawling Between Earth and Heaven:” A Reading of Hamlet

Hamlet is a deeply puzzling and unsettling play. It remains elusive, alluring, cryptic, macabre, and mysterious: it is Shakespeare’s drama par excellence (contrary to T.S. Eliot’s unimpressive criticism of the play). On the surface, Hamlet is a classic revenge story that mirrors the theatrical works of classical antiquity. However, upon closer investigation Hamlet draws on uniquely modern qualities that are divergent from the works of Aeschylus or Sophocles. In the play, almost as if awakening from a dream, Prince Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his father, a war hero who is also named Hamlet. The elder Hamlet’s ghost is apparently trapped in Christian Purgatory yet he is also familiar with the river Lethe and other classical markers of the underworld (in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom offers the theory that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is actually intended to represent Shakespeare, himself). The ghost claims that while he was poisoned while resting in his orchard and then usurped by his luxurious and incestuous brother, Claudius. We are dropped into the plot of Hamlet approximately two months after the death of the elder Hamlet. In that short timespan Claudius (Prince Hamlet’s Uncle) has been crowned king of Denmark and he has wedded the widowed queen, Gertrude (Prince Hamlet’s mother). Prince Hamlet has returned home from his education in Wittenberg (Northern, Germany). He is forbidden to return to school. As directed by his father’s ghost, Hamlet’s task is to avenge his father’s death and claim the rightful crown of Denmark.

Horatio, Hamletm and The Ghost by Hnery Fuseli (1789)

Hamlet’s 13th century world is a cosmopolitan hub linking Denmark with France, Germany, Norway, Poland, and England. The geography of the play informs some of its central themes. Hamlet’s homeland of Denmark is a borderland between opposing values (similar to the metaphorical borderland of Scotland in Macbeth or Cyprus in Othello). North of Denmark lies Norway – a heroic nation where King Hamlet won a victory over the elder Fortinbras (the elder Hamlet killed the elder Fortinbras and now Norway is governed by the elder Fortinbras’s feeble brother). Norway is an old world that is comparable to Homer’s Achaea. South of Denmark on the Continent lies Paris, France and Wittenberg, Germany. Paris is a city of fashion -it is where Laertes desires to go (Polonius advises him to be honest with himself before leaving: “to thine own self be true”). Paris is a city of fancy and pleasure, where young men learn the skill of fencing, while in Norway men learn to use the battle-axe. Wittenberg is strongly associated with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. It is the embodiment of the modern world, a world of students and scholarship. Wittenberg is linked with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -the sycophantic young scholars and friends of Hamlet. Norway is the fringe, it is the past; while Paris and Wittenberg represent the future. Meanwhile, Denmark is caught between these two polarities: the old world and the new world. The frustrated and restless youth of Denmark feel compelled to go elsewhere, away from Denmark, particularly to mainland Europe. This cosmopolitanism of the Renaissance world stands in opposition to classical notions of commitment to one single polis (i.e. patriotism). Lastly we learn of England -the place where Hamlet is sent to die (the unnamed king of England owes Claudius a favor). However, Hamlet escapes while en route to England and instead Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed in England. Ironically, Shakespeare associates England with death in Hamlet.

Why would Shakespeare choose Denmark as the primary setting of Hamlet instead of England? Is there something uniquely illustrative about Denmark? The Danes were once the fearsome raiders of medieval England. Their viking longboats were the terror of river towns. However, Denmark as featured in Hamlet is no longer the expansionist regime of bygone years. Now, it struggles to be sure of itself and its own kingship is easily usurped. The contemporaneous English context of Hamlet also informs the setting of the play. Prior to the rule of King James I in England, Queen Elizabeth’s court was also elderly and cautious, neither aggressive nor expansionist -England was not yet a great power like France, the Hapsburgs of Spain, or the Ottoman Empire. This same tension between aging leadership and active young men is apparent in the play. The court of Denmark is elderly and there is some discussion about whether Denmark should pursue a policy of diplomacy, expansionism, or war. The central problem of an indecisive and elderly ruling class is: what to do with thumotic and rivalrous young men? How should leaders direct the energetic youth outward toward public good? The goal is to prevent young men from becoming destructive -to prevent them from seeking private revenge and personal gain. At any rate, King James I’s mother (Mary Queen of Scots) was married to the murderer of her husband (he was murdered in his garden much like the elder Hamlet in the play). Also James I’s wife was Anne of Denmark and Norway (Denmark and Norway were united as one single country at this time). James and Anne were married in Oslo and honeymooned at Elsinore Castle (the primary setting of Hamlet). Shakespeare is thus directing the court of James I to pay attention to particular dilemmas in Hamlet that echo the challenges facing 16th and 17th century England (as well as universal questions pertaining to political philosophy).

In the same way that Denmark represents a confluence of opposing worlds, Hamlet is also the locus for a variety of tensions: classical and modern, pagan and Christian, Orthodox and Reform. In light of these tensions, Prince Hamlet is a troubling hero. He represents an exploration into (and perhaps an inversion of) the classical heroic archetype. In Hamlet, the outward battle has turned inward. Hamlet is a prince who is called to exact revenge on a usurper (his uncle Claudius) and claim the rightful throne of Denmark, but in a modern context he finds the classical idea of revenge deeply troubling. In a decidedly Christian world, where souls are immortal, what profit is it to kill Claudius if his soul will simply be sent to heaven or perhaps purgatory? Should Hamlet simply ‘turn the other cheek’ to his nemesis? Can Denmark even be redeemed? In Act III scene iii, Hamlet finds an open moment to kill Claudius. He sneaks into Claudius’s room but just before committing the deed he stops himself because Claudius is praying. Claudius is on his knees asking for divine forgiveness of his sins, and thus by killing Claudius, Hamlet would merely send Claudius’s soul straight to heaven – and in this way the modern “conscience does make cowards of us all.” Instead, Hamlet must take into account vengeance on Claudius’s soul. This is an entirely distinct concept from the vengeance Achilles exacts on Hector in Homer’s Iliad where vengeance on Hector’s body is all Achilles desires. The immortal soul, in Shakespeare, emerges as a modern concept. The great difficulty, however, is in seeing the true intent of one’s soul without ‘shuffling off this mortal coil.’ Hence, why there is so much sneaking around, hiding, and scheming in Hamlet. There is a desire to reveal what is deeply hidden (i.e. “catch the conscience of the King” when characters like the aging counsellor, Polonius, hide behind a curtain not unlike Gyges in Herodotus’s Histories). Thus, Hamlet feigns madness in order to truly conceal his own personal intentions.

At any rate, despite his inner quandary Hamlet is not a wimp (contra Goethe’s assertion). Hamlet kills nearly half the characters in the play whether directly or indirectly. He has thumos -he is a political man. Similar to the political situation in Macbeth, in Hamlet a group of leaders led by Claudius plans to appoint Hamlet as the inheritor of the throne of Denmark but Hamlet is unsatisfied with this arrangement (“Sir, I lack advancement”). His standards of a political hero are classical, and thus he looks to Norway for courage because his home state of Denmark has lately become “rotten” and ruled by an aging gerontocracy (notice how many errors of judgment and false predictions Polonius makes in the play).

Hamlet is not a one-dimensional classical figure. He is a popular prince among the people of Denmark (hence why Claudius cannot simply have him executed). He is an unusually thoughtful hero, capable of examining things from multiple perspectives. He is not a single-minded avenger like Laertes (son of the old counsellor Polonius -note: Laertes was also the name of Odysseus’s father) and yet Hamlet is also distinct from his good friend, Horatio, who calls himself “more an antique Roman than a Dane” (his name is a combination of two Latin words ratio “reason” and orator or “speaker”). In many ways, Horatio is the most crucially important character in the play. He stands alongside Hamlet during the most critical scenes in the play and he is also one of the few characters to survive to the end of the play (he tries to commit suicide but Hamlet begs him not to). Hamlet’s character is somehow split between these two figures: Laertes and Horatio. Hamlet’s tragedy is that he cannot simply embrace one or the other. He is the tragedy of modern or Renaissance man -a man who tries to be too many things all at once and becomes trapped in paralysis. The crux of Hamlet is an interrogation of the possibility of a philosopher king in a Christian/modern context (i.e. a synthesis of a theoretical and practical kingship). Shakespeare seems to offer an example of a modern heroic warrior king in Henry V, yet even King Henry V faces the problem of the church -an established religion of peace which competes for authority with the expansionist state. The impossibility of Plato’s modern philosopher king becomes a tragic impossibility in Shakespeare. There is hope in Horatio, a man with Greco-Roman virtues in the modern world who doubts the fanciful claims of modern theology (“…there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”). However, Horatio is not destined for kingship.

The great hope of the Renaissance was to synthesize two antithetical value systems: Christian and Classical. In an effort to examine this tension, Shakespeare offers us Hamlet -a very modern European, who is dropped into a Norse feudal saga with a twist: Hamlet is tasked with a supernatural quest for vengeance and requital. Hamlet admires the classical virtues of his father, yet he is also restrained by what he has learned in Wittenberg (not least of which concerns the Protestant Reformation). He is constrained and haunted by notions of a life after death. Meanwhile, Denmark has embraced a secular court. There are no bishops or archbishops like those found in Shakespeare’s History plays wherein the church emerges as a troublesome political force contra the warrior kings of England. While in Hamlet the state of Denmark is not beholden to the church, Hamlet explicitly agrees with the theological doctrine that the world is fallen and sinful. This causes him to have a problem with politics. Everywhere he looks he sees corruption. He believes women are inherently corrupt -a product of ‘original sin’ and he calls Ophelia a harlot and commands her to “get thee to a nunnery!” Women are either chaste nuns or licentious whores according to Hamlet. In this way, virtue for Hamlet is akin to absolute sexual purity. Indeed, Hamlet possesses a certain type of absolutism that is not present in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. This view of virtue also causes Hamlet to despise everything around him, including his own country. Hamlet is a modern thinking man and he longs for the monastic or ascetic ideal (he embraces a Christian interpretation of a Roman appropriation of Greek things). The irony of Hamlet is that he is a modern Christian man but he is also aware of the tension between ancients and moderns, and he embraces certain Homeric virtues as well. In fact, Homeric epithets are found throughout Hamlet (around the time of Hamlet’s first performance George Chapman had just completed the first English translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, circa the 1590s). At any rate, Hamlet finds it disgraceful that the task is left to him to restore order to his chaotic and fallen world (in The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche likens Hamlet to the Dionysian man). Hamlet’s disposition is somewhat philosophical -he resents the custom of his own people (particularly Claudius’s heavy drinking) and he despises the whole of humanity itself:

“What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason, how infinite in
faculty! In form and moving how
express 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? Man
delights not me: no nor woman neither…”
(Act II scene ii -Hamlet speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)

In his Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud links Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Sophocles’s Oedipus cycle, however in many ways the better contrast is between Shakespeare and Aeschylus. While Oedipus becomes tragically aware of his horrifying circumstance at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus, Hamlet becomes aware of his situation at the beginning of the play. In a certain light, Hamlet is better understood as Shakespeare’s response to Aeschylus’s Oresteia. In Aeschylus, we find a tale about the tragic cycle of revenge. Orestes returns home from exile to avenge his father, Agamemnon, who has been murdered and usurped by Clytemnestra (Orestes’s mother) and her lover Aegisthus. Whereas in Aeschylus’s Oresteia we are offered a deus ex machina in the form of Athena delivering a trial to release Orestes from his guilt, in Hamlet no such divine trial arrives to save the hero.

Hamlet spends a great deal of time contemplating his future actions, even though his actions will depend on a veiled illusion whether it be supernatural or not (Samuel Taylor Coleridge dismisses Hamlet as a flawed man who simply thinks too much, however this is far too simplistic an assessment). Hamlet is a man of thought who is contemplating actions (i.e. he embodies the conflict between thought and action), but the difficulty in the play is that it incorporates a vision of classical heroism (i.e. a man of action) coupled with a Christian critique of that heroism (a man of thought). His inner dilemma leads to stasis and eventually nihilism -it becomes an ontological question: ‘to be or not to be.’ Is it better to be and simply suffer at the hands of his enemies? Or else take up arms against a sea of troubles and surely die? But what is death if life merely continues on and on into a future world? Either way Hamlet will end up in heaven, purgatory, or hell. In contemplating the macabre, Hamlet notes that all men must die and disintegrate into mere “dust” -even the skull of Sir Yorick, the late court jester. Despite being a man of “infinite jest” Yorick’s finitude is likened to the meaningless sophistic trappings of Osric, a current Danish courtier. All of life becomes tragic for Hamlet (he notes the beauty of something anatomical like a skull). Beauty is ugly and life is empty for Hamlet.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852

Hamlet also explores the problem of suicide. Does Ophelia commit suicide? In Act V scene i the two gravediggers debate the merits of a Christian burial for Ophelia. They decide that if she had intentionally ended her own life, then she does not deserve a Christian burial (the key question is whether she knowingly drowned herself -the possession of knowledge is a fluid problem throughout the play). In contrast in the classical world, suicide was sometimes the honorable thing to do (i.e. the suicide of Ajax; see Sophocles’s Ajax). However in the modern Christian world, suicide is a sin. Since there is no honor in suicide Hamlet must find another way out of his problems. The beginning of his “to be or not to be” soliloquy is a praise of the easiness and simplicity of the Pagan world. It begins with the idea of death in the ancient world, with echoes of Socrates and Cicero. The end of life in the ancient world meant the end of everything: ‘the end of heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks the Flesh is heir to’ -but things change in the modern world. Life truly begins after death and we perchance to dream in “the undiscovered country.” The Christian notion of an afterlife is described as a ‘calamity’ by Hamlet. If life never truly ends, what is the point of the politics of revenge?

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, 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. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,

The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of dispised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy Orisons
Be all my sins remember’d”
(Act III scene i)

In this way Hamlet is a play about modern reformulations of heroism. The politics of Hamlet are guided by supernatural revelation coupled with a particular conception of the afterlife. Everything in Hamlet’s world is haunted by a vision of the next world. It makes the world appear to be irredeemably corrupt. Ultimately, Hamlet chooses to “take up arms against a sea of troubles” in an effort to end them, knowing that he marches toward his own death -there is not even redemption through art for Hamlet. His play “The MouseTrap,” which is a version of The Murder of Gonzaga, is not the dramatic conclusion of the play. It merely reveals Claudius’s guilt. Instead Hamlet must end his troubles by fighting to the death in a farcical parody of a duel (fencing is a more delicate way to settle disputes than, say, a proper sword-fight). No characters die by means of violence at the conclusion. Instead they die by trickery (i.e. poisoning). It is not a hero’s death and Denmark is not redeemed -perhaps Hamlet saw this fatal end coming.

Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard by Eugène Delacroix (1839)

At the conclusion, Hamlet’s Denmark is contrasted with Fortinbras’s Norway. Both young men have uncles who have claimed the kingship of their respected countries. For Hamlet the battle has turned inward on his own country, whereas Fortinbras extends outward conquering the worthless lands of Poland (against his enfeebled uncle’s demands). The Norwegian army has been allowed full rights to march across Danish lands toward Poland and the army of Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore just as Hamlet dies. With his dying breath Hamlet offers his “vote” for Fortinbras, his rival, to take the throne of Denmark (the message is conveyed by Horatio to Fortinbras). As is often the case in Shakespeare, the final speech in the play is delivered by the highest ranking person: in this case it is Fortinbras -a foreign man who will be the future king of Denmark (hopefully the accession will solve Denmark’s ‘rottenness’). Hamlet is given a hero’s burial by the Norwegian army, though few readers of Shakespeare will suggest that Hamlet is truly a noble hero -he is the tragedy of modern man, paralyzed while “crawling between earth and heaven.”


For this reading I used the impressive Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet along with Paul Cantor’s excellent lectures.

On Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

“Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” -fictional proverb

The year was 1948. The New Yorker Magazine was celebrating its 23rd anniversary when it published a disturbing little story called “The Lottery.” The story was to cause decades of controversy. At the time, The New Yorker apparently did not distinguish between works of fact or fiction and, as a consequence, they received more angry letters than any other publication. “The Lottery” was written by Shirley Jackson, a troubled writer of horror stories who hailed from the Bay Area before settling in the town of North Bennington, Vermont to start a family. North Bennington is a tiny town in southern Vermont and it bears a great deal of resemblance to the town in “The Lottery.”

The story begins in a beautiful, bucolic summer scene:

“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

However, the horrifying nature of “The Lottery” occurs precisely because it takes place in a comfortable, safe, familiar setting: summertime in small-town America, in a village not much larger than 300 people. The story distorts this feeling of security and monochrome innocence. By the end, the truth about the lottery is revealed and a gruesome or macabre sense of dread overpowers the reader. In a crude plot twist, the townsfolk gather and draw lots (i.e. a “lottery”) but unlike in a typical lottery, nobody wants to win this contest. Like a heartless pagan ritual, the townsfolk of “The Lottery” gather each summer to select one person to be stoned to death, perhaps to purge the town of evil. The story ends as a woman known as ‘Mrs. Hutchinson’ is selected to be killed. The frenzied townsfolk quickly gather piles of stones while Mrs. Hutchinson screams, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!” The story concludes just as she is about to be stoned to death.

Upon its controversial publication, “The Lottery” spawned an onslaught of public criticism. Almost immediately, The New Yorker received hundreds of angry letters decrying its portrayal of a cult-like small town America. To add some context “The Lottery” was published shortly after the end of World War II, on the heels of the Cold War and the accompanying cultural anxieties related to impending nuclear warfare. In a world where nuclear warfare was an ever-present possibility, a return to innocence in Middle America captured the Zeitgeist however “The Lottery” shockingly localized some of these anxieties and redirected these fears inward toward the safest places in American culture.


Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery,” The New Yorker, June 26, 1948.

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” Considered

In Act V, scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth we encounter Macbeth’s famous nihilistic soliloquy: “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” The speech comes at a critical juncture for Macbeth in the play. All his Thanes have left him, and a united army of English and Scottish forces are advancing on his castle at Dunsinane. The English are led by Siward (whose character is based on a historical earl of Northumberland) and the Scottish are led by Macduff, Thane of Fife, whose family has recently been butchered at the behest of Macbeth. Macduff is joined by Malcolm, son of the assassinated king Duncan and heir to the Scottish throne. Up until this, point Macbeth has placed his faith in delusional supernatural prophecies -revelations which he believes have transformed him into a kind of ubermensch -exempt from death by any man ‘born of a woman.’ He remains sheltered in his castle until and unless the forests of Birnam descend upon the hilltop of Dunsinane, while also awaiting the advancing armies.

However, as Macbeth’s tragic downfall unfolds, we witness his maddening obsession with the future and at the same time he order more people killed in order to support his false understanding of fate. At the beginning Macbeth was a war hero who lived mostly in the present moment, but after receiving a dark prophecy, he begins to believe that all human actions are pre-determined by some supernatural fate. His belief turns to obsession, and his futurism stands in stark contrast to the ancient view of time as cyclical, rather than the modern view of time which is apocalyptic. Therefore, Macbeth’s nihilism grows out of a modern apocalyptic expectation. He rarely focuses on his troubles today, only on an endless forthcoming “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” For Macbeth, “today” is merely the ignorant present -in fact, today might as well be history since it has been predetermined according to the witches. With an eye for what is to come, Macbeth incessantly slaughters his allies -he sets out to kill Duncan, and then he must kill Banquo but Banquo’s son Fleance escapes, and then he must also kill Macduff’s family. His mind becomes ensconced in a philosophy of the future -a philosophy of becoming rather than being. His hope is for some future state of perfection, which is one classical characteristic of a tyrant. In Book IX of Plato’s Republic when discussing the soul of a tyrant with Glaucon, Socrates draws a distinction between a tyrant and a philosopher. According to Plato, a tyrant is a man who follows his base pleasures and is unwilling to be virtuous. When this “private tyrant” becomes empowered as a “political tyrant” the city suffers in disharmony. However, the soul of a tyrant is different from a philosopher because a philosopher is focused on the things that are (i.e. the things that have being). In Macbeth, his particular form of tyranny is characterized by a modern pursuit of a state of purity and perfection, free from threat or blemish -a desire to see the city ‘speak together as one’ rather than to encourage the various parts of the city to grow together in harmony a la Aristotle’s Politics. Perhaps there is a certain degree of modern genocidal tendencies hidden in Macbeth’s form of tyranny, as well (i.e. ‘if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off’).

At any rate, in his famous soliloquy in Act V Macbeth suddenly sees meaningless in his unending futurism. His speech comes immediately after a report from his sole remaining loyalist, Seyton (whose name mirrors “Satan”). A cry is heard and Macbeth remembers a time when he would have been afraid of horrors in the night -a normal fear for a man but not for a tyrant dabbling in dark mysticism like Macbeth. Seyton re-enters and announces the death of Lady Macbeth. She has apparently committed suicide offstage. Upon learning of her death, Macbeth is hardly sorrowful -he suggests that she would have died anyway “hereafter” at any other time “for such a word.” Her time would have come now or at another time in the future -it makes little difference to Macbeth. He launches into his famous soliloquy bemoaning the meaninglessness of life as a mere “shadow” filled with “sound and fury.” It is an apocalyptic speech which notes the “last syllable of recorded history” (i.e. an end of history in the Hegelian and Christian sense) and yet it also makes mention of the past “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death” (i.e. history is a a predetermined series of revelations that merely lead to death). Ultimately, all of life for Macbeth ultimately ‘signifies nothing.’ Mirroring the book of Ecclesiastes, all is vanity for Macbeth. Life becomes a mere “shadow” and a “poor player” or a pawn of powerful supernatural forces.

Unlike the Poet-Philosopher-King of Prospero in The Tempest, Macbeth sees no glory in human greatness -no cloud capp’d towers, no gorgeous palaces. Macbeth is not a true leader like Prospero because he has no inspiration, no poetics, no vision to guide his fulfillment of the future. His reign is purely destructive. He believes that if he can eliminate enough people who pose a threat to his regime and hopefully fulfill his future prophecy, then his kingship can become perfect. Macbeth’s struggle in his soliloquy is not with a concern that human greatness is all for nought, like Prospero, but rather his struggle is with time. He laments endless tomorrows, all of which lead to an end of history. Similarly, in the life of a single human, every yesterday merely leads to death. Life is characterized as mere theatrics, filled not with reason and beauty, but rather with animalistic noises like “sound and fury.” The frivolity of life signifies nothing and he calls for life to be snuffed out like a “brief candle.” The only way Macbeth sees a return to an ontology of being is in death.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”


For this reading I used the 3rd Edition Arden of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

The Haunting Waters of A River Runs Through It

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing”
opening lines

Anyone who has ever gone fly fishing knows it to be a complex art -almost spiritual in nature. Fly fishing forces a man to slow down, find rhythm, and discover patience and harmony with nature. In Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, which was mysteriously denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, Maclean offers a short story that mines the depths of this delicate art. In the story, fly fishing serves as a kind of metaphor for the imperfect nature of human beings (a theological notion propounded by Maclean’s father).

The novella is less about the panoramic “big sky country” and more of a meditation on Maclean’s upbringing and his family, especially his relationship with his brother. Maclean works for a newspaper in Helena where he hones his writing craft. We meet his Presbyterian minister father who teaches his boys how to fly fish, and his brother Paul who is often-drunk and gambling while maintaining a strict fishing regimen. A significant portion of the story is an extended recollection of a fishing misadventure with Maclean’s frivolous brother-in-law who winds up laying drunk, sunburned, and naked with a prostitute beside the river. The story highlights both Norman’s and Paul’s sacred connection to the river and its fish, in contrast to an outsider who disgraces and disrespects it. The river serves as the one constant in Norman’s life -it continues flowing while he continues fishing.

The tearful book ends in sorrow. Maclean, his father, and his brother all go fishing one last time together, and they observe Paul’s superior skills as he catches his “limit” (his biggest fish) in the river. Maclean reflects on the enthusiasm of the trio in one glimmering moment of nostalgia. Little did the trio know it was the last time they would ever fish together. The final words of Paul echo in Maclean’s mind: “just give me three more years before I can learn to think like a fish… just give me three more years…” Shortly thereafter Paul is found dead, the result of an apparent bar room fight. Paul’s death leaves Maclean and his father burdened and fatigued. Norman’s father suggests writing fiction because “only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us” (104).

The concluding paragraphs are the most darkly beautiful in the whole novella:

“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and the memories of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters”
(104).


There are many other deep and penetrating passages in A River Runs Through It. Here are a few that have stuck with me:

“‘Remember,’ as my father kept saying, ‘it is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock'” (4).

“Fishing is a world created apart from all others, and inside it are special worlds of their own -one is fishing for big fish in small water where there is not enough world and water to accomadate a fish and a fisherman” (40).

“The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only floating ash” (43).

“…part of the way to know a thing is through its death” (62).


The 1977 Pulitzer Prize Controversy
A River Runs Through It was widely praised it upon its release. According to several news publications at the time, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction jury’s primary recommendation was for A River Runs Through It. The second choice was October Light by John Gardner. However, the Pulitzer Advisory Board denied the jury’s recommendation and no official Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded in 1977.

There was speculation that the prize was not awarded due to a health emergency. One of the three fiction jurists, Jean Stafford, a novelist who won the Pulitzer herself in 1970, suffered a stroke while the jury was studying entries.

Richard T. Baker, a long-time journalism professor at Columbia University who succeeded John Hohenberg as Secretary of the Pulitzer Advisory Board, administered the prizes on behalf of Columbia University and said that no prize was given in the Fiction category because no recommendation “was clearly leading the pack.” He described 1977 as a “thin year, not a banner year” for both fiction as well as international reporting (a second category for which no award was given in 1977).

However, a special Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1977 to Alex Haley in recognition of his best-seller, Roots, which traces seven generations of a black family in America.


Who Is Norman Maclean?
While A River Runs Through It offers the best insight into the life of Norman Maclean, I offer a terse overview of the author’s life below. Norman Maclean (1902-1990) was considered by some to be the patron writer of the state of Montana. He was born in Iowa and grew up in Missoula. In his early years he worked for the U.S. Forest Department, an experience he later wrote about in two of the stories featured in the A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.

Maclean graduated from Dartmouth College in 1924 and married Jess Burns in 1931. He enrolled in graduate school to study English at The University of Chicago, earning a doctorate in 1940. He taught courses on the Romantic poets and Shakespeare, before earning to a full professorship and becoming Dean of Students in Chicago. Many prominent Americans took classes with ‘Stormin’ Norman’ and his classes were often highly sought-after (some have grouped him among the neo-Aristotelians of the 20th century at The University of Chicago). U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens once credited professor Maclean as “the teacher to whom I am most indebted.”

Upon his retirement in 1974, Maclean’s two children encouraged him to write down the stories he often told them. In 1976, he published A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, a collection of three short stories, but the most prominent of the three is his memoir novella, “A River Runs Through It.” The book was the first work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press.

Maclean spent his later years attempting to complete a book about the 1949 Mann Gulch Forest Fire, a wildfire that destroyed thousands of acres in Helena National Forest along the upper Missouri River. The book was published posthumously as Young Men and Fire (1992). Norman Maclean died in Chicago in 1990. In 1992, following Maclean’s death, the film rights to A River Runs Through It were purchased by Robert Redford and it was made into a Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt. The film version is entertaining and nostalgic, but it takes significant departures from the novella in order to expand the narrative.


Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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