And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
--Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III,
by William Shakespeare
What is true? What is beautiful? What finally lasts in this world?
The year is 1600 or so. A thirty five year old playwright named William Shakespeare sits down at his desk in London, and pens a new play called, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark”. Its first public performance was likely in 1602 at the Globe Theater in that very same city.
The year is 2015. Thirty high school youth, led by an adult director, stage “Hamlet” at a local eastern Massachusetts high school, on a chilly October weekend, in three performances for appreciative audiences. In attendance were enthusiastic family members, excited friends and grateful neighbors.
I was blessed to be at that play last Saturday afternoon, to hear Shakespeare’s ancient words spoken so eloquently again, by humans born more than four centuries after the drama was first created. That’s a head spinner, if you really think about it. That a piece of literature has survived for that long; that the human ideals “Hamlet” embodies, like “To thine own self be true”, still ring so true, somehow, thirty generations later. That young women and men, born at the turn of the second millennium when the Internet was about to make all Creation a village: they can still perform a work of art first brought to life when the world was only as connected as the distance a ship could sail upon the seas.
Something about “Hamlet” is still so true and beautiful, maybe even eternal, and thus a fifteen year old teenager can today embody the angst and struggle of a sixteenth century prince. Maybe there are still some truths, ideas, beliefs, beauty, and wisdom in the human condition that live and stand above time, beyond time. A play like “Hamlet” reminds us of this hope. That even as we slog through the details and detritus of daily life, even as we struggle like our forebears to figure out the true meaning of human life, we can find glimpses of truth and beauty and that which lasts.
What is true? What is beautiful? What finally lasts in this world? For me? Love. Freedom. Justice. Art. Dignity. Faith. Mercy. Truth. Service. What ideals might you put on your list?
As humans we need to ask ourselves those questions consistently, daily even. At its best this is what faith in God brings out in us: a quest to figure out what finally and really matters. What lasts. What is good and right and noble and true. The problem in this human epoch is not our access to such ideas: we are buried under more information than ever before. More interconnected than ever before.
The challenge is separating the wheat from the chaff, the disposable from the permanent, the lies from the truth, and the beautiful from the tawdry. As Macbeth warns in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, “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.” Spend a few hours surfing the Internet or scrolling through text messages or on Instagram or Pinterest or flipping through reality TV or watching a Presidential debate. Then it is easy to see just how very hard it is to figure out what lasts. Yet ask this, we must.
So what is true? What is beautiful? What finally lasts in this world?
Thanks for asking the questions, Hamlet. Finding the answers? That’s up to us.