Coping, or what can we learn from Hamlet? (June 2010)

Recently I played Hamlet. Yes, that’s right – the Dane himself. Admittedly it was only Tom Stoppard’s 15 minute version, so I did not have to learn the full 1495 lines of text (pretty much twice the longest part I’ve yet learned) but even so, there is something about the role. The words resonate, such is the skill of the playwright. Hamlet’s alleged madness (or is it playacting?) and his dilemma over whether to follow reason or instinct seems to lie at the heart of so many human decisions.

We may not all be princes of Denmark, but in our own small way we have to control the stresses upon our lives and our reactions to them and other people. At one level, Hamlet is about the young prince forming his own coping strategies and deciding how to react to the circumstances in which he finds himself. Many of his reactions seem quite natural, not least the thought of killing himself. But he perseveres and eventually gains revenge… at a price. Maybe it wasn’t the right decision but at least he went for it, where many people sit on the fence and put on a three wise monkey act for as long as possible. ignoring the important issues and facing up to responsibilities is one regrettable human trait we could well do without – by delaying a decision we only make things worse for ourselves.

But Hamlet goes through a process before making up his mind. He tests the theory by the device of a play within a play: “I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play have by the very cunning of the scene been struck so to the soul that presently they have proclaimed their malefactions… If he but blench, I know my course!”

He also has to put up with being exiled to England (and surviving!) and of course the death of his beloved Ophelia along the way. But is he mad? Surely not – he is coping as best he can in difficult circumstances.

If he lived in modern Britain, the GP would prescribe him anti-depressants, the therapist would propose a few weeks in the Priory and he would spend time chilling out in front of the goggle box while his subconscious wrestled with the inevitability of fate. Personally, I think learning to cope and fight back is about constructing goals to focus on, and summoning up an indomitable positive spirit towards achieving those goals, which ultimately is what Hamlet does!

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