Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, but everything’s wonderful in the village of Westville.
That’s how former Hopkins English teacher Susan Feinberg greeted the 40 or so Westvillians who came to the Mitchell Branch Library Wednesday afternoon to hear a stemwinder of a lecture on whether Hamlet’s famous alleged hesitation to take revenge was really his problem—or a flaw in our understanding.
Feinberg, who taught English for nearly three decades at the Hopkins School, delivered a gripping defense of Hamlet’s much discussed tragic flaw. She claimed that his many evasions and ploys were far from debilitating hesitation. Rather, she characterized them as planful steps in a struggle to justify in veiled but powerful Christian terms the revenge he ultimately takes on Claudius resulting in the body-strewn stage carnage that finally ends the play.
Her talk gripped the audience of largely older folks, many of whom attended specifically because they have tickets for the upcoming Yale Rep’s production of Hamlet starring local acting prince Paul Giamatti. (It’s already sold out.)
Feinberg’s presentation Wednesday doubled as a recruitment event for HomeHaven, the growing self-help group that provides the supports for seniors to stay in their homes. Begun as East Rock Village, the group recently changed its name and is now expanding with branches citywide. Westville’s is one of the fastest growing. Feinberg is a board member of HomeHaven.
At Mitchell on Wednesday afternoon, she seemed back in her old classroom negotiating her audience of white and grey-haired students through the Prince of Denmark’s struggle with the “guilt culture” of Christianity; and his preoccupation with not suicide, but the afterlife [” ... to die, to sleep, but in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we shuffle off this mortal coil”]; versus the secular Elizabethan machismo culture of duels and revenge killings.
“I never slept well during the time I was teaching Hamlet because I couldn’t turn the play off,” she said.
In Feinberg’s view several other characters, including Fortinbras and Laertes, show impetuous, sword-wielding revenge. They act as foils for Hamlet, showing him the deficiencies of simply striking out.
He needs to justify his impulse, expose Claudius, and make things a little better in Denmark: That’s the heart of Feinberg’s Hamlet and what separates it from the simple bloody revenge genre that filled Elizabethan stages.
“It’s not Hamlet’s problem. It’s our problem if we can’t see in the play that Hamlet is acting on pretexts higher than a ghost told him,” she said.
Feinberg told the audience to watch for a few key scenes in the Yale Rep production to get Giamatti’s take on the matter, including Hamlet’s first ploy. “Will Paul Giamatti [merely] feign madness, or move it over into true insanity?” she asked.
Suzanne Eisner, another veteran English teacher in the audience, said she had some disagreements with the idea of Hamlet as a Christian gentleman. He didn’t appear to have too many qualms about running Polonius through, Eisner observed.
Feinberg said she’s also curious to see how the upcoming Yale Rep production treats Claudius’s minister and Laertes pontificating dad Polonius. She seems him as a guy who, well, deserves to get run through, even by the young Christian prince.
“I see him as not as a buffoon but a despicable, dangerous, nasty, meddling old man,” she said.
After she concluded her presentation, Feinberg was greeted by rousing applause that came just shy of a standing ovation.
“If Hamlet ever needed a defense attorney,” Eisner said, “he has one in you.”