Monday, January 07, 2008

Bad parenting in Hamlet

Reason #2 why I like Hamlet: the plethora of bad parenting role models

1) Disinterested parenting: mom & dad preoccupied with careers and social status

Hamlet is the crown prince and his parents should have been prompting him and encouraging him toward his royal fulfillment. But, they were not. Instead, Hamlet’s father was engaged in expansion projects and cementing his own legacy as king of Denmark, a legacy that is forgotten soon after his untimely death. Gertrude seems equally disconnected from her son. It seems she is all but unaware of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, even though the relationship was known to others (cp. Polonius and Laertes). She also fails to understand the true source of Hamlet’s malcontent at the outset of the play. Hamlet, we discover in his first soliloquy in Act I, is distraught not merely by the death of his father, but by the hasty remarriage of his mother to his uncle. Indeed, Gertrude’s hasty remarriage to the king’s brother indicates that she was preoccupied with maintaining her own political situation. Parenting lesson #1: stay connected with your kids and encourage them to fulfill their calling in life.

2) Reliving your youth (or life, if you are a ghost) through your kids

The ghost of Hamlet’s father manipulates his son in order to carry out revenge on Claudius, his murderer. However, the ghost’s promptings toward vengeance are not substantiated with evidence. Had Hamlet actually carried out a revenge killing as his vaporous father demands, he would have been arrested and executed for treason and regicide. Hamlet had no evidence of Claudius’s guilt other than the “word” of an apparition. Even OJ couldn’t get away with murder using that excuse. Parenting lesson # 2: don’t try to live your dreams and do all the stuff you didn’t do in your life through your kids.

3) Spying on the children

The motif of spying is another aspect in this play which underscores the failure of parents. Polonius engages a spy to observe his son’s behaviour in Paris; he also uses his own daughter to spy on Hamlet. Gertrude and Claudius persuade Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on their friend. In contrast, I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s phrase in 1 Corinthians: “Love always trusts.” It is one thing to “check on the kids”; it is another thing to set up surveillance cameras. Parenting lesson # 3: love your kids by trusting your kids.

4) Giving corny advice and not practicing what you preach

Polonius, who is perhaps the worst father in literature, is a wind bag. Being a wind bag does not necessarily make someone a bad parent. However, before he sends his son off to university, Polonius accosts Laertes with a litany of aphorisms---pithy pre-fab quotes and cliches. Out of context, he disjointedly rattles off no less than twelve “tips for life”---things like, “Give thy thoughts no tongue, Nor any unproportioned thought his act” or “Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar” or “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” or “to thine ownself be true”. All these quotes are good advice. However, the absence of sincerity along with the lack of personalized advice earns Polonius the worst father in literature. He doesn't really know his son. Laertes is wise and insightful, and is no doubt living this advice already. Polonius, however, often gives his thoughts to his tongue and many unproportioned thoughts to action. Parenting lesson #4: give advice that actually applies to your kid’s life, and, the best advice to give is the advice that is already lived out in the giver.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Parenting, Hamlet and the Real World

Parents often limit their child’s perception of the world; they shelter their kids from the evils and disappointments of the real world. By degree, as the children age, parents introduce the children to the real world. I agree with this. My wife and I limit the stream of media to our home; we have no cable or TV channels. We moderate radio news and I usually leave the newspaper at work.

Don’t get me wrong; my kids are not living in isolation bubbles. My oldest son understands that the world can be an evil place, and there are people who do evil things. However, I make every attempt to immerse my children in goodness. We celebrate the good deeds of fellow mankind---the achievements, the sacrifices and heroism. We enjoy the good things in the world.

The point we are trying to make is that the real world is not as it should be; it is a place full of darkness and sadness and unimaginable evil. In truth, the world ought to be a place full of light, joy and goodness unending. Someday, when Christ returns, it will be.

Nevertheless, we do not live in such a renewed and perfect world yet. Consequently, children need to “grow up” and see the world as it is. When children, or anyone for that matter, move from the world of idealistic innocence to real knowledge, it is a difficult shift. This often occurs in early adolescence. This shift is difficult not because parents have sheltered their kids too much; it is difficult because human beings were created for a good world. We all long for Eden. We are uncomfortable with change because we long for the Unchangeable One. We never fully understand death because we were not meant to die.

These are the issues that face the protagonist in William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Hamlet. Before the play begins, Hamlet is portrayed as a “young” man (there is some discrepancy in the text as to how young he really is…), who has been living the life of a carefree hedonist. In many ways, he was sheltered from reality by blissful ignorance. As the crown prince, he should have been preparing to take over the state of Denmark. Instead, he was a playboy: he was partying with his friends at university, dating a girl he was not supposed to be dating, and behaving with complete disinterest in state affairs.

As an idealist, Hamlet believed in friendship, he believed in love, both erotic and filial, and he believed in the unending, unchanging pleasures of youth and the happiness of this world. As the play unfolds, each of his relationships falls apart, beginning with the untimely death of his father. Hamlet’s idealism comes crashing down along with all the relationships he held dear.

Throughout the play, Hamlet describes his father as a lion of a man who would, it seems, always be with him. The impression one gets is that Hamlet had not even considered assuming the role as king. Like most youth who lose a parent, the death of his father had not occurred to him as an immediate possibility. Abandoned by his father, Hamlet then discovers that the matrimonial bliss of his parents was not as enduring as he perceived. His mother must not have truly loved his father because she remarried shortly after her husband’s death. In addition to abandoning her husband’s memory, she abandons Hamlet, by her attempt to gloss over the death of his father and downplay the revulsion of her hasty marriage. Notice also how the people of Denmark accept the new king and the hasty marriage. So much for loyalty. Once the old king dies, the people move on to the next regent without hesitation or discretion. This fickle sense of loyalty is demonstrated again when an angry mob, rallied by Laertes, turns on Claudius and declares Laertes as king.

Hamlet’s uncle also usurps the crown from him and, as Hamlet discovers, Claudius murdered his father to get the throne. What about love between brothers, between family? So much for family love. His friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, turn out to be spies for the kings; they choose a financial reward over duty to their friend. Hamlet is betrayed in friendship. Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is also shaken; she too is used as a spy for the king. For Hamlet, all that he thought was good and true was in fact, all false. He even doubts himself.

What then does it mean to be a human being? Devotion to family? Friends? Love? One’s country? One’s self? Hamlet is betrayed by it all.

The truth that Hamlet discovers is that the world is not perfect. What he fails to see is the remnant of good still in the world. What about Horatio? Was he not a true friend? What about Laertes’s unwavering love for his father and his sister? What about Gertrude’s “repentance” during Hamlet’s curt and forceful chastisement in Act III? What about Ophelia’s heart rendering regret for betraying her true love? What about Fortinbras’s devotion to his country? What about Laertes’s deathbed repentance for being used by the king? There is still light in the world.

As parents, we need to ensure our children yearn for what is good while learning that the world is inhabited by sin. We need to help our children to remain idealistic without becoming disillusioned by the harsh realities of the world. As the old saying goes, “We need to prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” We do this not by throwing our kids out onto the road and bidding them fare well. Instead, we teach them to love the goal of life’s journey at the end of the road, while gently and gradually revealing the challenges (and rewards) of the road itself.

Ultimately, the only true antidote to the unpleasant and disappointing transition from innocence to reality is the hope of the gospel.