I want to write about fathers and sons. I’m wary of approaching this age-old, overwritten topic but here I am, digging for dad. I lost my father at 19, years after my anger and impatience and his destiny had separated us. We never said goodbye and never reconciled the ups and downs, hopes and disappointments of our few years together. Since then, I’ve always wanted to cherish my old man, to forgive, accept, and love as Woody Allen, Jessica Lange, and the Talmud so succinctly put it.
I shadow box with recollections — what he looked like, the distant sound of his voice as he read to us, the mistakes he made, the successes he could not enjoy. I discovered that I knew my old man only through what he taught me — a deep, multi-faceted understanding of how the world works — and by a bewilderment at what he could not teach. Good to understand that about a person you still get pissed off at.
I've already written reams about my past, but I'm too young to gather sheaves into a memoir. Despite the compelling world we shared, from Cold War and the McCarthy era through the first glimmer of the 1960s, the book would yield mostly lies, because my sketchy recollections don’t serve me well. Better to create a father-and-son fiction where I can shape reality... and lie with impunity. See ‘Lying, thieves, and writers — part one.
I began casting about for ways to invent a fictive father-and-son relationship that would allow me to dive deep into filial matters without opening old wounds or boring everyone to death. But what was to be done? Wisely, my playwright companion showed compassion and suggested I revisit ‘Hamlet.’
I’d never read Hamlet. Not carefully, not for a two a.m. final paper. Never. I dove into the play and surfaced, not so much in the plot, but through the character of Hamlet and how he was manipulated by this ghost of a father.
I marveled at Hamlet’s language and demeanor as he ruminated on his father's untimely death, at his grief and bewilderment, as he listened to the old king’s finicky recipes for revenge. There he was, lost and swamped in loss, a kid reviewing, analyzing, brooding like a clown juggling chainsaws. Hamlet, the fool’s psychic circus act began to sound familiar (I use the word advisedly).
Hmm. Maybe I could use Hamlet as a guide for my own explorations, if not via the plot than via the words and actions of this soliloquizing, word-parrying young prince.
I dug deeper. I retraced the origins of Hamlet's story. Shakespeare stole the seeds for Hamlet from an already moldy Norse revenge story involving a royal Cain and Able murder, the dead father-king’s reappearance and the manipulation of a Hamlet-like protagonist.
Shakespeare also stole from himself. He had written and earlier Ur Hamlet. The writer steals from the writer. The untimely death of Shakespeare’s real-life son, Hamnet clearly impacted the later Hamlet. Years before, a young woman named Kate Hamlet drowned herself in the nearby Avon river because she had been disappointed in love. Ophelia. Thievery?
Finally, I encountered a dilemma that I might have shared with Shakespeare. Who tells the story of Hamlet? Is it Hamlet, or a long-dead father who pushes the son to bow to the ghost’s self-serving need for revenge? Will my unreliable father be my unreliable narrator in this on-again, off-again tale of fathers and sons?
Is Hamlet Shakespeare’s property? Not according to the laws of public domain or according to the collective consciousness that embraces every note of music played, every genesis myth perpetuated, every story told.
Writers are going to lie to tell a good story, and they are going to steal from what they recognize to be the power of the word. I can only hope that Hamlet will inform anybody who lives with the ghost of a father.