I dunno. Ask me about Hamlet!
I have a standard response to questions to which there is no chance that I have an answer.
Them: “Hey, Kimmy. We need a place to rent in Lethbridge for a few months. Red Deer is only, like, five minutes from there, right? Do you have any contacts, since you must know all about the housing market in a city where you don’t live?”
Me: “I dunno. Ask me about Hamlet!”
I know about Hamlet. I can talk about Hamlet till who laid the rails. I hear there’s a new Trivial Pursuit Shakespeare game coming out. I’d love to have that, even though I can’t think off the top of my head who might play it with me. Not because I know everything about Shakespeare; I sure as bloody hell do not. But because I don’t know a lot of people who care enough about Hamlet (or Macbeth or the Nurse or Osric or Tybalt or Cordelia or any number of others) to play it with me.
I’m an oddity (I think. Tell me if this is more common than I imagine it is). When I was very young, I inherited a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare from my great-grandmother who’d died when I was a toddler. I started reading that book when I was about twelve. I took it to school and read it at recess because I had exactly four friends and if they weren’t around, I spent plenty of time by myself.
In the house-on-fire-and-everybody-is-safe scenario, I’ve narrowed it down to a few items I would take as my house burned to the ground: a teapot my brother made me in grade seven art class (and which I still use to make a pot of tea), and this book.
Around that time, the purveyors of technology introduced the video disk. If you’re too young to know about this, the disc was the size of an LP record and about twice as thick. You put it into a vastly clumsy machine you could take out of the library, and play a movie. This thing predated VHS and perhaps even Beta, and I suspect it didn’t last long as it was so huge and cumbersome.
My library had about fourteen video disks at the time, and one of them was Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. Because it was one of the very few we could borrow, we borrowed it all the time.
Then it became me taking it out all the time as I had fallen in deep, teenage love with Laurence Olivier by this point, even with that really weird haircut. But more than that, I had fallen in love with the words. I’d never read anything like it and I never have since.
In grade twelve, I was most fortunate to have Mr. Gibson as my English teacher. He loved Hamlet with a passion that mirrored my own, and he instilled a life-long love of all things Shakespeare in me that year. And I felt empowered as a teenage girl every time I turned to Hamlet in that ancient book and saw this photograph of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. Women can play Hamlet?! Ohmygawd. Also, women could play Hamlet in 1899, when this book was first published.
I adore the look of defiance on her face in this photo. I’ve always imagined her interior monologue during that photo shoot running roughly like this: “Hey, Mr. Male Photographer. I don’t give a continental crap that you don’t think I should be playing Hamlet. I am, so screw you. And just take my god damned photo.”
When I was last in Paris, I went to Père Lachaise cemetery to place a kiss on her grave, even though I am under no illusions that it’s actually her under that stone, given the numerous problems with identifying remains in that graveyard. I didn’t give a shit if it was her or not. I kissed her anyway.
Imagine if you will, please, me reading a contemporary book of poetry some years back. I’m in my reading spot on the couch and I come across an epigraph to one of the poems: There’s a divinity that shapes my end… — Hamlet.
I am yelling at the book. “Our ends! OUR ENDS! There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,/ Rough-hew them how we will.” I’m not sure how I yelled that line break, but I’m pretty sure I did. I think my husband thought I’d lost it. But he knows that no one messes with me when it comes to Hamlet. I know that dude.
I looked through all four of my collected works of Shakespeare to find this assortment of words, but I knew I would not find them. The poet had simply not checked to see if those were the correct words. She thought she had them in her head and she had no need to look them up.
Bad idea. When in doubt, check. I firmly believe that every home should have a complete works of Shakespeare in it, in case we need to look up something like this.
A copy editor (maybe me) will catch the error. Or maybe not. This colossal mistake got by the author, the developmental editor, the copy editor, the proof reader, the designer, and everyone else who had a hand in this book. I wince at the thought.
If you’re not sure you’re quoting Shakespeare (or anyone else) correctly, fergawdsakes look it up.