Or, why do I see it so differently?
First off, this is not an article about any parallels between these two characters. Not that they don’t exist, mind you! Both are young males given an impossible job by supernatural forces -a ghost and a prophecy. Neither has effective parents. Both are prone to gloom, random rudeness, occasional violence and mistreatment of their girlfriends. Only one of them has the common decency to die after completing his task.
No, the problem here is that I look at these characters, I read the play or the book, and something obvious jumps out at me. But when I mention this obvious something to people I would expect to understand, to have noticed it themselves, I get howled down. No, I’ve got it wrong! All the critics/authorities say thus and such. Well, pardon me for having a different opinion, but do at least refute me from the text, not the commentaries!
So this is what I think. Tell me if you think I’m completely mad, or whether or not I actually have something that at least makes sense.
Hamlet. Hamlet annoyed me for the longest time. I studied the play for A-level, and because my English Lit teacher was a keen sort who felt that you couldn’t get into a play without seeing it, I saw a variety of different productions over the two years of study, and always came away with the same feeling. That Hamlet was a blithering idiot! A grown man tormenting himself over what was basically a straightforward decision and inflicting his misery on all and sundry. Made no sense -it’s the sort of thing that I’d have done, but I was like, 16–17, not in my twenties or thirties, FFS!
But I was young, I was busy -I had two other courses to study and exams were always looming — so I took the line of least resistance. I digested what the teacher and the critics told me and regurgitated it in my own words all over the exam paper, earning myself a ‘B’, a good solid pass that would get me into University.
Fast forward ten years, and I’m sharing a flat with a Science Fiction geek. Now people say that about me, but my general trend of reading is a little more diverse. This guy was a solid, dyed-in-the-wool geek who peppered his conversation with references to works both popular and obscure. One of his big heroes was Isaac Asimov, and among his monstrous collection was a copy of Asimovs’ Guide to Shakespeare, apparently bought him by his brother-in-law, who knew nothing about SF but recognised the name. My flatmate had kept the book so as not to upset his sister, but had never read it.
Now I was also, to a lesser extent, an admirer of the Good Doctor. I liked the way that he had logically formulated the Three Laws of Robotics, then gone on, with equally valid logic, to write a series of stories exploring the likely effects of those Laws on robot/human relations. I also enjoyed his knack of explaining science in a way that could be grasped by Liberal Arts types like me (I’ve always been interested in science, but the ways in which it was taught back then were dry, uninteresting and maths-heavy, I’m mildly dyspraxic, so maths is difficult for me).
So I borrow the book -if you haven’t read it, and enjoy Shakespeare, I recommend it, it’s a bit of a doorstop, but worth the effort. It is not a work of literary criticism. Asimov looks into the historical, political, geographical, mythological, folkloric and human context of each play, providing interesting background on theme, characters, plot and the relevance of the play to Shakespeares’ contemporaries. His view on Hamlet was that,while the young prince was committed to avenging his father, he was determined to do so in a way which proved Claudius’ guilt beyond doubt,so as to ensure his own succession to the throne. Hence the mind-games and the general messing about, rather than going straight in with a knife. Given this new slant, I went back to the play, reading at leisure, with an open mind, rather than under the pressure of homework and exams.
That said, I still had in mind all the productions I had seen, with their adult Hamlets. So the first thing that struck me was that if Hamlet was a grown man, why was he not already King, having succeeded his father? The standard response was that Denmark was an elective monarchy. Indeed, in his last speech, Hamlet says that ‘the election will fall on Fortinbras’. Fair enough, but two things wrong with that, as further research revealed.
In the matter of fact. At the time Shakespeare wrote, the Danish monarchy was deemed elective, but in practice, the person elected was invariably the eldest son of the dead King — this had gone on since the 8th Century.
In the matter of politics, Hamlet was written some time between 1599 and 1602, in the closing years of the reign of Elizabeth I. At that time, Robert Cecil was already making overtures to James VI of Scotland — who as the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was descended from Henry VII and thus had the closest claim — to ensure the succession. The Queen had no children,and most people were wondering where their next monarch was to come from. Had the idea of an elective monarchy penetrated the collective consciousness, it might have energised both underground Catholics and hard-line Protestants — neither of whom had much time for Elizabeth — to push for their own candidates. It would have been suicide for Shakespeare to suggest that election of a monarch was possible as a normal way of doing things. But in the context of the play, with the Danish Royal Family lying dead all over the stage, then the idea of a Council of Nobles awarding the throne to Fortinbras was acceptable.
So that still leaves us with the problem of why Hamlet isn’t King at the start of the play. Fortunately, Claudius gives us the answer. In Act 1, Scene 2, he chides Hamlet “For your intent/In going back to school in Wittenberg,/It is most retrograde to our desire,”. Note the emphasis on school. The common response when I raise this is “Oh, he means University.” WTF? Guys, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about! This dude wrote 39 plays and never put a word he didn’t mean into any of ’em. School and University were two different things even back then. People, if Bill said school, he meant school!
There you have it. The reason why Claudius succeeded his brother. The reason for Hamlets’ erratic behaviour and self-pitying soliloquies, his nasty break-up with Ophelia, his sudden violence, his rudeness to his mother, his silly mind-games, his casual condemnation of school friends to the gallows before dying in a stupid brawl with his ex’s big brother. Hamlet is a teenager. Certainly under 18, maybe as young as 14. Romeo and Juliet were no older when all the shit went down, so there’s precedent in the Bards’ own work.
That, of course, means that everyone in the cast is younger than they are usually portrayed. It makes the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude, highly-sexualised as it is, more understandable. It makes Claudius’ ambition more believable. It makes Polonius’ determined arsehole-creeping more explicable — if he was that old and respected, he’d be able to speak his mind, surely? And so on. Suddenly, the whole damn play makes more sense!
So now, I vow never to see another production of Hamlet until somebody does it right and casts a teenager in the lead role!
Harry Potter gave me a different set of headaches. My daughter got into the books and her brother, then my wife and I, followed her. Now, to be fair, there are a lot of things wrong with the books. Rowling is a competent writer, but she’s no Pullman, Pratchett or Tolkien, and she’s at her best with straightforward, uncomplicated narrative. She’s at her worst when she contrives ludicrous scenes and sequences to bring about the developments she wants. The whole Yule Ball affair in Goblet of Fire was the worst. She violated every rule of High School etiquette, human nature and common sense in order to get Ron, Hermione and Cho Chang to the bottom of that lake! Load of bollocks, and all it would have taken was a few small alterations and a little forward planning to get what she wanted. I could write three paragraphs on that, but I’ll spare you!
No, what got my goat was the ‘Starwarts’ business. Every third person you talked to rambled on about how JKR was just re-doing Star Wars with wands instead of lightsabres (yes, it’s ‘sabre’, not ‘saber’, when are you Colonials going to learn how to spell?). How Harry was Luke, Ron was Han, Hermione was Leia and Dumbledore was Obi-Wan. (I presume Hagrid was meant to be Chewbacca.) I suspect there are still people out there who can’t actually believe that Snape was not Harrys’ father — the idea turns up often enough in fanfiction!
Now certainly Harry and Luke have certain similarities. Both in danger as babies, both seen as a threat by powerful evil interests, both handed over to foster parents by the person who later became their mentor. Admittedly, there is no evidence that Owen and Beru Lars ever treated Luke with anything less than the love and support they’d have given a child of their own, while JKR couldn’t resist making the Dursleys into the kind of Dahlesque caricatures who would in real life have had Harry taken from them by Social Services before he was five. But they both share this background with King Arthur, and it is clear that both authors drew on this myth.
That is where the common traits end. Luke is callow, sometimes cocky, frequently reckless but always determined and fair-minded. Harry is by turns sweet-natured or sullen, friendly or mistrustful, melancholy, self-doubting, arrogant, kind, cynical, idealistic, eager to learn or convinced he knows everything. A typical teenager, in other words.
But there is no way in any Universe that straight-talking, slightly klutzy, Labrador-loyal, soft-hearted, shrewd Ron Weasley is any kind of analogue to hard-bitten, ruthless and cynical Han Solo. Nor is there even the faintest resemblance between Miss Hermione ‘Over-think Everything’ Granger and the feisty, intuitive, hard-as-nails Princess Leia.
The actual sources — conscious or unconscious -of Rowlings’’Golden Trio’ smacked me in the face midway through Book Three. The charismatic born leader who will follow the rules right up to the point where they clash with his personal morality or gut instincts, takes full responsibility for anything he and his friends might do, and will leave no-one behind if he can help it. The cool, logical sidekick who is a mine of information and data but reluctant to follow their instincts or feelings, whilst happily analysing everyone elses’ from a safe distance. The warm, intuitive, supportive best friend, a little cranky and sarcastic, always pretending to be less smart than they are and always at daggers drawn with the logical one, despite the fact that they have a deep regard for each other.
Got it yet? Right! Harry is James T Kirk with a wand (the filmmakers got it right in Half-Blood Prince when they showed Harry as a smooth ladies’ man, rather than the shy bumbler Rowling wrote him as). Hermione is Spock without the ears, and Ron is McCoy. JKR is a little younger than I, but that first Golden Trio are so iconic that they must have had some influence, even if she didn’t realise it.
To make matters worse,of course,the key threesome in Star Trek: Enterprise are in many ways reflective of Rowlings’ Trio, with the Archer/Harry, T’Pol/Hermione and Trip/Ron parallels incredibly obvious, even down to the Trip/T’Pol romance. Add in Reed as a less self-doubting Neville and Hoshi as a rather more sane Luna Lovegood, and there you have it!
Of course, this made me look at the other characters much harder. It was obvious that Snape was conflicted, even before his feelings for Lily Evans were revealed. It also became more and more clear that the saintly Albus Dumbledore was in fact a ruthlessly manipulative sociopath, using spurned lovers, orphaned children, vengeful teenagers and even his own death to achieve his ends. That’s cold. Poor Luna is obviously on the spectrum somewhere, but nobody did a damn thing about her being bullied because of it. Ginny Weasley is self-absorbed and entitled to the point of being a near-psychopath. Harry is mildly bipolar; Hermione isn’t a genius, she just has an eidetic memory and a slight case of OCD; Ron is almost a genius (certainly the brightest of the three), but suffers from low self-esteem and ADHD. Ron and Hermione complement each other perfectly because they can’t ignore each other; she forces him to concentrate while he distracts her from looping. Lucius Malfoy joined Voldemort out of idealism and now finds himself in the hands of a ruthless fanatic whose plans go much further than his worst nightmares. Draco Malfoy is just a kid who’ll do anything to make his parents proud,even when it gores against his instincts.
Thing is, as a fanfiction writer, especially of crossovers, I can get my revenge or even put things right. By the time I was done with them all, Harry was divorced, a former Minister of Magic and now DADA teacher and Head of Gryffindor. Ron is CEO of Weasley Enterprises, a non-executive director of Stark International, a former Avenger (codename: Silver Sorceror) and a Brigadier in UNIT. Hermione is still married to Ron, she’s Head of R&D and a director of Weasley Enterprises, lectures on magic to mutants at Xaviers’ Academy, and is the wizard worlds’ agent for International Rescue. Luna is Head of Torchwood Four -the institutes’ wizard branch, dealing with alien magic, and a Regent of Warehouse 14. Lucius died heroically in 2008, defending his muggle neighbours from a marauding Dalek. Narcissa remarried, to a muggle. Draco is an Agent of SHIELD. Snapes’ ghost got to explain everything to Harry and apologise. Harry found out that Dumbledore had been working for HYDRA since the 1940s. Minerva McGonagalls’ posthumously-published autobiography revealed that she once travelled with the Doctor, was friends with James Bond, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin and, on at east one occasion, slept with Simon Templar! Oh, and the rumours about an orang-utan being seen in the Library at Hogwarts are, of course, true!
I hope you had fun, because I did!