The twenty-first century psyche is peopled with cinema’s phantoms, abstract beings which secretly evolve inside us, working our hearts and our minds with a silent patience, a slow art, in much the same way the winds quietly carve mountains from absolute rock. Migrated from the screen to our collective subconscious, they thrive. Just as our ways of experiencing reality have become increasingly dominated by screen media, so too have our ways of understanding such experience – our ways of thinking and feeling – come into the orbit of these cinematic worlds. Of course, people have always turned to narrative constructs, to stories, in order to make sense out of life, complex and confusing as it can be. Stories give us an anchor-point in the confusion, helping us not to be lost. They provide moral, intellectual, and emotional guidance: various cognitive grooves through which to channel the great experiential variety of living.
Let us approach this idea by considering a few words, of cosmic significance, from the national poet. These lines come from Hamlet: “Our wills and fates do so contrary run / That our devices are still overthrown: / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own” (III.II.206-208). “Devices”, here, mean intentions or designs, which are thwarted, overthrown, because fate, the way things will be, frequently opposes will, the way we want things to be. This worldview is fundamentally tragic, in the sense of genre, because it suggests we can never get what we want, no matter how much we deserve it. The inverse logic – that of comedy – holds that we will always get what we want, despite how little we deserve it. This is why tragic heroes are often noble types whereas comic equivalents tend to be roguish fools; they are the products of their respective cosmoses. Hamlet’s personal tragedy is that he cannot escape the tragic inherent in his Denmark, which is in a state of perpetual rot. Hamlet’s regicide uncle has usurped the throne and, worse, taken the widowed queen for bride. Hence the prince’s self-rebuke for inaction is a dramatic, somewhat sardonic irony, seeing as all his devices are bound anyway to be overthrown. In narrative foundations, current-day tragedy (on stage, page or screen) diverges little from Renaissance antecedents. Tragic protagonists are born at odds with their time and place and this essential discord leads to conflict, thus drama and, usually, downfall. The key difference is that whereas Hamlet understood too well the impossibility of his noble task, to take arms against a sea of troubles, the protagonists which inhabit today’s fictive worlds understand too little of anything. Hamlet engaged with the most perplexing of philosophical topics, existence – to be, or not to be. His was the examined life, for sure; the constant second-guessing forming a sort of dialectic, a back and forth (in the Socratic fashion), that leaves him little improved by the play’s end, except insofar as his death resolves the fundamental discord of being, in such a rotten place.
For Hamlet, then, “Denmark’s a prison”, and so, therefore, is the world: “A goodly [ample] one,” he remarks, “in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst” (II.II.263, 265-266). His interlocutors, the double-dealing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, disagree. “Why, then,” Hamlet replies, “’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison” (II.II.268-270). In spite of this insight – that perception dictates experience – Hamlet cannot think himself out of the doldrums. He thinks too deeply, a trait which might be his hamartia, a classical concept often rendered as “tragic flaw” but whose etymology is closer to missing the mark or erring; and which, in this specific case, might be taken as a cosmic disconnect. After all, Denmark, let alone the entire world, would not be a prison if only Hamlet could overcome his pained introspectiveness, could see things a different way. But he cannot. Intellectual integrity forces him over and again into confrontations with a reality that he can neither transform nor ignore. For Hamlet, whose behaviour is often decidedly shady (with Ophelia, for example), it is this intellectual honesty which is noble, thus tragic, in his character; which leads him, inevitably, to the corridor of death. Hamlet wrests with cosmic questions, metaphysics, the nature of being, and the paradoxes of life in a world where desire and outcome so regularly misalign.
But why are we talking about Jacobean theatre? Regardless of whether or not one gives a damn about Shakespeare, forgetting class and creed, irrespective even of taste, there are very few people in England today who do not know the phrase “to be or not to be”, even if they do not know its origin. Not only is the English language very Shakespearean in form, it is also rich with Shakespearean themes, ways of thinking and expressing certain ideas. The post-Renaissance (Anglophone) mind was shaped in good part by Shakespeare, whose works were so highly regarded as to instigate a trend of quasi-theistic reverence known as “bardolatry”. England’s erstwhile high regard for literature assured a general baseline intellectual sensitivity that was and is invaluable to the popular psyche. As an example, consider the English saying, “the lady doth protest too much” (also from Hamlet): it tersely captures a psychological tic which otherwise requires at least moderate exposition: that excessive protest or derision usually masks a buried anxiety in the claimant. As when right-wing evangelicals exhibit a suspect obsession with denouncing homosexuality, leading them to fill their minds completely with that which they supposedly detest. Much shrill bigotry follows this suit. Fortunately, Shakespeare betrothed our collective consciousness with a perfect literary scalpel with which to dissect this particular species of idiocy. Is anyone genuinely surprised nowadays when yet another indefatigable anti-gay activist is exposed as an accomplished homosexual? (For a case in point, see Ted Haggard.)
The media we exalt, promulgate and consume play a principal role in determining our modes of perception, hence fundamentally influencing our experience and understanding of reality. This is why popular media are important: for the effect they have on the collective consciousness and cognition, on the way we think and feel. The more nutritious the food, the more nourishing the meal. Perhaps this suggestion seems overly linear or deterministic. At all events, it prompts the question: to what degree are our thoughts really our own? We may ask how much of our “devices” are id, ego, or superego, only because Freud asked it first, and in so asking gave us the question; or, more properly speaking, gave the words by which to give the question life. Contemporary neuroscience tells us that our brains anticipate events prior to their occasion (in fractional time), such as to suggest that free will is indeed an illusion and that we are, so to speak, the aggregate embodiment of immense chains of cause and effect. We could split the essence of fatality right down to the atom, but how sterile that would be. Rather, let us with some portion of certainty assert that media influence perception and perception shapes thought. Freud builds conceptually on Shakespeare in the same way that twentieth century art builds so dramatically on Freud. That is the psychical track which led the Anglophone West, from seventeenth century England up until this point, the route its cognitive evolution took; but what sleepers and on what track-ways will we lay down into the distance before us? Where now are we headed?