Monday, August 13, 2012

what a piece of work is a man!

I have been absolutely riveted by the London 2012 Olympics, and if you are like me (in the wrong time zone, unfortunately) you have been forgoing precious sleep to watch. Even when I know the outcome (and it's really difficult not to these days, when your time zone is five hours behind the games), I still find that I can't pull myself from the screen -- I am so transfixed by what my fellow 'man' can accomplish. Who doesn't love an Olympic dream? I have always found the athlete's task similar to the actor's -- that sport and performance have much in common. 

What I really find awesome -- in the most literal sense of the word -- is simply what a fellow human being can accomplish; many times against all odds. When I watch these amazing athletes from all walks of life accomplish things that many of us can't even fathom, I always think of this speech. I am humbled that I am -- that each of us is -- capable of achieving my own moments that celebrate the wonder of the world around me. 

It reminds me of that 1980's film Vision Quest. There is a scene in it (and you can find it on You Tube, I'm sure) where the young wrestler visits his older friend and discovers that the man has taken the day off from work, just to watch him wrestle in the big match that he's been preparing for. The man is dressing in his Sunday best, which takes young Loudon by surprise. When Loudon asks him why he's taken the day off, he launches into a beautiful monologue about how amazing it is to watch Pele play soccer (futbol, I know) and how moved he is to be a part of a (human) race that can achieve such greatness -- to him, it's one of the reasons why life is worth living; how noble we are in our abilities. (Forgive me for paraphrasing badly, but this is how I remember it). I think of this speech then, too (and since Pele was featured in the Olympic closing ceremonies, I suspect that this is a truly fitting comparison).

I must confess outright, that it's also difficult for me NOT to hear in my mind's ear the sung version from the musical HAIR, which I had managed to perform in two separate productions in a three year period as I was on the cusp of adulthood. Once that music gets in your head, it's really (REALLY!) difficult to silence -- darn you, Galt MacDermot!

Now what is going on with Hamlet is certainly more complex, but these are the moments in my life when I find these particular lines resonating with me. And after 17 days of sheer wonder, I can't keep myself from thinking "what a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!" I've begun to speak this with these thoughts in mind

This speech is also listed in Sylvia Morris' greatest Shakespeare speeches.

Here it is: the voiced counterpart of what I've been thinking since the games began.

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation
prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the king
and queen moult no feather. I have of late--but
wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so.

I am including a second recording, in which I consider the lines that precede the speech and the thought that Hamlet knows his friends have been sent to find out what is going on. I'm not taking a vastly different interpretation, as I did in the two very different versions of Constance's speech (have I reason to be fond of grief?) but the moment before speech was informed differently -- version one right after I wrote the post, and version two right after I reread the preceding lines.


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