Grief And Hamlet

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“My grief has been all the usual and varied colours of sadness and madness. It has been searing, voluptuous, numbing.

I foresaw that it would be — I have been unhappy, unsettled, unbalanced before (who has not?). I did not foresee that, this time, for much of the time that I was most antic and most lost, most peculiarly undone, I would have taken from me (I would, I suppose, take away from myself) that which had always been of such solace to me.

Quite simply, I could not read.”

At ReadySteadyBook, founding editor Mark Thwaite shares today his experience with grief and how, in the process of grieving he discovered Hamlet.

In times of grief, what do we do if can’t do what we have always done? Perhaps I’m thinking about this because of the inability to think about what happened yesterday in Haiti to thousands upon thousands of people.

Because, more generally, of the inability to think logically or cohesively about what happens when lives and communities are swept away at a moment’s notice.

For some of us, this is where art steps in to offer not distractions, but enrichments; not clarifications but further mystifications.  I don’t expect answers, just inklings, bafflement that doesn’t paralyze me.

Reading refracts my own panic and dread in colors I might not recognize. This alone is consolation: not recognizing, at first, what belongs to me. And when I write, I try to cull forth things I might prefer to disown. But I can’t, because they belong to all of us.

Call it religion, but one stripped to its base elements: the human, his or her boundless ignorance and the terrible and beautiful cosmos unraveling in all directions.

I remember being enthralled by Hamlet as a high school student. Here was the ultimate mad hero, I thought, a man adrift in a meaningless world asking the essential questions not so much to hear them answered but just to hear the music they make in the air.  I remember going to London as a young man to see Hamlet performed and hearing the bells of Westminster Abbey on Easter Sunday and thinking that so many people, right at that steel-gray, pigeon-strewn crossroads exist for no other reason than they simply do.

Mark Thwaite describes Hamlet, “the poem unlimited” according to Harold Bloom, the very masterpiece that may well have invented the “human” (“a sense of the secular, self-questioning subject”) as “a study in the negotiation we each make with the (in)authenticity of our self, and our grief, and with what that self loses even as it becomes more madly itself via the very losses it witnesses and articulates.”

To become more madly ourselves, then, is one reason why we turn to art and literature when grief paralyzes us.


Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →