Expert Answer:Hamlet the Long Goodbye


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“The Long Goodbye” 1
1. Create a minimum 5 annotations where you choose
potential quotes (to be used in your Hamlet Unit essay).
Your annotations should provide analysis as well as
reasonings as to how and why the selection is a potential
quote to use for your essay.
2. Record quote and citation info on your essay prep handout.
The Long Goodbye
By Meghan O’Rourke
I had a hard time sleeping right after my mother died. The nights were long and had
their share of what C.S. Lewis, in his memoir ​A Grief Observed​, calls “mad, midnight
… entreaties spoken into the empty air.” One of the things I did was read. I read lots of
books about death and loss. But one said more to me about grieving than any other:
Hamlet. ​I’m not alone in this. A colleague recently told me that after his mother died he
listened over and over to a tape recording he’d made of the Kenneth Branagh film
I had always thought of Hamlet’s melancholy as existential. I saw his sense that “the
world is out of joint” as vague and philosophical. He’s a depressive, self-obsessed
young man who can’t stop chewing at big metaphysical questions. But reading the play
after my mother’s death, I felt differently. Hamlet’s moodiness and irascibility suddenly
seemed deeply connected to the fact that his father has just died, and he doesn’t know
how to handle it. He is radically dislocated, stumbling through the world, trying to figure
“The Long Goodbye” 2
out where the walls are while the rest of the world acts as if nothing important has
changed. I can relate. When Hamlet comes onstage he is greeted by his uncle with the
worst question you can ask a grieving person: “How is it that the clouds still hang on
you?” It reminded me of the friend who said, 14 days after my mother died, “Hope
you’re doing well.” No wonder Hamlet is angry and cagey.
Hamlet​ is the best description of grief I’ve read because it dramatizes grief rather than
merely describing it. Grief, Shakespeare understands, is a social experience. It’s not just
that Hamlet is sad; it’s that everyone around him is unnerved by his grief. And
Shakespeare doesn’t flinch from that truth. He captures the way that people act as if
sadness is bizarre when it is all too explainable. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, tries to get
him to see that his loss is “common.” His uncle Claudius chides him to put aside his
“unmanly grief.” It’s not just guilty people who act this way. Some are eager to get past
the obvious rawness in your eyes or voice; why should they step into the flat shadows of
your “sterile promontory”? Even if they wanted to, how could they? And this tension
between your private sadness and the busy old world is a huge part of what I feel as I
grieve—and felt most intensely in the first weeks of loss. Even if, as a friend helpfully
pointed out, my mother wasn’t murdered.
I am also moved by how much in ​Hamlet​ is about slippage—the difference between
being and seeming, the uncertainty about how the inner translates into the outer. To
mourn is to wonder at the strangeness that grief is not written all over your face in
bruised hieroglyphics. And it’s also to feel, quite powerfully, that you’re not allowed to
descend into the deepest fathom of your grief—that to do so would be taboo somehow.
Hamlet​ is a play about a man whose grief is deemed unseemly.
Strangely, ​Hamlet s​ omehow made me feel it was OK that I, too, had “lost all my mirth.”
My colleague put it better: “​Hamlet​ is the grief-slacker’s Bible, a knowing book that
understands what you’re going through and doesn’t ask for much in return,” he wrote to
me. Maybe that’s because the entire play is as drenched in grief as it is in blood. There
is Ophelia’s grief at Hamlet’s angry withdrawal from her. There is Laertes’ grief that
Polonius and Ophelia die. There is Gertrude and Claudius’ grief, which is as fake as the
flowers in a funeral home. Everyone is sad and messed up. ​If only the court had just let
Hamlet feel bad about his dad​, you start to feel, ​things in Denmark might not have
disintegrated so quickly!
Hamlet​ also captures one of the aspects of grief I find it most difficult to speak
about—the profound sense of ennui, the moments of angrily feeling it is not worth
continuing to live. After my mother died, I felt that abruptly, amid the chaos that is daily
life, I had arrived at a terrible, insistent truth about the impermanence of the everyday.
Everything seemed exhausting. Nothing seemed important. C.S. Lewis has a great
passage about the laziness of grief, how it made him not want to shave or answer
letters. At one point during that first month, I did not wash my hair for 10 days. Hamlet’s
soliloquy captures that numb exhaustion, and now I read it as a true expression of grief:
“The Long Goodbye” 3
O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Those adjectives felt apt. And so, even, does the pained wish—in my case, thankfully
fleeting—that one might melt away. Researchers have found that the bereaved are at a
higher risk for suicideality (or suicidal thinking and behaviors) than the depressed. For
many, that risk is quite acute. For others of us, this passage captures how passive a
form those thoughts can take. Hamlet is less searching for death actively than he is
wishing powerfully for the pain just to go away. And it is, to be honest, strangely
comforting to see my own worst thoughts mirrored back at me—perhaps because I do
not feel likely to go as far into them as Hamlet does. (So far, I have not accidentally
killed anyone with a dagger, for example.)
The way Hamlet speaks conveys his grief as much as what he says. He talks in run-on
sentences to Ophelia. He slips between like things without distinguishing fully between
them—”to die, to sleep” and “to sleep, perchance to dream.” He resorts to puns
because puns free him from the terrible logic of normalcy, which has nothing to do with
grief and cannot fully admit its darkness.
And Hamlet’s madness, too, makes new sense. He goes mad because madness is the
only method that makes sense in a world tyrannized by false logic. If no one can tell
whether he is mad, it is because he cannot tell either. Grief is a bad moon, a sleeper
wave. It’s like having an inner combatant, a saboteur who, at the slightest change in the
sunlight, or at the first notes of a jingle for a dog food commercial, will flick the memory
switch, bringing tears to your eyes. No wonder Hamlet said, “… for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Grief can also make you feel, like Hamlet,
strangely flat. Nor is it ennobling, as ​Hamlet d
​ rives home. It makes you at once
vulnerable and self-absorbed, needy and standoffish, knotted up inside, even punitive.
Like Hamlet, I, too, find it difficult to remember that my own “change in disposition” is
connected to a distinct event. Most of the time, I just feel that I see the world more
accurately than I used to. (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than
are dreamt of in your philosophy.”) Pessimists, after all, are said to have a more realistic
view of themselves in the world than optimists.
The other piece of writing I have been drawn to is a poem by George Herbert called
“The Flower.” It opens:
“The Long Goodbye” 4
How Fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
Quite underground, I keep house unknown:​ It does seem the right image of wintry grief.
I look forward to the moment when I can say the first sentence of the second stanza and
feel its wonder as my own.
Meghan O’Rourke is ​Slate​’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an
editor at the ​New Yorker​. ​The Long Goodbye​, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now
out in paperback.

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