2020 is a normal year

One of the most interesting things about Shakespeare is that his writings are so finely crafted that in a small quotation, one can often find distillations of tremendous range and importance. One quotation that might be useful for our present moment is from Hamlet.

Near the beginning of that play, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude is counselling Hamlet that his grief for his father is excessive. At one point, she says that his loss is common, and she goes on to say “If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?”

She’s got a point. Loss is part of the world, and at that moment, at least, he is over-reacting to it. But of course, he feels that loss very personally. So when he responds and tells her that his grief is real, he has a point too.

So it is with 2020. According to some memes, we are facing the worst year ever, a never-ending series of plagues and tragedies. This blog post is not part of what has become the Gertrude response to the year, which has been to downplay the seriousness of what’s going on in our world. If anything, I’m on Hamlet’s side. The COVID-19 crisis has wreaked havoc on lives all around the world, and the racism that’s being discussed and protested is very real. Police brutality is a very dangerous aspect of American racism, and it’s attracted our attention because it can be recorded on video, which is the language of our time. The video is true, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

What really makes Hamlet’s response serious is his intensity. He actually agrees with his mother that the loss of fathers is common, but he disagrees with how lightly she wants him to take it. What we are experiencing right now, in America at least, is extreme attention being paid to things that were treated as ordinary for a long time. That may lead in a positive direction. I’m optimistic that Joe Biden can actually help at this moment.

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. The virus we face now may be new, but we’ve been facing dangerous public health environments for a long time. And the cell phone videos that are impossible to ignore and almost impossible to watch are new, but white on black crime has been a defining reality of America since its founding. None of this grief is really new.

At another point in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet says “The time is out of joint, oh cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” Hamlet knows at that point that his special grief has wider implications. He doesn’t want the responsibility of fixing things, but he can’t avoid it. Fixing our country will take hard work and brutal honesty. But like Hamlet, we find ourselves forced into a position of seeing problems that have been there all the time.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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