I am she: I am he / whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
Adrienne Rich, "Diving Into the Wreck"
Sometimes I hear voices in my head. I know – it's strange. Oftentimes, it's as if they are standing there with me, leaning over my shoulder as I write these posts. These voices are critical and biting. They disarm me with unnerving incisiveness.
In my junior year of high school, we read Hamlet. In the beginning, a ghost speaks to Hamlet, and the voice of his slain father him convinces him to go crazy – to 'put an antic disposition on' (Act 1, Scene 5, Line 173). He is wrought by the unfairness of his uncle's ascension to the throne and the spectacle of his mother and uncle's hasty marriage. Hamlet feels as if the world is against him, declaring it an 'unweeded garden' (Act 1, Scene 2, Line 135).
I remember when, in the first grade, a kid at the bus stop suggested I was fat. I recall lifting up my shirt to look in the mirror every time I went to the bathroom. I remember when in Calculus class my desk mate wondered aloud if I was too boring. I recall repeating this same thought to my friends. I remember when someone asked me if I was the scrub of the soccer team. I recall thinking he might be right.
Hamlet assumes the responsibility of avenging his father's death, and this charge weighs on him. He struggles to reconcile the dissonance between his internal strife and his inaction: 'Who calls me villian? Breaks my pate across?' (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 556). As he bashes himself, Hamlet questions the source of his anguish. Is it Claudius, his murderous uncle? Gertrude, his disloyal mother?
Who is the chief antagonist of my life? That's the question our English teacher asked each of us to answer on the last page of the play. For a long time, I believed these dogged voices constituted my greatest villain. I needed to convince other people that I was not who they said I was. When I now consider how much time I spend thinking about the lives of other people, I realize that no one, bar my parents, directs as much of their time towards thinking about me as I give them credit for. When I consider what these voices are, I recognize why the story of Hamlet is a tragedy.
In feigning madness, he kills Polonius and drives Ophelia to an early grave. These actions incite Laertes to challenge him to a duel that kills them both. In the end, Hamlet is the source of his own demise. For whom? His father's ghost? After Hamlet kills Polonius and berates his mother, the ghost arrives, admonishing Hamlet in language that eerily mirrors Hamlet's own criticisms of himself. But his father's ghost – the cause of Hamlet's 'antic disposition' and the voice spurring him towards revenge – is invisible to Gertrude. Therein lies the resolution of Hamlet's struggle, as his mother characterizes his condition with incisive clarity: 'it is the very coinage of your brain' (Act 3, Scene 4, Line 137).
I am astounded at the brain's ability to wound itself. These voices I refer to don't come from other people at all; they too are the 'coinage' of my brain. There is a freedom to recognizing the person whose lash I feel most keenly is myself. I am the person who admonishes myself for my 'blunted purpose' (Act 3, Scene 4, Line 111). I scapegoated other people for the doubts I held about myself. I worry that I'm too boring. I harshly analyze the amount of body fat around my midsection. I wince at the suggestion that I'm not good enough.
It is only his posthumous request to Horatio – 'tell my story' (Act 5, Scene 2, Line 334) – that allows Hamlet to transcend his situation. His final action of summing up reveals to us who Hamlet's true antagonist is – himself. His 'story' tells the truth to us, the readers, even if he couldn't tell it to himself. I suspect when we all wrote our antagonists on the last page of the play, we summoned an honesty Hamlet never arrived at. The fall of Denmark to Fortinbras from Norway is not the work of an external antagonist. Denmark is leveled from within.