It was the autumn of 1977, a group of sixteen and seventeen year olds sat around the sixth form college classroom as the A-level English course began. William Shakepeare’s tragedy Hamlet was the main text for the first term. It was, perhaps, a matter of casting pearls before swine for at least one person in the room, only in later years would the abiding significance of the play be fully appreciated.
Paul Selby, our tutor, presented the text with the required seriousness. Lines were read with gravitas and passion, none more so than the final words of Hamlet, prince of Denmark:
“But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.”
“The election lights on Fortibras,” he would look crestfallen. “Fortinbras!” Fortinbras for him represented militarism and violence and oppression. Fortinbras represented those in the contemporary world whose military ventures had brought destruction and death to innocent people: Richard Nixon and the war in Vietnam, Brezhnev and the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
“The rest is silence.” A pause would ensue. What could be said? Hamlet, the renaissance man, was dead, the regime that would follow could only be imagined.
“The rest is silence,” seemed a foreshadowing of a time of chauvinism, a time of incitement of old enmities, a time of demonization of those from neighbouring countries, a time of inflaming prejudice. Pursuing wars of aggression requires a dehumanizing of the “other,” a presentation of those to be attacked as somehow worthy of the fate that will befall them.
“The rest is silence,” marks the death of the hope of a reign based on reason, not that Hamlet with his casual killing of Polonius, his treatment of Ophelia, and his engineering of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, has been the embodiment of reason.
“The rest is silence,” and one wonders how Paul Selby might have taught Hamlet forty years later. Would he have had more cause to hope for the triumph of renaissance values than he had in 1977? Would the world now give him a greater sense of optimism than the world that had been shaped by Nixon and Brezhnev?
“The rest is silence,” might become the final word for 2016. The rise of the radical Right on one side of the Atlantic, and the increasing prospect of a populist demagogue on the other, threaten a return to the times of Fortinbras.