To be or not to be

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Marcellus mutters under his breath. Standing guard on the battlements of the castle, he watches over Prince Hamlet and his friend Horatio walking together in the cold darkness, talking as darkly. In the castle beyond, bright hot torches glare at the gloom outside as King Claudius and his men sweat the heat of their carousing and drinking. In the mist of heat meeting cold, the ghost of King Hamlet appears and beckons to his son: “Remember me,” he says. “Revenge me.”

His father has been dead one month. Just home from schooling in Wittenberg, the young Hamlet finds his mother, Gertrude, now married to Claudius, brother of his father. How could she, Hamlet thinks? “Frailty, thy name is woman!” And his uncle has stolen the crown of Denmark — Prince Hamlet was to be next in line of succession from his father. By this, Claudius has brazenly shattered the rule of law in the country. Under his autocracy, stealing and killing, cruelty and deceit thrive and fester. “It appeareth nothing to me by a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours,” Hamlet laments. Alas, something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. Everything stinks.

Hamlet is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1599 and 1601. It is Shakespeare’s longest play (29,551 words), and the most famous of his known 38 plays: 12 histories, 14 comedies, and 12 tragedies. It is a “dramatization of the complex philosophical and ethical issues that surround cold-blooded murder, calculated revenge, and thwarted desire,” one critic says. But the spontaneous subconscious identification of most readers would probably be with the moral-psychological dilemma of Hamlet: “To be or not to be?”

Simplifying Shakespeare’s early-modern English, the tension of Hamlet is this: Something is not right (rotten); shall I just take it and suffer, or shall I fight it and change it?

“To be, or not to be, that is the question,

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?”

How Hamlet resolves his conflict is the literal story. He chooses to fight, heeding the ghost of his father, whose murder by Claudius cries for revenge. But the allegory rises from the murder and revenge in the persistent symbolism of the human inner conflict of having to choose to react by righting what is wrong (in the right or wrong way) or not reacting at all and letting things slip by in the natural progression of cause and effect. Tragedy is about wrong choices, or right choices and wrong methods.

Politics and power is the allegorical story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.” Shakespeare says in another tragic play, Julius Caesar (Act II. Scene i,19-20). “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” says the same of politics and power in Hamlet (Act I, Scene iv, 67).

Note the persistent allegory of politics and power insinuating into our daily lives. Is something “rotten” in our today? Shall we have to vainly step into the theatrics of a Hamlet, as we experience inner conflict in the choices we must decide upon, 24/7?

In the Shakespearean play, the usurper-dictator Claudius murdered his brother the King by pouring poison into the King’s ear while he was sleeping. Poisoning the ear is a direct symbol of lies and deceit, disinformation and fake “news” that has since time been in the tool kit of unscrupulous politicians and corrupt others to wrest control and hold power over the defenseless and misled common people. It is utterly naive to even ask, “do we have that?” in an environment polluted physically and morally with untruths and outright denial of wrongdoing by some greedy leaders.

A “play-within-a-play” is a literary technique used to emphasize the allegory through a parallel or contrasting story within the main story. The pouring of poison into the sleeping King’s ear was re-enacted by actors hired by Hamlet in a playlet presented to his uncle Claudius and mother Gertrude. Of course, King Claudius was furious, and Gertrude scared. By their reactions Hamlet tested and elicited the truth. Curiously, in our tremulous today, a “play-within-a-play” is staged in that the one and a half years COVID-19 pandemic vies for audience attention (ours) versus the neglected festering political situation that our autocratic leaders have created, apparently to their advantage. Something is rotten in the country.

Is there a Claudius among our leaders, who has disrespected and often disregarded the rule of law and slammed an iron fist in so-called “political will” to have his way? Was the common good, and its freedoms thwarted in the arrests and detentions of suspected dissenters and protestors against the ruling power? Were privately owned public service and utility companies, or even private enterprises, closed or sequestered and effectively given to cronies and dummies? Claudius was like that — he ruled with terror and despotic control. The rule of law bowed to his rule of one.

Yes, Claudius had his cronies and a close circle of collaborators and conspirators. His first convert to his side was his sister-in-law Queen Gertrude, who married him after one month of widowhood — to stay as Queen. Hers was the extreme disloyalty and treachery. In poetic justice, Gertrude mistakenly drank the poisoned cup Claudius intended for Hamlet — and she died. Claudius coopted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s close friends from school, to spy on Hamlet and they did. How sadly too often that we see crafty politicians and powerful persons buy the body and souls of people who too easily change allegiances in exchange for their own taste of power and wealth! We know who they are, these cronies and fanatic supporters of powerful people wanting to stay in power for life.

And today, in the isolation and separation of the deathly COVID-19 pandemic, the Filipino people, while focused on their individual health and economic survival, must focus on the coming elections on May 9, 2022 — nine months from now. It is a torturing “play-within-a-play.” The Hamlet in us must ask, “To be, or not to be?” Like the roused antibodies in the human system in the terrible pandemic, “Will it be ‘Fight’ or ‘Flight’?” The virus is to be controlled by the vaccinations. What do we do about the political disease and dysfunction?

There seems to not yet be a strong and united opposition that can run against the Duterte aligned or sympathetic line up of candidates. Vice-President Leni Robredo has yet to formally decide that she will run for President. Her fate lies in enough thinking voters who will have deeply discerned the right choice of someone pure in mind and heart who will lead the country after the restlessness and agitation of the immediate past six years. We need a change, and respite from “foul and pestilent congregation of vapors” like in Hamlet’s “rotting” Denmark.

Rappler describes a dreadful scenario: “PDP-Laban, Duterte’s national political party, is trying to convince him, their chairman, to run for vice-president in the national elections next year. They even said they would give him a free hand in choosing the presidential candidate he will run alongside, even if the candidate is not a party member.

“Political experts have slammed PDP-Laban’s call as ‘politics of the absurd’ and a corruption of the electoral process. Former Commission on Elections chairman and one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, Christian Monsod, also said a VP run by Duterte could be a strategy to circumvent the charter” (Rappler, June 8, 2021).

There is something rotten in our country. It is our choice “to be, or not to be… Rotten.”

Vote wisely.

Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.

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