Poison. How can a veteran English teacher, such as I am, not think of Hamlet when she thinks of poison? Hamlet: The Poisoned Kingdom was the title of one of the reels I borrowed from the Country Library that lent out such things—a wonder, I thought in that day (although “wonder” associates itself with The Tempest)—for teachers to show their classes. That was in the 70’s, even before, in New Jersey, and, as I see it from my old perspective here, aloft in my third-story San Francisco flat, it was a time of Technicolor simplicity.
I realize the time wasn’t simple: life was fraught with tensions, mostly about money, many about sex. Then there was the raising of the children, which I saw as somewhat incidental to my job as a teacher. The classroom always came first; if the kids had school off, they came to my high school classrooms with me. They tagged along behind me to the rehearsals in the auditorium. As toddlers they sat huddled in the back seat as I dropped off the debate team members at their homes.
“You’re always reading Hamlet,” my young son said. “What’s it about?”
So, I told him the story of Hamlet, while he cuddled against me, sucking his thumb. He was probably eight. He sucked his thumb late. And he followed Hamlet.
The king has poisoned Hamlet’s father the ghost tells him. Hamlet must revenge. He doesn’t want to, though, not really. So he delays while the king gets the upper hand. In a moment of frenzy he kills the wrong person, Polonius, by stabbing blindly through a curtain.
(My son removed his thumb, holding it wetly for a moment in front of him. “Polonius. He’s the old guy, right?”)
Yes. The father of Hamlet’s girlfriend, who drowns herself in despair. The Poison? Enter the girlfriend’s brother, seeking his revenge. He’ll use a poisoned foil to duel Hamlet. The king will prepare a poisoned chalice (“That’s a big metal goblet for wine”) to give to Hamlet, just in case. But it doesn’t work out: the two duelists wound each other in an exchange, the queen drinks the poisoned chalice, and Hamlet, realizing, shoves the rest of the wine down the king’s throat and then stabs him with the poisoned sword for good measure.
Hamlet thought too much. Hamlet cared too much. Hamlet suffered too much. Or, the part I liked best: Hamlet loved his mother too much. (As a mother, I didn’t see the harm in that.) But he didn’t stand a chance in that place so contaminated with greed and selfishness, so corrupt with decay, like Yorick’s skull, which he handles thoughtfully.
Poison is Hamlet.
I know, I know. It’s also Snow White, or the Sleeping Beauty. It’s in lots of things: Browning’s poetry, Madame Bovary, Arsenic and Old Lace, Hitchcock mysteries.
Taking poison must be harder than stories make it seem.
But people use it metaphorically, as did Shakespeare. “He was poison.” “What a toxic thing to say!”
But let’s end this: my kids grew up, I moved away and began again, one of the steadying influences in my life the fact that Hamlet stayed. He settled into new classrooms. We all grew old, one of us died. There was no poison in my life: none. I mean, real poison.