June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
Here, in its entirety, is the promotional blurb on the back of the Barnes & Noble edition of Hamlet:
Shakespeare’s compelling treatment of guilt and revenge in Hamlet has fascinated playgoers and readers for 400 years.
I’m no marketing expert, but this has got to be one of the limpest pitches I’ve ever read. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the intrigue? Where’s the richness, the savor? First off, by calling it “compelling” you’re already pathetically underselling it. Second, “guilt” and “revenge” are such trite theme-words that they pave over the real fun of the book — all of its complexity, and the layers of jesting and deceit in Hamlet’s brooding. Third, the whole “fascinated readers for 400 years” thing is so fusty and dusty that they’re clearly writing a space-filling deferral to the book’s age and authority instead of trying to sell it.
Obviously, Barnes & Noble is printing and binding this book merely because they know people need to buy a copy of Hamlet now and then, and this fills the bill. The whole thing is so obligatory. There’s another point about the classics here, which is that over time the reputation of good books gets reduced to the most fusty and dutiful trivialization possible. Hamlet as a revenge story is like pitching Titanic as a survival tale, or as man vs. machine.
Because the reputation of great books in our culture is so bloodless and shallow, their very pervasiveness serves to make them look duller and more pretentious to the world. By the time a student gets to a free intellectual environment (maybe college, probably not high school) where a book gets taught on the strength of its artistic vitality, its creative genius, the student already “knows” the book’s greatness is of a boring and highfalutin nature.
In the decades and centuries after a work of art emerges, its reputation — because complex and subtle ideas don’t travel well through a culture — gets simplified and ossified and worn down little by little until you’re left with something paltry like “Hamlet is a revenge story.” By then it’s been chewed up and spit out by history so there’s nothing left for an avid young(-at-heart) reader to discover and digest. The increase of a work of art’s reputation through time is like a game of telephone where each repetition of what makes it great is a little duller and more staid than the last. So if you want to know what makes Hamlet good — like really, for real good — you have to look past its reputation. In this case, that means opening it and reading it.
P.S. For comparison, I wanted to see the promotional tagline for a modern story, one that was sufficiently Hamlet-like, so I went to the IMDB page for The Lion King and found this one:
Life’s greatest adventure is finding your place in the Circle of Life.
Not bad! This suggests the movie’s grandeur and is true to the broadness of its themes. It’s also good to see that “adventure” in there — every great story is an exploratory enterprise. Without obligatory centuries of reputation accrued behind a book, marketers have the freedom to be true to a story’s vitality.