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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds This week, our Learners have been looking at the opening of Hamlet. And it’s the moment when he’s dressed in black, his ‘inky cloak,’ and his parents– his new step father, his mother– are sort of telling him to move on, you know, get over your grief.

Skip to 0 minutes and 28 seconds Can you tell me what’s going on here? I think this is brilliant, this scene, because apart from anything else, I think it’s the first time the audience have seen Hamlet. So it’s his arrival on stage. And what Shakespeare’s done is give him the visual markers of being in grief. At the same time, as arriving in this very formal scene where his uncle is deliberately, actively trying to show that he and everyone else, the court, have moved on.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 seconds So there’s a kind of formal pressure there that’s dramatised on stage, which I always think is a very clever way of also drawing attention to the more intimate pressures that are on the character of Hamlet to get over the death of his dad. And it speaks to this sort of urge, or this pressure, that is put on all people, I think, after a loss that there should be some kind of time limited relationship with that loss. And at some point, quite quickly– I think in Hamlet’s case, it’s a couple of months– they should be over it. And the outward signs of their distress should no longer be visible.

Skip to 1 minute and 37 seconds So what Hamlet’s doing there, with his black clothes, and his morose expression, and his standing to the edge of the stage, and his just looking generally miserable, is, I think, he’s sort of physically demonstrating his suffering. And that is making Claudius and Gertrude uncomfortable. So it speaks to lots of different aspects of bereavement. That’s a really good point about– you know, if you’re in grief, do you want everyone– I want to pick up on the point about the visuals. That wearing black– is it a bit like wearing a black arm band? Yeah. I mean, it’s a sensible thing, in a way, to say, treat me lightly– gently because I’ve got the black arm band.

Skip to 2 minutes and 18 seconds Tell me more about that sort of sense of wanting other people to know you’re in grief.

Skip to 2 minutes and 26 seconds I think that’s a fascinating aspect of grief culture that we don’t really talk about anymore, but it used to be a part of death cultures much more pronouncedly, in the West at least. And in my experience, it’s about not being too visible, interestingly enough. So, I think, from a personal point of view, I know that when I was bereaved, I wore black as a way of saying, step off and step lightly with me. I remember saying to my students, if I’m wearing my black polo neck, it means be gentle and be quiet. I can’t handle the noise or the excesses. But it also is a marker, isn’t it of, be sensitive to what I’ve lost, be sensitive to my pain.

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 seconds For me as well, again personally, I think it’s very interesting because, of course, we read literature through our own experiences. I always felt that Hamlet doesn’t want to be seen. There’s a sense in which he doesn’t want that kind of visible role of being the prince, and being up there, and upfront. And so also I think the markers of mourning wear that again– especially now, I think– in our culture are kind of limited to the funeral. I mean, how much longer would you wear black? Or morose clothes? Because you get the feeling they’re annoyed with him for wearing black. Yep. I think in that opening scene, they’re almost saying, why are you still wearing black? Absolutely.

Skip to 3 minutes and 48 seconds I think it’s Claudius who uses the word ‘still.’ ‘Still.’ He says, why do ‘the clouds still hang on you?’ It’s been two months now. You need to– That’s very good. ‘Still.’ ‘Still hang onto you.’ ‘Still’ is very important there. And the emphasis there is, you need to get over it. And that’s what I meant really by it’s making them feel uncomfortable. Now in that text, they’ve got lots of reasons to feel uncomfortable. Gertrude’s married him too quickly, Claudius has killed the father. But in a more intimate sense, I think other people suffering is uncomfortable for us. We find it difficult to watch, we find it difficult to see. That’s a brilliant point.

Skip to 4 minutes and 21 seconds Can you talk more about why other people’s grief’s uncomfortable for other people? I think that’s so important. I think there’s an impulse. And I can only speak to now– to the society and the culture that I’m of. I think there’s an impulse to want to make it better. And I think that one of the experiences of bereavement and the acute suffering of loss is that you can’t make it better and you can’t make it go away. And so what people feel is very uncomfortable with that, especially now. I think it’s different in Hamlet, but now we feel as though it’s something we can’t heal and we can’t anaesthetise it.

Skip to 5 minutes and 2 seconds So we either pretend it isn’t happening, and try to cheer people up, and chivvy them along or we feel very uncomfortable. I think that probably every society, at every time has had to find a way of managing the distress of loss by developing a kind of time frame for how you cope with it. And it was interesting because my work is on 20th century literature. And I have– I believe that the 20th century has truncated the experience of grief– of a time allowed for grief– to almost nothing. To almost 10 days before the funeral, the funeral, and a few weeks afterwards. And thereafter, you’re supposed to have got on.

Skip to 5 minutes and 42 seconds But it was interesting to read– re-read Hamlet again after some years and think actually the emphasis is still there. The pressures is there in his society, as it is in ours, to rush it. I don’t buy it. I don’t. I think that it cannot be rushed, actually. I don’t– I think that–

Skip to 6 minutes and 0 seconds And you can’t get over it. And you can’t get over it. You don’t over get over it, do you? It’s not something to get over. I think there’s an assumption that bereavement is just something like breaking your leg. That might have happened once, but you’re fine now. I think it’s as much a of– the loss of the people we love is as much a part of us as the love of the people that we’ve loved. So it’s as though you’re saying– Almost stop loving them. That’s right. Yes. And that love or any human experience doesn’t become part of who you are, become part of your fabric.

Skip to 6 minutes and 33 seconds So I’m very interested in the way that human consciousness our humanness is made up of these experiences. And that they’re experiences rather than moments or kind of, marked off times in your life. Now of course, there are periods of intensity. And the intensity that Hamlet still feels– Hamlet’s in the intense phase. That’s right. He’s still, very much. I know we don’t like phases, but he’s still– he’s in that. He’s in a period. I don’t like phases because of what they might prescribe. Yes. I’m not saying that there aren’t eras of that experience, but I think what troubles me is the assumption that you must go through a certain phase. Yes. And it’s so prescriptive.

Skip to 7 minutes and 11 seconds Now can you talk a bit about Hamlet’s response? So he’s been told, come on, pull your socks up. Move on. It’s unmanly, it’s unseemly. We’re all sad, but, you know– and then he then comes back, brilliantly, doesn’t he? And he says– Well, he does. Can I just say one more thing about the experience of those pressures? Because I think time is just one those pressures. And I think of that there are all sorts of other pressures put on the grieving person to not show how they’re feeling. Or if they’re going to show it, keep that showing to a very time limited scale or frame.

Skip to 7 minutes and 48 seconds So in that sense that it’s unmanly, there are all sorts of ways in which we can identify with certain expressions of emotion that you might feel during a grief experience as more common for women than for men. But I think all of that stuff works both ways. I think that you can say that for some people, the emotions are absent. And that that’s OK. Or there’s a numbing. And that’s OK. I think the emphasis on it being over is problematic. But also the emphasis on it manifesting in any particular way is also problematic. And so for Hamlet, he’s upset and he’s not going to hide it. So he’s physically and visibly showing that upset.

Skip to 8 minutes and 30 seconds But what he then says to his mum and to Claudius, which I think is absolutely brilliant, is that he’s like, ‘I know not what seems–’ what you see on the outside, what you’re seeing, is not a speculate compared to what’s going on inside me. And I think that that’s what’s so profound about that moment. And incredibly moving when you read it. And he lists. He does that negative listing of the– I can’t remember how he describes it. But ‘the river from my eye,’ and not this, it’s not that, it’s not the ‘inky’ clothes, it’s not this, it’s not that. I don’t know what ‘seems,’ it’s what’s going on. Really– Really inside me. Inside.

Skip to 9 minutes and 8 seconds And I think that that’s what art does. That’s what Shakespeare’s managed to do there using this imagery, this kind of metaphor of appearance and reality. Effectively, what’s on the outside of me, the darkness, the crying, the sighs– the shows of grief, he says– that’s nothing compared to what I feel. And I think that that’s what’s so painful about any kind of suffering, but acutely painful about the loss of bereavement. And also what’s kind of extraordinary about art that tries to capture it is that it gets to use metaphor. It gets to use imagery to get as close as you can to what’s going on inside. What I’m interested in as well is nobody can understand anybody else’s pain.

Skip to 9 minutes and 56 seconds I haven’t lost a father, but I know for people who have, they either find Hamlet– Jonathan can’t bear Hamlet because he lost his father at a very early age. He actually finds it– Too much. A really difficult play because it’s about the loss of a beloved father. And it seems to me that that’s Hamlet’s unique pain. I lost a fabulous father. He’s really, really in grief. God-like. That’s right. This god-like Hyperion.

Skip to 10 minutes and 24 seconds What do you think about that? I think that one of the things about that text and one of the things about literature that speaks to both specific losses and loss more generally. Is that when it’s done well– and I think Hamlet’s done quite well– it speaks across the variety of losses. The thing about grief there’s this kind of strange assumption that there’s a formula, that it’s a formulaic experience. You go through phases or stages. And you’ll experience this, then you’ll experience that. And I don’t subscribe to that view of bereavement or of grief.

Skip to 11 minutes and 4 seconds But what I do think is that the loss of anybody beloved– whether adored in that kind of relationship of a son to a father or in other manifestations– parent to child, siblings, lovers– it’s an un-doing. You’re kind of undone by that loss. As an individual, you’re– there’s something of you that dies also, I think. I heard very recently somebody say that loss is a living feeling, but it’s as close as you get to death. And I think that therefore, that text, that play– I haven’t lost a dad either, so I can’t speak to that.

Skip to 11 minutes and 40 seconds But having lost a sister and having taught Hamlet in the very, very immediate aftermath of that particular bereavement, I was intensely comforted by his distress because it gave space for my own. And it gave a kind of shape. And it enabled me to be more empathetic and more understanding to that character than I think I could possibly have been had I not been bereaved. It was a very interesting and kind of intimate experience I had just teaching it– That’s amazing. In that particular time in my life. Did you choose that text? No, no. I was teaching A-Level English and that was the text that had been chosen. At the time, I felt very comforted by it.

Skip to 12 minutes and 26 seconds Now I don’t mean comfort as in it didn’t make me feel better. It didn’t take my pain away. What I felt comforted by was the articulation of the grief experience that Shakespeare granted Hamlet, which, in turn, granted me language for things that I hadn’t got language for. So that I found incredibly– it was like being in a community of other sufferers. Just me and Hamlet. My lucky students– my poor, old students– were the beneficiary of this, too.

Skip to 12 minutes and 53 seconds And I think that it was a very intimate experience that we shared because apart from having told them I’d been bereaved and occasionally saying, I’m wearing my black polo neck, don’t be too loud, on the whole, we didn’t talk about my experience at all. Nor should we have done. But what we were able to do together was get closer. And I think I was able to bring them closer to an understanding– a compassionate understanding of the suffering of grief through that text, for which I’m eternally grateful, because I think that when you’re bereaved, depending on your relationship with the person that you’ve been bereaved of– and I think it can vary, of course.

Skip to 13 minutes and 29 seconds You could have a terrible reaction to somebody you didn’t love, but they were your parent, or your sibling, or something. And you can, similarly, have a– And still feel it. Yes. Feel it very powerfully. It can be incredibly intense. It can be numbing. It can be all manner of strange and unpredictable things. But I think that my experience was that to have a text that reflected back to me aspects of what was acceptable was both very moving and very supportive. And my experience of bereavement is– and I’ve heard others say this– that once you’ve experienced it, there’s no going back. It’s like you’re on the other side of the moon. You’ve seen something that you can’t un-see.

Skip to 14 minutes and 16 seconds You’ve experienced something that you can’t un-see. And it does change you. And it’s more a change than a process. And I felt as though my relationship with Hamlet– it sounds terribly cheesy now. But I find it, as an English teacher, terribly moving and meaningful to me to say that my relationship with that play at that particular time in my life enhanced my relationship with my students and my relationship with myself precisely because I was reading it as a recently bereaved person. And I, bizarrely, had never read it as a play about grief prior to that. I had read it as a play about a man who was a bit mad, or a bit indecisive, or a bit tricky. Interesting.

Skip to 14 minutes and 58 seconds And again, it was my insight into it. The minute I picked it up to teach it after the death of my sister, I was like, well, obviously, this bloke’s grieving. And in fact, all manner of ways in which he comes across throughout the play is agitated, and indecisive, and panicky, and tormented. And feeling he’s going mad. And grief does that to you. Absolutely. Grief makes you feel like you’re going completely mad. And you can get obsessive, and you can get– all of those things. I’m quite interested in the idea that literature– sometimes we don’t have the language to explore things or articulate things. And what literature can do it can make you say, ah, that.

Skip to 15 minutes and 35 seconds It’s that sort of epiphany moment. That’s exactly how I feel. Somebody else– because he’s a genius and he’s Shakespeare. You know, he’s got it completely right. Did you have those sort of moments? Yes. In those lines, there’s the easy bit, which is ‘the clouds still hang on’– the emphasis on that word still, which just irks me. But also at the end of that speech of Hamlet’s, the longer speech of Hamlet’s, where he’s talking about the difference between what it looks like and what it feels like. And he says, there is that which pass– I think the line is, ‘there is that which passes show.’ And you can’t say that. You can’t say that in normal language.

Skip to 16 minutes and 14 seconds There is that which is beyond what you can see is, basically, what he’s saying. There’s that which is behind my clothes, and my skin, and my tears, and my face. And I think language, well literature and the language of literature always is looking to get as close to that as possible and it uses those images. So the way in which he lists all the things you might see– his tears, his clothes, his external stuff– and then, just very simply, that running couplet. ‘There is that which passes show–’ something, something– ‘the trappings of suits woe.’ ‘Suits of woe.’ ‘Trappings and the suits of woe.’ Yeah. So the way in which show and woe are rhymed.

Skip to 16 minutes and 53 seconds And he’s sort of saying that there’s something beyond what you can see. And I remember feeling– yeah. It makes me teary now. You can feel, in that image, that he’s gesturing towards a profundity of painful experience that we don’t easily have words for. That’s why I read. In your own experience, did you find it difficult to read? I know when you were teaching and you were teaching Hamlet, that was helpful. And you have, just so articulately, and beautifully, and so eloquently– did you, personally, in terms of your own reading, not want to read? Yes. I think that’s a really good question. It’s a really meaningful question to me, actually. I haven’t been able to read properly since my sister died.

Skip to 17 minutes and 41 seconds Luckily, I’m an English teacher and I’m a researcher, so I have to read.

Skip to 17 minutes and 47 seconds But my ability to concentrate departed from me then and hasn’t really come back. And I haven’t really said that out loud, I don’t think, before. I think that, so, certainly in the acute period after her death, my mind was too flitty and I couldn’t settle. There are other times when you’re too numb and you can’t compute things. It’s like reading through a cloud. So ironically, no. I found, and still do find, reading for pleasure and reading for distraction quite difficult. But luckily, I have to read for my job. And so I’m extremely grateful for the way in which being a teacher of literature meant that I had to still keep reading.

Skip to 18 minutes and 37 seconds And just by good fortune– strange good fortune, odd fortune– the texts that I was teaching at the time at which I needed to read about bereavement were about bereavement. Can literature heal? Help the healing process? I think– Big question. Big question. I know. Good question. I think literature is a healing. Present continuous. I think that if you want to extend that metaphor, the wounds of loss, or the pain, and the wounds and the scars of bereavement are things that– the scab can be knocked off very easily. Years after, possibly forever after.

Skip to 19 minutes and 19 seconds I think a lot of mothers of children who have died, particularly parents of children who’ve died, or people whom the loved one that they lost was so profoundly part of them – their sense of self don’t ever get over or recover from that. So I think healing is a lovely and tantalising word, just as moving on is a very tantalising idea. For me, I think that literature is healing. And so for me, what I love about going back to literature about suffering is that whenever I might experience suffering– because I know it will come again. And I know the suffering of this very bereavement that I’ve had will come again.

Skip to 19 minutes and 58 seconds I know that I’m much more sensitive to all sorts of other pain because I’ve been bereaved. I know that pressures and particular kinds of stresses, particularly deaths, will start it off again. It’s very cyclical, and looping, and it returns. And so because I know that, I feel very happy and grateful when I’m not feeling acutely sad. But I also need to know that there are things I can return to when I do and one of those is literature. And the reason is it’s present tense. I think that if you have a– That scene in Hamlet is always that scene in Hamlet. That scene in Hamlet is never going to change. It never needs to change.

Skip to 20 minutes and 40 seconds If you go to your GP and say, I’m sad again, you feel a bit of a failure. You feel like you’ve kind of regressed, you’ve gone back somewhere, you’re letting yourself down, you’re letting other people down, you’re making everyone else’s life difficult because you’re not over it yet. But if you go back to Hamlet in that moment, he says it exactly how it is and he’ll say it like that every, single time. And so I think that the healing experience is something that is always there and can always be returned to rather than an idea that I’m looking for that moment when I’m healed up.

Skip to 21 minutes and 11 seconds I don’t anticipate that moment ever coming, but I’m looking at helping me feel some form of healing in the most acute, dark moments as and when I need them. And very, very important question, Lucy, is do you think literature, poetry, fiction can be harmful?

Skip to 21 minutes and 38 seconds If someone’s in a depressed state, or if you’re unhappy, or if you’re stressed, can it be harmful? My short answer is I don’t know. I think that, in my experience, one of the things that I have tried to learn from my own grief experience is that you can’t make it worse. You don’t need to worry about what you say. You don’t need to worry about what you write in that condolence card because you can’t make it worse. Now clearly, for some people, you can make it worse. Some people, their experience of bereavement– the loss is so great, they can’t bear it.

Skip to 22 minutes and 15 seconds And for some other people, the experience of depression or other forms of just acute acute suffering is too great. So I imagine there are situations where you can make it worse. I find it hard to believe and hard to kind of bear to believe that literature is something that might push someone over the edge. I think that if somebody is suffering so greatly that life feels insupportable, then they’ll do whatever they need and find whatever they find to support them in their departure out. Their active leave taking of life. My experience of all sorts of suffering– the suffering of my sister watching it before she died– reading her poetry to try and keep her here, in fact.

Skip to 22 minutes and 58 seconds Which is something I very actively did. And I really thought would work. I really thought it would work. That if I read her Emily Dickinson or John Clare, she would see that she wasn’t alone because that is really what you’re trying to do with anybody who’s suffering. Is you’re trying to help them not feel alone. But by definition, suffering is about your interior world and being on your own. That’s a very long answer. I don’t think the poetry I gave her made her go and I don’t think it made it worse. In fact– She might have stayed a bit longer. She might have. She might have stayed a bit longer.

Skip to 23 minutes and 36 seconds And she said that she was very comforted by the poetry of John Clare in particular. She was like, that’s what it’s like. That’s what it feels like. And she found that incredibly comforting in that millisecond, in that moment in which it was read. I think there was just too much suffering to comfort in that situation. I would hope I’d vouch for it healing rather than hurting. I think that it’s such a reservoir of– the whole of literary history– there’s so much there for us to dip into, and to find what we need, and to hear what we’re going through kind of reflected back to us that it would be a bit devastating to imagine that it could hurt.

Skip to 24 minutes and 16 seconds I think it’s more likely to help. It helps me.

Discussing Hamlet and bereavement with Lucy Clarke

In this video, we talk to Lucy Clarke about the second scene of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. Much to the annoyance of his mother Gertrude, and his uncle and step-father Claudius, Hamlet is very evidently in mourning for his late father, refusing to make merry or discard his mourning clothes.

Lucy, an English teacher and researcher, talks to us about her experience of teaching Hamlet in the aftermath of her sister’s death. Although she had studied the play before, she found that she suddenly understood Hamlet’s behaviour in an entirely new light, empathising with the play’s main character as a person in the throes of grief for a beloved family member.

In her research, Lucy is interested in the types of pressures that are put on bereaved people to behave in a certain way for a certain period of time, and in how these pressures have developed over the centuries. She talks about the scene from Hamlet as very powerful example of the way in which people are expected, by society, to ‘move on from’ or ‘get over’ their grief, and about how these attitudes to grief are intensely problematic. In Lucy’s experience, bereavement is not like an illness or a condition that can be recovered from; rather, it is an irreversible change. She suggests that we may never ‘get over’ or ‘recover’ from the loss of a loved one. For Lucy, the beauty of works of literature like Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that they offer a constant, unchanging source of solace, reflecting and articulating her own emotions without ever putting any pressure on her to ‘feel better’ or ‘move on’.

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