One of the gifts of having a visionary like Charlie Smith, even when we lose him, is that it makes us reexamine our world, makes us look closer at who we are, at where we are going. And Charlie was one of those rare few who helped people with special abilities define themselves, helped us
ask those crucial questions.
How a culture defines itself is not by its system of government or technical level, but by its arts. And one of the great ironies is that our artistic culture has been largely created by those whom society has so often treated as outcasts, those with the labels of mental illness, or the “disabled,” the “crippled,” the “unemployable.” Being forced by their illnesses to look inward, artists from Mozart to Michelangelo to Mark Twain discovered new paths of creativity and invented our vocabularies for being human, the hopes and despairs that define us.
Arguably the greatest inventor and creator of our culture was William Shakespeare. His plays and poems have, over the last 400 years, defined the human. His explorations into the human heart and soul have given us the models not just for humanity, but for philosophy, law, science, even medicine. And I have no doubt that Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Abe Lincoln kept their Complete Works of Shakespeare right by their beds. All of Will’s great characters, tragic or comic, Lear, Richard III, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Othello, Mercutio, all suffered from
ailments of the spirit, as (if the whole “normal” world were honest) we all do.
But his greatest creation was Hamlet, the Melancholy Dane who has become the best-known figure in theater. Through Hamlet’s words, actions, and lack of actions, has come one of the first definitions and maybe the best of despair and hope ever written. Shakespeare’s vision is so clear, many literary experts believe that he must have personally suffered with mental illness to be able to describe it with such passion and accuracy.
The most recognizable lines in drama, and the most dreaded by young actors, are found in Hamlet’s immortal soliloquy, the famous “To be or not to be” speech. It’s been so badly pawed by mediocre high school English teachers and community actors that it’s almost ignored today. But its strength and depth of insight into the essence of human pain and doubt will never be diminished.
The moment comes in Act III, Scene I,. but the key to the speech comes in the preceding scene when Hamlet’s old college friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are sent to him from his uncle as spies to ascertain the truth of Hamlet’s madness. He welcomes them to the “prison”of Denmark, to which they respond, puzzled, that they don’t think it is a prison. Hamlet replies that, why then, to them it isn’t, as “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so: to me it’s a prison.”
They tell him it’s because he’s just too big a guy for such a small kingdom. And he tells them: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and think myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
And there’s the key to Hamlet’s and our own dilemma in times of despair. None of us can comprehend death; our only concept or point of reference is sleep. And Hamlet’s sleep is equally horrific, filled with terror and nightmares. Read it once more and hear maybe the greatest
definition what it is to be human.
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? To die, to sleep
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep
To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause; there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.