Hamlet and Ambassadorial Dinners
Bill Long 7/13/06
Truth Telling and Pleasant Evenings
One of the rare and greatly-appreciated pleasures of my recently-completed trip to Italy was a dinner on Saturday night June 24 at the American Ambassador to Italy, Ronald Spogli's, Villa Taverna. Our group was able to have this formal function at the Villa because the Ambassador was a Stanford graduate and was very active in the Stanford-in-Italy program while an undergraduate. The buzz was that Mr. Spogli is the first American Ambassador to Italy who actually speaks the language (that is, Italian) fluently.
The evening began in grand style with a long reception line. Because Virginia (the Stanford grad. who invited me to come) and I were talking in line to a couple who happened to be acquainted with the Ambassador and his wife, when we got to the Ambassador, Mr. Spogli suggested that we have a group picture (six of us). I still haven't tracked down the picture, but I am sure it will appear sometime soon. In any case, after the reception line we tasted some pricey hors d'ouvres, chatted with each other, had a group picture taken (for more than 100 people) and then gathered at tables to eat. After the dinner was over there was an hour-long "roast" of the Ambassador. I put the word "roast" in quotation marks because that was how it was billed by the organizers, though, truth be told, the oven wasn't even warm when people gave speeches or reminiscences about Ronald Spogli. In fact, as the evening wore on it became evident to me that the speeches were probably vetted by someone and that most of the content that was humorously critical, if it had existed, was excised from the speeches. Though true things were told about Mr. Spogli, I got the distinct impression that we were handling him like one would an expensive piece of china. One could "ooh" and "ahh" over it, but one had to make very sure that one wouldn't do anything that might cause the china to shatter.
At first all this sat extremely poorly with me. I wanted to get a sense of who this Ron Spogli really was but instead of speeches roasting him I heard speeches that could have been, except for no attestation of miracles, supporting statements for sainthood. I wondered what was "up" that truth couldn't be told. I kind of sulked off to the bus, not wanting to dance to the 60's music that was playing. We didn't have much time for the latter anyway, since the last bus left at 11:30, and the "roast" didn't really end until just about 11:00 (the program said it would end at 9:30).
After letting my dissatisfaction with the characterization of Mr. Spogli by others sit with me for a while (oh, by the way, Spogli himself gave a very moving and eloquent speech in which he stated his eternal indebtedness to Stanford University for giving him the kind of opportunities he richly cashed in on in the 1970s-1990s), I realized that I couldn't get the first two scenes of Act I of Hamlet out of my mind. In these two scenes (as in 1.1 and 1.2 of Macbeth), Shakespeare uses a literary device that actually was helpful in clarifying for me how to understand this evening. In brief, Shakespeare uses the dark devices of nightime, ghosts, cold and uncertainty (1.1) to express the truth of the leading characters of the play, while the themes of royalty, bright lights, seeming harmony and pomp (1.2) suggest that truth is being overlooked or, better said, that truth is being buried. I am not suggesting that my Ambassadorial dinner was the analogue of Hamlet 1.2; I am suggesting that understanding the function of 1.1 and 1.2 helps explain to me why truth-telling (which often has an embarrassing dimension) was hard to come by at the dinner.
A Word About Hamlet 1.1 and 1.2
Hamlet opens at night. Horatio will join his friends Marcellus and Barnardo to walk on the battlements during the cold night watches in Denmark. They are apparently watching out for a renewed attack from Norway. Horatio also joins his friends because they reported to him they had twice seen an apparition of Hamlet's deceased father, and they wanted Horatio around to question the ghost and confirm the truth of their experience. It isn't long until the ghost appears. Marcellus says: "Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again." Barnardo responds: "In the same figure like the King that's dead." They try to forbid it to leave and talk to it, but the ghost, who "harrows (them) with fear and wonder" can, like the wind, come and go as it pleases. It disappears and then reappears, before disappearing altogether. Horatio volunteers to tell young Hamlet about this apparition, and the scene ends. The alert reader knows that it is in the shadowy world of the battlements, with lowly watchmen, that the ultimate truth of the murder of Hamlet's father will be communicated. Truth is revealed in darkness and to the lowly ones.
Act 1, Scene 2 stands in stark contrast to this. Here we have a gathering of the new royal court. The new king Claudius has just married Hamlet's mother. With an explanation that seems convincing on the surface but, when subject to scrutiny, falls apart, the new king explains why he married the Queen. "In equal scale weighing delight and dole," Claudius has taken Gertrude to wife. The King gives the impression that he understands why Hamlet has been so distressed but now is the time for Hamlet to get on with his life. Indeed, his mother says, "Good Hamlet, cast they nighted colour off/ And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark,/ Do not for ever with they vailed lids/ Seek for thy noble father in the dust."
There we have it. Truth is pressed to the side in the official gathering. There is a reason for it--the King wants to "cover up" the foul play involved in Hamlet's father's death, but the impression given is that it is time to move on. What is evident to the reader, however, is that no truth at all resides in the official gathering. There is pomp; there are loads of toadying servants; there are official speeches; the light shines on the activities. But, in fact, the truth has been uttered (or will be uttered) in the shadowy and cold and forbidding night to those who seemingly have no stake in the "important" affairs of Kingship and rule.
Reading Hamlet afresh after the Ambassadorial dinner didn't answer all my questions. Indeed, there was no real connection between 1.2 and my Ambassadorial dinner. Yet, some suggestive themes emerged, themes that make me able to "let go" of the dinner and celebrate it for what it could provide--a pleasant meal with people of good will. Waiting for too much truth-telling, however, would be contrary to the nature of the event. Ask Shakespeare; he will tell you.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long