about 2200 words
Hamlet and James Dean Died Young
by James Foley
In Virginia, an hour’s drive south of D.C., there’s a huge white house—built in the 1890s out on a point on the Chesapeake. And this summer when I drove there for a Wednesday-evening literary-club meeting, a gale was churning the water in front and on both sides of the house. And somehow on that lightning-blasted and thunder-shaken night, this lit-up mansion seemed like some gleaming humanoid monster, summoned into existence by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe.
Still, there were a half-dozen cars parked out front. And inside, in the living room with its immense stone fireplace, Ellen Wayne was discussing Hamlet, describing him as “the Elizabethan James Dean”.
“Dean’s career is how you define ‘meteoric’” she was saying. “Listen to this. I copied this from an article online.”
Now she was reading from some file she’d copied to her Android phone:
“Dean was living in New York City, performing on TV, when he was amazingly cast to play in East of Eden, directed by Elia Kazan. And Dean left for Los Angeles on April 8, 1954.
“East of Eden was followed by Rebel Without a Cause, then Giant. Within a year, Dean had become a superstar, dating beautiful women and racing cars. Then about 5:15 p.m on September 30th, 1955, he died in a highway crash.”
Ellen looked up from the notes she’d been reading and whispered:
“Lived too fast. Died at twenty-four. Always will be beautiful.”
Most of our group were seated—three or four of us standing. Then, as I stepped back nearer a window to glance out at the seething dark water—and you could see water from every window in this house—I collided with a girl who’d just entered the room.
What girl? Impossible! Julia Cortland?
Julia wild and unpredictable Cortland: latte skin, dark luxuriant hair, equatorial eyes as fine and fatal as ever. But at the moment she seemed paralyzed—exactly as I felt. Two years before, this girl had ruled the tangled emotions of my youth. I knew her all too well. But not well enough.
What now? Nothing. As the wind screamed outside and the booming thunder rumbled in our ears, neither of us spoke. We stared in dead silence, like dead motionless bodies—until finally I said, “Where? Where were you? Paris? Monaco?”
Her laugh was ironic. “Sure, Paris and Monaco. You know where I was, Josh: California.”
”I was afraid to know.”
“You can’t remember two years back? I was at BWI. No, not the British West Indies: Baltimore-Washington International airport. Robert was already emotionally destroyed. He’d flown out to San Francisco to stay with his mother, and I was going to join him. But at the last moment I panicked, Josh. I called Algernon in Baltimore and had him call you. I had Algernon tell you that I was going to go and marry Robert to care for him, unless—unless you told me not to. Unless you told me to stay. And what did you do, Josh? You had Algernon tell me to go on.”
“You’d left me.
“Josh, I’d been taking care of Robert.”
While Julia was speaking, I could hear a voice in the group asking with some intensity. “How old was Hamlet anyway when he died? We simply don’t know.”
Then Julia’s brother Arthur answered that we do know approximately. Arthur was a young Johns Hopkins professor. He and Julia were charter member of our group. And I said to Julia now, “When did you get back? Why didn’t Arthur tell me you’d be here tonight?”
“I wouldn’t let him tell you. I thought it would keep you from coming.”
Arthur was holding up a sheaf of papers as he spoke. And Julia and I drifted back into the discussion.
“This is T.S. Eliot’s famous paper on Hamlet,” Arthur was saying. “Let me read two sentences:
“The Hamlet of Laforgue is an adolescent; the Hamlet of Shakespeare is not, he has not that explanation and excuse. We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him.”
Now Arthur went on: “Here, Eliot brilliantly proposes the right question: Hamlet’s age. This is the single most important fact that we need to know to understand Shakespeare’s play.”
Arthur smiled. “Then Eliot gives an unconsidered answer: Hamlet’s not adolescent. But Eliot doesn’t tell us how he knows Hamlet’s age. He merely assumes that Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s mature.”
“Like almost everybody else,” someone in the group said.
Arthur nodded. “Conceivably, Eliot preferred a Hamlet of mature years, because this would make Hamlet’s wild recklessness utterly absurd, and so bolster Eliot’s theory that the play’s a confused failure.”
Arthur relaxed. “We can only calculate Hamlet’s age from what Shakespeare tells us in his text. In Act I, Scene II, the King says to Hamlet:
For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire:
And we beseech you bend you to remain here.
“And Hamlet’s mother says to him:
I pray thee stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.
“Later in the same scene, Hamlet sees his close friend Horatio, still in school at Wittenberg, who jokingly declares himself a truant.
“Hamlet: And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio?
“Horatio: A truant disposition, good my lord.”
“A little later Hamlet says, ‘I prithee do not mock me, fellow-student.
“Then in Act II, Scene II, the king addresses Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern in words that also highlight the youthfulness of Hamlet and his companions:
“I entreat you both
That, being of so young days brought up with him,
And since so neighbour'd to his youth and humour,
That you vouchsafe your rest here in our court
Some little time.”
Our group seemed to stir a little restlessly. But now a blonde schoolteacher named Agnes Grant said, “There’s nothing in the play that makes Hamlet mature: no hint of any official position in society or assignment of duties at court. In the play, the only fact we learn about Hamlet’s age is that he’s been a student and is preparing to return to school.
“I made some quick calculations: students generally finish grammar school about age fourteen; high school about eighteen; and college about twenty-two. Postgraduate students may be a year or two older.
“Even if we didn’t have the explicitly repeated explanations that Hamlet was in his student years, everything else we know about his situation at court, his life and his emotions would indicate that.
“James Dean died at twenty-four. It’s extremely unlikely that Hamlet was older than that.”
Our conversation was continually jarred by the strong winds still slamming this venerable house. So I missed some of what Agnes was saying—something about actors and how prestigious the Hamlet role is.
“An actor,” she said finally, “will usually not be privileged to play Hamlet in a major production without having risen to the top of his profession. So, our image of Hamlet may be drawn from mature, masterful actors.
“Such famous players as Edwin Booth or John Barrymore in their prime could hardly pretend to be students in school. I think Laurence Olivier was about thirty when he played Hamlet.”
When the discussion broke for relaxation and refreshments, Julia Cortland and I moved out of that great room—out onto the house’s wraparound veranda and so into the storm. But that didn’t matter. The tumult in my nerves made nature’s uproar seem petty.
“Remember that day,” Julia said, “when we were sailing offshore and we got caught in a squall? We were drenched, with the ocean exploding around us—enough to scare anyone to death.”
Easy to remember that afternoon. We’d kept the sail up to get to shore quickly and our mast was almost horizontal—the sail flattened by the wind, almost capsized.
Then the dinghy grounded on the shoal as I jumped out, grabbing the painter and hauling the small boat up on the sand—bumping her up in rhythm with the swell of the surf till we reached the dunes.
Then the two of us: standing in the roaring rain, hugging each other.
And now two years later, here on this veranda, Julia was saying, “When I dream let me dream of that summer—before Robert came into our life and things got too wild.
“Hard to believe, Josh, that you knew Robert long before I did. You grew up with him from grammar school. You were just about his oldest friend. Then you introduced us.”
“And you fell for him.”
“You know it wasn’t like that. At first, we were all three together. Yes, I was something of a rebel then. I thought I was an artist. Robert thought so too.
“So, I fell into his way of life. He was a free-spirited maverick who went his own way. He was a hippie out of his time. He should have been around for the Woodstock music festival and the Summer of Love.”
I nodded. “Yeah, he was born forty years too late.”
“But he was still together then, Josh. Robert was the life of every party. Everyone thought he was great. Except you. But you loved him. You took care of him. You were always there for him.
“And life was sweet: day after day after day. What Robert called our days of daylight and delight—and nights of midnight moonlight. And always talking about art and love and freedom.”
Now Julia grew sober: “But the danger was in Robert’s totally insane partying: what he called his days of wine and weed, days of weed and roses.
“And it crashed. He’d gone too far to come back. An emotional nosedive: all ruins. And you’d left him and you left me.”
“You didn’t come with me.”
“I couldn’t leave Robert. You weren’t there for him anymore. He had nobody,” Julia said, looking out at the pounding rain and the black night, wild and empty.
The discussion had reconvened now and Arthur Cortland was speaking:
“In Shakespeare, there are many action-heroes, driven by ambition, passion, jealousy or revenge: Richard III, Brutus, Hotspur, Romeo, Macbeth, Othello and many others.
“The play Hamlet has such characters. The King Claudius, after his diabolical crime, seems to rule well: dignified, courteous, with good judgment and balanced policies.
“The Norwegian prince Fortinbras is another man of action. And Laertes is determined to avenge the death of his father and sister—as Hamlet was supposed to avenge his father’s death.
“The original Hamlet was such an action-hero, focused on killing a king and pretending insanity to cover his intentions. And Hamlet fully realizes his duty to become an avenger. When his father’s ghost begs him to revenge his death, Hamlet swears to concentrate only on that goal and to purge every other thought from his consciousness:
“Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
“But Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s too complex for this role that fate’s imposed. He’s a mixed-up youth before the play’s action begins. In Soliloquy One, his first words are that he wants his body to melt away. He’s upset because the Almighty forbids suicide. The whole world seems, quote: ‘weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.’
“But what Hamlet hates most is his mother’s hasty remarriage. He jokes that the meat cooked for his father’s funeral was served as cold cuts at his mother’s wedding feast.”
“These childlike sentiments, uttered so impetuously, are typical of youth, not maturity,” Ellen Wayne said. “Yes, Hamlet’s the born nonconformist—like the James Dean characters in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. That’s their charm and attraction, and it’s what makes their lives so tragic.”
Arthur nodded. “Hamlet curses himself for lacking the forcefulness to mold himself into the avenger—the kind of forcefulness Fortinbras has. Hamlet’s not a coward. He’s not afraid of danger. He just can’t adopt a defined personality with its fixed plan of action. He’s a reckless, disturbed, free-spirited youth who can only be himself.”
“Like other romantic heroes,” Ellen said, “Heathcliff and the great Russian rebels.”
“Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin,” Agnes Grant suggested. And a boy named Wayne Arlington added: “Lermontov’s Perchorin and Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin: social misfits, but passionately true to themselves.”
So that ended that evening’s intellectual festival. And as the others were leaving, Julia said to me, “Arthur and Ryan are going to some other party. Can you drive me home?”
“Robert and I never married,” Julia said. “We were never lovers. He didn’t last that long. You know?”
“You just heard? You did nothing else?”
“I heard too late.”
“So now his memory means nothing to you?”
“Not true. He was one of the biggest parts of my life.”
“You were the biggest part of my life.”
Julia was staring with some astonishment. “If that’s true, Josh, what follows?”
Strangely, somehow while she was conversing, we had entangled ourselves haltingly in each other’s arms.
“We tried,” she said. “We tried, Josh. We tried to save Robert. But in the end, it was too late. But what about us, Josh. What about saving us? Is it too late?”
Now, embracing this extraordinary woman, I could only say, “No, not too late. Why shouldn’t we be together? Why shouldn’t we be happy? It’s not too late.”