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Dr. Larry Arnn And Professor Stephen Smith From Hillsdale College On Hamlet

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HH: Welcome back to the Hillsdale Dialogues. We’re in the third week of five weeks on Shakespeare. Last Friday, we did the wonderful introduction with Tempest, the week before that, the overview with Professor Stephen Smith of Hillsdale College, and of course Hillsdale’s president, Larry Arnn. All of those dialogues and every one we’ve ever done are all linked at There’s a button at Go for your listening pleasure and educate yourself beginning with Homer and all the way through to the present. And if you missed Monday’s Labor Day special, where we did Marx, Lenin, Stalin and the American labor movement, three hours of Hillsdale Dialogues with Drs. West, Moreno and Arnn, you definitely want to go and listen to that. Dr. Arnn, wouldn’t you agree that was a pretty spectacular show?

LA: Yeah, and you know, it hurts me to say it, Hugh, because the whole thing was your idea. But it did work, and it worked because these ideologues that have dominated much of the 20th Century and now the 21st, started out with the labor movement to build class politics to build despotism. But on the other hand, the labor movement is something different from that. And you started out with that premise, and it turned out to be so.

HH: I also find it a great transition to our offering today, Hamlet, Professor Smith, and not a forced transition. Our good friend, Dr. David Allen White, for a long time at the Naval Academy doing what you do now at Hillsdale, teaching Shakespeare, said Hamlet was the first postmodern man. And to a certain extent, Marx and Lenin end up being the last postmodern men. That’s the end game for that kind of thinking. What do you make of his premise about Hamlet being the first postmodern man?

SS: Well, C.S. Lewis said in the 20th Century that he’d go around the world to meet various characters of Shakespeare. So if somebody told him Henry V was in Singapore, he’d go. But he said he didn’t have to cross the room to meet Hamlet.

HH: Oh, really.

SS: Hamlet was always where he was. So Hamlet is, well, I’ve always thought of him as the first real modern tragic hero. And he is in between, he has a father who’s ghost appears to be in Purgatory, and yet he’s been educated at a modern university. And he’s this transitional figure in between these two worlds. And he can’t act well. He can’t decide what to do. And he ends up the author of one of the great tragedies in the whole Western tradition.

HH: It’s a great play. We’re going to spend the whole hour talking about it. People have always said as they leave my law school final, it feels like the final scene in Hamlet. But that’s the way you want a law school final to feel. But I believe it’s his longest play. Am I correct?

SS: Yes.

HH: And Dr. Arnn, how often have you seen it? I’ve never seen Hamlet performed. I’ve only read it.

LA: I’ve seen it three or four times. I’ve seen Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, which means quite a long time ago, because he’s an old man now. But it’s, you know, let me ask Steve this, isn’t it one of the most complete tragedies? I mean, everything is wrong at the end, right?

SS: Yeah, I mean, unless you’re Fortinbras.

HH: Yeah.

SS: I mean, he has a great day.

LA: But I mean…

HH: You’ve got to explain that to the audience. That’s the guy who walks in at the end.

LA: To know and be admired by Hamlet is to die.

SS: Yeah, Fortinbras is the young prince who walks in at the end, looks at all the dead bodies, and says I guess I’m king, you know.

LA: (laughing)

HH: I won. I won. It’s sort of like coming out of the cave and saying everyone else is dead. All right, let’s begin at the beginning. How should we talk about this, Professor Smith, because the complexity and the number of characters, and the intrigue, in one respect, it’s pretty easy. Hamlet’s father has been murdered by his uncle. His uncle has married his mother. And so this is the basic construct. Take it away from there. What do people need to know to get their arms around the beginning of Hamlet?

SS: Well, I think they really just need to jump in with the play. And you know, Shakespeare doesn’t mess around. He very briefly tells you what you just described, you know, there’s a new king, the old king is dead. And Denmark is on edge. It’s preparing for war. The king is concerned about Fortinbras, who is the son of the man that Hamlet Sr. killed in a duel. And Fortinbras spends much of the play stomping around in the periphery and then, you know, coming in at the end and winning. So Denmark is on edge. And in the middle of this situation with the new king, the remarriage, and Hamlet grieving for his father, a ghost appears. And with the ghost comes the revelation that Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, killed his father, and then the commandment of revenge, which Hamlet really quickly accepts, and then tries to act out the rest of the play.

HH: Now let’s go back to the last time we were here. We were talking about the nicest guy in the world, right, Prospero. He’s the good guy. And now we’re going to go to a completely different frame of mind into this seething cauldron of bad guys and confused people. How does Shakespeare do this?

SS: Well, you know, we are dealing with, as Larry mentioned in his comment, the most tragic of the plays just in terms of body count. King Lear’s probably a close second. But lots of death here, and not exactly a happy ending. But when I teach Shakespeare to the undergrads, I like to call the course from the prince to Prospero, so from Hamlet to Prospero to sketch out how we get out of tragedy into something better like Prospero. You remember from last time, Prospero was the character that actually learned from tragedy and then become a commanding figure through his prudence and his temperance and his faith and his charity, able to lead a play and bring it to a happy ending. Hamlet is really how not to be a prince in a lot of ways. And he is the author of the tragedy in Denmark, the young man.

HH: And we see, but we see in our own lives, at least I see in our own world, a lot more Hamlets than Prosperos. I mean, Dr. Arnn, do you agree with that?

LA: Oh, yeah. You know, there’s a lot of people who are mindless, right? They’re not thinking deeply about things. But among the people who have lively minds that are investigating, there’s a lot of people who just revolve between alternatives. They can’t ever quite come up with one they like.

HH: Meaning like Hamlet? Indecisive?

LA: Well, Hamlet, yeah, the thing about him, well, we’re going to talk about being and good in a minute, because that looks to me like, we’ll see what Steve thinks, but that looks to me like the central, the most famous line in the play, I think, is the central line in the play. And what hampers Hamlet is a question about being. And he can’t get on with being, because he does not understand the identity between being and good.

HH: Okay, now, we’re going to have to unpack that a little bit.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Professor Smith, translate Dr. Arnn, who left us all confused there.

LA: (laughing)

SS: (laughing) I wouldn’t dare.

HH: You’re around him a lot. You know the language better than most of us. That was a lot of…

LA: I can explain that, but it’s not time, yet, right? Steve’s, we have to get to where he says to be or not to be.

HH: Okay, let’s get there, then.

LA: Yeah, let’s get there.

HH: That means you, Smith.

SS: Well, okay, well, I think Hamlet, the main trouble Hamlet has is he has studied a lot. He’s actually almost a permanent university student. He’s about 27 years old. At the beginning of the play, he wants to go back to college. He spent a lot of time studying philosophy, in particular, but it hasn’t really prepared him to be a prince, or to lead himself or others. And that’s one of the main issues in the play is his education has really hurt him. Shakespeare suggests that he was a little bit pampered by mom, and he hasn’t really had any real responsibilities as prince. He spent most of his time studying, monologuing, as the Incredibles put it, soliloquizing. And he’s a remarkable thinker, but not well prepared for the play that overtakes him very quickly in Hamlet.

HH: And for acting, and I don’t mean acting in the theatrical sense, but for decisive ordering of his life. And Dr. Arnn, last week, I was with Dennis Prager, John Stonestreet and Stephen Meyers, and they were all talking about the culture of our time. And one of it is that adolescence has begun at 12 and ends at 30.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And to a certain extent, that’s Hamlet.

LA: Yeah, see, Steve makes the point that everybody’s acting in the play, and there’s a play within a play in Hamlet. That’s not the only play where there’s one. And Hamlet is lost in a play. He doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not. And see, it’s our business as humans, we have to live, right? We have children. If we don’t have children, we still have parents, else we are not alive. And we have obligations to them. And we have to sustain ourselves. And so life requires action, occupation. And Hamlet, thrust into the world, a rule, given supernaturally, in the beginning of the play, the clearest instructions about what he needs to do, can’t figure it out.

HH: Although those instructions, and Professor Smith can tell us when we come back from break what they are, are not easily, I doubt that if you were given those instructions just as supernaturally, Dr. Arnn, you’d find them easy to act on, would you?

LA: Well, the point would be you’d be interested in, you know, first of all, whether you’d had trouble digesting your chili…

HH: Yes.

LA: And at this point, you had seen the ghost.

HH: A bit of bad cheese is how Dickens would put it. Yeah. When we come back from break, we’ll explain.

— – – — –

HH: I’m curious as an aside, Dr. Arnn, have most of the charter schools in America figured out, yet, that Hillsdale has provided all the content curriculum that they need, they don’t need the Common Core?

LA: Well, alas, they think the Common Core is a core. And it’s a set, a list of bureaucratic rules instead. But yeah, we have eight charters schools operating now, and our goal is to get to 50. And lots of people on our faculty are helping advise them and make them go. And we do have a curriculum for them, and it is good. And everybody learns Latin, and everybody learns grammar. And the success rates are excellent so far.

HH: And home schoolers, I would really urge you to immerse yourself in You moms and dads out there that are doing this on our own, will be greatly enriched by the resources made available to you by the excellent faculty at Hillsdale. Dr. Arnn, one more aside, last week, Bobby Jindal was on my show. He has sued the federal government to enjoin the imposition of Common Core on Louisiana, citing the Spending Clause jurisprudence of the Obamacare decision. I wish him well in this. I thought Common Core was well begun, and then badly off the rails, and now wholly a train wreck.

LA: Well, we live in the age of bureaucratic government, right? And so we try to make rules at the center to govern details. The Common Core as a federal program was always bound to go there. And the truth is, you know, at Hillsdale College, we think we know how to run a school. We think if you do it our way, it’ll work. But also, we think if we impose that by force of law on others, because the reason that violates the spirit is this. Learning happens in the student with the help of the teacher. And so that I command them to do something? That won’t make it happen. They have to do it. And so you can’t run local things centrally in detail. You can’t do it. And there’s no place for that in the Constitution of the United States.

HH: And that brings me back to Hamlet, and again, gently, Professor Smith, if your students sit down and learn Hamlet, I think they’ll end up going to see it four and five times like Larry Arnn has. It’s the way I go see Caesar whenever Caesar is performed. I’ve seen Lear a few times. If you love a play, you’ll go see it a lot. I just don’t particularly like this play, because it’s so awful.

LA: (laughing)

SS: (laughing) You just need to spend a good four weeks or so.

HH: But it…

SS: Go through it, and you’ll love it by the end. You’ll say play it again, Sam.

HH: Is there anyone good in the play? You see, even in Lear, there’s the good daughter. I mean, there’s always, there’s just nobody goo in this play.

SS: Well, there is his friend, Horatio.

HH: Okay.

SS: Now Horatio is the poor scholar who is Hamlet’s intellectual equal, but not his equal in station. And they’re friends, but that inequality causes trouble. In fact, as the play goes on, in fact, from the beginning, if Hamlet had simply listened to Horatio at point X, Y and Z, the whole play might have gone in a much better direction.

HH: If he’d listened to his true friend?

SS: Yeah, he has a hard time accepting counsel, probably because he’s so intelligent, he just enjoys his soliloquies and his own judgment. But when Horatio tries to redirect or correct, Hamlet often responds very badly to that.

HH: I’ve never thought of that before, that if he had listened to his true friend, things would not have gone amiss.

SS: Well, Horatio says don’t follow the ghost. That would have helped, actually, in the whole play.

HH: Yeah, don’t follow the ghost.

SS: And then at the end of the play…

LA: And see, you know, maybe…

SS: Horatio says don’t go into the duel.

LA: Yeah.

SS: And then he says Hamlet, you’ve got to stop going on and on and on like you’re doing, and you know, this is a very urgent situation. Hamlet can never listen to him.

HH: Larry, you were going to say what?

LA: Well, I was just going to say that this play, we’ve told you something about the end of it. But the truth is this play is powerfully dramatic, because all this stuff that goes wrong doesn’t have to go wrong. And remember, on the one hand, he’s told something by a ghost, but on the other hand, he’s told the thing he needs to know. And then, of course, that gives, he’s still got to work it out in life. But that gives him a leg up. And he is over and over again in a position to do the right thing with an inclination to the right thing, and he doesn’t do it. And then you watch what happens because of that.

HH: Now the thing he is told at the beginning by the ghost, who is his father, is that his father has been killed by his uncle. So he knows, but he doesn’t know, because it’s a ghost. And there’s a great deal introduced early on, Professor Smith, about the reliability of the ghost, right? He comes, he goes, he gets chased away, he doesn’t look the right way. So it’s not like he’s been shown a videotape of the murder.

SS: Yeah, that’s right, and it turns out by the end the ghost is pretty darned ambiguous. But the commandment the ghost gives, and the word is commandment, is to revenge my most fallen on natural murder. And then he tells Hamlet however you pursue this act, so I’m going to leave the means up to you, leave your mother out of it. Leave her to Heaven, to her conscience, and taint not your mind. So the directions are rather confusing. So however you revenge me, just do so without tainting your own mind. So kill your uncle, but don’t taint your mind in doing so.

HH: Pretty hard to pull off. By the way, why does T.S. Eliot, you sent me a note, he calls this the Mona Lisa of literature. I haven’t figured that out, yet. I don’t know what that means.

SS: He had a knack for great sentences like that. I think he means that folks like to look at this character, the prince, and they wonder about him intensely. Why does he say what he says? What does that mean? What does that line mean? It’s like looking at the Mona Lisa, and I think that’s what he was getting at.

HH: Okay, so when you start to…

LA: He was ambiguous, right? In other words, what does the Mona Lisa mean, right? You see this very extremely famous thing. What exactly is her mood?

SS: Right.

LA: You know, in other words, it’s that. And with him, with Hamlet, because Hamlet is part of Shakespeare’s art, isn’t it, that this guy is extremely attractive. You’re pulling for this guy all the way through while the body count around him rises.

HH: Well, I hadn’t thought of that, either. And because you know at the end, at the beginning, the first time it’s performed, I just would wonder back to the experience of being at the old Globe, the new old Globe, how they reacted through this as it was first put on, or as you first encounter it, it’s so bizarre. When we come back from break, Professor Stephen Smith of Hillsdale College will tell us how he teaches this, actually, to his students at Hillsdale College, because it is a play, and it is a play within a play, and everyone is an actor, and yes, indeed, all the world is a stage.

— – – – –

HH: Professor Smith, when I was an undergraduate, I signed up dutifully to try and get into the Shakespeare survey every year, never got in. There was never enough space. Most people never got into that, or to the fine arts survey. Can anyone who wants to take Shakespeare at Hillsdale get into your class eventually?

SS: Oh, sure. Yeah, I’m a sucker for good pitches, so if someone is really bent on really desirous of studying Shakespeare, I’ll make it happen.

HH: And there used to be, Dr. Larry Arnn, at Harvard…

LA: Nobody takes Smith’s courses, Hugh. (laughing)

HH: There used to be something called a core curriculum, and it became degraded over the years, and then it was a joke, and it became a farce. And that it’s been, and Columbia had it, etc. Does Hillsdale have that? And is Hamlet a part of it?

LA: Steve can, well, so I can answer it, and then Steve can correct me about the Hamlet thing if I’m wrong. Hillsdale has a core curriculum that takes up about 62 hours, the last time I counted, of 124 hour graduation requirement. So half the time, the courses are the same for every kid. The courses are taught according to common syllabi in all departments. In English, there’s no common reader. And there’s a debate about whether there ought to be or not, and I’m on the ‘there ought to be’ side. But then people say any reader has to be lots of extracts, and you have to read whole works, too. So as long as we make sure we all read the few best things, why shouldn’t there be some latitude?

HH: And of those few best things, Professor Smith, would you put Hamlet there?

SS: Oh, every single time, yes. Yeah, I’ve taught, in my Great Books 2 class, which is Renaissance to modern, I lead off with Hamlet, and have done so my whole career. And it’s one of the great teaching texts in the whole world. And I actually take a delight when students come in and dislike Hamlet, because I know that by about the third or fourth week, it’ll be all different.

HH: Now why is it one of the great teaching texts? And how do you start? And why do you start with the famous advice to the players?

SS: Oh, you know, that’s mainly experience of teaching it over and over again. Hamlet in Act III tells the traveling troop of players how to do their job, which is actually quintessential Hamlet. He likes to give advice. So he tells them if you want to act well, here’s what you have to do. And he gives this famous speech. You know, speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it trippingly on the tongue. It’s kind of a famous speech. But in the midst of this, he identifies two virtues an actor needs. And this shouldn’t surprise us after doing the Tempest. They’re prudence and temperance. So he says to be a good human actor on stage, you have to have this good prudence, discretion, and then you have to be able to govern your emotions and have temperance. And as it turns out, you can evaluate every character in Hamlet: Prince Of Denmark by the standard the prince provides in the middle of the play. So when you look at Hamlet’s own case, you know, does he actually practice what he preaches? Is he prudent? Is he temperate? And I think the evidence of the play is overwhelmingly in the other direction.

HH: Yeah, of course it is.

SS: Yeah.

HH: And I’m just taking that standard and applying it to every other actor I’ve seen in roles that I can identify with them.

SS: Yeah.

HH: And that’s an interesting standard. It still obtains, I think. I think it still works.

SS: Yeah, because that’s the thing with Hamlet, is you see, Hamlet can be right about something, and speak about it well, but embodying it is the problem, and actually acting it himself. And so when it comes to the decisions in the play, and there’s so much ambiguity, it’s so murky, I always tell students all right, look, let’s just stick right to the prince’s decisions one after another.

HH: But he talks about the virtues all the time. And in the Tempest, the standard is virtue, what, the rare action, you told me?

SS: Yeah, that’s how virtue is described. And virtue’s very rare in Hamlet. You asked me earlier, is there a good character. So in the tragedies, it can be tough to find. But we have this image from the Tempest, from Prospero. But when we turn to Denmark, we tend to see imprudence, intemperance, cowardice, injustice, cruelty, all the great vices, actually.

HH: I’ve got to ask the obvious question. Did Shakespeare have it in for the north? I mean, did he just not like Scandinavia and Denmark?

SS: I don’t think so. There’s a lot to be said, I guess, politically, but he chose this story because, well, he was interested in the problem of revenge. But also, in Hamlet: Prince Of Denmark, he makes it really a modern tale. Hamlet is educated at Wittenberg, and his rival, Laertes, is educated at the University of Paris. So one is educated in the seat of reform theology, one Catholic, and then Hamlet’s ghost is from Purgatory. So there’s all sorts of shenanigans going on here, politically and philosophically.

HH: Oh, wow. Yeah, I’ll be right back to continue those shenanigans with Professor Smith, Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College. What exactly were the decisions that Hamlet had to make, and how often did he blow them? Answer, tip of a hat, pro tip? Every one.

—- – – — –

HH: Where are we going next week, by the way, Professor Smith?

SS: We’re going to King Lear.

HH: That’s it. I thought so.

SS: Get out your handkerchief.

HH: Well, I had Ian McKellen play that in UCLA. I went in the third row, and that was really one of the great things I’ve ever seen. So I’m looking forward to talking about that. But let’s talk now about the decisions that Hamlet made. You have them all listed out here in the notes you sent me. Man, he made a lot of bad decisions.

SS: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, again, you can pin the prince down, you know. Everyone likes to talk about double meanings and ambiguity, but what did he decide to do and why? And so the questions that always have come up to my mind, should he have followed the ghost against the advice of his friends? I actually think the play suggests he should not have followed the ghost, was reckless to do so. Should he have accepted the commandment of the ghost? Probably not. Should he have decided to pretend to be crazy? That doesn’t really work out very well. He’s actually not that good at it. Should he have tried to test Claudius with the play within a play? No, again, it was politically and prudentially reckless. Should he have spared Claudius, or talked to him at least after the play within a play?

HH: He heard him praying, right? He knew.

SS: Yeah, Samuel Johnson called that the most terrible scene in literature.

HH: Really?

SS: Yeah, because he said Hamlet comes upon Claudius praying, and he says I’m going to revenge myself now. And then he realizes Claudius is praying, and he says you know, not when he’s praying, because that means he’ll go to Heaven, and my father is who knows where. And so he decides to wait so that he can catch him, as he says, in some act that does not relish of salvation, and then send him to hell. So Hamlet becomes this almost metaphysical monster. He wants to send everybody to hell.

HH: And so Samuel Johnson thinks, Johnson thinks that’s the most terrible scene in literature?

SS: Well, all right, we’re doing King Lear next week, so you know, Cordelia dead in King Lear’s arms is right up there.

HH: Yeah, but Johnson’s a pretty good judge of bad.

SS: Yeah, it’s the decision that he would say I’m not going to confront you or do it, because I want to send you to hell.

HH: Right.

SS: Yeah.

HH: Which makes him…

LA: So Steve, he, Samuel Johnson is not saying this is an ineffective or badly written scene.

HH: No, he’s saying this is so good…

LA: The most terrible thing, right, that you could do…

HH: …is to send someone to hell.

SS: Well you know, yeah…

LA: Yeah.

SS: And well, it’s interesting, because Lincoln was a huge admirer of the speech right before this, Claudius trying to pray, which is one of the great speeches in all of Shakespeare. So Claudius is trying to pray. He’s trying to repent. He says I can’t let go of the crown. I can’t let go of my queen, and he kneels. And right at that moment, Hamlet comes in behind him, and is about to draw his sword, and says no. I don’t think so. I’m not sending that guy to Heaven.

HH: How do we know Lincoln, how do we know that Lincoln admired that?

SS: He said so.

HH: That is…

SS: Yeah…

HH: Wow.

SS: He said he’s always thought Claudius’ speech, his attempt to repent, is greater than the to be or not to be speech. He says it explicitly.

LA: Yeah.

HH: I didn’t have any idea about that. And should he have killed Polonius? Should he have gone to England? You have other ones. He kept making more bad mistakes.

SS: Oh, my goodness, yes, it’s a prudential train wreck. I mean, it’s just, I said earlier how not to be a prince. It’s a disaster in Denmark. Between his imprudence and his intemperance, the whole play is undone.

HH: I’m curious, Dr. Arnn, you must have as the president of a college, run across young men, especially, but young women as well of great potential who make serial bad decisions. At some point, you must have to cut them loose.

LA: Well, I don’t, yeah, probably. I will tell you a human type you see in college, tortured between alternatives all the time. See, but whether or not Hamlet was going to take, obey the command of the ghost, whether or not he was going to do it, if he was going to do it, he should have done it. And if he was not going to do it, he should have not done it. And his trouble was he’s all wrapped up in whether he should do anything at all or not.

SS: Right.

LA: He on the one hand is reluctant to do the hard deed. On the other hand, he’s reluctant to do it, because the man might not get eternal damnation. And so prudence, you know, whatever else it means, it means the decision that produces an action. And that’s what, in my opinion, Steve can tell me, that’s what, sorry, that’s what Hamlet does not get, right? And that’s why it’s the good people who suffer and die first. They’re waiting for him to at least do one thing or t’other.

HH: I’m putting my arms around the fact that Lincoln read and brooded on Hamlet, the man who took terrible decision after terrible decision after terrible decision. He was nothing but decisive, right? And…

SS: Yeah, and then you have Hamlet who says, well, this is what Claudius says, but it applies to Hamlet. I’m like a man to double business bound. I stand in pause, where I should first begin and do nothing.

HH: So where’s it leave the country at the end?

SS: Well frankly, it is a complete, I mean, people often think King Lear is the complete tragedy, but actually, a good man is king at the end of King Lear. In Hamlet, the king is dead, the queen is dead, the prince is dead, the best counselor is dead, his young rival, everyone’s dead. And Fortinbras, the son of his father’s enemy, walks in and takes over the country. It’s a complete political tragedy.

HH: I’m reminded, Dr. Arnn, we have a minute to the break, a week and a day ago, President Obama said we don’t have a strategy, after a month at Martha’s Vineyard playing golf and calling ISIS the jayvees six months earlier. There’s a little bit of this in that guy.

LA: That guy is so cocky and arrogant compared to Hamlet, right? Do you imagine for a minute Obama has a tortured soul?

HH: His hair’s going gray.

LA: (laughing) Well, I think he might be getting older.

HH: Well, he is getting older, but just like W., they all, they carry a burden. No, tortured, not, but indecisive, absolutely. Yeah, they’re very different things, tortured and indecisive, but he doesn’t, he can’t make up a lick of sense on anything.

LA: Hamlet suffers a lot, right? Hamlet doubts himself. Am I right there, Steve? Hamlet is a man who doubts himself a lot.

SS: Oh, yes. Yeah, and he wants to know his course, he keeps saying.

LA: Yeah, and Obama on the other hand, everything’s wonderfully simple, right, and I’m the man. Isn’t that he?

HH: Well, I guess you’re right. His actions are consistent with a double divided, double-binded mind.

— – — –

HH: Professor Stephen Smith, Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, it’s been a great conversation about Hamlet. But we have not even mentioned the most famous line. We can’t get out of a conversation about Hamlet without mentioning the most famous line, Professor Smith.

SS: To be or not to be? That is the question?

HH: Yeah, that one.

SS: Okay.

HH: But you say that’s not, it’s the wrong line.

SS: Well, Lincoln thought, hey, Lincoln thought Claudius upstaged Hamlet, you know, in that other speech. I tend to agree with Lincoln on that one. You know, when Hamlet walks in and says to be or not to be, that is the question, many are inclined to say is it really? Or what do you mean by that exactly? He asks that question in the middle of this urgent political and personal play, and it’s one of the examples of his tendency to wander, intellectually, though he is asking, as Larry hinted at earlier, a central question. But he doubts whether being in life are good and worthwhile at all. And so he’s sort of stuck in this intellectual mode.

HH: And Dr. Arnn, your colleague’s note to me is political disaster and Shakespeare always flows from interior problems. What is always needed is a prince with character to lead himself and others. And we were just talking about President Obama, and the political disasters that are, they’re like the bodies in the final scene.

LA: Yeah.

HH: They’re heaping up around us, right? Does that all flow from events outside of the leader or because of our leader’s inability to cope with events?

LA: Well, first of all, we’re not, you know, we don’t have any problems right now that we’re not powerful enough to deal with, at least not any international problems. But are enemies are waxing in strength, and incidentally, uniting because of our weakness. And the weakness is not born of indecision. It’s born of false ideology. And Obama thinks that everything’s going our way, and if we will just constrain ourselves, the world will sort itself out. And that’s, you know, he’s in an ideological haze, that guy.

HH: And he’s not going to change. That’s like Hamlet from start to finish. He doesn’t change, does he?

LA: Over and over, Obama’s reaction is to double down. A thing doesn’t work out, he does more of it. And that’s his way. And I don’t think he’s going to get any better. Let me make a point about to be or not to be. Here’s what I meant earlier. I think I can make it even clearer. Steve’s point is that’s the wrong question, because really, the question is to be virtuous or not to be virtuous, is what you’ve got to decide. Are you going to take the trouble to be the best man you can or not? And my point in response to that is extremely true. But remember that in classical philosophy, the goodness of a thing and the being of a thing are wrapped up. And so we have Prospero, a superb ruler after his instruction in exile, and then you have Hamlet. And Hamlet is a miserable ruler. And that means that Prospero is the ruler, and Hamlet is not, really. He does not govern events.

HH: On that note, Dr. Arnn, Professor Smith, thanks to you both.

End of interview.


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