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The Case of the Purloined Prince

A while back you heard my confession regarding “My First Literary Theft,” a certain paperback science fiction anthology I stole from the neighborhood pharmacy when I was twelve.  Having heard what a big torturous deal I made of that first foray into crime, you’d think I would never do anything like it again.  Yet I did. 

Now that I think about it, the thrill of that first assault on convention might have whetted my appetite for real mischief.  I was a bright little guy.  There’s no reason to think I mightn’t have ended up boosting Caddies at the local dealership.  But the fact is that, from the start, I lacked boldness.  Until, that is, age 15, when I pulled from a shelf at my high school library a copy of Hamlet.  I read it.  Then I stole it.

I remember it right well.  Engrossed in Hamlet, I was suddenly in the spell of something I had not previously known could exist:  a person made up entirely by a writer, and yet more urgently, more viscerally present—more real—than the actual people I knew. 

Image of Richard Burton as Hamlet

Richard Burton, putting the ham in Hamlet

He was there in that book.  It is a secret, sacred moment of your own, meeting a character in that way.  The first such encounter changes your life.  I was in that undiscover’d country—illicit lovers come to mind as people who know the feeling—where the rules not only don’t count, they exist to be broken.  Where to break them confirms the certainty of your passion.  Stealing Hamlet was the only thing to do.

Okay, so I was a geek and remain so.  This experience, I suppose, made it official. 

I assure you [as I have told you before] there were no parallels between Hamlet’s actual experiences and my own as a teenager. But while reading Hamlet, I could see myself in the prince. I had dawning inklings of life’s inexplicable injustices; he lent them gravity and dimension. Hamlet’s as smart as he can be, but finds out that smarts are no match for this mystifying life. It’s incomprehensible to him that the world could be the way it is (watch “To be or not to be…” ), but the world’s that way regardless, and what’s worse, it could care less whether he comprehends it or not. He has no one—not even Horatio, his best friend, or Ophelia, the girl he loves—who really knows what’s made him so antic and unhappy. He’s wounded, bewildered, and generally flummoxed by a world where evil and injustice thrive and in which, if there’s an underlying plan, it’s been hid from us.

Hamlet the play proceeds ingeniously–theatrically–but Hamlet’s life proceeds like a life.  Events come at him, intrigues embroil him, people love him or betray him, and there is nought but guessing as to why or wherefore.  In the end he knows little more than he did at the beginning, except that he can never know much.  He is awed to be, but is ready not to be.  “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” he says.  There’s a plan, but it’s not for us to know:  “We defy augury.”

Why did I steal that little green book?  I can only guess.  Why was it the last thing I ever stole?  Why did it make me feverish to write, and why did I, despite that desire, dawdle like Hamlet? 

Now, at this moment, I hold aloft that volume, which I first held at fifteen, and agree with the prince:  We defy augury.

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