"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;"
Ah, probably the most famous Shakespearean soliloquy to be delivered by a man whose very name was a toilet joke. What Shakespeare doesn't go on to say in that speech is that, not only are men and women merely actors, but that in our own heads, we're all playing Hamlet: we're the stars of our own dramas and everyone else in our lives are merely the supporting cast. If you're the star, then the absolute most that everyone else can hope for is that they might get to play Gertrude, Horatio, Ophelia or even Claudius in the drama of your life. More likely though, most people will end up playing the third spear carrier on the left. We Hamlets define the world by how it impacts on us, and not the other way around. When something happens, or when someone does something, we will immediately view it through the lens of how it affects us. Somewhat annoyingly for us Hamlets, then, the supporting players in all our lives are often played by terrible hams; the kind of actors who take it upon themselves to try and steal some of our limelight and to attract attention away from us, the stars of our own productions. It almost as though they thought this play was about them.
Surely this Hamlet complex is the only way to explain why so many people seem to be so wrapped up in themselves and their own lives and so insensitive to the needs of others. I'm sure we all see countless examples every day of our lives: the people who jump the traffic lights, as though red lights somehow don't apply for them and that it's okay for you to have to wait at a green light until they have gone through; the guy in the pool who ploughs up and down the lane you're sharing at a speed of his choosing, showing no consideration at all to your needs or the speed at which you're swimming, wrapped up only in his own requirements; the people you work with who will happily take credit but are quick to duck responsibility and to apportion blame; the guy who elbows his way to the front of the bar queue and gleefully gets served in front of you.... life sometimes seems to be a succession of little acts of rudeness; death from the thousand cuts of someone else's lack of consideration for another human being, or at least by their decision that their own needs are more important. Well, when you're the star of the show, it's you who should be getting the plaudits. Why worry about the little people?
Only life isn't really like that, is it? As Shakespeare goes on to say in the same soliloquy:
"And one man in his time plays many parts,"
He's referring, of course, to the seven ages of man; our journey from "mewling and puking" infant to decrepit old age, "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything". What he might also add is that, whilst we might all be playing Hamlet in the dramas of our own lives, we're also simultaneously playing all of the other parts in other people's dramas. You might be Polonious to your brother, Rosencrantz to your boss and the third spear carrier on the left to your neighbours....Everyone might be Hamlet in their own head, but we'd do well to remember that we're no more than a supporting character in everyone else's. To mix my metaphors, wouldn't we do better to think of life as a team game? No matter how good a Ronaldo or a Kaká might be, no matter how inspirational their individual brilliance on the football pitch might be, they still can't win a game of football entirely on their own. Even people in the apparently individual pursuits like tennis or golf will still rely heavily on their own support teams if they are to succeed; their coaches and their caddies, their physiotherapists and their psychotherapists.... even their families and friends.
As a contemporary of Shakespeare, John Donne, wrote:
"No man is an island, entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
It tolls for thee."
I like the idea that we're all connected simply by being human. We're all in it together, aren't we? Anything we can do to help make all of our rides a little easier have got to be worthwhile, hasn't it? Isn't that a much nicer way to think about the world and the way we relate to each other? We're all ultimately in the same show and not just the stars of our own matinees. Wouldn't it be nice if we all tried to behave a bit more like it?
Of course, the somewhat inconvenient problem with this argument is that I'm not so selfless myself as to be beyond reproach. By railing against traffic light jumpers, swimming pool hogs, unscrupulous colleagues, queue jumpers at the bar and the like, I'm merely casting my own judgement upon them all; a judgement based entirely upon how the behaviour of those people has impacted upon me and how it has inconvenienced me. By acknowledging that fact, am I not also acknowledging that I am guilty of casting myself as Hamlet?
As Shakespeare also said:
"A pox damn you, you muddy rascal, is that all the comfort you give me?"