Engaging characters, intriguing plots, appropriate settings - these are all tools used by master authors to captivate readers’ attention and manipulate it. But when the subject matter is Meaning itself, and when that Meaning is portrayed poetically, the power is such that it can produce lasting effects upon a readership. Take, for example, Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet.
Seeing a performance of Hamlet featuring Simon Russell-Beale I was once struck by how deeply personal and individual the ‘message’ of the play could be. It seemed to me that the actor was speaking to me alone, in the crowded auditorium, and that what he had to say had significance for me, as though he was confiding something in me personally. Of course, this has something to do with Russell-Beale’s acting, but the nature of Hamlet is such that moments like that potentially occur throughout the play.
The most famous speech in the play is all about the purpose and meaning of life, and it is worth looking at in terms of sequential, vertical, contextual and embracive meaning, as an example of how to produce Deep Attention.
Shakespeare begins (through Prince Hamlet) making the subject explicit: ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’; but this is obviously not to be a dry philosophical treatise, and so he immediately plunges into metaphor: ‘Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them.’ The audience is removed from a cold, calculating, rational assessment of life into the tempestuous image of a battle = vertical meaning, designed to draw the listener in.
As the rhythm of the speech carries us forward sequentially, the images then vary, equating death with sleep, to make sure we are drawn down further into the meaning: ‘to die, to sleep/No more; and by a sleep, to say we end/The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to?’ The unanswered and unanswerable question is rhetorical, but also magnetic in terms of attention. When Hamlet says ’Tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished’, the audience is naturally led to agree - but Hamlet develops the idea a little further: ‘To die, to sleep,/To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there's the rub,/For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.’
Then the speech employs a long list of kinds of suffering - ‘The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,/The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,/The insolence of office, and the spurns/That patient merit of the unworthy takes’ - in the form of an extended question, pulling us forward to hear the end of that question and its answer: ‘When he himself might his quietus make/With a bare bodkin?’, a technique immediately used again in the next lines: ‘Who would fardels bear,/To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/But that the dread of something after death,/The undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns, puzzles the will,/And makes us rather bear those ills we have,/Than fly to others that we know not of’ with the powerfully mysterious image of the ‘undiscovered country’ at the heart of them.
By now, the astute audience member has related this to his or her own experience of existence - what human being has not considered these issues in some way? - and so Hamlet’s concluding remarks are resonant with contextual meaning, meaning that spirals out of the speech into the audience member’s own life: 'Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,/And thus the native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of thought,/And enterprises of great pith and moment,/With this regard their currents turn awry,/And lose the name of action’.
A reflective audience member would consider, albeit briefly, those ‘enterprises of great pith and moment’ in his or her own life which have lost ‘the name of action’. The centripetal force of the images becomes the centrifugal force of contextual meaning, all pulled along by the poetry of the language.
The whole play parallels this speech: Hamlet’s supernaturally inspired revenge motive loses its force, and produces the strange, ‘inactive’ plot line of a protagonist who strives to not do what the whole action of the play is prompting him to do.
The embracive meaning which is the overall effect of the play is to leave the audience pondering the issues themselves: ‘The rest is silence’, as Hamlet says before he dies. Such deep subject matter, dealt with by a master author using poetic and dramatic techniques, produces Deep Attention, the kind of attention which has not left this play alone for four centuries.
How can the new writer, the unestablished or relatively unknown writer, hope to reach these celestial heights of wordsmithery and skill?
We will look at some specific takeaway lessons to use in any kind of fiction writing in forthcoming articles, so please stay tuned.