My PEN/Faulkner Gala Speech

PEN-Faulkner_178.jpgI am currently writing a book about Shakespeare. How it will be received I don’t know. As one fellow scribe has said, “However much we writers claim to be indifferent to critics, all of us are secretly only satisfied with “Hail, Sun God, Rise and Lead They People.”

At the moment, I’m up to the Hamlet chapters, and so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Free Will versus Fate. One of Shakespeare’s central metaphors related to this theme involves the relationship between the world of the theatre and so-called “real life.” He makes this comparison again and again, from one play to the next. “Life’s but a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” “A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.” Shakespeare seems to be asking: Are we human beings merely actors? Are the lives we lead written out for us and predetermined, or are we free to change the script as Hamlet tries so desperately to do?

Four weeks ago today I dropped my daughter at college as a freshman. For several years now, I’ve seen that moment marching towards me as surely and inevitably as Hamlet saw the Ghost of his Father marching across the battlements of Elsinore, and I saw it coming with a similar sense of doom. (As I recall, the Ghost was not known for his joie de vivre.) For my wife and I as we boarded the plane with our daughter, as for Hamlet on the battlements, the writing was on the wall. The script was written, the future was inevitable and there was no changing it.

When Hamlet sees the Ghost for the first time, his reaction is staggering. Something absolutely impossible has happened right before his eyes. He cries “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” and he thinks, “That’s my father!”

Three nights after dropping my daughter off at college, she called me. She had just been to the college health clinic because of a sore throat. She told me that she had had a throat culture, they discovered strep, she was on an antibiotic that she was taking twice a day, and that she was feeling much better. She sounded level-headed, and spoke with a sense of maturity that I had never heard before. This was a girl who once, at tennis camp, got her head stuck in a freezer. She sounded happy about her classes and eager to study for them. I thought: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us! That’s my daughter!" The writing, once again, is on the wall, and, unlike Hamlet, I’m happy to follow the script and not even try to change it. The wheel turns. Life goes on. Aren’t we lucky.