I’m watching the Ravens-49er game. I was chatting with a dear friend to whom I bragged that I was drinking a “Noche Buena” beer, which is a Mexican seasonal bock. “Noche Buena” is what Mexicans call Christmas Eve.
This actually took my brain to a passage from Hamlet, quoted below. This is one of my favorite references to Christmas (lines 2-8). The setting is that Marcellus, Horatio, and Bernardo had just seen the Ghost who runs off as dawn begins to break, seemingly chased away by the crowing cock.
It’s a complicated quote. Christianity is real. But so is paganism. Notice that witches and fairies exist, but are respectful or powerless during the season. So says Marcellus. Christianity, or faith, is certainly part of Hamlet’s makeup. He is morally upright. This accounts for some of his hesitancy in the aftermath of his father’s murder. It’s not mere indecision; but, rather, fear of the consequences of committing violence. But Hamlet, of course, understands political necessity and recoils from it. For the good of the state, he must act. This is encapsulated by the empirical Horatio, who only partly believes Marcellus’ trope, and is eager to do his duty and report to his friend Prince Hamlet. (Really, though, he does not and is just being polite to his friend).
By the final act Hamlet comes around to the view that a statesman is different; that he plays by a different moral code. The tragedy, in the end, is that despite his magnificent gifts and his discovery of this truth — that he must act against his murderous uncle — Hamlet is not a man of action. He is no Henry V. Instead of a politician, he is an artist; an actor-poet who is not up to the task.
Anyway, this exchange between Horatio and Marcellus sets up Hamlet’s inner struggle. The first part of the play, as in all the play, set up the arguments. It just occurred to me that Hamlet is the dawn that Horatio describes. The trio, like all of us, heads off search for him.
Really, though, I like it mostly because it sounds cool. Lines 10-11 is positively Homeric. I remember the first time I digested those lines and remember thinking that this is the best description of dawn I have ever read. The description of Christmas as a time when witches have no power to charm is beautiful as is Horatio’s skepticism. He is the scholar and infers, correctly, that the Ghost will only speak to Hamlet. This is the nod to science, and punctuated with the achingly lovely description of dawn (Hamlet). Horatio, though, outlives Hamlet, and will be left to inform the Machiavellian Fortinbras, who himself says, with some irony, that Hamlet would have proved most royally. And, yet, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most magnificent protagonist. Not Henry IV, not Henry V, and not Julius Caesar.
1. It faded on the crowing of the cock.
2. Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
3. Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
4. The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
5. And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
6. The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
7. No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
8. So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
9. So have I heard and do in part believe it.
10. But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
11. Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill:
12. Break we our watch up; and by my advice,
13. Let us impart what we have seen to-night
14. Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
15. This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
16. Do you consent we shall acquaint him with it,
17. As needful in our loves, fitting our duty?
18. Let’s do’t, I pray; and I this morning know
19. Where we shall find him most conveniently.