When I was in college I took a Shakespeare course and my TA said something to the effect of, “When I started graduate school, I believed the line that Shakespeare’s privileged position was just a result of our discourse. But now, having read all the other dramas of his time, I have to say that he really is that much better than everyone else.”
He certainly keeps his characters busy. Here in act III, scenes 1 and 2, Hamlet
• Soliloquizes (“To be or not to be”)
• Acts crazy toward Ophelia, sending her away (“Get thee to a nunnery”)
• Has a plan hatched against him (“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go”)
• Offers a little criticism of actors
• Hatches a plan with Horatio to watch his stepdad during the play
• Now flirts with Ophelia, but all crazy-like
• After the play, goads his mom and stepdad (“they do but in jest, poison in jest”)
• Busts Rosencrantz and Guidenstern (“do you think I am easier to play on than a pipe”) and Polonius (“very like a whale”)
That’s two scenes. It’s replete, I tell you, replete! (You can certainly see how one would be tempted to overplay Hamlet; I haven’t seen enough Hamlets to judge, though.)
Now, thanks to this project, I have now had to read a few other bits and pieces from the Elizabethan drama volumes — and I begin to see that Shakespeare is as over-the-top as his contemporaries, but his over-the-top also goes in different directions. Like a great slam-dunk champion, he not only gets above the rim, he can maneuver once he’s up there. Between that, and his quoteability, he really is the true Human Highlight Film, with apologies to this man:
I ought to use a more random photo, in the manner of Free Darko. But I don't have the Flickr skills.
One other point — the argument in “To be or not to be” is, Sure, we’d all love to kill ourselves, but we’re afraid of what might happen next. (In his own words, It’s the dread of the undiscovered country that keeps us bearing the fardels.) Is this true? Do atheists — who by definition must not have this dread — off themselves even more than, say, cops? (Although I believing in just or a merciful God must be a terrific strain if you’re in the L.A.P.D.) I don’t know; although I suspect atheism of being a luxury good — metaphysical comforts can be disposed with when you have enough of the physical — and if that’s the case maybe you’re less likely to off yourself. I dunno.