Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or having it is satisfied? – come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
It is often the case that those born into the privileged classes are brought up to think themselves cleverer than they actually are. Hamlet was no exception to this rule. Among his many miscalculated schemes, which resulted, inter alia, in his girlfriend committing suicide and his childhood friends being mistakenly murdered, was his decision to put on a play of his own devising. He hoped that a reconstruction of the scene where his Uncle Claudius poisoned his (Hamlet’s) father would so ‘catch the conscience’ of the murderer that the said Claudius would give the game away, thus justifying Hamlet taking his revenge. The actual outcome was to strew the various tenements of Elsinore with a variety of further dead bodies, including his own.
Which all goes to prove Thackeray’s point that there’s all the difference in the world between how you would like things to be and how things actually turn out. While there is also much in Hamlet’s behaviour that is reminiscent of the Government’s handling of the current pandemic, it is his desire to shape his own destiny that offers an interesting parallel to today’s crisis. There is a general feeling that once it is all over, we will see the world in a truer light. We will value the refuse collector above the stockbroker, the nurse above hedge fund manager and reward them accordingly. It will be interesting to see what actually happens when this ambition is put to the test. A clue may be found in a commercial enterprise that has flourished among the general economic doom and gloom, namely, the sale of books in general and the independent bookshop in particular. One reason may well have been that people had time on their hands, but I suspect there is something more deep-seated at work. Fiction can offer answers to tricky questions. A trawl through one’s own reading bears this out. From the adult-free adventures of childhood, through the Damascene revelations in adolescence, to the ironic comparing of notes in middle age, the reading of fiction can provide both solace and reassurance that you have a proper understanding of the world. At the end, the circle is completed when in old age we return to the re-reading of old favourites. No doubt some eminent psychologist could make much of being ‘curled up with a good book’ and a desire to return to the womb.
So, what will really happen after all this is over and Covid-19 is parked in the same storage container as measles and mumps. Will we link arms and demand the return of birdsong or will we, like Alice, see it for what it really was - a rather curious interlude that we didn’t properly understand - and then, like the Prince of Denmark, accept that no matter how much we try, the pressures of this ‘prêt à manger’ world will offer little alternative but to shut up the box of our dreams and once more pick up the threads of an increasingly threadbare existence.