by Doctor Science
I first read Hamlet in high school, and still remember that my first reaction was, "it's full of clichés!" -- because every page was full of hackneyed turns of phrase. And then I hit Hamlet's soliloquy, and every line was "a cliché", already familiar to me.
I realized, of course, that this was backwards: Hamlet isn't full of clichés, the English language is full of Hamlet. It was really startling to discover how much Shakespeare was woven into my usual speech, and to try to read Hamlet as though those well-worn phrases were new and fresh.
I was reminded of this because Sprog the Younger is reading Hamlet for AP Literature right now. My question, though, is for those of you who did not grow up in English-speaking schools, or who have deep knowledge of another language culture.
What texts do non-English speakers read for the first time in school, and feel like they're full of clichés this way? For Hebrew it's got to be the Bible, Homer for Greek, but I'm less certain about other languages. Is it Goethe's Faust for German-speakers, or something else? What is it for Francophones, or for Chinese or Japanese?
And to what extent do you-all think sheer random chance determines which texts sink in to this extent, so that they seem familiar upon first reading?
aha, while googling about for a picture to use on this post, I came across a link to Hamlet as explained to an anthropologist by elders of the Tiv people:
I had shocked my audience seriously. “For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father—that is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.”-- proving that the writer is an anthropologist, *not* a scholar of literature. If you can't re-tell it, remold it, make into something that's a good story to you, then it's *not* a truly great work. And Hamlet *is*.
I nibbled at my kola nut in some perplexity, then pointed out that after all the man had killed Hamlet’s father.
“No,” pronounced the old man, speaking less to me than to the young men sitting behind the elders. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives.” Another thought struck him. “But if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be a good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother.”
There was a murmur of applause. Hamlet was again a good story to them, but it no longer seemed quite the same story to me.
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