“Hamlet” begins with a question: Who’s there? That’s just the start of the play’s enigmatic nature, which has been intriguing and confounding audiences since the 17th century. In his upcoming “Islanders Read the Classics” discussion at the Edgartown library, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School English department chairman Dan Sharkovitz will explore those ambiguous corners of what he calls an “infinite” work of literature.
In “Hamlet: Prince of Denmark,” one of Shakespeare’s best-known works, the pensive title character returns home from university after his father dies mysteriously. When he arrives, he finds his mother already remarried to his shady uncle Claudius, who now sits on the throne. If that isn’t bad enough, Hamlet starts seeing ghosts who look a lot like his dad, raving about tormenting flames and fratricide. Amid the chaos, which includes girl trouble and inevitable invasion by Norway, Hamlet must get to the bottom of the mystery and exact revenge on his uncle. At surface level, the play is a great murder mystery, but it’s also endlessly dissectable — a favorite among scalpel-happy literature teachers.
Before landing on-Island, “Shark,” as he is affectionately known by his students, got his start teaching literacy classes to underprivileged Appalachians as an undergraduate at the University of Cumberland. He continued testing the waters as an educator, teaching evening poetry classes in Boston for several years. “It gave me a great opportunity to see what teaching could accomplish, not only for others, but for myself,” Mr. Sharkovitz said. The experience sealed the deal, and in 1979, Mr. Sharkovitz moved to Martha’s Vineyard to teach full-time.
At the urging of then MVRHS principal Greg Scott, Mr. Sharkovitz reluctantly set out to pursue his graduate degree at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. It was all wine and cheese and discussing poetry around campfires, and Mr. Sharkovitz loved it. Part of his curriculum one summer included a trip to Oxford, where he saw a live production of “Hamlet” at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) theater starring Mark Rylance.
“It was just riveting from the minute it began until the minute it ended,” Mr. Sharkovitz said. “There was a woman in front of me who appeared to be blind, and I heard her say to her friend, ‘That was the greatest production I’ve ever seen!’”
Mr. Sharkovitz had taught “Hamlet” in his MVRHS classes before, but the RSC rendition of the play instilled a new passion. When he told his students about the production that fall, an inspired — and very persistent — junior class marched Shark to Principal Scott’s office and demanded that they get to go to England too. Every year until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Sharkovitz led a trip for 11th graders to study literature in London. “I wanted to create this bridge, this connection, which would set my students’ souls vibrating to a frequency of Shakespeare, and connect them to literature in a way that would be meaningful, without tests and quizzes to prove its meaning,” he said.
“Hamlet” can be a tough read for anyone, never mind a high school student, but Mr. Sharkovitz’s enthusiasm for the play could light a spark under even the most apathetic of students. He can recite passages on demand, and he speaks of the play leaning forward, with a twinkle in his eye. Mr. Sharkovitz tells his students, “There are so many people out there that have come to believe this is one of humanity’s finest achievements, so we need to approach it with an open mind and try to make sense of it. Because art does matter.”
“Hamlet” has been produced across the globe, and across the centuries, proving that hunger for art is not a privilege of the individual, but a cultural — maybe even human — necessity. Mr. Sharkovitz cites a famous Romanian production that likened the evil Claudius to the ruthless dictatorship of president Nicolae Ceaușescu. So many Romanians braved the cold to see the play that the secret police nervously tried to shut the production down. Eventually, the Romanian people rebelled, executing Ceaușescu: “A lot of scholars think the play was the tipping point from people cowering in fear to people ready to stand up. I think it’s just an amazing thing, that a production of ‘Hamlet’ has the power to topple a dictator.”
In another anecdote, Mr. Sharkovitz told of a prisoner of war who would read “Hamlet” to his fellow inmates while they huddled against the cold. “If a play like ‘Hamlet’ has given people in the most trying circumstances sustenance that has kept them human and alive,” Mr. Sharkovitz said, “it’s gotta be worth kicking around in a classroom.”
“Hamlet” has certainly become a staple in American culture, adapted into every medium, influencing work as intricate as David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” to the tragic plotlines of the otherwise lighthearted “Lion King.” It’s a timeless tale, which encompasses everything from international political drama to insanity, to family relationships. “It can reflect anything out there, because everything out there is in it,” Mr. Sharkovitz summarized.
In his discussion of “Hamlet,” Mr. Sharkovitz said he wants to focus on “textual silences,” the spaces where what’s left unsaid “create cruxes, places that are puzzles.” He said these textual silences are where the intrigue of “Hamlet” lies, and they are precisely what has allowed for so many nuanced adaptations of the play across time and space.
Mr. Sharkovitz is at a bit of a crux in his own life. The school year to come may be his last before retiring from MVRHS. If the chips fall right, he may lead one last trip to London, a final hoorah. If Mr. Sharkovitz’s enthusiasm has rubbed off on his students at all, this year’s junior class will be every bit as determined to jump the pond as that first group, all those years ago.
“Islanders Read the Classics: Dan Sharkovitz on ‘Hamlet,’” Thursday, July 14, at 7 pm at the Edgartown library. Sponsored by The Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association.