My Grandfather's Hamlet

illustration by A.J. Garces
Where my grand- father Vincenzo Ventura found the time or inclination for Shakespeare, I don't know. Born in Sicily in 1883, he arrived in New York around 1905. He worked with his hands all his life, until his final illness in 1970. Soon after he came to this country, he was arrested for running down a street in East Harlem shooting a pistol -- it had something to do with someone making eyes at my grandmother. The family is unclear about whether he went to prison for this incident, but I have learned that when my family is unclear it's usually because they have something to hide.

To put it mildly, Vincenzo was difficult. My father, now nearly 81, told me recently: "I remember when he hit me, and when he came at me with a knife. I remember when I was about eight and I'd gotten a beating by some kid at school, and I came home crying. My father put a steak knife in my hand and he said, `Here, take this to school with you tomorrow.' I cried more, and I said, `But he'll bleed.' My father made fun of me for that for the rest of his life."

After a long silence Papa added: "I hated my father because he didn't pay enough attention to me -- because he didn't make me feel like a man. When people asked me, as a boy, `What do you want to be when you grow up?', I would answer, `Not like my father.' I'm an old man now, and I realize that I never really saw him the way he was."

What had started this conversation was Kenneth Branagh's new film of Hamlet. It reminded my father of the one time he feels that he saw into his father's heart.

It was on an Easter during one of those endless Sicilian meals, where plate after plate is set on the table and people eat and drink wine for many hours. My father was about six, which means that Grandpa Vincenzo was about 39. Suddenly, Grandpa stood up (he was probably tipsy) and began reciting from Hamlet. Vincenzo's voice boomed. His gestures were exaggerated, in that Victorian style of acting that seems so comical to us now. For moments, the other relatives were stunned, and my six-year-old father was enthralled. The words cascaded out (in Italian) -- the "Get thee to a nunnery" speech, delivered to Ophelia while Polonius (her father) and the King (Hamlet's stepfather) hide and listen:

"I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all. Believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where's your father?"

For moments, my father was proud and amazed -- and then all the relatives began laughing. To give them their due, a drunken Vincenzo doing a poor Sicilian imitation of John Barrymore was probably pretty ridiculous. But my father remembers that their laughter was not good-natured. It was merciless mockery. For one of the only times in his life, Vincenzo wilted and became sheepish and ashamed.

"I knew even then," my father remembers, "that it was Shakespeare. Papa talked to me when I was little about Shakespeare." When I asked how a barely educated laborer could talk about Shakespeare, my father said that Grandpa played in amateur theatricals in Italian Harlem. Had Grandpa played Hamlet? My father wasn't sure, but thought it likely -- why else would he know the speeches by heart? He may at least have auditioned for the role. But perhaps I'm not giving Vincenzo his due. Charismatic all his life (he was fathering children in his 70s with a woman 40 years younger), with strong features and blazing eyes even when I knew him, he would have been stunning in his early 20s -- physically, a good choice for Hamlet, especially among the kind of pickings an amateur group usually has. And Grandpa was not the kind to settle for bit parts. So who knows?

The speech ended, "Where's your father?" It was as though my father was being asked that question by his father. And when my father became old, he would (by telling the story) pose that question in turn to his son. Kenneth Branagh stages Hamlet in a magnificent hall of mirrors -- an apt choice. For when Shakespeare appears in our lives he often places us in just such a hall of mirrors. So my father and I are both confronted by my grandfather -- confronted with the question, "Where's your father?"

Seventy-five years later, that boy, Michael Luciano Ventura, could not forget it, and had to tell me -- his son, Michael Vincent Ventura. See: Even our names are halls of mirrors. (And isn't that true of so many families?) My father, self-educated but well-read, can't be unaware that in telling me this story he is thrusting upon me the question: "Where's your father?" When Papa says, "I never really saw my father the way he was," he is cautioning me, warning me that I may not be seeing him the way he is.

Papa's memories of the brutal Vincenzo did not lose their edge just because Shakespeare influenced a few moments on an afternoon long ago. But because of those moments, Vincenzo was lit differently in my father's consciousness -- a subtler, more shadowy light, revealing complexities that had not yet been guessed at. Vincenzo's brutality cannot be excused, and I don't feel brutality can ever be excused. (If we begin by excusing anyone's brutality, we must end by excusing the brutality of history. I'm not willing to do that.) But with this story Papa gives me another vision of my grandfather: a vision of a man who saw himself, and even tried to express himself, as a kind of Hamlet, caught between demands he did not choose but did accede to.

But acceding is, itself, a choice. And Grandpa lashed out from the confinements of his choice. This does not make the lashings any more forgivable. But wasn't he saying that even in a man like him there is a Hamlet? That he too was tortured and torn? And that something in him was greater than what he had made of his life?

Grandpa was playing to an audience of one: his son. Or two: his son, and (through the telling of the story) his grandson. For the only real audience is those who get it. Those who laughed are only doing what the world usually does: reflexively cutting off a heartfelt expression wherever it can be found. Not because they disagree: not even because heartfelt moments often partake of the ridiculous, but because anything heartfelt, even for a moment, is a threat to the benumbed state in which we live out our compromises.

Shakespeare's greatness is that when he appears in our lives, everything is thrown into question. This is especially true of Hamlet, a play constructed of questions. "To be or not to be" is only one of them. Underlying the entire play is the question, "Where's your father?" -- not only for Hamlet, but for Laertes, Ophelia, and Fortinbras. And there are all those other questions: Has there really been a murder? Can a ghost be trusted? Is the new king a usurper? Is the errant queen a sinner? Even if the king and queen are guilty, is revenge ever justified? Will Hamlet go against his nature and be a murderer? For it's clearly against his nature, or he wouldn't hesitate so long. Is Polonius a clever conspirator, hiding intentionally behind his rhetoric, or is he a fool? (It can be effectively played both ways.) Is Polonius' line "To thine own self be true" merely rhetoric, or is it what the play demands? Is the innocent Ophelia even innocent? Hamlet says, "Nymph, in thy orisons/Be all my sins remembered." "Orison" means "prayer"; but Shakespeare, the greatest wordsmith of all, would know that the word which "orison" calls most readily to mind is "orifice." And as for questions, remember that the very first speech in Hamlet is simply: "Who's there?"

Grandpa, who's there? Papa, who's there? Mirror, who's there?

Every generation creates its own bullshit about art. The current bullshit is called "deconstruction." But the incident I've told is art stripped of crap. A man whom we know little about, wrote a play a few hundred years ago. And a much lesser man, one Vincenzo Ventura, recited from that play at a picnic more than 70 years ago. And a far-too-cerebral actor named Branagh made a film of that play last year. And that film inspired an old man to relate a memory to his son, a memory that made them look anew at each other, at themselves, and at the long-dead Vincenzo, in the hall of mirrors that is life.

A few minutes of heartfelt conversation, on a telephone, between a father and a son -- art can make that happen. In fact, art makes such things happen all the time. And that is all the meaning or purpose it needs.

Shakespeare's greatness may be measured by how his creations can suddenly appear anywhere, even at a picnic of peasants who can't speak English. This greatness is more than mere language. For all its extravagant and marvelous poetry, the greatest line in Hamlet is not "To be or not to be," or "To thine own self be true." Repetition has flattened those lines into clichés. The greatest line is hardly noticed, but it is the core of this play and of all art. It both transcends and overwhelms any transient theory, and nothing can make it a cliché. Yet it can be said by anyone, at anytime. Therefore Shakespeare (that monster of wisdom) gives this line to a bit player. It opens the play, sets the tone, and poses the question that everyone, no matter how humble or exalted, must ask -- a question we never stop asking: "Who's there?"

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