It was late-September 1977 and our English A-Level class were an unprepossessing group of Sixth Form College students. Standing at the front of the room, Paul Selby, our tutor, must have felt it was going to be a challenging two years.
Being contrarian by nature, I remember thinking that the subject was one to be endured and lacked the substance or relevance of my other two A-level subjects, history and economics. Inclined to the hard Left in politics, I regarded the study of English Literature as bourgeois self-indulgence.
Paul Selby taught with passion and no more so than when he was teaching Shakespeare. Hamlet was our text for that autumn term and the teaching sought to engage us with the characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
‘Who cares about what was going on in Hamlet’s mind?’ I thought. I couldn’t understand why Paul Selby attempted to explore the psyche of someone who had never existed, what was the point?
I wasn’t interested in the affairs of the court at Elsinore. Were there a character with whom I identified, it was Fortinbras, the violent and hostile Norwegian monarch who sweeps away the renaissance values of the Danish court. Fortinbras was a man of action, Fortinbras would have made a revolutionary.
Paul Selby must have been annoyed at times with the lines of questioning I would pursue. Hamlet, for me, was a dithering narcissist.
Of course, I missed the point. I was trapped in a two-dimensional world more akin to the comic strips of the boys’ own comics than to any perspective that might have recognized the profound understanding of human nature that is expressed by Shakespeare in the play.
Perhaps Hamlet was annoying because it challenged those sat around the room to think about themselves. Perhaps it was annoying because it caused me to think.
Long after much else has been forgotten, those lessons linger in the memory. The gentle patience of Paul Selby with an obstreperous seventeen year old and the probing of the mind prompted by the lines of the play.
In a few lines in Snow Country, Sebastian Faulks identifies both the source of the discomfort caused by Hamlet and the reason for its endurance in the memory decades later.
‘He’s a case part isn’t he? My father had a theory that by having characters explain their thoughts and desires he made people aware for the first time in history that they all had minds of their own. Before that, they appeared to one another as two-dimensional. That woman was often angry. That man was often sad. He kept sheep, she made shoes. They gave each other names to signify these things.’
‘Are you saying he invented human nature?’
‘It’s what my father thought.’
‘So every play-goer standing in the mud thought himself a Hamlet?’
‘Once you’re awake to the possibility, it’s hard to forget. It’s a thought you can’t un-think. Like the moment the first man or woman achieved self-awareness. There was no going back, no return to what our ancestors might have been.’
Paul Selby didn’t just teach us English Literature, he introduced us to thoughts that could never be un-thought.