“What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,” remarks the patient in one of the two beds opposite mine. He has a long face, flowing long white hair parted in the middle and, like me, he’s dressed in hospital pajamas. The bristled cheeks have a plasticity that makes him look young, although he’s no doubt 80 or so. Both of us are seated in high-backed imitation-leather upholstered chairs next to our beds, our various tubes carefully arranged for our comfort.
The time: January 1997. The scene: the intensive care unit on the eighth floor of Hadassah’s Ein Karem complex. The u-shaped ward has two wings; we’re in the smaller of them, with just three beds. The third one is occupied by a bearded Moroccan elder. Next to me sits my wife, Ilana. Next to Hamlet sits his Ophelia. Surrounding the elder are a clutch of children and devotees. Hanging over each bed are intravenous bags to which we are connected; over each bed hangs a monitor that displays our vital signs, but in such a way that we can track the heartbeat and oxygen supply of everyone except ourselves. On the ledge behind each bed stands a vase full of lung suction catheters. Stage left, for Hamlet, is a large sliding door leading out to a narrow balcony where the nurses slip out to smoke. Dark clouds hang low over Mevasseret Tzion and the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
I can’t remember my line, and in any case speech comes hard—it’s only been a couple days since the doctors removed the ventilator tube that had been stuck down my throat for two and a half weeks.
Hamlet cocks his head and smiles at me expectantly. When I don’t reply, he claps his hand, closes his eyes, and continues to recite: “In form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.”
The Moroccan elder groans. “You are holy, holy,” chant his acolytes.
Hamlet waits again. Ophelia looks at me apologetically, with the sorrowful face of a woman who has loved a talented man who did not treat her well.
“The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!” Hamlet declaims, raising his arms and gesturing histrionically. “And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman, neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”
Again I miss my cue. Only much later, when I can consult my Shakespeare, do I discover that what I should have said was: “My lord, there was no such stuff in my thoughts.”
I recalled my Hadassah Hamlet yesterday morning when I woke up nauseated, sweaty, and without enough strength even to get out of bed. I felt fine the previous night; whatever microorganism had evaded my immune defenses had worked quickly, turning me over the space of a short night from a man into an invalid. When you have a three-month hospital stay in your repertoire, any illness is a cause for alarm. My wife and kids inevitably think back to the Friday afternoon thirteen years ago when I suddenly developed a high fever and general weakness and then disappeared from home for eleven weeks. I’ve had the flu a number of times since then, enough to prove that the way to recovery is rest and not hospitalization, but this flu seems out to win a contest for all the ills the flesh is heir to. I spend the entire morning flat on my back, drifting in and out of hallucinatory dreams.
Hamlet speaks to Rosencrantz of a healthy man. When healthy, we indeed marvel at our bodies’ seemingly miraculous harmonies and the surprising powers of our minds. Yet illness gives the lie to this illusion of perfection. It is not only that our bodies don’t work properly when we are ill, not only that we can’t think straight. One of the salient qualities of illness is that it hijacks not only our bodies but also our very sense of reality. When we are sick, we seem always to have been sick; we can no longer really remember what life was like when our bodies worked. The malfunctioning of our bodies seems to be an eternal reality. When we lose control of our bodies, we lose our minds as well.
The first couple lines of Natan Zach’s “Poem After a Long Illness” paints the scene: “The evening clouds are dipped in soft, violet blood / a single star among them.” It’s a form of madness, surely, when all we can see are the bloody clouds, barely discerning the star shining among them. Like all madnesses, it seems mad only to onlookers; the madman lives his illusion, with its internal logic, and only with difficulty can he be persuaded that his senses are betraying him. When I lay in Hadassah’s eighth-floor ICU, I was on dialysis, and the buildup of urea in my blood caused hallucinations. I’d tear out my tubes and leave the hospital, I’d instruct the nurses in my own care, I’d order the pizza I so longed for. Only weeks later, when my kidneys recovered, were my friends able to convince me that those scenes had never happened.
Generations of college students, critics, directors, and actors have muddled over whether Shakespeare’s Hamlet was really mad or just pretending to be so. Shakespeare may have taken his cue from the Bible’s mad hero, David, who feigned, perhaps, madness when he sought refuge in the palace of Achish, King of Gat. According to a midrash on that story, David did not put on an act. Rather, he prayed to God to give him the gift of madness. God acceded to the request, and David began to act like a madman.
He would write on the gates to say: “King Achish of Gat owes me a million! His wife half a million! And Achish’s daughter and her mother were madwomen, they shouted and acted insane inside, while David shouted and acted insane outside, [so] Achish said to his servants, “Am I short of madmen?” And at that moment David rejoiced and the madness left him as a result of his joy.
If rejoicing were all that it required. Sanity is achieving the proper balance between the inner and outer person. Hamlet says: “For in the very torrent, tempest, and … whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.” But he is instructing the players, whose job is to simulate reality.
The Moroccan saint died in the middle of the night. There was a scurry of nurses and doctors, the wailing of a wife, followed by orderlies who wheeled his bed out and brought an empty one in its place, soon filled.
A series of Israeli actors and celebrities showed up to visit Hamlet at his bed. It soon emerged that Hamlet was really Yosef “Pepo” Milo, one of the leading directors of the Israeli theater. In 1945, Milo, who had no formal training, gathered together a handful of young actors and founded the Cameri theater. The Cameri troupe rebelled against the expressionism, high-charged emotion and convoluted diction of Tel Aviv’s aging Habimah theater, whose style and choice of material was still deeply rooted in the Russian tradition and Stanislavsky’s method. Milo and his colleagues wanted to create a theater that spoke the language of the Israeli street and portrayed real characters. His production of He Walked in the Fields, based on Moshe Shamir’s Palmach novel, premiered on May 31, 1948, making it the first drama presented in independent Israel.
Revolutions, like madnesses, have their own dynamic, and the rebel Milo was himself ousted in a rebellion a few years later. He went on to become the founding director of the Haifa Theater. Later he was shunted aside by thespians who thought that the Israeli reality he was depicting on stage was not really real. By the late 1970s, when I arrived in this country, Israeli theater had begun to move in new directions, questioning national myths and pushing the boundaries of social convention. Milo was already something of a has-been. A quarter of a century later, he was Hamlet, waiting for Rosencrantz’s reply.
Rosencrantz’s reply is that he’s brought a troupe of players to entertain the court, and Hamlet goes on to use the fictional play to reveal his father’s true murderer.
“Something new will float up out of this gloom,” Zach wrote after his long illness.
A few days later, Hamlet was again having difficulty breathing. With Ophelia’s consent, the doctors performed a tracheotomy. A few days after that he was removed to a nursing facility, where he died not long afterwards.
The saint and the actor died, and I lived. “There is something in this more than natural,” Hamlet says.
And Zach: “a last or first star in a multitude of stars / Intimates to me, / In the meantime, in the clouds / It has not yet been said to cease.”