This week the British publication The Guardian reported that “Students in America have been asking for “trigger warnings” to be included on works of literature which deal with topics such as rape or war.” Works that were of concern to students at the University of California at Santa Barbara included Things Fall Apart, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Great Gatsby, all of which I have taught. This demand for fair warning so that those who have been traumatized can adequately prepare for the shock of what they read assumes that having something in a syllabus (which may or may not be read by students anyway) will insulate students from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that may come up in any given text.
I’m not so sure.
Once, when I was a lowly graduate student, I was getting my mail in the work room at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the late, well-known southern novelist Doris Betts was talking to one of her colleagues, and she said, “Well, literature brings all the bad news.” This was a woman who wore bright red cowboy boots with dresses to introduce speakers who came to the university. She knew what she was about, both as a reader and a writer. I really cannot sum it up better: literature does bring all the bad news, but in a creative and memorable way. How else would you like to get it?
Now I am not here minimizing anyone’s trauma: so don’t call my Dean, a lawyer, or anyone because I am already very sorry if anyone has experienced anything terrible on this earth. Most people have. We all have a sea of troubles at some point in our lives. Some of us just have bigger monsters in our particular sea.
So I was thinking, since I am teaching Hamlet to students in an intense two-week course called Fast Term, if I had known about this new demand for “trigger warnings,” how exactly would I accommodate this need for this particular play?
First of all, I thought right off the bat that you, as a professor, become a BIG WALKING SPOILER, because to give a “trigger warning,” you basically have to give all the high drama of a work away, and then the reading of the work, IF THE STUDENT THINKS HE OR SHE CAN HANDLE IT, will always already smack of anticlimax. That gig isn’t my big dream. Think of how angry people got when they heard spoilers for Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey? Do I really have to say, “Hey, if you have ever been dumped by your boyfriend higher on the social ladder and told to get yourself to a nunnery, WELL WATCH OUT because I am sure that was super traumatic, and like Hamlet, that guy might have been really cute. So, buck up, brace yourself, and get ready for potential break-up flashbacks….ahem.”
Right now, my students are really concentrating hard on writing their essay exams, and not one looks too traumatized. But if I had been in the know, I might have given these “trigger warnings” just in case Hamlet was too, well, uh, tragic. Funny, the Greeks were okay with one experiencing things like pity and fear: they called the experience of purging such emotions cathartic, and it was actually supposed to be good for you.
1) If you have ever seen a ghost, and were scared out of your mind even though smart enough to get into a university (hey, Horatio and Hamlet were getting all smartened up at Wittenberg!), then YOU MIGHT WANT TO SKIP ACT ONE SCENE ONE because maybe a ghost appears. Now I don’t really believe in ghosts, and I have never seen one, but maybe you have, so obviously I cannot relate to your level of trauma, and I have no idea if you will get all pale and speechless while reading this scene, never to be the same, so here is your trigger warning. You’re welcome. I am super relieved we are not reading Oedipus Rex.
2) Although you might think Hamlet is really obsessed with his mother and Ophelia and how they behave, if you have been in a war, heard of a war, object to war, fear war, or have even been in favor of a war, you might not have caught this, but those night-time security guys are awake ALL NIGHT because Denmark is, how shall I say it? They are having a martial conflict with Norway. If you don’t know what “martial” means, then you have probably not been traumatized. If you thought I wrote “marital,” then you might have been, but that is a whole different trigger warning. I am getting to them as fast as I can. War is horrible, and in Hamlet most of it is off stage, but still. You need to know.
3) If your Mom married your wily uncle pretty quickly after your Dad was murdered, and you thought that was kind of, well, unseemly, then this might not be the play for you.
4) If you, as an American, have been to France, and had French people be really rude to you, there is this little moment where Laertes actually asks permission to go back, and so that might just be too much for you. Just sayin.’
5) If you have ever been misunderstood, you know how maddening that can be. For example, you can be wearing black, sighing heavily, CRYING for crying out loud, and someone might say something like, “It seems like you are upset.” And then you have to set them straight, in an all caps kind of way, and say “HEY NOT “SEEMS”–I AM UPSET.” That, I am sure, was traumatic, and you do not want to have to relive being “misunderstood” all over again through the magic of some dead guy’s language. I mean, enough is enough.
6) Okay, I know there is a Maroon Five concert the NIGHT BEFORE I lecture on “tragedy,” so in case you miss that class, I will tell you that in tragedy, nine times out of ten, you will see dead people. And, in Hamlet, you will see people THINKING about being dead, and actually talking about it, and then, I am sorry to say, actual dead people. On the stage. In the film. I kid you not. I am sorry about that, but it is tragedy, and people have to die. Maybe you have known someone who died, and if not personally, I am sorry in advance in case that ever happens. “Ay, Madam, ’tis common.” (Sorry that was just a little inside joke! Did anyone ever make a joke at YOUR EXPENSE? I am so sorry! TRIGGER WARNING WITHIN A TRIGGER WARNING–just like a play within a play!) Wow, the world is stale, flat, and unprofitable. Maybe you could try and make it better before you die? But, no pressure. I don’t want to trigger anything in you. Like too many pressures to produce excellence, in anything.
7) If your parents ever gave you any advice, like, ever, Polonius gives this long, boring speech to Laertes before he goes back to party in France in those night boxes (discos!!), and it is so long and boring, it might cause actual suffering even if you have never been traumatized in this way before, because, heck, what do parents know anyway, especially when they are annoying busybodies? This might not be, technically speaking, a trigger warning. It might be an original source of trauma, so maybe just read the Sparks notes so it isn’t so awful? I have no idea. It is the section that ends with “To thine own self be true,” whatever that means. I don’t think we should get too heavy here. Plays should be fun, amirite?
8) Mental illness. If you have ever had mental illness, it is referred to as “madness” and “melancholy” in this play, so be on the look out for this! Although, there is an old school of thought that if you read about something that is similar to something that you might have experienced or felt, and can, I don’t know, “relate to it,” that sometimes, for some people, it helps. You will have to take your own emotional temperature and decide this for yourself, as the university attorneys have not yet sent me the memo on how to handle this one.
9) If you ever felt love or loss or pain or ecstasy, or wished you could be a great writer, and reading Shakespeare makes you feel like you could never, ever be a great writer, thus harming your confidence, self-esteem, and career trajectory, then DO NOT DASH THAT DREAM and for heaven’s sake close your book, close your nook, put that play down, and no one will get hurt.
I know there are more, but I am too exhausted to count the ways. It seems that the trigger-warned syllabus is just a mousetrap, waiting to catch the unwitting professor who cannot recognize sufficient traumatic potential when she sees it. After all, if you read enough literature, you already know something is rotten in Denmark. Yes, it is upsetting, and shocking, and sometimes, you can even have a visceral reaction to all of that stuff going on in your mind’s eye.
I know: “Literature brings all the bad news.”
But, I can tell you this much: the language is something else. And if someone asks you what you are reading, you will have more to say than that smart-alecky line: “Words, words, words.” People lie, people betray, people give you back poems you wrote to them even when you thought you were so in love. I can’t do anything about that. But one thing Hamlet had going for him: he knew when people were “playing” him with language. I guess he learned that at Wittenberg, in a class, with a syllabus with no trigger warnings.
I never knew I could experience such joy reading a play. I reread it like an addict being given a potent drug. I didn’t realize literature was so powerful that it should require a warning label. I always thought it was the other way: literature WAS the warning label. Literature WAS the “trigger warning” that might give you a huge cosmic heads up regarding the terrible and wonderful things that might come your way. I thought it might HELP you cope, not make you fall apart the minute you see a certain image, read certain words.
As for Hamlet, I think it is more terrible and wonderful every time I read it.
You might try it, when the time is right, for you.
Doni M. Wilson is a Professor of English at Houston Baptist University and a contributor to Reflection And Choice, where this article originally appeared.