When You Have No Mind’s Eye

Not how I would have pictured him, but that’s not saying much.

I’ve long been fascinated with “visualization,” mostly because I discovered that I can’t do it. You know that thing when someone says, “Close your eyes. Picture yourself standing on a beach. A woman approaches, carrying a box…?” I have no picture in my mind. I can’t tell you whether there’s other people in the scene, or how old the woman is or what she looks like, or the color or size of the box. It’s more like my brain just establishes the connected concepts and says, “Ok, yup, on the beach, woman carrying a box. Next?”

I learned in college that people actually *do* see a picture in their head. Maybe you, dear reader, are one of them (you probably are). Consider the scene I described. What does the woman look like? What color is the box? Are there other people around? What’s the sky like? You probably have answers to all of those things.

My kids recently taught me the word “aphantasia” to describe this. They’re fascinated with it. “You have no mind’s eye!” they’ll tell me, astonished. Whether they realize they’re borrowing from Hamlet, I’m not sure, but I’ll take it. When we talk about math I’m astonished that they tell me they literally visualize numbers lining up in columns, and when they say things like “carry the 1” they really see the 1 moving over to the next column. I get none of that. Numbers to me are just quantities, they have no visual component. They can’t imagine it working like that.

This isn’t just a random rant about the inner workings on my brain. I’m wondering whether or not it’s precisely because of aphantasia that I’m interested in theatre, and Shakespeare specifically. See, I don’t know or care about how anything looks. I have no picture of Hamlet or Ophelia or Gertrude. People talk about “a director’s vision” and I think, “Nope, I could never be a director.” All I have, and all I care about, is the words. So the words are 99% of the experience for me, and the fact that every production of the play brings forth a new visual interpretation just adds to it.

Audio is excellent, too, by the way. This is not a “read only” type of thing. I’m perfectly happy to have the words acted out for me, to put all the emphasis in the right place. But literally at no point do I picture a snivelly little hunched Claudius or a big fat Claudius. He is entirely defined for me by the words that come out of his mouth, which are what define him in relation to the other characters. So when someone else puts a visual to him and I get to see Claudius? I never, ever think, “That’s not how I pictured him.” I almost always think, “Ok, interesting, let’s see how well the visual connects to the words.”

Ok, that’s it for a Sunday night. Just something I’m thinking about, with no pictures.

All We Hear Is, Radio Hamlet

Shall we hear a play?


Barry Edelstein and The Old Globe are producing Hamlet as a radio drama, April 23 + 24 (it’s in two parts, it’s not playing twice).

My first thought is, how’s this different from an audio book? I mean, I remember the fascination of “old time radio”, my parents grew up in that era. That idea that if you weren’t in front of the radio and paying attention when something happened, you’d miss it? An actual live performance where things might go wrong, rather than a highly produced final copy? It sounds very interesting.

I may have to put this one in my calendar and try to tune in. If this were a play you’d never seen before, you might be thinking, how can pure audio paint that picture? But … it’s Hamlet. We’ve all seen Hamlet, probably multiple versions. So how do you not just fill in the blanks with past experiential memories?

My kids think that I have something called aphantasia – where you basically have no “mind’s eye.” I’m amused that I get to use that expression in a Hamlet story, given where that quote comes from. But, yes, when people say things to me like “Imagine a young woman falling out of a willow tree into a river” I’ve got … nuthin. My brain says “oh, like that Olivier version you saw in high school 35 years ago?” and “how about that famous painting?” But I can’t create a new, original version of that image. When I read a book I rely heavily on dialogue. If you spend a lot of words painting a picture for me about where everybody is in the room? I may remember a lot of the words, but I am very much not making a visual image in my head.

So I wonder what it’d be like listening to a live Hamlet? Maybe I’ll find out!

Stalin and TS Eliot, Man, I Tell You.

I knew about the Nazis and Merchant of Venice. But I never knew about Stalin and Hamlet.

Apparently Stalin “disapproved” of Hamlet, he didn’t ban it. Which I’m gathering, though I’m not a student of this particular time in history, that Stalin was the kind of dude who, if you did something he disapproved of, you lived to regret it … but not very long.

The rest of the linked article, be warned, is about cancel culture – a very hot, very divisive topic these days. The Stalin story makes the point – you don’t have to enact a law to cancel something. Sometimes, just the right word from the right person can do the trick.

(*) How’s TS Eliot get dragged into this? The poet wrote an essay entitled, “Hamlet and his Problems“, where we get the infamous quote referring to the English language’s greatest play as “certainly an artistic failure.” Unlike Stalin, however, Eliot apparently did not have cancel powers – few people would say that they stopped producing Hamlet because TS Eliot said so.

Ethan Hawke on Shakespeare

I joke about the Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet (2000) because, honestly, I never finished it. Maybe I was going through a cynical phase at the time, but I remember listening to his rendition of “To be or not to be” in … was it a laundromat? And thinking, he’s just rambling through this, this isn’t any kind of delivery, I’m not enjoying this. I think Bill Murray was his Polonius, and honestly I don’t even remember anything about his performance. I heard it was actually good.

I guess it was a video store.

But I’m coming back around, and think I should give him another chance. The man’s clearly a fan of our favorite subject. He’s got a new novel out, A Bright Ray of Darkness, about an actor whose marriage fails just as he’s starting out a run in Henry IV on Broadway. Hawke himself was Hotspur in a Broadway Henry IV, and his marriage (to Uma Thurman) also failed, so this seems a bit autobiographical.

I love reading about people playing Shakespeare. That this one seems to hold a mirror up to nature so clearly makes me want to read it that much more. And maybe I’ll tune in to Hawke’s Hamlet again while I’m at it.

I Don’t Know Who Zion Is, But I Approve

One of the earliest posts I ever made on Shakespeare Geek was about an ad for a videogame that featured the Henry V “Band of Brothers” speech. The idea of spotting Shakespeare references in the wild, and sharing them, has always been a central theme for the site.

Just because I’ve gotten too old to understand the references doesn’t mean I plan on stopping any time soon. I get that “Jordans” are a type of basketball sneaker, I’m not that old. I just have no idea who this Zion Williamson character is. But not only does he have his own line of Jordans, he’s introducing them with Shakespeare.

I guess this guy is on the Pelicans? Here’s how much I know about basketball, I didn’t know that was a team. I’m deep in Celtics country. Which reminds me, apparently our new star is named Romeo. That’s surely got to come up again!