THE most famous speech in Shakespeare, I imagine, is Hamlet’s. (Act III, scene one.) This is how it starts: 

To be, or not to be, that is the question: 
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer 
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, 
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, 
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep 
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end 
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks 
That flesh is heir to? ’Tis a consummation 
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep, 
To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub, 
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, 
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, 
Must give us pause. 

Something is rotten in the state of… Denmark? No, Scotland. Let’s say Scotland is Hamlet: what then? 

The son of a good father sees him dead, and his wicked uncle takes his father’s place beside his mother. That is, the independent past has had poison poured into its ear. It’s dead. And insinuating England, Uncle Claudius, has wormed his way into the affections of the widow Mrs Scotland, Gertrude. She’s now married to him: a smarmy husband with a brutal past. He meets her wants in some ways, but she knows this isn’t right.

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Meanwhile, Young Hamlet, Scotland’s youth, is aptly filled with anger and frustration. 
But then the ghost of Old Hamlet appears to the guards on the watch towers and Hamlet’s pal, Horatio, recognises the old king’s spirit too. When Hamlet the younker sees and talks to him, the old ghost tells him of the poisonous plot, and then commands the pledge from his son: Remember! And: Revenge. 

Then there’s the play: Hamlet’s disillusionment pulls him back from court. He trusts no-one but Horatio. The King catches on: Hamlet’s been seen through and Claudius plots to kill him off. Hamlet has his own doubts: how can a weak young man like him fix anything at all? And when he gets a chance to kill his uncle, he will not do it, in cold blood. Think 2014. 

And all the time the rival power is plotting to take over everything. Fortinbras’s army is at hand. The rest, when it comes, will not be silence – it will belong to him. Think America. Or India. Or China.

Or any superpower intent on powering up. Up against odds like these, what keeps Hamlet from being a source of absolute dismay?  

The best answer I can come up with is language. He is the one character in the play through whom, with whom, for whom, language works. You could have a great play called “Elsinore” even without the Prince of Denmark and it would be a group portrait of a bunch of people all of whom are bad, in varying degrees of badness, and embarrassingly inept, in varying degrees of ineptitude, and they’re all doing damage to others far and wide, either by villainy or sheer stupidity. It would be a pretty good allegory of the political world we’re in, Holyrood, Westminster.

But Hamlet – the character – saves Shakespeare’s play from what would be a depiction of total social disaster. We pay attention to him. He does have saving grace. What is it? I think it’s his language. He plays with it, and it’s a deadly serious game. 

The National: Actor Ben Whishaw as HamletActor Ben Whishaw as Hamlet (Image: PA)

Take the moment when he confronts his mother, Queen Gertrude, in Act III, scene four, and the ghost of his dead father appears to him – but the Queen can’t see him. This is a high, terrible and 
very extreme point of his life,  and language is all he has to try  to make some sense of it.

And when the ghost of his dead father comes  in, he’s thrown into a spin from which only his precarious grasp of language can return him. He recognises what might generate “sympathy” – and that’s the difference. Try it. Try it out loud, wherever your own voice might come from: 

QUEEN: Hamlet, wheesht. Nae mair 
o’ this. 
My een ye’ve turnt tae stare back inwarts, 
An’ in my saul I see the blackent smutches, stains, 
That keep their awfu’ colour. 
HAMLET: To live atween the sheets, 
In the sweaty spunky greasy sheets o’ yir kip, 
Stewed an’ bubblin’ a’ corruption’s heatit honey, 
Makin’ houghmagandie in the pigswill – 
QUEEN: O will ye haud yir wheesht! Eneuch! 
Yir words are blades that slice intae ma lugs, they gang richt in. 
Nae mair, for peety’s sake, douce Hamlet. 
HAMLET: A murtherer, a villain, 
Juist a slave, no’ e’en a twentieth pairt the wee-est bit 
O’ him ye jinked wi’ last. A doitit fuil, a clown, 
A measlie-mean an’ mealy-mou’d bluidsucker o’ the empire, 
Wha liftit frae a shelf the croun whan naebody else was keekin’, 
An’ slipped it in ’is pooch. 
QUEEN: Nae mair! 
HAMLET: A king o’ tatters, scraps an’ patches – 
(Enter Ghaist) 
Abune me wi’ yir wings, O gairds o’ heivin! 
Sauve me, fluther owre! Och, man, yir grace, yirsel’, whit’s up? 
QUEEN: Ochon, ochon! He’s gyte. 
HAMLET: I ken I’m slow tae stert, ye’re here to nudge me, 
Deavit doun in passin’ ’oors an’ gumption, a’ gane by 
Yir strang command an’ my obeyin’ o’ ’t. 
Speak tae me nou! 
GHAIST: Dinnae forget, an’ dinnae forgie, ye’ll mind o’ this, an’ mind 
o’ me. 
I’m here to roust yir purpose oan the whetstane aince again. It’s bluntit. 
Shairpen up, son. Luik. Yir mother’s visage flauchters wi’ amaze. 
Nou get atwixt her an’ her ragin’ saul. Imaginin’ in dwaiblie fowlk works strang. 
Speak tae’r nou, Hamlet. Oan ye go. 
HAMLET: Hou’s yirsel nou, mither? 
QUEEN: Naw, naw, hou’re you? 
Yir een are set on naethin’ness, 
And a’ yir words are sent intae the tuim an’ bodiless air. 
Oot o’ yir een yir speerits keek like craziness, 
An’ juist like sodgers sleepin’ through alarums, 
Yir hair, richt there, starts up, staunds up, on ends. Och son, 
My denty chiel, owre the flamin’ het o’ yir wierd govin’, 
Spatter the cool o’ patience. Whit’re ye luikin’ at? 
HAMLET: Him! Him! He’s wan as a full muin at midnicht. Luik! 
He’s glowrin’ at us nou. Baith hou he luiks an’ whit he tells 
Is nou the ae thing, anerlie, jined. He could preach tae stanes 
An’ see them sympathise. 

Or take the moment where he’s confronted by the King having just killed Polonius, his girlfriend’s father. Most folk at this point would be as full of despair as might drive them to madness, surrounded on every side by hostile senior figures at the court, with junior figures in their service. 
Hamlet seems trapped but he has his responses. He might pretend to be mad, or he might be really mad – unhinged, irrational, incapable of conforming to the rules and conventions the world of Elsinore, that is, his society, insists upon.

It’s like Keir Starmer (or David Cameron before him, as I recall) saying that some of us might be “unBritish”. Indeed we are. Very much so. (Remember that 1960s TV series, The Prisoner: “You are an UNMUTUAL!” Yes, UnMutual is what we are.) 

Back to Hamlet: here he is, running rings around the King. First, here’s Shakespeare: 

KING: Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius? 
HAMLET: At supper. 
KING: At supper where? 
HAMLET: Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves 
for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service 
— two dishes but to one table. That’s the end. 
KING: Alas, alas! 
HAMLET: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm. 
KING: What dost thou mean by this? 
HAMLET: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar. 
KING: Where is Polonius? 
HAMLET: In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ th’ other place yourself. But if, indeed, you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into 
the lobby. 
KING: (to Attendants) Go, seek 
him there. 
HAMLET: He will stay till you come. 

Now try it in my version, in the language we call Scots: 

KING: Nou, Hamlet, whaur’s Polonius? 
HAMLET: At ’is denner, nou. 
KING: At denner? Whaur? 
HAMLET: Weill, richt eneuch, no’ whaur he’s eatin’ ’is denner, but whaur he’s the denner bein’ ate. There’s a wheen o’ slee an’ skeely worms are at ’im e’en the nou. Yir worm’s a laird for ’is grub. We mak siccar a’ the things we eat are guid an’ creeshy, an’ we grow oor ain creesh mair an’ mair, by eatin’ them. But oor creesh gangs tae the maggots an’ worms, sae the creeshy laird and the skinnymalinki beggar’s twa dishes on their plates, but they’re baith on the same denner table. Thon’s the end o’t. 
KING: This canny be. 
HAMLET: Och aye, it can. It is. Tak tent. A loun micht gang tae fish wi’ a big juicy worm on the end o’ ’is line, an’ that worm’s ate bits o’ a laird, sae the fish that gets claucht, he can tak awa’ hame, an’ eat o’ the fish that’s fed o’ the worm that’s ate a guid bit o’ a laird. 
KING: Whit? Whit are ye sayin’? 
HAMLET: Anerlie this. That a laird or a king or a queen or a toff that’s a swank in ’is castle micht gang a cavalcade a’ the wey through the guts o’ a beggarman. 
KING: Whaur’s Polonius? 
HAMLET: Up i’ the lift. Send yir bellboy heivinwards to see if he’s there. If he’s no’, send ’im doun ablow, tae the ither place, or better still gang doun yersel. If ye cannae find ’im, though, ye’ll smell ’is reek upstairs, there, in the loaby. 
KING: (to Attendants) Seek ’im there. 
HAMLET: Aye. Oan ye go, son. He’ll no’ be gangin’ faur. 

THAT’S from Act IV, scene three. Hamlet’s language is at play at all times, his life depends on its brilliance. Half-heartedness, he knows, is a failing, but yet the sense that will not go away, that will not now permit an hour of rest, the knowledge there’s a wrong that needs put right, stays with him. And he thinks about it.

That’s what makes him different. Hamlet is caught in the crux of it all. 
Facing up to his sense of doubt is finally how doubt is confronted and confounded. Something must be done.

So Scotland thinks about its own identity, a nation trapped and held in thrall to its powerful, dominant neighbour. 

But so much more than that. A nation held down and self-suppressed by its own people, so long convinced that they cannot pick up the work for themselves, and do a better job. Hamlet wonders aloud, what conscience makes such cowards of us all? You remember the lines? “An’ sae the strang resolve we’re born wi’ / Peelie-wallies owre wi’ sic a dweebly thocht, / An’ heichest reachin’ hopes o’ grandest consequence / Wi’ sic a thocht turns a’ tae different streams / An’ action slips awa’ – ” How many times in recent years has Scotland seen our strongest resolutions dissipate, and actions “slip awa’”…? 

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And make no mistake: what we’re talking about here is life or death. Politicians! People! Scotland lives or dies by what we do. What follows is my version of the speech we began with, from Hamlet, Act III, scene one.

In a good actor’s good Scots voice, what might be done with this? The Scots transforms the English. The castle might still be called Elsinore but let’s imagine it on the east coast, maybe in the shape of Dunnottar: a kind of translation, from Denmark, via England, back 
to Scotland. “What dreams may come?” / “Whit veesions rise?” 

A’m here, or else, A’m no: Thon’s the speirin’ o’t: 
Gin A’d tak’ on, wi’ a liftin’ o’ the heid, 
The stanes and arras o’ wanchancy luck, 
Or gaither a’ the weaponry tae set agin an ocean’s darg an’ trauchles, 
An’ by sic oppositioun, ding them doun? Tae dee, tae sleep; 
Nae mair – an’ by sic sleep to say we close 
The hert’s ache an’ the thoosan’ naitural stuns 
That mortal flesh inherits, it’s an endin’ 
Sairly tae be wantit. Tae dee, tae sleep; 
Tae sleep: mibbes, tae fa’ intil a wauk’nin’ dwam: aye, thon’s the gist o’t; 
For in thon dwam o’ sic a depth, whit veesions rise 
When a’ this life’s been shrugged awa’ – 
That maun stay us a’: thon’s the thing 
That mak’s a wreck o’ sic lang life; 
For wha wad bear the whups an’ scarts o’ time, 
The tyrant’s rule, the prood man’s sneer, 
The pain o’ luve refused, the leaden pace o’ law, 
The haughty rule o’ admin, an’ a’ the sheer rejection 
That fair endurin’ virtue o’ the humble earns, 
When he himsel’ micht level a’ there is 
Wi’ ane bare blade? Wha’d cairry wechts 
Tae grunt an’ sweat aneath the yoke o’ life, 
Except the dreid o’ somethin’ eftir daith, 
Thon antrin unkent zone, frae whilk  
Stravaigers hae nae retour: it flabbergasts the wull, 
An’ mak’s us raither bear the wechts we hae 
Than tak’ oan ithers that we ken nocht o’? 
Oor sense brings oan a feartness tae us a’, 
An’ sae the strang resolve we’re born wi’ 
Peelie-wallies owre wi’ sic a dweebly thocht, 
An’ heichest reachin’ hopes o’ grandest consequence 
Wi’ sic a thocht turns a’ tae different streams 
An’ action slips awa’ –  
But wheesht nou! 
Tak tent: the bonny quine Ophelia! 
O lass, ye’re prayin’ there? 
O wad ye pray for me an’ a’ 
my sins.