Death and the die-cut Hamlet

By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat
October 31, 1996

Gregory Harris
Arizona Daily Wildcat


Sometime in the waning days of last semester a mysterious black object appeared on the northwest corner of campus. Round, squat, and black as asphalt, this enigma rose right out of the pink gravel at the southeast corner of the Theater building as if conjured from thin air.

I walk by that location on the way to and from work, so I noticed this object immediately. About a foot high and five across, it had the look of a pedestal or monument. From my office window the object looked just like a hockey puck held at arm's length.

I admit it didn't exactly obsess me, but I was still puzzled by this object and its unknown purpose. It seemed to have floodlights embedded in the top surface, though no wiring was visible and they were never turned on. Several rounded, bronze flanges stuck up from the surface in an odd configuration which seemed vaguely astronomical. Everyone walked by it like it wasn't there.

Friends and co-workers helped me to theorize about the object's purpose and function. "A sun calendar for whitey," someone suggested. "Bronzehenge" was another interpretation. One friend surmised it was just a fancy sewer cap, while another maintained steadfastly that it was a coded message left for us by the Pleiadians, benevolent aliens who protect Earth from hostile invasions. Of course, said person should have been taking his medication.

Meanwhile I maintained a practical (if somewhat boring) viewpoint, determining that the object was the base for a future statue. The lights in the base pointed upwards, and the flanges could conceivably be mounting points for a large statue. The wevidence was on my side.

It turns out I was right. Early last week I arrived at work to catch a glimpse of workers putting the finishing touches on a freshly-mounted statue standing astride the black base. Busy Physical Services workers with metal grinders and wrenches clustered around the statue, the drag of their tool belts causing the familiar display of underwear as they bent over. Towering over them was ... something. A big, gold, shiny something.

At lunch time I went out to take a look. Where my mysterious hockey puck had once stood alone there was a large statue hewed from solid bronze.

My initial reaction was not a good one. The thing seemed hideous. Even worse, it was obviously a statue of the main character of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," a play I love dearly but have perhaps seen too much of. It was huge, dominating the walkway area with bizarre shadows and shapes. And it was gold-the color of a worthless, 12-karat watch from the Home Shopping network. All it needed was a cubic zirconium, a price tag and a free set of Ginsu knives.

"Great," another friend said, who tends toward the militant side of political correctness, "another statue of a dead, white, European male." She was not assuaged when I pointed out that the dead male in question was fictional.

I figured I'd better temper my initial, emotional reaction to the statue with some concrete facts, so I did some investigating.

Bill Arms is the artist and donor, a UA alumnus from the College of Fine Arts (1962) who was also involved in the theater program. Paul Speyer also assisted with the construction and donation of the statue. It was approved and given a location by the UA's Public Art Committee, headed by Andy Polk. The statue itself is designed to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Theater department, and it will be dedicated Homecoming Weekend at 9:30 a.m. during the Annual Alumni Brunch.

Entitled "Hamlet," the approximately 12-foot tall hunk of solid bronze seems to immortalize a certain soliloquy from the Shakespeare play itself - the "Alas, poor Yorick" part specifically. Holding a stylized bronze skull in a stylized bronze hand, this planar Hamlet contemplates the void itself: Death.

Scholars of Shakespeare (or just nitpickers like myself) might notice a few problems with the statue. Hamlet is wearing a crown, a strange detail considering that he never became King of Denmark. Extreme nitpickers might notice that he is wearing a broadsword, which courtly folks would never have worn around the castle - a rapier (a sword for fencing) was the preferred dueling weapon for royalty.

This was all well and good, but none of it explains or defends my harsh reaction to the statue. Why do I glare at it with venom? Why does its twinkling gold splendor offend me so? S'wounds, it's just a silly statue. Why get so worked up?

The second day after "Hamlet's" appearance, I noticed that people were now sitting on the base during lunchtime. This was odd, since I had never seen anyone sit on the black object before, and doubly odd considering that there were four perfectly good benches nearby that were perfectly empty.

That was when I began to understand why the statue bothered me. I wanted the base back. I wanted that odd, squat, enigmatic object back in its natural state: alone, mysterious. Empty.

During the months I had spent daily walking past that hockey puck, I had unknowingly developed a sort of attachment to it - the object was a mystery, my mystery. This sounds very silly, I realize, but I had grown to like the thing because it represented possibility. It had, in its own charmingly charmless way, potential.

When it was just a base, the statue that was to come existed only in the minds of passers-by. Friends and colleagues came up with very clever and funny explanations for its existence, or speculated seriously on who might have built it and for what purpose. Five days a week I walked past the object and gave it a glance or two, wondering what was to come. It was a sort of mental conversation piece.

The appearance of the statue itself brought all of this to a crashing halt. Harsh reality tore all of our fanciful ideas asunder, robbed us of future speculation. The statue was here. Whatever it may be, it stood no chance at all of living up to our inflated expectations of what it might have been. Alas. The Pleiadians will be heartbroken.

I'm growing accustomed to the new statue, and I may in time come to like it. At night when it is lit from below, the shadows are quite dramatic. I appreciate the standing figure of Hamlet that features him holding aloft Yorick's skull, which now wears the crown-after all, it was indeed Death who triumphed in the play's bloodbath/final scene. It's unfair to judge the statue by what it might have been.

It still looks like a cheap watch. Shakespeare would approve.