What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2, lines 303-307
Today marks the anniversary of my grandfather’s death.
I have lived more than half my life without him, but there are days when I feel his loss as acutely as I did all those years ago.
My grandfather’s passing is, for me, inextricably linked with Shakespeare, specifically with Hamlet, which I first saw performed the day he died. So much of what the play explores resonates with me, then and now — the grief, the family torn apart, the musings on life and how to live it, or indeed whether to live it at all.
Hamlet’s soliloquies are among Shakespeare’s most famous. More than four centuries after he wrote them they are known the world over, often quoted and occasionally parodied. Keenly observant of the mind’s workings, Shakespeare never allows Hamlet to shy away from confronting his inner demons, and his words provide insights that are surprisingly fresh and relevant today. And yet, when life — or life’s sudden, unexpected end — overlays these monologues with memory, embroiders them with poignant and painful detail, Hamlet’s orations become imbued, for me, with much deeper meaning.
Who was my grandfather, the quintessence of dust I lost more than two decades ago?
He was but a man.
He was of average stature, but with a presence so immense that its absence left a gaping hole. His smile lit up any room, his laughter filled any void.
He was a passionate sailor, a successful businessman, an avid tennis fan, and a hopeful punter.
He valued honesty, loyalty, persistence and discipline.
He believed wholeheartedly in the capacity of a decent cup of tea to solve any problem.
He enjoyed words — reading them, writing them, hearing them. He was a prolific and witty correspondent; his handwriting was simultaneously elegant and bold. He gave me my first dictionary, my first thesaurus. He taught me to appreciate brevity.
He was handsome, charming and dapper.
He was twice divorced and thrice married. He endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, many of them aimed (understandably) by my grandmother and many more, I suspect, directed by himself.
Above all, he was a man of love. His hugs were like being wrapped in a warm blanket on a winter’s day. He was bighearted. He was generous to a fault. He was a blazing sun, full of love and light.
During his life he was not an angel, but I’d like to think that he is one now.