A Hawk Isn't a Handsaw, or Misreading The Sopranos in the Garden State

by Myles Kantor

Rep. Marge Roukema (R-New Jersey) doesn't like The Sopranos, so much in fact that she wants congressional action on the matter.

Roukema has a drafted a resolution against films and series such as The Sopranos she considers misrepresentative and denigrative of Italian-Americans. Constituents have even stopped her in the grocery store to express their displeasure with the infernal works.

Roukema has taken some fine positions in the past, but she and her constituents are way off on this issue.

I'll dub it The Hamlet Fallacy. An obstinate myth about Shakespeare's princely protagonist is that he's loco – the Demented Dane, the Loquacious Loon. After all, he introspects incessantly and even soliloquizes. This guy must be a nut.

Now, I attended a high school where 1) We read Hamlet and 2) We were taught that textual support, not sentiment, determines an interpretation's validity. (It isn't so much a New Critical approach as a commonsensical one: assertions about a text should be grounded in the text, not "This is how I feel.")

Shakespeare imparts Hamlet's mental complexion in Act 2, Scene 2. Speaking to Guildenstern – who he ingeniously has dispatched along with Rosencrantz – Hamlet claims that "my uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived," followed by this exchange:

GUILDENSTERN: In what, my lord?

HAMLET: I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

Hamlet's lucidity shines in this crystalline affirmation; his irrationality is a strategic deception to avenge his slain father. (With typical Shakespearean richness, Hamlet's contrived eccentricity emblematizes the play's themes of concealment and fraudulence. However, Hamlet's circumlocutory somersaults don't make him some quietistic rhetorician. He's very much a man of action, for instance when he kills Polonius and proclaims, "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!") Thus, imputing madness to Hamlet – whatever madness is, anyway – indicates a shallow reading of the text.

Similarly, to assert that The Sopranos stereotypes Americans of Italian descent overlooks its diverse dramatis personae. A major character in the series is Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Anthony Soprano's temperate psychiatrist. Her ex-husband, Richard, participates in Italian anti-defamation activities and critiques the relativistic rubbish in Melfi's vocation. (The Melfis aren't the only articulate Italians in the series.)

Sure, there's no dearth of gun-toting goombahs, which isn't surprising since The Sopranos centers around the New Jersey Mafia. The Italian-American community in the series isn't homogeneous, however.

Had Rep. Roukema examined The Sopranos beyond a cosmetic extent, she would have discovered a variegated fictive world with a deeply ethical dimension. In any case, the distinguished gentlewoman from New Jersey would better fulfill her oath of office by drafting legislation to abolish the hideous War on Drugs, the thuggish Selective Service System, the craven War Powers Act – that is, institutions subversive of republicanism and American liberty, as opposed to innocuous artistry.

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