Now we make a jump to the bigger picture. This is perhaps the one I use the most, not just in framing an understanding of a particular story, but in terms of movement in creating. This key, directly dubbed, “From What - Through What - To What” is a lovely place to start, with understanding a difficult piece or passage, or with writing yourself if you’re stuck at all.
The basic idea is that any progression in story, in a novel, a play, a movie or even an argument will have a basic structure of movement: a beginning, middle and end as it were. Identifying those clearly can give us a frame to reference and to dig more deeply into reading well. As our literary foil, let’s talk about Hamlet.
Hamlet is considering by most scholars to be the best of Shakespeare’s plays, and Shakespeare is pretty much universally considered the best author to ever put pen to paper. Yet even with the best of the best, the “From What - Through What - To What” is actually really simple and you’ll find this to be true in most works. Don’t worry about getting this exactly right, you can always adjust your frame later as needed.
But for Hamlet, we might say something like this:
From What - Hamlet’s Father was killed and it looks like the killer will get away with it.
Through What - Hamlet’s struggle with what to do, or not do, in response.
To What - The decision to seek revenge and the consequences that follow.
From there we have an artificial separation that allows us to take a closer look at individual pieces in a logical way. For our purposes here, let’s dive into the Through What with the beginning of one of the most famous speeches of all time:
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 wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, 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—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
What’s fun about this is that even here we could start with a “From What - Through What - To What” frame:
From What: The question of “to be or not to be…”
Through What: The consideration of decision being linked with death… the idea, in part, here is that deciding / not deciding has a sense of inexorability. And what meaning comes from an action that is likely to be final?
To What: The idea that even after death meaning and significance have their way “in what dreams may come.”
This is only the beginning of his deliberation… but an interesting thing here in the Through What of Hamlet’s internal back and forth is the very final and binary way he frames the question to begin with. The reality is, there are 17 options he could pursue. He could forgive and leave justice, beyond what society brings, to God. He could gather evidence and make his case to other powerful people in court. He could take some time, gather support and attempt a military coup that isn’t dependent on his individual action. He could move to another country and start over.
The “be or not be” is tying the action of revenge, or “not revenge” to his very existence. That is, if he doesn’t take revenge, he feels like he will cease. The choice then, is death and meaninglessness in his inaction, or the swift and strong action of direct revenge.
When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem like much of a choice.
So, in digging in to Hamlet’s Through What, we find that Hamlet has already made his decision, and the back and forth he makes internally is more connected to him overcoming his fear in personal consequences and uncertainty that he is justified than in truly deciding to act or not act.
Where do we turn for meaning in our From What - Through What - To What in regards to Hamlet?
Dr. Velie used to joke that Shakespeare was deceptively simple in his message and that we’re captured and mesmerized by how good the language is along the way. His recommendation was to step back from how powerfully he says it, to simply look at what happens in the end. In that light, you could frame Hamlet this way:
From What: Hamlet’s father being murdered and replaced by his own killer.
Through What: Hamlet deciding to “be or not to be” as it were.
To What: Hamlet, his friends, his remaining family, and his enemies all dying rather horribly.
So things like, “does everyone die at the end?” becomes a clue as to what Shakespeare really thinks about the decisions in the Through What.
In this case, we have a winner, and everybody dies. Like Romeo and Juliet the outcome of our main characters just isn’t a good one. At the macro level of From What - Through What - To What, it is fair to say that Hamlet chose poorly.
In the Through What, with Shakespeare’s unparalleled genius, we see clearly why Hamlet feels trapped. It’s very easy to see ourselves in his shoes and finding courage in action, even though that action is ultimately misguided and doesn’t bring justice to the situation.
In this way, From What - Through What - To What becomes a useful frame as starting point, a useful reference from breaking down movement within a plot and a useful tool for seeing the bigger picture.