Numerous pundits have compared Brett Favre to Hamlet, because of Favre's indecision over retirement and Hamlet's apparent indecision over what to do about his father's murder. But I think that comparison is too easy, not quite accurate, and not terribly insightful. But a comparison to another Shakespeare hero, King Lear, actually offers some real insight, or at least a consistent, developed interpretation, of Brett Favre the man and football player.
It's not indecision: it's a full embrace of the current emotion.
In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom argues that Lear the man "is all feeling," suggesting, I think, that whatever emotion Lear currently feels, he embraces with the totality of his person.
Might this explain Favre's frequent candor with the media, his long-time musings on possible retirements, and especially his displays of sincere, authentic tears? When Favre announced his retirement from the Packers and cried, that was real emotion: he seemed to fully feel it. But the emotion changed, and when it did, Favre fully embraced that new emotion.
And after all, King Lear begins with Lear announcing his retirement, a decision he will very quickly regret.
Love me, love me, say that you love me!
Lear is a man who, in old age, gathers all the important people of the country together, tells his daughters that he is handing them the kingdom...and then insists that they make public displays telling him how much they love him.
Does Brett Favre manipulate the media to stay in constant public attention? Maybe, maybe not. But some have suggested that when Brett Favre made his first retirement announcement, he hoped that the Green Bay Packers would express a deep desire for him to come back, and was irked at the way he perceived they pushed him out when he did want to come back (as Lear was irked when Cordelia wouldn't make a showy display like her sisters: is going to play for the Packers' rival the emotional equivalent of banishing Cordelia?). And it does seem in 2010 that he sent text messages to teammates pointing to retirement, perhaps in an effort to get them to express their love and longing for him. And he did only come back for 2010 when teammates showed up at his home to beg him to come back. He felt loved and needed, in the way Lear badly needed to feel loved and needed.
Aye, every inch a king.
Lear has a king's conviction that he can do whatever he wants, his way. That might give us some insight into Brett Favre, whether he is throwing a terrible pass into coverage and forcing an awful turnover, avoiding training camp, or calling Jenn Sterger.
Monumental Greatness, and Monumental Stupidity.
There is no question that King Lear has the capacity for greatness, that he has been a great and respected king. But as Kent warns him and as the Fool never tires of reminding him, Lear also has the capacity for utterly stupid foolishness.
With all the all-time cumulative records, with a plethora of 30+ TD pass seasons, with two and a half MVPs, there's no question Brett Favre is one of the greatest QBs that ever played. But with the all-time interception record, with a plethora of 20+ INT seasons, with a number of playoff games with multiple interceptions or game-altering end-of-the game interceptions, Favre too has the capacity for failure.
In Hamlet, Hamlet is in an awful situation: his dad has died and his mother quickly marries his uncle who takes the throne, he discovers that his uncle probably murdered his father (he's not quite sure), but he doesn't know the extent of other peoples' (including his own mother's!) involvement in the crime or coverup, he has all sorts of conflicting desires, is surrounded by untrustworthy people that he has every reason to distrust, seems to be getting betrayed by everybody he knows, he's constantly being spied on, and the one thing he wanted to do (leave!) he was explicitly forbidden to do. If Hamlet is indecisive, he can hardly be blamed for that. What is the right decision? What is he supposed to do? And how is he supposed to pull it off when his enemy is the guy in charge of the whole damn country, with all sorts of power, and perhaps all sorts of allies who are aiding him? What advice would you give to Hamlet given his situation?
Hamlet's indecision is overrated, and I don't think it offers us much insight into Brett Favre. King Lear, the emotional king, longing to be loved, with his capacity for both brilliance and foolishness? There, I think, is an insightful comparison.