The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Emma González and the wordless act that moved a nation

“The rest is silence,” the dying Hamlet declares in the final moments of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. The mortally wounded prince, aware that these breaths are his last, recounts for his devoted friend Horatio events he will not see: “I cannot live to hear the news from England,” he says. “But I do prophesy the election lights on Fortinbras.”

The scene was brought to mind Saturday, on that impressive outdoor Washington stage before the countless faces at the March for Our Lives demonstration, as Emma González, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student who has become one of the most prominent voices in the #NeverAgain movement, went on with her speech — and then, for a few minutes, didn’t.

It was one of the day’s most galvanizing moments, and a reminder of how little we appreciate in this Tower of Babel culture that the most powerful message can be the one we don’t try to put into words. After naming the dead in the Parkland, Fla., massacre, and identifying, like Hamlet, experiences they never would get to see, González simply stopped talking. The rest really was silence.

The absence of language, the extended pause for contemplation, remains a rare thing in public discourse, and even rarer onstage. A moment of silence is the ritualized form of respect we employ on many occasions to mark tragedy, but it’s usually only a moment. González’s silence was an act that felt, in its way, radical. It was as if she dropped the mic — yet a mic was still in front of her. The silence went on for about five minutes, and, as cable news cameras swept the crowd, you could tell some people did not know quite what to do with themselves. González fixed her gaze into the distance, as if she were concentrating on something out of our normal range of perception; at times, she trembled and wiped away a tear. In the crowd, some people started to chant, or applaud, perhaps because the rule in this society seems to be that if there is a vacuum of noise, someone has to make some.

The interruptions were respectful, though, and eventually, as González steadfastly held her tongue, the hubbub died down. We were left with the image of a young, grieving woman, drawing our attention not to herself but to something more abstract: to time — the amount it took for a killer to mow down her classmates and teachers.

I would like to believe this heartbroken student was reaching into dramatic literature for inspiration; as the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman wrote last month, several of the Stoneman Douglas students at the forefront of the gun-control activism participate in the school’s drama club. “All these kids are drama kids, and I’m a dramatic kid, so it really meshes well,” another New Yorker writer, Emily Witt, quoted González as saying. If González’s astonishing presentation was possibly meant to sink in any deeper, channeling Shakespeare’s account of a young man cut down in his prime would certainly be the meaningful conduit.

“Words, words, words,” Hamlet declares ironically, at an earlier moment of the play. González touchingly reminded us that a profound dialogue doesn’t always require them.