Hamlet: Then and Now

by Rhodri Lewis

Why study Shakespeare? In answer to this question, we commonly hear variations on two basic themes. First, Shakespeare’s particularity. No other author gives us such a clear picture of the historical moment in which he or she lived; no other author writes as well or as skillfully; no other author depicts in such detail so many facets of the human condition; no other author has been read, performed, or discussed so widely; no other author is more responsible for what, in one of the more breathless expressions of New Haven transcendentalism, has been described as the invention of the human. Second, Shakespeare’s universality. He is, we are told, for and of all time: the culmination of what went before him; a prefiguration of what came, and continues to come, after him. His writings can therefore be mined for gems that will help to illuminate present-day discourses including those of politics, religion, gender, race, disability, law, colonialism, cognitive psychology, human-animal relations, economics, and – at the quack end of the market – leadership for corporate executives.

Some of these approaches do a brilliant job of helping us to understand what Shakespeare wrote and why he wrote it. Others less so. In my new book, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, I wanted to try something different. Rather than using Shakespeare as a medium through which to discuss history, philosophy, politics, the nature of genius, or some other subject, I wanted give Shakespeare’s words priority over the uses to which they can be put. Not by studying him in isolation (only to read Shakespeare isn’t even to read Shakespeare), but by seeing what happens when different forms of historical, intellectual, artistic, literary-poetic, theoretical, theatrical, social, cultural, and political discourse are put to work in examining how a particular Shakespearean play functions. As my title suggests, I chose Hamlet. In part, this was because Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s richest and most demanding dramatic creation. But I was also drawn to it because of its critical history. Hamlet criticism has for a long time taken the form of a literary Rorschach test, in which the play is an inkblot onto which scholars, critics, actors, and directors (not unlike Polonius seeing different shapes in the clouds) project their favorite theories, methodologies, or ideologies. There need be nothing wrong with this provided the critic remains aware of what he or she doing. Too often, however, students of Hamlet have sought to remake the play in the image of the parts of it that most cohere with their own preoccupations. In Stephen Booth’s aptly irreverant phrase, there has been a tendency “to indulge a not wholly explicable fancy that in Hamlet we behold the frustrated and inarticulate Shakespeare furiously wagging his tail in an effort to tell us something.”

In seeking to make sense of a famous play whose famous author was neither frustrated nor inarticulate, and in trying to treat Shakespeare as neither unique nor somehow universal, I was surprised to find myself coming up with an answer to a version of the question I with which I begin above. Why study Shakespeare in in the mid- to late-2010s? Because he offers us an unflinchingly brilliant guide to the predicaments in which we find ourselves in Trumpland and on Brexit Island. Not by prophesying the likes of Farage, Bannon, and Donald J. Trump (it’s true: reality is stranger than fiction), but by enabling us to experience a world in which the prevalent senses of moral order (political, ethical, personal) bear only the most superficial relation to lived experience.

To anyone glancing at my book, this claim might seem counter-intuitive. Its staple is Shakespeare’s engagement with, and ultimate repudiation of, the body of learning and civic-educational doctrine that we think of as renaissance humanism. Historical scholarship doesn’t get much more historically-minded than this. And yet it is Shakespeare’s determination to explore the limitations of the humanistic worldview that draws Hamlet into the nearest dialog with our own age.

In the figures of Claudius and Polonius, Shakespeare makes plain his conviction that humanistic ideals are hollowed out, bankrupt: the usurper and his consigliere mouth the platitudes of personal, familial, and political conviction, but do so only in order advance their own interests. So it is that Hamlet sets himself against the culture of “seeming” in all its particulars. He has, he claims, no more interest in performing so the roles that the court offers him than in affirming normative “truths” about the nature of human existence. He fights against the insidious conventionality of his uncle’s regime, and although he is therefore constrained to die within the action of the play, he lives on outside it as an avatar of personal and philosophical integrity.

And yet, when we read the play in the light of humanist tradition, a very different picture emerges; one in which the comfortingly familiar account of Hamlet is comprehensively upended. Viewed from here, Hamlet appears no less superficial – no less bound to “seeming” and self-interest – than Claudius, Polonius, and their cohort of hangers-on. Even his most soaringly eloquent speeches emerge as a patchwork of quotations and misquotations that twist and appropriate the techniques of humanist rhetoric; their purpose is not to search for the truth, but to present Hamlet with a series of self-images that conform with his elevated sense of self-regard. Likewise, his masquerades as a poet, a historian, a philosopher, a stage director, a lover, and a theologian have few claims to coherence, but Hamlet doesn’t care. Through them, he gets at once to distract his attention from the dynamics of his inner life – specifically, from his inability to feel committed to the act of revenge urged by his father’s ghost – and to enjoy a safe vantage from which to judge the behavior of others in and around Elsinore. The irony is that the harder he tries to separate himself from the culture in which he has been educated and through which he thinks, the more it becomes clear that his fate is bound up with those on stage around him. His failures of communication and understanding themselves inadvertently express the cultural assumptions he disdains; more importantly, they ensure the obliteration both of his family and of the politically autonomous Danish state that his family had sought to protect.

Shakespeare’s drama in general – and his Hamlet in particular – do an extraordinary job of holding up the mirror to a world characterized by illusion, pretense, and self-delusion.  They show us that as we try to detach ourselves from the cultures within which we are obliged to exist, we seek to obscure the ways in which we have helped bring these cultures into being – to say nothing of the ways in which our attempts at self-detachment serve to make things worse. This lesson is no more comfortable in 2017 than it was at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

LewisRhodri Lewis is professor of English literature and a fellow of St. Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Language, Mind and Nature: Artificial Languages in England from Bacon to LockeWilliam Petty on the Order of Nature and Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness.

David Runciman on the new year’s challenges to democracy

In a video interview now featured on the London Review of Books homepage, David Runciman, author of The Confidence Trap, talks about Trump, Brexit and threats to democracy. Threats to democracy are nothing new; the US has survived threats ranging from the Great Depression to the Cuban missile crisis. Runciman shows that in fact, democracies are very good at recovering from emergencies, leading to the false belief that they are indestructible. In The Confidence Trap, Runciman argues that such complacency may lead to a crisis that is just too big to escape.

Read Runciman’s articles for the LRB from the past year:

Is this how democracy ends? · 1 December 2016

Untouchable? The Tory State · 8 September 2016

Where are we now? Responses to the Referendum · 14 July 2016

Short Cuts: the Coalition · 5 May 2016

Deliverology: Blair Hawks His Wares · 31 March 2016

 

 

Brexit, voting, and political turbulence

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Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri

On 23rd June 2016, a majority of the British public voted in a referendum on whether to leave the European Union. The Leave or so-called #Brexit option was victorious, with a margin of 52% to 48% across the country, although Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and some towns voted to remain. The result was a shock to both leave and remain supporters alike. US readers might note that when the polls closed, the odds on futures markets of Brexit (15%) were longer than those of Trump being elected President.

Political scientists are reeling with the sheer volume of politics that has been packed into the month after the result. From the Prime Minister’s morning-after resignation on 24th June the country was mired in political chaos, with almost every political institution challenged and under question in the aftermath of the vote, including both Conservative and Labour parties and the existence of the United Kingdom itself, given Scotland’s resistance to leaving the EU. The eventual formation of a government under a new prime minister, Teresa May, has brought some stability. But she was not elected and her government has a tiny majority of only 12 Members of Parliament. A cartoon by Matt in the Telegraph on July 2nd (which would work for almost any day) showed two students, one of them saying ‘I’m studying politics. The course covers the period from 8am on Thursday to lunchtime on Friday.’

All these events – the campaigns to remain or leave, the post-referendum turmoil, resignations, sackings and appointments – were played out on social media; the speed of change and the unpredictability of events being far too great for conventional media to keep pace. So our book, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, can provide a way to think about the past weeks. The book focuses on how social media allow new, ‘tiny acts’ of political participation (liking, tweeting, viewing, following, signing petitions and so on), which turn social movement theory around. Rather than identifying with issues, forming collective identity and then acting to support the interests of that identity – or voting for a political party that supports it – in a social media world, people act first, and think about it, or identify with others later – if at all.

These tiny acts of participation can scale up to large-scale mobilizations, such as demonstrations, protests or petitions for policy change. These mobilizations normally fail – 99.9% of petitions to the UK or US governments fail to get the 100,000 signatures required for a parliamentary debate (UK) or an official response (US). The very few that succeed usually do so very quickly on a massive scale, but without the normal organizational or institutional trappings of a social or political movement, such as leaders or political parties. When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff asked to speak to the leaders of the mass demonstrations against the government in 2014 organised entirely on social media with an explicit rejection of party politics, she was told ‘there are no leaders’.

This explosive rise, non-normal distribution and lack of organization that characterizes contemporary politics as a chaotic system, can explain why many political mobilizations of our times seem to come from nowhere. In the US and the UK it can help to understand the shock waves of support that brought Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn (elected leader of the Labour party in 2015) and Brexit itself, all of which have challenged so strongly traditional political institutions. In both countries, the two largest political parties are creaking to breaking point in their efforts to accommodate these phenomena.

The unpredicted support for Brexit by over half of voters in the UK referendum illustrates these characteristics of the movements we model in the book, with the resistance to traditional forms of organization. Voters were courted by political institutions from all sides – the government, all the political parties apart from UKIP, the Bank of England, international organizations, foreign governments, the US President himself and the ‘Remain’ or StrongerIn campaign convened by Conservative, Labour and the smaller parties. Virtually every authoritative source of information supported Remain. Yet people were resistant to aligning themselves with any of them. Experts, facts, leaders of any kind were all rejected by the rising swell of support for the Leave side. Famously, Michael Gove, one of the key leave campaigners said ‘we have had enough of experts’. According to YouGov polls, over 2/3 of Conservative voters in 2015 voted to Leave in 2016, as did over one third of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters.

Instead, people turned to a few key claims promulgated by the two Leave campaigns Vote Leave (with key Conservative Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox) and Leave.EU, dominated by UKIP and its leader Nigel Farage, bankrolled by the aptly named billionaire Arron Banks. This side dominated social media in driving home their simple (if largely untrue) claims and anti-establishment, anti-elitist message (although all were part of the upper echelons of both establishment and elite). Key memes included the claim (painted on the side of a bus) that the UK gave £350m a week to the EU which could instead be spent on the NHS; the likelihood that Turkey would soon join the EU; and an image showing floods of migrants entering the UK via Europe. Banks brought in staff from his own insurance companies and political campaign firms (such as Goddard Gunster) and Leave.EU created a massive database of leave supporters to employ targeted advertising on social media.

While Remain represented the status-quo and a known entity, Leave was flexible to sell itself as anything to anyone. Leave campaigners would often criticize the Government but then not offer specific policy alternatives stating, ‘we are a campaign not a government.’ This ability for people to coalesce around a movement for a variety of different (and sometimes conflicting) reasons is a hallmark of the social-media based campaigns that characterize Political Turbulence. Some voters and campaigners argued that voting Leave would allow the UK to be more global and accept more immigrants from non-EU countries. In contrast, racism and anti-immigration sentiment were key reasons for other voters. Desire for sovereignty and independence, responses to austerity and economic inequality and hostility to the elites in London and the South East have all figured in the torrent of post-Brexit analysis. These alternative faces of Leave were exploited to gain votes for ‘change,’ but the exact change sought by any two voters could be very different.

The movement‘s organization illustrates what we have observed in recent political turbulence – as in Brazil, Hong Kong and Egypt; a complete rejection of mainstream political parties and institutions and an absence of leaders in any conventional sense. There is little evidence that the leading lights of the Leave campaigns were seen as prospective leaders. There was no outcry from the Leave side when they seemed to melt away after the vote, no mourning over Michael Gove’s complete fall from grace when the government was formed – nor even joy at Boris Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary. Rather, the Leave campaigns acted like advertising campaigns, driving their points home to all corners of the online and offline worlds but without a clear public face. After the result, it transpired that there was no plan, no policy proposals, no exit strategy proposed by either campaign. The Vote Leave campaign was seemingly paralyzed by shock after the vote (they tried to delete their whole site, now reluctantly and partially restored with the lie on the side of the bus toned down to £50 million), pickled forever after 23rd June. Meanwhile, Teresa May, a reluctant Remain supporter and an absent figure during the referendum itself, emerged as the only viable leader after the event, in the same way as (in a very different context) the Muslim Brotherhood, as the only viable organization, were able to assume power after the first Egyptian revolution.

In contrast, the Leave.Eu website remains highly active, possibly poised for the rebirth of UKIP as a radical populist far-right party on the European model, as Arron Banks has proposed. UKIP was formed around this single policy – of leaving the EU – and will struggle to find policy purpose, post-Brexit. A new party, with Banks’ huge resources and a massive database of Leave supporters and their social media affiliations, possibly disenchanted by the slow progress of Brexit, disaffected by the traditional parties – might be a political winner on the new landscape.

The act of voting in the referendum will define people’s political identity for the foreseeable future, shaping the way they vote in any forthcoming election. The entire political system is being redrawn around this single issue, and whichever organizational grouping can ride the wave will win. The one thing we can predict for our political future is that it will be unpredictable.

MargettsHelen Margetts the Director of Oxford Internet Institute and professor of society and the internet at the University of Oxford. Peter John is professor of political science and public policy at University College London. Scott Hale is a data scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute and a faculty fellow of the Turing Institute. Taha Yasseri is a research fellow in computational social science at the Oxford Internet Institute, a faculty fellow at Turing Institute, and research fellow in Humanities and Social Sciences at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. The four collaborated on the book Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action.

Ethicist Jason Brennan: Brexit, Democracy, and Epistocracy

By Jason Brennan

The Washington Post reports that there is a sharp uptick today in the number of Britons Googling basic questions about what the European Union is and what the implications of leaving are. This is a bit like deciding to study after you’ve already taken the final exam.

Technically, the Brexit referendum is not binding. Parliament could decide to hold their own vote on whether to leave the European Union. Perhaps they should. Perhaps the UK’s leaders owe it to the people to thwart their expressed will.

Leaving the EU is no small affair. It probably will have enormous effects on the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world. But just what these effects will be is unclear. To have even a rudimentary sense of the pros and cons of Brexit, a person would need to possess tremendous social scientific knowledge. One would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.

Political scientists have been studying voter knowledge for the past 60 years. The results are uniformly depressing. Most voters in most countries are systematically ignorant of even the most basic political facts, let alone more the social scientific theories needed to make sense of these facts.

This brings us to the central injustice of democracy, and why holding a referendum was a bad idea. Imagine, as an analogy, that you are sick. You go to a doctor. But suppose your “doctor” doesn’t study the facts, doesn’t know any medicine, and makes her decisions about how to treat you on a whim, on the basis of prejudice or wishful thinking. Imagine the doctor not only prescribes you a course of treatment, but literally forces you, at gunpoint, to accept the treatment.

We’d find this behavior intolerable. Your doctor owes you a duty of care. She owes it to you to deliver an expert opinion on the basis of good information, a strong background knowledge of medicine, and only after considering the facts in a rational and scientific way. To force you to follow the decisions incompetent and bad faith doctor is unjust.

But this is roughly what happens in democracy. Most voters are ignorant of both basic political facts and the background social scientific theories needed to evaluate the facts. They process what little information they have in highly biased and irrational ways. They decided largely on whim. And, worse, we’re each stuck having to put up with the group’s decision. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who has the right and means to emigrate, you’re forced to accept your democracy’s poorly chosen decisions.

There’s a big dilemma in the design of political institutions. Should we be ruled by the few or the many? What this amounts to is the choice between being ruled by the smart but selfish or dumb but nice. When only a small number of people hold power, they tend to use this power for their own ends at the expense of everyone else. If a king holds all the power, his decisions matter. He will likely use that power in a smart way, but smart for himself, rather than smart for everybody. Suppose instead we give everyone power. In doing so, we largely remove the incentive and ability for people to use power in self-serving ways at the expense of everyone else. But, at the same time, we remove the incentive for people to use power wisely. Since individual votes count for so little, individual voters have no incentive to become well-informed or to process information with any degree of care. Democracy incentivizes voters to be dumb.

Going back to the doctor analogy, here’s the dilemma: Suppose you could choose between two doctors. The first doctor prescribes you medicine based on what’s good for her, not you. The second is a complete fool who prescribes you medicine on whim and fancy, without reference to the facts. Roughly, with some exaggeration, that’s what the choice between monarchy or democracy amounts to. Neither is appealing.

What if there were a third way, though? In my forthcoming book, Against Democracy, I explore a way of splitting the difference. The trick is to find a political system that both 1) spreads power out enough to prevent people from using power selfishly and 2) weeds out or at least reduces the power of incompetent decision-makers.

In some sense, republican democracy, with checks and balances, was meant to do just that. And to a significant degree it succeeds. But perhaps a new system, epistocracy, could do even better.

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.

All across the West, we’re seeing the rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters. Perhaps it’s time to put aside the childish and magical theory that democracy is intrinsically just, and start asking the serious question of whether there are better alternatives. The stakes are high.

brennanJason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His new book, Against Democracy, is out this August. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.