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.