Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Enigma of Hamlet

Columbia University Shakespeare professor James Shapiro takes on Princeton University Shakespeare professor Rhodri Lewis’s new reading of Hamlet in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books.

Shapiro presents the Lewis reading fairly. He is not persuaded of it, but he does not dismiss it.

For background, Shapiro lists some of history’s more compelling answers to the question: why does Hamlet not avenge his father’s murder… meaning, why does it not avenge it until he himself is dying?  

Hamlet himself asked the question: why does he delay? You might think that this is a salient question. You might think that this is a rationalization offered by a coward. You might even follow Freud and think that Hamlet cannot act because he cannot accept that he had wanted to kill his father, the better to copulate with his mother. And thus, that he could not kill Claudius because Claudius had acted on Hamlet’s unconscious desire. And Hamlet, having failed to complete his own psychoanalysis could not accept the desire as his.

Freud argued thusly:

His conscience is his unconscious sense of guilt. And is not his sexual alienation in his conversation with Ophelia typically hysterical?… And does he not in the end, in the same marvelous way as my hysterical patients, bring down punishment on himself?

Previously, Romantic poets saw themselves in Hamlet. They saw the brooding, melancholic prince frozen before his appointed task. And they concluded that he was too good for the world, too cerebral to take consequential action or too much of a poet to deal with political realities. After all, he only kills Claudius when he is certain that he will not need to succeed him as king.

For your edification, Freud’s interpretation is purely self-serving. It serves to sell psychoanalysis. In no way does it really illuminate anything about Hamlet. The Romantic poets did see that Hamlet, in many ways, was one of them. He was a thirty-year old student, at Wittenberg University, he rarely missed an opportunity to wax poetical, and he would rather be the king of his dreamscape than to be do what needs to be done and to become a king. 

One might say, that his becoming king was anything but self-evident, but the Romantic poets were not wrong to see Hamlet as one of them. A corpulent version, but nonetheless one of their own, a man who is temperamentally unsuited for the task at hand and who utters some highly memorable poetry while he is procrastinating.

Now, Lewis examines Hamlet the thinker and pronounces him a bullshitter. To say least, this is a stretch, but it is not implausible. Shapiro sums up the Lewis position:

Lewis’s Hamlet is “a thinker of unrelenting superficiality, confusion, and pious self-deceit. He feints at profundity but is unwilling and unable to journey beyond his own fears, blind spots, and preoccupations.” At least Claudius knows what sort of game he is playing; Hamlet, “unlike his uncle, is unable or unwilling to register in himself the corruption that he diagnoses in others.” “For all Claudius’s dishonesty,” and “for all Polonius’s self-serving lucubration,” Lewis concludes, “the young Prince Hamlet is the inhabitant of Elsinore most thoroughly mired in bullshit, about himself and about the world around him.” And Hamlet’s thoughts on the workings of providence are the “summa of his bullshit.”

I am not certain what would have been added if Hamlet had been a great thinker, a true philosopher. If Hamlet had been a true philosopher, his failure to act would have been more plausible. He would have been seriously miscast. If he does not know how to think, then perhaps he was more suited to action. Or, at least, he would have fewer excuses.

According to Shapiro Lewis sees Hamlet as a symptom of cultural collapse… though, I trust that the book offers more detail about how the last years of the reign of Elizabeth I were defined by cultural collapse. 

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1601. Elizabeth I died in 1603… without a natural heir. Yet, Elizabeth was hardly an unsuccessful ruler… she had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. She ruled effectively and well. Surely, the question of Elizabeth’s successor weighed on her subjects. Especially since the wars over religion, incited by her father Henry VIII, risked through the progeny of her elder sister, Mary, return with a vengeance.

If we are looking for historical parallels, the question of succession loomed over late Elizabethan England. Shapiro sums up Lewis’s reading:

Lewis’s Hamlet turns out to be “a victim, a symptom, and an agent” of a world built on hollow and self-serving humanist truisms and a “confused, self-indulgent, and frequently heedless” one at that. He doesn’t so much delay in taking revenge as discover that he isn’t all that motivated to act on behalf of a father who failed to secure his succession

The last point offers a faint echo of my own interpretation, which you can find outlined in more detail in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. Instead of seeing the issue in terms of desire, I see it in terms of filiation. 

Once the queen is exposed as an adulteress… as the ghost of King Hamlet tells his son… then Hamlet can no longer be certain that his father was his father. He does not know how long the adultery was taking place and thus whether or not Claudius was his real father. 

Fatherhood is always fraught with some level of uncertainty. But, in Hamlet’s case, if he doubts who his father is, why should he avenge King Hamlet. As for whether or not King Hamlet secured his son’s succession, apparently he did not. Whether he did not do so because he doubted that Hamlet was his son, or whether he saw that Hamlet, made of less stern stuff than he, might have the son of a licentious fool like Claudius, remains open. At the least, we know that King Claudius, in the first scene in court, named Hamlet his successor.

In any event, Lewis opens a line of inquiry that parallels my own. For which he deserves considerable credit.

Lewis believes, Shapiro tells us, that Hamlet shows the Elizabethan moral order collapsing of its own contradictions. Surely, a monarchy that is based on blood lines would have a difficult time finding a successor to a female monarch who left no children, especially when blood descendants of the Tudor line were alive in the person of the children of a natural-born child whose mother had been repudiated and divorced. 

We note, in passing that Hamlet was studying at Wittenberg University, where Martin Luther had taught.

Considering how much the succession issue was folded into the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in England, clearly, there was cause for anxiety and for dread of the future.

Lewis wants us to understand Hamlet as a rejection of humanism and an affirmation of the brutality of the world. This would make Hamlet a precursor of Thomas Hobbes. For the record, Hobbes was born in 1588, the year that the Spanish Armada was defeated, and thus would have been a teenager when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.

Shapiro sums up Lewis:

If I understand Lewis correctly, we have paid a steep political price for failing to heed Shakespeare’s warning in Hamlet that the world has always been amoral and predatory.

We are happy to see that Lewis is reconsidering the question of Hamlet. And yet, it does not makes sense to denounce Hamlet as a bad philosopher and then to say that Shakespeare is presenting a cogent philosophical argument about a cultural collapse.

I think it better to see the play dramatizing a moral dilemma, the dilemma that befalls a man who is called upon to act to restore his father’s good name while being given good reason to doubt that the man he had always believed to be his father was really his father. The fact that he was not quickly named the successor tended to show that he had reason to doubt. Thus, if we take Lewis’s point, that Hamlet was a pitiable philosophical mind, then perhaps the play dramatizes the internal conflict in his own mind, not over what he wants but over who he is … or is not.

It’s not so much about “to be or not to be” in the metaphysical sense of the question, but about whether he is or is not his father’s son… and what his moral responsibility really is.

For our edification, Shapiro closes his reading with a note on the situation of Shakespearean scholars in today’s American university. For those who love Shakespeare and who love literature, the decline and fall of this once noble discipline, murdered by the armies of political correctness, is sad indeed:

I wondered what it revealed about the disillusionment of scholars like Rhodri Lewis, who, Hamlet-like, expected, when their turn came, to inherit an academic kingdom. With funding for higher education slashed, literature departments downsized, full-time faculty replaced by adjuncts, and illustrious universities like my own choosing to hire only at the entry level to replace those of us who will be retiring, the prospects facing the next generation of academics are dismal. Depressingly, there is only a single position advertised this year in all of North America for a senior Shakespeare scholar. The need to make a splash, even to overstate claims, is understandable.

1 comment:

David Foster said...

Rebecca West had an interesting take on Hamlet, which she wrote about in her book 'Court and Castle'. I'll try to dig it out and post a summary here.

Very short version: she didn't like him much.