Hamlet and the Political

In Hamlet, Gertrude is sensual and ambiguous. It is only Hamlet’s rage that attunes her to the ethical sphere: “O Hamlet, speak no more: Thou turn’st my very eyes into my soul” (III.iv.88-91). Otherwise, Gertrude’s shamelessness and loyalty belong to the aesthetic sphere; the play turns upon the ethical guilt that Gertrude may bear (for adultery) that only Hamlet somehow can feel. In the guise of A in Either/Or, Kierkegaard called the play truly tragic because Hamlet suspects his mother’s guilt; it is one of the last tragedies because the modern age is losing a sense of the infinite. Steve devoted a recent piece to Hamlet, wondering if King Hamlet doesn’t think “some good old-fashioned pagan vengeance isn’t exactly what his son needs to purge his dark thoughts”. In other words, is Shakespeare invoking Schmitt’s political?

Carl Schmitt argues that Shakespeare is dramatizing the world of the political: a world of “real physical killing”, the personal struggles of the heroic age, sublime barbarism. The world of true tragedy, as Kierkegaard described, belongs to a former time. (Caveat: It is the ironic pseudonym A, not Kierkegaard, who risks the confusion between the aesthetic and the ethical in Either/Or; for Kierkegaard, any ‘aesthetic suspension of the ethical’ seems to be an impossible attempt to distract oneself from one’s own mortality.) For Schmitt, the world of life-or-death impolitic politics is is truly the world of the sixteenth century; anxieties over succession in England are not baseless terrors. In The Future of Illusion, Victoria Kahn explains:

Hamlet is important for Schmitt because it dramatizes or — in Schmitt’s lexicon in Roman Catholicism [and Political Form] — ‘represents’ the religious conflicts of the Reformation at the moment before these concepts are resolved by the institution of a nonconfessional nation-state… In Hamlet we find a pre-Hobbesian world — a world before poeisis and aesthetics — in which heroism and tragedy are still possible. (40)

Shakespeare presents a myth: a state of emergency, Hamlet’s tragic indecision. For Schmitt, it is a true myth, a faithful retelling of historical events.

Telos devoted its Winter 2010 issue (Telos 153), edited by David Pan and Julia Reinhard Lupton, to Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba (1956). The issue includes Schmitt’s forward to the German edition of Lilian Winstanley’s Hamlet and the Scottish Succession (1952), which was translated by Schmitt’s daughter Anima. Mary Queen of Scots was widely suspected of conspiring in the murder of her husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in 1567. Her cousin Elizabeth I wrote her about what “all the world was thinking”. One month later, she married the deeply unpopular James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, who was suspected of murdering Darnley (and possibly raping her at Dunbar to take the Scottish crown). According to Winstanley, Mary’s ambiguous complicity mirrors the ambiguous guilt of Gertrude in Hamlet. Schmitt concurs:

What Mary Stuart [Queen of Scots], the mother of King James, did was bad, almost as bad “As kill a king, and marry his brother.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet drama is grounded then in a direct relation to the times. It contains the kind of dramatization that results from participation in an immediate present. The full historical topicality of its place and time of origin lives in Hamlet. The disguise of an old Scandanavian Hamlet saga is so thin that the drama is better interpreted through its historical context than through the saga. (Telos 153, 164)

Hamlet is stuck in neutral between the political and politics. The most important passage is Hamlet’s lament about his inability to act compared to the actors he sees in the play-within-the-play; “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba / That he should weep for her?” (II.ii.559-76). For Schmitt, the choice is between lamentation and vengeance; between play-acting and real action.

Kahn, on the other hand, wants to deconstruct this choice, and at the same time show the value of poesis. After all, it is through the play-within-the-play that Hamlet wants to test Claudius and determine Hamlet’s choice of action. Kahn reflects:

Hamlet learns that action and play-acting are not necessarily opposed, as Schmitt seems to think they are… Against Schmitt’s opposition between aesthetic play and political seriousness, Hamlet’s metatheatrical reflections, along with his powerful aesthetic response to the players, help us see that it is theatrical or aesthetic form that allows for (but does not guarantee) political action. In the “aesthetic” autonomy of art lies its potential for both ideological closure and critical power.  (46-7)

Like Schmitt, Kahn turns to Hamlet to illustrate her vision of the political: aesthetics, illusionpoesis, etc. 








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