THE BLOG
09/08/2013 01:43 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2013

Hamlet and President Obama: Strange Bedfellows

To bomb or not to bomb: That is the question.

It was just a matter of time before some pundit made a comparison between President Obama and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, regarding the Syria dilemma. That moment may have occurred for the first time on Friday, September 6, on CNN's Piers Morgan show when Fareed Zakaria told John Berman, filling in for Morgan, that President Obama's "meandering" speech in St. Petersburg showed a "Hamlet-like" quality in terms of his waffling over whether or not to launch "tailored" strikes against Syrian targets.

Zakaria is a foreign-policy expert, and I agree with his point, made later on that program, that President Obama should have prepared a "contingency plan" some time ago after he made the "red line" proclamation, just in case the Syrian government or others crossed it.

But I disagree with Zakaria's Hamlet analogy.

This is not the first time pundits have compared a politician to the melancholy Dane. Who can forget all of the swooning over then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo after his 1984 keynote address at the Democratic convention! When Cuomo delayed in making a decision as to whether or not to run for president, some members of the press referred to his "Will he or won't he?" routine as being reminiscent of Hamlet.

Journalists were wrong back in the 1980s to compare Cuomo to Hamlet, just as they are wrong now to compare our current president to Shakespeare's most luminous hero.

And why is that?

Because politics is anathema to Hamlet, who cannot stand the calculating, ruthless nature of office-seekers, like his uncle, who has become the King of Denmark, a title that one might think would be Hamlet's for the taking given that his father has died.

A little over a year ago, in response to a David Brooks column that gave a superficial reading of Shakespeare, I wrote:

"One might ask why some of us revere Hamlet so much. Part of it is because he does not seek the crown. He is completely apolitical, so that even though his father has been murdered, he does not attempt to take the crown for himself.

Hamlet, in that respect, is not unlike other truly sublime figures like Albert Einstein, who was offered the presidency of Israel but declined. Why? Because the greatest impact that an eminent artist or scientist can have is in creating new art and new ways of looking at the world."

Which brings me back to Hamlet. Many continue to misread him as being "indecisive." That may be true of President Obama, who is being advised by actual human beings and who, without any prompting, issued a "red line" some time ago on chemical weapons. But Hamlet delays in killing a man because the person telling him to commit the fatal act is, lest we forget, a ghost.

If any one of us were told to kill someone, we would presumably hesitate. But if we were told to do so by a ghost, or by someone in a dream or nightmare, we would definitely pause and reflect not only over the consequences of such an act but over the reliability of the source.

In President Obama's case, he, not a ghost, is the source of the "red line" statement.

It always puzzles me when people refer to Hamlet as "annoying." Those people obviously don't understand him. The Prince of Denmark is haunted, deeply depressed, suicidal and perhaps psychotic. But annoying? Never.

He is extraordinarily scrupulous in exhausting all possibilities before killing his uncle. In addition, Hamlet is full of life even as he considers ending his own. He is a guru to the actors, exhorting them with delight to "speak the speech trippingly on the tongue." He is a gifted swordsman. And for all his flaws, his reckless killing of Polonius, his cruelty to Ophelia, Hamlet is as wise and visionary as a prophet.

One must keep in mind that while other characters may see the ghost of Hamlet's father, only Hamlet has a conversation with him.

Is he hearing voices? Is he having auditory hallucinations?

It is hard to know. After all, the play begins in a state of confusion on the parapets where a guard yells, "Who's there?" That is, as the critic Maynard Mack put it, the "world of Hamlet," a world of equivocation, doubt and the supernatural.

President Obama clearly knows who is there. He is not in the least delusional or psychotic. Rather, due to his training in the law, he is obsessed with the legal process.

But great leaders have to be decisive, especially when they set out "red lines."

Let us keep in mind that, while President Obama chose his profession because he likes to make big decisions, Hamlet, the anti-politician, does not ask for the job of killing his uncle or anyone else. Yet he is a great warrior in the end, all the more so because of the depression and feelings of self-hatred that he must overcome.

Politicians may come and go, but Hamlet is a true Renaissance Man, one for the ages.

Perhaps, we can now cease all comparisons between pols and the most complicated, paradoxical character in the history of Western literature. As Hamlet would say, "The rest is silence."

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?