The main reason why Hamlet is Shakespeare's most enduring play is that it requires the most endurance. Contrary to centuries of Shakespeare scholarship on Hamlet's quintessential modernity, this requirement is first and foremost factual: Hamlet is the Shakespeare character with the most lines in a single play and Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, clocking in at over 4 hours onstage. Hamlet in its entirety might be thought of as Hamlet in its eternity. Hamlet is a king of infinite space.
Hamlet also requires our endurance for he is a consummate philosopher, which is why he thinks so much and at such great length and ultimately acts so little. It is difficult for us to peer through centuries of romantic fog that whirl around his character. We tend to imagine the play as lofty, overblown, the pinnacle of Western literature. But the fact is, Hamlet was a revival of an earlier play also called Hamlet- which had been a big hit- and was thus a kind of box-office sequel by London's most successful dramatist: WS. Commercially, Shakespeare never put a foot wrong. Hamlet was a blockbuster. It remained a blockbuster in the decades and centuries that followed.
Here we reach a conundrum: Hamlet is a revenge drama. Everyone loves a revenge drama, right? But the play consists of Hamlet's inability to take revenge. The audience would have thought they were going to watch a Tarantino-esque Elizabethan action movie with a few good sword fights. But instead of bloody acts, they get endless bloody thoughts. Hamlet soliloquizes on the meaning of life, dithers and feigns madness, tying himself up in the most exquisite dialectical knots, doubting everything, even the ghost who demands revenge. When he concocts the play within the play, to catch the conscience of the king, and it works- Claudius confesses his guilt- still he doesn't do it.
If Hamlet is Shakespeare's most enduring play, then the paradox is that there is something unendurable about it. The play goes on and on. Hamlet goes on and on. Spinning out words, words, words that lose the name of action. The weirdest thing is that having been a crowd pleaser from the very beginning, it seems to do so little to please the crowd. Our expectations about tight, coherent, fast-moving, well-executed plot unravel in scene after scene, spiraling down into Hamlet's infinite jest and perspicuous melancholia.
Hamlet is not a version of our best self, let alone our authentic humanity, but what is worst and most selfish in us. His failure of commitment, his radical inhibition, his suicidal melodrama, and his violent misanthropic and misogynistic cruelty, are some of the rather unappealing aspects of our selves. Shakespeare forces us to stare at that which we do not want to look; to see what Uncle Teddy Adorno felicitously called our Hamlet Syndrome.
Hamlet is a kind of camera obscura that presents us with a true picture of the world in its inverted form. What if the modern depressive Dane Lars Von Trier was right and some malevolent meteor obliterated the entirety of human civilization in a flash? If somehow after that apocalyptic devastation a single copy of Hamlet remained, a faithful record of our culture could be reconstructed on its basis. It's not a pretty picture.
So, what life lessons can Hamlet teach us? Here are a handful:
- "The world is a prison," Hamlet sighs. This is not just a statement of his mental state. Shakespeare's play is also a drama of surveillance in a police state. Everyone is being watched. This once required expensive and expansive networks of spies. Now it simply requires the use of the internet.
- "To thine own self be true"- NOT. People tend to forget that this line was put in the mouth of the Daddy of all windbags, Polonius, and was heavily laden with irony. Polonius's self-serving drivel is an endless source of amusement.
- "Were you not sent for?" Never trust your friends. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they might have been sent for by your ever-loving parents and be secretly plotting your execution.
- "Mother, you have my father much offended". Hamlet doesn't know if his mother was in on the murder of his father. The Nazi jurist, Carl Schmitt, felt that Gertrude's guilt functions like a dark spot in the play. The lesson seems to be - you'll never figure out what your mother wants. Leave her to heaven, as the Ghost says.
- "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." In other words, believe in ghosts. In a world where time is out of joint and the air is filled with war and rumors of war, the dead are the only creatures courageous enough to speak the truth.
- "I did love you once... I loved you not." Let's just say that Hamlet has commitment problems, while the ever-faithful and naïve Ophelia is the one labeled a Janus-faced whore. It's good to remember that this war between the sexes has gone on for hundreds of years and men cannot tolerate the question of what a woman wants.
- "Tender yourself more dearly." Polonius's seemingly affectionate paternal advice circles around the valuation of his daughter Ophelia as a commodity to be brokered on the marriage market. Lessons on money abound. Here and everywhere in Shakespeare, the language of love degrades into the language of commerce.
- "O shame, where is thy blush?" Hamlet accuses his mother of acting shamelessly in marrying his Uncle in rude haste after the death of his father. But the truth is everyone in Hamlet acts shamelessly and for us the moral of the play is the production of shame in its audience. Not too much, just enough.
- "Stay, Illusion!" Illusion is the only means to action. The only thing that can save us in this distracted globe is theater. The only truth is found in illusion.
Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster are the authors of the new book Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine.