Estimated reading time: 20 minute(s)
I want to go and spend some time talking about Hamlet, and then to show its relevancy and parallelism to the Socratic situation, as it was interpreted by Plato. My fundamental claim is that Hamlet should not have killed the king. It is enough that he wavered and was in two-minds regarding him and made this fact of all-penetrating doubt well-known to the political. This was the main cause for the catastrophe, for the total death. The well-known English jest, according to which Shakespeare failed to bring in Hamlet himself into the play, inasmuch as the action of Hamlet was not acted, as long as Hamlet questioned so much that he did not execute his action, and the much more sophisticated speculations, from Coleridge on, about what had caused Hamlet to mark-time, to hang fire, what made him so dithered about the action that he was ordered to do from the soul of his father till he spread himself all too thin, if have any worth at all, have the negative worth of intimating how much the “irony” of Shakespeare is deep, complex and mysterious in that that both the men in the street, the Joe public, the simple men and the hoity-toity, high and mighty, the toffee-nosed are as blinded as bats to notice the obvious “irony” that, with Shakespeare, the out spreading, the opening-out and passing on of doubt in the kingdom is in itself an action, a political action to the hilt, that brought in the end to the death of all the members of the current kingdom.
Doubt, only doubt, as to the political, which was made public in the kingdom, by the son of the former king, by the son of the current queen, by the son-in-law and the stepson of the current king, by the prince himself, is not a fiasco in terms of a political action if it does not lead to direct political action; it is rather the political action par-excellence in this situation and giving what Hamlet was, that is, a young, speculative, unformed, woebegone man (perhaps, if Hamlet had more time, he could have become a man like Brutus in Julius Ceaser, that is, a man who could have murdered the tyrant; however, he is thrown into the political world in too early a stage in his intellectual and moral development; he is not yet the man of spirit that encompasses this world of action as Brutus is), it was the only possible action.
This is the way of Shakespeare to put an end to Hamlet’s tragedy in the sense of destroying the royal family, the current kingdom. The “irony” here, of course, is that Hamlet does not know that theoretikos thus played is quite practixos. The “irony”, moreover, is that Shakespeare enlarges the order of the ghost on Hamlet’s soul to comprehend the abolishment of all the royal family, Hamlet included, as if Shakespeare either knew better than the murdered, “wise”, “moral” king, that this is a more ethical conclusion to the evilness of the present-day kingdom after the murder of the king than the simple blood will have blood, and, as if Shakespeare, as closer to Hamlet as a speculative man than his father, the political man, read better into the soul of Hamlet to know that he cannot overcome this catastrophe, not only the catastrophe of killing directly the king, but also of that of becoming a political man himself, to be a king in this particular moment of his development, in his blended stage of being a young scholar and a mystic at once. The fact that Hamlet was not a man of this world; was not a man of power; was a man of spirit, letting the kingdom think little of him, to take him as a madman. The problem is that many readers of this play still see Hamlet in the light of madness.
These, as the kingdom’s members, are too much absorbed in this world to understand Hamlet and to understand Shakespeare. And this is unfortunate indeed since Hamlet is perhaps the most profound tragedy of Shakespeare since the tragic message is interior to the whole action of hamlet, as, in hamlet, there is the character of Hamlet that presents directly to us that the political is trivial without the Infinite and that without waiting in the end for the appearance of time qua angel of death,
“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before, In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d, Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound. Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow, Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow22″
As also a symbol to the Infinite and to the absurdity of living without it:
“Thy glass wilt show thee how thy beauties wear, Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste; The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear, And of this book this learning mayst thou taste. The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show Of mouthed graves wilt give thee memory ; Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know Time’s thievish progress to eternity23”.
Hamlet is transformed, revolutionized by Shakespeare’s hand; he is not, as in earlier versions of this story, a man of action with a resolution to murder the king, a “sane” man in political terms; he is a contemplative man and ipso-facto almost a madman or on the verge of madness in the eyes of the political world; it is this transmutation of Hamlet that makes the message of the Shakespearean tragedy prior to the reflection upon the catastrophe in its end. It is the destiny of the apolitical man, or of the yet a-political man, whose “findings” up to this early moment of his speculations and meditations can be summarized by “the absurdity of this kind of a political world that lacks any connection to the divine, that does not ask for the mystical”; that in his incapacity to adhere to the strictly political implies nothing but the unconsciousness of this political world to its absurdity and its lack of meaning, to its fact of “madness”.
Again, given Hamlet’s character and the immanent message of the play, in contrast with the message as knocking-on-effect of the reflection on the action into the climax and the anti-climax at once (that is, the total death), there is no need in “time” or “destiny” in order to call to our mind the Infinite, on the one hand, and the meaningless and the absurdity of the day-to-day life without this Infinite, on the other hand; given that there is no necessary need in the catastrophic end, so that to understand the tension between this world and the otherworld, the tragic end would have been uncalled for- granting , again, that the message, as it appears from beginning to end in Hamlet’s individuality and action against the political world- unless Shakespeare had put such a strong temptation on Hamlet to move to this world of action (his father’s ordinance plus the temptation to be a king), such a strong temptation that Hamlet did not yield to, but unfortunately such a powerful temptation that small souls as us, that pea-brained and in the fetters of the worldly as us, that, without this catastrophic end, we were totally in the dark as to the message of Shakespeare, as indeed it is time and again evinced in the “commentaries” on Shakespeare or rather on another “Shakespeare”: Machiavellian, Skeptic and alike nonsense.
But be that as it may. There is still some justice in the attitude of the kingdom towards Hamlet: a political world like a kingdom, like a royal family, cannot tolerate otherworldliness which disregards the political or which makes the political a secondary issue, which has to ask a legitimacy and a meaning from a world different from it; and not only that, but also that this meaning is not doctrinal, dogmatic, in a word, vulgar Christianity, but rather a one that may satisfy the individual, questioning soul, the soul of the young Hamlet