The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 29.0182 Monday, 23 April 2018
Date: April 22, 2018 at 10:45:51 PM EDT
Subject: James Shapiro's Review
In response to James Shapiro’s review of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness by Rhodri Lewis I sent this letter to the NYR:
James Shapiro’s history of Hamlet criticism leaves out what might be called moral criticism: how Hamlet feels the pull of conflicting duties.
Part of Hamlet is a believing Christian, with a duty to leave vengeance to God. Part of him also believes a son has a duty to revenge his murdered father. Each belief is sincere—he can’t rid himself of it—but incomplete. We all face the question of what to do about being insulted or attacked: to revenge, or not to revenge? You don’t have to be a Christian to be against revenge. You can be an atheist and still believe revenge is wrong, while also believing you can be wrong not to retaliate. Satisfy one conscience, the other makes you guilty.
Hamlet’s third ineradicable duty is to uphold the order of the state, first of all by not killing the king. This is any subject’s duty but especially that of a prince, who’s responsible for “the sanity and health of this whole state.” The king’s duty is justice: he’s delegated by God to punish criminals. But what if the king is the criminal? You can’t impeach a king. And you can’t kill the king without risking chaos and death. Laertes, in a parallel situation, charges in to revenge his father’s murder—as he thinks. He knows what duties he has to jettison to do it: “To hell, allegiance!...I dare damnation.” He hasn’t heard about the horror of damnation firsthand from his father’s ghost.
Hamlet responds by faking an insanity that comes close to being real. This might give him an excuse for killing the king—we still recognize temporary insanity as a possible defense. But he expends this excuse on Polonius (thinking he’s Claudius). To sanely punish the king for his crime, Hamlet needs public evidence, not just the private word of a ghost. At the end he gets proof, in the dying testimony of Gertrude and Laertes, and in the death of Claudius, killed with his own poison. Hamlet’s proto-justice—trying and punishing the king—is a move away from rule by kings toward the rule of law. But proto-law is not yet law, so Hamlet can’t live on after killing the king. He does his patriotic duty by passing the kingdom to the nearest successor: Fortinbras.
Hamlet’s final duty is to the truth: what Nietzsche called intellectual conscience. This leads him to the absolute skepticism beloved of postmodern critics like Professor Lewis. Confronted with the bones we’ll soon be reduced to, foundations crumble and we discover there’s no such thing as a duty and nothing is real but power: predator and prey. But like most of us, including theoretical skeptics, Hamlet can’t come to rest in this curious consideration. His other duties will not die.
Our “moral order” does not collapse under the weight of its contradictions. We live with them. That’s the human condition, exemplified by Hamlet.