“You’re not just writing for different countries. You’re writing for different eras.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, Paris Review Interview #196, Issue 184 (Spring 2008)
This morning a friend told me via email about the firing of Artforum’s editor, apparently because he had published an open letter from artists that expressed solidarity with Palestinians and urged a ceasefire. I wrote back:
It's a shame. The problem with the original letter, of course, is the lack of any attention to the "proximate cause" of Israel's righteous anger—the blatant barbarism of Hamas. If its composers had started there, this backlash might have been avoided. I would emphasize "might," though, because the usual narrative, that Israel is an island of democracy in a sea of Islamist terrorists bent on its annihilation, has fossilized.
Even so, the advice to Netanyahu from all quarters except the lunatic fringe, now the mainstream of the Republican Party, has been “Don’t repeat the mistakes we made in Afghanistan and Iraq,” which boil down to “Don’t think there’s a military solution to the problem you have created in Gaza and the West Bank!”
I think of Shakespeare's Hamlet, who confused everyone at court, within the play, and surprised everyone in the audience, in the Globe, by refusing to perpetuate the Orestean cycle of revenge, as per the immediate template in Thomas Kyd’s "The Spanish Tragedy" written in the late 1580s. Would that the Israeli nation, the better part of its people, could do the same under similar circumstances, when actors and observers alike don't expect it.
Hamlet and his tragic search for justice instead of revenge or retribution is not merely historic. This doesn’t exactly console me; but it does tell me that the there is an alternative to the mass destruction underway in Gaza.
Perhaps, one might consider that there is a useful meaning in the daffy notion that “history will judge,” or, put differently, that we can be on the right or wrong side of that slaughterbench, by standing by or trying to redeem the suffering of those now strapped to it. We can’t be ahead of our time, but we can insist that when we call for justice rather than revenge, we’re bringing news from the future, not from nowhere.
“But even regarding History as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimised — the question involuntarily arises — to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered.”
― Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History
The prince of Denmark hesitated, if that is the right word, because he had a stake in two worlds, a disintegrating feudal past and an impending bourgeois future, and knew that the choice of one over the other would prove deadly. So do we. We too are caught between two worlds, a decaying capitalist society that still lives by the “somewhat disgusting morbidity” known as the profit motive (that’s John Maynard Keynes talking) and a barely sentient socialist society that thrives on new kinds of solidarity — or is it a moral wasteland where the only futures on offer are the junkyard and the meritocracy, both determined by prosthetic intelligence?
Hamlet embodies an epistemological crisis equal to our own. He arrives at Elsinore only to learn that he can’t explain what has happened. His father is dead—how? His mother has married his uncle—why, and so hastily, violating every protocol of mourning and remarriage? Who is to be believed? His mother? His devious childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? The “old mole,” his father’s ghost? Everywhere he turns, there’s another, different interpretation of the same events, utterances, or behaviors, and each of them yields an account of what really happened which is incompatible with the others.
Not only that. He’s a part-time prince but a full-time student, just back from the university at Wittenberg, where, by all accounts, Martin Luther and other firebrand intellectuals of the 16th century had been discussing Machiavelli, Erasmus, Boccaccio, Copernicus, Petrarch, Chaucer, Dante . . . . He’s a Renaissance man, in other words, equipped with the most advanced knowledge of his time. He can view the local accounts of events at Elsinore from the intellectual distance afforded by this world elsewhere. So he doesn’t have to assume that taking revenge for the murder of his father—if that’s what really happened—is the only way to end the story he’s learning to tell. (Shakespeare was taking a big chance here, because his audience expected just that, a revenge tragedy that reiterated the Orestian cycle; in violating this expectation, he liberated his own imagination and embarked on his radical revision of the genre.)
Notice that nobody seems to understand Hamlet, not even Horatio. Why is that? Why is everyone in the play befuddled by his utterance, thus enabled in their eccentric interpretations of his behavior? Why are we, after all these centuries, still confused by his persistent deferment of his urgent desire to make things right—to repair a time that is out of joint?
There are three ways to answer, I think. You can say that in dissembling, in pretending to be on the verge of madness—where everything is a product of “as if,” a performance in progress—Hamlet disrupts the transparent relation between “seems” and “is” which makes him legible to his interlocutors, then as now, and vice versa. He divides and observes himself, establishing an ironic detachment from himself, and from those around him, who must then ask themselves, Do I know this person? Is he talking to me?
Or, you can say that because he’s merely the register—the receptacle—of competing narratives of what happened at Elsinore, he never becomes a completed character, someone whose words and deeds become predictable by, say, Act II (Ophelia matches up with Hamlet in this respect, but nobody else). “Hamlet accepts everything,” as Jacques Lacan put it, so he’s “constantly suspended in the time of the Other.” That is why he seems the mirror of whoever looks at him after the fact, after the 17th century, even unto our own time.
Or, you can say that Hamlet comes from the future, where one’s life chances won’t be determined by one’s birth, title, family, or estate, but will instead be functions of individuality, of one’s natural talents, learned skills, and past effort. And where revenge doesn’t exhaust the meaning of justice because tribe and family no longer mark the outer limits of social solidarity and moral standing. Hamlet refuses to play by the rules of his still-medieval time, which expected him, as heir to a dynastic succession, to avenge his father’s murder by killing his uncle and banishing his mother. That is why he seems so anomalous to his peers, and so close to our notions of personal judgment and comportment that we appoint him the first modern man.
These three answers are actually the same, aren’t they? The resolute moderns in Shakespeare-—Romeo, Juliet, Cordelia, Edmund, Caliban, and notice the “diversity,” as we now say, of these characters—-are mysteries to the rest of the cast, who see them, correctly, as violations of received tradition because they simply won’t abide by anything inherited from the past.
“The time is out of joint”: the prince is slightly ahead of his time; in, but not of, the world he inhabits. That’s why nobody understands what Hamlet is talking about, not even his best friend, although Polonius and Claudius have enough of an inkling to suspect him of treachery and send him off. He might as well be from another world, this man of too many words, a visitor from a different moral universe.
To test this conjecture, ask yourself what those famous soliloquies are for. Put it this way: Who is Hamlet talking to? Not to himself—Elizabethan culture, especially its theater, is too dialogue-driven for that conceit: even non-fiction was then typically organized as a kind of Q & A. No, he’s addressing us, the audience. The more ponderous renditions of the play forget this attitude of address, on the assumption that an expansive interiority, an “inner self,” is what makes us modern. But Hamlet never turns inward — he never turns away from the constituency that Shakespeare, like every other writer, hoped to create among those who came after his time, which is to say among us spectators, readers, and actors, interpreters all, of later centuries
James Livingston is professor emeritus at Rutger University and the author of six nonfiction books including No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea. You can read more of his work at Substack.