March 2012        

In defence of Shakespeare

As Irish pupils once again approach the English paper of the Leaving Certificate examination, I wish to offer a Marxist view of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. This view is Marxist because it puts the play into the context of its time.
     What is wrong with the way Hamlet is being taught in schools? Hamlet was written more than four hundred years ago; and yet, far from attempting to see what it might have meant to the Elizabethans (except for the sexual jokes), educators take the play out of all historical context and read it as though it was written for us by one of our own time.
     What’s wrong with that? It assumes that people don’t change: that there is a human prototype that does not change over history. The assumption is that people exist outside of history. Ultimately it means that Hamlet is not properly understood. Pupils are taught to judge and condemn Hamlet, not to understand him as a Renaissance person. In fact it becomes difficult to take him seriously. A good talking to should have sorted out Hamlet’s dilly-dallying, and he could have gone right ahead and killed his uncle. We could all have been happy then.
     So what should we make of the character of Hamlet? The key to understanding Hamlet (and Horatio) is that they are students at Wittenberg, in Germany. Wittenberg was very well known in sixteenth-century Europe as a centre of humanist teaching. Shakespeare’s audience would have understood this. Wittenberg is mentioned no less than four times in a short space of time in act 1, scene ii.
     Coming from a centre of humanist learning, Hamlet has a new set of values, a new philosophy. These clash with the prevailing order at the Danish court, where deception and corruption rule.
     What is this humanist vision? Hamlet refers to it a few times during the play. Essentially, the humanists—in keeping with the requirements of their new, capitalist times—moved the centre of their world away from God to humankind, from religion to science, from hierarchies to people. Here is a famous quotation from Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty . . . in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god . . . !
     That sounds almost funny! Because at our late stage of capitalist society we have forgotten the tremendous aspiration of capitalism’s early days, at the time when it replaced feudalism. The Reformation in the Christian Church was the basis for the Renaissance in art and humanism in learning. A major centre of this was Wittenberg. Capitalism was at that time the most progressive form of society, bringing with it a huge advance in the arts, sciences, technology, and so on. Hamlet is completely in tune with the new philosophy of his time.
     What about Claudius? Isn’t he really quite a good guy? According to the educators, yes. Claudius is the Machiavellian man. He is the type who is cynical, has no values except self-interest, and will pursue this self-interest at all costs.
     Sounds familiar? Of course! He is the type of person who survives to this day. He is the prototype politician of our times. We all know Claudius. This is the reason why our educators find him so acceptable, even lovable! He would not have been loved by the Elizabethans, who valued people with the earlier philosophy of honesty, honour, values, and understanding.
     The Claudius type recurs in Shakespeare’s tragedies and always in a destructive, terrifying and controlling way. He puts on the act of being honest and is not. He is a master deceiver. And the other characters in the play don’t see this. Hamlet does!
     As Shakespeare’s tragedies progress, the Machiavellian becomes more demonic and ruthless: Edmund in King Lear, and Iago in Othello. They all walk over dead bodies to achieve their goals. These too are modern men—more modern, perhaps, than Hamlet, as they have been going strong throughout capitalist society and have won the day. Hamlet’s vision is long gone. People who walk over dead bodies to gain power are not.
     So what became of Hamlet’s vision of man in Claudius’s world? Hamlet himself answers this in his contrasting of the two worlds, saying what he feels in Claudius’s Denmark:
. . . indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—no, nor woman neither . . .
     What is Hamlet’s madness all about? Hamlet doesn’t act mad with Horatio, the visiting players, or the grave-diggers. He is frank and open with them all. He can be himself. He cannot be himself when he is with people who are linked to the intrigues and deceptions of the court. And it is when he meets these people that he puts on the act of madness. The only way he can be with these people, for whom deception and intrigue are the norm, is to deceive. It is in this madness only that he can speak the truth.
     Well, what about the tragic flaw? Hamlet hasn’t got a tragic flaw! The idea of a tragic flaw is determinist and takes Hamlet out of history. It suggests that a character doesn’t have control over a flaw in their DNA, which will eventually lead to a terrible fate.
     This isn’t the case. Hamlet’s tragedy is that he sees himself as pulled between two worlds and their values: the old feudal values of his father on the one side and his own humanist values on the other.
     And that’s not all. There’s another new kind of man, who is Hamlet’s true antagonist—Claudius. No wonder Hamlet says:
The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite
That ever I was born to set it right!
     This is his tragedy, and he is a tragic hero because he undertakes this task and dies in the trying.
     In 2005 one of the questions on Hamlet was: “What is the play’s appeal for a 21st-century audience?” For me this would be the clash of values of two serious representatives of early capitalist society, Hamlet and Claudius. Hamlet’s Renaissance ideals clash with Claudius’s Machiavellian opposite—the cynicism about humankind and its possibilities. I believe the play should still dismay us, as it did the Elizabethans.

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