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Hamlet’s crisis of irreconcilable meanings

Written by Vanessa Pupavac.

Why does Shakespeare’s Hamlet seem so close to us? Shakespeare’s drama takes us to the historic juncture between the old feudal order and the rise of the modern, and their conflicting values. Drama is quintessentially about crisis, here a crisis created by an uncle’s murder of his brother and usurpation of the throne. Hamlet’ dramatic crisis is precipitated by his inability to act against his uncle King Claudius, and reconcile contradictory normative imperatives: the ancient warrior’s honour, Christian ethics, Machiavellian secular politics and faithfulness to himself. Hamlet cannot escape the kingdom and his identity as prince. He is not a free agent as the king and other courtiers make clear.

Hamlet cries out against his fate that requires him to act:

The time is out of joint, O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

Should Hamlet fulfil the conflicting moral duties of ancient blood revenge, the Christian ethic of not killing and leaving vengeance to God, the modern political duties of Machiavelli’s Prince, or be true to himself? And what does being true to himself mean?

Hamlet is conflicted over not knowing what is the right course of action:

To be, or not to be, that is the question,

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep….

He is paralysed by fear of making the wrong moral or political decision. Machiavelli would advise a prince adopt a pragmatic approach to contesting codes, following the code that best suited the occasion, and ‘not make himself uneasy’. But Hamlet is unable to adopt the pragmatism of Machiavelli’s Prince and simply seize the throne.

Hamlet’s tragedy is how he is overwhelmed by the competing virtues. To choose one moral belief over another, for the uncompromising Hamlet is to deny part of himself.

Psychological crisis of meaningless

Any twenty-first century Hamlet faces a crisis distinctive from Shakespeare Hamlet with its own psychological consequences. Instead our world threatens to become a world emptied of meaning for individuals. The indifferent shrug of ‘whatever’, rather than Hamlet’s anguished cry, is characteristic of our disenchanted age emptied of compelling meanings.

The philosopher-psychiatrist Patrick Bracken’s Trauma: Culture, Meaning and Philosophy (2002) has written insightfully on how common psychological problems in contemporary society such as PTSD relate to anxiety over finding meaning and purpose in their lives. So even if we find sources of meaning, these are constantly undermined by an instrumentalism or the logic of the cash nexus where in Oscar Wilde’s witticism, we seem to ‘know the price of everything but the value of nothing’. But again Shakespeare’s genius is to anticipate the spectre of meaningless through Hamlet:

Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world.

Crisis of meaning and the war on terror

The superfluous men depicted in nineteenth century literature might seek meaning through dangerous or violent action, such as fighting fatal duels or going to war. Hamlet’s rash impulse to strike the hidden Polonius appears driven by a desire to break through his psychological impasse, having hesitated to strike the kneeling king.

But this sort of decisionism may equate an act’s decisiveness with its violent break with the everyday. The philosopher Charles Taylor discusses the dangers of individuals adopting polarised stances and embracing violent action as a way or a way out of recovering a sense of direction. Such decisionism has been linked to nihilism and political extremism.

The search for direction through adopting implacable polarised positions and embracing violent action is evident in contemporary global terrorism. Strikingly the political goals of today’s terrorists remain hazy, notwithstanding their decisiveness in annihilating life, and any declarations commonly lack tangible political objectives.

Moreover the common targeting of young people and school children over traditional political or military targets – from the Beslan siege to Brevik’s killings to bombing of the Turkish peace demonstrators to Pakistani playgrounds – suggests closer affinities with high school massacres than the political struggles of the past.

Violent suicide gestures of contemporary terrorists seeking to kill their peers are the logic of a nihilistic outlook that has abandoned humanist beliefs in the possibility of constructing a better world. Terror tactics rely on maximising shock and fear.

Unfortunately too often official responses have tended to amplify terrorism’s impact and tended to undermine society’s core civic values of democracy and freedom. Revitalising a sense of purpose and meaning in democratic ideals is the most valuable way of marginalising terrorism.

To paraphrase the psychologist Viktor Frankl, who survived concentration camps, we may be afraid of terrorism, but we will only be destroyed by meaninglessness.

Shakespeare is one of the many cultural sources which may help us revitalise a sense of meaning.

Vanessa Pupavac is an Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Published inShakespeare

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