Verso, £14.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: The Hamlet Doctrine, By Simon Critchley & Jamieson Webster

Punk attitude and high theory conjoin to revise our views of the theatre's greatest ditherer

Shakespeare, we are told, is like Guinness: good for us. Imbibing the works of the Bard is a morally edifying experience that nourishes us in the highest expression of our native language. Shakespeare's works hold a mirror up to nature that shows man as the endlessly fascinating, tragic, but ultimately ennobled centre of the starry universe. As the critic Harold Bloom would have it, Shakespeare was the "inventor of the human".

This has been the prevalent view since English bardolaters such as David Garrick and German Romantics brought his work back into fashion in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Hamlet Doctrine, by philosopher Simon Critchley and psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster, doesn't entirely disagree, but it suggests that the lessons we take from the Bard's works are a considerably more bracing tonic.

The co-authors, husband and wife, focus their attack on the Harold Blooms with what they call a "rash" and "nihilist" reading of arguably Shakespeare's most famous play. The book is a series of 48 short variations in which the play is held in conversation with a series of "privileged interlocutors" and their "outsider interpretations", namely Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Lacan, Hegel, Freud, Nietzsche and James Joyce. The result is a hugely enjoyable, aphoristic, punky, intellectually dazzling bomb of a book: a serious provocation to both the biscuit-box Shakespeare industry and, more widely, to contemporary literary culture.

Hamlet for Critchley and Webster is not Goethe's "man who cannot make up his mind"; rather, he is a kind of anti-Oedipus. For where Oedipus does not know the truth but acts until he discovers it and in this monstrous knowing puts out his eyes, Hamlet knows the truth from the ghost "from the get go". However, the truth does not spur him to action. He is subject to an existential nausea, disgust and lethargy. Action is pointless in a world where one has stared into the abyss of truth. The authors quote Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy: it disgusts Hamlet to act "for [his] action could not change anything in the eternal essence of things".

One of Critchley and Webster's central contentions, then, is that action requires an illusion and that theatre itself is an illusion that nevertheless helps us access a truth. This has implications far out with the plush of the theatre. Consider the current impasse over Syria. Is it not the case that having stared into the bloody void of truth that was Iraq, we find we are overcome with lethargy and disgust and no longer have the will to act? Are we not "Hamlets in a world of states we know to be rotten?"

The book does not make a single overarching argument. Critchley and Webster joyfully toss out ideas, conjectures, maybes, might-bes and what-ifs while implying a two-fingered salute to the po-faced literary establishment. The conjectures include Carl Schmitt's theory that the play centres on a historical taboo where Hamlet is a mask for James 1 of England, whose mother was Mary Queen of Scots and whose father, Lord Darnley, was most likely assassinated by her lover, the Earl of Bothwell; and the surprising conclusion that Ophelia is the true tragic heroine of the play.

Critchley played in a punk band as a teenager and something of that punk spirit lives on in this book. It is a book to be devoured, argued with, spat out. The novelist Lee Rourke wrote recently that "If literature is to evolve in this country it should put aside its traditional empiricism and strive towards radical contemporary philosophies and the esoteric." The Hamlet Doctrine may be just what he is looking for.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried