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

John Douglas Millar
Thursday 17 October 2013 16:32 BST

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.

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