The Hamlet Doctrine, by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster

Peter J. Smith on non-Lit Crit efforts to find the method in the Danish prince’s madness

November 28, 2013

“This little book”, as the authors describe The Hamlet Doctrine, is topped and tailed by some too-much protesting: “We are outsiders to the world of Shakespeare criticism”; “We are but inauthentic amateurs”; “Perhaps this book will be the undoing of our marriage.” What does this pseudo-confessional mode and false modesty reveal? Why such faux-naïf posturing?

Hamlet is not the preserve of literary critics, especially those literary critics who are thick-headed about literature (and there are plenty of us). Simon Critchley is a professor of philosophy and Jamieson Webster is a practising psychoanalyst; both have published several books in their respective disciplines. Each is well qualified to explore a literary work that has evaded the pronouncements of generations of literary critics. This play in particular shirks the bridle of critical control, resisting the attempts of traditional Lit Crit to (as Hamlet puts it) “pluck out the heart of [its] mystery”.

Hamlet is the text, sui generis, that stretches literary criticism to breaking point, as attested by the glum submissions of its greatest commentators. For A. C. Bradley, “the text admits of no sure interpretation”; for T. S. Eliot, it was “puzzling and disquieting”; and for John Dover Wilson, “Hamlet is an illusion”. Nor might we ascribe this sense of defeat to a theoretically uninitiated past. The play’s most recent Oxford editor, G. R. Hibbard, acknowledges his bewilderment: Shakespeare’s tragedy “means something, even though, or perhaps because, that ‘something’ admits of no ready or simple definition”. Confronted with no fewer than three different versions of Hamlet, editorial confusion is de rigueur.

Perhaps we might look with greater confidence to the play on stage, but near the end of his 1,000-page account of theatrical Hamlets, Marvin Rosenberg can offer only cold comfort: “All the words about Hamlet, almost three centuries of words, and as many of stagings, and the adventure into the depths of the play has hardly begun.” Philosopher, psychoanalyst, anthropologist, historian or political theorist – if anybody has anything useful to add, seize the conch.

Critchley and Webster do have useful things to say. They read the play through the founding fathers (sic) of their own disciplines. Philosophical authorities include Plato, Aristotle, Walter Benjamin, Hegel and Kant, while Freud and Jacques Lacan provide the foundations for psychoanalytic readings. Indeed, this book’s title, The Hamlet Doctrine, is a nod to Nietzsche’s die Hamletlehre, which “turns on the dialectic of knowledge and action”. Hamlet’s paralysis, his failure to execute his revenge mission, is not a dithering or hesitant indecision but rather the emphatic demonstration that he knows that his actions will lead precisely to nothing: “The readiness that is all is a readiness for the ‘not’ that will come and become now.” Far from knowledge spurring action, the two are in inverse proportion to one another. It is certainty, not doubt, that drives Hamlet’s ennui.

It appears, however, that the philosopher and psychoanalyst are not entirely au fait with the arguments that have raged through the New Historicist and cultural materialist camps about early modern autonomy and the emergence (or lack) of individuality. Their historical assertions are imprecise to say the least: “What lies behind Hamlet is the reality of the Reformation”; Elizabethan England “was not political; it was barbaric”. But there are some refreshingly brazen obscenities: Hamlet is disgusted by “the idea of the sickly sweet and semened sty of a marital bed where the bloated, suilline king fucks his mother like a sow”; Gertrude is “a gaping cunt” (Lacan’s un con béant); and (rather oddly): “We give flowers not because we love but because we want to fuck” – if Critchley and Webster invite you to dinner, don’t take flowers!

The Hamlet Doctrine provides the authors with an arena to demonstrate their philosophical and psychoanalytical credentials, but its aphoristic assertions and frequently sloppy formulations (“he’s lost his mojo”; “disgust is reactive: yuk!!!”; “Money is the fishmonger between need and object”) get us no closer to Shakespeare’s play than Lit Crit. As always, Hamlet has already anticipated the confusions of other disciplines: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Hamlet Doctrine

By Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster
Verso, 288pp, £14.99
ISBN 9781781682562
Published 23 September 2013

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