Getting inside Hamlet’s head
A brisk, witty argument for a philosophical, politicised and perverse version of the play
The Hamlet Doctrine
Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster
This is one way of talking about the vexed question of Hamlet’s madness, or more accurately his melancholia. According to Walter Benjamin, Hamlet is a Trauerspiel or mourning-play: a drama in which both the personal and the political are reduced to a travesty of lust and murder, enacted in a field of bones.
The other way of describing Hamlet’s mental state is of course the psychoanalytic one, and a good deal of The Hamlet Doctrine is devoted to rehearsing controversies among Freud and his followers regarding the prince’s problem with desire. You could object that there’s slightly too much on these analytic disputes, or on the involutions of Jacques Lacan’s conjectures about the vanishing phallus. But if they were hardly great close readers of Hamlet , both Freud and Lacan lead us to some flummoxing aspects of the play’s weird sexuality: Hamlet’s vast disgust for Gertrude, his ambiguous doubling with Laertes and Ophelia. (Leopold Bloom was a little ahead of the Freudians: “Perhaps he was a woman. Why Ophelia committed suicide?”)
The Hamlet Doctrine is a brisk and witty argument for a philosophical, politicised and somewhat perverse version of the play. And with their pleasingly vulgar taste for puns – they’re good on “wills” and “pricks” and “holes” – Critchley and Webster are natural readers of Shakespeare. In the lineage of interpretations that they trace among philosophers, political theorists and psychoanalysts, there is probably little to alarm scholars and recent students of Hamlet , but the book could be read as a necessary counter to the restrictive historicism that has lately dethroned high theory among academic critics. There are satisfyingly grand claims being made here about the present value of Hamlet. One late surprise, of almost Bloomian moral import, is the authors’ insistence that the play’s abjection and monstrosity can – no, must – be pitted against today’s supposedly soulless, screen-mediated art and culture. That seems rash to say the least; though, as Hamlet says to Laertes, “praised be rashness”.
Brian Dillon’s Objects in This Mirror: Essays is published by Sternberg Press