From edition

In the Statedness of Denmark

Itzik Basman.Futility as Tragedy: an Interpretation of Hamlet. (2004)

Mr. Basman’s study of Hamlet certainly does not hurry one to happy reflections on our current situation, where many of us, like Barnardo and Francisco in the play’s first scene, are now standing on the battlements playing lookout. Of course, the object of our watch, the terror of the war on terror, requires of us a somewhat different task. It’s not so much about reporting suspicious activity (we have, to be sure, underpaid airport security with their alienated affect at the ready to do that for us) as it is about making sure one’s noticed the color of the terror alert signal has changed. That we are left at a loss as to why the color changes and by what criteria the administration determines the change is needed-this all pales in its silliness to the fact that we never can ask why our government wields exclusive trademark over what constitutes a terrorist and a terrorist act, and why particularly it is never the United States which can be branded in such a manner.

I will resist going further in this already futile line of thought, of whose concerns those who might be reading this are likely already aware and have more insightful things to say. Nevertheless, Basman’s Dane has the strange tendency to provoke these kind of contemporary ruminations, even though the author remains steady to his set task of explaining the world of the play only. I find this most remarkable about the book: that its reading, essentially refusing the blinkered, dopey obeisance that today’s politics has made of that concept-reading-almost resistlessly (unconsciously?) gives itself over to a kind of charged and oddly novel realignment between politics and ideas. Or perhaps one could go as far to say between justice and philosophy. No doubt Mr. Basman’s own choice of object-not just any play-shares an important role in this result.

At the same time one does not want to play down the critic’s own tenacity in his willingness to perform a close reading in the clearly-bordered, timeless mystique of a high cultural artifact. But, in fact, to charge oneself into this divine territory of a world classic, long assimilated, taken for granted, doubtless critically accoutred with all sorts of roundabout nationalist overtones, and with the object of rethinking what all the above thought it had already thought, this must seem, at least at its outset, something like the act of a terrorist.

And nothing suggests this sentiment more than the character of Hamlet, and the origins of his tragedy for which Futility as Tragedy: an Interpretation of Hamlet tries to make an account. I should like to thank Mr. Basman for authoring this scrupulous and timely prod for me to go back and look at the play.

And as for his study of Hamlet itself, its argument is provocative in the zeal with which it dwells on a thematic constellation relating dramatic, philosophic, and moral concerns. To put this more specifically, in the dramaturgy which involves Hamlet, Basman finds the idea that one plays roles in life, the structure of the state, and the notion of the human all intersecting one another in such a way as to throw all presuppositions about them into turmoil. This condition is, in part, Hamlet’s turmoil.

By way of clarification, let us proceed quickly down the list of these related claims. “Hamlet’s tragedy,” argues Basman, “is to be called to an action that can only implicate him in the world’s rottenness and that cannot lead to vindication” (64). This calling is to play a certain role, to take on a branding familiar to humans since a time far back in the mythic haze. When Hamlet deliberates amidst his outrage over his uncle Claudius’ crimes against him-robbing from him both father and crown-he is in one sense deciding on whether to revive this ancient part, the agent of vengeance. But this role can only have meaning for us in the backlight afforded it by the history of human societies, for vengeance can afford “validation” as an act of justice only in the dearth of social institutions. These latter afford, at least putatively, legal standards, objective criteria which establish norms of just punishment and in light of which vengeance must appear barbaric, precisely to the degree its nature is “contingent.”

What separates the legal institution and act of vengeance is the consensual authority embodied by the former. By contrast, what determines the legality of vengeance is the “might” of that entity who performs the vengeance and is thereafter able to assert its legality. Hence Basman’s ultimate formulation is that “[c]ontingency is the principle of a world where random might destroys meaning, and thus destroys any possibility of real social order” (101). But then, by extension the “human” marks the legal society in the moral sense that being “human” is the capacity to resist barbaric motives like vengeance.

Marveling at Shakespeare’s capacity to depict a state “fused” with the “stateless”-resulting in a moral trapping void of legal truth and contaminated by vengeance-Futility follows the fall of the other dominoes in the wake of Claudius’ successful usurpation. Hamlet’s philosophic insight and “capacity for irony” finds itself obsolescent in a situation that would simply have him be fate’s hit man. Out of place as well is the ideal act of the “human,” the “imaginative sympathy” which resists brutal, inequitable logics of force and therein accounts for the positive effect of its (formal) communities. With this kind of insight, Basman writes, “Yet manners and custom suggest something unnatural in the sense of being man-made and hence apart from nature, while at the same time being just as surely nature’s product” (26).

By the logic of this claim, “nature” is the force of contingency over the human, against the violence of which humans forge social customs, whose raw material itself inevitably derives from nature too. The establishment of this identity is also a fascinating turn in the argument of this book, but it occasioned me with some confusion. There seems certain affinities to be gathered, for one, between the concepts of nature, evil, contingency, and possibly others, but these are not entirely clear. And this result must be odd in a book working carefully to sort out ambiguities and counter critics who assert ambiguity as a persistent tendency of the play itself (Harold Bloom is mentioned in this connection directly).

More to the point of this discussion, there is a problem of moral categorization here. Is nature bad in some instances, as the state, and good in others, as the state? This is in fact Basman’s solution, particularly in the idea of the “legitimate” (63) state versus one that is not. But then what of that other nature, the primordial one from which human institutions come? Shorn of custom and legal procedure and thrown into the realm of a purer contingency, is one not closer to a state of evil? Is it not this nature by which “some men are so marked by the curse of unfathomable evil that they shatter the bulwarks of manners and custom, and hence reason” (27).

If such were the case, then this nature might appear malignant by its very willingness to mark some men in this “unfathomable” manner. A quite different argument is made earlier, however, when the problem is made one of “literality,” the human desire to take things to be what they appear, in which sense “[e]vil, then, insidiously derives strength from man’s inclination to such order and meaning” (19). To the degree that no one knows of Claudius’ machinations-that he enjoys, indeed, credible deniability-his ascension is legitimate. Thus, as an expression of this desire for order, the design of human conventions necessarily become themselves implicated in a condition of the “stateless,” and in this coming about the second form of nature is necessarily implicated.

The impasse in the argument is itself fascinating, weaving between two causal mechanisms which seem very different. The state of Denmark is corrupt for contingent, contextual, historical reasons. In such an argument, one wonders whether the problem lies specifically in absolute monarchy and succession determined by bloodline, presented here as a form of government increasingly untenable in Shakespeare’s time. Yet on the other hand, corruption is the inherent product of human institutions themselves, and human attempts to reduce the deleterious nature of, well, nature, if too much accepted or taken for granted, robs the life of the human project, seeking its death well before any bodies need be buried (to gloss aspects of Basman’s reading of the fifth act). The human state becomes, with a kind of pretension mixed with viciousness, the maudlin or ludicrous parody of nature in all her ferocity and incomprehensible power.

These thoughts are, in no little measure, due to the links between the idea of the state and role-playing that Basman continues to press through his argument. In this light, the corruption of the state embodied as Claudius appears as a betrayal of Hamlet and the values he has invested in that institution. The scenario encourages a tragic closure, a thematics of futility by which Hamlet now accepts his role in the cycle of vengeance.

What is also clear, however, is that to reach this thesis, Basman has had to describe a limit case in which Hamlet’s “extralegal” resolution has as its justification the fact that no other option except intolerable “quiescence” seems available. It is a gloomy spectacle of imminence: to avert the fall of society, or the danger of corruption and assimilation, the side of “us” need be taken. Thus Hamlet acts in the name of his lineage and the social form upon which his blood is imbricated.

More illuminating about this argument, however, is the casualty it shows must precede such a stark decision. This loss is none other than literature itself, as the phenomena which Basman defines as “a progression of self-discovery.” In this way, the play renders thematic its own means, following a character for whom self-discovery and its fearful, wearying uncertainties are eventually abandoned, perhaps must be abandoned, as a role is accepted, a genre fulfilled. If this is the issue of an exigency, then the role it requires is a response of the (imperiled) state to the (corrupt) state, and more so because the state requires its own roles, which inevitably play a part in the process of a citizen’s (or a subject’s) “self-discovery.”

If such is the case, does not this futility have shades of Horatio’s impulse at the end of the play to do himself in? The Hamlet described by this book would appear a site perched over a precipice, uncertain as to what self he should become. In the event of either choice-and as with Horatio there appear only two-the self as something like an “undiscovered country” will become a martyr of some other mode of existence, or some other Hamlet.

To be more precise, Hamlet will not have to kill himself so much as quiet that element setting him apart from most of the other characters, namely his “consciousness,” his “capacity for irony,” the intensity with which he “employs his intellect in both attempting to fend off and penetrate what seems” (20). But this is to put the matter in such rosy terms as to dilute its significance.

By contrast, Basman’s more provocative explanation states that “[c]onsciousness as a restless probing, in the way of philosophy, is disintegrative. It tests appearances and threatens what seems fixed and ordered” (19). If such a tendency is consistent with Hamlet, this claim can not but suggest that he was a threat to Denmark well before its statelessness. It would suggest just as much that Hamlet is something other than just a prince, in which office his “readiness” for both death and the mysteries of thought, not to mention the rather cryptic fashion in which he will let himself indefinitely be expressed (as “that within which passes show” rather than simply “trappings”), all bear in this context something akin to a foreign agent, possibly a conspiracy, a rebellion in the wings, or simply the awesome and humbling potential of infinite and inevitable change.

So, Hamlet as terrorist. If this is the question, then it may require us to give ambiguity more credence. For the combination of anxiety and fascination filling so many impressions of terror may have not simply to do with deceptive appearances. It might also be a matter of the clearest of signals, the most direct of warning signs, getting crossed, as in a philosopher who is also a terrorist, or a prince whose greatest campaign never left the castle walls, at the same time its struggle continues to flow over into our world.

Brian Meredith is a PhD student at the University of Florida working in Critical Theory and 18th-Century English, Modern Irish, and Scottish literature

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues