Response to Margreta de Grazia's "Hamlet's Thoughts and Antics"

Juliet Fleming

 

     1. In "Hamlet's Thoughts and Antics" Margreta de Grazia offers a series of correctives to the last two hundred years of Shakespeare scholarship -- and therefore to the practice of literary criticism more generally. The essay forms part of an on-going project, registered in a series of recently published articles, whereby de Grazia has called attention to the universalizing tendencies of contemporary historicist criticism as that currently reads the Renaissance as a version of "the Early-Now". (See, especially, her 'Fin de Siecle Renaissance' in Elaine Scarry, ed., Fins de Siecles: English Poetry in 1590, 1690, 1790, 1890, 1990 (Baltimore and London, 1995); 'Soliloquies and wages in the age of emergent consciousness', Textual Practice 9:1, 1995: 67-92; and 'The ideology of superfluous things: King Lear as Period Piece' in eds. Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass, Subject and object in Renaissance Culture (Cambridge, 1996).) "The question is", she says, "in our eagerness to make the Renaissance relevant to the Modern, have we not been precipitous in identifying it as the onset of the Modern?. . . does it make sense to make the nascent dominant before history does?" To posit the early seventeenth century as the site of -- and Shakespeare as the figure for -- the emergence of modernity, may be to produce powerful readings of his plays as they have consequence for ourselves. But, as de Grazia's work demonstrates, it is also a critical enterprise with its own disadvantages.

     2. First, by reconfiguring the past in accordance with current preoccupations, contemporary historicist criticism remains as resolutely allegorical as any method that proceeded it. Second, as an historical method it is marked by a teleological pressure that recognises only those social and political forms whose triumph constitutes modernity -- which is to say that it may turn in indifference or alientation from a past it finds thinking differently from itself. And finally, as de Grazia has repeatedly shown, it is an interpretative method that relies at times on starkly anachronistic assumptions about the material conditions, social codes, and representational practices of English life at the turn of the seventeenth century.

     3. "Hamlet's Thoughts and Antics" engages the critical heritage of Shakespeare's most famous play at each of these levels. The essay begins by demonstrating the extraordinary magnetism that Hamlet has exerted within the fields of psychoanalysis, philosophy, and literary criticism. Since the early nineteenth century, each discipline has understood the play to be staging a variant of Coleridge's question and answer: 'Why does Hamlet delay? He delays because he thinks'. De Grazia's essay allows us to understand the purchase exercised on modern audiences by this dramatically banal proposition. For Coleridge, Hazlitt, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Benjamin, Lacan and Derrida, for critics and readers influenced by them, and for modern audiences coming to the play for the first time, each take Hamlet's performance of thought to figure the philosophical drama according to which modern consciousness brings itself into being as it learns, within history, to take the reality opposed to it as its own reality.

     4. Of course, it is not the same modern mind that emerges in the work of these critics, and it would be possible to divide them into competing schools, tracing philosophical trajectories within which the relation of thought to action was very differently conceived. Thus for Coleridge this relation operates according to a fixed economy whereby the more a man thinks, the less he acts, and the more intellectually heroic he becomes; for Nietzsche and Benjamin, Hamlet represents the ennervation but enhanced self-consciousness of modern man; while for Hegel and for Lacan -- who thus stand markedly apart from other critics -- Hamlet dramatises the failure of the subject to achieve self-consciousness. But de Grazia is not concerned to chart these differences: in the second half of her essay she proposes, instead, that if Hamlet cannot make up his modern mind to act, that is because he has no modern mind to make up.

     5. This is a critical move that many will resist, for it severs in one blow the axiom according to which much Shakespeare criticism currently proceeds. This axiom -- that the plays can be the locus for the representation and realisation of present concerns -- is broadly unfalsifiable. As a tenet of literary criticism it is not easily distinguished from Schlegel's influential proposition that a work of art is completed (or, in Benjamin's more sophisticated version, "ruinated") by the critic. But in contemporary Shakespearean criticism it is often developed according to a process of historical inversion that attributes to Shakespeare's plays the capacity to "speak to" -- indeed to originate a conversation with -- the present moment. And in this developed form the claim is one that can scarcely survive de Grazia's historical corrective.

     6. The proposition that Shakespeare was a writer who anticipated the concerns of our own modernity was given useful formulation in 1859 by Delia Bacon, whose derided work, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded, argued that "Shakspere" was the name of a consortium of writers who wrote the plays in order to promote a new system of philosophy, and to prepare the populace for the social revolution that was to follow. Bacon's work deserves present attention as a strong (and strongly intelligent) exemplification of suppositions still current; for according to her, the 'Shakespere' consortium wrote both for, and to bring about, a future age that would understand it, and had recourse to literature -- as a purpose-developed cultural register -- in order to institute "a gradual encroachment on popular opinions . . . That is the reason why the development of that age comes to us as Literature. . . . The leadership of the modern ages, when it was already here in the persons of its chief interpreters and prophets, could as yet get no recognition of its right to teach and rule . . . it could only wave, in mute gesticulation, its signals to the future." Bacon's beliefs -- that Shakespeare's plays coded a criticism of the prevailing order that dared not speak its name; that there are "heroic intellects" who are not simply "blind historical agents" but can see beyond the circumstances of their moment; and that works of literature have certain meanings that become legible under historical circumstances not their own -- are the same beliefs that allowed the elevation of Hamlet into the emblem of our own modernity, and that currently allow Shakespeare's plays to function as a powerful register of contemporary political debate. But it is a creed that produces, as the object of its study, an historical amalgam that permits us to recognise ourselves in the past, but not, in any serious way, the past in itself.

     7. In earlier essays, de Grazia has already demonstrated some of the things that we cannot learn from Shakespeare's plays as long as we take their central characters and concerns to be those of modernity. We cannot easily notice, for example, the different notion of personhood, and its relation to property, knowledge, and the body, that governs Shakespeare's assumptions as to what it means to be human. But de Grazia's point in this present essay is that if we have not known these things, it is, in part, because by not noticing where we are ignorant -- by collapsing, without residue, the "early modern" English into versions of ourselves -- we have also failed to notice the representational codes that governed the meaning and consequence of early seventeenth-century drama.

     8. "Hamlet's Thoughts and Antics" thus suggests, pace Coleridge and others, that in their moment Shakespeare's plays were concerned less with character than with plot -- which is to say that one could imagine the play without the Prince, but not the Prince without the play. But the argument goes further than this. For if the character of Hamlet as the man who thinks is the precipitate of a plot that will have him delay, the plot of delay is ITSELF the instrument and consequence of a dramaturgical interest in the deployment and infraction of genre. Which is to say that at the turn of the seventeenth century Hamlet was not a play about a man who thinks, nor even one whose hero is delayed by circumstance. Instead it was a play about the play of representational codes: a comedy about competing acting styles; a critique, that was also an endorsement, of generic mixtures; and a debate about the relation of genre to its audience. (This last debate seems to me to be more consequential than even de Grazia allows. Held with the same audience that forms its object, it is surely no simple registration of the demographic facts of Jacobean theatre-going. For while the spatially divided audience is a fact, the proposition that such seating arrangements correspond, not only to a social division between better and meaner sorts, but also to a distinction between 'judicious' and 'unskillful' understandings, is one that the plays produce in order to interrogate. The difference of response between groundlings and gentlemen is one of the in-jokes of the Jacobean public theatre: but its serious function is surely to enchance the number of generic registers available to the audience in its entirety.)

     9. Even without this last consideration, de Grazia's Hamlet is, I think, a play stranger, and more sophisticated, than those of many of its predecessors (although her version has more in common with Benjamin's reading of the play, not as a tragedy, but as an exemplary instance of the proto-baroque genre of Trauerspiel than she allows). This Hamlet is not ostensibly about the self and its passions, but about an early seventeenth century concern with the modes of, and markets for, representational practice. But to say so much is not necessarily to exclude the play from history's set towards modernity. On the contrary, it is to identify it as the expression of a moment that marks the end of the Renaissance, even as it does not yet inaugurate the modern -- the moment of Cartesian dualism, which divided the mind from the body to produce an immaterial subject whose always mysterious relation to matter was brokered by an equally mysterious process of representation. If it may be said to have been through representation alone that Cartesian thought came to know a world whose difference from itself was absolute, it was the codification of those representations into stylized conventions, gestures and genres that allowed the Cartesian subject to negotiate the gap between material and immaterial realms that it was its own fate to inhabit. By this showing Hamlet, whose plot, style, and dramaturgical interest are deeply bound to such questions, is the exemplary play of its post-Renaissance moment. But it is important to stress, with de Grazia, that this historical development is not coterminous with modernity, but marks instead a period from whose thought which we are now profoundly estranged. A moment undreamed of, as Benjamin says, in the arrogance of the modern critic's 'philosophical knowledgeability' -- and a period which, not yet having sealed the problem of metaphysics within the psyche, commits its drama to the representation, rather than to the expression, of thought.

 

 

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Form copyright © 2001 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2001 Juliet Fleming.