Hamlet as an instructive prototype of a political myth?

Hamlet as an instructive prototype of a political myth?

Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of the Time into the Play (Schmitt: 2009) includes a remarkable analysis of myth’s political significance within Shakespeare’s classic play. It is arguable that, compared with his other studies of myth, this study sets out a particularly sustained analysis concerning the specifically cultural dimensions of the interpretative formation, transmission and mutation of mythic figures, albeit mainly developed as a sub-theme. His analysis certainly nuances and supplements his better known – if far less sophisticated – accounts of myth contained in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (Schmitt 1988). Commentators have recently started to recognise the significance of Schmitt’s reinterpretation of Hamlet as a mythic figure. They have noted its relationship to his historical studies, for example in Nomos of the Earth, of the role of Britain’s early modern public sphere and growing maritime orientation within the history of international law (Schmitt 2003). Such recognition provides a new and interesting take on questions of mythic depoliticisations of literature and comparisons with neo-Marxists, particularly Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, including the latter’s influential Dialectic of Enlightenment. The latter includes a sustained analysis of the politically instructive value of specific myths (Pan 2009a: 70, 76, 73–96).

This chapter addresses three major themes: the relationship between Schmitt’s analysis of Hamlet and leviathan, Hamlet as an exemplar of a deliberately created political myth, containing various constitutional implications, founded upon the intrusion of historical events related to sovereignty, and, thirdly, the creative role of the context of reception for the reiteration of myth.

Hamlet as a corrective to leviathan?

Schmitt appears to have recognised some general lessons from the failure of leviathan as an ultimately political myth. In turn, this recognition informs his interpretation of Hamlet, and provides an initial frame of reference for interpreting this later literary study. Interestingly, if albeit at the risk of gross simplification, Kahn argues that we need to read Schmitt’s study of Prince Hamlet as a corrective to the counterproductive failure of leviathan as a political symbol, as an exemplary Schmittian ‘countermyth’:

Hobbes of Der Leviathan is a tarnished figure, one who failed to understand the importance of myth and who unwittingly inaugurated the protoliberal, technological vitiation of politics. I now want to suggest that in his 1956 work, Hamlet oder Hekuba, Schmitt turned to Shakespeare in order to elaborate his own counter-myth of early modern politics, one designed to counteract the deleterious effect of Hobbes.

(Kahn 2003: 80)

These two studies are, perhaps, best read together as contrasting case studies of a failed and comparatively successful political myth. Such comparison may, in turn, teach us useful lessons concerning the politico-cultural requirements for launching successful mythic figures during the early modern period of English history, some of which may perhaps still be relevant today.

If, as I suggest, Schmitt learned some important lessons about political myth-making from his analysis of the historical failure of Hobbes’ leviathan symbol, and these shape his later study of Hamlet, then it may be useful to address the latter partly in this light. Taken as a case study, the question arises as to whether the Hamlet myth provides a more fruitful avenue for rebuilding a convincing, and thus politically effective, myth of sovereignty than that of Hobbes’ leviathan? Is it positively beneficial to the articulation of a political myth that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as a work of tragic fiction? Here we should note that, as a contribution to literature, this work is free from Hobbes’ commitment in Leviathan to a type of mathematico deductive form of scientific reasoning and political science analysis seeking to displace the aesthetic realm.

Studying Hamlet’s implications: themes and questions

Studying Hamlet as a distinctly political myth raises specific methodological issues and questions. These include not only the nature, presumptions, limits and focus of his approach, but also what does it means to treat the figure of Hamlet as such a mythic symbol? For instance, how does Schmitt raise and discuss the question of the possible connectedness of viable mythic figures to popularly understood intuitive understandings of the constitutional implications of concrete historical events? Can a Schmittian model draw upon distinctly realist and sociological orientations to challenge the assumption that an either/or binary relationship characterises the relationship between literary and historical figures, and between purely aesthetic and strictly historical analysis? Is it overly paradoxical for Schmitt to seek to enhance distinctly realistic elements of political mythology by analysing the intrusion of historical events into audiences’ interpretation of a work of literature such as Hamlet?

Schmitt rejects a narrow literary critical approach to the study of Hamlet that focuses only upon the alleged genius of the author, the psychology of the title character and the aesthetic autonomy of the play as a work of art. Instead, and in keeping with contemporary hermeneutics and new historicism, he insists that the production of Hamlet as a political myth was far from unconstrained by, or otherwise unrelated to, external forces and historical circumstances, the concrete expectations and sensibilities of a real audience, and the ‘public sphere’ more generally (Schmitt 2009: introduction, 45; Kahn 2003: 82). Schmitt’s theory of myth needs to distance itself from such subjective reductionism by recognising the intrusion and mediation of the staging of the play by historical realities. Otherwise the Prince figure would be explicable purely in terms of its author’s subjectivity, not as an authentic political myth exhibiting a significance that endures across and transcends specific contexts of emergence (Strathausen 2010: 12). Schmitt’s approach thus strongly resists the complete reduction of the Hamlet myth to the entirely fictional sphere of literature, where its various aesthetic and philosophical qualities can be dissected in abstraction from any appreciation of empirical historical events and processes (Schmitt 2009: 20–1).

As part of his wider critique of aesthetic reductionism, Schmitt expressly contrasts Shakespeare’s more sober-minded realism, which he clearly endorses, with the ideological appeal to the political myth of ‘humanity’. Within Schiller’s romanticism, for instance, humanity is portrayed as somehow coming into its own ‘higher sphere’ through acts of purely artistic appreciation. Schmitt argues that, on the contrary, it is more prudent to avoid the former’s humanistic commitment to ‘aesthetic liberation’ through free-floating interpretative acts of play that are supposedly detached from ongoing historical realities. This is because the latter alone provide the resources for the creation of the Hamlet myth-turned-legend (Schmitt 2009: 48).

Schmitt draws the conclusion that literary myths are too important to be left to solely aesthetic analysis by literary critics. Instead, he insists that some understanding of the actual plight of King James at this time is vital to generate an informed interpretation of Hamlet as a political myth because: ‘It is here that the connection between present history and tragedy emerges. … A larger topic arises here: the political symbols and allegories in Shakespeare’s drama’ (Schmitt 2009: 26 and n 15). At the methodological level, Schmitt thus argues for the cross referencing and integration of empirical historical knowledge resonating with political meanings and implications, with artistic and literary form, including, more precisely, the ‘irruption’ of historical forces within works of art containing potentially or actual mythic figures.

Myth and other cultural forms

Where, according to Schmitt, do political myths of the kind Hamlet personifies fit within related cultural forms? If Schmitt’s terminology is taken literally, it implies a distinct order of rank between different symbolic figures that contribute to the analysis of myths more generally. Within this hierarchical order, those figures that have already attained the elevated status of genuine ‘political myths’, such as Hamlet, are located above purely literary myths. They are figures whose political associations can be openly acknowledged without deception. In turn, the mythic figures of literature occupy a position within the overall pyramid above that of other non-mythic, but still symbolic, literary figures, however well known.

Schmitt’s claim that there exists a pyramid-style hierarchy, or totem pole, of symbolic figures is consistent with two of his other claims: first, that non-political, or depoliticised, entities generally exhibit a problematic and conflicted status, at least in comparison with their authentically ‘politicised’ equivalents. Secondly, that the deliberate reversal of ideological depoliticisation, even aesthetic literary variants, remains an urgent analytical – as well as specifically political – task. This task is vital if social and institutional relations are ever to break free of their addictive reliance upon the systemic deception of citizens (Schmitt 1993; Schmitt 1996a).

Schmitt provides us with a potentially interesting – if sometimes enigmatic – discussion of how political myths can first attain their status at the top of this totem pole of symbolic figures through the importation of non-fictional historical elements, particularly those with tragic qualities. It is now possible to focus attention upon the specifically cultural aspects of this process as suggested by Schmitt’s study of Hamlet. Once manifested in the sphere of intentional interpretations and various generic cultural forms and distinctions, actual persons and events can take on a particularly emphatic status: one which is supportive of only a fraction of them ultimately attaining a legendary mythic status.

According to Schmitt, myth-making is implicated in various specific but interconnected cultural processes that allow for structural formal analysis, as well as historical interpretations oriented towards their variable content. These processes involve a primary movement of decontextualisation and abstraction from the immediate time and place of original historical events and persons and associated value-judgements. The Hamlet–James couplet becomes the cultural presence of a Hamlet-sovereign hybrid (Schmitt 2009: 20, 25, 37, 44). This initial movement is typically followed by the proto-myth’s universalistic recontextualisation, often overloaded with specific normative implications, as ‘a lesson for everyone, everywhere’. In turn, this can itself exhibit distinctly political and constitutional ramifications. Schmitt certainly portrays Hamlet as a mythic figure of this kind: ‘The myth of the sovereign behind the prince, the real presence of the King behind the actor on stage, and, by extension, the myth of sovereignty as presence’ (Rust and Lupton 2009: xxxvii). It is thus arguable that, on Schmitt’s interpretation, Hamlet operates as a deliberately created, therefore distinctly ‘modern’, political myth. The latter appears not only to boost a specifically Hobbesian account of personalised sovereignty, but also – as a counter-myth – to correct the failures of the mechanistic leviathan figure discussed above.

In short, Schmitt makes and illustrates a series of distinctions that cast light upon a Schmittian model for political myths. The latter resist common forms of reductive analysis, subjectivism and objectivism. It also connects such myths to the ongoing process of a cultural aesthetic reiteration of concrete political orders potentially involving a conflict between, on the one hand, institutional practices and, on the other, particular normative standards held to be applicable and contextually appropriate.

Myth as an ethos of ethnicity?

Schmitt endorses the provocative idea, which is rich in implications for the historical and sociological study of art and literature, that the essence of tragedy lies in mythic qualities, including heroic legends. In particular, he quotes approvingly Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s claim (as cited by Walter Benjamin) that such legends constitute ‘the sum of the living historical recollections of a people in a time when the people can only think concretely in the form of a history of a myth … the origin of tragedy in myth must be consciously incorporated into the definition of tragedy; myth thus remains the source of the tragic’ (Schmitt 2009: 46, 46 n 32).

Of course, in one sense, this formulation does not provide a generic understanding of myth per se, only one possible function of myth in relation to the origins of literary tragedies. On the other hand, Schmitt’s conception of an ongoing tradition of mythic legends, including concrete legendary figures operating normatively as positive and negative role models, does advance our present, more generic concerns. Indeed, it suggests the inevitable dominance of customary ways of thinking that are rooted in the contents of an image-rich cultural tradition of symbols, fables and other normatively-loaded narratives.

The latter are themselves widely understood by affected parties as instructive guides for understanding how a supposedly ‘worthwhile life’ of the projected kind now needs to be lived. In this respect, Schmitt endorses an understanding of myth as an integral aspect of the normative ethos of ongoing, as well as traditional, cultural practices. These include a range of expectations stemming from instructive legendary myths. Of course, ‘normative’ in this context embraces collective ethnic practices that many would regard as unethical, abnormal and immoral, as well as ethical, normal and moral, and is thus best understood as a descriptive-analytic rather than as an evaluative term.

According to Schmitt, this ethos is not only articulated within literature and art. Instead, it is also lived through as the interpretative framework of a particular historically-rooted way of life (or ‘concrete order’) more generally, to which individuals firmly belong as their encompassing life element: ‘as part of heroic legend, which is not only a literary source for the writer but living knowledge shared by the writer and his public – a piece of historical reality to which all participants are bound by their historical existence’ (Schmitt 2009: 46). For example, a liberal fable concerning the need for a fight to the death to defend another’s right to express objectionable views, can be constantly repeated as a mantra of constitutional liberalism, which is directed polemically against, say, Rwandan laws prohibiting genocide denial.

In this respect, Schmitt’s theory of myth includes the contribution made by the interpretative work of those who receive and make sense of such rhetorical entities as part of their overall life-world of lived experience, interpretative framework and common sense knowledge. It recognises that political myths lend themselves to specific forms of ideological exploitation – albeit without thereby losing their mythic status and qualities.

The implications of Schmitt’s endorsement of Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s formulation ‘people can only think …’ certainly merits close attention. It implies a distinction between pre-modern, or ‘traditional’, cultures, whose pattern of life remains generally dominated by mythic thinking, and modernity’s distinctly post-traditional and pseudo-secular orientation. Representatives of the latter may believe that they have become enlightened beneficiaries of modernity’s fully secular and scientific ways of thinking. Allegedly, they have entirely broken free from merely ‘traditional’ ways of interpreting the world through mythic images, legendary symbols and figures, such that these now appear comparatively ‘primitive’, ‘superstitious’ and anachronistic. Yet, from Schmitt’s perspective, this approach itself reiterates an unacknowledged superstition. It is certainly found within many academic writings that begin with an incantation of the following ritualistic formulation and cliché: ‘Whilst the traditional view of X is Y, I want to show you [my presumed fellow enlightened, post-mythical modernists] that, on the contrary, X is Z not at all Y’.

A Schmittian approach to legally relevant myths cannot, then, accept a simplistic type of either/or distinction between a traditionalism dominated by mythic legends on the one hand, and modernity’s allegedly myth-free (social) scientific orientation on the other. As Strathausen notes with respect to Schmitt’s interpretation of Hamlet:

Schmitt argues that the ongoing myths of contemporary modern audiences continue to operate as a vital co-determinant of, say, their distinctive sense of Hamlet as a tragic figure. One aspect of the historical knowledge that early audiences of Hamlet possessed included an appreciation of the implications of various taboos and sectarian religious sensibilities that were difficult to confront openly. However, for contemporary audiences of this play, these elements will almost certainly be less vital because apparently secular myths of liberalism have become more influential upon their cultural framework.

In making this hermeneutic claim concerning the reinterpretation of received mythic figures through the lens of contemporary myths, Schmitt clearly renounces any simplistic either/or dichotomy of the type just discussed. However, some comparison between how myths figure within modernity and more traditional societies is, probably, still required as a valid historical and anthropological project. This may be so at least at the level of appreciating – in an optimally agnostic fashion – the mythological elements of modernity’s cultural self-understanding as having finally overcome mythic understandings of, for example, law, democracy and the constitutional state.

Staging Hamlet’s off-stage history?

In part at least, Schmitt’s invocation of ‘off-stage’ empirical history as relevant to understanding how Hamlet arose as a political myth, relies upon his criticism of aesthetic reductionism. He insists upon interpreting this play in terms of concrete historical mediation by undoubtedly real events: ‘A terrible historical reality shimmers through the masks and costumes of the stage play, a reality which remains untouched by any philological, philosophical, or aesthetic interpretation, however subtle it might be’ (Schmitt 2009: 18). Schmitt further notes that although a fictional and invented work of art, Hamlet – and the figure of Prince Hamlet within it – integrate: ‘an ineluctable reality that no human mind has conceived – a reality externally given, imposed and unavoidable. This unalterable reality is the mute rock upon which the play founders, sending the foam of a genuine tragedy rushing to the surface’ (Schmitt 2009: 45). Schmitt’s metaphor suggests that both tragedy and myth are subject to the effects of history. They are themselves historical phenomena constantly in a state of being shaped and reshaped by the interactions between the operations and events of aesthetic tradition on the one hand, and concrete historical realities on the other. Schmitt recognises a series of apparently sharp either/or distinctions: Trauerspiel versus tragedy, tragedy versus play, play versus the critical situation, tragic action versus poetic invention, and poetry versus drama (Schmitt 2009: 38 40, 40, 49 and 34 respectively). However, such recognition is but a preliminary move towards transcending an either/or conception of these oppositions in favour of a more dialectical neither/nor interpretation of their reciprocal mediation (Schmitt 2009: 33).23 As inhabitants of a concrete cultural tradition, audiences of the Hamlet myth encounter not an unalterable or objective reality simply ‘given’ to them as such, akin to a physical object. Instead, the historical realities in play for us here are always necessarily mediated by the operation of an aesthetic tradition, which in turn is itself mediated by such realities.

In particular, part of what fills the masks and costumes of the actors are the audiences’ sense of the former’s relationship to actual historical events, mysteries, taboos and dilemmas. Thus, whilst fictional in one sense, it is Hamlet’s rootedness in, and reliance upon, a distinct sense of historical reality that has made it possible for this tragedy to acquire the status, and play the role, of a distinctly political myth.

And yet the methods of empirical history remain insufficient for grasping how the figure of Hamlet attained the status of a political myth. Regarding the given historical conditions necessary to ‘conjure up the presence of a myth’, the emphasis – according to Schmitt – needs to fall upon not their ‘accurate empirical depiction’ of the kind approximated by archival exhibits and traditional museums, or purely aesthetic literary qualities. His position borders on dialectics in that he reduces Hamlet neither to given historical facts, nor to a flight from reality via pure aesthetic representation but rather to their reciprocal mediation. Schmitt emphasises the creative aesthetic reworking of given historical realities as studied, for example, by hermeneutics (Schmitt 2009: 51).

On his reading, Hamlet is no longer merely one character in a single play written and first performed over 400 years ago, and whose significance is exhausted through historical contextualisation of the determinants of its original creation and initial reception. Instead, over subsequent centuries, the various reinterpretations and re-contextualisations of this figure within different narratives have resulted in the creation of an inexhaustible series of mythic images and associations. The later cultural reiteration of these tends to confirm its authentic status as a living myth. The history of the original references to real events thus needs supplementation with a historical reconstruction of the changing patterns of Hamlet’s reinterpretation, including the emergence and disappearance of specific associations and connotations.

It is useful at this point to quote an especially relevant passage from Schmitt’s study of Hamlet, which – in one sense – pulls together a number of the threads of his overall theory. It also specifies one of the historical realities that shape the interpretation of this play: the disturbing taboo over the role of Hamlet’s mother in the King’s murder, the open discussion of which may once have proved dangerous:

Precisely in the figure of Hamlet, he encountered a concrete taboo and an existing contemporary figure that he respected as such. The son of a king and the murder of a father are for Shakespeare and his audience incontrovertible existing realities from which one shrinks out of timidity … This accounts for the two historical intrusions into the otherwise closed circle of a straightforward play – the two doors through which the tragic element of an actual event entered into the world of the play and transforms the Trauerspiel into a tragedy, a historical reality into a myth.

(Schmitt 2009: 48–9)

The events staged in the play take place in the shadow of actual events and are typically interpreted by audiences as making reference to the ‘tragic core’ of the actual dilemmas these posed, even or perhaps especially, where these refer to real political scandals, traumas and taboos. The latter originally could not be more directly addressed by, or depicted within, the play itself (Schmitt 2009: 51–2). This tragic ‘core’, itself a key source of the mythic, retains a non-dispersible self-identity however much it is glossed, compressed, expanded upon or varied during different theatrical or cinematic performances.

Thus, according to Schmitt, myth-making cannot be interpreted as a flight from complex and objective historical realities into a self-contained literary cultural or other purely aesthetic sphere. This is because it entails two distinctive types of relationship arising from our encounters with material, given historical realities. The first involves a deliberate reworking of the cultural forms of such given objective realities, their original, creative and emphatic intensification into mythic figures. Whilst respecting the integrity of the overall significance of real events, this reworking of distinctly tragic elements actively transforms aspects of such historical realities into living mythic figures. The latter are then able to maintain an enduring cultural presence across successive eras by reinterpreting (as a particularistic contextualisation) a culturally familiar scenario into something utterly distinctive by, for instance, transforming: ‘the [generic] figure of an avenger into a Hamlet’ (Schmitt 2009: 49).

Typically, such rendering particularistic and intensification of tragic qualities is then followed by a process of abstraction towards general normative implications, such as the necessity to end prevarication even within less than ideal contexts of possible action. Indeed, Schmitt argues:

The core of historical reality is not invented, cannot be invented, and must be respected as given. It enters into tragedy in two ways … one is the myth of classical tragedy, which mediates the tragic action; the other, as in Hamlet, is the immediately available historical reality that encompasses the playwright, the actors, and the audience. While ancient tragedy is simply faced with myth and creates the tragic form, in the case of Hamlet we encounter the rare (but typically modern) case of a playwright who establishes a myth from the reality that he immediately faces. … Shakespeare’s incomparable greatness lies in the fact that … he was capable of extracting from the confusing richness of his contemporary political situation the form that could be intensified to the level of myth. His success in grasping the core of a tragedy and achieving myth was the reward … Thus the myth of Hamlet was borne. A Trauerspiel rose to the level of tragedy and was able to convey in this form the living reality of a mythic figure to future ages and generations.

(Schmitt 2009: 49)

Given his express and clear contention that the extraction of cultural aesthetic form is central to the transformation of Hamlet into a mythic figure, it is inexplicable that Kahn complains of ‘Schmitt’s inattention to aesthetic form mars his interpretation of the workings of the text, even as his reliance on the aesthetic power of Hamlet serves to propagate a self-serving myth regarding Schmitt’s own tragic political decisions’ (Kahn 2003: 80). It is possible that Schmitt is entirely unconvincing in his contention, however he certainly cannot be accused of failing to make it.

The second type of relationship of myth to real historical events concerns pre-modern, or ‘classic,’ types. Here myth-making works from within a continuing cultural tradition to reiterate an already received understanding of myths and legends, to which it gives a renewed literary form, possibly one that is distinctive. Whilst in this way it may be possible to generate elements of novelty and originality concerning how a traditional myth can now be re-imagined and embodied in specific aesthetic forms, the meaning and implications of the figure itself remains largely as before. For example, the various cinematic depictions of Hamlet could now be supplemented by a 3D film production characterised by every imaginable computer-generated special effect. Yet this would still amount to little more than a retelling of the received legend of Prince Hamlet – possibly one that adds very little to (or even dilutes) the significance and implications of the myth’s core meaning and implications.

To date, I have suggested that Schmitt rejects a reductive analysis of the Hamlet myth either to aesthetic-free zone of historical analysis, or – at the other extreme – a history-free realm of ‘pure’ aesthetics. On the contrary, Hamlet became an authentic political myth and symbol only through the coming together and hybridisation of given historical realities relating, in particular, to the succession of King James with distinctly aesthetic cultural representations.

A Hamlet–James couplet?

Schmitt claims that the particular historical realities intruding upon Hamlet related to religious conflict within Christian continental Europe and Britain associated with the Reformation. These represent in microcosm some of the difficulties facing King James. James was, for example, baptised a Catholic by his mother Mary Queen of Scots, however, Protestants within England then raised him (Schmitt 2009: 27, 30). King James then came to symbolise a vital and political aspect of the trajectory of the Reformation as a primary source of the modern state. In particular, Hamlet’s trauma is also portrayed as that of King James, and vice versa.

When audiences interpret and recognise Hamlet as a myth, they also ‘encounter’ a Hamlet–King James couplet. Indeed, Schmitt suggests that behind Hamlet stands a concrete and immediate public understanding (as distinct from a merely indirect ‘allusion’) concerning the real King James’ plight between 1600 and 1602 (Schmitt 2009: 44). It concerns James’ accession to the English throne within a context where, like Hamlet, his father, Lord Darnley, was murdered by someone his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, then promptly married. This historical reference is co-present not as a direct and unmediated ‘copy’, or ‘mirroring’, of the original events, which would reduce the status of myth to a mere copy of prevailing realities. Instead, its presence is that of a distinct political symbol and allegory: one which – in confirmation of Schmitt’s earlier methodological claims – stands out from familiar, purely literary genres. Indeed, Hamlet’s appearance on stage as a composite figure, or ‘couplet’, is vital. Such appearance is central to any public understanding of the factors that make this drama into a real tragedy by distinguishing it from the literary genre of the typical revenge story. It also explains these various differences between them (Schmitt 2009: 22).

Commentators upon this play may also take into account this symbolic aspect if they are to ever understand how Hamlet has been transformed into a mythic figure. Perhaps they must recognise that the figure of Hamlet on stage always brings to life both a fictional drama and a parallel mediating cluster of associations drawn from the non-fictional realm. According to Schmitt, it is these that ought to make us take seriously the play’s political implications concerning the fraught and contested, yet still unavoidable, issue of sovereignty.

Schism as religion

Over and above family trauma, what is the wider historical context of conflict that mediates our understanding of Hamlet