The Hamlet Doctrine

In over 400 years of literary criticism, Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, must hold a position among the most analyzed. And beyond the gamut of academic fields from which many scholars have shared their perspectives, it would surprise me to discover if an article or book had not been written by a fishmonger about the relevance of the play to their profession. You may rest easy and release your breath. At this time I have no plans to add my own thoughts on Hamlet. Compiling an unabridged edition of the play for performance next year and directing the production has me busy enough.

Now in the course of preproduction, I try to read a different book on the subject each week and this week’s encounter was Stay Illusion: The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, respectively a philosopher and psychoanalyst, husband and wife team who published the book in 2013. It was an intellectual romp, both stimulating and stupefying because of the analytical depth explored in both of the authors fields. At least it was so for me. My familiarity with Freud is limited: while myths are useful as analogies in analysis, I pretty much reject the Oedipus Complex as a strong model of human behavior. Besides, I’m much more Jungian. Yet, there seems to be some threads of value in the arras which Freud has weaved regarding Hamlet, at least insofar as the authors have presented. So, clearly I must re-read and absorb more Freud, particularly regarding Hamlet. Similarly, my studies of the classics are more than rusty – they are ancient in themselves. I can recall large portions of Hamlet’s soliloquies which I memorized in 1981, but none of the concepts of Euripides or Socrates which I read in college in 1984. So, I had to access the encyclopedia as I tried to figure out why I identified so much more with the Dionysian man than the Apollonian man. Again, the authors intrigued me; I was captivated but confused. The book is an invitation for me to go further into the philosophical and psychological aspects of Hamlet, far beyond what is essentially needed to direct my vision of the play. And by this, I mean this book has the potential to help me with further personal growth.

Stay Illusion: The Hamlet Doctrine was one of the dozen or so books I’ve borrowed this month from the public library via the interlibrary loan program. Unfortunately this copy must be returned, but not before I write down all the references, quotes and revelations indicated by the sticky note page markers you can see in the above photo. I want to reread it again later this year, but I will definitely have to obtain a copy for my home library.

I have so much to say about the portions of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy which these authors have included in the book; it deserves an essay in itself. However, I must first study Nietzsche’s work in its complete form. With only two semesters of German and so many years ago, I think I will read it in English. (But not until after the OISS all-female production of Hamlet next year. No more distractions, please!)

Nietzsche wrote:

“In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no–true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.”

And in me! Finally, someone can define a fragment of my existential angst in terms that resonate. Who would have thought that it would be Nietzsche? Alan Watts, of course. But, Nietzsche? Noted. Onward.

“Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live: these are the sublime as the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic as the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity.

Yes! Art is my salvation, the muses – all of them – my saviors. (Don’t get me started on saviors: I am my only savior. While rejecting solipsism, I believe all of reality — all that is within the realm of my psychical existence — is but my fantasy. That means I’m the only alchemist who can transform my disgust into an Epicurean delight. The infinite and eternal unity — be it the Brahma of the Hindus, the monism of the neoplatonists, the God of Bruno and Spinoza with all the trappings and the suits they don — is filtered through the only singular psychical experience that may said to exist objectively, revealing the finite and temporal multitudes of psychical experiences which our egos call our subjective realities . And in this is Dionysus and Apollo, two different sides of the same coin which is, ultimately, an illusion that we beg to “stay” for fear of our identity being equated to nothing. As usual, I wax a digression.) Suffice it to say, while I have been only in recent years able to see the sublime through the banal, it is only through art that I can overcome this existential crisis. The dots are connecting. The veil is dropping for me, but to relate it I must erect a curtain and bring my reality to the stage; don the sock & buskin, cleave the general ear with horrid speech, make mad the guilty, appall the free, confound the ignorant and amaze indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears.

Stay Illusion: The Hamlet Doctrine is an analytical tool I plan to use now and again, to explore Hamlet and better find my voice. After Hamlet, I will continue with OISS and Shakespeare to my bitter end. But, I will return immediately to my magnum opus, the epic Renaissance historical drama with Bruno as a protagonist. And the relationship between Shakespeare and my play are so striking, I can hardly contain my passion.

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