As the Obama administration these days is trying to win the support of the U.S. Congress for an immediate, albeit limited, intervention in Syria, the Iraqi War lingers in the background like a ghost reminding the global community of the potential consequences of yet another military engagement in the Middle East. The Bush administration’s dubious claims about weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq inevitably cast a shadow of doubt over the White House’s current efforts to persuade world leaders that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is behind the recent chemical attack that killed 1,400 people ― at least until the evidence has been publicly revealed. Meanwhile, Obama’s handling of the situation in Syria has been called “confusing,” “hesitant,” “dithering” ― a man “unable to make difficult decisions,” as one commentator has put it. It is a position ― one may assume ― that reflects a general unwillingness to escalate U.S. military engagement in the Middle East, as well as a genuine fear of failing to act in time.
To “suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” as Hamlet says, and to act in time when the circumstances demand it is of course the ultimate test of leadership. Much of Shakespeare’s eponymous play is, however, about the opposite ― the absence of leadership, the incongruity of word and action, and a time that is out of joint. At the outset of the play, Prince Hamlet is portrayed as a young, contemplative and inexperienced man suddenly called upon to make a crucial decision he neither wants to carry out, nor seems able to ignore.
The rest of the play, one could say, is a prolonged examination of the singular way in which Hamlet resolves this dilemma ― how he goes about restoring the lost order of the kingdom of Denmark, and thus makes himself worthy of the crown as the son, and rightful inheritor, of the deceased king.
That Hamlet has not succeeded his father indicates from the beginning that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” as one of the minor characters says. Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle and his father’s brother, has married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, and at the same time ascended the throne. Not only does the marriage border on the incestuous, according to Hamlet; the mourning period has been too abruptly replaced by marriage festivities, thus further insulting the memory of the late king. “With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,” there is something very wrong, something unbalanced ― a world turned upside down.
Desperate and unhappy, Hamlet ponders, however, whether this in itself is enough reason to act; what is to be done? After all, Gertrude, his beloved mother, seems content with the situation, while Claudius ― at least initially ― appears to be a man of experience and insight, a capable successor. It is the ghost of Hamlet’s father ― who announces that Claudius poisoned him ― that apparently resolves the situation; Hamlet must take action, he must seek revenge.
At this point, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” reveals itself as a profoundly modern play; for even after Hamlet has learned the apparent truth about Claudius’ murderous coup, he hesitates. One of the aspects that make “Hamlet” so unique is the radical doubt that finds its way into every corner of the play. Hamlet doubts whether the ghost was really the spirit of his dead father; or perhaps a messenger of Satan, the master of lies and deceptions. Perhaps Hamlet is merely hallucinating, on the verge of going mad; he wonders whether the ghost speaks the truth, and what moral outcome this might have ― for himself and others. How does the ghost know that the king was murdered by his own brother; can one really trust the motifs of a ghost ― and might not the ghost itself be misled?
Hamlet wants certainty, clear evidence, about an event with no witnesses. The ghost asks Hamlet to act, to restore order and justice; and yet the sole evidence justifying action is the sad and desperate plea of a spectral creature whose reality by definition cannot be verified. There may be something rotten in the state of Denmark ― but not much to act on; and yet this is indeed what is asked of Hamlet.
It was the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones who argued that Hamlet’s delay in carrying out his father’s demand for revenge stemmed from an unresolved Oedipus complex: “The thought of incest and parricide combined is too intolerable to be borne. One part of (Hamlet) tries to carry out the task, the other flinches inexorably from the thought of it.” Claudius, according to Jones, has done precisely what Hamlet unconsciously desired to do: killing his father and marrying his mother.
To the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, however, Hamlet’s delay was caused by the opposite; not an inner conflict of unconscious desires, but rather an all too conscious reflection of a man who “had a real glimpse into the essence of things” ― that, ultimately, one’s actions “can change nothing in the eternal nature of things.” Nietzsche’s Hamlet has understood the dilemma of his particular situation only too well; that he will never be able to restore the balance of things, and that each choice inevitably leads to tragedy.
Whatever makes Hamlet hesitate and postpone things, he eventually comes to a point at which nothing ― no more gathering of evidence or search for certainty ― can save him from the act; at some point he must do something ― either flee or seek revenge. And when he acts ― finally, after such a prolonged period of hesitation ― Hamlet brutally kills Claudius and others, tragically and accidentally, as well as indirectly causing the deaths of others.
Written around 1600, near the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s rule, Hamlet reflects the anxieties, the moral quandaries and the violence of transfers of power from one ruler to another. The Danish kingdom is described as a sick body, suffering from the corrupt rule of Claudius. Hamlet, torn between his father’s call for justice and the lack of certainty, speaks to all leaders and decision makers today, from President Obama to President Bashar al-Assad: how to balance the need for immediate action with sufficient legitimacy ― that is, the certainty that one’s actions are indeed morally legitimate ― even if only time will tell whether this action may bring about justice. The rest, as we know, is silence.
By Eli Park Sorensen
Eli Park Sorensen is an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Studies at Seoul National University. He specializes in comparative literature, postcolonial thought and cultural studies. ― Ed.