Back To Top

[Kim Seong-kon] Hamlet and Don Quixote tactics in diplomacy

People say that there are two contrasting types of personalities in the world. One is the Hamlet personality type and the other resembles Don Quixote. The Hamlet type is the one who is lost in thought and discreet, and thus gives in to vacillation. The Don Quixote type is foolhardy and indiscreet, and thus brash and unbridled. Both have upsides and downsides, depending on the situation. Indeed, there are times when you should be discreet like Hamlet and there are times when you should act audaciously, like Don Quixote. Some combination of the two might therefore seem ideal, especially in diplomacy.

Hamlet is a well-known tragedy by William Shakespeare, written sometime between 1599 and 1601. The play portrayed Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, as an introverted man who is markedly indecisive and reserved. He yearns to take revenge on his uncle, who assassinated his father and usurped the throne. Yet, he agonizes and hesitates over practically every decision, even the decision to end his life. Hence, his famous soliloquy: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Undoubtedly, Hamlet is a man of thinking and brooding, not a man of action. Therefore, Hamlet represents those who are reclusive and pensive.

Don Quixote, a 17th century Spanish novel by Miguel Cervantes, evolves around the romantic adventures of a deluded noble named Don Quixote and his loyal squire, Sancho Panza. A burlesque in essence, the novel ostensibly parodies the obsolete knighthood by satirizing Don Quixote’s eccentric behaviors. At the same time, however, the novel also criticizes a vulgar contemporary world that has forgotten chivalry.

Living in nostalgic fantasies, Don Quixote does not realize that times have changed and instead imagines an idealized world that no longer exists in reality. He even hallucinates, attacking a gigantic windmill that he believes is a vicious adversary. Though gallant, Don Quixote is unpractical and even delusional, hence the term “quixotic,” which is now widely used to describe someone or something that resembles Don Quixote. Clearly, Don Quixote is a man who harbors delusions of grandeur, like a true idealist. In the eyes of others, he is therefore weird and eccentric, outdated, and old-fashioned. Don Quixote is an extrovert; he is a man of action, not a man of thinking. Therefore, he is the opposite of Hamlet.

As for me, I have both Hamlet and Don Quixote personalities. My father was an introverted man who was always thoughtful and pensive. On the contrary, my mother was an extroverted person who was outgoing and active. Since the two personality types run in my family, I have inherited both tendencies. Therefore, I am supposed to be an ideal person who can maintain the balance between the two, at least theoretically.

In reality, however, I am rather the opposite. When I am supposed to be prudent like Hamlet, I often act impulsively like Don Quixote, only to make a mess that I later need to clean up. Likewise, when I should boldly act like Don Quixote, I hesitate like Hamlet and thus end up losing precious opportunities.

South Korea’s recent diplomatic issues with her neighboring countries remind me of the undesirable legacy that stems from the wrong combination of these two contrasting personalities. For example, political analysts point out that toward China and North Korea, South Korea frequently displays the traits of Hamlet. Indeed, instead of stateliness and grandeur, our politicians maintain a low profile and assume an obsequious posture, even when the two countries are outright offensive. Sometimes, then, our politicians need to act like Don Quixote, making a headlong rush in order to gain respect and accomplish what they want.

On the other hand, political commentators maintain that our politicians’ approaches toward Japan and the United States frequently appear quixotic, that is, impulsive and inconsiderate, if not reckless. Like Don Quixote, our politicians daydream that we are living in the past, and do not realize that the times have changed. In the eyes of the world, however, our diplomacy toward the two countries is far from being subtle or refined. Rather, it looks as though we are constantly “tilting at windmills,” treating benign or relatively harmless entities as if they were our archenemies, as Don Quixote does.

Our diplomacy with Japan and the US should be discreet and prudent, considering many factors, such as national security and long-term relationships based on mutually shared values such as democracy, freedom, and human rights, not to mention the free market economy. In addition, we must take into account that if we are on bad terms with Japan, our relationship with the US will deteriorate accordingly. Therefore, we should be far-sighted and thoughtful like Hamlet when we deal with Japan and the US.

Once damaged, relationships between countries do not recover easily, leaving indelible scars. We should prudently alternate our Hamlet and Don Quixote tactics to navigate safely through hidden reefs in the perilous sea of foreign affairs. Only then, will we survive and thrive in today’s perfect storm of international politics.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.