DURING A LONG, misogynistic, masochistic tirade early in his eponymous play, Hamlet accuses himself of being a coward who “Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words.” Hamlet overflows with words to describe himself — the play sometimes chokes on its own verbal excess — but after some 400 years of commentary and criticism, writers who want to analyze the Danish prince face the opposite problem: there’s only so much left to say. A chorus of great thinkers has confronted him already.
In Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, husband and wife Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster turn this backlog of criticism to their advantage. In their kinetic, sometimes frenetic, always penetrating study, they examine Hamlet in the light of others’ illuminations. At the same time, they reflect on the nature of modern life by gleaning what Hamlet’s critics have revealed about themselves in their interpretations of the play. T. S. Eliot, after all, said critics only manage to see themselves when they look at Hamlet.
A philosopher and a psychoanalyst, respectively, Critchley and Webster playfully disown the prince — “To be clear, we do not see any aspects of ourselves or each other in Hamlet” — but do hope to cast themselves as Ophelia, the crazy ex-girlfriend: “I want to be Ophelia. And so do I.” Framing themselves as “outsider” readers detached from professional Shakespeare studies, Critchley and Webster hope not only to play Ophelia, but also to channel various other “outsider interpretations” by philosophers, political theorists, and psychologists, in order to say something new about Hamlet and who we are today. The book’s ultimate purpose, though, is to speak about love, “as husband and wife.” Critchley and Webster call their book a “rash lovers’ risk,” pursued “for the love of nothing, for the nothing of love, for the love of Hamlet.”
The titular “Hamlet Doctrine” offers a nihilistic lesson: our world is irredeemably out of joint, and knowing this paralyzes us. This nihilism turns Hamlet into a corrosive skeptic, while Ophelia marries her nihilism to a ferocious love. Critchley and Webster write that Ophelia, “tears out her heart, bleeds, shatters herself at the limit between life and death, a figure of sacrifice without redemption, who, despite this, still has the will to act.” They identify Ophelia as the play’s true tragic hero and argue that she points the way to “antiart.” We need this art of violence, the authors prescribe, to wrench us out of our screen-centered malaise and force us to see, even if just a bit more clearly, the real human violence that surrounds us. This constitutes the Hamlet Doctrine’s nihilistic “love of nothing” and its expansive, courageous, Opheliac “nothing of love” — a paradox.
Critchley and Webster’s “love of Hamlet” springs from every page. This is a joyful act of reading, even as they damningly critique contemporary life. When they unpack our hearts, they discover, in place of meaningful empathy, an enervating relativism fueled by constant media access to global atrocities. Their call for a redemptive antiart, however, never explains in practical terms what it means to live like Ophelia, to act out of madness and love. But their penultimate section, on Friedrich Nietzsche’s reading of the play, can, I think, point the way. Call it the Nietzsche Doctrine.
Critchley and Webster assemble other readings of Hamlet like glass fragments in a kaleidoscope, reshuffling these readings to create striking new patterns. Shards of Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Melville, Marx, Schmitt, Benjamin, Joyce, Müller, and Lacan refract Hamlet at different angles around us as we race through the play. Instead of building its argument progressively, Stay, Illusion argues through the resonances and contradictions produced by these constellations.
The authors introduce their critical interlocutors one at a time, briefly reading Hamlet through each interlocutor’s eyes before switching to another critic’s point of view. If Stay, Illusion were a video game, instead of playing through successive levels on a single long quest, we would frequently change characters to begin new quests, playing as Walter Benjamin for one level before slipping into Sigmund Freud. Though we repeatedly start over again, we also retain a muscle memory of how to play the game — heightened reflexes, a keener eye. With each new critic’s interpretation, we learn a bit better the “rash” reading style Critchley and Webster want us to employ. Stay, Illusion proposes a hermeneutics of speed, venturing claims in excess of what the play can fully support in order to expand its horizons. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” Hamlet says, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
These many rash readings hover alongside each other, undermining yet also reinforcing one another’s perspective. Stay, Illusion’s brilliance is to pursue each interpretation just far enough for us to grasp it, then let it remain suspended in the back of our heads as we move off in a different direction. Critchley and Webster say that only G. W. F. Hegel, the grandmaster of dialectical reasoning, could follow Hamlet’s dizzying wordplay, but they do Hegel one better, tracing many routes through the play that diverge, submerge, emerge, and converge with one another. It’s as if Robert Frost dropped acid, saw a whole lot more than two paths in the wood, and decided to take them all.
The first path Critchley and Webster chart is Carl Schmitt’s and Walter Benjamin’s intertwined but opposed responses to Hamlet. In 1922’s Political Theology, Schmitt defines the modern state through its sovereign, the one “who can decide on the state of exception.” Instead of a referee bound by the rules, Schmitt thinks modern nations depend on a sovereign who has the power to suspend the rule of law (the fascistic shadows loom). According to this view, Hamlet represents a paradox: a sovereign prince who can’t decide. In his 1956 Hamlet or Hecuba, Schmitt labels such indecision “Hamletization,” and places Hamlet’s hesitation in historical context: he claims the play secretly depicts the murder of King James I’s father by his step-father, too political to stage overtly. Consequently, Hamlet cannot cast certain blame on Claudius. The upshot, for Schmitt, is that Hamlet’s tragedy depends on “the objective reality of the tragic action itself,” the “mute rock” of Jacobean history that thrusts itself into the play like Old Hamlet’s unquiet ghost.
Walter Benjamin’s 1928 The Origin of German Tragic Drama draws on Schmitt to analyze the Trauerspiel, or mourning play, a dramatic form popular during the Counter-Reformation in Germany and contemporary with Shakespeare. Benjamin says that while tragedy deals with myth, the Trauerspiel wrestles with sovereignty and history. Based as it is in mourning, a Trauerspiel’s sovereign mopes about very much like Hamlet. Yet Benjamin commits himself to a Christian reading of Hamlet and so labels it a tragedy. Benjamin traces Hamlet’s melancholy to the irredeemably failed world around him, a fallen hell on earth, but he attempts to redeem Hamlet’s inaction as Christian resignation, an otherworldly contemplation that converts the play into mythical tragedy. Having died in sin, Old Hamlet’s ghost wanders purgatory, intimating, by a kind of negative image, the possibility of Catholic purification. Hamlet hopes for such grace, Benjamin thinks, when he declares, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”
Like Schmitt, Critchley and Webster find Benjamin’s theology slightly but crucially muddled. They see the sparrow’s fall as a matter of general providence, God’s maintenance of natural law, rather than special providence, God’s miraculous intervention against natural law. Shakespeare’s intentionally confused theology refuses to offer a clear-cut Christian worldview, leading Schmitt to argue that Hamlet embodies theological angst, specifically the Protestant-Catholic schism. Hamlet is Hamletized by the “mute rock” of German Lutheranism crushing the hope of Catholic absolution.
With the question of absolution, Critchley and Webster usher Hegel’s Romantic philosophy of the Absolute onto the stage. Hegel sees Shakespeare’s characters as “free artists of their own selves,” choosing who they are. In consequence, Shakespeare’s characters lack an absolute moral framework to justify their choices, leaving them existentially indecisive, torn by “a twofold passion which drives them from one decision or one deed to another simultaneously.” Hamlet ends by happenstance, a series of accidental deaths by poison, so while Hegel’s philosophy sees existence developing steadily toward the Absolute, a form of divine unity, Hamlet remains trapped in a contingent, fallen world. With this, we glimpse the “Hamlet Doctrine,” the melancholic knowledge of brute reality that smothers all will to act.
Critchley and Webster next chart a psychoanalytic course through the play. They read Hamlet’s indecision through Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan in order to explore the prince’s blocked, failed, rage-filled desire (cue the Stones’ “Satisfaction”). They call their method “Hamletizing psychoanalysis”: what psychoanalysis tells us about Hamlet, and what Hamlet tells us about psychoanalysis.
When Freud abandoned his first theory of sexual hysteria in 1897, he wrote his colleague-cum-mentor Wilhelm Fliess that he patiently awaited a breakthrough: “I vary Hamlet’s saying, ‘To be in readiness’: to be cheerful is everything.” Three weeks later, Freud wrote Fliess again to announce the Oedipus complex, anchoring it in Hamlet: “How does [Hamlet] explain his irresolution in avenging his father […]. How better than through the torment he suffers from the obscure memory that he himself had contemplated the same deed against his father out of passion for his mother.” Freud founded psychoanalysis by identifying himself with Hamlet’s desire for readiness, then discovered Hamlet’s desire as a repressed Oedipal urge — an urge Freud subsequently mimicked when he violently disowned his mentor Fliess in a series of bitter letters (sometimes a postcard, Critchley and Webster imply, isn’t just a postcard).
Hamlet castigates himself because of his repressed desire, splitting himself in two. In his soliloquies, we hear one self who desires and another self who punishes, just as he feigns his mad persona — “I am but mad north-northwest.” Hamlet also splits himself externally, projecting his self-disgust onto Ophelia, whom he both desires and debases. In the scene immediately after he calls himself a “whore,” Hamlet launches his vitriolic diatribe against Ophelia, “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go.” Freud thinks Gertrude’s hasty marriage robs Hamlet of the time he needs to mourn his father, and so he can only ritually degrade himself by degrading Ophelia, strangling his desire for her in the process.
Lacan reads the entire play as a drama of failed mourning. Hamlet must grieve on someone else’s time and so cannot freely access his desire, dependent always on others — he only expresses love for Ophelia when he sees Laertes mourning at her grave. And because he can’t live up to the ideal love expressed by his doppelgänger Laertes, Hamlet must attack him. Ophelia is similarly trapped by others, a mere bargaining chip in her father’s political game, but unlike Hamlet she acts for herself. Her madness, Critchley and Webster write, is an explosion of her own desire onto the stage, rendering her “not just the main casualty in Hamlet but its true tragic hero.”
The ghost, for Critchley and Webster, points the way to managing desire — a kind of spiritual advisor or existential engineer. The ghost orders Hamlet to stop worrying about his mother’s incestuous desire for Claudius, but Hamlet cannot listen. The ghost, in this reading, becomes a figure for the psychoanalyst, unearthing the losses that inhibit desire. Critchley and Webster’s writing becomes uncharacteristically muddy in this section — it’s hard to distinguish their reading from Lacan’s — but their point is clear: Hamlet is Hamletized by the utter failure of his desire.
Critchley and Webster next leap headlong into Nietzsche like the prince into Ophelia’s grave. They restage Hamlet’s Hegelian indecision, and his Lacanian failures of desire, as Colonel Kurtz-like nihilism, as an antiartistic insight into the utter horror of existence.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche predicts that “the supreme art in the affirmation of life, tragedy, will be reborn.” Tragedy contains an uncontainable, excessive vitality — “there are more things in heaven and earth […]” — which Nietzsche labels Dionysian. Surprisingly, in a book on ancient Athenian tragedy, Nietzsche explains Dionysian excess as much through Hamlet as through Greek plays preformed at the festival of Dionysus:
Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and it disgusts them to act, for their action could not change anything in the eternal essence of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is so out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion — that is the Hamlet Doctrine, 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, the insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man. […] Conscious of the truth he has once seen, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence; now he understands what is symbolic in Ophelia’s fate […]. 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 nauseating or disgusting thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.
In the contemporary world, Critchley and Webster see “the horrible truth” in the traumas of World War I or Auschwitz, abysses of human violence that shock us into paralysis. In his autobiography Ecce Homo, Nietzsche declares himself “the first tragic philosopher,” who brought the excessive and the terrifying onstage. Instead of philosophy, though, Critchley and Webster call for a “monstrous” Dionysian “antiart,” like Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty or the drama of Sarah Kane. Like Nietzsche, they find Ophelia “symbolic”: her mad eruption embodies an excessive love that folds in on itself and becomes disgust, a harsh yet redemptive, Möbius strip–like model for the “true art” that is antiart. “Existence seems to us ever more screened and distanced,” Critchley and Webster write, “an empty empathy for a suffering that we do nothing to stop and everything to abet in our passivity, dispersal, and narcissism. None of us is free of this. Maybe art, in its essential violence, can tear away one or two of these screens.”
How does one live antiartistically, like Ophelia, in the modern world? Do we have to go suicidally insane? Rend ourselves at the “limit between life and death”? Critchley and Webster never say. But Nietzsche, the madman they pair with Ophelia, might help us see the way. In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes that believing in illusions is of “the highest value for all life.” “Untruth,” Nietzsche says, is “a condition of life.” We recall Hamlet’s call to the Ghost, “Stay illusion,” alongside Nietzsche’s claim that “action requires the veils of illusion.” If art is “a saving sorceress,” “the affirmation of life” after we peer into the abyss of our violent world, then art both rends the veil of illusions, revealing “true knowledge,” and weaves the veil back into place, replacing our illusions and thus enabling us to act.
Critically, in a series of passages Critchley and Webster — along with every other critic — miss, Nietzsche identifies himself as both Hamlet and Shakespeare. In his notebooks for The Birth of Tragedy, he writes, “Shakespeare: ‘The poet of tragic knowledge,’” casting the Bard as his theatrical forebear, “the first tragic philosopher.” In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche says that his writing is “certainly warlike,” and “prove[s] that I was no Jack the Dreamer, that I take pleasure in fencing.” To write tragic philosophy is to become the Hamlet of Act V, who finally acts, despite the terrible truth. Nietzsche’s final reference to Shakespeare comes on January 3, 1889, the very day of his mental collapse in Turin. In a letter to Cosima Wagner, he writes, “I have often lived among men already and I know everything they can experience, from the lowest to the highest. Among Indians I was Buddha, in Greece I was Dionysus, — Alexander and Caesar are my incarnations, as is the Shakespeare poet, Lord Bacon.”
Bacon, Nietzsche thinks, created Shakespeare as a mask, and Shakespeare made Hamlet as his mask — “every profound spirit needs a mask,” we hear in Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche enables himself to write by imagining that he is Hamlet fencing, wearing a Hamlet-Shakespeare-Bacon mask all at once. “Nietzsche” is itself a literary mask for the “mute rock” of the historical Friedrich Nietzsche, who later went insane. We act, according to this view, by acting theatrically, under a veil of illusion, the same way Critchley and Webster “rashly” read Hamlet by ventriloquizing the play’s other readers, the same way they want to “be Ophelia.” Antiart must both force us to see suffering and give us the theatrical courage to resist it out of love, though we know that we will fail. As Hamlet says, “The play’s the thing.”