Hamlet and the Subject
Much has been written about Hamlet, not merely the Shakesperian version we are most familiar with in the English-speaking western world, but all its variants found throughout various cultures, yet as far as I have read a seemingly obvious point has been consistently missed due to a particular a priori assumption.
The sort of ‘psychoanalytic’ literary critic is often drawn to this play due to the unusual psychology taking place in the story, and due to its homology with Oedipus Rex, a play that the psychoanalytic world since Freud has seen as seminal for understanding the mind. The usual plot of such critics assumes that the Hamlet story, if it can be referred to that way, is a more restrictive, socially restrained version of Oedipus; a homologous story where the literal “killing the father and marrying the mother is sublimated in a more complex social situation. While this storyline does point at certain truths, it suffers from a significant fallacy.
The fallacy can be seen via historiology and in some cases anthropology of cultures that are not historiological in themselves (though they may, for that reason, be more historical than we are). A version of the Hamlet story exists in most cultures, and while a version of Oedipus is also common, in virtually every culture the Hamlet story precedes the Oedipus story. Human beings apparently need to experience the sublimated, socially complex version prior to the more primal Oedipus story.
The main storyline in Hamlet, and the cause of its difficulty as a play (like most dramatic interpretations of the story, Shakespeare’s fails dramatically, precisely because the inability to act is a very difficult thing to act). The corollary to Hamlet’s inability to act through most of the story is his ‘madness’, which is at once more than feigned, yet less than real. The third piece of this particular puzzle is the naïve simplistic play Hamlet has the travelling players perform specifically for the usurping King, his father’s brother, and the usurping King’s response to it.
These corollaries centre on the notion of the Subject. In any monarchy, the head of the monarchy is not a Subject. When the King or Queen act, in a public and political manner, they act as the embodiment of the idea of the state. Who they are in a personal, private sense is in a way irrelevant, and in keeping with this irrelevance they do not use the pronoun “I”, but instead the ‘royal we”.
Hamlet is rightfully King, as such cannot act publicly or privately as a rational Subject, “I, Hamlet”; he is rightfully not a Subject, not “I, Hamlet”, since the I-Subject does not belong to the head of state. Were he to act to restore his proper Kingship, he would in that acting subvert the very right he would be acting in order to bring about. As a result he must act at least partially irrationally, even to himself. His ‘inspiration’ in organizing the play by the travelling players accomplishes precisely this kind of action, a seemingly irrational action not rationally understood even by Hamlet himself. The King, although without right, is still King. He remains so precisely until he reacts in the manner he does to the performance of the travelling players. This reaction, precisely because it is the action of a Subject, leaves the throne empty rather than filled unrightfully, and this brings about a very different situation.
Yet the performance is simplistic, almost childish. This is precisely what causes the unlawful King to be suddenly reduced to a Subject, and hence abdicate his position. While the difference between King and Subject is an external difference, a difference in social position, it is also for that reason part of the being of the persons involved. That being, or meaning, that people ascribe to themselves (generally through stories) mirrors the social being of shared meaning in a given society. What is represented to the Subject in each factical individual is always simplistic, even naive relative to what the Self understands in a given situation, and necessarily so. At the beginning of the metaphysical age, the age of the Subject, Plato referred to the Subject as the ‘calculating or measuring facility’. By this he meant measuring in the fullest meaning of the term, in the way we describe something as a ‘measured’ response, for example.
In the play Hamlet, what is represented simplistically to the false King is precisely the story that made him King. The simplistic version, as simplistic, is immediately re-presented to the King’s own Subject-facility, precisely what, as King, he should be without. His ‘subjective’ response changes the meaning of his being, where he becomes another Subject, which is always subject to whatever type of state society erects in a given instance. This abdication of Kingship leaves the throne open, and as such Hamlet can now act as King, albeit only partially and must perish in the act along with the false King, since having been a subject, he would be prey to any similar subjectivization.
Prior to the identification of the Subject and Self in Cartesian thought (and all the empiricist thought that followed Descartes) Shakespeare saw the Subject as both inherently a social construct, a function of being part of a state, and a particular one, one common only to Subjects of a given state, but not found in the representation of the state itself, the monarch. The Subject, as well, as the measuring and also judging facility, is necessarily only provided with simplistic representations of any given situation presented initially to the whole Self, in order to measure and judge actions in the situation. In the case of the play, this simplistic representation is achieved dramatically through the traveling players. But in the more usual case the simplified re-presentation can only be re-presented by that which experienced the presentation itself, and did so in a far more complex fashion. The representer that re-presents a situation to the Subject can be none other than the Self.
The re-presentation is necessarily simplified since the Self, knowing every knowable parameter of the situation, cannot make a swift and decisive judgement regarding the situation. The Subject, as pure subjectivity, is simultaneously purely objective, and this is the only possible meaning of objectivity insofar as it always must relate to a subjectivity. The Subject has no positive attributes, it is purely negative; it exists as that which receives representations and judges the measured and proper response and therefore has no inherent bias. However since the representation it works with always already only contains what the Self regards as most relevant, the subjective nature of the Subject’s judgement is a result of the polymorphic self-awareness of the Self. The Self and its World are, strictly speaking, the same, the Self is not against nature, society, gods or fate, since it is intertwined with all of these, yet it must appear as being so via the invental Subject. The naiveté of the Subject is due to its not being intertwined with the World. The only differentiator between Self and World (both being, at root, everything you have experienced and retained) is that they are narrated differently.