May 2013

Hannah Sheldon-Dean

nonfiction

Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster

My high school English department was big into Hamlet. All the seniors read it, of course, but where things really got crazy was Hamlet Night, in which each class presented a single scene from the play through the lens of some goofy theme, thus constructing a bizarre and disjointed staging of the entire thing. My class had the gravedigger scene, and we set it in Southern California, burying Ophelia in a Fisher-Price turtle-shaped sandbox. Then, with barely a weekend to recover from this Hamlet binge, we dove into Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And a funny thing happened by the end of the fall semester: I loved Hamlet. Maybe it was some variety of Stockholm Syndrome, but I did.

Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, a philosophy expert and a psychoanalyst, the authors of Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, also love Hamlet. They love it so much that they decided to enter the vast and stormy sea of its criticism, in an attempt to draw out new perspectives and insights from the broadly familiar text. It's a decidedly academic project, but I approached this book hoping that I, an enthusiastic layperson, might be able to appreciate and enjoy it as much as any scholar might. And in many ways, my wish was granted.

Critchley and Webster, a husband and wife team, begin the book by acknowledging their outsider status; both are established academics and writers (you might recognize Critchley's name from "The Stone," the New York Times philosophy column he oversees and contributes to), but neither has a background in Shakespeare criticism. Their hope, they write, is to find new ways into the play through examining various outsider interpretations of it, "notably those of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Hegel, Freud, Lacan, and Nietzsche." Accordingly, the book is divided into three sections, which roughly distribute the works of their chosen outsiders: one section for Schmitt, Benjamin, and Hegel; one for Freud and Lacan; one for Nietzsche (and, surprisingly, James Joyce). After briefly explaining better-known literary interpretations of the play -- that Hamlet's propensity to think and talk negates his ability to act, that Hamlet is a nihilist drama -- the authors dive right into picking apart their selected source texts.

By focusing largely on the works of philosophers and psychoanalysts rather than literary critics, Critchley and Webster do indeed unearth a variety of lesser-known perspectives on the play, many of which I'd never encountered before. The authors' ability to explicate difficult concepts quickly and simply is impressive, and the text is helpfully divided into bite-size chapters (often just three or four pages), which means that the slippery content at hand winds up being fairly manageable for the reader. Aside from a previous reading of Hamlet itself, the authors presuppose little knowledge on the part of their audience, and they excel at summing up necessary background information. Perhaps the authors' greatest strength here is their chatty, often humorous tone -- as when they remark of one scene that "Saturday-night game shows and reality television have never gone this far, not even in Japan." As friendly and knowledgeable guides to others' interpretations, Critchley and Webster do not disappoint.

What's largely missing from this book, though, is a broader sense of purpose and context. While the authors do a great job explaining and interrogating the ideas in question, they have less to say about how all these different interpretations relate to each other. I often found myself looking for more guidance as to why they were leading me through these disparate theories; it sometimes felt as though many of the transition sentences had been deleted. The authors often double back through their own work, abruptly undercutting the validity of whatever concept they've just been discussing, and while such conflict is no doubt true to the duplicitous nature of Hamlet itself, it can make for a confusing read. Because the authors say little at the beginning of the book about where we'll be heading within in its pages, it's unclear throughout whether it should be taken as a collection of isolated ideas or as something more cohesive. I got the sense while reading that the answer is "something more cohesive," but there's so little explicit discussion of what that something might be that I was tempted to give up on trying to find it altogether. Though the authors do offer their own nuanced reading of the play as a meditation on "nothing" and the many meanings of that word, that reading is only partially woven through the rest of the book, and didn't seem developed enough to serve as a guiding principle.

In their conclusion, Critchley and Webster offer some intriguing and original thoughts on what Hamlet has to say about shame and love, taking up a new tone that suddenly makes the play feel intimately connected to both the authors themselves and the state of the world today. That moment of such confident, pertinent analysis made me wish that there had been more of it throughout the book, that the authors had more consistently drawn Hamlet out into the realm of quotidian reality.

That said, Stay, Illusion! remains a worthwhile read. The sections on Freud's preoccupation with the play -- and its significant influence on the history of psychotherapy -- are fascinating, as is the application of Nietszche's thought to Hamlet's inability to act. An examination of how Ophelia might be a more genuine tragic hero than Hamlet is another strong point, and perhaps best of all is the authors' extended conspiracy theory that casts loyal, loveable Horatio as the play's true villain. At any rate, it's refreshing to read such unorthodox and enthusiastic explorations of canonical literature. Critchley and Webster manage to show both how philosophy and psychology illuminate Hamlet and how Hamlet, conversely, has illuminated those fields and the worlds around them.

Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0307907615
288 pages