In which country has Hamlet mattered most, politically, over the last couple of centuries? Despite a succession of celebrity stage productions, the answer probably isn’t Shakespeare’s sometime homeland. Modern British nationalism has certainly found the cult of Shakespeare as the indigenous voice of Warwickshire quite useful from time to time, whether the task at hand has been claiming legitimacy for imperialism or just trying to boost the tourist industry, but such feeling is nowadays more closely associated with outdoor productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream than with Hamlet.
In Germany, however, Hamlet has been central to debates about the relations between intellectuals and the state since before young Werther got sorrowful; possibly ever since the play was adapted as Der bestrafte Brudermord soon after its first appearance. Certainly once Shakespeare was naturalised by the Schlegel-Tieck translation and others in the early 1800s as ‘the third German classic’, the status of his Wittenberg-educated prince as a national allegory in waiting was assured. In a poem of 1844 Ferdinand Freiligrath lamented that ‘Deutschland ist Hamlet,’ and for many subsequent commentators, both at home and abroad, the chief task facing an emergent Germany was that of pulling itself together and rousing itself to action, thereby finally outgrowing Shakespeare’s depressing and constraining plot. In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, for instance, the American scholar H.H. Furness saluted the world’s first national society for the study of Shakespeare, the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, by dedicating his variorum edition of the complete works to it in 1877, declaring its members worthy representatives of ‘a people whose recent history has shown once for all that Germany is not Hamlet’.
This sinister congratulation, however, proved premature, and after the Treaty of Versailles Shakespeare’s second homeland seemed once again to be sulking in black at the centre of the European stage, pining for decisive action. The Nazis believed Germany had to shake off the role of Hamlet in favour of becoming Fortinbras, freeing the national spirit from Shakespearean tragedy in the process. According to Hermann Burte, in a speech of impassioned prophecy delivered to a writers’ congress in Weimar in 1940, ‘just as the remarkable poetry of the Elizabethans arose from victory over the Spanish Armada, so … will a new poetry arise from our victory.’ The triumph of the Third Reich, he promised, would prepare the way for a new German literary superman, outdoing Shakespeare at last:
The future poet will … be nourished to a loftier life-content and a stronger poetical power by the mighty manner and the extraordinary work of Adolf Hitler, as Goethe was by the deeds of Frederick the Great. He will not be a Hamlet who flees from himself, because he will set aright the times that are out of joint! … For through the deeds of the Führer the Fatherland will be so transformed that neither the ruler nor the poet will be tragic figures!
Given this powerful National Socialist engagement with Hamlet, perhaps we should not be surprised that the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, an apologist for the Night of the Long Knives and an admiring explicator of Hitler’s suspension of the Weimar constitution, should have diversified his output of political theory with an essay about Shakespeare’s tragedy after he’d been deprived of his Berlin professorship in 1945. Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of the Time into the Play first appeared in German in 1956, but acquired a second lease of life when translated into Italian in 1983; parts subsequently appeared in English (in the American journal Telos) in 1986, and the whole in French in 1992 and in Spanish in 1993. Interest in Schmitt’s notions of political theology, sovereignty and the ‘state of exception’ was sufficient among political and cultural theorists (including the likes of Derrida and Zizek) to motivate the publication of a bootleg English translation in 2006, and later this year the whole essay will appear in an authorised English version edited by David Pan and Jennifer Rust, complete with an impressive apparatus of supporting essays about this anomaly in Schmitt’s oeuvre.
Without these supplementary materials, Schmitt’s book would be a good deal less interesting. One of the appendices, ‘On the Barbaric Character of Shakespearean Drama: A Response to Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama’, has some striking things to say about the differences between the Shakespearean stage and the more secular, baroque stages of Continental Europe. But the main idea of Hamlet or Hecuba is pretty crude: namely, the reason Hamlet is so bafflingly and productively evasive about Gertrude’s possible complicity with Claudius, and so anxious that its protagonist should not become an Orestes-like avenger but should be mythically indecisive instead, is that Shakespeare couldn’t deal any more explicitly with a family situation that was troublingly close to that of James Stuart, the heir presumptive when the play was written. Once Elizabeth I finally died, Shakespeare would be a subject of the son of Mary Queen of Scots, who, like Gertrude, had married the apparent murderer (Bothwell) of her first husband (Darnley); and therefore Hamlet, while unable to stop obsessing about what that son’s position might feel like, has somehow to keep quiet about the mother’s guilt and at the same time block most of the son’s vengefulness towards her. Meanwhile, a religious ambiguity associated with James’s status as son of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father suffuses the play.
This isn’t a very convincing or full explanation either for the origins of Hamlet or for its mythic status, and even in 1956 it wasn’t a new one: Schmitt had swallowed it whole from Lilian Winstanley’s cranky Hamlet and the Scottish Succession (1921), which for some reason had appeared in German (as Hamlet, Sohn der Maria Stuart) in 1952. What is intriguing about this rediscovered essay even so is the evidence it provides that in the 1950s, when the hegemony of American liberal criticism preferred its great literature to be as apolitical and exempt from local contingency as possible, even a historical reading as crass as this one could seem excitingly subversive. The real subversion in Schmitt’s essay, though, lies in the undertones. Shakespeare ought to have been free to speak out; Hamlet ought to have seized the state of emergency, mobilised a public audience so that he might become the embodiment of the popular will, killed his rivals and achieved absolute power. But history having turned out as it had, here was the prince still all ambiguity and introspection, and here was a divided Germany, still not over it. Directors of Shakespeare’s tragedies in Britain are inclined to complain that it is hard to connect these plays with urgent political realities. Perhaps they are luckier than they realise.