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Critchley and Webster Study Hamlet's Complicated Grief

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(Article changed on July 24, 2013 at 06:55)

Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 23, 2013: The Duchess of Cambridge has given birth to a son who will be heir to the throne of Great Britain. The new prince will be groomed to be a warrior-king, just as young Prince Hamlet had been groomed to be in Denmark. Perhaps all American boys should be groomed to be warrior-kings -- not so that they can become the sovereign in the United States, but so that they can become worthy sovereigns of themselves and their own personal decision making regardless of their social station in life.

But things don't work out so well for young Prince Hamlet after his father, King Hamlet, dies and is succeeded by his brother, the new King Claudius -- who shortly thereafter marries his brother's widow, Queen Gertrude, Prince Hamlet's mother.

No doubt Shakespeare was familiar with the biblical story of the warrior-king Saul and the subsequent warrior-king David and David's son Absalom and his daughter Tamar, Absalom's beautiful sister. In his play HAMLET, Shakespeare wrote a tragedy that deserves to be as well-known today as the biblical story of the warrior-king Saul and the subsequent warrior-king David is among American Christians.

Simon Critchley, a British philosophy professor who now teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York City, has teamed up with his American spouse Jamieson Webster, a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, to write the short book STAY, ILLUSION! THE HAMLET DOCTRINE (New York: Pantheon Books, 2013). In this book the authors have packed 43 short, highly focused chapters in which they admirably combine erudite substance with a lively style, but not always with decorum.

Critchley and Webster say, "He [young Prince Hamlet] should never have been commanded by the ghost to avenge his murder" (page 91). They are right. But this is how Shakespeare the playwright structured the play. As a result of being commanded by the ghost of King Hamlet to avenge his murder, the already grieving young Prince Hamlet is thrown into an emotional overload situation. Subsequently, he swings wildly from morose melancholia to verbose mania. Technically, he is not psychotic. That is, he has not lost touch with reality, because his ego-consciousness system is still working but in impaired ways because he is weighed down by the working of the bereavement system operating in his psyche and further weighed down by the ghost's command to avenge his death, which seems to activate some other kind of undertow system in his psyche. In contrast with the resilient young Hamlet, young Ophelia does become psychotic -- and commits suicide.

When psychoanalysis works optimally, it helps us free ourselves from illusions about ourselves and our lives. So the words of Prince Hamlet to his father's ghost ("Stay, illusion!") can serve as a springboard for the authors to discuss psychoanalytic theory -- with huge prostrating bows to Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. If two of Queen Elizabeth's subjects bowed to her the way that Critchley and Webster bow to Freud and Lacan, even she might be taken back a bit by their bow. To put it mildly, Critchley and Webster pay homage to Freud and Lacan. Their homage to Freud and Lacan reminds me of Thomas Aquinas's homage to Aristotle. In short, Critchley and Webster have learned a lot from Freud and Lacan that helps them understand Prince Hamlet.

Because Shakespeare's HAMLET is a tragedy, Critchley and Webster also pay homage to Friedrich Nietzsche. As a young man, he wrote THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY, in which he comments briefly but perceptively in the judgment of Critchley and Webster on Hamlet. They quote the lengthy passage on pages 194-195. In the quoted passage Nietzsche mentions the Hamlet Doctrine, which Critchley and Webster refer to in the subtitle of their book. Later in life, Nietzsche suffered a debilitating mental breakdown. But before his fateful mental breakdown, he wrote an incisive critique of THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY, which Critchley and Webster quote briefly (page 185). However, despite the shortcomings of this early work, Nietzsche describes himself in ECCE HOMO as "the first tragic philosopher," as Critchley and Webster note (page 193). Sadly, he himself was a tragic figure as the result of his debilitating mental breakdown.

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But let's review Shakespeare's play briefly. King Hamlet of Denmark, a warrior-king, has died recently. His son, young Prince Hamlet, is a teenager who has presumably been groomed his entire life to succeed his father as the future warrior-king of Denmark.

Young Alexander of Macedonia (later known as Alexander the Great) and at another time young Octavian in Rome (later known as Caesar Augustus) had been groomed their entire lives to become warriors in their teenage years -- and each of them did become a warrior as a teenager and a leader of warriors. So as a teenager, young Prince Hamlet has in effect been groomed to follow their example when the time comes for him to become the warrior-king of Denmark.

But Prince Hamlet has been a student at Wittenberg, the place where Martin Luther became famous. So the Lutheran reformation is in the background in Shakespeare's play, which means that the Roman Catholic Church against which Luther rebelled is also hovering in the background. More than once, Critchley and Webster refer to this larger historical context that is in the background in Shakespeare's play.

As Shakespeare's play opens, we learn about the appearance of the ghost of the deceased King Hamlet. The ghost of King Hamlet calls on Prince Hamlet to avenge his foul murder. In this way, Shakespeare calls to mind revenge tragedies.

But Prince Hamlet freezes at the ghost's injunction. Today we speak of our fight/flight/freeze reaction. Hamlet freezes. Because he freezes at the idea of avenging his father's supposedly foul murder, Prince Hamlet is not a teenager action-hero as Alexander and Octavian were.

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Because action-heroes like Alexander and Octavian are staple figures in action movies today, we should pause a moment here to consider the possible merits to Prince Hamlet's freezing. President George W. Bush famously told us that as the president he was the decider. Decide he did. He decided to launch wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. With respect to these two decisions, he was an action-hero in the tradition of the teenage Alexander and the teenage Octavian. As an exercise in fantasy, we might wonder if he should have taken flight from those advising him to undertake those two wars, or perhaps had Prince Hamlet's freeze reaction and had delayed and given the matter further thought.

The fight/flight/freeze reaction was clearly involved in how young Tayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in Sandford, Florida, in 2012, when he was 17 years old -- roughly the age of young Alexander and young Octavian and young Prince Hamlet. As a result of being stalked by George Zimmerman, young Trayvon Martin decided to stand his ground against George Zimmerman and fight him. In terms of his fight/flight/freeze reaction, he decided to fight. As a result of the fight, George Zimmerman shot and killed him -- and claimed that he did so in self-defense because he feared for his life during the fight. He was acquitted of charges of second-degree murder and of manslaughter. As the dead man's mother recently pointed out, had the young man taken flight and run home for safety, his unknown stalker would then have learned where he lived. And how was the young man to know what his unknown stalker would have done then?

As a result of freezing, Prince Hamlet puts on his thinking cap, instead of undertaking immediate action to avenge his father's supposed foul murder. He thinks that he can find out the truth about his father's supposed murder by having a play staged for King Claudius to watch. King Claudius is the brother of the dead King Hamlet and the uncle of Prince Hamlet and the current husband of Prince Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude. (Remember that Freud, the father of psychoanalytic theory, wrote about the family romance.) In any event, the play's the thing through which Prince Hamlet hopes to catch the conscience of King Claudius.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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