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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/23/13

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.


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.

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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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