I finally caught Kenneth Branagh‘s full-length Hamlet on cable this week. I’m not sorry I missed it in the theater; a four-hour film is too exhausting to watch away from home, and Branagh’s effects for the big screen are hard enough to take on a small one. But seeing it reminded me that I had always wanted to write about Hamlet, and that, aside from a paragraph or two in Originary Thinking, I had never done so.
This Hamlet is indeed a mixed blessing. I have no major complaints about the acting. Although Horatio is stiff as a board, Jack Lemmon as Marcellus is embarrassing, and Charlton Heston as the Player only a little better, the principals, particularly Branagh himself, are generally fine. Ophelia (Kate Winslet) gets a bit overwrought, but she is an essentially pathetic character. It is the atrocious visuals that mar the film; some rejected Godzilla footage of the ground opening up is shown a good half-dozen times. Especially in the early part of the film, the director insists on translating the words of dramatic passages into images, as though the spectator isn’t smart enough to do this for himself. At some points it seems that each time Hamlet says “table,” they show you a table–well, almost. And the shot of Hecuba in the ruins of Troy is so ugly that it would have turned the Greeks to stone.
This production violates what should be graven on Moses-Heston’s tablets as the first commandment of movies made from plays: never upstage the stage action. Branagh often undercuts his own fine acting with what seems to be masochistic relish. Monty Python couldn’t have made the “How all occasions do inform against me” speech more ludicrous; Branagh’s words are half-drowned out by “public service music” as the camera tracks back ever farther, leaving him an insignificant dot. The final sequence, which intercuts the action at the Danish court with a surprise military invasion of Denmark by Fortinbras’ forces, is clearly intended to convey the impression that all this family in-fighting is just so much fiddling while Denmark burns. But as a commentary on Hamlet’s delay or Claudius’ fecklessness, it fails, for the simple reason that it could not be made a theme of the play without changing the original text. It’s one thing to put on classical plays with modern dress and decor, and another to introduce into them new perspectives that can only be presented as dumb-shows unsupported by dialogue.
It is nevertheless a joy to hear all of Shakespeare’s text, the length of which adds considerably to the substance and effect of Hamlet’s famous “delay.” One is struck above all by Hamlet’s delight in “words, words, words,” and this aspect, necessarily neglected in productions that cut the “unessential” dialogue, is precisely the one in which Branagh most shines. Better than any other Hamlet I’ve seen, he brings out the Danish prince’s affinity with the intellectual who glories in his mastery of language as a means to defer as long as possible the contact of ideas with practical reality. In this peculiarly modern form of “the deferral of violence by representation,” the intellectual-of-resentment gets his representations to represent as little as possible.
René Girard, in his A Theater of Envy (Oxford, 1991) and at greater length in an earlier article, attributes Hamlet’s delay to a “modern” defect of mimesis. Where an old-fashioned character like Fortinbras would have run Claudius through in a trice, praying or not, Hamlet, in Girard’s reading, is too unmimetic, too “Christian” to rush to revenge. Only when Laertes reappears in the final act does mimetic rivalry finally push Hamlet over the edge, and even then, he does not act until he has seen his mother poisoned and he has accidentally grasped Laertes’ poisoned sword.
It is ironic that the thinker who revolutionized our understanding of mimesis by studying the modern novel has come to associate modernity with a diminution of mimetic rivalry. On the contrary, the passage from external to internal mediation, from models of desire that are above us to models who stand beside us, banalizes and universalizes this rivalry. Hamlet’s failure to take revenge is the archetype of the transformation of the classical man of resentment–Achilles is the originary example–into his modern counterpart. Hamlet enjoys playing at the periphery of the scandalous scene of which his uncle has usurped the center. Branagh is quite successful in conveying the scarcely disguised glee with which Hamlet compares his uncle to his father. One imagines that were the old man still around, he’d probably (in keeping with the nineteenth century setting of the play) grab the first train to Wittenberg.
Unlike Girard, I think we still can learn a good deal from Ernest Jones‘ Freudian study of Hamlet as the exemplar of the modern Oedipus complex, who no longer kills his father but ambivalently identifies with his murderous uncle. This is a sharp insight independently of Freudian dogma. The modern homme de ressentiment prefers to let others act violently and then complain about the violence; what else have we been witnessing in “post-colonial” academia lately? Hamlet’s delight in righteous indignation prefigures the romantic heroes for whom he serves as the primary model. His sulking appearance in the king’s council in I, ii precedes any contact with the Ghost and can indeed be said to have generated it. Is Hamlet’s attachment to the scene of his father’s murder and his own exclusion “sexual”? Let’s just say that, like all realizations of the paradox of desire, it has a sexual charge. We don’t need Freud to grasp the undertones in the scene in Gertrude’s bedroom, or to point out the mimetic violence her presence inspires in him.
Branagh’s puerile use of illustrative imagery gives us malgré lui an insight into the play’s irrealism. Not only is the Ghost’s objective existence dubious in the same way as similar mimetic catalysts in the “fantastic” works of the nineteenth century, but even a scene like Claudius’s confession of the murder at prayer is more meaningful in the context of the mimetic triangle between him and the two Hamlets than in that of Claudius’ relation to God. The piling-up of evidence that old Hamlet’s murder really took place has nothing of the rationalizing assurance of comparable sequences in a detective novel; on the contrary, it bespeaks the “hystericization” of the mimetic configuration that leads to the death of all the principal characters.
Girard rightly points out that, in the final act, Laertes’ appearance at Ophelia’s grave provokes Hamlet into the “internal” mimetic rivalry from which he had been shielded by his quasi-filial relationship with his uncle. Even then, Hamlet can only act in the context of the neo-mimetic fencing-scene; the affected Osric–played by Robin Williams, the only American import to perform creditably–is representative of a modernity by which the heroic competition of old is reduced to a game. But the lesson here is not that the unmimetic Hamlet has finally been provoked into a form of mediated desire, but that the appearance of his contemporary and virtual equal–the only principal other than his acolyte Horatio to whom Hamlet speaks with unambiguous affection–makes impossible the solitary proto-Romantic role he had played until that time. Fortinbras is often spoken of as Hamlet’s counter-model, but in fact the action of the play is framed by Laertes’ departure and return, during which time Hamlet is free to present himself as the young sufferer of what two hundred years after his time would come to be called the mal du siècle.
Girard’s point is that we should, but never do, read Hamlet “against revenge” in accordance with the Judeo-Christian tradition that alone specifically suspects and forbids revenge–a noble imperative rendered all the more timely by the recent renewal of nuclear activity on the Indian subcontinent. Yet the fact that I must partially dissent from this reading provides me with a useful occasion to define the nuance that separates my perspective from that of my teacher.
Girard deftly points out all the parallels that make Claudius and the old Hamlet essentially indistinguishable, and at the same time those which display in Claudius an indecision that parallels Hamlet’s own. In such circumstances, delay, or “deferral” as I would rather call it, is not only the very substance of culture, but the only “reasonable” tactic. Girard sees Hamlet as a modern nuclear-armed leader with his finger on the red button, hesitating to push it. The other critics, in his eyes, are criticizing Hamlet for not pushing the button, psychoanalyzing his delay as a symptom of mental illness. How do all these supposedly civilized intellectuals concur in treating this civilized young man as a failure because he refuses to follow the advice of the ghost to murder his uncle? If Polonius attributes Hamlet’s sickness to love of his daughter, the sophisticated Poloniuses of a sophisticated age transfer his desire to his mother. But if we “read Hamlet against revenge” we will understand that Hamlet’s true destiny was to renounce the Ghost’s imperative altogether. Branagh himself seems to suggest this in the final moments of the play; if Hamlet, Laertes, and Claudius had stuck together, they might have prevented Fortinbras’ virtually unopposed invasion.
In the last analysis, Girard no more than the other critics can countenance Hamlet’s indefinite delay. The difference, and it is entirely to his credit, is that where our pseudo-Nietzscheans impatiently urge Hamlet to wreak vengeance on the patriarchy, Girard wants him to follow the Christian road of renunciation. The slaughter that ends the play, in this view, is a concession to the bloodthirsty public that does not reflect an inner necessity of the modern psyche.
Yet it is here that Girard, like those he criticizes, is guilty of utopianism. In order to castigate us for our lack of understanding of Hamlet’s–that is, essentially of Shakespeare’s–situation as a modern tired of the old sacrificial world of revenge, Girard must himself deploy a certain verbal violence. Of course we should avoid violence, sacrifice, and revenge; but we should never expect to abolish these things once and for all, merely to defer them. What is modern in Hamlet is not his partial liberation from mimesis, but his conversion of it into a deferring mechanism independent of the old social forms. What distinguishes him from Laertes or Fortinbras is not that he is less of a man of revenge than they, but that he is more a man of resentment. And so are we all. The choice we face is not whether to renounce violence, but to live in its deferral or to die all at once. The apocalypse of violence can only be indefinitely postponed, not inverted into an apocalypse of peace.
To the extent that we would love one another, we must continually devise new mediations through which to discharge the resentment human interaction ceaselessly generates in us. As individuals, we should do our best to fill our hearts with love for those around us. But on the societal plane, we can only accomplish the deferral of violent revenge through mechanisms of less violent revenge. If we seek to short-circuit these mediations, we will establish on earth not the kingdom of God but the kingdom of Death. There is at least this justification for Branagh’s ominous ending of the play with the tearing down of old Hamlet’s statue: humanity can survive only on the condition that no man, nor woman either, receive unconstrained the substance of his desire.