Shakespeare’s Hamlet treats the age-old conflict between pagan and Christian morality and the spiritual tension in which it long kept Western man. But it does so in a decidedly modern context. The landscape of Denmark is changing. Its feudal orders, the Church, and imperial wars have begun to slip into the past, as an international order, with its markets, universities, leisure travel, and technology, assumes their place.

Caught in the middle of this transition is the impressive young man Hamlet, “th’observed of all observers”—all eyes are on him: heir to throne of Denmark, he is fiercely intelligent and quick with a witticism, but also proud, daring, and often shockingly rash. And now he’s troubled. Early on, he finds himself tasked by the ghostly apparition of his dead father, still stinging under the pain of hellfire, to seek pagan-style revenge against his Machiavellian uncle. Hamlet is thus forced to settle that age-old conflict, yet as it gives way to the modern, Machiavellian order, and he must do so using the one tool available to him: the meticulous care indicative of his studies at Wittenberg. Hamlet must act rightly, yet what is right and good, long a matter of conflict, has now become a matter of academic debate. Hamlet is faced with an urgent political crisis, but the tools he’s been given seem wholly anathema to decisive action.

Readers often accuse Hamlet of navel-gazing to the point of unconscionable delay. But Hamlet accuses himself of this no less. His situation is very much our own, as we find ourselves heir to multiple traditions whose authority has waned and access to which is granted primarily through books. As is our way, we will try to address this dilemma by reading Hamlet.

Image: Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before The King And Queen), Benjamin West, 1792.

 

Hamlet with Alex Priou

Faculty

Alex Priou

Alex Priou is an Associate Professor of Political Theory at UATX. His research and teaching both focus on the history of political philosophy, with specialization in Plato and the Pre-Socratic poets and philosophers. He often writes for a broader audience on his Substack and Public Discourse and is the co-host of a weekly podcast The New Thinkery where he discusses a broad array of texts philosophical, historical, political, and literary.

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