Constitutions of Hamlet

Tragedy and mourning plays stage, for Walter Benjamin, the point of failure around which absolutism constitutes itself. And the trauerspiel, or sorrow play, is never more acutely realized than in Hamlet’s melancholic Prince who, as Benjamin describes, ‘‘holds history like a sceptre in his hand,’’ but who is “incapable of declaring the emergency his very function is to prevent.” Yet this site of failure is also an intimation of futurity. As Carl Schmitt notes, modern European culture has never produced a constitutional myth with as great a reach as Hamlet. For Schmitt, the play signals an emergent modernity in its presentation of the Jacobean monarchy as historical intrusion into the drama, whose kingship has been emptied out – or “desacrilized” as Franco Moretti will later state – but whose absolutism agonistically obscures this fact from itself. This tension is met in Jacques Derrida’s notion of the play’s spectre as the ghostly presentation of that presence which “seems to remain as ineffective, virtual, insubstantial as a simulacrum.” Constituting for Derrida a “hauntology” of political theology, Hamlet speaks of a crisis in political representation by undoing the difference “between the thing itself and its simulacrum.”

Derrida’s hauntology pinpoints one reason why, following the crisis of language, or Sprachkrise, that seizes major thinkers and works of high modernism, Hamlet recurs as constitutive text across vital moments of the European twentieth century. The play reopened the Deutsche Theatre in the Soviet occupied zone of Berlin following the collapse of the Nazi regime with Gustav von Wagenheim’s production, and forty-four years later the same theatre reopened for business following the collapse of communism with Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine. The melancholic Dane took a recurrent role in aiding revolutionary fervour to evade the censorship of communist regimes. In Romania, Alexandru Tocilesau’s 1985 Bucharest Hamlet strongly inferred parallels between Claudius and Ceaucescu. In Bulgaria two pre-independence productions used Hamlet as a mode of cultural reconstruction, and in Poland the Dane had played repeatedly since Wyspiański’s 1905 interpretation as a tool of political subversion; Wajda’s 1990 post-independence production was a key moment in national reconstitution.

Hamlet’s afterlives also show us how in modernity political theologies are transmitted as mass technological event. Benjamin’s analysis of melancholy and mass media technology, and Friedrich Kittler’s media archaeology are here invaluable. For it is the case that the age of analysis, the teletechnological episteme initiated in the newly established discourse networks of the 1880s and 90s (enabled by the technological development and mass uptake of the phonograph, cinema and typewriter), constitutes an unprecedented constitutional moment for Hamlet. Taking a central place in Freud’s theory of the unconscious, and critiqued in academic discourse vastly more than any other narrative, Hamlet is a quintessential object of analytic desire. Likewise, filmed more than any other story, the play wielded a constitutive influence upon the early cinema. Jointly in the institutional verification of analysis and the technological implementation of cinema, Hamlet haunts modernity.

This one-day symposium will explore how Shakespeare reworks early modern political theologies, and why modernity finds itself speaking of politics and subjectivites so frequently with and through Hamlet. In the context of Britain’s melancholic contemporary quest for political isolation, a quest arguably bound to an updated form of the very failure of political absolutism that Benjamin identifies as the heart of trauerspiel, it is perhaps more timely than ever to consider the political theologies constituted by Shakespeare’s sorrowful Danish play.

The conveners welcome paper proposals that explore the subjective, philosophical, epistemological constitutions and political theologies of early modern tragedy, melancholy and trauerspiel, and the various ghosts, hauntologies and afterlives that reconstitute Shakespeare across modernity.

Please send abstracts of about 200 words to by 20th November 2016.

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