Of the Dying Culture: The Prophetic in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

From the beginning, history has supplied mankind with innumerable gifts. These gifts have been supplied in the form of stageplays, paintings, sculptures, novels, music, and many other anthropological and archaeological phenomena. Against this backdrop of human history, a handful of individuals have created works of art that have not only endured the relentless onslaught of time but have severed the chains of the temporal, thus illuminating the world in a manner that oversteps the sacred frontiers of the past and present. Works like Sophocle’s Theban Plays, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Johann von Goethe’s Faust, and Plato’s Dialogues have all served this purpose. But one work stands out with particular relevance as it relates to the current condition of American culture.

That work is none other than William Shakespeare’s immortal Hamlet. Hamlet, the tale of the despairing prince of Denmark out to avenge the murder of his father at the hands of Claudius. As significant as this theme of revenge is to the understanding of this play, a far more profound and reverberating theme bubbles just below the surface. This is the theme of the dying culture. In Hamlet there is a dramatic shift from the culture of communal ties and solidarity to one of mass paranoia and narcissism. This is the same theme Friedrich Nietzsche undertook in his “death of God” parable and Max Weber in his Protestant Ethic. The poignancy of the dying culture is none more compelling than in Act 1 Scene 5, the moment when the ghost of King Hamlet discloses the details of his mysterious death.

“My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment”

Apart from the fact that this is the moment when the reader first becomes aware of who killed King Hamlet, it is far more important to note how the King was killed. As Cain slew Abel in Genesis, Claudius coldly slew his brother by pouring the “leperous distilment” into the king’s ungaurded ear. But this Biblical analogue is just a mere fraction of the far deeper parallel which can only be explained by recourse to medieval philosophy and the ideas of Danish thinker, Soren Kierkegaard. First, the medieval conception of kingship must be explained.

Medieval philosophers and clergymen had a unique conception of kings and the nature of the king’s power which vastly differs from that of the modern world. Namely, the medieval civilization believed that all kings had two bodies. One of the king’s bodies was physical and the other was mystical. While the physical body was that which bound the king to the body politic as a mortal being, the mystical body was that moral, ethical, and ideological legacy which would survive the king after his death. In short, the king’s physical body was pertinent as it relates to the day to day struggle that defined the whole of medieval society i.e. the warding off of disease, the need for food, shelter, water, etc. In this respect, the physical body of the king represented the material existence of the body politic.

Juxtaposed with this physical body is the more complex mystical body. While the physical body of the king served as a representation of the earthly toils of medieval society, the mystical body represents that ontological substance which underpins this struggle. The flower of the medieval society finds its roots in worm riddled soil of theology and myth. The customs, values, mores, and beliefs are combined to give rise to the immaterial estate of the mystical. The mystical body of the king is the collective consciousness of his society. It is the the wave of populism or as the Germans would say “the mystical body is geist“.

In this context, the context that King Hamlet has two bodies, the ultimate effect of Cladius’s treachery becomes infinitely more clear. The murder of King Hamlet was more than the death of a king. The murder of King Hamlet put into motion the slow death of an entire culture. In this case the death of Elizabethan culture. Into the “porches” of the king’s ear the fluid flowed poisoning not only the sire’s body but the seat of his mystical estate, that is to say his brain. And here lies the real tragedy of Shakespeare’s play. Cladius has not only destroyed the king’s body but has made his ambitions known to murder the collective conscience of Denmark. This ambition beautifully symbolized by the fact that the poison found its way into his body through his head, signifying the corruption of the mind. And this destablization of the king’s mind extends into the broader realm of the 17th century European culture. The fears of King Hamlet began to materialize as his office, once a mantle of law and order slowly degenerated into a “couch of luxury”.

Another interesting dimension of King Hamlet’s death can be found in the fact that the poison was poured in his ear. In Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or an essay on music was written under the psuedonym A. In this essay Kierkegaard was quoted saying that hearing is “the most spiritual of the senses”. This idea is not exclusive to Kierkegaard’s writings as it can also be found in the writings of Plato. In Plato’s magnum opus, The Republic, he makes the fascinating distinction between gymnastics and music to explain the contradictions between the mind and the body. Essentially, Plato assigns the power of music to the edification of the spirit and the rigor of gymnastics to the upbuilding of the body. When Plato’s dichotomy of gymnastics and music is paired with Kierkegaard’s assertion that hearing is the most spiritual sense it is not hard to see that what enters the human ear invariably affects the human spirit. In Hamlet’s case, poison enters the ear therefore the spirit is poisoned.

The devastation of Denmark is the devastation of a culture gone awry which puts it into the same boat as 21st century America. Since the end of the second World War America has been determined to extend its hegemony in any way possible without regard for environmental cost or human life. What are the seats of power today but couches of luxury where the few can send down the fruits of injustice to the many? Who will stop the Claudius on Wall Street from pouring the “leperous distilment” into Barack Obama’s ear? All that we have are the vestiges of intellectual courage and the overflowing wellspring of history. This is of special importance because a culture that forgets its history unknowingly condemns its children. We must heed King Hamlet’s last request to his son to “remember” him for failure in this endeavor would only birth a generation that will not remember us.


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