Friday, May 23, 2014

Bound and determined: Hamlet, Prospero, and the puzzled will (Part Two)


Hamlet can never rule from the throne, so he tries to do so from the majesty of his mind



The Argument: “Desiring this man’s [Prospero’s] art and that man’s [Hamlet’s] scope” [Sonnet 29], the poet-playwright Shakespeare (known familiarly as “Will” and never indifferent to punning) doubts that either of his famous creatures suffices to establish the independence of human action.


Common sense and vanity lie at the bottom of this new, unsatisfying revision of the Cartesian foundation: “I think, therefore I must suppose that I act freely.” It’s a porous basis for the defense of free will.  It’s what troubles Hamlet throughout his play. It’s the situation Prospero circumvents by using magic to extend his conscious mind, his force of will, to direct events from beginning to end on the island he has appropriated.

John Stuart Mill put the problem of free will like this: “The metaphysical theory of free will, as held by philosophers…, was invented because the supposed alternative of admitting human actions to be necessary was deemed inconsistent with everyone’s instinctive consciousness, as well as humiliating to the pride and even degrading to the moral nature of man.”

J.S. Mill recognized the appeal of free-will doctrine.
Literary critics who implicitly accept the theory of free will tend to boggle at Hamlet’s actions and/or wonder at his transcendence of both morality and his former appetite for life in Act V. Similarly, they make too much of Prospero’s abjuring his magic in the last scene, and elevate his apparent magnanimity, undercut by a mania for control, to the level of Christian self-sacrifice.

I believe that Prospero’s character is thus overvalued and Hamlet’s is excessively mired in mystery and somewhat disparaged, despite near-universal admiration for his charisma and intelligence.

 “Hamlet can seem an actual person who somehow has been caught inside a play, so that he has to perform even though he doesn’t want to,” writes Harold Bloom.  No: the character’s actuality is an illusion generated by the author’s investment of so much philosophical scrutiny into the human predicament. As capacious as he may seem, the Prince is an elaborate machine of immense, three-dimensional charm for dramatizing the root dilemma of human action and thought: determined or free?

It no doubt occurred to Shakespeare to have his hero use the feigned madness found in the play’s sources not as a ruse for protecting the prince from his wicked stepfather, but as a trick to test everyone around him on their susceptibility to external control. It’s an explanation worth exploring. Shakespeare’s first astute critic, Samuel Johnson, truly finds in Hamlet’s crazy pose “no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity.”
Hamlet's feigned madness bothered Dr. Johnson.

The “antic disposition” is thus a device of less use in the revenge assignment than it is an excuse to probe a vexing dilemma: How will I know what course I’m free to pursue, if it’s possible that whatever I do may only express who I really am, the person who I am willy-nilly destined to be? Are others like me in this, or will they push back, change before my eyes, or confirm what I already thought about them?

Hamlet vacillates from the start on his specter-ordered mission, which Shakespeare cannily avoids framing as a direct command to kill Claudius. Can the Ghost of his father be trusted?  He quickly tells his fellows “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you,” but later entertains the thought  that the apparition is the devil. So does the circumspect Horatio, who signals his skepticism about ghosts when he answers the watch's question "What, is Horatio there?" by muttering "A piece of him."

The Prince's resolve to “sweep to my revenge” is repeatedly checked, in ways he can't understand himself. He meditates several times on the paralyzing nature of thought and its relentless power to inhibit action. As late as his final soliloquy, he frets: "I do not know / Why yet I live to say, 'This thing's to do' / Sith I have cause and will and strength and means / To do it."

Hamlet knows that his mind allows him immense scope (a favorite Shakespearean word), but he suspects that nothing he may try is freely the product of his will. “O God," he says,  "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams.” What are those bad dreams? Images of the realization that the will is irrelevant, powerless — and that being bounded in a nutshell is a metaphor for the human condition, once free action is truly seen as being of no account.

Much of Hamlet’s peculiar behavior is a way of testing other characters, starting with the royal counselor and father of Hamlet’s putative beloved, Ophelia. Polonius’ entrapment in the role of nosy top adviser, schooled in listening and agreeing, is mocked in the dialogue about clouds and their perceived resemblance to animals. Polonius' long practice as a yes-man runs true to form. Hamlet's first test of someone else is a lark. Those tests that remain will sorely test him as well.

Polonius has also accepted tacitly that Hamlet is indeed reading a satirical description of old men like him when the Lord Chamberlain interrupts his browsing. There is little redeeming skepticism in the over-the-hill counselor, so the Prince wants to assess how much Polonius’ behavior is determined by the need to believe in Hamlet’s antic disposition. Totally, it is soon evident. Polonius bears an overload of what physicist (and "Star Trek" screenwriter) Leonard Mlodinow calls “confirmation bias,” the tendency to select the parts of mixed evidence that confirm what we already believe.

Delacroix's view of the "flute scene" with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Where is Hamlet to go for evidence of free agency in human behavior? He knows his old school buddies, fellow intellectuals but easily led, have been thoroughly suborned by the King, and tweaks them sharply for it, mocking their inability to play upon him any more than they can the flute. When the adventure at sea on the way to England allows Hamlet to discover that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying Claudius’ request to the English king to have him killed, he doesn’t hesitate to write a note of his own, consigning the messengers to execution.

As he tells Horatio the story, the tone is proud and free of second thoughts. Subconsciously, he has arranged a temporary truce between willfulness and destiny. Carrying his father’s signet ring, Hamlet enacts his hopeless claim on kingship by sealing the note he’s written condemning his false college chums to the death that Claudius had ordered for him. They are done for, thanks to the one royal order Hamlet will ever issue.

In traditional monarchies, the sole station in life closest to running a manifest determinist course is that of heir to the throne. Hamlet has literally put a seal on that status, though scholars tell us the Danish monarchy was elective. But as he shouts a little bit later after leaping into Ophelia’s grave to grapple with Laertes: “This is I, Hamlet the Dane.” What can that self-identification mean? They are all Danes there, of course. (Remarkably, "Hamlet" is a play as patriotic in its own way as "Henry V.") Hamlet is declaring publicly a claim on the Danish throne, his by right, that he will never occupy.

With this in mind, it’s not so odd that the dying Hamlet gives his blessing to the royal election of Fortinbras, ruler of neighboring Norway, which his late father had defeated in battle. Warfare is governed by something much greater than the competing wills of the combatants, as Leo Tolstoy would demonstrate for all time in "War and Peace." Destiny presides over all battlefields. Not for nothing is Fortinbras' "Go, bid the soldiers shoot" the last line in "Hamlet."

 “In proportion as our will declines, our belief in destiny mounts,” says Harold Goddard in "The Meaning of Shakespeare," though he is mistaken in applying this wisdom to Hamlet’s growing indifference to morality. It’s more all-encompassing than that. Transcending right and wrong is collateral damage when one engages such a formidable foe as the will’s puzzlement.