What Hamlet Taught Me about Ukraine and Abortion

(Update: A few days after I wrote this, the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective published a piece by Ahmed Bouzid that reflects many of the same viewpoints, but much more thoroughly explored. I highly recommend reading it.)

Early in the pandemic, my wife and I started watching one full production of Shakespeare a week. With theaters closed down, many companies began to put filmed performances online to help raise funds, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre (UK), and Stratford Festival. In addition, we had subscribed to two streaming services, Marquee and Britbox, offering full productions of his works. Going through his entire body of work helped us really develop an appreciation not only for Shakespeare as the immortal bard, author of some of the greatest lines in all of literature, but also Shakespeare the man, for we could more easily see him shuffling about plot devices and tropes until he hit combinations that worked.

My greatest joy at first was watching the plays that are not so often taught or performed. Timon of Athens” is beautifully cynical, while Cymbeline bursts at the seams with most every one of Shakespeare’s plot devices (cross dressing, men believing themselves betrayed by lovers, people believed dead who aren’t, nobles finding refuge in the forest, etc.). I was less eager to engage with the standard fare of Macbeth and Othello and Hamlet, however, given how much they have been overexposed in our culture. One actor (I forget whom) said that the difficulty of performing as Hamlet was that his lines were so iconic, so embedded in our consciousness, that he felt more like he was simply quoting Shakespeare.

I had expected, by the time Hamlet entered our rotation, that I would find myself more critical of the play, that, at this far remove from my first exposures, I would naturally view it with a more critical eye. However, much to my astonishment, the play proved itself a marvel, worth its ranking as one of the greatest works of English-language literature. Moreover, the play speaks to our present-day politics in ways that seem prescient.

Consider two of the most significant news stories of the year to date: Russia’s fascist invasion of sovereign Ukraine, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s invasion of sovereign bodies with its imminent reversal of Roe v. Wade. In both cases, most of us believed that there had been long established a modern norm that was simply inviolable. The post–World War II consensus held that wars of territorial conquest would no longer be tolerated, even if that norm was undermined by small-scale incursions like Russia’s nibbling at the Crimean Peninsula. Likewise, the post-Roe consensus held that abortion prior to fetal viability would be legal at the national level, even if that norm was undermined by small-scale court cases that sought to limit the window during which abortion would be available to a woman in need.

In both cases, our assumptions about the permanence of these norms were wrong. Beneath the appearance of consensus, evil forces were at work to undermine everything that had been achieved in the name of freedom and sovereignty. And when finally faced with the genuine march of evil, most of us, just like Hamlet, have engaged in silly performative politics rather than undertake the hard work of employing power constructively for purposes of benefiting the people in need.

What does Hamlet do when he learns that his father had been murdered by Uncle Claudius, who not sits on his father’s throne and lies in his father’s bed with Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother? What does he do? He tells his best friend, and then spends the better part of Act II bumbling about. Finally, he decides to stage a theatrical reenactment of his father’s murder to see how Claudius reacts: “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” But Hamlet is a prince. He has access to power. He should not be worrying about catching the conscience of the king. He should be worrying about catching the throne of the king.

For Hamlet later to be exulting in Claudius’s discomfort at seeing his crimes performed on stage is the equivalent of liberal Twitter exulting when Mitch McConnell says or does something that reeks of obvious hypocrisy. It does not matter that Mitch McConnell is inconsistent. It matters that he has power. His power will survive his inconsistency. You can complain that his behavior vis-à-vis U.S. Supreme Court justices shows that he has no moral core, but he doesn’t need a moral core. He has power. It is your responsibility not to ridicule him on social media but to do everything you can to strip him of that power in order to further the cause of justice.

But complaining keeps one pure, while action must necessarily entail compromise. As the British author Rebecca West wrote in her 1958 book, The Court and the Castle: “We are members of an imperfect society, and when we cooperate with it, we are committed to imperfection, because we are all imperfect beings and cannot conceive a perfect thought or act.” Hamlet is a terminal case of this. What happens when he is sent in exile and manages to evade the execution order handed down by Claudius? He eventually ambles back to Denmark, again with only Horatio in tow. He has not made deals with any rival kingdoms for aid to help him take the throne. Instead, he has eschewed power to retain his purity, treating this whole matter of usurpation as if it affected him and him alone, and so he gets himself killed, along with most the main cast, at the end of Act V. “Our imperfection,” writes West, “cannot be sweetened by our acts or limits in its effect by our caution. Hamlet is exquisitely accomplished, but it does not aid his moral power,” and everything that happens by play’s end, all the death and destruction, is the result “of Hamlet’s refusal to bind himself to the same ties of the flesh which have, through the ages, been generally blamed as the sources of sin. To our species all gates to innocence are barred.”

The various myths of “consensus” under which we have operated for several decades have been nothing more than convenient excuses for not getting our hands dirty with actual politics. We wanted to pretend that such wars abroad and at home would simply not be capable of happening again. But evil does not rest. To all who had ears to hear and eyes to see, it was stunningly obvious that Vladmir Putin did not feel himself constrained by any international consensus but, instead, has long been planning to rebuild the Russian Empire of yore, even if doing so entailed a massive campaign of genocide and rape. To all who had eyes to see and ears to hear, it was obvious that the American Right was happy to mouth the obligatory lie that “Roe v. Wade is settled law” while planning to give parental rights to rapists and hand down death sentences to women who experienced any of the complications so common to childbirth. But we have not heard and we have not seen simply because that might demand action, and action is by nature imperfect.

Russian imperialism, the American forced-birth movement—these things are evil. And evil cannot be fought on Twitter or in the comments section of this post. Evil must be fought in the streets, in the courtroom, at the ballot box, with money, with votes, with force. Fighting evil takes time. Fighting evil will necessitate alliances with people whom you do not like, but that is the nature of working toward justice in an imperfect world.

Even at the end, Hamlet fails to understand, saying: “And is’t not to be damn’d / To let this canker of our nature come / In further evil?” Yes, to allow such an evil to develop is to court damnation. But here, Hamlet is worried about his own personal salvation, not the actual lives that might be saved by his actions, the kingdom that might be preserved. Determined not to engage in imperfection, he rather ironically brings down the whole kingdom of Denmark.

Hamlet wants to be right, not to do right. To be better than he is, we must do better. Evil is forever on the march.

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