an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, June 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




Conceptions of Class, the State, and the Supernatural in the Lands of Nod, Denmark, and North America

            —On Itzik Basman’s Futility as Tragedy


Justin Taylor



The symbolic act therefore begins by generating and producing its own context in the same moment of emergence in which it steps back from it, taking its measure with a view toward its own projects of transformation.

                        —Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious


And besides, I knew that, by all the rules of art-magic, there were formulas and oaths which none of its practicers dared break.

Mary Shelley, “Transformation”


They say that Cain caught Abel

Tossing loaded dice

Ace of spades behind his ear

And him not thinkin’ twice

                        —The Grateful Dead, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”



How unlikely a guest at this party Itzik Basman is—a Canadian litigation attorney who “in a past life completed graduate work in English literature.” Well, the world is full of people in places they might not have wound up, doing things they might not have done, or been able to do, had this or that just gone a little differently. Not that I’m trying to read a failed professorship into Basman. I don’t know him, and as near as I can tell (from one Google search) he seems settled, successful, and presumably pleased with life as a Toronto trial lawyer.

            However. When one of the only two sentences in his bio is “I took some time off to write an interpretation of Hamlet,” (the other one being the sentence I quoted above) I think it is fair of this reviewer to sense a bit of…hunger, shall we say, into the subtext of his project.  And I don’t say this as a way of finding fault. Surely, I did disagree with much of Basman’s interpretation—sometimes vehemently, as you’ll see—but there is no question in my mind that any urge which drives a grown man to take time out of his working life to re-evaluate Shakespeare is a fine one indeed. There are exactly two other things that I know about Itzik Basman and I may as well lay them down before going any further. They are both from a brief email of his that I read, where he said that he believes his interpretation of Hamlet to be original, and that as readings go, it is not “postmodern” in any way. When Basman wrote that his reading was not postmodern, I immediately wondered what he supposed postmodernism to be (as well I wondered what I suppose it to be, but this is a much larger, and tangential, issue). Having read his text, I am prepared to say that he is both correct and not quite correct in his assessment of himself.

            He doesn’t quote Derrida, Jameson, or [your favorite theorist’s name here]. His reading has a “classical” feel to it, by which I mean he speaks in terms of unqualified absolutes like “evil” and “good” when talking about the events in the play. On the other hand, in the sense that he picks the play apart, dissecting scene by scene and with special attention given to each soliloquy, all in the interest of explaining the “meaning” behind the events, he’s not so far afield from a deconstructive reading. As to Basman’s tendency to enlarge his interpretations of the play into philosophical lessons for or about the world at large, my jury is still out on whether this is a “classical” or “postmodern” habit.

I knew Basman and I were not going to see eye to eye from the very beginning, thanks to his introduction, which presents a twenty-two-point list of what he intends to argue. It was pleasant, though unfamiliar-feeling and slightly awkward, to read a text so willing to show its full hand before even beginning the game (Basman earns a point for the “classical” side of the board, having eschewed textual coyness a la Barthes, et al). I was almost wondering why I ought to read the whole thing, given that it could be put so simply, but Basman promised “textual flesh” for “these dry interpretive bones” and so I decided to see what sort of monster he might construct and/or bring to life.

            In William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down, he offers a revision to the Golden Rule. The point is not just doing to the other as you would be done by, but doing to the other as they would be done by. It is in the spirit of that reading of the rule that I have modeled Basman’s introductory list and offer the following overview of what I intend to say:  (1) that Basman’s interpretation of Hamlet, while not utterly original, speaks with an idiosyncratic and wholly original voice; (2) that Futility as Tragedy does flesh out and prove all of its own introductory contentions on its own terms; (3) that Futility as Tragedy, while internally consistent, suffers—I believe—from certain conceptual flaws which undermine the viability of the argument, specifically (A) figurations of fratricide  and the ghost’s role, (B) discussion of state forms and statelessness, and (C) the deployment of notions of class.

            Having spoken towards (1) and (2) in the course of my introduction, I’ll move on directly to (3), addressing each sub-topic as the bulk of my review.

Constant attention is paid in Futility as Tragedy to the language of things—why this metaphor, why that turn of phrase. The very first paragraph of part 2 (“World,” the first non-introductory chapter of the text) draws attention to a parallel between military language and the language of rottenness, and the way in which both spread and grow over the course of the play. That’s a poignant connection between two fundamental thematic elements of the play, but it comes in the form of a semi-mistake. The language of militarism and the language of rottenness are operating on wholly different levels, with the latter tending to play a figurative or metaphoric role and the former more often literal. Basman, in his admirable zeal for interpreting meaning and explicating themes, oversteps the “real world” of the play altogether. Sure, there is military language from the very first scene—there should be. The characters speaking are both soldiers.


In part 5, “Hamlet and the Ghost,” Basman writes:


The references to doom and fate and events foretold and the recurring imagery of omens and augury constitute as a whole a thematic account of Hamlet's tragedy. A noble, sensitive and intellectually inclined young man will be pressed into service by unfathomable forces which, struggle against them as he tries, will overwhelm him. In Romeo and Juliet, foreshadowing is a metaphor for the young lovers’ doom: they are doomed by malevolence, evident in their families' feud, which in the nature of things must devour their star-crossed love. Hamlet, within his dramatic world, is likewise doomed. Thus the Ghost is the ghost of a king who has had a signal hand in directing the way of the world and who has been victim of its desecration by fratricide. To be murdered by a brother is the virtually unimaginable blasting of human bonds.  (30)


            It is the final sentence that draws my attention most strongly. I’m often not sure, when reading Basman, if he means the full force of what he says or if, alternately, he’s conceded the finer points of a given word or phrase for the sake of its perceived impact or flourish. Fratricide, of course, is not unimaginable—virtually, or otherwise. Rather, what I believe Basman means to say is: "most taboo.”

Case in point here is the text Basman is treating. Hamlet is an act of imagination, the product (ostensibly) of one man’s mind. What’s more (though it may rank among the greatest art/literature of Western Civilization) it is hardly unique in its choice of subject matter. Even my bargain-paperback edition of Hamlet came with a lengthy introductory essay discussing the historical antecedents, including Nordic folk lore, Egyptian and Greco-Roman mythologies, and the myth of Cain and Abel to name a few. And that’s just the made-up stuff. Looking at actual history for a moment (also paying grudging homage to the fact that most fiction is inspired or based on something that actually happened), I can assert comfortably and without utilizing my Google search-bar that fratricide is perhaps the most common archetype in human history—especially among the ruling classes.

Fratricide predates the penning or performance of Hamlet by a good bit and will likely outlive it as well. That the fratricidal myth has been preserved in these two seemingly immortal works of literature (that is: Genesis, then Hamlet) is testament to the signal value of those two texts as texts. Put another way: we know the fratricide motif is important because it persists in the cultural imagination, not because it is at the heart of Genesis/Hamlet. Inversely, we do know that Hamlet/Genesis are masterworks in the canon of fratricidal literature because, of all the examples available, it is these which have survived the longest.

Fratricide does not necessarily constitute a violation of the real social order. It exposes and perhaps even epitomizes the force relations underlying superficially civil relationships like those of families, at royal court, or, as in this case: both. And yet the very existence of the term (fratricide) indicates the banality of Claudius’s action. Moreover, Hamlet’s scheming throughout the rest of the play seems strange—eventually insane—not because of what he’s trying to do but because of the roundabout and unreasonable way in which he goes about it, or because he stalls for so long. The tension in the play is not how Hamlet will respond to the unimaginable premise of the murder of his father—rather, the tension is in our astonishment that he may fail to do what we all know he has to do: take revenge on Claudius.  Basman:


When the Ghost beckons Hamlet to revenge, it is a beckoning to act on the world's terms and not in the way of justice. Hamlet's immediate response to the Ghost's awful account of King Hamlet's murder is the revenger's blood-cry. He is overtaken by what he hears, and, impulsively, in the heat of his immediate reaction—which is by its nature thoughtless—he summons his resolve to do what the Ghost commands: (33)

Basman is correct to say that Hamlet’s initial reaction, to want revenge, is instinctual, or at least intuitive. However, the presumption that such an intuitive reaction subverts or ignores “the way of justice” in order to act on “the world’s terms” points the interpretation in an unhelpful direction. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, Basman does not articulate what “the way of justice” might be. In the world of the play as organized by Shakespeare (as well as in the world of Shakespeare’s lifetime, and much of the rest of the world throughout history and the present) the notion of paying an eye for the taking of an eye is the foundation of enforceable justice. Justice itself, in the most abstract sense, describes the active maintenance of a situation of equitable relations between parties; is this not what Marxism urges when it calls for class justice? The notion of doing justice or enforcing justice suggests the reestablishment of equality, which happens through the redress of wrongs and disempowerment (neutralization) of the destabilizing force. Following this line, we see that Claudius’s action—though banal within the realm of real force/power relations—is the destabilizing gesture. Hamlet, were he to murder Claudius in like manner and usurp the throne, would be following the shortest path back to the traditional social order, given the irrevocable nature of Claudius’s action (King Hamlet was murdered, not deposed, so the “most just” action, restoring him to the throne, is impossible).

Furthermore, it seems a mistake to attribute the desire for revenge wholly to Hamlet. In another example of what is Basman’s most consistent interpretive error, the “real” of the diegetic world of the play is ignored in favor of an interpretation of the characters, events, dialogue, and motives all as vehicles of symbolism rather than of story.

It has long been debated whether the ghost in Hamlet is real or an hallucination of the maddening prince. Even among those that argue for the specter’s reality, it is still possible to say that after the initial appearance(s) of the ghost, he does not return and that the latter appearances of the ghost are hallucinations inspired by the actual (though now departed) spirit. Basman doesn’t say whether he thinks the ghost is real or a fiction of Hamlet’s, but for my money the ghost is real. I believe the opening scene of the play clarifies this. I believe Shakespeare’s decision to open with the ghost being sighted and spoken to by two unimportant soldiers was designed to establish the creature as present in objective reality.

This is a crucial point because it adds a metaphysical/occult dimension to the world of the play. Religion and heresy alike (cult and occult, if you’re feeling feisty) rely on elaborate systems of rules, rituals, and processes. With this in mind, the ghost’s request has a pragmatic dimension to it (another point Basman glosses—Hamlet is asked to act, he doesn’t come up with it on his own). According to dead King Hamlet, the fact and manner of his murder has left his soul in some way unsanctified. He is in fact confined to Hell, and will stay there indefinitely until the wrong done to him is put right—namely, by the neutralization of / revenge on Claudius.

This supernatural element of Hamlet cannot be isolated or extracted. The mechanics of the spirit world need to be minded by the diligent reader as a Catholic priest takes care to assign a suitable number of Hail Marys in proportion to a given sin committed. There is a metaphysical economy at work and its currency is the moral value assigned to actions in the physical world. For Shakespeare (as for the crystal-clutching new age Wiccan, the Medieval alchemist, or the ardent practitioner of any religion) the introduction to the play of a real Hell, a real ghost, a real spirit world, are all ways of amplifying abstract moral concepts by presenting a reified version of the invisible, ethereal dimension where those abstractions can play out in a space of real action. The ghost’s literal freeing from Hell upon Claudius’s death (though never shown to us) is a tangible change and reward for re-establishment of the proper order in a way that abstractly obtaining “revenge” or “justice” is not.

            And later on:

When Hamlet confronts Gertrude—whose sensuality is essential to her nature and who is markedly sensible and sympathetic to others—after The Mousetrap, she cannot see the Ghost. It now presumably is a"coinage" of his overwrought mind (3.4.138.) She declaims in answerto Hamlet's "Do you see nothing there?" (3.4.133), "Nothing at all;yet all that is I see" (3.4.133). Again Hamlet asks, "Nor did you nothing hear?" (3.4.134); and again in kind she answers, "No, nothing but ourselves" (3.4.134). The clash between literal seeing and extraordinary seeing gets succinct dramatization here. Hamlet can see what Gertrude cannot. But Hamlet, overwrought, is blind to the obvious and tends to lose himself. (41)

Hamlet is literally seeing the ghost that Gertrude does not see. At this stage, whether it really exists or is a manifestation of his beleaguered mind is another matter entirely, and only of secondary relevance. I am tempted to argue that it is within the ghost’s power to reveal himself or not to whom he chooses, and so he may appear invisible to Gertrude but solid as a sword to Hamlet. What comes to my mind is Stephen King’s The Shining, as well as Jameson’s interpretation of Kubrick’s filmic treatment thereof. I won’t derail this much further into spiritual mechanics, but it is a long-standing fact of literary criticism that the supernatural aspects of literature tend not to be accorded the same diegetic value as other actions or plot-points in a given work. One thing the pulp horror shelves have going for them is a loving, occasionally obsessive, attention paid to precisely those things. If you want the most enigmatic or beautifully rendered black magic, there are Shakespeare’s ghosts and occasional wizard, there is Faulkner’s Addie Bundren chatting it up from her coffin on the way to her grave, and so on. If, on the other hand, you want to know why a given monster has risen from a given crypt, what it wants, and how to fix the situation, you turn to H.P. Lovecraft, to Stephen King, to Laurell K. Hamilton.

The fact is that Hamlet literally sees the ghost. It does not matter if it is objectively present because, whether real or hallucinatory, it is actually being viewed. This is the very nature of hallucination: the actual seeing of that which is not actually there. His madness, which becomes at some point not an imitation but actually the thing itself, is born of the solipsism resultant from the disjunction between an individual's reality and the reality of everyone else, coupled to an inability to argue persuasively on behalf of one's own reading of reality. This is the experience of the paranoiac, of the conspiracy theorist, of Phillip K. Dick deriving the VALIS trilogy from his own notes on the personal experience of divine revelation. As such, the point at which the madness which is poor Hamlet’s enemy makes the switch from a Judith Butler-style imitation-for-which-there-is-no-original into a more happily Lacanian real-born-of-its-own-absence doesn’t need to be pinpointed. The figurations of the ghost can be written off as a mere belated attempt to make a fever chart when the patient has already died of fever. Consider the Son of Sam killer: is not the question not did the dog really tell him to kill? Is not the question, rather: did he really believe the dog was telling him to kill?

For an even more prescient example, consider that Marines, if called in for questioning or trial because of something that happened during combat, are subject to a code of law that allows for and absolves gross miscalculation or reactionary ignorance. That is: the marine is held liable not for his actions in the situation as it actually was (as private citizens are), but for the situation as he perceived it. Hamlet, as a member of the royal court and therefore on the giving-end rather than the receiving-end of law, likely possesses a diffuse and malleable sense of his own obligation to the law. One can understand why a prince would defer or ignore the social contract out of deference to a higher notion of authority (a notion of Higher Authority). Because the supernatural world and its rules override those of the physical world, Hamlet must fulfill this spiritual/familial/metaphysical obligation even at the expense of the pragmatic good. (One is suddenly reminded of Antigone, and Zizek’s suggestion that the fundamental “myth” of Hamlet is an even older one than the myth-proper of Oedipus.)

In his exhaustive reading of the fourth soliloquy, Basman argues:


There is a reason why in the play no morally acceptable alternative to the extremes of quiescence or murderous revenge exists. That reason is the pervasiveness of might as a means to power. Might corrupts the very institution of social order—the legitimate state. For that state to exist, people consensually submit themselves to what they themselves create—the state's authority over them. That authority civilizes the passions including the bloodlust of revenge. Justice, in Shakespeare, in sharp contrast with revenge, requires the proportionate punishment of crime by the agencies of legitimate sovereignty. In this play’s world, statelessness exists in the guise of a state. Naked power rooted in fratricide wants to don the mantle of legitimate sovereignty and radiate social order. But it cannot. A legitimate state requires the good at its foundation to constitute its existence. (63-4)


I’m not sure what to make of the statement that revenge in the play is symbolized by murder. It seems, perhaps to be an extension of Basman’s tendency toward reversal of symbol and referent.

Revenge is not symbolized by murder; murder is an action carried out in the service of revenge. Hamlet is intended as a historical fiction, and relatively realistic fiction at that. The characters recourse typically to murder, first of all because it was the standard procedure for that place and time, especially among that class of men. Besides, the original transgression in the play was a murder; thereby calling for a vengeance at least it’s equal. That blood may be made to answer for blood may not be Basman’s taste, but the Hammurabic gesture (or principle) is hardly a derivation from the norm of dramatic or human history. Certainly the motive for such Hammurabic “justice”-seeking makes tautological sense even to those of us who don’t agree with it.

            Now I would like to address state and statelessness at some length. I disagreed with Basman vehemently on these points, and, while I would not be so brash as to call either his or my theory of state “right” or “wrong,” I feel inclined to offer my own reading of the social (in Hamlet, and at large) as my chosen method of critique/review.

Basman invokes a basic social contract that suggests something like a modest democracy. This seems to me to be unmindful of the fact that Shakespeare’s Denmark is a monarchy (ditto for Shakespeare’s England). The notion that all men are free to consent or not to the governance of state authority (without threat if they resist) works only in the outer reaches of Platonic thought. That is to say: the idea of a horse is a more pure creature because it is not real, whereas any real horses have fleas, and they shit all over the place, and they may kick you in the head or lose their footing while you are riding them.

 State authority (venerated by Basman to a force able to “civilize the passions including bloodlust”) is based entirely on might—the very source he claims corrupts state authority. Surely he is correct that power corrupts (and the absolute absolutely, etc.). But he is (in my opinion) incorrect to pose power and the state as dialectically opposed forces. Basman’s reading of might identifies it as something that enters the state apparatus from without, when in actuality it is intrinsic and inherent to the institution of the state itself. Legitimate authority is authority still, and any authority with the might to enforce its legitimacy (even—especially—on people who have “willingly submitted” to it) essentially has already conceded its legitimacy in the interest of enforcing it. As the ever-lusty Zizek might say, verbally pressuring your reluctant partner to consent to sex with you essentially puts you in the same ideological camp as that of the rapist, and everything that comes after is a matter of degree.

You cannot be both the legitimately recognized authority in a situation and also have to use force/violence to maintain that position—the two positions are irreconcilable. A split then must occur, between those who recognize the given authority and those who do not. But in the dissolution of consensus (consensus being the provider of legitimacy) authority loses its mandate. Instead its perpetuation becomes a game of percentages and hedged bets—the police firing wooden bullets and tear gas at nonviolent war-protestors, for example. Their goal is to disperse the crowd, which functions as evidence-of-dissent, the typically masked reality of authority’s failure to obtain full consent to govern from those it does indeed govern anyway. But authority does this in the name of a broader freedom, out of a sense of (often quite heartfelt) duty to and love for the populous which contains in itself the very people being fired upon and repressed.

All states are founded on fratricide. Shakespeare himself invokes Cain and Abel explicitly and repeatedly: thematically and in the word-choices of the characters in dialogue. Cain rose up and slew Abel, and then God sent him away from Adam and Eve’s land, which did not have a name or a named social order. The social order rose up from the ground in the form of blood crying out: the first biblical instance of an indictment from beyond the grave. Like the ghost of King Hamlet, rules of civility and taboos against violence are revealed after the fact of the offending action. The ghost, in essence, says Claudius should not have murdered me, but we do not know what happened before the play began with the ghost’s re-appearance. Perhaps Claudius had a good reason!

If you’ve got some time, browse Stephen King’s short story “Cain Rose Up” (in the collection Skeleton Crew), or Brian De Palma’s otherwise-irrelevant 1992 film Raising Cain, or even seek out the history of that clichéd expression both men took their titles from. In recollections and re-visionings of the Cain and Abel myth (which, in my reading, is the premise-myth at the core of the pre-diegetic fratricidal act, and therefore informs in a crucial way the otherwise Oedipal mythology of the actual text), the focus is almost always on what Cain did. Less attention is paid to why he did it, and still less to the nature and morality of the punishment he received.

The fratricidal event, in Cain and Abel, radiates in all temporal directions: it dominates the present moment; it radiates into and mutates the past—the time before itself. Recall your own version of this child/parent drama: “You should not have done that;” “But I did not know I shouldn’t do that;” “It is too bad, you should have somehow known.” But most importantly—as with all legal precedents—it radiates into the future. Cain, who by edict of God could not be killed, traveled to the Land of Nod, where somehow a city already existed when he got there: the Bible’s first mention of a society, of an urban environment.

In apocryphal legend, Cain is, among myriad other things, the father of vampires: undead creatures who live on the blood of such society as they’ve forsaken. But this view of vampires is really an example of history being written by the winners. From their perspective, it is they who were outcast for an irrational reason (a law enforced before it properly existed) and have therefore been put into the unenviable position of trying to survive like parasites at the extremities of the social body.

My own reading of Cain and Abel validates much of what Basman has written regarding the state’s function as a means of checking power and aggression. Especially, in fact, with my own integration of an “unsanctioned” folk-tale extension of the story, is Basman’s point upheld. Surely I understand and partially concede the pragmatic function of the state as such: ensuring that my money is good when I go to the store, that I probably won’t be killed while walking alone at night, or that if I am my family stands a decent chance of getting “justice” for what happened. What Basman fails to understand is that there is a selective, metered violence inherent in all state function, in its very existence, and that therefore the question is not will the state will lose its ability to regulate itself and unleash it’s potential for unchecked violence? The question, rather, is how soon—and in what way—will this happen?

(For an unlikely example of the underdog’s version of Cain and Abel, try The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” where the delightfully named Virgil Cain tells the story of fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War, the death of his younger brother at the hands of a Yankee, and the punishments administered for rebellion by the victorious Union, concluding finally: “you can’t raise a Cain back up when he’s in defeat.”)

As Deleuze wrote in his wonderful study of Foucault: there is no state, only state control. The questions then become constitutive—who constitutes the (controlling) state, who constitutes the (controlled) social body, what are the methods (of control) employed by the state over the social body?  In Hamlet, the social body is missing—gone down the same rabbit-hole as Claudius’s ulterior motives, the moment of Hamlet’s official madness, the truth of the ghost. “Statelessness exists in the guise of a state,” Basman writes. For me, the problem is just the opposite. The world of Hamlet is set among royal society, mostly at royal court. The players, with few exceptions, are all members of the royal family or at least on equal footing, class-wise. Essentially, in this version of Denmark the state apparatus exists without a populous.

Hamlet is nothing but state; the various state offices (from king on down to courtier) are taken to be fixed, basically eternal, even as the various mortal members of the equestrian class fray it out to see who will occupy each position. A populous exists only to the extent that we are occasionally reminded of the army—the fact that there is an ongoing conflict with another sovereign state. The military is not treated as a faction of the social body; they are described in the play only as a tool to be wielded by power.

“The flow of corruption commodifies the law—“Buys out the law"—such that it is but a gilded imitation of itself,” Basman writes. “The law, justice’s instrument, inverted, becomes the instrument of injustice, all the while attempting to dress itself as justice’s means.” (73) I think that Basman is correct in making this argument, and certainly we see this sort of inversion in action everywhere from Claudius’s usurpation of the throne to the actions of the current presidential administration (to say nothing of most of those that came before it). What I think that Basman is not saying, but which must be said, is that inversion of justice into its opposite, done in the name of its preservation, is the paradox at the very center of any existing state. The corrupt law is not some unimaginable scenario that comes into being because of something unanticipated or undefeated from Elsewhere. Rather, it is an “accident” (a la Paul Virilio) that emerges as a potential at the same moment of the “proper” law’s emergence. Corruption, then, is the inherent disavowed excess of law itself, just as the plane crash is an inescapable potential result of inventing the airplane, or in the same way that nuclear waste is the unavoidable and irreducible by-product of nuclear power.

And in all these examples of spoken and unspoken content, of pursued and disavowed or suppressed potential, the conceptual focus is internal. We are constantly looking at the yin and yang of a singular entity. So it is in Hamlet, where the entity is the royal court, a privileged subset of the uppermost class.

The real problem in Hamlet is not a violation of written laws or of the corruption of government. All the main characters are people to whom state law hardly applies. They create it and enforce it, but are essentially insular from it. Beyond a certain point, even the broader moral or supernatural obligations become secondary—once the rot (figured here as the disavowed negative aspects of statelessness made manifest) really begins to take hold at court, and the bodies start really dropping, there are no more ghosts or even much talk of motive. The dark anarchic spirit which has taken hold of the story (not unlike the Draculaic notion of the vampire who from his high castle has enthralled a whole village) is the reality of raw force relations of the sort that the state typically is able to inflict on the populous but which it itself less often experiences. What Claudius inaugurates is the turning-in-on-itself of a deadly power normally projected from the state onto its subjects.

I am reminded of Romeo and Juliet, where the inaugural element of the feud between the houses is both pre-diegetic and unspecified. And yet it is that violation of moral/ethical codes in terms of class (the two houses were “both alike in dignity”) that triggers the class-cannibalistic and ongoing cold war between the two bourgeois families. Romeo and Juliet, then, in their passion, transgress the new (reactionary) terms of intra-class relations between the Montagues and Capulets. It should neither surprise nor confuse anyone that passion and violence are the yin and yang (expressed and suppressed content) of a fundament of the human condition. It is the perceived corruption of the expressed content (a desire for the one which has been forbidden) that triggers the need to employ the normally suppressed—violence. Their libidinal like-mindedness is like-mindedly condemned by the antagonistic families, bringing the opposing sides to a sort of Hegelian synthesis that the matter must be resolved in blood: the movement from cold war to actual war. And so it goes, until the ultimate blood sacrifice, which leaves both Romeo and Juliet dead. Only then can the heads of the two houses speak directly to one another, because the locus of their mutual outrage (the lovers’ love) has been neutralized. Not surprisingly, they “come back to their senses” in a way, and speak with some honest remorse about how gruesome things got at the height of conflict.

For the rest of fair Verona, though, perhaps the end of the in-fighting will ignite a return to the normal outward and class-down projection of violence and exploitation. In Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the modernized alt-rock teen-celebrity version of the classic play, the two “houses” derive their fortunes from competing mega-corporations. We can infer what might happen in the post-script of the modern version: talks of mergers, weird cross-marketing campaigns and advertising trade-offs, joint lobbying efforts for loosened legal regulation of industry, a tighter stranglehold on whatever market the two now-chummy CEOs dominate, etc.  Basman:


And what can deceive “twenty thousand men” into “imminent death” is itself sheer emptiness, “a fantasy and a trick of fame” (4.4.61). “No cause without,” therefore, is the soldiers’ inability to see the real reasons for their imminent deaths. “No cause without” is any observer’s inability to see any good reasons for their deaths. It is the sheer lack of any such reasons. And “no cause without” is the perversion of cause into “a fantasy and a trick of fame.” Like Laertes, the soldiers are pitiable fools. Their unawareness consigns them to their deaths, consumed by the infection from the contagion that directs them. They are like dumb brutes in what they do not understand. They will die as ignominiously as dogs. To make “mouths” is child’s play; to be indifferent to consequences is in the nature of children; straw and eggshells may be amongst the trivial concerns of children; “a fantasy and a trick of fame” are for the amusement of children. Vast inconsequential death is a tragedy of this world. (97)


I think Basman is dead accurate throughout this passage, which comes in his analysis of the Hamlet’s final soliloquy (part 16 of Futility as Tragedy). There is, however, a final dissent that I want to register before drawing this review to a close. As I mentioned in my introduction, I was given to suspect that Basman’s taste for a punchy phrase had led him on occasion to say something that, while surely impactful, was perhaps other than precisely what he meant.  Basman’s description of the soldiers in this passage (as well as in other places, which I have not cited) deserves certain and unrestrained repudiation. If he believes that he is presenting the play’s perspective, or the likely views of the main characters, then he ought to be refuting it. If, on the other hand, he’s giving his own opinion (“they are like dumb brutes in what they do not understand”) then he should be ashamed of himself.

While it is at least arguable that the stereotypes Basman presents are drawn from common personality-types found trans-culturally and trans-historically among soldiers, there is another stereotype that also fits both trans-categories, and that is of the economically strapped worker/proletarian soldier who knows exactly how fucked up a given situation is but needs the money, is bound by a sense of loyalty (not so different from Prince Hamlet himself, in this) or is otherwise stuck. Again, parallels to our present international situation practically beat us over the head with themselves; every story of an uncertain or back-door-drafted soldier injured or killed in Iraq (or even the one who kills in the service of such uncertainty and then must live with what was done) should be a wrench in the gears of our thinking—drawing our attention down from the broad-sweeping or upwardly-focused to the differentiated and specific stories and interests of the proletarians comprising the overwhelming bulk of the army—ours, Hamlet’s, whoever’s.

Like the boost given to the anti-war effort in the Vietnam era by the gradual addition of scores of former soldiers, widowed women, and child-robbed parents, the expansion of the anti-Imperialist base and the maximization of its potential to enact what Basman would call “the good” (as well the suppression of its own disavowed contents: isolationism, racist notions of who is capable of “receiving” democracy, etc.) will rely ultimately on our ability as the broadly defined “Left” (or, if you prefer, as the Leftist subset: “Marxists”) to understand and access rather than patronize or discount the rainbow of motives and perceived realities represented in the modern American military. Neither reactionary intellectualism nor the trashing of arguably decent people put into insane situations beyond their comprehension or control will aid this cause; indeed it will eventually undermine it. This holds true whether “they” were our parents’ generation of harangued and neglected veterans, or are the current National Guard reservists suddenly flung into the streets of Baghdad, or even the fictional Danish soldiers from an imagined annals of history, fighting as Basman wonderfully puts it in his introduction: “over a worthless patch of land—over a question of straw and an eggshell.” (5) Such an act, Basman says,


…Subverts the military accord Fortinbras orders conferred on Hamlet. It subverts any fine and grand example Fortinbras might be thought to set. And it subverts any notion that a new order embodied by Fortinbras will redeem and replenish Denmark. Rather, Hamlet's caustic dissection of the impending battle explodes martial virtue and frames the play in a kind of futile meaninglessness.(5)


And he’s right. The problem for me arises later in the text, once I’ve been worn down by his reductive and classicist descriptions of the already-marginalized-and-downtrodden proles/soldiers of mytho-historic Denmark, which contrasts starkly in his writing with the incisive, exhaustive, and generally more thoughtful terminology used to describe the characters who live on the initiating end of state power. In short, Basman is correct, if not the first, to say that in Hamlet, as in life, futility is ultimately tragic both to experience and to witness. What he does not say is that there is also something noble in such futile action—the band playing while the ship goes down, the student studying diligently for the final exam of a class he has already failed, declaring in court upon receiving a death sentence that one does not recognize the authority of the court. The noble and the tragic aspects of the futile are interwoven, not mutually exclusive, but the noble aspect is where the kernel of transcendent hope (or, in rare cases, actual potential) remains. One must perceive the possibility of overcoming even the most damning odds because, whether such a perception is real or hallucinatory (i.e. the ghost of Hamlet’s father) it is the only thing that locates what one hopes for within the realm of the possible. (Marxists, surely, are better acquainted than most with this line of thinking.) Basman succumbs to the tragic when he writes off and talks down the soldiers in the play. He embraces the futility of attempting change and wallows in the privilege of sharp-tongued despair. This is the tragedy of the futile, as I see it—especially inasmuch as Basman is not trapped, having an expansive vocabulary to draw from and a honed intellect with which to decide how he will cast those he writes about.





an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, June 2005, ISSN 1552-5112