Reflections on the Semester: Hamlet on Thought and Action

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December 10th, 2013

Joshua Niforatos wrote after Prof. Simon Critchley’s IPR lecture on Hamlet (11/6):  “For Critchley, Hamlet represents the inability ‘to pull together thought and action: where we think, we cannot act; where we act, we cannot think.’ This gap—the gap between thinking and acting—can only come together, according to Critchley, through theater.  At its beginning to crescendo, Claudius is so disturbed by the play, which is a reenactment of his actions, that he admits to his wrong doing. Hamlet overhears Claudius’s confession of his guilt. Hamlet has a sword with him. While Hamlet could kill Claudius, he begins to think, which results in thought displacing action. In a moment of craze, one could argue, Hamlet kills Polonius, who is hiding behind a tapestry. Critchley states that this is action without thought. It is only when Hamlet is already dead that he can begin to act. When he knows that he is going to die—“I am dead Horatio”—action is possible and he finally kills Claudius. Critchley argues that with self-consciousness comes the inhibition of action, and this is one of the themes of Hamlet. He goes on to tell us that “what defines the human condition is the inability of thought and action,” and this is exemplified in Hamlet. Outside of this play, Critchley states that humor is a way to bridge thought and action. He cites Freud’s 1927 paper on “Humor” concerning jokes as a relation to the unconscious since jokes are unconscious desire in repressed form. Freud goes on to argue, according to Critchley, that humor is a way to arrest the oscillation between melancholia and mania. If humor is not utilized, then theater provides an emergency break system. Critchley states, “if ideology is committed to different progressive narratives, then theater breaks this by putting attention to the past rather than to the future.” He goes on to state that theater is an illusion machine- if the world is a stage, then the world is an illusion.  For Critchley, Hamlet is an argument against philosophy and argument for philosophy as drama that has a dramatic structure. What is the difference? Well, according to Critchley, a philosophy as drama does not tell you what to think; rather, you are given different situations and told to see how the situation plays out….”

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