The BEST: Hamlet

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The Best: “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare
Reviewed by Chaim Strauchler 

Summary: In this monumental play, the ghost of the King of Denmark tells his son Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing the new king, Hamlet’s uncle. Hamlet feigns madness, contemplates life and death, and seeks revenge. He utilizes a troop of actors to perform a play depicting the murder of his father. His uncle’s response upon viewing the play confirms culpability in Hamlet’s eyes. His uncle, fearing for his life, devises plots to kill Hamlet. Throughout, Hamlet anxiously debates the correct course of action. The play ends with a duel, during which the King, Queen, and Hamlet himself are all killed.

HamletWhy this is the BEST: Yale University recently canceled its famed course, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present.” This and other universities’ actions have sparked debate on the worth of studying the humanities. Many defenders have defaulted to Shakespeare, as the standard-bearer for the ultimate value of great literature and art. One such defense argues, “Shakespeare had an uncanny way of getting into people’s minds and predicting their motives and actions. He could take on the roles of prince, pauper, and priest and do it all with excellence.” In experiencing his plays and poetry, might we not gain some of Shakespeare’s insights into the human mind and its motives? If such a skill can be learned, is it not worth a student’s time and investment? It is these arguments themselves that are under attack (not simply the prejudices of an earlier epoch). Like Hamlet himself, the pursuit of what it means to be human is now subject to the question, “To be or not to be.”

Within the confines of the beit midrash, many have debated the value of such secular wisdom. Midrash Eikha Rabba (2:13) posits, “If a man should say to you, ‘There is wisdom among the nations,’ believe it. See! It is written, ‘I will make the wise vanish from Edom, understanding from Esau’s mount’ (Obadiah 1:8). If a man should say: ‘There is Torah among the nations,’ do not believe it, as it is written, ‘Her king and her leaders are in exile, Torah is no more.’” The relative position of Torah when compared to such “wisdom” has ignited many a late-night beit midrash debate, similar to that roiling academia. One parries, “Yes – there’s something to secular wisdom, but the Torah provides more immediate and ultimate value.” Another, “Yes – there’s something to such wisdom, but only if you are on Rav Aaron Lichtenstein’s level is it worthwhile.”

In this cultural moment, perhaps it is wrong to draw an absolute line between religious and secular wisdom. Simon During of the University of Melbourne describes the decline of the humanities as a new form of secularization, a recapitulation of religion’s retreat. Once consecrated in place of Christianity, he suggests, high culture is now experiencing its own crisis of belief: Like revelation and tradition before it, “the value of a canon … can no longer be assumed,” leaving the humane pursuits as an option for eccentrics rather than something essential for an educated life.

In this respect, the telos of the ben or bat Torah and the secular humanist are not so far apart. They both require of themselves experiences and knowledge through which they might become something greater (consecrated even). Alasdair MacIntyre expresses this, “To find oneself placed at a certain point on a journey with set goals; to move through life is to make progress – or to fail to make progress – toward a given end” (After Virtue, 34). Towards a society without such aspirations, the religious and secular humanist might together “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” Failing that, they might at least teach a sleepless and directionless world “perchance to dream” once more. 

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published March 12, 2020]


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