Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion

By Garrett A. Sullivan Jr.; Patrick Cheney et al. | Go to book overview

11
Hamlet and Humanism

Neil Rhodes

We have become familiar with the idea that we are living in a "postmodern" world. More recently we have also been offered a vision of a posthuman future in which human beings can be controlled by computer chip implants. Whether or not the arrival of the cyborg signals the end of the human, our present vantage point at the start of the twentyfirst century certainly makes it easier to see that humanism has a history. It is a history that begins in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the period that is also described as early modern. Humanism is a defining element of modernity in its early phase, just as postmodernity may equally be understood in terms of the eclipse of humanism. But this chapter will not be concerned with the postmodern or posthuman. I mention them because I think it will be easier to understand what we mean by humanism if we recognize that it is not something natural or inevitable, but a phenomenon that can be associated with a particular historical era, that of the modern. This era may now be drawing to a close, or may already have done so. If we want to locate its origins, the literary text that provides us with the best focal point is Hamlet, produced around the year 1600. This most celebrated work by the most celebrated of all writers owes its status in part to its being a blueprint both for humanism and for modernity. I shall explain how it does so in a moment, but first we need to tackle the term "humanism" itself. There are conventional academic apologies for attempting to define large and elusive concepts. I think we can take for granted that what follows involves a good deal of simplification and move on to say that the main source of confusion about the term "humanism," at least for the student of English, is that it tends to refer to two rather different things. The first, which is usually called "Renaissance humanism" or "Tudor humanism," refers to an intellectual and cultural movement specific to the early modern period. It derives from the studia humanitatis, the redesigned and reinvigorated arts syllabus that spread from Italian universities to the rest of Europe during the fifteenth century. The term survives in modern usage as the "arts and humanities." The second version of humanism emerged in the late nineteenth century, when the term was used to describe a purely secular philosophy of man. Dispensing with God, in this philosophy the human being becomes the ultimate point of refe and source of meaning. It is this second kind of humanism that came under attack in the late twentieth century, though not from a religious point of view, where it was labeled as "liberal humanism" or "essentialist humanism" (Dollimore 189–95, 249–58). These terms (the second in particular) refer to the belief that there is a universal human essence that exists apart from the contingencies of history and ideology. There are in fact connections between these two versions of humanism, as I hope to make clear in the rest of this chapter, but it is as well to remember at the start that they can and often do refer to different things.

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