Hamlet and Counter-Humanism

By Knowles, Ronald | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Hamlet and Counter-Humanism


Knowles, Ronald, Renaissance Quarterly


This essay interprets the question of subjectivity in Hamlet by reappraising Renaissance skepticism and by reexamining the medieval debate concerning the misery of man's existence, and the Renaissance celebration of man. A central concern is the significance of the commonplace in humanist rhetoric and dialectic, by which Stoic and Christian thought depreciates passion. In his anguish Hamlet discovers a unique subjectivity as he attempts to reject the wisdom of tradition. But the nature of thought cannot be separated from the nature of the mind that thinks, and Hamlet's selfhood capitulates to the role.

In the study of the development of Western culture the question of subjectivity is a much debated issue which is often directed to the Renaissance in general, and to Hamlet in particular. Beginning with section 1, "Alexander died," [1] this essay reapproaches the question in the play. Sections 2 and 3 expand on the backgrounds of the later Middle Ages, Humanism, and skepticism, while section 4 focuses on rhetoric, particularly on the commonplaces of consolation, in relation to the proscribed status of passion in the individual and society. [2] The fifth section considers role-playing and reappraises the nature of Hamlet's experience: his unique selfhood, realized through grief and loathing, cannot be sustained, since his mind is shaped by an essentialist humanism which undermines its very possibility. [3] To evade alienation Hamlet embraces the scripted roles within and without him; [4] and to understand this experience the critic of early modern culture needs, like Hamlet, to look "before and after" (4.4.37 ).

1."ALEXANDER DIED"

In contemplating Yorick's skull, by a process of rhetorical association Hamlet's mind moves to Alexander, the type of imperial greatness, "Dost thou think Alexander look'd o' this fashion i' th' earth?" (5.1.191-92). And then, following Horatio's confirmation, Hamlet invites his imagination to trace "the noble dust of Alexander, till a find it stopping a bung-hole" (5.1.197-98). Horatio immediately anticipates some form of sophisticated word-play -- "'Twere to consider too curiously" (5.1.199) -- but fails to pre-empt it: "Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?" (5.1.201-05). It has been shown that within the Christian literary tradition of timor mortis, memento mori deriving from St. Bernard, Alexander was often linked with Julius Caesar, as here ("Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay," 5.1.206). For example both are found in a poem by Skelton and in a po em attributed to Southwell. [5] But as Harold Jenkins has noted, in meditations on Death the leveller deriving from antiquity, Alexander appears in Lucian's Dialogue of the Dead, and in the Stoic context of Marcus Aurelius where the dust of Alexander is likened to that of his groom. [6] In another Stoic context, Thomas Bedingfield's translation of Cardan's Comforte (1576), a book many have argued is the one Hamlet carries on to the stage before the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy, Alexander and Caesar are listed with several others as types of human vainglory. [7] However, of greater importance here is the form of Hamlet's thought.

In terms of logic and rhetoric, Hamlet works through a sorites colored by tapinosis (or humiliatio). The sorites, perhaps more familiarly known as the chain-syllogism, is close to the rhetorical figure of climax or gradatio. Tapinosis is the use of a word to debase the noble. The so rites was a series of enthymemes, or abridged syllogisms, taking the last word of a sentence or clause to begin the next, [8] the logical counterpart to the rhetorical anadiplosis. For mostly witty sophistic purposes a false proposition, or propositions, seemingly led to an inevitably outrageous conclusion. Here, the fourth proposition, "the dust is earth" is manifestly fallacious in its deliberate equivocation between the biblical "dust" ("thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou returne," Genesis 3. …

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