In a Counterpunch piece with the bizarrely alluring subtitle “Anders Breivik, Amy Winehouse, Hamlet and Tahrir Square,” commentator Caroline Rooney (who holds some sort of academic position in Kent, with the enviable title of “RCUK Global Uncertainties Fellow”) finds some striking similarities between the character of Hamlet and that of the contemporary militant Islamist jihadist. Her point in making this perhaps “odd” or “to some, discordant” claim is to humanize the jihadist, to show that far from being some kind of brainwashed automaton with a very shallow subjectivity quite unlike our own, can quite possibly be a deep character, on par with the quintessential deep character of western civilization. Excellent observation! (And I make a very similar point in my book…)
One of the intriguing things about Shakespeare’s plays is how they have the capacity to assume, time and again, a contemporary relevance. In terms of the concerns of our times, it is surprisingly not hard to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet as exhibiting the psyche of a Jihadist extremist. In brief, Hamlet is dismayed by the socio-political corruption he finds all around him and in relation to this he develops a savior complex: he believes that it is his almost divinely appointed task to set the world to rights. He believes that the wrong he has to address is betrayal of a divinized father ideal: that to which all loyalty must be fanatically owed. Hamlet is puritanical; he is disgusted by sex and berates his mother for acting on her sexual desires while he orders Ophelia to veil herself, more or less, in his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech. Hamlet also has a paranoid attitude, one of intense distrust of ‘infidel’ types such as Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and, of course, especially Claudius.The reason that I put forward this odd—and, possibly to some, discordant— proposition of a Jihadist Hamlet is to challenge some of the reductive post 9/11 framings of Islamic extremism by politicians and the media. One of the particularly reductive features of these framings has been the widespread simplistic inference that extremism is culturally other, and specifically Islamic.
You can see where this is going, and it’s praiseworthy. Not only as a reconsideration of violent Islamism (highly salutary) but, I would argue, as a reconsideration of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s only a few years ago (starting, say, about 10 years ago? Around September of 2001 perhaps?) that Anglo-American critics, led by figures such as Linda Charnes and Margreta de Grazia, have begun to write about the political dimensions in Hamlet, which had been long obvious to critics and audiences in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Arab world. And now, since our times have gotten far enough “out of joint,” also to us.
Rooney takes this mirroring as her explicit subject:
While the figure of Hamlet has been taken by some literary critics to be emblematic of the emergence of the modern Western subject, what does it then mean to notice that such a subject would seem to exhibit Jihadist tendencies? It means not only that the repeated othering of extremism is untenable but also that extremism accompanies the modern subject as the effect of its emergence. In other words, if the modern subject is a Dr Jekyll then Mr Hyde is his extremist double: not another as such but a phantom other of refused identifications. While the West currently produces a phantom of Islamic extremism, this paranoid structure comes to be inhabited by the Jihadist who attempts to invert it, that is, in producing the West as its demonic other.
From here it gets rather weird, though: it turns out the Crusader is just the Jihadist in a funhouse mirror.
In terms of this logic of opposing mirrors, the Jihadist fighting the Crusader is just like the Crusader fighting the Jihadist. Or, Hamlet the Jihadist could also be Hamlet the Crusader. With this turn, it becomes possible to account for the political psyche of Anders Breivik , not Anders the Dane but rather Anders the Norwegian. Like his literary counterpart, Anders the Norwegian considers the rulers of the state to be corrupt and considers his role to be one of setting the world to rights. From his website, Anders appears to have been mesmerized by the specters of idealized military manhood: here, we might recall that the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears precisely as a suit of armor.
I’m not saying she’s wrong, just a bit too breathy perhaps.
Anders and Amy [Winehouse] may be said to embody the sadism and masochism of our cultures or, politically, the ever-present potential for fascism.
Still, nice to see Hamlet taking his rightful place in that conversation.