It is not just the state of Denmark that is rotten, but every state.


Telos Press

Translated by David Pan and Jennifer R. Rust


A major work will either establish the genre or abolish it; and the perfect work will do both.”

-Walter Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama

Prince Hamlet’s well-known vacillations between disbelief, frenzied dissembling, and—finally—resolute action, remain a potent symbol of modern self-consciousness: rootless and self-doubting. Interpretation of Shakespeare’s paradigmatic “character” comes to us from successive generations of German philosophers beginning with Romantics like the Schlegel brothers, Schiller, and Goethe as well as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud.  Rarely, however, were these psychological insights combined with the dramaturgical considerations of Shakespeare’s time and milieu.  In the recently translated Hamlet or Hecuba, Carl Schmitt offers an interpretation of the play that breaks with the tenor of this earlier reception.  Focusing on the political and cultural preconditions for the celebrated “split” consciousness of the scholar from Wittenberg, Schmitt explains many of Hamlet’s doubts as symptoms of the contemporaneous theological clashes between Protestants and Catholics – Schmitt even goes as far as to interpret them as a mirroring of the contradictions of an ascendant King James.  Other dynastic intrigues intrude into the structure of the play - especially concerning the ambiguous moral status of Queen Gertrude - and undoubtedly played a role in shaping the reception of characters on the London stage.  More importantly Schmitt regards Hamlet’s proto-existential ruminations as expressions of a medieval mentality coming to grips with the circumscription of political action amidst a rapidly modernizing world of absolutist states.  This specific historical context renders an avenger indecisive, elevating Hamlet to a status comparable to classical tragedy, where time and chance reverse the fortunes of even the most exalted characters.


Although it is only one of two pieces of literary criticism in his body of work – early in his career he also wrote a monograph on the expressionist writer Theodor Daubler – Schmitt’s breadth of knowledge in European theological and aesthetic traditions always infused his politico-legal writings with a singular panache.  Published in 1956 after a seminar on Hamlet at the Volkhochschule der Landeshauptstadt Dusseldorf, the essay gives us some indication of Schmitt’s attempts at self-rehabilitation six years after the paranoid rants of Ex captivitate salus.  Schmitt’s attention to Shakespeare interpretation ten years after the war while still a pariah within most political and intellectual circles should not comes as a surprise.  It seems a more palatable series of seminars for citizens of post-war Germany than anything from Schmitt on the Bonn Constitution or Warsaw Pact.

Since the 1980s there has been an ever-expanding critical reception of the writings of the legal theorist Carl Schmitt in the Anglosphere.  Several articles of Schmitt’s were published in the journal Telos from 1987 onward – shaping the reception of Schmitt’s thought along the lines of the inadequacies of traditional bourgeois conceptions of state and society, identified in now famous texts such as The Concept of the Political and Political Theology.  Much reception of Schmitt follows two interceding lines of interpretation.  The first has taken place in the wake of Leo Strauss’ incisive review of The Concept of the Political shortly after its publication in Weimar Germany and his subsequent correspondence with Schmitt concerning Hobbes, Spinoza and the foundational tenets of political liberalism.  The second and more recent trend established by Giorgio Agamben has placed Schmitt in the somewhat unlikely company of figures like Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault – all configured to interrogate deep-seated transformations in the juridical edifice of the West.  Whatever the insights Agamben and others have been able to glean from the inimitable phrase, “Souveran ist, wer uber den Ausnahmezustand entscheidet” (Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception), Schmitt’s later development during and after WWII receives far less critical reflection.  Certainly having been the “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich” has cast a shadow over everything he wrote subsequent to joining the Party.  Yet as Heidegger’s lectures during the Nazi period have become acceptable in most American philosophy departments, one might assume Schmitt’s writings and intellectual evolution during this period will begin to gain wider attention.

Aside from being a piece in the puzzle of Carl Schmitt’s postwar biography, Hamlet or Hecuba contains a series of reflections on the relation between aesthetics and the emergent public sphere of early modern Europe.  The social and political contextualizations that have now become touchstones for Shakespeare scholarship were not as prevalent in postwar Germany.  At the time, literary criticism was dominated by a guilty conscience for the Nazi period’s aestheticization of politics and the attempt to reaffirm the autonomy of the arts in a classical mold.  The cult of genius that took root in the Sturm und Drang period flowered impressively.  Schmitt’s aesthetic lecture should be approached as a response to this de-politicized liberal consensus then dominating the German universities, especially among those seeking to cover up their collaboration.  Schmitt was certainly not beyond contempt for friends such as Gottfried Benn and Ernst Junger who managed to salvage their careers after their early flirtations with the Nazi Party.

Schmitt argues that several concrete historical traumas “intrude” into the structure of Hamlet; each can help us understand both its reception by a still bawdy and demotic British public as well as the taboos placed on Shakespeare’s depiction of the Prince of Denmark.  Two political dynamics would have been self-evident to Shakespeare’s audience during the first productions of Hamlet: the undetermined successor of Elizabeth and the suspected role of Mary Queen of Scots (Catholic) in the murder of her second husband, Lord Henry Darnley, followed quickly by her marriage to his killer.  The ambiguity regarding Queen Gertrude’s participation in her husband’s poisoning as it is written in the First Folio is a negative reflection of this concrete political intrigue.  Schmitt shows how audiences would have easily interpreted any conspicuous indication of Gertrude’s guilt as a characterization of Mary Queen of Scots – possibly putting Shakespeare and his theater troupe out of favor should her son take the throne.

Good Hamlet, cast thy knighted color off,

And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark

Do not for ever with thy vailèd lids

Seek thy noble father in the dust.

Lines such as these could stoke the fires of Protestant anger by suggesting foul play between Gertrude and Claudius.  Instead ambiguity and hesitation reign, and by not making Gertrude’s complicity clear, the play could be said to support tacitly James and the Stuarts’ bid for the throne.

A second objective stricture breaks into Shakespeare’s play, involving the general conflict of the age: the strife between Catholics and Protestants still sweeping through the Continent and barely subdued in England.  The Stuart line from Scotland inaugurated by James I was imbued with a more feudal mentality than the Tudors who had established normalized relations with Parliament and indeed depended on it for taxation.  James I, a Protestant, had been baptized as a Catholic but taken away from Mary and later raised and educated by Protestants.  Immersed in these religious schisms from birth, James had to traverse both worlds in order to unite finally the kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland.  He would later write several treatises on the divine right of kings and became known as a philosopher and theologian in his own right.  For Schmitt, James’ political and religious predicament is mirrored in Hamlet’s own self-cancelling actuality—divided as he is by a diminished world of warrior kings, but one without consensus absolutism.  In the play, the purposeful revenge plot is blunted by Hamlet’s deliberations about several uncertainties: the demonic or divine source of his father’s Ghost, his mother’s role in the murder, and the proper moment for his “wild justice.”

The historicity of the play provides what Schmitt calls “the core of the tragic action,” extending representational intelligibility between Shakespeare and his public.  That royal political intrigues were part of a shared and immediate public sphere, apparent to everyone from the Duke of York to the average London barber may be a stretch, but the possibility should not be discounted immediately. Schmitt conceives of Shakespeare’s public as “barbaric” (unpoliziert) in the sense of unaccustomed to the modern separation of aesthetic, religious and political domains of life.  In this era, prior to the demise of what Jürgen Habermas has called “representative publicness,” the aura of feudal authority still determined the form and content of all representations. Indeed, the great allure of Elizabethan theater was the promise of being the subject and object of a public gaze riven by the feudal categories of land, patronage and entitlement.  “Groundlings” desired the visage of great personages and actions of the political world while holding out the possibility of themselves being seen by the social elite.  Certain prohibitions and social exclusions were constitutive of the London playhouse public to an extent that is left unmentioned in Schmitt’s essay.

For if the modern idea of public life coterminous with the whole commonwealth was an idea in its infancy in 1600, the staging of a play like Hamlet, could remind spectators of their exclusion as they inhabited the faux universality of the theater.  Inviting commoners to the theater created the façade of an inclusive public but also brought commoners closer to the reality of their placement beneath the operations of the powerful.  Commoners and actors were excluded from any public discussion of public matters by a royal proclamation that extended into the early 17th century:

The Queen’s majesty [doth] straightly forbid all manner interludes to be played either openly or privately, except the same be notified beforehand and licensed within any city or town corporate by the mayor or other chief officers of the same…that they permit none to be played wherein either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the commonweal shall be handled or treated, being no meet matters to be written or treated upon but by men of authority, learning and wisdom, nor to be handled before any audience…”[i]


London’s public playhouses were a rather new phenomenon in Shakespeare’s time – replacing the participatory theatrical festivals of the Catholic era with the grandiose spectacles on the outskirts of London’s rapidly expanding municipal jurisdiction.  While some scholars have emphasized the plebeian underbelly of Elizabethan theater, one cannot overlook its role in reinforcing royalist power.  Under such constraints, the creative freedom of the playwright was more encumbered than the lyrical poet or modern novelist.  Indeed the dramatic irony which Shakespeare perfected in his tragedies was not always self-contained by the circumstances of the plays, but involved overt or coded references to historical figures.

Schmitt consistently emphasizes the immediacy of this historical reality, but the public sphere in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed is only theorized in an appendix to Hamlet or Hecuba. In a section titled "On the Barbaric Character of Shakespearean Drama: A Response to Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama," Schmitt outlines the terms of an English exceptionalism vis-à-vis Renaissance and Baroque drama on the Continent as well as the historical evolution of the island nation.

Between the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the expulsion of the Stuarts a century later, England remained on the verge of the distinctive maritime orientation of its later empire – this in concert with its rapidly advancing, properly capitalist economy allowed it to leapfrog over the processes of state-formation that the Spanish and French Absolutist monarchies underwent.  In earlier works like Land und Meer, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, and Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt explored the specifically English form of the opposition between land and sea as homologous to that between state and society.  In The Leviathan in the State Theory, Schmitt writes:

“The image of the [sea monster] leviathan in Hobbes’ concept of the state in England had become attached since 1660 to monarchical absolutism thus to the Stuarts.  In other words, it belonged to a politics that, with the aid of the landed nobility, could have realized on the English soil the continental – that is, the Spanish-French, doctrine of the state – but was instead defeated by the more powerful and for the English nation more suitable might of the sea and of commerce.”[ii]

It was the privateering forces sprung from English commerce that allowed the island nation to take control of the open seas.  Yet prior to this mercantile expansion - fueled at first by the plunder of colonial wealth – England’s future role amongst European nations was unclear.[iii] Even as the English pursued a policy of piracy on Spanish and Portuguese sea lanes, they still found justification in the terms of scholastic natural law as would a medieval jurist.  The new language and concepts of the jus publicum europeum had not yet become a part of diplomacy or warfare.  England, without a state army or police, nor a taxation system close to the scale of the taille, had not yet perfected the edifice of a neutral state standing above the religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. The classical Baroque theater of Corneille, Racine or Moliere was impossible in an England still clinging to medieval political forms that would soon be riven by civil war. For Schmitt, Hamlet and the stakes of its interpretation ought to provoke the hesitant experience that is only possible before any major transition - before a future yet to come.

Schmitt applauds Benjamin’s treatment of allegory in Shakespeare, but disagrees with his inclusion of Shakespearean tragedy, especially Hamlet, with his general discussion of baroque Trauerspiel. Schmitt contends that Hamlet transcends Trauerspiel by allowing its concrete historical reality to break in – elevating it to tragedy proper. For Benjamin, the fateful decisions of individual characters are the sole provenance of tragedy – Trauerspiel’s allegorical form, on the other hand, never cohered in the organic unity that classical German aesthetic theory celebrated.  The characters of Trauerspiel confront a world of objects emptied of any immanent significance in which the Christian promise of redemption no longer holds the binding force it once did in the Middle Ages.  Melancholy, despair and the Stoic practice of memento mori set the gloomy tone of such plays.  Of Aristotle’s classical concepts of narrative: hamartia (a fatal flaw or mistake), anagnorisis (recognition), and peripeteia (reversal of fortune), it is the first, hamartia, which is especially denatured in Trauerspiel.  The baroque play encompasses a world in which decisions are impossible and sovereignty so disjointed that royal decree becomes nothing more than a formal exercise on stage.

We thus encounter the meaning of the title, Hamlet or Hecuba, as a reference to Prince Hamlet’s deliberations about the difference between play-acting on the stage and real action in the world.


Why these Players here draw water from eyes;

For Hecuba! Why what is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?

What would he do and if he had my losse?

His father murdered, and a Crowne bereft of him.

For Schmitt, Hamlet should not be interpreted as just another Trauerspiel but rather an innovation of early-modern drama elevated to classical stature.  Schmitt’s reasons for this have less to do with the plot structure itself than with the way real historical constraints of late-Elizabethan England structure the play.  Though Hamlet’s sovereign decisions are corroded by non-heroic doubts and hesitation, they register the tectonic shifts about to take place in the real world. When Hamlet finally springs into action with zealous ferocity, he hastens his kingdom’s downfall and its capture by Fortinbras. Only in a country caught between its medieval heritage and absolutist centralization could such a tragic depiction of the sovereign decision have been written.

Schmitt’s attempt to rescue the tragic core of Hamlet as well as his continued engagement with the thought of Walter Benjamin should give pause to those who would dismiss him for his obviously reprehensible affiliation with the Nazi party.  The tragic historicity of Schmitt’s Hamlet surpasses the various psychological interpretations without simplistically reducing the play to the dynastic intrigues mentioned above.  While these factors certainly structured the plot and reception of the play, they also make possible an interpretation that periodizes tragic drama within the rapidly transforming political arrangements of early-modern Europe; exceptional conditions of England—backwardness coupled with protective isolation—set the stage for its 17th-century-long transformation.  It is the figuration of this opaque experience of a transition between the worlds of feudalism and capitalism that makes Hamlet a play of enduring relevance.  For ultimately it is not just the state of Denmark that is rotten, but every state.

The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let's go together.

[i] Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, eds., Tudor Royal Proclamations. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969), 2:115.

[ii] Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, Chicago 2008, p. 79.

[iii] For the continued importance of this historical argument in Schmitt’s oeuvre and its relevance for the Marxist problematic of the separation of the political from the economic see the recent exchange between Benno Teschke and Gopal Balakrishnan in the New Left Review, 67-69.

Joomla SEF URLs by Artio

Buy Lana Turner #9

Issue 9 is HERE!

Order Now

@ltjournal on Twitter