[Essay] Thought and Judgement in Hannah Arendt and Hamlet — Oliver Deasy


In her prologue to The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt considers the problems facing humanity in a world in which scientific progress has become dependent upon the manufacture of instruments. As she speculates about a situation in which mankind is at the mercy of technological powers whose potential consequences are impossible to foresee, Arendt writes:

To these preoccupations and perplexities, this book does not offer an answer. […] What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought and thoughtlessness — the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty — seems to me among the outstanding the characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.[1]

Here, Arendt outlines what was perhaps her central preoccupation over the course of her career as a theorist: the significance of the proper application of thought in informing praxis. As a German Jew who witnessed the rise of fascism through the 1930s, Arendt was acutely aware of the dangers of thoughtlessness and its impact upon the faculty of judgement. Following her experience as a journalist at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt’s thinking about thought became more sophisticated as she began to consider the relationship between immoral actions and the activity of thinking. Although this inspired her to formulate the concept of “the banality of evil,” Arendt’s book about the Eichmann trial remained focused on the event itself, and it wasn’t until she came to write The Life of the Mind, her extended study on the mental faculties, that her theory of thought was fully

Elsewhere in her writings, Arendt draws from her experiences, claiming that totalitarian regimes obtain power through the propagation of pernicious ideologies. These suffocate the capacity for free thought as they impose narratives upon existence which smooth over the intractable complexities and contradictions of reality with imagined solutions. Conversely, the active, Socratic mode of thought that Arendt champions can act as a panacea to this phenomenon. Through encouraging an active engagement with ideologies, thought can expose their contradictions, allowing for informed and unprejudiced judgement to take place. Arendt consequently sees the greatest danger of our time to be a lack of thinking, and the fostering of critical thought thus becomes a priority at times of political crisis. This essay will propose that Hamlet, by virtue of its exploration of thinking and formal properties, compels its audience to engage in the form of critical thought which Arendt sees as a prerequisite for informed action. Not only can a consideration of the canon’s most famous thinker substantiate Arendt’s theory and expose some of its tensions, the play’s potential as a remedy to the rise of fascism makes it an art form that Arendt would have endorsed. Discussing the influence of Socrates upon his students in Ancient Athens, Plato compared him to a “gadfly” because he reportedly stung people into thought. This comment could equally be applied to Hamlet which, correlating with several of Bertolt Brecht’s principles for political theatre, is an example of a kind of drama which can respond to the demands of political theatre in the twenty-first century.[3]


Of fundamental importance to Arendt’s theory of thought is Kant’s distinction between Vernunft and Verstand. Respectively translating as “reason” and “intellect,” these two categories refer to two separate mental activities: “thinking,” which is concerned with a consideration of meaning, and “knowing,” which is concerned with knowledge. Though Arendt recognises that thinking plays an important role in the establishment of knowledge, in this context thinking is employed as a means to an end. This thinking enables scientific enterprises to reach factual truths and knowledge as it assists in the construction of overarching systems to which particulars can be subsumed, but once these have been erected they negate thought as they demand passive contemplation. “Truth,” Arendt claims, belongs to the “world of appearances,” and it is a mistake to impose the standards of knowledge upon the realm of meaning; “truth and meaning are not the same”.[4] A failure to respect the distinction between knowledge and meaning is an error that Arendt attributes to the tradition of Western philosophy which, she contends, has consistently confused “the need to think with the urge to know” over the course of its history.[5] Arendt claims that the philosophical tradition erects structures of knowledge because there has been a faith, since Plato, in a human capacity to transcend the world of appearances and provide stable “truths” which are uninhibited by the fluctuating opinions of the masses. This establishes a hierarchy that places the “wise man” and his insights above the transient world of opinion, and the subsequent denigration of the value of meaning is something that Arendt objects to.

Whereas cognition is concerned with the contemplation of received “truths,” thinking is inherently unstable as it entails an engagement with values which are both contingent and unquantifiable. Referring to Plato’s Socratic dialogues as indicative of the exemplary process of thought, Arendt comments upon how these aporetic discussions do not lead to conclusions; rather, in provoking the “wind of [thought],” they lead to the dissolution of assumptions.[6] Interrogating the object of discussion with scrutiny, the dialogues expose intractable complexities, leaving the interlocutors with nothing but a recognition of their own perplexion. Thus, “like Penelope’s web,” thought is an active process that  “undoes every morning what it has finished the night before”.[7] However, this is something that Arendt views as positive as this thought has the capacity to purge people of their prejudices, allowing for the exercise of impartial and informed judgement. Holding up this dialectical thought as an ideal, Arendt goes on to discuss the conditions which allow it to take place. Arendt theorises that thought entails the mind’s “re-presentation” of experiences and absent phenomena to itself, and this is made possible by the faculty of the imagination.[8] In order for this to take place, the mind must withdraw from the “world of appearances,” and it is consequently a precondition of thought that the subject “stop-and-think”.[9] Therefore, “withdrawal from direct involvement to a standpoint outside […] is not only a condition for judging, for being the final arbiter […] but also the condition for understanding”.[10] This necessitates a separation of theory and praxis, and this is something that Arendt insists upon.

Arendt raises the idea that the essence of thinking is the “two-in-one” of the “soundless dialogue” between “me and myself”.[11] She discusses how the duality of the mental ego during the process of thought allows for thinking to become genuinely active as the subject both asks and answers questions to his/herself, taking on a dialectical form. In her lectures on Kant, Arendt describes how this process of dialectical thought, in which the mind enters into a conversation with itself, refines the faculty of judgement. Accordingly, the dissolution of prejudices liberates particulars from being subsumed by frameworks of knowledge which dictate how an object is to be interpreted. Once the particular has been subjected to the process of critical thought, displacing the subject’s single, pre-judged interpretation of it, the subject can consider an issue from multiple standpoints by imaginatively placing oneself in the position of others. In Arendt’s terms, the subject becomes capable of “representative thinking” on account of the “enlargement of the mind”.[12] Whilst this is necessarily a solitary process, it is made more effective by engagements with others in order to develop an understanding of their perspective. Crucially, this process always requires thinking for oneself as opposed to responding empathetically to others. This is because proper judgement must be performed with an attitude of disinterest in order to ensure impartiality, and emotive claims upon the individual are inimical to this.

The principles that Arendt sets out in her theorisation of thought and judgement can be substantiated by a consideration of Adolf Eichmann. She asserts that Eichmann’s thoughtlessness led him to assume a role in orchestrating the deportation of Jews to concentration camps during World War II, and she reaches this diagnosis by considering his reliance upon the clichéd language of “officialese”.[13] She claims that his “inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else”.[14] Arendt insinuates that Eichmann’s intellectually sheltered life was responsible for this: during the trial, he confessed that at the end of World War II, it had “dawned upon him that thenceforward he would have to live without being a member of something or other”.[15] Up until that moment, he had been institutionalised by various organisations that had developed in him the habit of deference, preventing him from thinking critically. Arendt argues that his “guilt came from his obedience,” and this had “been abused by the Nazi leaders”.[16] It was not that Eichmann was radically evil, but that he was unable to judge between good and evil because he had not developed the habit of thinking for himself, and this meant that when the pernicious ideology of Nazism tightened its grip across the Weimar Republic, he was unable to reject it.

Arendt’s theory of thought and judgement is not without criticism. Richard Bernstein questions her suggested link between thought and evil as he writes: “at the very least, the example of Heidegger should make us stop and think”.[17] Heidegger’s actions in joining the Nazi party do seem to contradict Arendt’s claims, particularly as Bernstein quotes a comment, made by Arendt in “Heidegger at Eighty,” in which she reflects on the admiration she held for Heidegger’s thought. Furthermore, Arendt includes a quote of Heidegger’s on the title page of The Life of the Mind that reads “Thinking does not bring knowledge as do the sciences,” indicating his awareness of the significance of critical thought.[18] However, whilst the case of Heidegger is surprising, it does not automatically discredit Arendt’s theory. On the contrary, Arendt’s theory holds that critical thinking is a habit, and every individual is liable to be seduced by an ideology, causing them to abandon critical thought and fail to interrogate their prejudices. As Arendt contends, an “inability to think is not the “prerogative” of those who lack brain power but the ever-present possibility for everybody — scientists, scholars, and other specialists in the mental enterprises not excluded”.[19] Heidegger’s philosophy, rooted in his theory of “Being,” employs the language of nationalism to justify itself, betraying a desire to belong which is a driving force behind fascism. Theodor Adorno consequently refers to “Heidegger’s self-righteous ideology of splendid homeliness” that naturalises his antisemitism.[20] Heidegger’s thought evidently was not rigorous enough.

Another issue for which Arendt’s theory has drawn criticism is that her insistence upon the separation of theory and praxis is potentially paralysing. Faced with an intractably complex situation, the subject must retreat into the mind and enter into a dialogue with his/herself, entailing a split of the subject as s/he engages in “representative thinking”. This corresponds to Louis Althusser’s distinction between theory and praxis, according to which action requires the assumption of a subject position from which the subject engages with the world.[21] Therefore, reaching a judgement inherently entails a compromise and a simplification of a problem, thus making theory inimical to action. Arendt offers no solution as to how to make the transition from thought to judgement. However, Arendt refrains from offering a formalistic approach because a prescriptive system would not provide the intellectual freedom necessary for the exercise of the faculty of judgement. I suspect that she would respond to this criticism by stating that it is preferable that individuals be aware of an issue and make an informed judgement about it than the alternative. As a pragmatic, sophisticated thinker, she does not pretend that this problem can be easily resolved, but she holds to the conviction that crises can be alleviated by the adoption of the appropriate mental habits, and by endeavouring to adhere to them rigorously. This conclusion that thought is preferable to thoughtlessness is one that Arendt reaches in her consideration of nihilism. She acknowledges that the dissolution of values that critical thought engenders can “turn against itself,” allowing negation to become a creed.[22] Nevertheless, whilst thinking is hazardous, it is far less so than its opposite.


It is surprising that, although Arendt mentions Shakespeare’s Richard III in The Life of the Mind, she never discusses Hamlet.[23] As Hamlet deliberates over whether to pursue the revenge that is advocated by his father’s ghost, the play dramatises the process of dialectical thinking that Arendt advocates. Before inquiring as to why it might be that Arendt omits any mention of Hamlet in her writings, it is worth noting the context in which the play was set and the context in which it was written. Although scholars have not been able to pinpoint the exact date of the play’s composition, there is a general consensus that it was written between 1599 and 1602. At the turn of the seventeenth century, in the wake of the Reformation and with the rise of humanism, mankind was on the cusp of modernity. Whilst the Reformation destabilised religious orthodoxies, humanism advocated a radical, theological shift in attitudes, placing an emphasis upon moral self-determination and the individual’s capacity to think independently. The implications of these emerging discourses are manifested in the play as the impact of this new, autonomous subjectivity upon thought is explored. Hamlet is representative of humanist values as not only does his occupation as a student identify him as a thinker, he attends the University of Wittenberg, placing him in a legacy of radical free-thinkers that included both Martin Luther and Dr. Faustus. Furthermore, the genre of revenge tragedy is also of significance as it places an emphasis upon Hamlet’s inaction. Whereas revenge drama conventionally features protagonists that avenge their wrongs with conviction, Hamlet hesitates. The play thus frames itself as being an investigation into the process of thought, and an emphasis is placed upon Hamlet’s intellectual independence. A significant amount of Hamlet’s critical heritage has focused upon his character, and these readings, popular amongst both Romantics and Victorians, are still espoused by some critics today. Critical speculation over Hamlet’s mental health can be exemplified by A.C. Bradley’s characterisation of Hamlet’s thoughts as “symptoms of melancholy,” and Stephen Greenblatt’s assertion that “Hamlet is rendered unaccountably ineffectual by a fatal “soul sickness””.[24] Similarly, psychoanalytic theory has commonly been applied to Hamlet, identifying an underlying Oedipal complex as being responsible for the protagonist’s actions. However, the problem with these approaches is that they overlook the fact that Hamlet is faced with a very real, intractable dilemma, and this is something he must face regardless of psychological factors. The misplacement of emphasis in the critical history of the play has ultimately detracted from Hamlet’s thought process, but as the above suggests, this is the play’s chief preoccupation.

Hamlet’s doubt is first inspired by the ghost of his father as he implores him to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”.[25] Hamlet is fundamentally disturbed by the ghost because each of the three explanations for it are unsettling. Firstly, if the ghost is a vision, Hamlet has lost his sanity. An alternative that Hamlet later raises is that “That spirit that I have seen/May be the devil, and the devil hath power/T’assume a pleasing shape”.[26] On the other hand, if he has genuinely seen a ghost, his entire knowledge system is invalidated. Having attended the University of Wittenburg, and because he is Danish, it is safe to assume that Hamlet is a Protestant, but the ghost, reliant upon the existence of purgatory, was a phenomenon of Catholic theology. With the latter account, the system of knowledge upon which Hamlet bases his understanding of the world is undermined, meaning that the ideological system which informs Hamlet’s judgement is untenable. Equally, as stated by Jacques Derrida in his discussion of the ghost in Specters of Marx, “One does not know: not out of ignorance, but because this non-appearance, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one no longer belongs to knowledge.”[27] As noted by Derrida, the ghost exists outside of the established categories within which things can be quantified, fragmenting the system of knowledge itself. All of these factors contribute to Hamlet’s sense of doubt, and all the “truths” and assumptions upon which his understanding of himself and the world are based are dissolved. As he recognises the limitations of his own knowledge, he acknowledges the extent of his ignorance, confiding in Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth, […] Than are dreamt of in our philosophy”.[28] This provokes the winds of thought in his mind, and he comes to perceive the contingency of value, adopting a position of philosophical relativism that is symptomatic of Socratic thought: “there is nothing either/ good or bad but thinking makes it so”.[29]

The process of dialectical thought in which Hamlet engages is exhibited in the play’s third act, as the prince ponders his predicament in drama’s most famous soliloquy:

To be, or not to be; that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep –

No more, and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep.

To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

Must give us pause. There’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life,

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country from whose bourn

No traveler returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents lose awry,

And lose the name of action.[30]

There is a critical disagreement as to whether Hamlet deliberates over the possibility of committing suicide in the soliloquy, or, as argued by Catherine Belsey in “The Case of Hamlet’s Conscience,” that he is considering murdering Claudius.[31] Belsey argues that the references to death which cause this confusion appear because Hamlet is aware that the act of regicide would inevitably result in his own death. However, for our purposes this is unimportant; what is significant is that he engages in the form of thought that is advocated by Arendt as the form of the soliloquy enacts the dialectical conversation of the mind with itself.[32] He thus poses a series of questions to himself, but as with the Socratic ideal, whilst he provides arguments and counter-arguments, he reaches no conclusion other than that his thought process is inimical to action. The play thus exposes the problem of the disjunction between thought and action as Hamlet’s dialectical thinking causes him to reach a greater understanding of the complexity of his situation, plunging him further into doubt which prevents him from acting.

Prior to this soliloquy, Hamlet develops an increasingly critical opinion of his own inaction, and is prompted to compare his own attitude to revenge with that of “The rugged Phyrrus” whose “sable arms,/Black as his purpose, did the night resemble”.[33]  Requesting that one of the players recite Aeneas’ tale to Dido, Hamlet hears of Pyrrhus’ act of vengeance for the death of his father, Achilles. The account causes Hamlet to consider his own distance from the recounted ideal of purposeful masculinity that the Greek hero represents. Hamlet discursively aligns the characteristics of weakness and inaction with femininity, as can be inferred from his comment in the play’s first act: “frailty, thy name is woman”.[34] This cultural association delineates his conception of masculine and feminine identities, and this perception causes him to categorise his own behaviour as feminine. As Hamlet is left to reflect upon this after the departure of the players, his soliloquy reveals this insecurity as he ponders: “Am I a coward?/Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,/Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face”.[35] The image of having his beard “pluck[ed] off” betrays an anxiety of his emasculation, and this reading can be supported by his later claim that he “[m]ust, like a whore, unpack [his] heart with words”.[36] The uncertainty of his position in relation to gendered discourses problematises his identity, making his self-hood precarious.

Because of the entrenchment of Hamlet’s uncertainty at the beginning of the play, critics have struggled to account for Hamlet’s self-possession in act five. Upon his return to Denmark, Hamlet seems invested in an idea of fate and no longer broods over the implications of action. Thus, he asserts that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” and that “readiness is all”.[37] However, a consideration of Hamlet’s soliloquy in act four, scene four, which is omitted from the play’s folio edition but included in the second quarto, does seem to offer an explanation. Therein, the sight of Fortinbras’ army provides Hamlet with a source of conviction as he vows to follow its example of heroic masculinity:

Now whether it be

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple

Of thinking too precisely on th’event –

A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom

And three parts coward – I do not know

Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do”,

Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,

To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me,

Witness this army of such mass and charge,

Led by a delicate and tender prince,

Whose waking spirit with divine ambition puffed

Makes mouths at the invisible event,

Exposing what is mortal and unsure

To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great

Is not to stir without great argument,

But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

When honour’s at stake. […]

O, from this time forth

My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth![38]

Over the course of this soliloquy, Hamlet convinces himself of the need to assume the masculine characteristics that are exhibited by Fortinbras’ army. Therefore, he goes into act five with a resolve to embody an ideal of masculinity. This dictates his actions, leading to a lack of thought that culminates in the violence of the play’s denouement. Given this resolution of Hamlet’s, it is clear that whilst he does exemplify the process of the winds of thought, like Heidegger, his desire for the stability and clarity that are offered by established systems of knowledge results in his capitulation to thoughtlessness. Clearly, Hamlet falls short of Arendt’s ideal, and we can speculate that it was probably for this reason that Arendt omits any mention of Hamlet in her writings.


Despite the fact that Hamlet’s thought and judgement fall short of Arendt’s ideal, the play still retains an interest and relevance for a twenty-first century audience as it inspires Socratic thought. Although Bertolt Brecht’s views on political theatre evolved over the course of his career, he was consistent in recognising, like Arendt, that the act of thinking is inherently political. Therefore, the demands that Brecht placed upon the theatre in order to transform it into a political forum were prompted by a desire to create a critically engaged audience that was able to “think for itself”.[39] One of Brecht’s key concepts is that political theatre should be dialectical in order to demonstrate that meaning is unstable and that the status quo is not a natural state of affairs. Another important idea for him is that of alienation. He states that theatre “must amaze its public, and this can be achieved by a technique of alienating the familiar”.[40] Through defamiliarisation the audience is forced to adopt a critical attitude towards the play in which they no longer empathise with the characters onstage but become disinterested observers that decipher the action for themselves. These two effects which rouse the audience from an attitude of passivity to one of interrogation are intrinsic to Hamlet, making it a political play.

Perhaps the most prominent stylistic feature of the play is the use of soliloquy which makes thought simultaneously private and public by presenting the dialogue of the mind to the audience. As argued by Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language, Shakespeare’s soliloquies “[break] down the endlessly varied and repeated set of forms in favour of less settled representations of the movement of thought and emotion”.[41] The staging of a process of dialectical thinking that captures the mind in process demonstrates the fragility of meaning as convictions are dissolved under examination and the audience are drawn into thought themselves as the aporia of Hamlet’s problem is exposed. Another significant effect of the soliloquy is that it demonstrates the individual as alterable, presenting Hamlet as an individual in process as his revealed thoughts are inconsistent at different stages of the play. Maynard Mack poses the question of whether Hamlet is “to be taken as a man of exquisite moral sensibility […] or an egomaniac,” illustrating the extent to which his contradictory character denies critical definition.[42] Indeed, Hamlet is not merely a thinker, he is also the executor of the “rash and bloody deed” that leads to the demise of Polonius.[43] This instability is significant as it exhibits that Hamlet does have the opportunity to act differently and that he is not merely subject to fate. It is important that contemporary productions include the soliloquy from the second quarto in order to demonstrate that Hamlet makes a decision to lapse from reason into violence. This should encourage the audience to conclude that Hamlet’s delay is sensible.

The language of the play is a means through which the play alienates the audience, prompting them to adopt an interrogative attitude. Hamlet contains manifold uses of playful, riddling language that exploit linguistic instability in a manner that necessitates a more critical response from the audience. As such, Hamlet’s regular use of puns is not only a source of humour, they estrange the audience from a passive reception of the play:


How is it that the clouds still hang on you?


Not so my lord, I am too much i’ th’ sun.[44]

In the above exchange, Hamlet twists Claudius’ metaphorical language to contradict his accusation of excessive mourning whilst also punning on “sun” and “son” to suggest that Claudius has become too close to him since usurping his father. The duality of this language leads to an accretion of meaning that calls for the audience to be alert to linguistic possibilities. Another lexical feature of the play is the regular use of hendiadys: the expression of a single idea with two words. There are a large number of these in the play, as when Hamlet refers to “the book and volume of his brain,” the “heartache and the thousand natural shocks,” and “Enterprises of great pith and moment”.[45] These portray a mind at work, drawing distinct ideas together through association, but these dissolve when subjected to further consideration. For instance, if we consider the “book and volume of the brain,” it is unclear as to whether “volume” acts as a synonym for “book” or refers to the mind, envisioned as a space. These invite the audience to speculate further, but leave them no clearer as to what is being referred to when they do reflect. The most obvious of the play’s verbal challenges are Hamlet’s riddles, an example of which is manifested when Rosencrantz enquires about the whereabouts of Polonius’ body:


My lord, you must tell us where the body is, and

go with us to the King.


The body is with the King, but the King is not with the

Body. The King is a thing –


A thing, my lord?


Of nothing.[46]

Here, Hamlet could either be suggesting that Polonius has followed Hamlet’s father to an afterlife, but that Claudius is still alive, or he may be referring to the idea that the King’s body is distinct from his role in the governance of the state. This riddle invites decipherment and eludes a definitive resolution.

Whilst the above are all elements which are integral to Hamlet, Brecht cites some factors which can inhibit the political potential of plays, and which bear a direct relevance to Hamlet. Brecht insists upon the need to situate plays historically so as to establish a distance between the time of performance and the context of the play. He writes: “we must leave them their distinguishing marks and keep their impermanence always before our eyes, so that our own period can be seen to be impermanent too”.[47] Thus, in contrasting Shakespeare’s time with our own, the play should illuminate the changeability of human conditions. Drawing the audience’s attention to the disparities between epochs also encourages it to react from a contemporary perspective, ensuring that their response is coloured by contemporary sensibilities. Accordingly, this would valorise thinking and condemn Hamlet for capitulating into unthinking violence. Another important consideration is Hamlet’s status as a classic. Brecht contends that there “are many obstacles to the lively performance of our classics,” citing the reverential attitude that people adopt to classic works of theatre, preventing them from appreciating the “original freshness” and “element of surprise” which are conducive to “lively and human performances”.[48] The conveyance of the play’s original essence, rather than a fetishised bourgeois conception of it, can be assured by a performance of Hamlet that employs Brecht’s alienation effects, causing the audience to see the play anew. Among these is the effect of gestic acting, according to which the actor no longer relies upon illusion, but rather expresses an “awareness of being watched”.[49] This form of performance can ensure that the audience do not empathise with Hamlet in his plight, and this is conducive to the realisation of a disinterested, critical attitude. These suggestions should be implemented in contemporary performances of the play so as to ensure that it fulfils its political potential.


Not only does Hamlet critique thoughtlessness through a demonstration of its consequences, it is also a highly political play because it compels the audience to engage in thought. The aforementioned idea of promoting a contemporary reception of Hamlet that esteems his thoughtful delay and criticises his thoughtless action could be said to place an undue emphasis on theory over praxis. To advocate this reading of the play is not to suggest that thought is an end in itself. Rather, it is to argue that thinking is something which must occur before action, and, if it is not possible to act in a socially beneficial way, one should return to thought until an appropriate solution arises. Thought relentlessly reaches for possibilities, and in refusing to subscribe to established ideological frameworks and bodies of knowledge, one remains open to the emergence of new possibilities. This uncompromising thought, properly exercised, should neither be dismissed as a utopian activity that is irrelevant to the world of appearances, nor as a form of weakness. Instead, it should be considered a committed form of praxis. It is for this reason that Adorno claims that “thinking is actually and above all the force of resistance, alienated from resistance only with great effort”.[50] At the very least, in fostering thought in others, Hamlet can assist in limiting uninformed praxis, preventing the outbreaks of unthinking violence that are depicted in the play. We can speculate that Shakespeare was conscious of his play’s political function as, in a metadramatical comment at the play’s close, Horatio’s announces:

But let this same be presently performed,

Even whiles men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance

On plots and errors happen.[51]


Oliver Deasy holds a BA and an MA in English Literature, both from the University of Manchester.


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Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, (London: Cape, 2004).

Heinemann, Margaret, “How Brecht read Shakespeare”, Political Shakespeare: essays in cultural materialism, 2nd Edition, Eds. Jonathan Dollimore & Alan Sinfield, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), pp.226-54.

James, D.J. “Moral and Metaphysical Uncertainty in Hamlet (1951)”, Hamlet: A Casebook, Ed. John Jump, (London: Macmillan. 1968), pp.78-85.

Kermode, Frank, Shakespeare’s Language (London: Penguin, 2000).

Mack, Maynard, “The World of Hamlet (1952)”, Hamlet: A Casebook, Ed. John Jump, (London: Macmillan. 1968), pp.86-107.

Rhodes, Neil, “Hamlet and Humanism”, Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion, Ed. Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp.120-9.

Shakespeare, William, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”, The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd Edition, Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, (New York: Norton, 2008), pp.1696-1784.

Spencer, Robert, “Ecocriticsm in the colonial present: the politics of dwelling in Raja Shedah’s Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape”, Postcolonial Studies, 13:1, pp.33-54.

Villa, Dana R, “Thinking and Judging”, Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp.87-106.


[1] Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, 2nd Edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp.5.

[2] Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (London: Penguin, 2006), pp.252.

[3] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol.1, Ed. Mary McCarthy, (New York: Harcourt, 1978), pp.172.

[4] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol.1, pp.15. (original italics)

[5] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol.1, pp.61.

[6] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol.1, pp.175.

[7] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol.1, pp.88.

[8] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol.1, pp.76.

[9] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol.1, pp.78.

[10] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol.1, pp.94.

[11] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol.1, pp.185.

[12] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol.2, pp.257.

[13] Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem, pp.48.

[14] Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem, pp.49.

[15] Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem, pp.32.

[16] Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem, pp.247.

[17] Bernstein, Richard J., “Arendt on thinking”, The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt, Ed. Dana Villa, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp.290.

[18] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, Vol. 1, pp.1.

[19] Arendt, Hannah, “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture”, Social Research, 38:3 (1971), pp.445.

[20] Adorno, Theodor, Negative Dialectics, (London: Routledge, 1996), pp.121.

[21] Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)”, On Ideology, (London: Verso, 2008), pp.1-60.

[22] Arendt, Hannah, “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture”, Social Research, 38:3 (1971), pp.435.

[23] Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind, pp. 189-90.

[24] Bradley, A.C., “From Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)”, Hamlet: A Casebook, Ed. John Jump, (London: Macmillan. 1968), pp.39 & Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, (London: Cape, 2004), pp.307.

[25] Shakespeare, William, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”, The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd Edition, Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, (New York: Norton, 2008), (1.5.25).

[26] Hamlet, (2.2.575-7).

[27] Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx, Trans. Peggy Kamuf, (Abingdon: Routledge, 1994), pp.5.

[28] Hamlet, (1.5.68-9).

[29] Hamlet, (2.2.244-5).

[30] Hamlet, 3.1.58-90.

[31] Belsey, Catherine, “The Case of Hamlet’s Conscience”, Shakespeare in Theory and Practice, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), pp.139-156.

[32] Several critics have argued that Shakespeare’s use of the soliloquy became more dialectical following his exposure to the essays of Renaissance humanist Michel De Montaigne. It is claimed that the display of a mind in conversation with itself contained therein was a direct influence upon Shakespeare’s work.

[33] Hamlet, (2.2.430-1).

[34] Hamlet, (1.2.146)

[35] Hamlet, (2.2.548-52).

[36] Hamlet, (2.2.563-4).

[37] Hamlet, (5.2.10) & (5.2.160).

[38] Hamlet, (

[39] Brecht, Bertolt, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, Trans. John Willet (London: Metheun, 1978), pp14.

[40] Brecht, Bertolt, Brecht on Theatre, pp.192.

[41] Kermode, Frank, Shakespeare’s Language (London: Penguin, 2000), pp.41.

[42] Mack, Maynard, The World of Hamlet (1952)”, Hamlet: A Casebook, Ed. John Jump, (London: Macmillan. 1968), pp.88.

[43] Hamlet, (3.4.26).

[44] Hamlet, (1.2.66-7).

[45] Hamlet, (1.5.103), (3.1.64) & (3.1.88).

[46] Hamlet, (4.2.23-8).

[47] Brecht, Bertolt, Brecht on Theatre, pp.190.

[48] Brecht, Bertolt, Brecht on Theatre, pp.272-3.

[49] Brecht, Bertolt, Brecht on Theatre, pp.92.

[50] Adorno, Theodor, “Resignation”, The Culture Industry: selected essays on mass culture, Ed. J.M. Bernstein, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2001), pp.202.

[51] Hamlet, (5.2.337-9).

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