Stay Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, Pantheon, 169 pages ($25). Is there any single character in Western literature who haunts the imagination and taxes analysis the way Shakespeare’s Hamlet does? His ubiquity in Western thought has continued for centuries (he is currently on local display in this summer’s Shakespeare in Delaware Park) and won’t end until Western Civilization does. In the meantime, the great writers and thinkers who have had their say about this deeply troubled young Danish royal – civilization’s most famous Wittenberg dropout – could be probably lined up single-file around the equator. And none of that will ever stop newbies of widely varying portfolio from having a go at Hamlet and the play that houses him. Uncommonly penetrating – uncommon in fact in every way – is this slim little book from a New York City couple, Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster. He is a philosophy professor at the New School and a frequent contributor to the New York Times; she is a practicing psychoanalyst. His books include such racy numbers as “The Faith of the Faithless” and “The Book of Dead Philosophers.” Her major text is “The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis: On Unconscious Desire and Its Sublimation.” “The late-flowering fruit of a shared obsession” is how they describe their book of meditations, pensees and commentaries on “Hamlet.” “We are outsiders to the world of Shakespeare criticism and have chosen as a way into the play, a series of outsider interpretations of ‘Hamlet,’ notably those of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Hegel, Freud, Lacan and Nietzsche. What each of these interpretations enables is a bold but sometimes distinct and rash take on ‘Hamlet.’ ”
Hence “rash” meditations here called “He is Not a Nice Guy – Hamlet as Prince and Political Threat” and “Germany Is Hamlet and Hamlet is Germany” (directly confronting the ideas of Schmitt) and “Ophelia, or the Sexual Life of Plants” (“Ophelia is the embodiment of fierce femininity, the rock of love and the bedrock of castration”). When it comes to Shakespeare commentary, a distinct rule of thumb is this: outsiders often do it better.
– Jeff Simon