Interpreting Hamlet’s Pregnant Silences: Nietzsche and Benjamin

In: Poetica
Author: Björn Quiring1
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  • 1 School of English, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
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In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the protagonist frequently and eloquently refers to his own taciturnity and to the fundamental insights into the ways of the world that this silence conceals from his interlocutors. It is partly due to this emphasis on a pivotal inaccessibilty that the play has provoked numerous philosophical interpretations. For example, Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy and Walter Benjamin in Origin of the German Trauerspiel have dealt with Hamlet’s loquacious refusal to communicate, and their interpretations, while problematic in some respects, can contribute to a better understanding of the drama, especially when they are placed in relation to one another. While Nietzsche’s somewhat forced interpretation traces Hamlet’s silence to the Dionysian experience of ancient tragedy, Benjamin’s counter-interpretation construes this silence as the expression of a specifically Protestant, melancholic conception of history, as well as of its dialectical overcoming. Although Origin of the German Trauerspiel convincingly demonstrates that Hamlet transforms his relationship to society and its language in the course of the play by reinterpreting the contingency of historical events as manifestations of eternal providence, a closer reading of the drama shows that this reinterpretation is not, as Benjamin claims, unfolding a genuinely Christian dialectic, at the endpoint of which stands the blissful silence of assured salvation. Rather, this reinterpretation appears as the expression of an amor fati that in many respects prefigures Nietzsche’s categorical affirmation of blind necessity; Hamlet’s interpretation of the course of the world as a circulus vitiosus resembles the idea of the eternal return, embracing this figure of thought in its most hopeless and most seminal form: as an apotheosis of endless annihilation.

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