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Foreword to the German Edition

of Lilian Winstanley’s
Hamlet and the Scottish Succession

Carl Schmitt

The great dramatic work of art that bears the name Hamlet is, in the core of
its action and the main character, nothing other than the dramatized story
of a real king named James, James Stuart, son of Mary Stuart and her hus-
band. James’s father was murdered, and his mother married the murderer
shortly afterward. What Mary Stuart, the mother of King James, did was
bad, almost as bad “As kill a king, and marry his brother.” Shakespeare’s
Hamlet drama is grounded then in a direct relation to the times. It contains
the kind of dramatization that results from participation in an immediate
present. The full historical topicality of its place and time of origin lives in
Hamlet. The disguise of an old Scandinavian Hamlet saga is so thin that
the drama is better interpreted through its historical context than through
the saga. It is well known that a great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, fiercely
criticized the foolishness of the action in Shakespeare’s drama, but this
brilliant Russian should have recognized that the utter foolishness in Ham-
let is finally nothing other than the real historical event itself and that his
criticism applies less to the drama than to world history.
Following the astounding findings outlined in the book by Lilian Win-
stanley, there is no longer any question that in Shakespeare’s Hamlet there
reappear, down to the finest detail, the concrete situations, events, and
people of the historical moment contemporary with the life of James I and
*   First published in German as Carl Schmitt, “Vorwort,” in Lilian Winstanley,
Hamlet, Sohn der Maria Stuart, trans. Anima Schmitt (Pfullingen: Verlag Günther Neske,
1952). © 1952 Klett-Cotta, J. G. Cotta’sche Buchhandlung Nachfolger GmbH, Stuttgart.
This English translation has been authorized by George Schwab and is being published
with the kind permission of Klett-Cotta. Translated by Kurt R. Buhanan.

Telos 153 (Winter 2010): 164–77.
Foreword to Hamlet and the Scottish Succession   165

his mother Mary Stuart. James’s tragic situation is marked by the fact that
his mother married his father’s murderer and that, in the general opinion
of the English, she knew about and was involved in the murder—precisely
the core of the tragic situation surrounding Hamlet, who, very different
from Orestes, goes to extraordinary lengths to protect his mother. Shake-
speare’s drama originated between 1600 and 1604, and debuted in the
London Theater. It was around this same time, 1603, that the Scottish King
James ascended to the English throne in London—James, the son of Mary
Stuart and her murdered husband John Darnley, James, whose father was
brutally murdered by Bothwell, the man who was to marry James’s mother
soon thereafter. For the poet, for every actor, and for every spectator, these
awful circumstances constituted the immediate present.
So, Shakespeare’s Hamlet presents a mirror to, but by no means a
mere reflection of, this historical reality. It is not a roman à clef, nor is it
an old-fashioned form of what today would be called the weekly news.
On the other hand, it is also not the case of a freely invented, free-floating
fable. It is quite impossible to ignore the strong contemporary historical
presence that lives in this drama, which summons up the situation of the
young King James and puts it on stage, playing it out before the eyes of
the court as well as the public of the capitol. Horrifying things take place
in all tragedies, but this direct and immediate convergence of the hor-
rific historical present and the horror of the drama is rare in the history of
tragedy. The spectators of ancient Greek tragedy saw and heard terrible
things of Oedipus or Agamemnon and Orestes, but they were not the first-
hand contemporaries of Oedipus, Agamemnon, or Orestes. They did not
view the tragic event as the fate of their own age. In Aeschylus’s Persians,
these Persians make their entrance in the Attic amphitheater immediately
after the Persian Wars, and they have something of the contemporary his-
torical presence of Hamlet, especially when Xerxes himself appears in the
amphitheater. But even here the difference remains considerable, because
Xerxes himself, his court, and his subjects were not sitting in Greece in
the seats of the theater. In contrast, at a time when the Stuarts were still
the brand-new royal family in England, this piece of Stuart family history
thinly veiled as an old Hamlet saga and performed on the stage in London
must be viewed as amazingly immediate in its relation to the time, perhaps
more than any other piece that the history of drama has ever seen. Shake-
speare’s historical dramas are “historical” in the sense that the actors and
spectators consider the terrible things taking place on stage to belong to
166   Carl Schmitt

the past, things that may well have affected their fathers and grandfathers,
but not their own present times, and nothing that would have taken their
directly contemporary and immediate fate as its content. Shakespeare’s
Hamlet, however, presents extreme simultaneity, in terms of time, place,
and action: the convergence of the theatrical with the historical present.

The Play within the Play

Theater was part of the atmosphere at the time around 1600, the transition
from Renaissance to Baroque. Men of this epoch considered their own
historical activities to be like playing a role in a play. They saw themselves
on center stage whenever they were active. The earth, man’s dwelling, was
their backdrop. All the world was a stage, and world history a drama. They
lived in the theater of life and played their political and military roles in the
imagined performance of a Theatrum Europaeum. It was in terms of this
theatricality that they perceived and conceived of their own existence.
Even the kings and statesmen of the time conceived of themselves in
this way as actors in the play of life, on the stage of high politics—“high”
meaning here precisely the raised dais of the theater. King James, the real
Hamlet, was contemplative and thoughtful and often expressed in his
writings and correspondence this sentiment of the staged nature of the
world. He poignantly admonished his son—Charles I, later executed by
Cromwell—to always remember that a king stands on stage, with all eyes
focused on him, so that every mistake and misstep immediately appears
magnified in the stage lighting.
This theatricalization of the immediate historical present, this shared
sense, by those acting in political roles, of the staged nature of the world
was a part of the epoch, and it was still intense and unmediated at that
time in England. Theatricalization could also mean a strengthening and
not necessarily a weakening of political power, even though it is precisely
in Hamlet that we see the first symptoms of this weakening. In any case
the Hamlet drama was not yet a theatricalization in the style of a civilized
society, as later appeared in France, where the continental state “policed”
both the people and the society. Politics, the police, and politesse form a
peculiar triumvirate of continental society. All three combined to transform
the barbaric events, the bloody actions of drama in Shakespeare’s time, into
brilliant intrigue or topics for educational problems. Shakespeare’s drama
was still very much a brutal, elementary play, a severe play, not yet “politi-
cal” in the sense that the word held at that time, rather still very barbaric.
Foreword to Hamlet and the Scottish Succession   167

It was a play, but here the stakes for the heroes were their lives, and the
spectators who saw such plays were not mere spectators, rather their lives
were also at stake in the drama as it played out before their eyes.
These were, then, not yet the spectators of the later eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, not yet Schiller’s spectators who viewed world his-
tory as world theater and delighted in its tragedy for their self-edification,
as described in the verses of Schiller’s Homage of the Arts that depict
“Dramatic Art”: “With all its depths, with all its heights serene / I life’s
great map before thy view unroll. / When thou hast once the world’s great
drama seen, / Thou comest back more rich to thine own soul.” In Shake-
speare’s time the play was not yet the realm of human innocence—the
spectator risked more than just the price of admission. Sixteenth-century
England was far removed from this later sort of cultivation and comfort-
ability. Even the hero of the tragic play Hamlet was a direct participant
in this story of the audience’s own fate. He was not a source of catharsis,
nor a model for ethical maxims or aesthetic education. The drama theatri-
cally staged a piece of the immediate historical reality, which itself was
perceived as theater. It was an intensified representation of the present,
condensed actuality. Shakespeare’s great drama drew on the dramatization
and theatricalization of contemporary events for its poetic impulse, but
much more for its very essence as modern drama. It is theater within the
theater, play within the play—at once the most intense historical presence
and the most immediate contemporary reality.
Such were the origins of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1601, and it was
in this way, as theater within the theater of contemporary life, that it was
played on-site in London, by a poet, by actors, and in front of an audience,
all of whom were well acquainted with the young King Hamlet-James
as their own King of England and Scotland. Everyone knew of his fate,
the murder of his father and his mother’s marriage to the murderer, and
everyone was directly engaged, whether as courtiers or their followers or
as participants in court intrigues, and in any case as subjects of this king.
Shortly prior to this, in the final years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth,
Shakespeare himself had stumbled into the conspiracy of Earl Essex. He
belonged to the clientele of the Earl of Southampton, who was condemned
to death, and the Earl of Essex, who was executed. The murder of James’s

.  [Charles T. Brooks, Schiller’s Homage of the Arts with Miscellaneous Pieces from
Rückert, Freiligarth, and other German Poets (Boston: James Munroe and Company,
1847), pp. 14–15.]
168   Carl Schmitt

father, his mother’s marriage to the murderer, the inhibitions and weak-
nesses of the philosophizing and theologizing king, all of that was the
immediate historical present for the poet, actors, and audience—perhaps
similar to the significance that the death in 1889 of the crown prince
Rudolf von Habsburg and the “Tragedy of Mayerling” would have had
for a Viennese public, or the significance of the Röhm affair for a Berlin
public in the year 1934. What if such immediately current events had been
put on stage in a similar way, in the presence of prominent figures of the
regime and of the public of the capitol, the way that the fate of James was
actually brought to the stage in 1603–5 London? My claim here is not that
sheer topicality makes great art. It is quite certain, though, that this sort of
urgent historical presence and engagement is essential to Shakespeare’s
drama, because it was not written for some neutral or foreign audience. It
was also not written for posterity, rather for his contemporaries, namely, as
theater within the theater of their own historical present.
The famous play within the play in the second act of Hamlet is there-
fore double-filtered actuality, theater of higher, intensified potency. The
reality staged in the drama is itself put on stage within the drama. This sort
of theater within theater is only possible and meaningful where the reality
of contemporary life itself is perceived as theater, as theater of the first
degree, and where the theater itself is therefore essentially theater of the
second degree, theater within the theater of life. Only there can the double
mirroring occur, by means of which the theater within the theater can lead
to an intensification and not to a dissolution of the theater. In every other
case the play becomes merely the actor’s play within the theater, and that
means nothing other than the mask’s unraveling and the glimpse behind
the scenes, into the actors’ personal situation and social conditions. This is
indeed present to some degree in the actor scenes of Hamlet, but it is pre-
cisely in juxtaposition with these that the difference and contrast becomes
In Hamlet, the actor’s play as such is only present in a scantly rec-
ognizable form. It remains entirely in the service of the play itself and
does not disturb the urgency of the action. The hero does not yet fall apart
into the mask and the actor. The actor scenes in Hamlet are far removed
from actor’s plays like Kean, one of Dumas’s late works, which takes as
its content the tragic story of a famous Hamlet actor—not to mention the
tragicomedy of the late nineteenth century. In contrast, the play within
the play in the second act of Hamlet is no play behind the scenes—on the
Foreword to Hamlet and the Scottish Succession   169

contrary, it is the real play itself repeated before the curtains, similar to
Velázquez paintings where we see that the painted scene is represented
again in a painted mirror. The staged reality is itself identically reproduced
and put on stage. This presupposes that the theater stand in extreme prox-
imity to the historical present. Only the most immediate actualization of
the directly lived event, the directly experienced fate, is capable of this sort
of secondary process of actualization before the curtains, standing up to
this double exposure.
The secret of the Hamlet drama is the immediate, self-evident proxim-
ity to the historical present of its time of origin. This drama is not written
for posterity, but for the contemporary world physically present in the
audience and actively and passionately involved in the action. That is
the timely core of its presence, that is what makes the spectacular theater
within the theater possible. This core contains within itself the mysterious
power that has transmitted this drama from the moment of its time and
place of its origin even down to the present day, inviting over the course of
centuries thousands of interpretations and symbolizations, without costing
the drama its hero and its vision. The core is therefore not an invented
fable, not an adapted saga, not a dramatically exploited history, rather it
possesses the singularity of the historical time in which the poet, present-
ers and presented, actors and audience all participated. The mythic power
of this drama nourishes itself from this origin.
Greek tragedy lived from a myth, the core of which also contained a
historical reality. But the antique tragedy was not theater in the sense of
a stage play. As a result, it did not live in the singularity of the historical
event of its time of origin. The prince Hamlet-James is no Orestes, and his
mother, the queen Mary Stuart-Gertrude, is no Clytemnestra. Shakespeare’s
drama is theater and, precisely as a stage play, it lives into distant times
through the singularity of the historical moment from which it sprang and
which it managed to put on the stage. In this way, it was strong enough to
bring forth its own myth, to create a new myth, while the tragedy of antiq-
uity depended on the availability of an ancient myth, passed down through
the ages, in order to become drama. This is why there is in antique tragedy
no tragedy within the tragedy. That would run completely counter to its
essential nature and would only be imaginable as an open, cynical self-
destruction. In Shakespeare’s drama, in contrast, the play within the play
in the second act of Hamlet functions as a consummate experiment, one
that is directed, namely, toward the question of whether a core of historical
170   Carl Schmitt

actuality has the power to produce a new myth in this way, by means of
the theater.

The Birth of a Myth out of the Play

of Contemporary Historical Presence
In Lilian Winstanley’s book, the convergence of a historical moment with
its dramatic representation is presented in impressive and thrilling fashion.
Her evidence is clear and simple, and it leads the way out of the labyrinth
of idealistic constructions as well as the dreamland of romantic self-reflec-
tion into a hard reality. The mists of fantastic interpretation dissipate, the
scintillation of psychological possibilities ends. One sees the granite rock
of a singular historical truth materialize, and the figure of a real king with
a concrete fate begins to take shape.
At the core of Shakespeare’s drama is the fact that the originary image
[Urbild] for Hamlet is the concrete history of King James I. Hamlet’s
entire condition, his philosophizing and reasoning, his endless soliloquiz-
ing on the situation and his task in it, his inhibitions and repeated failure
to take action—all this is the historical reality from which the drama origi-
nates. The situation of James I and the situation of Hamlet are identical
in this core. This historical presence is the drama’s primal phenomenon
[Urphänomen], the essence of the great drama Hamlet. We must accept
this initial point before allowing our fantasy to indulge in further inter-
pretation and symbolic readings of the figure of Hamlet. The play of such
interpretations is dazzling and rich, but it must remain bound to this primal
image of historical actuality, if it is not to dissolve into mere romanticism
and subjective occasionalism.
Poets create what endures. It is the poets who provide what is lasting.
But lyric poets provide a different sort of permanence than do epic poets,
different also from tragic poets of antiquity grounded in myth. Shake-
speare’s drama creates still another sort of enduring, which is grounded
in the singular actuality of his contemporary world but which still reaches
into our time. The originary images of such great dramas are therefore
.  [Schmitt employs the terms Urbild and Abbild here, and he makes a special point
of asserting that Urbild should not be read as archetype, or any other sort of type. In
the following, I will translate Urbild as “originary image” or “primal image” and Abbild
as “reflection” or “imitation,” and in some cases I will bracket the terms for the sake of
.  [Schmitt is clearly playing on the famous final line from Hölderlin’s “Andenken”
here: “Was bleibet aber, stiften die Dichter.”]
Foreword to Hamlet and the Scottish Succession   171

neither reflections nor types in any sort of sociological or intellectual-his-

torical sense. Naturally, Shakespeare’s dramas also feature extraordinary
types of this sort. Falstaff, for example, is the type of the degenerate noble,
although in a way very different from Don Quixote, for example, in the
novel by Cervantes, who is the type of knighthood in decline, lost in its
own illusions. Even compared with these types, the difference between
drama and the novel is recognizable, as drama remains closer to the histor-
ical singularity of its primal images than does the novel. This results from
drama’s visual presentation and action on the stage, the theater within the
theater of contemporary life, which is how theater appears in every great
James I was not typical of kings of his time, not even of kings of
England. What is typical about him is the fate met by the Stuart family,
which strands him between the murder of his father and two executions,
the execution of his mother, Mary Stuart, and the execution of his son
Charles, to which must also be added the flight from England of his grand-
son James II. In the midst of such events, James I was one of the few
Stuarts who died of natural causes. Perhaps this could all be explained
psychologically by his comportment, perhaps by his inhibitions, which
made him guarded, which of course would have been justified given his
situation. But what is decisive is that James, the most zealous champion of
the divine right of kings, did not defend this right on the field of historical
action, rather he destroyed the sacred substance of the kingdom by indulg-
ing in endless theological disputations.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a singular appeal, directed at James I, not to
expend the divine right of kings in reflections and discussions. Hamlet’s
interpreters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could not conceive of
a king in this position. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, kings had
already become heads of state. The violent death of kings appeared limited
to the uncommon event of revolution, and the theological disputations no
longer held public interest. The fact that the human individual James was
spared a violent death was not something that the dramatist could have
anticipated in the year 1601, and even if he could have known, it would
not have applied for his hero. The dramatist incorporated the many violent
deaths surrounding James on the stage of world history—the murder of his
father, the execution of his mother, and the execution of his son—into the
fate of his hero, in the form of his own violent death. That was not some
arbitrary departure from reality, not poetic license exercised by the writer,
172   Carl Schmitt

it was an integral part of the historical present in which Hamlet’s drama

originated. It is the dramatized reality of a king who, by constantly engag-
ing in discussion and contemplation, destroys the sacred substance of his
kingdom, but at least on the stage he still dies like a king.
The fate of a family and a crown as suffered by James I is not some-
thing that may be simply broken down into a set of types, let alone
resolved into some neutral universality. The individual singularity of this
figure and his tragic situation are much too strong. It does not lend itself
to abstraction without disfiguring the drama and turning the hero into a
sort of scarecrow. The historical King James I is the concrete Hamlet of
the drama, just as Richard III is the hero of Shakespeare’s Richard III, but
the historical Richard III did not inhabit the drama’s time of origin. Here
the temporal distance itself offered the possibility of distantiation. James
needed to be disguised as Hamlet and hidden behind the saga, pretend-
ing to be about something very different from what is really at stake in
Shakespeare’s drama, in order to preserve the temporal immediacy before
the naked panopticon of the politics of the time. In the hands of a great
poet, this sort of disguising—with sagas, novellas, and histories—actu-
ally heightens the identity it makes use of, preserving its immediacy in a
dialectic through the very act of veiling that identity—that is, the poet’s
application of this insulating layer actually prevents the fire of real life
from simply consuming itself.
The historical King James is the originary image for Hamlet, the dra-
matic work of art, because the appeal is directed at him, urging him not to
squander the divine right of kings, the sacred substance of the kingdom,
in reflections and discussions. Even the villainous King Claudius invokes
the divine right of kings (Hamlet 4.5). Thus, James is neither reflection,
nor mere occasion for the drama, nor a mere model. This is also not a
case where the story of this unfortunate Stuart served as the historical raw
material for an artist, as for example Mary Stuart, the Maid of Orleans,
Wallenstein, and the false Demetrius served as the historical raw materials
for Schiller.
This relationship between originary image [Urbild] and dramatic
imitation [Abbild] becomes clear in the contrast between Shakespearean
and Schillerian drama. Schiller had a penchant for putting world-historical
figures on the stage. And, of course, as a playwright Schiller’s philo-
sophical and rhetorical powers were tremendous; his knowledge of the
historical and political situations was extraordinary, and his early dramas
Foreword to Hamlet and the Scottish Succession   173

are characterized by an intense historical presence. But because, unlike

Shakespeare, he was unable to capture the temporal and spatial imme-
diacy of his own unique historical moment, it remains mere idealization,
an elevation to the level of the ethically universal and the neutrally human.
Schiller’s jumping-off point into the play, and from there into our time, is
philosophy and spectacular rhetoric, not, as with Shakespeare, the immedi-
ate historical presence of the actual contemporary world, and it is because
of this fact that none of Schiller’s figures attained mythic stature. They
did not become enduring mythic figures, rather at most they managed to
reach a mostly intellectual posterity, where they live on in the memory and
in the cultivated interest of his people and his readers. Perhaps Schiller’s
captivating criminals—especially the false Demetrius—are still candi-
dates for the mythic sphere, if somehow a new image of Schiller manages
to establish itself and break out of the crusted layers of paint repeatedly
applied in the course of the last century to the portrait we have of Schil-
ler. Perhaps, and hopefully, the upcoming Schiller anniversary in 1959
will bring some important developments in this regard—developments for
which Max Kommerell laid the seeds—resulting in an entirely new way of
looking at Schiller, but we do not need to spend any more time dwelling
on this here.
The case of Kleist is a very different one, as he more than Schiller
lived in a historical sense, and Grillparzer’s case represents still another
way of considering this question. But the intention here is not to develop a
general theory of the drama. Regarding Lilian Winstanley’s study of Ham-
let, and in answer to the question of the relationship between originary
image [Urbild] and dramatic imitation [Abbild], all that remains to be said
are a few words on the nature of myth, the topic discussed above. We
contend that, while antique tragedy is grounded in myth, Shakespeare’s
great drama has its origin in its own unique time, and, if its great endeavor
is to be successful, it is from that moment of conception that it reaches into
the sphere of myth, giving birth to a new myth. Lyric and epic poets are
also capable of creating mythic images, but even this is no longer possible
today without the core of an immediate historical reality.
The last modern instance of a myth is the figure of Kaspar Hauser. A
singular historical event forms the core of this myth, beginning with the
afternoon of Pentecost Monday, in the year 1829, when a seventeen-year-
old young man appeared in Nuremberg’s deserted town square, oafish,
helpless, and mute, with a note which read: “My name is Kaspar Hauser,
174   Carl Schmitt

and I want to be a cavalryman.” On the basis of this peculiar event, a

legend developed, encouraged by historians and jurists, pedagogues and
journalists. Novels and dramas have been written about it. But this legend
was only lifted to the status of myth through great lyric poets like Paul Ver-
laine—whose Kaspar Hauser poem was translated into German by Stefan
George and Richard Dehmel—and Georg Trakl, transforming the concrete
fate of a poor creature of unknown origin into an enduring figure of the
condition of being thrown into this world, helpless and exposed. No matter
how diligent, no matter how well funded, there is no historical society, no
national or international journalistic association that could have achieved
what a few poor lyric poets were able to do. But on the other hand, there
is no poet, regardless of his gifts, who could have invented the concrete
historical singularity of this Kaspar Hauser, which remains the core of the
Kaspar Hauser myth. Whatever the poets may have added to it, in terms
of lyrical invention, it was this singular historicity that was really required
for this seed to sprout and, proceeding from the actuality of the event, to
attain to the sphere of myth.
Achilles, the son of the goddess, had Homer to sing his deeds, and
thus was born that great epic whose glorious light still shines down on
our day. The case of Kaspar Hauser, that helpless child of the nineteenth
century, was transmitted to posterity by lyric poets. His dark fate did not
belong under the stage lights. But if this fate of downfall enshrouded in
darkness had been put on stage, instead of being set as lyrical lament, then
the darkness would have necessarily been cleared away—it would have
been staged as a struggle for succession, set at court and centering on the
intrigue involving the castaway child. It is pointless to ask whether Shake-
speare was better at this than the authors who have tried more recently. At
any rate, it is significant that Kaspar Hauser, the myth of the nineteenth
century, has up to now attracted only lyric poets and no great dramatists.
In contrast, the unfortunate King James I, whose historical existence is
located between the execution of his mother and the execution of his
son, found in one of his subjects the great dramatist who managed to put
the king and his fate on stage before the king himself, his court, and his
people—namely in London, in the years after 1603, before a court and a
people entirely aware of the details of this fate.
Mutability is an essential part of myth, and the play of interpretation,
identification, and symbolization involving the figure of Hamlet is endless.
A thousand self-conscious, conflicted, and failed readers and spectators
Foreword to Hamlet and the Scottish Succession   175

have recognized themselves in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Interpretations of

the similarity to Orestes and the problem of matriarchy, and even cosmic
readings have been attempted. A political poet of the European revolu-
tion of 1848, Ferdinand Freiligrath determined: Germany is Hamlet. The
compilation and description of all of these interpretations is an interest-
ing intellectual-historical topic all its own, but our point here is that the
new myth, with all its variability and ambiguity, was first created through
Shakespeare’s drama, which succeeded in preserving within the drama
itself the real core of its origin, realizing the play of history in the stage
I have not said that every writer who puts the events of his contempo-
rary world on the stage is therefore a greater dramatist than Schiller. This
is indeed a rare achievement, and whoever hazards the attempt must know
that they play for high stakes, which cannot be compelled by industry,
exertion, cleverness, or arrogance. What has been said here of Hamlet and
James is intended merely to indicate the extraordinary importance of the
book by Lilian Winstanley. In her subsequent works on Macbeth, King
Lear and Contemporary History (1922) and on Othello (1924), the author
has broadened her research, developing for Shakespeare’s great dramas
a theory of the mythic-symbolic representation of contemporary powers
and figures. This is an important new theme, which deserves significant
discussion, but this is something that must be reserved for another context.
What concerns us here is only the contemporary-historical presence of the
drama Hamlet, for which this book provides overwhelming evidence.
Lilian Winstanley’s books already have their own fate and form their
own chapter in Shakespeare’s long history of interpretation. Good critics
have often noted contemporary-historical connections in Shakespeare’s
plays. For Hamlet especially, one could make an imposing list of names,
from Steevens and Plumptre in the eighteenth century, to Gerth (with his
lectures in 1860, where he draws on Danish and Polish history), Karl Elze
(1876), Martin Krummacher (Programm der Elberfelder Realschule,
1877), Friedrich Theodor Vischer, Georg Brandes (1896), J. Jusserand
(1904), André Chevalier (1916), and many others, right up to the last edi-
tions of Joseph Gregor’s Shakespeare book (1948), widely disseminated
in Germany. One essay by Karl Silberschlag from the year 1877 (vol. 12,
pp. 261–69, of the Shakespeare-Jahrbuch) on “Shakespeare’s Hamlet,
Sources and Political Connections” requires special mention. In this essay
Silberschlag recapitulated his views previously published in 1860 in the
176   Carl Schmitt

Morgenblatt, after these had earned the praise of men like Gervinus, Ulrici,
and Friedrich Theodor Vischer—and it is precisely this 1877 essay by Sil-
berschlag that critics have invoked in order to cast doubt on the originality
of Lilian Winstanley’s thesis.
In reality, this English Shakespeare researcher has done something
altogether different and much more important than merely to pick up
on arguments advanced by Karl Silberschlag. All of the research listed
above on the question of contemporary-historical context, including Karl
Silberschlag’s 1877 essay, falls short even of beginning to overcome
the reigning subjectivism, psychologism, and aestheticism, by means of
which the nineteenth century appropriated the figure of Hamlet, trans-
forming him into a Mona Lisa of literature. T. S. Eliot noted this well in
the observation: Goethe made of Hamlet a Werther, and Coleridge made
of Hamlet a Coleridge. Lilian Winstanley’s Hamlet book has now pro-
vided the decisive turn. No wonder it has been met with bitter rejection
by those most comfortable and self-assured in the old Hamlet discussions.
One well-known Anglicist in Zürich made every attempt, in 1924, in the
Beiblatt zur Anglia, vol. 35, to destroy the disruptive book once and for
all. He felt the thesis was old and long outdated; he underlined mistakes
and imprecisions and finally declared: “And the boring James, the alleged
model for Hamlet—who can take this seriously?” Today we find the life,
the fate, and especially the sentiments of the ill-fated king less boring than
that overbearing Anglicist of 1924, who unlike the ill-fated James unfor-
tunately has no Shakespeare to put him on stage in the alienated form
appropriate to his time.
On real critics, however, Lilian Winstanley’s Hamlet book has made
the deepest impression. It has had a profound effect on the turn toward the
objective. Its traces may be recognized in many later investigations into
Elizabethan theater and its audience, on the sociological structure of the
work and the time, even where Winstanley’s name is not cited. The author
of the standard work on the history of Shakespeare research and interpre-
tation, Augustus Ralli (A History of Shakespearean Criticism, 2 volumes,
Oxford University Press, 1932), devotes to Winstanley a detailed analysis,
conveying the highest respect. Admittedly, he does raise the question as to

.  [T. S. Eliot, “Hamlet and His Problems,” in Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (New
York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932), p. 121.]
.  [Bernhard Fehr, “Reviews of Recent Literature on Hamlet,” Beiblatt zur Anglia
35 (1924): 8.]
Foreword to Hamlet and the Scottish Succession   177

whether Shakespeare emerges as greater or lesser after this historical read-

ing, and concludes, in reference to Winstanley’s interpretation of Macbeth
and Lear, that the light thus cast on the historical events of Shakespeare’s
time is like the fire stolen by Prometheus.
We welcome this comparison. Viewed in the right light, this com-
parison may help illuminate the core of the question. Prometheus stole fire
from the mythic gods; the great dramatist found it in the historical present
of his time. With his dramatic art, Shakespeare did more than respond
to certain “influences.” He elevated the unique, unrepeatable reality of
his historical present to mythic stature, without destroying the core of its
singularity and unrepeatability. With the help of Lilian Winstanley’s book,
we become aware of this important process, extricating ourselves from the
morass of academic controversies. We begin to grasp a crucial event of our
European history: the birth of the Hamlet myth in a play of contemporary-
historical presence.

July 1952
Carl Schmitt