‘… they imitated humanity so abhominably.’ (III.2.34)[1]


The affinity between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and some of the existential questions raised by contemporary posthumanism, despite the four centuries that lie between them, is striking. From the beginning of the play, the question of identity, and of the identity of the human more specifically, is the main focus in Hamlet, which culminates in Hamlet’s famous monologue: ‘What is a man / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast – no more. / Sure he that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused’ (IV.4.32-38).

Hamlet displays all the characteristics of a good ghost story: a gothic setting, a threatening ghost, a terrible secret, murder and suicide, (political) intrigues, tragic misunderstandings, a hero tormented by self-doubt, on the verge of madness, and a general bloodbath at the end. In this context, the existential questions of ‘man’ and ‘his’ meaning are posed with great regularity (What is ‘man’s’ position in the cosmos? What is his particularity? And what about his undetermined ‘nature’?). It is thus no surprise that Hamlet, the character and the tragedy, have played a central role in investigating Shakespeare’s position with regard to the emergence of Renaissance or early modern humanism.[2]

For modern liberal humanist critics, Shakespeare is the incarnation of essential human genius. Harold Bloom even goes so far as to credit him with the ‘invention of the human’.[3] According to Bloom, the great Shakespearean characters, and Hamlet in particular, are the expression of ‘our’ fundamental humanity. The great fascination with Hamlet’s character mainly lies in his psychology of hesitation, his proto-Enlightenment self-reflexivity and his proto-existentialist self-doubt. As a result, Hamlet’s insistence on the question ‘What is man?’ – anticipating Kant’s formulation by 200 years – has been particularly relevant for the development of philosophical anthropology in the early 20th Century,[4] of which posthumanism can be seen as both a late fall-out, as well as a further radicalisation and twist.

For the largely antihumanist literary criticism of the second half of the 20th Century, Hamlet has been an ideological battleground in a number of ways that are relevant to posthumanism.[5] Against essentialist, universalist and transhistorical claims about humanism and literature like Bloom’s, poststructuralism, postmodernism, new historicism, cultural materialism and deconstruction in their interpretations of the play have insisted on historical contextualisation and politicisation, by establishing critical genealogies between early modern Shakespeare and Shakespeare as ‘our contemporary’:[6]

Shakespeare’s plays anticipate the impending displacement and disappearance of their world, and they solicit the reciprocal recognition that our world, likewise, conceals the evolving past of a prospective present. Their aim is to project us forward in time to a point where we can look back on Shakespeare’s age and our own as the prehistory of an epoch whose advent humanity still awaits.[7]

Shakespeare can thus be said to stand at the beginning, or on the threshold, of an emerging Western humanist anthropocentric worldview, while the present (i.e., the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st Century) can be understood as the erosion, decline or final phase of (humanist, Eurocentric and anthropocentric) modernity. In this sense, postcolonial and posthumanist approaches and their persistent critique and ‘deconstruction of humanism’[8] can, once again, relate to Hamlet’s ‘lament’ that ‘The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!’ (I.5.186-187) as a standpoint from which to look both forward and back, torn between the demands of an increasingly disjointed and oppressive legacy, and looming future challenges and existential threats that can no longer be controlled with traditional means.

Both Shakespeare’s work and contemporary posthumanism thus deal with the uncertain position of the human; and both question the idea that there is such a thing as an essential human ‘nature’. However, posthumanist readings further radicalise the antihumanist propositions by poststructuralists and new historicists in focusing on ‘post-anthropocentric’ openings within Shakespeare’s play. Under these circumstances, the central questions posthumanist Shakespeare studies raise are: how to interpret a world in which the human subject has been literally ‘decentered’ and dethroned by technology, on the one hand, and biology, ecology or the ‘environment’, on the other hand? In what way can reading Shakespeare remain relevant under these conditions? Or, indeed, should one turn the question around: does Shakespeare, and Hamlet more specifically, not only anticipate these challenges but perhaps also already provide some answers to them? Does the ‘out of jointness’ of pre-humanism connect to posthumanism in the form of an early (modern) critique of anthropocentrism and humanism? Hamlet might then be heard as a ‘proto-posthumanist’ voice in his 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’ (III.1.55-59). In the context of the current focus on the ‘Anthropocene’, Hamlet’s ‘survival’ question has become that of the entire human species (and, arguably, ‘life’ in general).

David Tennant as Hamlet
David Tennant as Hamlet

One early starting point for such a posthumanist reading of Hamlet can be found in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, in which Hamlet is recruited as a central figure in the deconstruction of Western metaphysical concepts such as truth, existence and presence.[9] In a parallel reading of Hamlet and Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, Derrida shows that the ontological difference between the ghost (both that of communism and that of Hamlet) undermines the ideal of presence on which modern (i.e. Hegelian) ontology is based. Instead, Derrida brings into play the notion of a ‘hauntology’ that deconstructs the foundation of being, understood as (self-)presence. Hamlet’s ‘self-doubt’ here stands allegorically for human ontological experience in general (i.e. ‘to be or not to be’) and for the humanist reflexes that are derived from it, notably the Enlightenment trust in reason (“Thou art a scholar – speak to it, Horatio” [I.1.41]) which is supposed to reveal transcendental Truth.

Jacques Lacan’s influential reading of Hamlet comes to the critique of humanist ontology from another, psychoanalytic, angle.[10] Early psychological-psychoanalytic interpretations centred on Hamlet, the individual, in the wake of Freud and Ernst Jones’s readings, and focused on the Oedipal conflict between Hamlet and Claudius. They explain Hamlet’s hesitation to act by his guilty conscience, motivated by the forbidden and repressed desire for his mother and the guilt that arises out of the rivalry with his (dead) father. Lacan, however, raises the stakes by considering Hamlet as the tragedy of human desire par excellence. For him, Hamlet is the typical representative of ‘modern man’ who has lost access to his own desire. Hamlet’s hesitation, accordingly, is explained by Lacan as the loss of the real object of desire, which results in a loss of control over time, as well as in the ‘spectralisation’ or mystification of the phallus, or, in other words, of authority.

In the light of these readings, Hamlet’s penchant for ‘philosophical anthropologising’ easily connects with a contemporary critical posthumanist mind frame. In his ‘paragon’ speech – ‘What piece of work is a man – how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god; the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals. And yet, to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – nor woman neither’ (II.2.269-275) – Hamlet already seems to announce a contemporary post-anthropocentrism that questions the self-evidence of human exceptionalism. In this sense, he himself already engages in a ‘posthumanist’ reading, namely: ‘to read against one’s self, against one’s own deep-seated self-understanding as a member or even a representative of a certain species’.[11]

Hamlet is thus an important precursor to a ‘slower’, critical, posthumanism that is not entirely focused on late 20th and early 21st Century technologically mediated futures, and which instead reinterprets the meaning of the human and its environment by working through its encounters with its diverse inhuman or nonhuman others displaced by modern humanism and anthropocentrism. This insight has prompted a growing number of posthumanist readings of early modern and Shakespearean works.[12] These are also informed by early modern animal studies,[13] as well as by early problematisations of human agency, autonomy and the environment in early modern ecocriticism.[14] There are also analogies between early and late modern conceptualisations of technology.[15] Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, intriguingly, use the phrases ‘renaissance cyborg’ and ‘renaissance computer’ to show how early modern conceptions of corporeality, machines, and automata already problematise the humanist, Cartesian mechanistic worldview from its very beginning. Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia, which ends with ‘Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him. Hamlet’ (II.2.120-121), in this context constitutes an interesting pre-Cartesian example of self-instrumentalisation of the human as a machine. It already attests to the ontological crisis of the human autonomy of action produced by the first automata. Hamlet’s early modern machine metaphor can thus serve as an example of ‘proto-cyborgisation’, or as an early announcement of the automation process that will unfold within modernity.[16]

– Heidelberg, May 2020


[1] The edition of Hamlet used in this entry is the Arden Third Series revised edition, edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[2] See Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare’s Humanism (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), and Neil Rhodes, ‘Hamlet and Humanism’, in: Garnett A. Sullivan, Jr., Patrick Cheney and Andrew Hadfield, eds., Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion (Oxford: OUP, 2006), pp. 120-29.

[3] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (London: Fourth Estate, 1999).

[4] On this point see Eric P. Levy, Hamlet and the Rethinking of Man (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008).

[5] For an excellent overview see Catherine Belsey’s Why Shakespeare (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2007).

[6] To use Jan Kott’s famous phrase. See his Shakespeare Our Contemporary (New York: Norton, 1974).

[7] Kieran Ryan, ‘Shakespeare and the Future’, in Deborah Cartmell and Michael Scott, eds., Talking Shakespeare: Shakespeare into the Millennium (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001), p. 199.

[8] Neil Badmington’s phrase in his ‘Theorizing Posthumanism’, Cultural Critique 53 (Winter): 10-27.

[9] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994).

[10] Lacan, ‘Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet [1959]’ in: Shoshana Felman, ed. Literature and Psychoanalysis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 11-52.

[11] See Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus, ‘What Is a Posthumanist Reading?’ Angelaki 13.1 (2008): 95.

[12] See, in particular, Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus, eds. Posthumanist Shakespeares (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2012), which contains a special section on Hamlet.

[13] See, for example, Erica Fudge, Ruth Gilbert and Susan Wiseman, eds., At the Borders of the Human: Beasts, Bodies and Natural Philosophy in the Early Modern Period (Houndmills: Palgrave, 1999), Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2000) and Fudge, ed., Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); as well as Bruce Boehrer, Shakespeare Among the Animals: Nature and Society in the Drama of Early Modern England (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2002).

[14] See, for example, Gabriel Egan, Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2006).

[15] See, for example, Jonathan Sawday, ‘“Forms Such as Never Were in Nature”: the Renaissance Cyborg’, in Erica Fudge, Ruth Gilbert and Susan Wiseman, eds., At the Borders of the Human: Beasts, Bodies and Natural Philosophy in the Early Modern Period (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 171-195; Jessica Wolfe, Humanism, Machinery, and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: CUP, 2004); Adam Max Cohen, Shakespeare and Technology: Dramatizing Early Modern Technological Revolutions (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2006); Sawday, Engines of the Imagination: Renaissance Culture and the Rise of the Machine (London: Routledge, 2007); Henry S. Turner, Shakespeare’s Double Helix (London: Routledge, 2007) and Turner, ‘Life Science: Rude Mechanicals, Human Mortals, Posthuman Shakespeare’, South Central Review 26.1-2 (2009): 197-217); as well as Howard Marchitello, ‘Artifactual Knowledge in Hamlet’, in Lowell Gallagher and Shankar Raman, eds., Knowing Shakespeare: Senses, Embodiment and Cognition. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2010), pp. 137-53.

[16] Cf. Scott Maisano, ‘Infinite Gesture: Automata and the Emotions in Descartes and Shakespeare’, in Jessica Riskin, ed., Genesis Redux: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Artificial Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 63-84; and Andrew J. Power, ‘Broken Machines and tainted minds: mental health and Hamlet’, in Philip Coleman, ed., On Literature and Science: Essays, Reflections, Provocations (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007), pp. 77-95.