Wager, Willis J., and Earl J. McGrath. Liberal Education and Music. New York: Columbia UP, 1962. Wolfe, Peter. A Vision of His Own: The Mind and Art of William Gaddis. Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1977.
Shakespeare’s HAMLET Shakespeare’s Hamlet rests on an inchoate understanding of international law; balance of power; and the monarchical “election” that was in flux at the close of thesixteenth century and that Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), the Dutch jurist often considered the father of international law, would not codify until the first half of the next century. Although Hamlet opens with Denmark vigorously arming to resist the imminent invasion of Fortinbras and his renegade army, rounded up from “the skirts of Norway,” for modern readers the play’s three references to “elections”might seem to confer legitimacy on Fortinbras’s seizure of the Danish crown (1.1.97–98). For some commentators, the mention of elections diminishes and even abrogates the act of stark aggression that frames the play, an act that flagrantly violates the law of nations emerging in the work of late medieval jurists and threatens the independence of the formerly “warlike” Denmark (1.2.9). Danishmonarchs of the eleventh century did, in fact, submit to a process of election, as recent scholars working in the tradition of Harold Jenkins point out, and no less a figure than Prince Hamlet, after all, calls the Norwegian prince “tender and delicate” (4.4.48) and in his “dying voice” predicts that “th’election lights / On Fortinbras” (5.2.358–59). Shakespeare had to bring his long play to a close,the thinking about mitigation and abrogation goes, and who else in the unnatural throne room strewn with royal corpses in act 5 possesses the efficiency, aplomb, and skills of Fortinbras? Furthermore, Fortinbras insists, however speciously, that he has “rights” in Denmark (5.2.392): might not his election represent, as Lisa Hopkins observes, a “uniting” of Norway and Denmark (54)? This readingevinces unease with a fundamental premise of the play: that Denmark and Norway are adversaries. When the play begins, Fortinbras’s elderly uncle, instead of his father, sits on Norway’s throne because, thirty years earlier, King Hamlet vanquished and slew King Fortinbras in a formal combat that the latter, “pricked on by a most emulate pride,” incited, started, and lost (1.1.87). The Danish monarch’svictory, which Shakespeare carefully specifies was accompanied by the legal instrument of a “sealed compact, well ratified by law and heraldry” (1.1.86–87), does not signify merely that King Hamlet came out on top in a personal contest with a bellicose rival. It signifies that during the
ensuing three decades and right up until the moment when Claudius commits fratricide, Denmark has heldthe preponderant share in the balance of power, a fact of realpolitik that both Claudius and Prince Fortinbras, but not the Wittenberg student Hamlet, fully appreciate. King Hamlet’s victory, which eliminates the great risk and reward of war—the ambiguity—that makes military adventurism tempting to parties so disposed, produced what the early-nineteenth-century military theorist Carl vonClausewitz would later call an equilibrium. During the king’s lifetime, both Denmark and Norway understood who was the stronger power and who was the weaker. In the power calculus, Denmark’s preponderance of strength went unquestioned and Norway did not dare attack. (Under King Hamlet, Denmark’s ability to project power extends also to England, still smarting “raw and red / After the Danish sword”[4.3.62–63], which is to say, paying tribute as a losing party in a military engagement.) The equilibrium, predicated on the martial valor of the “goodly king” Hamlet—on his readiness, when challenged, to fight—maintained a cold peace, keeping Norway at bay and rendering the enmity between the two kingdoms manageable. When the curtain rises on Hamlet, Denmark’s strength, vitiated by King Claudius, has...
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