On “Hamlet: The Cosmopolitan Prince” by Paul A. Cantor

At the beginning of his essential essay “Hamlet: The Cosmopolitan Prince,” Paul Cantor raises a question that few critics have addressed: “Would Prince Hamlet have made a good King of Denmark?” for a prince who is subsumed with doubts and “analysis paralysis,” do we agree with Fortinbras at the play’s conclusion that Hamlet “have prov’d most royal”? On the flipside, we have reason to doubt the sincerity of Fortinbras since he is a political man and has every reason to elevate Hamlet as a hero in order to “win the hearts of the dead prince’s partisans.”

In Part I of his essay, Cantor reminds us of the political subtext throughout Hamlet –or “the struggle of the Danes to maintain their ascendancy over the Norwegians.” We learn that Denmark is arming itself against a possible invasion by Norway, Denmark maintains a defensive position after the many victories of the late elder Hamlet, who single-handedly defeated the elder Fortinbras in combat. Now, we see the younger Fortinbras who is trying to undo the elder Hamlet’s achievements. Rather than growing or expanding their kingdom, Cantor notes “Whether on the battlefield or in the council chamber, the cornerstone of Danish foreign policy seems to be to keep Norway in check.”

With this mind, with his dying breath, why does Hamlet offer his familial throne in Denmark to Fortinbras of Norway? Shouldn’t he consider Fortinbras his mortal enemy? Perhaps Hamlet witnessed Fortinbras’s resoluteness in invading Poland, and his spiritedness with revitalizing Norway, behaviors which Hamlet contrasts with his own inaction. “In his most political act, Hamlet shows himself completely indifferent to the most basic of political considerations, the distinction between us and them. To find a king for the Danes, he feels that he must go beyond the narrow bounds of Denmark to lo cate the best man available, even if he happens to be a Norwegian.”

How then are we to understand Hamlet as a tragedy? Cantor proffers: “One way of getting at the heart of Hamlet’s tragedy is to view him as a cosmopolitan in the etymological meaning of the term. Hamlet is a man who wishes to take the cosmos as his polis. He refuses to allow his horizons to be limited by any one community just because he happened to be born in it, and instead lets his vision roam freely over all the world.”

Having established that Hamlet is plagued by ideas of infinity and eternity, in Part II of Cantor’s essay, he expounds upon Hamlet’s embrace of cosmopolitanism. Hamlet, in some respects, rejects his own country, a country which Shakespeare goes to great lengths to portray as the “cultural backwaters of Europe.” With such exciting places as Paris or Wittenberg not far off, and their respective intellectual currents of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the decay of Elsinore leaves Hamlet in a sorry state to “become in effect a foreigner in his own country.” And his status as a native “foreigner” would surely pose a problem for Hamlet if he were to become king, since a king is required to uphold the customs of his country.

Hamlet’s morbid awareness of infinity –a brand of nihilism—reveals a great many political things to be hollow for Hamlet. Even the skull of poor Yorick is likely the same as that of Alexander the Great if all things are equal. In his search for something stable and enduring, Hamlet turns from politics to philosophy. “Notice, however, that despite his admiration for the ancient world, Hamlet does not turn to classical philosophy. Hamlet is concerned, not as Plato and Aristotle were with the natural, but with the ‘more than natural.’ Hamlet’s is a Christian philosophy, directed toward what lies beyond the borders of this world.” In this way, Hamlet’s obsession with belief in supernatural phenomena stands in stark contrast to Horatio who, being a skeptic to the modern directions of thought, is “more an antique Roman than a Dane.”

In Part III, the question of why Hamlet selects Fortinbras to inherit the kingdom of Denmark is answered by Cantor as follows: “From an examination of the implications of Hamlet’s dying endorsement of Fortinbras, a consistent profile emerges, of a man who prefers other countries to his own, who prefers private to public life, and who is in many respects less concerned about this world than the next.” And none of these three traits bodes particularly well for the young prince –especially when we regard him as a university student, the product of modern Christian Europe, who steps out of the classroom and into a Norse revenge saga. His education has led him away from political concerns and toward a more universalist horizon. He is called upon to redeem his native land, yet he despises Denmark. He is supposed to avenge his father, yet his study of history has shown that political retribution is often short-lived and largely worthless in the long run. And, above all else, Hamlet is obsessed with haunting visions of the celestial next world. Whereas a pagan might have simply killed Claudius and claimed the throne, Hamlet must contend with Claudius as a division between corporeal body and immortal soul –simply slaying Claudius’s body is not enough when an eternal soul will continue to thrive.

By using a rudimentary revenge play, and placing an intelligent protagonist in the lead role, Shakespeare sheds light on the inner contradictions of Renaissance ethics and the unresolved conflicts between pagan and Christian virtues. “Intellectual historians tend to present the Renaissance as trying to reconcile these two traditions in one grand synthesis, usually referred to as Christian humanism. But Hamlet’s tragedy reveals how precarious and deeply problematic this synthesis was. On the issue of revenge, the classical and Christian traditions recommend opposing courses of action, as a quick review of the Iliad and the New Testament will reveal. And if one tries to pursue vengeance in a Christian framework, one comes up with something far more sinister and difficult to accomplish than any Homeric Greek ever dreamed of.”

By disentangling the complex fabric of this play, Cantor exposes the immense complexity underlying Hamlet’s paralysis. Desperate to find a path forward while being pulled in two directions at once, he begins to see himself as a hypocrite, unable to find a synthesis between the two worlds. “To accomplish this goal, Hamlet needed to be a kind of Nietzschean superman: ‘the Roman Caesar with Christ’s soul.’ If, then Hamlet ultimately fails to achieve his revenge within the constraints laid down by his father’s ghost, his failure results from a kind of overreaching, and as such is a tragic failure.”

In Part IV, Cantor notes that Hamlet’s tragedy is that of a “would be Renaissance man.” He is the embodiment of the aspirations of the Renaissance. Cantor, nevertheless, reaffirms a sense of heroism about Hamlet –his envy of Laertes shows he is not a wimp and his cosmopolitanism might actually be used to his advantage. “The negative side is that precisely that diversity of influences prevents Hamlet from ever playing a single role with utter conviction. What makes Hamlet the quintessential tragic figure of the Renaissance is that in him the inner contradictions of Renaissance culture come to consciousness. Hamlet is usually viewed as self-divided, but many critics treat his self-division as a kind of pathological state, as if the community Hamlet lives in were whole and only he fragmented. But Hamlet’s self-division mirrors a more fundamental self-division in his culture. Indeed Hamlet is distinguished in the play precisely by the fact that only he is alert to the way his culture is self-divided.”

Cantor finalizes his interpretation of the play with a restatement of the Renaissance world in Hamlet –reminding us of the northern lawless lands of Norway, and the southern rule of modern Europe, cultivated in places like Paris, where young men learn to fence rather than smite. “And in the middle of this world stands Hamlet, able to look beyond the borders of his country and in effect to survey the history of Western culture, to see its competing models of human excellence embodied in the figures who surround him. There is Laertes, the model of a modem courtier, a young gallant trained in Paris. There is Hamlet’s fellow student, Horatio, schooled at Wittenberg in Stoic ideals, and a model of rational control. And finally, there is Fortinbras, Hamlet’s Norwegian model of the heroic soldier. Hamlet can find something to admire in all these models, but he can also see the limitations of each. Precisely because he is open to all of them, he can never become the captive of any single model. As a result, all the other characters in the play seem one-dimensional by comparison with Hamlet.”

The depth of Hamlet’s complexity presents us with a peculiar form of heroism –a protagonist who moves back and forth between competing heroic ideals, while offering an examination and critique of each. None of the options are taken to the extreme, and thus Hamlet is trapped in a stasis for much of the play.

Lastly, in Part V, Cantor offers an apology for reading Shakespeare in this manner, namely with an eye toward political philosophy, rather than simply psychoanalyzing characters like Hamlet, which is an all-too fashionable method in our day. “We cannot understand Hamlet if we abstract him from the concrete political setting in which Shakespeare placed him. He is after all, as the subtitle of the play tells us, the Prince of Denmark, and that fact is intimately bound up with his tragedy.” By asking questions pertaining to the politics of Hamlet, the search for an answer sheds much light on things that are hidden within the play, and as is often the case in Shakespeare, political inquiry leads us to unearth the more fundamental questions at stake.

Cantor, Paul A. “Hamlet: The Cosmopolitan Prince.” Interpretation Journal, Spring 1984, Vol. 12, No. 1.

Professor Cantor, one of the finest Shakespeare scholars in the United States, just recently passed away in 2022. By all accounts he was a delightful person and a beloved teacher for many years at the University of Virginia.

On a final note, Professor Cantor opened this essay with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche which may help elucidate his argument:

“But all of us have, unconsciously, involuntarily in our bodies values, words, formulas, moralities of opposite descent. . . . A diagnosis of the modern soul where would it begin? With a resolute incision into this instinctive contradiction, with the isolation of its opposite values, with the vivisection of the most instructive case.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner

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