The Dangers of Populism in All The King’s Men

“Mason city. To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new” (opening lines)

In an age where populist demagoguery has once again captured the hearts of the American voter, it has been illuminating for me to sit down and read the classic novel All The King’s Men, which is loosely based on the career of Huey Long, the notorious governor of Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, the story of Huey Long bears striking resemblance to our own political epoch.

About Huey Long
Huey “Kingfish” Long came from Northern Louisiana, a rural section of the state where populist resentments were strong against the more prosperous southern cities of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette. Long was a former traveling salesman, a failed businessman, and a higher education drop-out. He attended a few different colleges before being admitted to the state bar in Louisiana. As a lawyer he began litigating a series of lawsuits against big monied interests and even won a notorious Supreme Court case against the Standard Oil Company which spurred him into politics. He won a landslide victory as Governor of Louisiana in 1928 under the slogan “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown” -a phrase he borrowed from an earlier 19th century American populist, William Jennings Bryan. Long took his “kingfish” moniker from the Amos & Andy radio program.

At the time Louisiana’s infrastructure, education, literacy, poverty, and healthcare were all atrocious. Yet it was also the height of the economic expansion before the bubble was set to burst in 1929. Few people in Louisiana had felt the effects of the financial growth. At the time Louisiana was dominated by the Democratic “Old Regulars” who largely held sham elections. They echoed the familiar old “Lost Cause” narrative of the Confederacy and mainly pursued policies that favored the planter class. When Huey Long entered the scene he was a different kind of Democrat. He modeled himself on being a righteous ‘defender of the common man.’ Politically, he promoted an ambitious progressive redistribution agenda (he criticized FDR’s New Deal because it did not do enough to support the common man) and yet he also autocratically threatened assassinations and in some cases physically or verbally assaulted his political opponents. Nothing was too low brow for Huey Long. He held raucous rallies throughout the state and dealt with hecklers violently. He wore white linen suits and often relied on insult-lobbing in order to bulldoze the opposition. The mud-slinging was ceaseless. He lambasted the media which rightly criticized him for staging mass firings and promoting blatant nepotism. In response, Long created his own newspaper which was more favorable to his public image. He took a publicly neutral stance on the Ku Klux Klan, which had risen to prominence in Louisiana at the time, yet he also avoided the standard race-baiting tactics of other Southern politicians. His focus was squarely on economic concerns for the downtrodden people of Louisiana.

In his best moments, Long is fondly remembered for his massive public works projects such as the construction of Louisiana’s first highway system and the provision of free textbooks for students. In truth, his policies did a lot of good things for Louisiana’s poor and dispossessed. However, at his worst Long was a political boss whose tactics were outrageous and Machiavellian. He was impeached in the Louisiana state house for disregard of decorum and perceived dictatorial ambitions. Predictably, he decried the impeachment effort as a hoax sponsored by elites and corporations. Politically, he supported a wealth tax, a “Share Our Wealth” initiative, and he was an advocate of massive federal spending and stimulus. He issued mass firings, often erratically threatening people who disagreed with him, and he publicly argued with his own state Attorney General. He hired state convicts to raze the governor’s mansion and build a new one fashioned in the image of the White House (he hoped it would prepare him for his own future presidential ambitions). As with most populists, Huey Long was first and foremost concerned with his own pride. His impeachment, which was in part connected to his efforts to raise taxes on Standard Oil, led to a massive unruly brawl in the state house. He privately admitted fear of being convicted in the state senate but was saved thanks to a group of political allies who publicly pledged to vote “not guilty” regardless of evidence against him. Following the impeachment trial, Long aggressively campaigned against his enemies, and he continued his public rallies where he prided himself almost exclusively on the applause of the mob. His term as Governor ended when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, however he still refused to relinquish his gubernatorial powers to the Lieutenant Governor. It caused a very public stand-off and, amazingly Huey Long’s tenure ended with a minor insurrection. Does any of this sound familiar? Long’s legacy remains controversial to this day. Opinions on Huey Long vary, some ranking him among either the best or the worst governors in American history.

At the end of his term as governor Huey Long was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, he continued his highly controversial tactics, and his firebrand style of populism was even perceived as a threat to FDR. Huey Long’s career ended when he was assassinated in 1935 at the Louisiana state capital where he was attempting to gerrymander a district against a political opponent. The son-in-law of his opponent approached Huey Long and shot him point-blank in the torso. The blast killed him.

All The King’s Men
In All The King’s Men, Willie Stark is the embodiment of Huey Long. He is a bombastic reformer whose values are challenged when he begins employing morally ambiguous tactics in order to enact long-promised reforms. The fascinating contradiction is that Willie must use illicit means to gain power in the hopes of securing beneficence. Does he ultimately achieve a greater good? The novel remains somewhat elusive and it mainly examines Willie Stark’s career through a glass darkly. Lord Acton’s famous maxim comes to mind in this novel, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Throughout the novel, Willie and his minions are ruled by their own ambitions, while clinging to power in a godless world where justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.

Robert Penn Warren was always troubled by the comparisons between Huey Long and Willie Stark, but the comparison is nevertheless fitting despite there being a few minor differences. Whereas Huey Long’s political career was launched by a devastating flood, Willie Stark (a.k.a. “the boss”) is vaulted into a politics by an accident at a children’s school. Both men share a spectacular start to their respective political careers, only to find an equally devastating downfall.

The novel is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former political reporter who becomes Willie Stark’s morally conflicted right-hand man. As a good newspaperman, Jack reflects on his time with Willie Stark and he wonders –was there some underlying principle that made it all happen? Near the outset of the novel, Jack recalls Willie’s ability to speak to a crowd: “You saw the eyes bulge suddenly, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought, it’s coming.” In the early parts of the novel we find “the boss” stumping through a small town, connecting with ordinary people, posing for carefully constructed photo ops. We also see him berate people, harass the news media, and threaten a judge (Judge Irwin). But this is not just any judge. This particular judge supports an impeachment effort against Willie and the situation puts Jack in a compromising position –mainly because Judge Irwin is one of Jack’s childhood family friends.

Jack hails from an upper class bubble known as Burden’s Landing, a place that seems to be immune from the problems facing the state. Throughout the novel Jack offers lengthy reflections on life and family, as well as his failed attempt at a doctorate and marriage, both of which he suddenly abandons. He works for “the boss” neither for love nor money, so why does he remain? In a way, Willie Stark gives meaning to Jack’s lawless, licentious, and amoral life. When the boss asks him to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack begins describing himself as a ‘historical researcher’ who hunts down anything on the good judge because “there is always something…” After considerable sleuthing, Jack discovers that early in Judge Irwin’s career, he bribed his way into a job at the electric company that pushed out an older man out who then killed himself in order to offer an insurance windfall to his sister. Jack traces this information to a letter kept by the deceased man’s sister.

Sometimes stories are started and then continued later in the novel. Examples include Jack’s childhood memories, attending graduate school (only to drop-out), his romance with a girl named Anne Stanton (which falls apart), his friendship with Anne’s brother Adam Stanton, and their father the former Governor (predecessor to Willie Stark), Jack’s attendance at law school, and his ‘perfectly adjusted’ marriage to Lois which Jack also abandons –“Good-bye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.” The background of Jack Burden unfolds in a non-linear, dream-like fashion. One of the best reflections in the novel is when Jack offers details of his ancestors’s and their role in 19th century American slavery as well as the Confederacy during the Civil War. This chapter is mostly focused on Jack’s great-uncle, Cass Mastern. In many ways, Jack Burden is still living in the great waning shadow of his ancestor, Cass Mastern.

In the end, Jack returns to the home of Judge Irwin to reveal the dirt he has discovered, but even the noble judge had forgotten his own mistakes -at least at first. Both Jack and the Judge share certain things in common. They have both lived according to their own set of morals in order to secure promising lives for themselves, however there is a certain quality of virtue in Judge Irwin that we see lacking in Jack. After Jack leaves Judge Irwin’s house, the judge shoots himself through the heart. He prefers an honorable death to the life of shame and disgrace. Shortly thereafter, Jack discovers from his mother that Judge Irwin was, in fact, his true father. Thus in an indirect way, Jack has killed his own father.

Not long after the judge’s suicide, Willie Stark is also assassinated at the State Capitol rotunda by none other than Jack’s childhood friend, Adam Stanton, who has discovered an affair between Willie Stark and his sister, Anne Stanton. All The King’s Men becomes an exploration into the nature of evil and corruption in politics –when all are guilty, none are above reproach. Thus there are remarkable dangers inherent in populist leaders. And behind every noble king is a knave (or a “hatchet man”) like Jack Burden.

Interestingly enough, I enjoyed the 1949 film version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel more than the book itself (click here to read my review of the 1949 film). The story of the downfall of Willie Stark is dark and compelling –impressive in scope– but stylistically the novel descends from a particular Faulknerian modernist strain that can be a challenge to track for the less sophisticated reader (like myself). It contains long wandering diatribes that have a tendency to burden the reader with too much abstraction. I wanted to enjoy reading All The King’s Men far more than I actually did while reading it.


Here are some memorable quotations from the novel that should hopefully offer a glimpse of Robert Penn Warren’s verbose style:

“It [the boss’s house] looked like those farmhouses you ride by in the country in the middle of the afternoon, with the chickens under the trees and the dog asleep, and you know the only person in the house is the woman who has finished washing up the dishes and has swept the kitchen and has gone upstairs to lie down for half an hour and has pulled off her dress and kicked off her shoes and is lying there on her back on the bed in the shadowy room with her eyes closed and a strand of her hair still matted down on her forehead with the perspiration. She listens to the flies cruising around the room, then she listens to your motor getting big out on the road, then it shrinks off into the distance and she listens to the flies. That was the kind of house it was” (33).

“…maybe you cannot ever really walk away from the things you want most to walk away from” (66).

“…it is possible that fellows like Willie Stark are born outside of luck, good or bad, and luck, which is what about makes you and me what we are, doesn’t have anything to do with them, for they are what they are from the time they first kick in the womb until the end. And if that is the case, then their life history is a process of discovering what they really are, and not, as for you and me, sons of luck, a process of becoming what luck makes us” (94).

“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying” Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go when you grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. It was just where I went” (405-406).

“…there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all” (468).

“So by the summer of this year, 1939, we shall have left Burden’s Landing.
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time”
(661 -closing lines).


The novel’s title is taken from “Humpty-Dumpty,” an old English nursery rhyme that can be traced to the reign of Richard III or Cardinal Wolsey in 16th century England. At any rate, the title is linked to the theme of political rise and subsequent corruption followed by a spectacular fall from grace.

The novel originated in 1936 as a play by Robert Penn Warren called Proud Flesh. In the play, the character of Willie Stark is replaced by Willie Talos (whose name is based on the brutal character of Talus in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 play, The Faerie Queene). Penn Warren called his Talos character “the pitiless servant of the knight of justice” and “the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself.” Ten years after the 1936 play was published, Penn Warren published All The President’s Men, his signature novel. Nearly a half century later, Noel Polk, a Southern academic, took it upon himself to create a “restored” edition of the novel in which Willie Stark is replaced with Willie Talos. The new edition caused quite a stir among literary critics. Apparently it contained significant departures in style from the original. Writing in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates offered the following critique of the revised version:

“…the 1946 text, for all its flaws, is superior to the ‘restored’ text, which primarily restores distracting stylistic tics and the self-consciously mythic name Willie Talos, which Warren had dropped in favour of the more plausible Willie Stark.

That Robert Penn Warren, novelist, poet, essayist, and shrewd literary critic, not only approved the original 1946 edition of his most famous novel but oversaw numerous reprintings through the decades, including a special 1963 edition published by Time Inc with a preface by the author, and did not ‘restore’ any of the original manuscript, and did not resuscitate ‘Willie Talos,’ is the irrefutable argument that the 1946 edition is the one Warren would wish us to read.

That Noel Polk should make a project of ‘restoring’ a text in this way, and that this text should be published to compete with the author-approved text, is unconscionable, unethical, and indefensible.”


The 1947 Pulitzer Prize
1947 was the last year the Pulitzer Prize category was awarded for the best “Novel.” From 1948 onward the title was changed from “Novel” to “Fiction.”

The 1947 Novel Jury was composed of three returning jurists from the previous year. The Jurists were: John Chamberlain, a memorable book reviewer who worked for a variety of publications throughout his career including The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Life, Fortune, Scribner’s, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, and others. He taught Journalism at Columbia University. The other two Novel Jurists were: Maxwell S. Geismar, a Columbia alumnus and teacher at Harvard who became a famous literary critic for a variety of publications including The New York Times Book Review, The New York Herald Tribune, The Nation, The American Scholar, The Saturday Review of Books, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Encyclopedia Britannica and Compton’s Encyclopedia (he also penned a notoriously belligerent critique of Henry James). The third member of the 1947 Novel Jury was Orville Prescott, an esteemed book reviewer for The New York Times for 24 years whose tastes generally leaned toward more conservative novels (i.e. against the grain of Valdimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar). He was a highly regarded book reviewer who became a historian of the Italian Renaissance in his later life.


About Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren (1904-1989) was a fascinating Southern man of letters. He is the only writer to win a Pulitzer in the categories of both Fiction and Poetry (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice). He also won a variety of honors in his lifetime including the Bollingen Prize (a biannual poetry award issued by the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University), the Robert Frost Medal (a poetry award issued by the Poetry Society of America), Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now known as the Poet Laureate), the National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a MacArthur Fellow, the National Medal of Arts, the three aforementioned Pulitzer Prizes, and he delivered the distinguished Jefferson Lecture in 1974 at the invitation of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Robert Penn Warren was born along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. He attended Vanderbilt University and UC Berkeley. He also studied at Yale where he became a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford and receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship. In his early writing career, Penn Warren was associated with the “Southern Agrarians,” a group of writers who extolled the virtues of the agrarian south but he later distanced himself from any defense of racial segregation. He openly defended the Civil Rights Movement. Penn Warren is also often associated with the “New Criticism” movement, a philosophy that encouraged careful close readings of classic texts (the movement was sadly cast into the ash heap with the advent of modern critical theory).

He taught for years at Vanderbilt University and Louisiana State University. Today his home has been converted into a museum known as the Robert Penn Warren House in Prairieville, Louisiana. He was married twice and had two children. In his later years he fled the South and lived in Vermont and Connecticut. He died of prostate cancer in 1989.


Penn Warren, Robert. All The President’s Men. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, New York, 1946 (reprinted in 1974).

Information on Huey Long was provided by several sources, including Ken Burns’s 1986 documentary entitled “Huey Long,” narrated by David McCullough and featuring interviews with a variety of people including Robert Penn Warren.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

On the Definitions, Postulates, and Common Notions of Euclid’s Elements

Euclid’s Elements (“Stoikheîon”) is the foundational text of classical, axiomatic, and deductive geometry (“earth-measurement”). The Elements is composed of thirteen books, each filled with propositions that beautifully unfold a theory of number, shape, proportion, and measurability. The Elements was the essential geomtery textbook for nearly 2,000 years thanks to the preservation efforts of the Byzantines, Arabs, and English. Sadly, the Elements fell out of favor for students in the 20th century and very few, if any, students attempt to summit the extraordinary heights of Euclid in our modern era. The Elements has been cited by every major mathematical and scientific figure including Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Whitehead, Russell, Einstein, and so on.

We know almost nothing about Euclid. The only two things we infer about his life, as referenced by ancient sources (primarily Diogenes Laërtius), is that he lived after Plato (died 347 BC) and before Archimedes (287 BC). He worked or perhaps founded a school in Alexandria, Egypt. Thomas L. Heath surmises that Euclid was originally schooled in Athens under the geometric pupils of Plato (in many ways we can see echoes of Plato found in Euclid’s Elements -recall the mathematical instruction of the boy in Plato’s Meno). Take note of a common mistake: Euclid, the author of the Elements, is distinct from Euclid of Megara who appears in Plato’s Theaetetus.

Euclid appears briefly in Archimedes’s On the Sphere and the Cylinder and also in Apollonius’s Conics. There were other “Elements” books circulating in antiquity by Hippocrates, Leo, and Theudius, but Euclid superseded them all and none of the other books have fully survived into the modern day.

Euclid begins his Elements not with a series of “problems” or “equations” like many math modern textbooks but rather with a list of foundational metaphysical claims: Definitions, Postulates, and Common Notions. The Definitions appear first and a general descent occurs. The Postulates follow the Definitions, and lastly we are offered a list of Common Notions. Things that are common occur last in order of importance.

Definitions
The Definitions are 23 statements (they were later numbered by 16th century editors after the advent of the printing press). The Definitions proceed from small elements to constructions of shapes. They are brief declarations that we can imagine as a response to Socratic questions, “what is…?” The Definitions do not permit a modern conception of the infinite. The first Definition is of a point -an irreducible and indivisible element (“A point is that which has no part”). A point gives us a sense place, perspective, and grounding. A point grants permission to draw a line (“breadthless length”) between two points. Where do we draw these elements? On a surface (“that which has length and breadth only”). A surface is presumed to be flat, unlike modern formulations of elliptical and non-linear geometry (i.e. Lobachevsky). This is evidenced by the final Definition of parallel lines (“straight lines which, being in the same plane and being produced indefinitely in both directions, do not meet one another in either direction”). The assumption is that a) the straight could be produced indefinitely in a hypothetical situation and b) the straight lines are produced on an indefinitely flat plane/surface. This is distinct from modern conceptions of rounded or spherical surfaces upon which to conduct geometric demonstrations. We imagine an ancient geometer demonstrating Euclid’s Definitions in the dirt or on a chalk board.

As the Definitions descend we begin with foundational elements like points and lines (Definitions 1-7), then with Definitions pertaining to proportions between foundational elements like angles (Definitions 8-13), and then Definitions concerning shapes or figures (A figure is defined in Definition 14, Definitions 13-18 concern circles, and Definitions 19-23 concern rectilinear figures). It is worth noting that a plane surface does not appear first in the list of Definitions. Instead human activity (i.e. creating a point and a line) takes precedence over the plane surface. Perhaps Euclid’s Elements was not intended to be translated from the conceptual to the physical world (“earth-measurement”). Perhaps it is meant to be an exploration of the Platonic eidos.

Postulates
While the Definitions are firm and unquestionable, the Postulates are a series of “requests” or “demands” placed upon the reader. They are a demonstration of the authority or authorship of Euclid. The Postulates do not necessarily deductively follow from the Definitions, rather they are five rules offered by Euclid.

The five Postulates begin with three active requests: first that it is possible to “draw” a straight line between any two points; second that it possible to “produce” a finite straight line; and third that it is possible to “describe” a circle with any center and distance. The descent of the Postulates begins with three active possibilities: ‘drawing’ lines between points in practice and ‘producing’ lines as well as ‘describing’ circles in concept.

The fourth Postulate concerns the equality of all right angles (in other words, there are no modern notions of gradation), and the fifth and final Postulate concerns lines that pass through parallel lines at an angle which will meet if produced indefinitely, and that the intersecting lines will meet at interior angles that are less than two right angles.

Common Notions
The Common Notions are the most democratic of Euclid’s metaphysical claims. They are ideas everyone understands -common to everyone. They are visual, whereas the Definitions and Postulates are more conceptual and analytical. There are five Common Notions: the first four Common Notions concern equality, and the fifth defines the “whole” as greater than the parts (i.e. a triangle is not superseded by its lines or points -it is a whole triangle).

Unlike Aristotle who often begins his books with commonly held opinions and then proceeds into nuanced discussions of greater depth which ultimately yield a higher perspective, Euclid begins his Elements in Platonic fashion -answering Socratic questions as if posed to a geometer -“What is a point?” “What is a line?” “What is a plane surface?” “What is a figure?” Thus, Euclid’s book is as much an examination of the human mind as it is a lesson in mathematics.


For this reading I used the wonderful translation of Euclid’s Elements by Thomas L. Heath for Green Lion Press. Mr. Heath was a Cambridge scholar who translated Euclid directly from the original Greek in the early 20th century.

“Crawling Between Earth and Heaven:” A Reading of Hamlet

Hamlet is a deeply puzzling and unsettling play. It remains elusive, alluring, cryptic, macabre, and mysterious: it is Shakespeare’s drama par excellence (contrary to T.S. Eliot’s unimpressive criticism of the play). On the surface, Hamlet is a classic revenge story that mirrors the theatrical works of classical antiquity. However, upon closer investigation Hamlet draws on uniquely modern qualities that are divergent from the works of Aeschylus or Sophocles. In the play, almost as if awakening from a dream, Prince Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his father, a war hero who is also named Hamlet. The elder Hamlet’s ghost is apparently trapped in Christian Purgatory yet he is also familiar with the river Lethe and other classical markers of the underworld (in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom offers the theory that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is actually intended to represent Shakespeare, himself). The ghost claims that while he was poisoned while resting in his orchard and then usurped by his luxurious and incestuous brother, Claudius. We are dropped into the plot of Hamlet approximately two months after the death of the elder Hamlet. In that short timespan Claudius (Prince Hamlet’s Uncle) has been crowned king of Denmark and he has wedded the widowed queen, Gertrude (Prince Hamlet’s mother). Prince Hamlet has returned home from his education in Wittenberg (Northern, Germany). He is forbidden to return to school. As directed by his father’s ghost, Hamlet’s task is to avenge his father’s death and claim the rightful crown of Denmark.

Horatio, Hamletm and The Ghost by Hnery Fuseli (1789)

Hamlet’s 13th century world is a cosmopolitan hub linking Denmark with France, Germany, Norway, Poland, and England. The geography of the play informs some of its central themes. Hamlet’s homeland of Denmark is a borderland between opposing values (similar to the metaphorical borderland of Scotland in Macbeth or Cyprus in Othello). North of Denmark lies Norway – a heroic nation where King Hamlet won a victory over the elder Fortinbras (the elder Hamlet killed the elder Fortinbras and now Norway is governed by the elder Fortinbras’s feeble brother). Norway is an old world that is comparable to Homer’s Achaea. South of Denmark on the Continent lies Paris, France and Wittenberg, Germany. Paris is a city of fashion -it is where Laertes desires to go (Polonius advises him to be honest with himself before leaving: “to thine own self be true”). Paris is a city of fancy and pleasure, where young men learn the skill of fencing, while in Norway men learn to use the battle-axe. Wittenberg is strongly associated with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. It is the embodiment of the modern world, a world of students and scholarship. Wittenberg is linked with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -the sycophantic young scholars and friends of Hamlet. Norway is the fringe, it is the past; while Paris and Wittenberg represent the future. Meanwhile, Denmark is caught between these two polarities: the old world and the new world. The frustrated and restless youth of Denmark feel compelled to go elsewhere, away from Denmark, particularly to mainland Europe. This cosmopolitanism of the Renaissance world stands in opposition to classical notions of commitment to one single polis (i.e. patriotism). Lastly we learn of England -the place where Hamlet is sent to die (the unnamed king of England owes Claudius a favor). However, Hamlet escapes while en route to England and instead Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed in England. Ironically, Shakespeare associates England with death in Hamlet.

Why would Shakespeare choose Denmark as the primary setting of Hamlet instead of England? Is there something uniquely illustrative about Denmark? The Danes were once the fearsome raiders of medieval England. Their viking longboats were the terror of river towns. However, Denmark as featured in Hamlet is no longer the expansionist regime of bygone years. Now, it struggles to be sure of itself and its own kingship is easily usurped. The contemporaneous English context of Hamlet also informs the setting of the play. Prior to the rule of King James I in England, Queen Elizabeth’s court was also elderly and cautious, neither aggressive nor expansionist -England was not yet a great power like France, the Hapsburgs of Spain, or the Ottoman Empire. This same tension between aging leadership and active young men is apparent in the play. The court of Denmark is elderly and there is some discussion about whether Denmark should pursue a policy of diplomacy, expansionism, or war. The central problem of an indecisive and elderly ruling class is: what to do with thumotic and rivalrous young men? How should leaders direct the energetic youth outward toward public good? The goal is to prevent young men from becoming destructive -to prevent them from seeking private revenge and personal gain. At any rate, King James I’s mother (Mary Queen of Scots) was married to the murderer of her husband (he was murdered in his garden much like the elder Hamlet in the play). Also James I’s wife was Anne of Denmark and Norway (Denmark and Norway were united as one single country at this time). James and Anne were married in Oslo and honeymooned at Elsinore Castle (the primary setting of Hamlet). Shakespeare is thus directing the court of James I to pay attention to particular dilemmas in Hamlet that echo the challenges facing 16th and 17th century England (as well as universal questions pertaining to political philosophy).

In the same way that Denmark represents a confluence of opposing worlds, Hamlet is also the locus for a variety of tensions: classical and modern, pagan and Christian, Orthodox and Reform. In light of these tensions, Prince Hamlet is a troubling hero. He represents an exploration into (and perhaps an inversion of) the classical heroic archetype. In Hamlet, the outward battle has turned inward. Hamlet is a prince who is called to exact revenge on a usurper (his uncle Claudius) and claim the rightful throne of Denmark, but in a modern context he finds the classical idea of revenge deeply troubling. In a decidedly Christian world, where souls are immortal, what profit is it to kill Claudius if his soul will simply be sent to heaven or perhaps purgatory? Should Hamlet simply ‘turn the other cheek’ to his nemesis? Can Denmark even be redeemed? In Act III scene iii, Hamlet finds an open moment to kill Claudius. He sneaks into Claudius’s room but just before committing the deed he stops himself because Claudius is praying. Claudius is on his knees asking for divine forgiveness of his sins, and thus by killing Claudius, Hamlet would merely send Claudius’s soul straight to heaven – and in this way the modern “conscience does make cowards of us all.” Instead, Hamlet must take into account vengeance on Claudius’s soul. This is an entirely distinct concept from the vengeance Achilles exacts on Hector in Homer’s Iliad where vengeance on Hector’s body is all Achilles desires. The immortal soul, in Shakespeare, emerges as a modern concept. The great difficulty, however, is in seeing the true intent of one’s soul without ‘shuffling off this mortal coil.’ Hence, why there is so much sneaking around, hiding, and scheming in Hamlet. There is a desire to reveal what is deeply hidden (i.e. “catch the conscience of the King” when characters like the aging counsellor, Polonius, hide behind a curtain not unlike Gyges in Herodotus’s Histories). Thus, Hamlet feigns madness in order to truly conceal his own personal intentions.

At any rate, despite his inner quandary Hamlet is not a wimp (contra Goethe’s assertion). Hamlet kills nearly half the characters in the play whether directly or indirectly. He has thumos -he is a political man. Similar to the political situation in Macbeth, in Hamlet a group of leaders led by Claudius plans to appoint Hamlet as the inheritor of the throne of Denmark but Hamlet is unsatisfied with this arrangement (“Sir, I lack advancement”). His standards of a political hero are classical, and thus he looks to Norway for courage because his home state of Denmark has lately become “rotten” and ruled by an aging gerontocracy (notice how many errors of judgment and false predictions Polonius makes in the play).

Hamlet is not a one-dimensional classical figure. He is a popular prince among the people of Denmark (hence why Claudius cannot simply have him executed). He is an unusually thoughtful hero, capable of examining things from multiple perspectives. He is not a single-minded avenger like Laertes (son of the old counsellor Polonius -note: Laertes was also the name of Odysseus’s father) and yet Hamlet is also distinct from his good friend, Horatio, who calls himself “more an antique Roman than a Dane” (his name is a combination of two Latin words ratio “reason” and orator or “speaker”). In many ways, Horatio is the most crucially important character in the play. He stands alongside Hamlet during the most critical scenes in the play and he is also one of the few characters to survive to the end of the play (he tries to commit suicide but Hamlet begs him not to). Hamlet’s character is somehow split between these two figures: Laertes and Horatio. Hamlet’s tragedy is that he cannot simply embrace one or the other. He is the tragedy of modern or Renaissance man -a man who tries to be too many things all at once and becomes trapped in paralysis. The crux of Hamlet is an interrogation of the possibility of a philosopher king in a Christian/modern context (i.e. a synthesis of a theoretical and practical kingship). Shakespeare seems to offer an example of a modern heroic warrior king in Henry V, yet even King Henry V faces the problem of the church -an established religion of peace which competes for authority with the expansionist state. The impossibility of Plato’s modern philosopher king becomes a tragic impossibility in Shakespeare. There is hope in Horatio, a man with Greco-Roman virtues in the modern world who doubts the fanciful claims of modern theology (“…there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”). However, Horatio is not destined for kingship.

The great hope of the Renaissance was to synthesize two antithetical value systems: Christian and Classical. In an effort to examine this tension, Shakespeare offers us Hamlet -a very modern European, who is dropped into a Norse feudal saga with a twist: Hamlet is tasked with a supernatural quest for vengeance and requital. Hamlet admires the classical virtues of his father, yet he is also restrained by what he has learned in Wittenberg (not least of which concerns the Protestant Reformation). He is constrained and haunted by notions of a life after death. Meanwhile, Denmark has embraced a secular court. There are no bishops or archbishops like those found in Shakespeare’s History plays wherein the church emerges as a troublesome political force contra the warrior kings of England. While in Hamlet the state of Denmark is not beholden to the church, Hamlet explicitly agrees with the theological doctrine that the world is fallen and sinful. This causes him to have a problem with politics. Everywhere he looks he sees corruption. He believes women are inherently corrupt -a product of ‘original sin’ and he calls Ophelia a harlot and commands her to “get thee to a nunnery!” Women are either chaste nuns or licentious whores according to Hamlet. In this way, virtue for Hamlet is akin to absolute sexual purity. Indeed, Hamlet possesses a certain type of absolutism that is not present in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. This view of virtue also causes Hamlet to despise everything around him, including his own country. Hamlet is a modern thinking man and he longs for the monastic or ascetic ideal (he embraces a Christian interpretation of a Roman appropriation of Greek things). The irony of Hamlet is that he is a modern Christian man but he is also aware of the tension between ancients and moderns, and he embraces certain Homeric virtues as well. In fact, Homeric epithets are found throughout Hamlet (around the time of Hamlet’s first performance George Chapman had just completed the first English translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, circa the 1590s). At any rate, Hamlet finds it disgraceful that the task is left to him to restore order to his chaotic and fallen world (in The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche likens Hamlet to the Dionysian man). Hamlet’s disposition is somewhat philosophical -he resents the custom of his own people (particularly Claudius’s heavy drinking) and he despises the whole of humanity itself:

“What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason, how infinite in
faculty! 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: no nor woman neither…”
(Act II scene ii -Hamlet speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)

In his Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud links Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Sophocles’s Oedipus cycle, however in many ways the better contrast is between Shakespeare and Aeschylus. While Oedipus becomes tragically aware of his horrifying circumstance at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus, Hamlet becomes aware of his situation at the beginning of the play. In a certain light, Hamlet is better understood as Shakespeare’s response to Aeschylus’s Oresteia. In Aeschylus, we find a tale about the tragic cycle of revenge. Orestes returns home from exile to avenge his father, Agamemnon, who has been murdered and usurped by Clytemnestra (Orestes’s mother) and her lover Aegisthus. Whereas in Aeschylus’s Oresteia we are offered a deus ex machina in the form of Athena delivering a trial to release Orestes from his guilt, in Hamlet no such divine trial arrives to save the hero.

Hamlet spends a great deal of time contemplating his future actions, even though his actions will depend on a veiled illusion whether it be supernatural or not (Samuel Taylor Coleridge dismisses Hamlet as a flawed man who simply thinks too much, however this is far too simplistic an assessment). Hamlet is a man of thought who is contemplating actions (i.e. he embodies the conflict between thought and action), but the difficulty in the play is that it incorporates a vision of classical heroism (i.e. a man of action) coupled with a Christian critique of that heroism (a man of thought). His inner dilemma leads to stasis and eventually nihilism -it becomes an ontological question: ‘to be or not to be.’ Is it better to be and simply suffer at the hands of his enemies? Or else take up arms against a sea of troubles and surely die? But what is death if life merely continues on and on into a future world? Either way Hamlet will end up in heaven, purgatory, or hell. In contemplating the macabre, Hamlet notes that all men must die and disintegrate into mere “dust” -even the skull of Sir Yorick, the late court jester. Despite being a man of “infinite jest” Yorick’s finitude is likened to the meaningless sophistic trappings of Osric, a current Danish courtier. All of life becomes tragic for Hamlet (he notes the beauty of something anatomical like a skull). Beauty is ugly and life is empty for Hamlet.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852

Hamlet also explores the problem of suicide. Does Ophelia commit suicide? In Act V scene i the two gravediggers debate the merits of a Christian burial for Ophelia. They decide that if she had intentionally ended her own life, then she does not deserve a Christian burial (the key question is whether she knowingly drowned herself -the possession of knowledge is a fluid problem throughout the play). In contrast in the classical world, suicide was sometimes the honorable thing to do (i.e. the suicide of Ajax; see Sophocles’s Ajax). However in the modern Christian world, suicide is a sin. Since there is no honor in suicide Hamlet must find another way out of his problems. The beginning of his “to be or not to be” soliloquy is a praise of the easiness and simplicity of the Pagan world. It begins with the idea of death in the ancient world, with echoes of Socrates and Cicero. The end of life in the ancient world meant the end of everything: ‘the end of heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks the Flesh is heir to’ -but things change in the modern world. Life truly begins after death and we perchance to dream in “the undiscovered country.” The Christian notion of an afterlife is described as a ‘calamity’ by Hamlet. If life never truly ends, what is the point of the politics of revenge?

“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: to die, to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,

The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of dispised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy Orisons
Be all my sins remember’d”
(Act III scene i)

In this way Hamlet is a play about modern reformulations of heroism. The politics of Hamlet are guided by supernatural revelation coupled with a particular conception of the afterlife. Everything in Hamlet’s world is haunted by a vision of the next world. It makes the world appear to be irredeemably corrupt. Ultimately, Hamlet chooses to “take up arms against a sea of troubles” in an effort to end them, knowing that he marches toward his own death -there is not even redemption through art for Hamlet. His play “The MouseTrap,” which is a version of The Murder of Gonzaga, is not the dramatic conclusion of the play. It merely reveals Claudius’s guilt. Instead Hamlet must end his troubles by fighting to the death in a farcical parody of a duel (fencing is a more delicate way to settle disputes than, say, a proper sword-fight). No characters die by means of violence at the conclusion. Instead they die by trickery (i.e. poisoning). It is not a hero’s death and Denmark is not redeemed -perhaps Hamlet saw this fatal end coming.

Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard by Eugène Delacroix (1839)

At the conclusion, Hamlet’s Denmark is contrasted with Fortinbras’s Norway. Both young men have uncles who have claimed the kingship of their respected countries. For Hamlet the battle has turned inward on his own country, whereas Fortinbras extends outward conquering the worthless lands of Poland (against his enfeebled uncle’s demands). The Norwegian army has been allowed full rights to march across Danish lands toward Poland and the army of Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore just as Hamlet dies. With his dying breath Hamlet offers his “vote” for Fortinbras, his rival, to take the throne of Denmark (the message is conveyed by Horatio to Fortinbras). As is often the case in Shakespeare, the final speech in the play is delivered by the highest ranking person: in this case it is Fortinbras -a foreign man who will be the future king of Denmark (hopefully the accession will solve Denmark’s ‘rottenness’). Hamlet is given a hero’s burial by the Norwegian army, though few readers of Shakespeare will suggest that Hamlet is truly a noble hero -he is the tragedy of modern man, paralyzed while “crawling between earth and heaven.”


For this reading I used the impressive Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet along with Paul Cantor’s excellent lectures.

On Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

“Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” -fictional proverb

The year was 1948. The New Yorker Magazine was celebrating its 23rd anniversary when it published a disturbing little story called “The Lottery.” The story was to cause decades of controversy. At the time, The New Yorker apparently did not distinguish between works of fact or fiction and, as a consequence, they received more angry letters than any other publication. “The Lottery” was written by Shirley Jackson, a troubled writer of horror stories who hailed from the Bay Area before settling in the town of North Bennington, Vermont to start a family. North Bennington is a tiny town in southern Vermont and it bears a great deal of resemblance to the town in “The Lottery.”

The story begins in a beautiful, bucolic summer scene:

“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

However, the horrifying nature of “The Lottery” occurs precisely because it takes place in a comfortable, safe, familiar setting: summertime in small-town America, in a village not much larger than 300 people. The story distorts this feeling of security and monochrome innocence. By the end, the truth about the lottery is revealed and a gruesome or macabre sense of dread overpowers the reader. In a crude plot twist, the townsfolk gather and draw lots (i.e. a “lottery”) but unlike in a typical lottery, nobody wants to win this contest. Like a heartless pagan ritual, the townsfolk of “The Lottery” gather each summer to select one person to be stoned to death, perhaps to purge the town of evil. The story ends as a woman known as ‘Mrs. Hutchinson’ is selected to be killed. The frenzied townsfolk quickly gather piles of stones while Mrs. Hutchinson screams, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!” The story concludes just as she is about to be stoned to death.

Upon its controversial publication, “The Lottery” spawned an onslaught of public criticism. Almost immediately, The New Yorker received hundreds of angry letters decrying its portrayal of a cult-like small town America. To add some context “The Lottery” was published shortly after the end of World War II, on the heels of the Cold War and the accompanying cultural anxieties related to impending nuclear warfare. In a world where nuclear warfare was an ever-present possibility, a return to innocence in Middle America captured the Zeitgeist however “The Lottery” shockingly localized some of these anxieties and redirected these fears inward toward the safest places in American culture.


Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery,” The New Yorker, June 26, 1948.