What Would Hamlet Do?–For One Thing, Not Ask Silly Questions Like “What Would Hamlet Do?”

Who says Twitter is useless? Daniel Craig for one, but he’s wrong. It was via Twitter that I came across this superb piece by Jenny Davidson in the current Bookforum. Davidson has some astute things to say about the currently popular idea that literature should not only have some sort of practical application, it should serve as a guide to life. I’m much enamored of her skepticism because this idea is one of those I am determined to refute in this blog—both generally, and with specific reference to Shakespeare.

For reading Shakespeare as a Guide to Life has been acceptable, even fashionable, long before English prose was blighted by Alain de Botton. (Davidson had me at her parenthesis, “if Proust really can change my life, why dally with de Botton?”) My book proposal instructor periodically insisted on it, to the point where she just denied or refused to process what I was saying when I told her it was absolutely the wrong way to read Shakespeare. I’m sure she’s not alone. I’ll be coming back to this issue again—and probably again—most circumstantially when we consider Henry V and the use some have tried to make of it. There is no more critical question, for literature as a whole, not just Shakespeare, than “Why read?”—a question that would never have been asked seriously as recently as fifteen years ago.

Davidson emphatically makes the point that reading literature as Guide to Life is wrong. For now I’ll just give you a catch phrase: Shakespeare is not Dr. Phil. Reading Shakespeare is not an occasion for extracting neat, packaged “lessons” about life, love, or lawyering. (The fact that he is so quotable obscures this.) If Shakespeare had meant to write an advice manual, he would have written an advice manual. He was demonstrably well acquainted with the two main models for such a manual widely available in Renaissance Europe, Machiavelli and Montaigne. It’s generally accepted that he was familiar with Castiglione as well.

I’m particularly glad to see Davidson’s acerbic analysis of William Deresiewicz’s book, A Jane Austen Education. Jane Austen is no more a peddler of Life Lessons than Shakespeare (isn’t it a fool’s errand to try to extract simple, straightforward moral messages from, as Davidson puts it, “a body of work as notable for its obliquities, ironies, and omissions as for the advice that might be inferred from its pages”?), and Davidson’s takedown of Deresiewicz’s attempt to make her into one is the more effective for being fairer than I might have made it. And before you interject: “But Diamond Jim, you’re being unfair now, you haven’t read Deresiewicz’s book,” I’ll admit that I haven’t and don’t intend to. But I have read, and almost blogged here once before, this piece in Slate in which Deresiewicz attacks Marjorie Garber’s recent book, The Use and Abuse of Literature. I haven’t read Garber’s book and have no plans to do so either; apart from her invaluable Shakespeare After All, the most useful extant book that covers all the plays, her writing can be infected with postmodernism. But Deresiewicz wins no friends with his self-aggrandizing opening, setting himself up as Garber’s freshman teacher, particularly considering that his positive views are right out of the literature as self-help manual:

Literature is “useful” because it wakes us up from the sleepwalk of self-involvement—of plans, anxieties, resentments, habits, the fog that clings to our eyes as we stumble through the day, stumble through our lives—and shows us the world, shows us ourselves, shows us life and experience and the reality of other people, and forces us to think about them all. The pleasure of serious literature is not escape or fantasy, it is this very shiver of consciousness, this troubling exhilaration. Reading is thinking and feeling, both at once and both together, simultaneous and identical. Pleasure is use, use pleasure.


  1. There are certainly days I stumble through with a fog clinging to my eyes, but the older I get the less I find I can drink, so it’s not the problem it was—and even in my younger days reading is not what cured it.
  2. I would have thought that the best way to understand “the reality of other people” is to get out and deal with real other people, not to stay at home reading about unreal other people. As a (lousy) Buddhist I guess I’m committed to this position, though Buddhists are hardly the only people who think that literature falsifies reality; a certain Plato comes to mind, and novelists themselves have been on top of this issue since there have been novels, from the narrative games of Tristram Shandy to the “non-story stories” of Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe.
  3. There are better ways to get a “shiver of consciousness” than reading. If Deresiewicz is unaware of them, I am profoundly sorry for him.
  4. Finally, as for “pleasure is use, use pleasure,” who can resist thinking: “I know John Keats. I’ve read John Keats. Mr. Deresiewicz, you are no John Keats.” What does “pleasure is use, use pleasure” even mean?

Am I being hard on Deresiewicz? No more than he deserves. What’s going on in this quote, after all? He’s giving us a bog-standard instrumental justification for reading. No surprise, since he has a literary self-help book to push. The rest of us might wonder whether any such justification is possible. Davidson asks: Why read de Botton when you can read Proust? One might as well ask, if Deresiewicz is right: Why read Jane Austen when you can read Deepak Chopra? More generally, any justification for literature in terms of something else has imperatively and first of all to answer the question: Why not just do that other thing?

Deresiewicz doesn’t show the slightest sense that he’s wasting our time unless he deals with this issue. But if you can’t answer the question, you quickly arrive at the position that literature has no justification outside itself—Garber’s position, however infelicitously she may express it. That’s the position I considered at the end of a previous post; when I come to defend it in greater detail, I’ll explain why it does not require us to accept the absurd view that literature has nothing to do with the world outside itself.

Actually, we can see Deresiewicz making this point without realizing it, and bring this discussion around to Shakespeare to conclude. He offhandedly says:

We can (and should) debate what Hamlet has to say about the moral content of violence, or the burden of the past, or yes, the nature of language, but when we do we’re making claims about the play’s ideas about that which lies outside itself.

There’s a risk of confusion here. I doubt that anybody, not even the most rabid New Critic or Critical Theorist at the height of those movements, ever thought that literature has nothing to do with “that which lies outside itself.” But it doesn’t follow that we read Hamlet to learn about “the moral content of violence” or “the nature of language” as if Shakespeare were Hannah Arendt or Wittgenstein. Any propositions you care to extract from Hamlet about such matters are not the reason you read Hamlet. If you are reading Shakespeare for this reason, your results are likely to be, as Davidson puts it, banal. What sorts of Life Lessons are we supposed to draw from Hamlet? “Don’t kill your brother and turn around to marry his widow, at least unless you also take care of yor wimpy nephew”?

No. You read (let alone watch) Hamlet for an indissoluble experience from which those propositions are an abstraction. “Why read Hamlet?” isn’t a much different question than “Why climb Everest?”: “Because it’s there” is about as good an answer to both. Reading the classics is always better than not reading the classics, as Italo Calvino said and as I referenced in an earlier post, and if you really want a more interesting reason perhaps the problem is with you rather than the classics.

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