Schools of Thought

The Madness of Consensus

1The epigraph to the call for papers for this issue of M/C Journal is taken from Act 2 Scene II of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Prince of Denmark. As it appears in the call for papers, the referenced fragment of Hamlet’s speech, ‘for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’ (Shakespeare 75), could lead a reader to suspect that morality derives from reasoned thought in the play and that, according to the speaker, the object of moral judgment is neither good nor bad prior to such thought. Spoken in the context of a disagreement between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about whether Denmark is a prison, the epigraph supports this reading; Hamlet believes that Denmark is a prison, and the two courtiers do not. However, consideration of the entire passage from which the epigraph is taken suggests a subtlely different interpretation. In response to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s assertion that Denmark is not a prison, Hamlet remarks:


Why, then ‘tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. (Shakespeare 75)

3Rather than prompting the previous interpretation, a reading of the entire passage reveals Hamlet describing a sort of relativism. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have their point of view, and Hamlet has his. Hamlet labels neither point of view good or bad here. So why does he introduce the language of morality at all? Why doesn’t he say, ‘Why, then, ‘tis none to you: to me it is a prison,’ instead, omitting the fragment that comprises the epigraph entirely? What function does the epigraphic fragment perform? Addressing these questions in the context of the discussion occurring in Hamlet can provide insight into the contemporary intellectual concerns posed by this call for papers, in particular, the cultural cost of employing a hierarchical or bureaucratic morality to guide determinations, especially consensual ones, about pursuing or discarding specific lines of inquiry.

4Scene II follows Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost, an event that coincides with the onset of the Prince’s perceived madness. Unsure of its true cause, the King and Queen enlist Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to visit Hamlet and to discover the reason for his recent, strange behavior. The King and Queen promise the two friends money, social recognition, and public appreciation in exchange for their detective work. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree to this plan; in fact, once they contract with the crown, they are obligated to carry it out. Their conversation with Hamlet not only fails to produce the desired result but also makes some turns that actually undermine the King and Queen’s purpose. Not only does Hamlet appear more rational than the King and Queen suspect but he also seems quite willing to perform madness, thus meeting the expectations of his audience, in order to speak in an uncensored and unmannerly fashion. In addition, Hamlet only mentions ‘bad’ once, following the passage cited above, in reference to his recent dreams, which Guildenstern notes, whether good or bad, ‘indeed are ambition’ (Shakespeare 75). Their conversation with Hamlet produces other associations, however, between moral judgment and ambition, ambition and dreams, dreams and shadows, and shadows and social relations. This chain of associations builds connection between the worth, and rightness, of any given judgment and the social role of the judging individual.

5The passage cited above, which embeds the epigraph to this call for papers, is constructed in such a way that it is unclear whether significance attaches to the moral conclusion resulting from thought or the process of thinking itself, which ends up supplanting a thing’s neutral, objective existence with a subjectively-derived judgment of a thing’s worth. In either case, who thinks matters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not authoritative; Hamlet, although considered mad, is. When he closes the passage under consideration with ‘to me it is a prison’ (Shakespeare 75), he makes this assertion confident that what Denmark is to him carries more weight than what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deem it. In part, his confidence derives from knowing that, as outsiders and employees of the crown, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not in the position to make a public statement of this sort. Additionally, Hamlet’s words are empowered, worthy as words to hear and to heed, even if mad, worthy because he speaks them, and worthy for the moral judgments they convey.

6As set up in Act 2 Scene II of the play, the rhetorical situation presents a dialectical communication act that exposes the tension between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s dialogue, which conforms to the constraints of unauthoritative, but purchased, speech, and Hamlet’s, which represents the allowable excesses of authoritative, though suspiciously irrational, speech. The former must presume the literalness of language; for instance, Denmark is not a prison, if prison refers to the physical space of incarceration. The latter, unbound to the literalness of language, can use language figuratively. Denmark is a prison to Hamlet, not in the restrictive sense to which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern refer, but metaphorically. Hamlet’s figurative play, connected to his authoritative role and to the permission his role affords him to go crazy without threat of ending up in prison, leads to an interpretive moment, which would have undone the conventions of this rhetorical situation had Hamlet not cut it short. If he had conceded that beggars comprise the social body, and therefore speak with authority, and that monarchs exist in their shadow, guided by the linguistic precedents beggars either perform or circulate, rather than insisting that such an idea exemplifies his inability to reason, Hamlet would have not only justified his own deauthorization but also given up his rights both to perform madness and to use language metaphorically. In other words, if Hamlet had permitted himself to push his own interpretation a bit farther, he would have disclosed the artificiality of the socio-rhetorical conventions that guarantee his words an audience, a disclosure he absolutely refuses to put into words – that is, literally.

7To use metaphorical language, then, although a privilege that follows from social status and the authority that status affords, permits the speaker to avoid accountability of the sort that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must demonstrate, specifically, to the King and the Queen. Hamlet, for instance, does not have to admit that his authority is an accident of birth; however, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the audience for the play know that it is his inheritance. Hamlet does not have to say to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is a thinker, and they are not; although he does, in effect, when he utters the fragment that is the epigraph to this call for papers. Subordinated to the phrase that begins with ‘Why, then ’tis none to you,’ the epigraph might be rewritten as: ‘when you think, you think badly and come to the wrong conclusions.’ In other words, Hamlet does not trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to say anything other than what they are literally expected to say, what is conventional for them to say, and what they are paid by the King and Queen to say. Hamlet’s thinking, while apparently mad, still functions, authoritatively, yet there is no evidence provided in the play for the audience to know, without a doubt, that Denmark is or is not a prison. The truth, which must be interpreted, and therefore becomes a product of thinking, strictly follows from the rank of the speaker. The truth of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s speech derives from the extent to which it suits their station and their role and from the extent to which is satisfies the contractual situation compelling it; the truth does not follow from the content of their words. Rather, since they are paid to discover the source of Hamlet’s madness, their words must serve this economic purpose. The truth of Hamlet’s speech is also measured by its fit to his role. However, his role insures that an audience will attend to and interpret the meaning of the words he speaks. The truth of the rhetorical situation represented in Act 2 Scene II, then, is that the speech following from Hamlet’s position matters more than that uttered by paid courtiers; in fact, his is the only speech that means anything at all beyond simply marking social location or fulfilling an economic transaction.

8The epigraph suggests, then, not that there is a method for discriminating between good and bad ideas as such, but that an audience receives all ideas relative to the social role of the speaker. Those spoken by actors who use language in ways unfitting their social roles are unimaginable in Hamlet, unless, of course, they have inherited authority, as Hamlet has, and are thought mad. Consequently, speakers act responsibly toward their audiences, playing their parts, speaking their scripted lines. Clearly, Act 2 Scene II teaches readers that the objective or moral quality of any particular idea has less significance than does the recognised authority of the speaker and his or her adherence to socio-rhetorical conventions delimiting language exchange in particular contexts.

9The world in 2005 bears little or no resemblance to the world that Shakespeare inhabited; however, this lesson still holds true. Today, the free exchange of intellectual ideas—thought to be the primary activity, for instance, of professors and students on college and university campuses—is constrained in ways similar to those on display in Act 2 Scene II. Those who have less authority might pursue lines of inquiry, both in classrooms and in scholarship, that follow up on, apply, or restate authoritative positions. They are at less risk for receiving a low grade, for being rejected or criticised by their colleagues, and for losing their jobs if they do so. This type of teaching and learning, writing and research creates a sort of consensus, sometimes referred to as schools of thought, that at their best challenge and at their worst prohibit imagination. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could not imagine uttering the words, ‘Denmark is a prison.’ Their language and their structures of imagination are restricted by their economic and their social roles and, because of both, the expectations of their audience. In 2005, those in all social positions can imagine speaking such a critique; however, some might elect not to, self-censoring solely for the purpose of achieving one personal goal or another—a grade, professional recognition, or promotion. Hamlet, unable to imagine Denmark as anything but a prison, takes on an historical burden, transferred to him by his father’s ghost, that requires a break with convention, and with the rhetorical expectations of someone occupying his role, hence his presumed madness. While to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, economic survival requires preserving consensual thinking; according to Hamlet, it will lead to the end of his life, to the demise of Denmark, to the conclusion of Danish history. It is Hamlet’s duty, then, and that of all contemporary intellectuals, to think therefore to imagine, at risk of being thought mad, beyond consensus to sustain the production of ideas and history, the moral ingredient of thoughtful exchange, and to prevent the alternative, that is, the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The interjection that is the epigraph to this call for papers conveys as much to a postmodern, intellectual audience. Ideas have power in Hamlet’s world, no less chaotic, violent, and presumptively immoral than the world in 2005. It is a bad idea, a sort of madness actually, to act, then as now, as if language primarily functions bureaucratically, for the connected purposes of enforcing consensus, or canonicity, as a morally good idea, and of consolidating personal gain, as the sole measure of ethical conduct.


10All quotations appearing in this essay have been taken from Act 2 Scene II of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Prince of Denmark. Ed. Willard Farnham. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. 74-6.