If Hamlet is not about the hero if inaction—the static hero, as developed eloquently by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest—then what is it about? While at dinner recently with two friends—one a former English major, one a current English professor—an alternative view was put forward (by the professor): the main theme of the play, i.e. the only theme that the play comes close to resolving, is the tension between interior and exterior worlds.
While Hamlet ponders Camusian questions, every other character ponders earnestness and artiface (e.g. is Hamlet really insane, or just pretending?), and indeed, even “To be or not to be?” is at heart a test of the authenticity of the inner dialogue. What is the value of private suffering?
If DFW was correct, and sincerity really is the gravest taboo in contemporary America, then the themes of Hamlet remain useful—or perhaps even critical—in the daily modern task of producing or finding meaning in a society at once alienating and also jncreasingly intrusive. How do we reconcile living under a government that cares less and less about us, while simultaneously wanting to know more and more about our privately held beliefs?
One might push back on this idea by saying that, if anything, the election of Trump shows that people are finally tired of cynicism. After all, how much more naive could one get than “Make America great again”? But for Trump, “telling it like it is” is but one part of an elaborate and ostentatious show. His campaign was not merely a diversion, but rather the epitome of American culture. In a reality-TV, horror-show society, where it’s more important to play a role (to bring it back to Shakespeare) than to consider the validity of our inner frailties, it’s no wonder that irony and entertainment ultimately prevailed. For the outward kitsch of folksy populism is but a mask for the people’s inner shame, vulnerability, and fear.