Goffman versus Hamlet: On the Theatrical Metaphor

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Part One: Ghosts

If Stephen Greenblatt is to be believed, Shakespeare “staged ghosts . . . in a spirit of self-conscious theatricality.”  These are “figures in whom it is possible to believe precisely because they appear and speak only onstage.” 1 But even so, even onstage, it’s uncanny, frightening, when the dead speak. “Remember me,” cries the Ghost, and Hamlet, dutiful and horrified son, promises to do nothing but.  “I have sworn’t” (1.5. 91, 112). 2 Having wiped from “the book and volume of [his] brain” (103) all “trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there” (99-101), Hamlet knows his life is no longer his own:  “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right” (186-7). I say “no longer,” because for a Renaissance prince, Hamlet seems weirdly modern—I know, modern, yet again? Not again! Please!—in the way he disdains the requirements of his position, of family and state, by studying in Wittenberg and, especially, by courting Ophelia.  Laertes, one will recall, is scandalized she takes the prince’s professions of love seriously, reminding her “his will is not his own. / He may not, as unvalued persons do, / Carve for himself, for on his choice depends / The safety and health of this whole state” (1.3.17-20). Polonius is more caustic: “Lord Hamlet is a prince out of thy star. This must not be” (2.2. 138-39). It must not, but Hamlet chafes under the requirements of role.  Not theatrical role.  Social role.  O cursed spite.

In “The Interaction Order,” his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, held in 1982, Erving Goffman begins by alluding self-deprecatingly—or rather hostilely—to his charge, to his role as President, O cursed spite: 

A sociologist you have selected from a very short list takes to the center of this vasty Hilton field on a hobby horse of his own choosing. (One is reminded that the sociologically interesting thing about Hamlet is that every year no high school in the English-speaking world has trouble finding some clown to play him.) 3

But if the clown playing Hamlet is the sociologist selected from a very short list—and note this clown plays vasty Henry the Fifth, too—what does he do when confronted with the Ghost?  He one-ups the Ghost, becoming him. “Presidential address cancelled,” Randall Collins writes, “Goffman dying.” 4 Writes Goffman,

My expectation, then, was not to publish this talk but to limit it to the precincts in which it was delivered. But in fact, I wasn't there either. What I offer the reader then is vicarious participation in something that did not itself take place. A podium performance, but only readers in the seats. A dubious offering. (1)

Or perhaps not so dubious, thinks Collins, and perhaps the podium performance did take place, since it plays to its own uncanniness, with Goffman “speaking from beyond the grave, as if with a little pride he had created yet another form of discourse” (112). Ghosts exist vividly in theaters, Greenblatt says, and they exist vividly in the pages of the American Sociological Review, Collins says, with readers in the seats, believing.


Part Two: Cruelty

The Ghost appears to Hamlet once more, speaks to him once more, in the closet scene, his staging there creating a macabre family ensemble.  Hamlet has been summoned by his mother – he suspects an interrogation about his staging of “The Mousetrap” – and he offers a brief soliloquy about drinking hot blood and doing bitter business while focusing, however, on his mother, not Claudius: “Let me be cruel, not unnatural. I will speak daggers to her but use none” (3.2. 385-6).  Why?  Why?  This question haunts the ghost, too, who arrives on the scene, or in it, after Hamlet fails to kill Claudius by talking himself out of the deed; after he does speak daggers to his mother and then kills Polonius; and after the Prince berates his mother in unseemly fashion for forty lines or so.  “This visitation,” the Ghost tells Hamlet, no doubt wearily, “Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (3.4.106-107), a purpose, one might recall, to be focused on Claudius: “howsomever thou pursues this act / Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught” (1.5.84-86). Hamlet swore to remember, but he forgot nonetheless.

A Shakespeare Concordance records 102 uses of “cruel” and its variants in the canon.  Two occur in Hamlet, each spoken by Hamlet, first as above, and second in this very scene, the famous line, “I must be cruel only to be kind.”  It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to identify an object for this assertion—the Prince is talking about Polonius, knowing he will “answer well / The death [he] gave him,” but he’s saying “good night,” and repeatedly so, to his mother (3.4.174-175).  The mystery of the line’s addressees coheres with the paradox itself.  Is cruelty ever kind?  Or just cruel?  One might ask Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, or Ophelia, she who “sucked the honey of his musicked vows” (3.1.155).

Or one might ask the students and colleagues of Goffman, who recount the Tales of Goffman. We know more about Goffman’s cruelty than Hamlet’s; what we know about Hamlet’s is circumscribed by five acts. I’m not scientific, or even rigorous, but I’ve yet to read a series of appreciations and evaluations of a major thinker’s work, written upon her or his death, that seem compelled to balance the achievement with, well, if I can quote UrbanDictionary.com, the assholic.  Cruel, wounding, tactless, abrasive, malicious, brutal, strange, odd—the list could go on.  Thomas Scheff describes a continual pattern of hazing, or to put it in better light, testing. 5 Gary Marx recalls Goffman’s saying, over coffee, and after he filed his dissertation, “the best you can hope for is a job in a second rate mid-western state school.” 6 John Lofland tallies a number of Tales, including a remark to a colleague who had been denied tenure, “After all, all of us aren’t good enough to teach here.” 7 Bennett Berger reported that, at conventions, Goffman was known to say, “‘If I can’t find anybody more important to talk with, I’ll come back and talk to you’.” 8 Still, Berger appreciated this “jaunty terrorist with a diffident voice reminding us that, in this world’s bag full-to-bursting with banal sentiment, anyone who says something cruel and true can’t be all bad” (354). Certainly we think Hamlet’s not all bad, even if he thinks he’s cruel and kind, not cruel and true.


Part Three: “You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.”

No, I would not.  How should I presume?  J. Alfred Prufrock, the fearful one, knows he’s meant to be “an attendant lord, one that / will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two.” Still, it’s the attendant lords, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who presume to play upon the Prince; and they die for it.  Cruelty is not the heart of Hamlet’s or Goffman’s mystery, though perhaps cruelty is a smudgy edge of each’s that has gone unappreciated. O cursed spite! Does Hamlet’s cruelty, or Goffman’s, emerge from the perceived cruelty of social role, of the requirements of a society structured so mercilessly?  Roger Abrahams writes in Raritan that “along with Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, Emile Durkheim, and other nice emancipated Jewish boys, Goffman sought to survive the ordeal of encountering Western, Protestant, capitalist manners by exposing them as systematic accretions, as conventions.” 9 Pluck out the mystery of that ordeal.  I cannot. Does it help to know the ordeal is conventional?  I know my answer, but I do not know Goffman’s.  Here’s Greenblatt’s: to conclude Renaissance Self-Fashioning, he found he needed to “bear witness . . . to my overwhelming need to sustain the illusion that I am the principal maker of my own identity” (257). “Stay, illusion . . . . stay,” says the scholar Horatio (1.1.126, 138).

Margreta de Grazia, in Hamlet without Hamlet, thinks plucking out the heart of the prince is mistaken, a disastrous detour, one we’ve followed too long.  Since 1800, scholarship and criticism has been grounded in Hamlet’s psyche, inwardness, subjectivity, interiority, call it—and its effects—what you will, perhaps a “paralyzed Romantic,” as Jonathan Bate does,10 or one who is “too much in the sun of knowledge,” as Simon Crichtley and Jamieson Webster do. 11 De Grazia judges that critical inquiry’s deep plunge “into Hamlet’s psyche [allowed it to discover] an inexhaustible hermeneutic resource from which some of the most brilliant readings in the entire critical tradition have been fashioned.”  Nevertheless, De Grazia claims, these readings are “built on an oversight (and of the play’s premise, no less).” 12 But one wonders if de Grazia’s clearer sight can clear the trope, the metaphor on which these readings are built, because it remains gratifying, still, for critics to follow Coleridge in saying, “I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so....”  Indecisive, thoughtful, focused on oneself, resistant to the social, the institutional, the structural, this—what de Grazia calls Hamlet’s “‘beautiful inwardness’ [which] pulls him away from compromising externals” (17)—is what makes Hamlet modern. Or so we say. But what if the two are yoked together, always, for Hamlet and for each of us?  If so, should we always call one “beautiful” and the other “compromising”?

“Ay, there’s the rub,” says Hamlet (3.1.64). And though the Prince speaks of suicide, he may well be thinking what Perry Anderson was thinking when, in 1983, he fulminated that neither classical Marxism nor its ascendant other, post-structuralism, had provided “a coherent answer” to the “one master-problem” of social theory—“the nature of the relationships between structure and subject in human history and society.” 13 Collins isn’t surprised by this, because what concerns Anderson “is not an explanatory question but an ideological one” or, if you will, a “moral one.” It is an argument to “show that human beings control their own destinies,” and it is part of “the romanticism of left intellectuals at the end of the twentieth century, at a time when they are notably lacking in any effective power in the social world.” 14 This positioning requires the appropriation of the work of scientists like Erving Goffman, accomplished by doing “some violence to their . . . texts,” removing the structural elements of their work, and turning them into “anarchist radicals” or “hippie rebels” (79).

Collins has no truck with such moves. But I’m not ready to say he has plucked out the heart of Goffman’s mystery when he insists that Goffman be interpreted as a scientist, one of a group of micro-sociologists who (as Scheff says) “were quite technical empirical researchers with an apolitical programme” (11). Goffman, it seems, might agree, since he considered the discipline of Psychology irrelevant. Other sociologists do not agree, suggesting that Goffman’s place in the discipline is “a matter of on-going exegesis and debate.”  Already Goffman has been called a symbolic interactionist, a micro-functionalist, a neo-Durkheimian, a structuralist, a deconstructionist, a dramaturgist, an existentialist, and a theorist of power. And a “crafter of charming vignettes.” 15 Paul Atkinson says, simply, “Goffman was a stylist. 16 Yet his writing, for all its virtues (the humor, the irony, the allusions, the metaphor, the parataxis), places him outside his own discipline, and according to Scheff, writing in 2006 as a very sympathetic reader, “Goffman has not contributed to method or empirical evidence as these categories have come to be understood in social science” (6).


Part Four:  “This is I, Hamlet the Dane”

As suggested at the beginning of this essay, Greenblatt believes in limits to the theatrical metaphor. Unclear is whether Goffman does, whether he is interested in scientific explanation or in ideology, morality, an answer to Anderson’s master problem.  Exegesis and debate on this question will continue.  As it will about Hamlet’s self:  does the Prince stop acting, put off the antic disposition, understand the relationship between subject and structure?  Even Goffman would acknowledge that the clown playing Hamlet stops acting, but does Hamlet?  It’s commonplace to say that upon his return to Denmark, the Prince is changed, but explaining why or how is difficult. Is it the sea air? A religious or philosophical insight?  The circumstances—“Being thus benetted round with villains. . .” (5.2.29)? Knowledge that Claudius ordered his murder? (Certainly Horatio seems surprised at this news—“Is’t possible?” [5.2.25].)  Here’s another possibility:  consider, please, that when Hamlet disrupts Ophelia’s funeral, stepping forward into the court assembled at her grave, he does so not with micro-sociological intention but to announce, “This is I, Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.246-7). Consider, too, that when Hamlet explains to Horatio that the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come

not near my conscience.  Their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.
’Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites,

Horatio replies by exclaiming, “Why, what a king is this!” (5.2.57-61). O cursed spite.  I say this: at sea, Hamlet became no longer at sea, understanding that “fashioning oneself and being fashioned by cultural institutions—family, religion, state—[are] inseparably intertwined.” 17 Hamlet understood he didn’t need Greenblatt’s illusion. But too late. That’s his tragedy.

It need not be ours.  Ten years ago, Bruno Latour challenged social critique’s complacency, its insistence on continuing to debunk “illusion,” including that at issue in this essay, even though the critical moves involved now are used by critique’s opponents, whether multi-national corporations or populist conspiracy theorists. 18 Rehearsing moves no longer effective, we’ve become “critical barbarians” (242) cocksure we’re right.  We need a sea change, new moves:

The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution. (246)

Gathering participants, offering care, being cautious, recognizing fragility—these are the tasks of the critic, and even about her own identity.  Be in the world and be responsible to and for it. Act. For these are “matters of concern” (231).


Coda: Ghosts

Carole Lombard speaks from beyond the grave, too, in To Be or Not to Be, a comedy satirizing Nazis and actors and acting and Hamlet, which was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and released in March 1942, two months after Lombard died in a plane crash in the Nevada desert. Much in this film plays to the question at hand in this essay, but, with your indulgence, may I focus on these lines between Lombard, playing Maria Tura, a famous Polish actor and loyal supporter of the Polish underground, and Stanley Ridges, playing the Nazi spy, Professor Siletsky:

T—You want me to be a spy?
S—Now, come, that's rather a crude word.
T—I once played a spy, it was a great success.
I had wonderful notices. It was really an exciting part.
S—Wouldn't it be exciting to play it in real life?
T—I got shot in the last act. I suppose that happens to most spies.
S—My dear Mrs. Tura, we would never dream...
of subjecting anybody as charming as you to danger.
All you’d have to do would be to entertain a little.19

Is that all?  In a letter to the London Review of Books, commenting on Michael Wood’s homage to the film published there in December 2013, Benjamin Letzler points to Orson Welles’s claim that Lombard’s plane was machine-gunned by Nazis because a gaggle of important American physicists were traveling on it. If Welles’s claim is true, writes Leztler, “it seems that Carole Lombard, an actress from Indiana who had been playing a Polish actress working against the Nazis, was killed by Nazi agents for having inadvertently played a physicist.” 20

  • 1. Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001) 195.
  • 2. All citations of Hamlet are from the Arden edition, ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).
  • 3. Erving Goffman, “The Interaction Order: American Sociological Association, 1982 Presidential Address,” American Sociological Review, 48 (1983): 1.
  • 4. Randall Collins, “The Passing of Intellectual Generations:  Reflections on the Death of Erving Goffman,” Sociological Theory 4 (1986): 112.
  • 5. Thomas J. Scheff, Goffman Unbound! A New Paradigm for Social Science (Boulder: Paradigm, 2006) 6-13.
  • 6. Gary T. Marx, “Role Models and Role Distance: A Remembrance of Erving Goffman,” Theory and Society 13 (1984): 660.
  • 7. John Lofland, “Erving Goffman’s Sociological Legacies,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 13 (1984): 20.
  • 8. Bennett M. Berger, “A Fan Letter on Erving Goffman,” Dissent 20 (1973): 354.
  • 9. Roger D. Abrahams, “Pros and Players,” 3 Raritan (1984): 78.
  • 10. Jonathan Bate, The Romantics on Shakespeare (London: Puffin, 1992) 2.
  • 11. Simon Crichtley and Jamieson Webster, Stay, Illusion!  (New York: Pantheon, 2013) 5.
  • 12. Margreta de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007) 5.
  • 13. Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (London: Verso, 1983) 33, 34.
  • 14. Randall Collins, “The Romanticism of Agency/Structure versus the Analysis of Micro/Macro,” Current Sociology 40 (1992): 77, 84, 79, 80, 77.
  • 15. Black Hawk Hancock and Roberta Garner, “Towards a Philosophy of Containment: Reading Goffman in the 21st Century,” The American Sociologist 42 (2011): 318.
  • 16. Paul Atkinson, “Goffman’s Poetics,” Human Studies 12 (1989): 59.
  • 17. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 256.
  • 18. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 227.
  • 19. Ernst Lubitsch, dir., To Be or Not To Be.  Warner Brothers, 2005. My transcription.
  • 20. Benjamin Letzler, “Movie Star Killed by Nazis in Nevada,” Letter to the Editor, The London Review of Books (9 January 2014): 4.