What happens if we consider the drama of Edward Snowden, whistleblowing intelligencer, as a latter-day Hamlet, played out on a global scale? Much fun can be had casting the play from the colorful characters that have populated the play so far, with Snowden as austere, articulate, and self-aware a Hamlet as our age demands. But what, beyond frivolous analogy, does such a conceit reveal? In this essay I argue that three broad themes come to light. The first is epistemological. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is itself the age-old dumbshow that imports the argument of today’s play, registering what we now recognize: that we are comprehensively seen unseen by the “lawful espials” of state, commerce, others, ourselves. The second is technological. While its scale shocked many, defenders of the surveillance have pointed to the essential innocuousness of metadata. But as metatheatre is a poor description of the infinite folds afforded by Hamlet’s topology, so metadata resituates us in a distributed network, joining our nervous systems to global communication architectures and the protocols that regulate them. The third is practical. Hamlet prevaricates, Snowden acted—but both are thereby led into limbo and to an examination of the place and function of the self under the technologies of their respective ages.
In framing the Snowden affair as a Hamlet that is distributed and de-individuated though also public and personalized, the essay aims to move beyond conventional interpretations of multimedia performance in order to bring to light those domains of lived experience and public meaning-making whereby performance is woven most seamlessly and intimately into the fabric of mediatized reality.