- Hamlet's Moment: Drama and Political Knowledge in Early Modern England by András Kiséry
Hamlet's Moment is much more than a book about Hamlet, although it is also very much that. Anchored in the years before and after 1600, Kiséry's analysis extends far beyond the "moment" of its title, tracking long-term historical developments that transformed the theater's engagement with politics and political knowledge. From a preoccupation with "what it meant to be king, and what it took to be king," early modern drama turned to the consideration of "what it meant to be employed, and what it took to be employed" in politics as a profession (5). What it took, according to Kiséry, is above all the ability to talk politics—to be in the know, but also, and much more important, to be fluent in the language of statecraft. Participation in political conversation becomes a social necessity, a way of signaling membership among the informed.
Hamlet figures more centrally in the first half of the book, which situates the play and its reception within the context of contemporary concerns over the inutility of a humanist education (already!); the replacement of the "soldier-courtier" with the "diplomat-politician" as the primary model of social advancement (25); and contemporary debates about republicanism, which Kiséry claims Shakespeare studiously avoided entering on either side. Each of these chapters builds toward a reading of Hamlet. There is playfulness here as well as rigor, particularly in the thought experiments Kiséry suggests about staging, but it is the research that really dazzles. At one point Kiséry offers a plausible route of transmission for the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into England via the letters of the diplomat Daniel Rogers. It is a fascinating bit of archival detective work involving French, German, and English sources, and it is offered up almost incidentally, as evidence of a larger point about the centrality of "diplomacy, embassies, travel, and letters" to the play (132). Such moments function almost like magic tricks, and the book is full of them.
It is the second half of Hamlet's Moment, however, that is likely to have the biggest impact. Kiséry offers a new understanding of how and why publics develop in and beyond the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He does so not by adjusting Habermas's eighteenth-century timeline, but by asking, via Bourdieu, that we [End Page 393] reconsider "participants' motives in joining the conversation" (14). People talk politics not just out of a sense of public-mindedness but out of other interests as well, including the desire to show off. Our tendency to see in the public sphere a sort of precursor to modern democracy has blinded us, Kiséry writes, to the fact that people also joined (and still join) political conversation for "non-political, self-interested motives," such as the desire for social distinction (19). The crucial point here is not that plays, or those who use them in this way, are therefore frivolous or politically uninterested, since talking politics "sociably" is "probably a more important form of political discussion" than we tend to assume (279). For one thing, "we never know when such role-play might turn serious" (280).
The book's final chapters examine the theater as a form of public media that is engaged in the circulation of foreign and domestic news, and that frequently considers the question of how and whether to use such intelligence. Kiséry turns away from Hamlet to take up some of the plays most fundamentally shaped by its moment: Chapman's Bussy plays and his The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Byron are seen as part of a network of political intelligence, and Jonson's Sejanus is understood as a work of political historiography preoccupied with the "question of audience" and the limits of political action (227). The final chapter, which doubles as a conclusion, uses Marston's Malcontent to demonstrate...