John Lee. Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' and the Controversies of Self. Oxford: Clarendon P, 2000. 266pp. ISBN 0 19 818504 9.

Roger Starling
University of Warwick

Starling, Roger. "Review of John Lee, Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' and the Controversies of Self." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (September, 2001): 8.1-6 <URL:

  1. In Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' and the Controversies of Self, John Lee sets himself the formidable task of accomplishing what, by his own account, generations of critics have so far failed to achieve: to identify "that within" Prince Hamlet which causes him to insist on his mysterious and, in some readings, epoch-making sense of interiority. As befits what is evidently a revised doctoral dissertation, Lee's book is at once wide-ranging and curiously circumscribed, devoting more attention than is due to Hamlet criticism in English, while for the most part ignoring developments in both philosophy and psychoanalysis in which Shakespeare's play has figured prominently. [1] Indeed, while Lee is not without certain philosophical and psychological predilections of his own, his main purpose here is to intervene in one of the most prominent critical and theoretical debates of the 1980s: that of the nature and significance of the so-called "early modern subject." Although he exaggerates the extent to which the question of subjectivity (at least in the form he presents it) might be considered "contemporary" (1)--indeed without exception, the arguments raised almost twenty years ago now look almost embarrassingly ancient--Lee nonetheless provides a useful reminder of the extent to which such debates were central to the formation of both cultural materialism and the new historicism. That such approaches continue to inform current critical paradigms to an extent that the current state of early modern studies is almost unthinkable without them is at least one reason for attending to Lee's argument. Another is that it provides a signal example of what critics of Hamlet in future would perhaps do well to avoid.

  2. The book is divided into three parts. Part I examines the assumptions and methodologies of cultural materialism and the new historicism, particularly in relation to their respective treatments of Hamlet. Readers already familiar with these movements will find little of interest or stimulation in Lee's rather bald and reductive analyses, which unhelpfully deploy morality play characters labelled "Cultural Materialism" and "New Historicism" with little, if any, attempt to differentiate between individual critics and practitioners (a strategy which is perhaps partly redeemed by the tendency of both movements to conform to the most obvious or simplistic caricature). That the argument is presented in terms of what Lee describes as a "contemporary academic drama" (1), interspersed with lines and fragments of Hamlet, is tiresome and distracting, while the argument itself abounds with contradictions and faulty reasoning. Thus, for example, the new historicists are taken to task for their uncritical reliance on Foucault, whose inapplicability to early modern England (or so it is claimed) is deduced entirely on the basis of an article by the historian David Cressy (24); while Lee, for his part, is not above invoking Foucault when it suits his purpose later in the book. [2] Finally, what might have been one of this book's most interesting claims--that of the comparative absence of Hamlet within the context of new historicism--has been mitigated in part by the recent publication of Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory. [3]

  3. While Part I stages the critical fortunes of Hamlet within recent critical debate, Part II reaches further into the past to address the controversies surrounding the emergent concept of "character" in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteen centuries. Although Lee himself insists on the necessity of retracing such controversies as a way of gaining some much-needed perspective on more recent critical discussion, it is far from clear whether his rehearsal of such familiar territory contributes to the development of his overall argument or to an understanding of our own critical moment. Indeed, his demonstration that earlier critics developed the notion of character (even if they were incapable of identifying Hamlet's) only for it to be rejected in favour of the extra-literary concept of subjectivity, is simply to confirm what was apparent in the first place.

  4. Part III seeks to capitalise on Lee's earlier criticisms of cultural materialism and the new historicism by proposing an alternative account of Hamlet's interiority. Arguing that both earlier and more recent critics have failed alike to pluck the heart out of Hamlet's mystery, Lee proposes to identify what he describes as Hamlet's "self-constituting sense of self" through conceptual apparatus derived from the personal construct theory of psychologist George A. Kelly, the moral theory of Alasdair MacIntyre, and the writings of the philosopher Charles Taylor, the latter of whom Lee uses to historicize his argument by proposing that Hamlet's sense of interiority has more in common with the protean fluidity of Montaigne than the rational certainty of Descartes.

  5. And herein, perhaps, lies the fault. Indeed, in his willingness to succeed where previous critics have failed, Lee ends up precisely repeating their errors, albeit with another set of critical and theoretical resources. After all, if critics have so far failed to convincingly identify the nature of Hamlet's "that within," it is because the problem of interiority--the fact that interiority as such is precisely what can never be exhibited on stage--is no doubt one the most vexing of the numerous self-reflexive paradoxes that Hamlet in fact stages. Lee, like most of the critics he disparages, thus ends up not only reading Hamlet as opposed to Hamlet, but sets himself the task of resolving the irresolvable.

  6. That being said, Lee's argument, at least in its final stages, nonetheless gestures towards some more interesting possibilities, of which the most suggestive is his likening of Hamlet and Proteus. Indeed as Lee argues, Shakespeare, both in Hamlet and elsewhere, exploits what he describes as the "negative tradition of Protean identity" in which "dramatic persons struggle constantly to be determinate, and occasionally fail, losing hold on [sic] their fluid selves, flowing into the invisibility of indeterminacy" (223). This, to put it in other terms, is precisely what Richard Hillman (following Lacan) has identified within early modern theatre as the aphanisis or fading of the subject, which can be inscribed within the problematic of mimesis as the "originary" desistance of the subject-as-mimos. [4] Thus instead of looking to history, philosophy, or even psychoanalysis for the solution to Hamlet's mystery, critics in future would do better to attend to theatre itself for a glimpse of the "invisibility of indeterminacy," which is the destablizing threat at the very "origin" of subjectivity.


1. In what is apparently an unrevised footnote, Lee refers to his own work as "this thesis" (213n).

2. For Lee's use of Foucault, see 213.

3. Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001).

4. Richard Hillman, Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English Drama: Subjectivity, Discourse and the Stage, (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's, 1997). On the question of mimesis, see Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, "Typography," in Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics, (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998), 43-138, and Jacques Derrida, "Desistance," in the same volume, 1-42.

Works Cited

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© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)