TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Carl Schmitt on the Source of the Tragic

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Linas Jokubaitis looks at Carl Schmitt’s “The Source of the Tragic” from Telos 72 (Summer 1987).

In “The Source of the Tragic,” Carl Schmitt developed an original interpretation of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark rooted in his sociological understanding of the relationship between art and contemporary politics in Shakespeare’s tragedy. According to the German jurist, one can fully understand and appreciate this masterpiece only by taking into consideration the concrete political situation at the end of the reign of the Tudor dynasty and the intense struggles for legitimacy and authority in which Shakespeare created his theatrical works.

Schmitt’s approach has to be understood as polemically directed against what he regarded as the extreme division of labor in academia. In his assessment of the academy, the perspectives of literary historians must be enriched by those of political historians. It would be a mistake to disregard the political circumstances in which Hamlet was written, because the destinies of Mary Stuart and James I are more closely intertwined with the storyline in Shakespeare’s tragedy than the majority of his readers might have thought.

Schmitt argues that we cannot understand Hamlet properly if we hold onto a philosophy of art by which the work of art is something to be understood on its own terms, as a completely autonomous creation of a sovereign genius. In The Concept of The Political, Schmitt wrote: “that art is a daughter of freedom, that aesthetic value judgment is absolutely autonomous, that artistic genius is sovereign—all this is axiomatic of liberalism.” His analyses of the relationships between art and politics have to be understood as a critique of what he judges to be “axiomatic of liberal” thought.

One could maintain the liberal approach to art could vary with regard to specific genres of art. The liberal analytical strictures can be deployed to interpret a lyric poem, however, they should not be applied to the study of Hamlet: “the freedom to create, which provides the lyric poet with such free play with respect to reality, cannot be conferred upon other types and forms of literary creation. The subjectivity of the lyric poet corresponds to a different type of creative freedom than that of the objectivity of the epic writer and the dramatist” (135).

Schmitt argues that audiences get a distorted understanding of Shakespeare’s drama when they see it as an autonomous creation that is completely unfettered by its origins in specific political circumstances. This perspective is inseparable from his explanation on what constitutes the source of the tragic. Schmitt writes about the “surplus value” of the tragic, which “lies in the objective reality of tragic action itself, in the enigmatic involvement and entanglement of indisputably real people in the unpredictable course of indisputably real events. This is the basis of the seriousness of tragic action which, being impossible to fictionalize, or relativize, is also impossible to play. All participants are conscious of an ineluctable reality which no human mind has conceived—a reality externally given, imposed and unavoidable” (136–37).

For Schmitt the source of the tragic is to be found not in the mechanics or aesthetics of a theatrical play, but rather in the concrete struggles of political reality. A work of art reaches the level of the tragic by confronting the full scope of its historical situation. In the Attic tragedy, the source of the tragic is to be found in what was still a “living myth” for the Greeks. The Greek tragedians could rely on their myths to reach the element of the tragic, because their common knowledge of myth was an “external present” shared by them and their audience.

The tragic core of Shakespeare’s masterpiece is not to be found in his subjectivity. This is the reason why Schmitt is opposed to simplistic psychological explanations of Hamlet. The tragic element of reality in Hamlet is to be found in the “external present,” which for Shakespeare and his audience was the fate of James I as the successor to Queen Elizabeth I and the monarch of both England and Scotland in the early 1600s.

According to Schmitt, the audience of London would have seen James I in Hamlet and immediately recognized the parallels between the play and contemporary political events. The source of the tragic in Hamlet is to be found in the intrusion of the historical situation of the year 1600 into the play. The murder of the king and the marriage of the queen to the murderer would have been much more than just a literary invention to the London audience at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Schmitt’s detailed explanation of the complicated relationship between the theatrical script for Hamlet and the complex politics of the time in the English and Scottish courts can be found in his book Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of the Time into the Play.

A tragedy cannot be created ex nihilo. The element of the tragic can only be exploited when it resonates in the concretely lived historical realities of the author and his audience. No amount of artistic inventiveness can conjure up tragic action out of nothing: “one can weep for many things. Many things are sad and melancholy. But tragedy originates only from a given circumstance which exists for all concerned—an incontrovertible reality for the actors and the audience. All invented fate is no fate at all. The most inspired creation is useless here. The core of the tragic action, the source of genuine tragedy, is something so irrevocable that no mortal can invent it, no genius can compose it” (143).

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