Earlier versions of Hamlet produced frames for interpretation—most memorably, Freudian ones—that led readers to be suspicious of their own capacity for self-understanding. But Cumberbatch’s Hamlet inverts this idea: His claims to interpret the world are presented as legitimate, and the denial of the truths he finds has a totalitarian political motive. The audience is encouraged, in other words, to believe his account of himself and of the world. Hamlet’s wit is a form of witnessing.
Clearly, the interpretation of a play and the interpretation of the United States Constitution are separate activities. But invoking Shakespeare, I want to suggest, poses urgent contemporary questions. And not just because his work remains so fluid, at a moment when anything concrete seems destined to crumble. Baylson’s ruling is a reminder that Shakespeare’s texts are open books, still, tied not only to their historical context, but also to the contingencies of the present.
In the context of a public record, the very appearance of Shakespeare is significant—either as an avatar for artistic achievement, or as an emblem of Great Books, or to represent the literary canon. The first paragraph of Baylson’s ruling moves quickly from Shakespeare to Homer, referring to Scylla and Charybdis, two monsters encountered by Odysseus in Book XII of the Odyssey. With Shakespeare and Homer on the side of sanctuary, the ruling makes a claim from the outset to a cultural anchor. Whether or not this claim is appropriate, after decades in which the authority of certain classics has been challenged, complicated, and recontextualized, is less important here than a federal judge’s choice to quote Hamlet and the Odyssey in the first place.
It also seems likely that the ruling uses the line from the play because of the appearance of the strange verb sanctuarize in the early-17th century. Benjamin Woodring’s article, cited by the judge, explores the early modern struggles over sanctuary in great detail, concluding that “Shakespeare summons sanctuary only to dismiss its possibility, making a statement about the desperate and inescapably fatal space of the drama’s unfolding.” The current wave of social discord—which manifests itself, in part, in street protests and judicial resistance to federal overreach—has many precedents in both political history and literary expression. Some have found an echo of the opposition of certain states to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Others have traced the contemporary sanctuary city to the Presbyterian church in Arizona in the 1980s. By grafting Shakespeare’s 17th-century sanctuarize onto a 2018 ruling, literary history appears freshly relevant, and early modern literary texts become the places where concepts such as sanctuary are forged and tested.
Instead of a fragment being plucked “out of context,” as ornament, slogan, or cultural credential, the Shakespeare quotations suggest that the political history of sanctuary is bound up with the literary genre of tragedy. Shakespeare, then, becomes not only a marker of literary canonicity, or of the world-expanding complexity of ethical problems, but also a spur to interpretation—readers are put in the position of interpreting the present, as they would a play, and of taking decisive action. The meaning of Shakespeare’s works, or for that matter of any literary work, is not preprogrammed by the monumental status of the plays, but rather set loose by their malleability and the time-bound nature of any single interpretation. For readers, this means that Shakespeare’s texts are less like a puzzle from the past to be solved by restoring their intention or their historical context, and more like a set of resources for deciphering the elusive present.