“To Be or Not to Be?”: Shakespeare, Freedom, and China

In 2013, Thor Halvorssen and Alexander Lloyd released balloons with thumb drives into North Korea. I’m not sure what the drives contained exactly or whether they led to any changes there. I suppose such drives did not need to contain anything to cause consternation. Such a “hack,” as they called it, is worthwhile if only as an example of how to gesture at tyrants.

I wonder if such a hack would be possible in my own field of literature. Could a specialist, for example, pose questions about a handful of premodern articulations of individual liberty he found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599) at a conference convened in Beijing by an Anglophone university, say in 2016, in honor of the Bard’s death four centuries earlier? I suspect not.

To be honest, I doubt the issue would come up in the first place. I doubt a lecture on liberty in Hamlet would be proposed these days in Anglophone academia; and even if it were, nobody from the Chinese Communist Party would need to cancel it because no administrator, professor, or conference organizer from Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, Toronto, Yale, or MIT would allow it.

A lot of Americans are more like “vagabonds, rascals, and runaways, / A scum of Britagnes, and base lackey peasants” (see Federalist 42). Perhaps for this reason freedom doesn’t strike us as a major topic in Shakespeare’s most popular work. In Hamlet, the son of a dead monarch rebels; he’s suspicious of the nation’s new leadership; he might even be said to seek justice for the victim of a possible murder. We are drawn to ponder its hero’s quests for psychological, political, or legal autonomy, but to say Shakespeare’s greatest work concerns modern political freedom seems too early, a slight stretch historically speaking.

[Related: “In Dubio Pro Reo”]

Besides, Hamlet’s too grim and brooding, like bonus tracks from The Wall by Pink Floyd when you just want The Ramones or Tom Petty (more on Petty below). The most famous verse from Shakespeare’s most famous play reduces to adolescent angst: “To be or not to be?” And on top of that, there’s such a heavy dose of mise en abyme in Hamlet that grounds for any interpretation are untrustworthy and elusive. As a result, a lecture on Shakespeare’s signature play risks sounding like a reflection on what makes North Korea depressing; but it might also vaguely suggest mass shootings in the United States. What I mean is that Hamlet at any volume might not make an impact regarding the struggle for freedom in China. It’s too egocentric, monarchical, dark, existentialist, and complex.

Somebody might force the issue by proposing a lecture like “The Play in Tiananmen Square’s the Thing: Unpacking Hamlet’s Russian Doll,” or perhaps “Thomas Paine and All That Death at Court: Why China Needs More Hamlets.” But performing a sixteenth-century English play in Tiananmen Square presumably offends nobody. What kind of doll this play resembles probably doesn’t matter either. And any antimonarchical rebellion or provincial resistance implied by the second lecture will escape most English speakers, much less any native Chinese in attendance.

To his credit, I think, Shakespeare remains an uneasy link to a singular theme like liberty. This likely has something to do with early modern theater as an industry that had to please both crowd and Crown. Spain’s greatest playwright, Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio, could throw barbs at princes, but he was not exactly a rebel by trade. John Milton—now there’s a poet focused like a laser on Satan’s gambit as much as Luther’s or Cromwell’s. A lecture in Beijing on Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) would be a stretch in the other direction, i.e., it would require a herculean effort to conceal the natural antagonism that must exist between tyrants and printing presses. A lecture on the Areopagitica might be better received in Taiwan. Maybe more students at NYU’s Journalism Institute should also study the Areopagitica?

To the extent that education in all fields from sociology to biology has become a chorus of intellectual cowardice rather than a dialogical quest for truth about topics of consequence, what greater opportunity to mount a response than to deliver a lecture on Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha in Beijing in 2015 on the four-hundredth anniversary of its publication?

[Related: “Don’t Ignore Shakespeare’s Dick”]

The Hispanic case for discussing liberty in Beijing doesn’t involve Hong Kong or obligations to nearby Anglophone nations like New Zealand, India, or Australia. In other ways, however, it’s more obligatory. The Pacific region is vital to the majority of the world’s Hispanic population. In his dedication of the second volume of Don Quijote to Pedro Fernández de Castro y Andrade, Count of Lemos, Viceroy of Naples, and President of the Council of the Indies, Cervantes himself claimed that the Chinese Emperor had appreciated the significance of the hidalgo. This should not surprise us; after all, the printing press was a Chinese invention (see DQ 2.62).

Finally, the link between liberty and Cervantes’s most important work is not as labored as it would be for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Don Quijote models the thesis of everyone from Alexis de Tocqueville to Leonard P. Liggio that the governing principle of personal liberty is a legacy of medieval feudalism. Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev also preferred Cervantes’s more chivalric and provincial model to Shakespeare’s courtly psychodrama. In sum, a lecture on the utility of Don Quijote for thinking about liberty in contrast to history’s various extremes of egalitarian tyranny is something that almost writes itself.

Minutes later was I struck by my stupidity at having responded too soon to the call for papers for the conference in question. I’d hammered out an email to the effect that I would be talking on “Five Forms of Freedom in Don Quijote” and then pressed send. A mistake, I know, all my own, and, of course, a mistake now impossible to retract without some loss to personal dignity.

Kissinger said academic politics are vicious because they’re inconsequential. A particular blind spot results among academics. We conclude everyone is equally vicious and irrelevant. The thought of a Chinese communist taking offense didn’t occur to me. Would I have recognized someone who took issue with something I said as somehow different from other people who have taken issue with something I have said? Could a dialogue over the significance of freedom in Don Quijote, which took place in Beijing, have been transduced into something oddly polite owing to my own obliviousness about its geopolitical implications?

And Tom Petty? Fentanyl killed Tom Petty. It is so rotten that it would take another article to address. If I recall, fentanyl killed Tom Petty twice. The news said he died, and then they said he had not died, and then they said he died again. Sino–U.S. relations are personal now. Two gargantuan statist governments are in need of “hacks,” China and the U.S. One is selling deadly stuff into a black market that is distorted by the stupid laws of the other.


Image: gopixa, Adobe Stock

Eric Clifford Graf

Eric Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here: ericcliffordgraf.academia.edu/research.

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