I credit my students’ ever-active brains with shaping a recent class discussion such that I found myself having to ask, “Do you really think Hamlet’s irony is like a hipster’s?” We had been finding the subtle contrasts between the type of the Shakespearean fool and Hamlet’s foolery under the guise of madness. We had established in a previous class that Hamlet’s wit was highly ironic, like Lear’s fool’s, but that it was perhaps even more ironic in that Hamlet does not require his wit to be effective. He gibes Polonius, who famously suspects, “though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” but he never confirms what that method might be. He mocks his old school-buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after he comes to distrust them, and when they confess their confusion, he simply shrugs it off: “A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear.”
It was this indifference to the effect of his methodical madness that seemed to suggest the comparison to the hipster’s aimless irony for the sake of irony. Now, I was torn about this. As a teacher, I appreciated their inventive contemporary connection. But I actually like irony — it suits my temperament — and I had just started to think that I liked Hamlet’s brand of holy foolery.
This may be hard to get in our earnest age of online outrage and self-righteousness, but I actually think irony is a powerful tool for the Christian. When directed back at ourselves, it allows us to participate in a sick society, to hold up to mockery what merits mocking, but also to avoid setting ourselves up as the standards of good or the arbiters of morality. To harangue like Hamlet — or in some gentler fashion — is to offer your audience an alternative explanation to the uncomfortable possibility that you may be speaking truth, i.e., that you’re nuts, or grumpy, or whatever.
In Hamlet’s case, his feigned madness comes off as a plausible way to respond to being called to an act of violent justice in a thoroughly perverse world. His is a nearly pure irony that enjoys its own insight aesthetically, for the beauty of the thing, rather than morally, for its effects.
Nonetheless, we determined as a class that the hipster’s irony is aimless compared with the Dane’s. To the extent that we can talk about “hipsters” as a coherent group, their irony stems not only from a sense that the world is broken but from an unwillingness to actively propose an alternative. They instead form para-cultural pockets of affinity who collectively opt out of all available social options. Hamlet feigns madness, ironically, because he cannot just opt out but must respond to his circumstances as son and heir to a murdered king. His irony stems from a knowledge that he will at last choose some alternative and from a desire to be as disruptive as possible until he can muster up the determination to do so.
But, interestingly, he does not quite get the chance to choose his course of action. Rather, events unfold around him, and he has to respond in the moment. Just before the final scene, his duel with Laertes, he explains to Horatio that he accepts he cannot manipulate events to suit his own ends. Instead, he must be prepared to act on what he knows is right: “the readiness is all.” Some years later Milton would similarly suggest that “they also serve who only stand and wait.” We do not always have the courage bred of conviction, and irony may be a legit stance until we discover it, but Hamlet shows us that irony cannot be an end in itself. There’s no drama to it, and where there’s no drama there’s no story, and certainly we must be a people who believe in story.