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Something Rotten in Denmark: Israel, ‘Hamlet,’ and the Current Crisis

Something Rotten in Denmark: Israel, ‘Hamlet,’ and the Current Crisis

As someone with a background in foreign affairs and English literature, I realized recently that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the Hamlet of territorial disputes.

While Hamlet is often considered the exemplar of Shakespeare’s corpus, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often regarded as the exemplar of land disputes. Like Hamlet, the conflict has garnered much attention over the decades and has been discussed from every possible angle.

Besides garnering great measures of notoriety within their spheres, both Hamlet and the Israel conflict have similar thematic material and raise difficult questions. Issues of birthright, justice, vengeance, victimhood, and even collateral damage play out in Shakespeare’s masterpiece and animate the volatile Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Put the famous play and infamous conflict in conversation with one another, and it’s a dialogue made in heaven (or, more likely, hell).

If you’re not familiar with Hamlet’s plot, the play centers on Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and his quest to draw a confession from his uncle, Claudius, who murdered Hamlet’s father, took the throne, and married Hamlet’s mother (the queen). Hamlet learns of his uncle’s treachery from his father’s ghost, who asks him to avenge the murder.

Inspired by his father’s ghost, Hamlet seeks to avenge his father. His quest for revenge and protecting his lineage consumes him and, eventually, all of Denmark. It sets the stage for one of the most complex and evocative plays ever written.

Preserving heritage, then, plays a strong role in Hamlet. So, too, disputes over sovereignty and the “right to the throne” (i.e., land) pervade all matters of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Fundamentally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a land dispute—a land dispute that involves strong ancestral ties and in which the heritage and collective consciousness of a homeland and a people come under threat.

Much like Hamlet feels he must avenge his father and restore his kingdom, Israeli national consciousness is animated by (1) a deep sense of ancestral ties to the Holy Land and (2) a conviction that these ties must be restored and maintained after the long Jewish exile.

And just as Hamlet finds it fundamentally impossible to abide his treacherous uncle’s usurpation of power, Israel likewise cannot abide threats to its homeland and must defend and avenge all threats to Jewish existence. Most recently, the threat comes from Hamas. And if there’s anything that will incite a man, or a people, to violence, it would be threats to home and heritage. As Hamlet puts it, “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!”

And blood indeed arrives, though not in the way that Hamlet or Israel might have planned. Primal and rudimentary as the instinct to protect homeland may be, the undertaking raises complex ethical dilemmas and moral ambiguities. In Hamlet, Hamlet’s desire for vengeance results in the death of Ophelia and, later, the valiant Leartes. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the defense of one’s homeland has incited fights in Gaza after the October 7 massacre.

The moral dilemma raised by the destruction following Hamlet’s quest begets deeper questions regarding the nature of retributive justice, vengeance, and how carnage can or cannot be avoided. Although we sympathize with Hamlet and his quest to reveal his uncle’s treachery, we also question whether Hamlet has gone too far, especially when Ophelia dies. Is Ophelia’s death worth the king’s confession?

The destruction in Gaza prompts a similar moral predicament. When are justice and self-preservation satiated? When every Hamas terrorist has been killed and every hostage (or the corpse thereof) returned? And must this be done at the expense of every Gazan civilian?

To complicate things even more, we must ask: What would happen if Hamlet had ceased his pursuit and allowed the despot Claudius to remain on the throne? If Israel were to simply lay down its weapons, what would be the long-term repercussions of Hamas remaining in the region?

Another similarity between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Hamlet is one of tragic irony. Hamlet is so consumed with redressing his father’s murder that he accidentally murders Polonius, inciting the young Laertes (Polonius’ son) to avenge his own father by attempting, in turn, to murder Hamlet. Hamlet thus dooms Laertes to the same victimhood which drives his own actions.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict shares a similar irony. Israel, whose ancestral homeland and nationhood was only restored after horrific persecution and genocide, now hears similar grievances levied back at them from the Palestinian cause.

As a final point, it’s worth noting that, at the end of Hamlet, Denmark is invaded by a foreign power, Fortinbras of Norway. Shakespeare knew well that national turmoil begets more turmoil, and disputes concerning sovereignty and national existence invite foreign intervention and manipulation. If the events of the conflict in the Middle East unfold anything like they do in Hamlet—and as we’ve seen, they certainly have similar ingredients—we have not seen the last of the carnage (cue the bloody fencing match finale to Shakespeare’s play).

“To be or not to be” takes on a chilling application in the conflict over the Holy Land, especially if we consider that such matters evoke a primal instinct to protect home and heritage, as they do in Hamlet. While the similarities between Hamlet and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provide little optimism concerning the current situation facing Israel, the analogy offers these two useful takeaways.

First, the similarities between Hamlet and the conflict are a good reminder of the timeless and penetrating quality of good literature, like Shakespeare.

Second, Hamlet’s compelling narrative and tragic irony remind us that disputes over birthright and ancestral land are ferocious and deeply rooted in human nature. They unfold in complex webs of bloody actions and reactions that pose difficult ethical conundrums requiring the protagonist (or, perhaps, the antihero) to act in impossible circumstances.

So the next time someone trivializes the conflict by parroting a ceasefire slogan or declaring how to stop the bloodshed in the region, an apt (but no doubt surprising) response would be: “Interesting. Have you ever read Hamlet?”

The views/statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this article are strictly the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Image credit: public domain

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Rebekah Bills
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  • Avatar
    Swissarge
    June 4, 2024, 11:12 am

    WE have to return to the intellect and common sense of our forefathers

    “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations…entangling alliances with none”
    ― Thomas Jefferson

    "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world."
    George Washington

    FAREWELL ADDRESS TO THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES | MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 1796

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  • Avatar
    KMolloy
    June 4, 2024, 3:06 pm

    Another thought provoking and insightful article by this author. Kudos!

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    • Avatar
      Heddalouella@KMolloy
      June 4, 2024, 4:10 pm

      Very interesting article. Israel was born out of terrorism and is now perpetrating on the Palestinians what they despised, when it was done to them Never again is for all people. Slaying innocent people to destroy an ideology, which can't be destroyed, is surely wrong. No wins from this conflict. Israel has made itself a pariah in the world.

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      • Avatar
        Francis Bagbey @Heddalouella
        June 4, 2024, 10:05 pm

        What should Israel have done after October 7?

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        • Avatar
          Heddalouella@Francis Bagbey
          June 5, 2024, 3:28 pm

          Palestinian civilians are not one in the same with Hamas. They are among the poorest people on earth and just want to survive. Since 1948 they have been beaten down by the Israelis. The deals offered to them were one sided. Netanyahu has fought against a 2 state solution for years. By the way all Arabs are not alike. Iranians consider themselves Persians.

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          • Avatar
            Margaret Rouhani@Heddalouella
            June 5, 2024, 5:15 pm

            There is obviously a great deal of ignorance regarding the “Palestinians” in Gaza, approximately 80% of whom support Hamas. The organization is comprised of & supported by the Arab population in Gaza. To reiterate – Hamas is not disconnected from the Palestinian people, its membership comes from them! Given the literally, billions of dollars poured into the territories over the decades, if the “Palestinians” are “poor”, (& that too is a fallacy as many are definitely not!), it has to do with misdirection of & misuse of funds by their leadership, so many of whom are billionaires. Also, the Palestinians in the territories are among the most educated in the Arab world. I would strongly suggest that people stop listening to propaganda & get apprised of the facts! The Arab Palestinians are in the situation they are in by their own choosing. They choose hatred, violence, bloodshed & war. They are not for peace, but are a culture of death which glorifies death. Until they change their attitude, things will not change for them.

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        • Avatar
          Heddalouella@Francis Bagbey
          June 5, 2024, 3:32 pm

          The Israelis should have shored up their border and come up with a careful plan rather than blind revenge. Israel has made itself a pariah in the world. No winners in this conflict!

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  • Avatar
    Margaret Rouhani
    June 4, 2024, 6:19 pm

    Sorry, I cannot agree with the connections you are making in your article. After 25 years of being very pro Palestinian & boycotting Israel, events in 2000 caused me to undertake an 18-month reassessment of my position, the end of which, resulted in a 180 degree turn in my position. I no longer believed in the creation of a 2nd Arab Palestinian state. There has been one for over 100 years, (Jordan) & yet it’s existence has done nothing to alleviate the attempts to annihilate the Jewish people in their own land. That is because it is not about the land. It is about there not being a Jewish nation there. Palestinian is not an ethnicity – there is no such thing. You mean Arabs living in what was the former Territory of Palestine. And you cannot differentiate the Arab population in Gaza from Hamas – they are one & the same – & their reason to exist is the irrational hatred of & desire to destroy the Jewish people. To understand that, you have to understand the religious ideology it’s predicated on, which it seems to me you do not.

    Your intellectual exercise, while an interesting read, is not predicated on reality, & thus does not convey the truth of the matter. The Arab Palestinians want the Jews dead for one reason – they’re Jews. That is why for over a century they have refused any land deal – something the Jews were always amenable to. And that has been the flaw in Jewish thinking, the belief that if they intend the best towards others, that will be reciprocated. It will not. And that is why the Jews must be in control of the territories, which historically & legally under international law, belong to them.

    Respectfully,

    Margaret Rouhani

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  • Avatar
    Daniel
    June 4, 2024, 8:18 pm

    Very thoughtful analysis!

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  • Avatar
    Margaret Rouhani
    June 5, 2024, 5:23 pm

    Iranians/Persians are not Arabs. Don’t ever call an Iranian an Arab – they tend to hate them. The Arab Muslims invaded Persia in the 6th/7th century & “bastardized their language & culture”, as Persians tend to say. Also, most Arabs are Sunni Muslim while Iranians are Shiite, & there is great animosity between the two sects going back to just after the death of the prophet Mohammed. Persians are IndoEuropean & speak Farsi, an IndoEuropean language. Arabs are Semitic, as is their language, which is Arabic.

    Please, don’t ever refer to a Persian/Iranian as an Arab. That is grossly insulting to them.

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