A Philadelphia judge quoted a line from Hamlet in a recent ruling fighting against the presidential mandates of immigration control. Lawyers and judges have long set a precedent for citing Shakespeare; during these murky, divided days the Bard’s words may ring truer than e’er. Clemson University Professor and The Atlantic author Walt Hunter writes how a play like Hamlet, so imbued with political chaos, holds a mirror up to our own legal and ethical confusion.
Hamlet makes sense in 2018. Almost too much sense. The contours of his tragedy, as with many of Shakespeare’s doomed characters, are startlingly familiar at a time when Americans are deeply divided over the fate of the country and its people. The story of a man exposed to the political violence of a kingdom under usurpation, some would argue, offers an eerie parallel to the lack of sanctuary or safety in the United States for many of the people who seek to make their lives here.
Shakespeare’s frequent treatment of ethical and legal questions is marked far more by its ambiguity and unresolved tensions than by clear directives and propositions—this is part of what makes his work simultaneously playful and vexing. Yet the choice of the quotation from Hamlet, “No place indeed should murder sanctuarize,” responds directly to the present political moment—and uncovers the play’s contemporary relevance.
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.