If you went out to the movies this summer, I’m betting you saw yet another movie about saving the world.
It’s such a familiar plot, it’s worth asking: Why? Why does this theme keep recurring?
We know what most reviewers will say. Those cynics, echoing the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, will opine that here again is another tale of “dull revenge”.
The threat of nuclear annihilation drives the plot of the stylish new film version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (“United Network Command for Law and Enforcement,” a fictional spy agency), set in 1963.
Although the American spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and the Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are Cold War enemies, they team up to defeat a nuclear threat from retrograde Nazi lunatics.
This dynamic duo makes for an interesting pair. They double one another in comparable ways. Spies we expect to be enemies turn out to have more in common than they are prepared to admit.
It reminded me of the doubling going on in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, another one of the summer’s enjoyable spy thrillers. Most obviously, there is the doubling of the I.M.F. (Impossible Mission Force), for which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) works. The I.M.F. is doubled by its antithesis, “the Syndicate,” which is explicitly named in the film as an “anti-I.M.F.”
The Syndicate is a spy agency gone bad, acting effectively as a “Rogue Nation,” since it is decoupled from the interests of any nation. But the doubling raises interesting questions about whether the “bad” agency’s actions can even be differentiated from the actions of the lovable rogues in the supposedly “good” I.M.F.
Yet the lack of differentiation between doubles is most effectively highlighted in Rogue Nation’s Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Ilsa’s loyalties always seem ambiguous, as the chief dramatic interest of the story is trying to figure out on whose side she will prove herself to be. The same ambiguity (“to be or not to be” a betrayer) is found in all the film’s spy figures, but in Ilsa foremost.
Similar dramatic ambiguity about questionable loyalties is likewise dramatized in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). Although she is not as ambiguous a character as Ilsa, she is still, like Ilsa, the most interesting character in her own film.
Her exquisite dramatic interest, just like Ilsa’s, comes from her delay’s protraction before the audience. We must wait to see what definitive action she will enact. In that action, she will show not merely who she appears to be, but who she really is.
This theme of dramatic delay is what gives Shakespeare’s Hamlet his perennial interest. He is an ambiguous and multi-layered character trying to fathom the depths of his own self. He and we, the audience, are fascinated by his delay in enacting vengeance for the murder of his father.
Isn’t the good guy supposed to act on behalf of revenge? It’s the job description for the hero of any revenge tragedy. Hence we wait expectantly for Hamlet to fulfill his mission.
But he keeps delaying, for reasons not quite clear, to him or to us. And his poetic meditations on his ambiguous wavering make his peculiar delay uniquely fascinating.
The Catholic literary theorist René Girard explained why he thought Shakespeare’s Hamlet was such a definitive literary figure. Hamlet’s delay in enacting revenge, he said, sums up the situation of our modern world.
Like Hamlet, we are haunted by the Gospel, which enjoins us to give up revenge and retaliation in any form. But also, like Hamlet, we are seduced by the voices of all the ghosts around us. They want us to take up a violent role in the world, a role of revenge and retaliation. They crave the drama of perpetual conflict.
By giving incomparable voice to Hamlet’s struggle with revenge, Shakespeare “created a play of such enduring and widespread fascination,” writes Girard in his essay on “Hamlet’s Dull Revenge” (in his Shakespeare book, A Theatre of Envy).
“Technological progress has made our weapons of war so destructive that their use would defeat any rational purpose of aggression,” observes Girard. “For the first time in Western history, the primitive fear of revenge becomes intelligible once more.”
Modern mythology, as in our summer spy movies, dramatizes our modern world’s fear of revenge. We live in world ambiguously populated by doubles, and so do the characters of our contemporary fictions.
As in Hamlet, the rival forces in our stories are everywhere, on all sides, facing off against each other: the I.M.F. vs. the anti-I.M.F.; the U.S.A. vs. the Soviet Union; and so on. Such doubling has prototypes in Hamlet: King Hamlet vs. King Claudius; Hamlet vs. Laertes; and so on.
“No one wants to initiate a cycle of revenge that might literally annihilate humanity, and yet no one wants to give up revenge entirely,” writes Girard. “Like Hamlet, we are poised on the fence between total revenge and no revenge at all, unable to make up our mind, unable to take revenge and yet unable to renounce it. ”
Eventually, Hamlet in his downfall becomes indistinguishable from his father, King Hamlet. Moreover, his delay was due, says Girard, to his dim awareness of how King Hamlet was himself indistinguishable from Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous uncle. In the world of politics, it seems everybody’s destined to be a double of some sort.
Everybody who becomes a double enters into a labyrinth of mirrors: Hamlet wants to kill Claudius for killing his father; Laertes wants to kill Hamlet for killing his father; and so on. So goes the world.
We liked Hamlet better when he was colorfully delaying his vengeance. Its enactment sadly converted him, from being his unique self, into being another tragic cliché. He was at his most eloquent as he resisted and questioned the mission of revenge.
Perhaps we can now glimpse more of Shakespeare’s greatness. Unlike the more conventional tales of Mission: Impossible or The Man from U.N.C.L.E., in Shakespeare, when the doubles exhaust themselves in their violent frenzy, the very conclusion calls into question the implacable dramatic arc of a decisive recourse to violence.
We can see this best when we realize how much Hamlet has turned into a double, just like all the other doubles. Recall how he resolved to adopt the logic of blood and honor, in spite of his awareness of the illogic of dying for “an eggshell” or for “a straw”:
How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge. …
Examples gross as earth exhort me,
Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake.
… O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth. (4.4.32–66)
To answer the question we began with — why all these stories about saving the world? — we must observe that, because the world is populated with doubles of all sorts, so too are our fictions. As Girard points out, these familiar stories dramatize the world-threatening problem of vengeful doubling, and they muse on its possible solution.
As always, it will be scenarios of bloody requital that most capture our imagination. Yet because revenge spirals so wildly out of control, beyond all human attempts to contain it, Shakespeare suggests, very quietly, in the end, how it is only forgiveness that can “save the world”:
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.
Heaven make thee free of it. I follow thee. (5.2.334–7)
It’s certainly most difficult to dramatize forgiveness as a satisfying grand finale. But the very greatest artists will depict the unforgiving logic of all the alternatives. And perhaps hope that we notice the nobler way.