Hamlet and the Difference Machine


Stephen Barker


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Our task, lest the rest become statistics and a mere matter for computers, is the labor of difference. Hamlet, the failure, did not achieve it, this is his crime

—Heiner Müller, “Shakespeare a Difference”1

As Heiner Müller declared in his 1988 presentation to the Weimar Shakespeare Festival, Hamlet (the eponymous dramatic character extracted from “his” play) is Shakespeare’s emblematic failure, unable to break free of “all hitherto existing culture”(SD). Hamlet is emblematic of atemporal failure, which for Müller is the structural failure of both intellectual discourse and revolutionary change, his—Hamlet’s and Müller’s—discourse itself confessing its own failure to produce action. How must we see this ubiquitous disappointment, which must seem at first a curious, even impossible, criterion for failure, particularly in light of the fact that in “Shakespeare a Difference” Müller’s exemplar of “success” is Hamlet’s opposite, Caliban, referred to by Müller as “the new Shakespeare’s reader.” But this Hamlet/Caliban dyad is itself unsettled since, as Caliban “reads” Shakespeare (presumably including Hamlet), “he” is also doomed to Hamlet’s failure; clearly, Müller is concerned with cultural technics, the mechanisms by which the repetition compulsion of culture drives ahead, on the one hand suspended between Caliban and Hamlet, “beast and Overman,” as for Zarathustra and his tightrope walker, and on the other situated between soma and tekhne, as we are generically for Deleuze and Guattari.2 This is the core of Müller’s astonishing distillation of Hamlet: in both guises, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Müller’s actor-Hamlet, theatrical exploration of the human dilemma consists of a “labor of difference” amounting to nothing less than the technical work of meaning-making as the ground of culture-formation. In Hamletmachine Müller attempts an amalgamation of the synchronic and diachronic critique of revolutionary cultural change; the play is the result, the condensed product, of this labor of difference, a difference machine rotating around the circular question of the historical meaning and value of human action. Hamletmachine shows us a perpetual motion machine of eternal return, both in and out of time. His 1988 Weimar speech, “Shakespeare a Difference,” provides an essential blueprint to Hamletmachine, Heiner Müller’s masterpiece of condensation; I want to use that blueprint to explore Müller’s Shakespeare-derived strategy of meaning-making in his constructing of the Hamletmachine: the play, Hamletmachine, is itself a technology, a skilled technological structure of fragmented references to other (literary and historical) machines such as the state and its apparatus, and the drama and its supporting technolgies. Thus, Hamletmachine is also “the Hamletmachine. In order to understand the nature of meaning-making in Hamletmachine, we must return to the early modern worldview that so strongly influenced Heiner Müller when he first encountered Hamlet in his school library as a thirteen-year-old. Müller had what he calls an instinctive reaction to the play: “I suspected more than I understood; the leap drives experience, not the step” (SD). In this regard, Müller receives his inspiration from more than Hamlet itself, he reacts to Shakespeare’s manifested conflict in Hamlet between “providence” and something that might be called “free will,” as the play explores in each of its characters, the dynamics of constructing a worldview. Indeed, for the eight central characters in Shakespeare’s play this complex conflict leads to destruction, not construction.3 Hamlet is caught in a transition from a stultified, rigid medieval framework to a humanist one, with all the problematics of the corruption inherent in the latter as seen from the former. Claudius and Gertrude, in their violent subversion of medieval behavioral codes (regicide, but more importantly, the violent wresting of control over their autonomy relative to the power structure they murder along with Hamlet père) are emblematic of the then-current threat to a rapidly disappearing feudal sense of the world and its proper order. For his part, Hamlet is emblematic of this transitional dynamic in his confusion regarding the question of order itself; in his early response to Gertrude—“Seems, madame? Nay it is. I know not ‘seems’” (1.2.76)4—Hamlet addresses the nature of the disjointed reality in which he finds himself.


1Speech given at the Weimar Shakespeare Festival, 23 April, 1988, trans. Dennis Redmond: henceforth SD. The text can be found at http://theater, augent, be/index/php?id=14&type=file); it is published online without pagination.

2 See Part One, “The Desiring-Machines,” in Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 1–50.

3 Rosencrantz and Guildensternn are included in this number since they are thematically central to the worldview-construction in which Hamlet struggles; their own choices lead to their destruction, as do the (other) protagonists.

4 All quotations from Hamlet are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.