Cantles of contention: A Kierkegaardian reading of "Hamlet", "Troilus and Cressida", and "Antony and Cleopatra"

Michael G. Bielmeier, Marquette University


This dissertation arose out of the belief that viewing Shakespearean drama--specifically Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida , and Antony and Cleopatra --within the framework of Soren Kierkegaard's existential philosophy would create new appreciations for the plays. Kierkegaard posits that there are three spheres of temporal existence: the esthetic, the ethical, and the religious. In general, the esthetic sphere establishes beauty as its teleology and is characterized by the pursuit of physical love and infinite and variegated sensory experiences. The ethical sphere offers freedom from esthetic expression through a commitment to duty and responsibility; ethics finds its best expression in marriage, profession, and friendship. The religious sphere demands a teleological suspension of the ethical, and it involves a confrontation of danger, suffering, and passivity towards pain. These spheres might be likened to a philosophical nucleus that is sustained and charged by such concepts as anxiety, despair, narcissism, the demonic, tragedy, the absurd, and self-realization. With this as the philosophic backdrop, Hamlet is seen as a tragic hero whose existential quest moves him through all three of Kierkegaard's spheres. Hamlet begins the play as an esthete immersed in self-pity, but he leaps to the ethical when he replaces his personal desire for vengeance with a sense of filial duty. Shortly after his departure for England, Hamlet teleologically suspends the ethical and leaps to the unknown of the absolute, or the religious. Accordingly, his death is as much of a triumph as it is a tragedy. Troilus sees both the esthetic and the ethical spheres. He considers them, however, through an intense anxiety, or what Kierkegaard calls a "sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy." He refuses to leap to the ethical, and this refusal accounts for much of the cynicism and nihilism he displays in the final act. Two unlikely characters do emerge, however, as ethical touchstones: Cressida and Thersites. Antony and Cleopatra establishes a Kierkegaardian dialectic between desire and despair. The title characters repeatedly shirk responsibility in favor of esthetic interests, only to anguish over their decisions when forced to reflect upon them. In their deaths they may be seen as transcendentally marrying and reuniting in the religious sphere.

Recommended Citation

Michael G. Bielmeier, "Cantles of contention: A Kierkegaardian reading of "Hamlet", "Troilus and Cressida", and "Antony and Cleopatra"" (January 1, 1998). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. Paper AAI9912723.