Hamlet, Prince of Denmark could not run for political office today. We like our politicians to express certainty, even when we know there are many things most of us cannot feel absolutely certain about. We carry around at least a few doubts close to the heart, but we expect our leaders to hold no doubts when they make decisions of national importance. Remember the George Bushism? “I’m the decider and I decide what is best.” Many look to politicians for that kind confidence (though better expressed).
In her book Being Wrong, in the chapter, “The Allure of Certainty,” Kathryn Schulz talks about our current dislike of uncertainty when we see it in political candidates, as shown by Senator John Kerry‘s downfall as a presidential candidate, as well as our frustration with the unwillingness of “the undecided voter” to take sides. Neither of these discussions offered much in the way of new insights. But her description of how we treat a fictional character, “Hamlet,” the universally known Shakespearean protagonist, opened my eyes to something I had never considered before. Students of English literature and literary critics have labeled Hamlet weak and indecisive for centuries, but she says this was not always so.
“As the critic Harold Jenkins has observed, for at least the first 150 years of his literary life, Hamlet was generally viewed as ‘vigorous, bold and heroic’ — a victim of his circumstances, not his psyche. But then, in the eighteenth century, the writer James Boswell remarked on ‘that irresolution which forms so marked a part of [Hamlet’s] character,’ and the description stuck. Over the next hundred years…the Hamlet we know today was born: a man so paralyzed by indecision that he is unable to take action.” Ms. Schulz asks why anyone would not think it reasonable for a leader to hesitate and think twice before killing his stepfather (patricide) and king (regicide), especially when a ghost intructed him to commit the crimes. And she wonders, “What was it in the political and cultural climate of the moment that suddenly made action and conviction, thought and doubt such transfixing issues?” Whatever was responsible then is still acting today.
Why people feel certain, even in the face of contradictory evidence, is the theme of the book: we usually believe we’re right and we have a great fear of being wrong. Certainty is our way of avoiding a confrontation with the feeling of fear. Meanwhile, we prefer leaders who also avoid that confrontation. Hamlet wouldn’t make it through a primary.