The Idiot Soul of Wit: On the Genius of Hamlet and Ion
The Western philosophical tradition arguably begins as a dispute over the status of poetry. In the Republic Socrates characterizes the relationship between poetry and philosophy as an “ancient quarrel,” and yet this characterization is challenged as much by Plato’s use of the dialogic form as by the frequency of his reflections on Greek poetry. Why write poetically and so often about poetry if it’s the antithesis of philosophy? This thesis, “The Idiot Soul of Wit: On the Genius of Hamlet and Ion,” examines the relation between philosophy and poetry through interpreting Plato’s Ion and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Not only can these works be understood to share a similar generic form—Plato’s dialogues are closer to dramatic poetry than a scientific treatise—but they are both concerned with the significance of form in particular. This shows up in a twofold way. First, both have a reflexive plot that mirrors the psychology of the titular character, which plays out as a reciprocity between action and speech, since for each speech is the principle action. Second, they employ a similar frame: Hamlet turns on revenge and soliloquy, Ion yokes together war and poetry. Thus structurally both aim to synthesize action and reflection, but frame their divergence in the starkest terms: violence requires no words; poetry requires no deeds. The same duality is exhibited by their respective lead characters, who play the double role of actor and spectator: Ion is asked to reflect upon his skill in performance; Hamlet attempts to commit the self-aware act. Ultimately both fail, yet failure illuminates the core proposition of each work: if we cannot know ourselves, we may yet grasp what allows us to pose the self as a question. Through examining these texts, this study confronts the radical privacy of the self that necessitates poetic language, and the dialectic by virtue of which self-knowledge is possible to the extent that it is—which, given the centrality of self-knowledge to Socratic philosophy, indicates why Plato can neither win nor forfeit the contest with poetry.