When it comes to the twisted gyre of human identity, what would Hamlet be like on social media? He would be a lot like Hamlet, and a lot like you and me.
Facebook has turned us into an electronic village. TV had already done that, of course, but on Facebook we can not only be held together but chat about what we’ve seen and heard. I grew up in a village and can recall just running into people on the sidewalks and exchanging news and views. Now I bump into people on Facebook. I used to walk around in order to encounter people. Now I place my bottom on a chair and scroll down. In my village I might tell someone I’d not seen them in a while. On Facebook I might tell them I’ve not had a post from them in a long time. This is my Comment, and I Like the fact that they have resurfaced. In my village I would tell them it was good to see them again. Facebook, as Marshall McLuhan would say if he were around, has thrown us back to the village of olden days,
There are differences. In my village, if I didn’t want to talk to someone but saw them coming, I could change routes or stop by Mrs. Rogers’ house for a cup of coffee in order to avoid them. Still, the boring or unlikeable fellow villager might see me trying to escape. On Facebook, if I wish to ignore a fellow villager from Facebook, The World, I can simply do so without anyone knowing. If one of my fellow villagers of old and I exchanged gossip or opinions, it would for a while at least be just between us. If it happens on a Facebook thread, it will be there for all FB villagers to see, In the old village if I told a fellow denizen I liked Pepsi, the town grocer wouldn’t be eavesdropping to learn that he’d better order fewer Cokes. Facebook village, on the other hand, is a giant surveillance service for corporations much larger than the town grocer.
A village is a small, circumscribed place. In a big city one rarely notices visitors. In a village, visitors are a novelty, not unlike an unexpected Facebook Friend request. So it was in the Danish court of Prince Hamlet and King Claudius. Norwegian ambassadors paid a call, and it was a big deal, as Claudius needed to negotiate a territorial understanding between himself and
Fortinbras, the upstart and aggressive Norwegian prince. In such a courtly “village”–a great big castle–people would have run into one another all the time. But the Danish court is no ordinary village, as most of the inhabitants conspire to run into one another, Polonius acts as though he has just bumped into Hamlet, but in fact he has deliberately done so in order to spy for King Claudius, who knows that Hamlet has seemed to be acting funny of late and wants to know why. As Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father and married his mother, Claudius wants to keep close tabs on Hamlet., It is as though Hamlet’s social media posts have been angrily daffy and the government wants to know why. So someone in the top echelons tells Polonius, “Friend him and feel him out.” In the Facebook village Polonius would have needed only to read Hamlet’s posts, but in the Danish village he has to eavesdrop. This gets him killed. Facebook lurking is safer.
Most of us would prefer to live in a village where people don’t plot to run into us in order to find out our secrets. That’s the difference between a good village and a bad one. There’s little privacy in an everybody-know-everybody type of town, but on Facebook we give up our privacy in order to get our ideas and photos “liked.” There would have been little privacy in the small Danish court, but Claudius goes a step further and seeks to invade Hamlet’s privacy in any way he can. He discovers that Hamlet is not mad due to love sickness and concludes that Hamlet must know something incriminating about Claudius himself. He plans to get rid of Hamlet one way or another,
It seems fanciful to imagine this whole drama of duplicity and spying and murder playing out on Facebook village, as opposed to the Danish court village. It may not be so outlandish. In the course of things Hamlet takes on several different identities: melancholy cynic, incoherently angry avenger, focused avenger, duplicitous counter-intelligencer, brave and resigned stoic. On Facebook we sometimes project multiple and shifting identities. We like our “likes” on Facebook and feel we must constantly maintain our reputation for: being witty, being liberal or conservative, being a good amateur photographer, being a lover of pets, being sympathetic, being a teller of sentimental family stories. We wish to maintain our standards, and if Hamlet were on Facebook instead of on soliloquies, he would understand, as he has his own internal reputation to uphold as a competent agent of revenge and upholder of the family honor and judge of his mother’s transgressions. We worry in the Facebook village about our brand. Hamlet has been branded by his father’s ghost and must now live up to the trademark. On Facebook there is no forgetting: posts are cyber spatially immortal. In order to move on with his life after the tragedy
of his father’s sudden death, Hamlet needs to forget him. But the ghost of his father tells Hamlet he cannot forget his duty to put things right. It is as though Hamlet, Sr. had his own FB account and has posted orders that can never be erased If Hamlet were to put his own maturation ahead of his revenge, someone would find old Hamlet’s posts on the web and remind Hamlet of unfinished business, It is like something you or I said ten years ago that now haunts us,
In my traditional village they never forget what you did, but because bumped into exchanges are just between the two of you, what you say can get forgotten, Not so with the Facebook village or the village of the ghostly Danish court.
Hamlet finds the dormant programming of his inner stoic. Instead of looking for the occasion for revenge, he lets it come to him. “Let be.” This is a story with a progression and turning point- -life with the dull parts omitted–whereas Facebook is more like life itself as we experience: a series of frames. Still, on Facebook we strive to convey our impressions of ourselves, present a unified front, or, contrarily, express different facets of ourselves. For most of the play, until he returns from his near-death experience on the ship to England, after which he accepts his as yet unknown fate with the cheerful adjournment of previous anger, he grapples with his identity every bit as much as does a villager of Facebook. In thinking he should be in control, as we try to be on social media, he sees himself through a glass darkly. Facebook itself may be just such a clouded mirror of identity dynamics.
Hamlet’s identity issues are impression management, standards maintenance, discontinuity of the self, and necessity to forget but the impossibility of doing so. These are all played out on Facebook every minute of every day. The electronic village is different from the “real” one. But the overlap in identity issues between the two suggests that there is something about the human quest for the self that transcends media more than we think. Hamlet on Facebook is not quite so preposterous as it seems at first thought. Something there is about the divided human self that doesn’t care what the medium is and just wants to do its thing, aspiring and confused. Did some potentially perfect deity outsource human identity to an ingenious but myopic, miscalculating architect? What an excellent question for a Facebook post.