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Why is Germany so obsessed with Hamlet?

From 18th century philosophers to present day audiences, Germans just can’t get enough of the Dane.

On 22 November Lars Eidinger took to the stage in Berlin to play Hamlet for the 250th time in a production running since 2008 that shows no sign of ending. Hardly a year goes by in Germany without at least one new notable German-language production of the play. Germany’s love of Shakespeare is well known, but why the obsession with this particular tragedy?

A description of the current production on the Berlin theatre’s website gives us a clue. “With its central paradox of the incapacitated protagonist,” we read, “Hamlet remains today a valid analysis of the intellectual dilemma between complex thinking and political action.”

Germany has long been home to great debate about the relative values of thought and action and the ideal balance between them. It was a dilemma that consumed German thinkers as far back as the 18th century, who soon realised that Hamlet was the perfect vehicle for exploring it. Is our nation of poets and thinkers condemned to the same existence as Hamlet, they asked, plagued by indecision and inaction?

Concern that “Germany is Hamlet” reached its peak in 1848 when the revolution that would have unified the German nation failed. We hesitated for too long, came the woeful cry.

But just 23 years later, unification did come. An 1877 American edition of the play was dedicated to the German people, “whose recent history has proved once for all that ‘Germany is not Hamlet’.” Surely Germany could finally be released from the burden of identifying with this ditherer?

Yet the obsession did not end and Hamlet remained a key reference point for discussing the actions (or inaction) of the German state and its members.

The years of division between 1949 and 1989 spawned some highly politicised productions. The 1970s West German Hamlet was shown as powerless to affect his corrupt society, reflecting the experiences of intellectuals and theatre directors who failed to influence the politics of the 1960s revolutions.

Later productions were only a little less gloomy. The Hamlet that appeared on stage in Hamburg in 1986 was a middle-aged intellectual who wore glasses and carried a well-thumbed notebook. “Hamlet knows everything”, the director noted in the margin of his script. This production showed a tentative return to a belief in the value of thought, even in a society where individuals are unable to exert influence through action.

East German interpretations of Hamlet were unsurprisingly very different. In his speech at the 1964 Shakespeare festival, Cultural Minister Alexander Abusch praised Hamlet’s socialist ideals and lambasted the corrupt society that prevented him carrying them out. In our socialist utopia, he declared, we can succeed where Hamlet failed. His socialist ideals can finally be put into action.

Not everyone agreed with the party line. One production staged the same year – and banned after just 12 performances – showed Hamlet lurching between outbursts of extreme brutality and abstract philosophising. This was no socialist hero or even just a man plagued by indecision – this Hamlet was unhinged.

The obsession with the play has not slackened in reunified Germany. But, just as in the previous decades, the frequent revival of this old, familiar play does not signal a retreat in German theatre from innovative drama. In fact, the nation’s changing role has sparked an exciting new phase in the depiction of the dithering protagonist.

In a radical 2005 production in Munich, director Lars-Ole Walburg incorporated quotations from George W Bush and Michael Moore and references to the Rwandan genocide and the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. Surrounded by television screens showing popular entertainment shows, Walburg’s Hamlet ignored these and engaged instead with real issues, watching programmes on Pearl Harbour and the Iraq War.

Yet he does little, and when he acts, it is with horrifying brutality. We should think hard about difficult issues, this production tells us, but acting on them is impossible – they are just too big and complex.

To think and not to act, however, is useless in today’s Germany, which plays such a key political, financial and military role on the European and global stages.

In 2010, Angela Merkel was directly criticised by the German press for behaving “like Hamlet”, hesitating too long in her handling of the Greek crisis. A book about the chancellor by journalist Nikolaus Blome, published in 2013, is entitled The Artist of Procrastination (a pun on the German word for “magician”) and has Merkel’s trademark indecision at its centre.

The bold actions of the German government in the last few months have shocked many. While the rest of Europe has dithered on the Euro and refugee crises, Merkel has acted. It remains to be seen whether 2015 is a blip in German history, like one of Hamlet’s brief moments of action in the midst of his philosophising. It is also currently unclear whether Germany’s actions have been reckless or the result of careful thought.

The next German Hamlets to appear on stage will undoubtedly engage with recent political events. Will they be able to proclaim at last that “Germany is not Hamlet”? Only time will tell.