Big Leagues: Specters of Milton and Republican International Justice between Shakespeare and Marx

Surprisingly enough, discussions of Hamlet have recently become deeply intertwined with debates about international law and international justice. A precipitating cause is Jacques Derrida’s late work Specters of Marx, in which Shakespeare’s Hamlet played a crucial organizing role. Because of Specters of Marx, whose subtitle is The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Hamlet is now, in Nicholas Royle’s words, “an exemplary text for thinking together about the current state of the world.”1 What has also emerged as scholars have returned to Karl Marx and Shakespeare through Derrida might be called a literary history of the International. But if we define the “literary history of the International” loosely as the nexus of texts, conditions, ideas, and contexts that informed Marx and Friedrich Engels’ internationalism, the story now skips easily—too easily—from Shakespeare, to Marx, to Derrida along the path of “hauntology” proposed there by Derrida himself—Derrida’s playful substitute for “ontology,” which he proposes in part in order to theorize literary history’s claims on the present.2

Among the aspects of the literary history of the International that Specters of Marx has made it surprisingly easy to pass over is precisely what Engels first, then Marx, in late 1847, admonished their international readership not to neglect: “Let us never forget Milton, the first defender of regicide.”3 Ghosts are choosy about whom they visit. From the perspective of Derridean “hauntology,” little between Shakespeare and Marx holds much significance except that the Ghost of Shakespeare’s Hamlet traversed time to visit Marx. To insist that Milton’s republicanism, as seen in Paradise Lost among other places, also belongs alongside Hamlet in a literary history of the International is, however, a key aim of this essay. A critic of republicanism, Derrida himself diffused objections that he wrote from “conservative or reactionary motivations or even [from] moderate right-wing or republican positions”; but that should not obscure nineteenth-century radicals’ own interest in republicanism—registered, for example, by the late 1847 call for internationally minded Europeans to honor the regicide Milton, or even the fact that George Julian Harney’s newspaper in which The Communist Manifesto first appeared in English, in 1850, was called The Red Republican.4

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About Christopher N. Warren

Christopher N. Warren is an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. His book Literature and the Law of Nations, 1580–1680 (Oxford, 2015) is a literary history of international law in the age of Shakespeare, Grotius, and Hobbes. Warren is co-founder of the digital humanities project Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, and his work has appeared in the European Journal of International Law, English Literary Renaissance, The Seventeenth Century, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and Law, Culture, and the Humanities. He has held visiting fellowships at Keble College, Oxford, the University of Chicago, and NUI Galway's Moore Institute, and he directs the Pittsburgh Consortium for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.