In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular character Prince Hamlet suspects that his uncle Claudius, who has just married his mother and assumed the role of king, may have murdered his father. To test his theory, Hamlet plans to have Claudius watch the play The Murder of Gonzago, which parodies his father’s murder. “I have heard / That guilty creatures sitting at a play / Have, by the very cunning of the scene, / Been struck so to the soul that presently / They have proclaimed their malefactions; / For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ,” Hamlet proposes. The play’s intended audience, according to Hamlet, are “guilty creatures” who will be so moved by a scene on a stage that they will confess their sins. While these sins do not speak for themselves, the theater gives them a “tongue”—a way to be spoken and submitted into the public consciousness. “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” Hamlet concludes; apparently, it is well known throughout Denmark, where Hamlet is set, that critical art can move its audience to discomfort and even confession.
Except when the audience doesn’t comply. Even when critical art demands a reaction from its onlookers, it doesn’t always receive one, let alone elicit the response the creator hopes for. Critical art whose audience is complacent to it, however, is ultimately art whose critique has lost all meaning.
I recently saw Here We Are, the new and final musical by Stephen Sondheim, at an off-Broadway theater in New York City called The Shed. Here We Are is an absurdist satire inspired by two films by Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel that critique bourgeois culture. In the musical, a crew of upper-class men and women set out one morning looking for brunch, only to find that “the revolution” has arrived. There is no brunch, not even at Café Everything, and the masses have emerged to take down the bourgeoisie. The gang eventually decides to hide out in an international embassy that is “aggressively not middle class,” as one character puts it. The societal critique is searing, and yet the audience at The Shed—needless to say, a group far more similar to the bourgeois crew than to the revolutionaries—luxuriates in its intellectual fare. The play does not cause the members of its audience to alter their lives or examine their privileged identities as much as it reassures them that they are aware of the critiques of their lifestyles and, indeed, their very existence. In a society obsessed with virtue-signaling, the audience prizes its newfound awareness of its privilege more than it does taking concrete action to bring about economic justice.
Like The Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet, theater in our world is meant to elicit strong reactions that call on viewers to act. Nevertheless, wealthy, progressively minded consumers of art, who possess both the capital (which they’ve amassed by participating in the capitalist system) to buy tickets to a show like Here We Are and the cultural capital to understand that they are watching a show that critiques capitalism, defy this notion altogether.
To be sure, the consumption of art by the exact kinds of people it is meant to critique is nothing new. Neither is the ability of the privileged to relish in critiques of themselves. These perennial phenomena are what make Hamlet’s play-within-a-play so entertaining. Within his masterpiece, Shakespeare depicts how we should react to critical art—that is, by acknowledging both outwardly and inwardly that our own ironic posturing and sins are mirrored within it.
In The Murder of Gonzago, the king’s brother pours poison into the king’s ear to kill him and then promptly assumes the throne and marries his wife. These details parody what Hamlet suspects to have been Claudius’s actions. After the poisoning, Claudius stands up and calls for the play to stop. The chorus responds, “lights, lights, lights!” as “reality” is restored to the playhouse. Hamlet’s angsty teenage provocations have worked; the entire royal court is distraught, having been thrown into a frenzy by the disruption. The Murder of Gonzago successfully forces Claudius into a private reckoning with his own actions. Alone on the stage, he prays to heaven for forgiveness, grappling with how he might cleanse himself of his sins when he admits to still being “possess’d / Of those effects for which I did the murder, / My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.”
Hamlet crystallizes his intent to catch Claudius’s conscience in a conversation with his uncle himself. When Claudius asks to be reminded of the play’s title, Hamlet switches it from “The Murder of Gonzago” to “The Mousetrap,” indicating that the king has fallen into a “trap” he has set for him. Hamlet is “mad”: he is young, provocative, and knows how to manipulate words and worlds to achieve his desired outcome. In other words, he is an artist. For Shakespeare, Hamlet embodies the artist’s aspiration to create something that people care so deeply about that it makes them not just think but act.
But let’s say King Claudius lived in New York City in 2024, and that he was going to see The Murder of Gonzago at The Shed. He might be amused by the play, but it probably wouldn’t catch his conscience. He would take pleasure in being forced to recognize his own misdeeds and being reminded of his own power in the playhouse rather than be unnerved by the effective accusation that he harbored murderous tendencies. His newfound self-awareness in the playhouse would allow him to indulge in his daily dose of “sitting down and listening”—and he has gotten very good at listening. He understands the problems of murder and despotic rule. He never gets tired of the play’s critique of him; indeed, he enjoys it. When the play is over, he heads off to brunch.
In the parallel universe I’ve just described, the theater creates a cognitive dissonance between what Claudius sees in the performance and his own reality. Although the play may cause him to reflect on his own actions comfortably over brunch, it doesn’t lead him to change them in a transformative manner.
Varying and contradictory responses to critical art have existed since the Elizabethan era. Scholars often analyze and argue for the topicality of Shakespeare’s fictional stories. Although most of his plays are set in faraway lands, the turmoil in Shakespeare’s Elsinore or Verona is meant to serve as an allegory for the major historical events of his own English society and, of course, include criticisms of that society as well. Despite the overtly political nature of his plays, they were not only popular in the public playhouse but also the private halls of the royalty, as his acting troupe performed regularly for Queen Elizabeth I and her successor King James VI.
In the contemporary arts, an emerging genre of “Eat the Rich” films, shows, and plays have captivated a large audience, including the wealthy. The current iteration of critical art also receives wide-ranging sorts of responses. Here We Are is only one example. Television shows and movies like Parasite, White Lotus, The Menu, Succession, and Triangle of Sadness fall under the “Eat the Rich” category, as well, boasting casts of out-of-touch characters caught in “dramedies.” The genre condemns capitalism and gets its name from a popular, leftist political slogan that derives from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s commentary on the French Revolution: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” Many cultural critics have theorized why audiences love the genre so much; writer Sam Adler-Bell, for example, claims that “hostility to the ultra-rich has become a marker of modish cultural literacy.” At the same time, he acknowledges that the genre allows members of the audience to live out their fantasies of being ultrarich themselves.
Analyses like that of Adler-Bell assume that the audience doesn’t jet to extravagant hotels or lay claim to large media conglomerates—that they aren’t anything like the characters in White Lotus or Succession. But when the audience has done these things and, in fact, is ultra-wealthy, the art can still retain its appeal if the critique remains theoretical, sealed within the playhouse or screen. The stage feels safer for critique than the outside world, and so the playhouse represents the space that art creates for the distance between the real and the imagined, as opposed to the space that art could create for action in the real world.
Yet we have plenty of examples of art eliciting strong reactions and acting as a catalyst for change in the recent past. Antiwar protest songs of the 1960s, “Silence=Death” posters during the AIDS crisis, and French sculptor Marcel Duchamp’s porcelain urinal are all apt examples. One of the most famous plays to ever excite, upset, and challenge the world is Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which critiqued gender roles and traditional family dynamics. We have witnessed critique metastasize from the playhouse to the streets, even when it isn’t at the behest of the play’s patrons. Critical art, even that produced in recent years, does not always fall flat.
Critical art is commonplace in our culture, and everyone, including the very subjects of its critique, seems to want to take part in the criticism. Those subjects, who would benefit most from the reality check provided by art, are at risk of ignoring its meaning altogether by attempting to join in on its critique, rather than taking its message seriously. The widely held idea that critical art elicits a reaction and enacts change is perhaps more of an aspiration today than a truth. We crave art that gives a “tongue”—in Hamlet’s words—to important social, cultural, and political movements. But critical art cannot catch a conscience if its audience isn’t willing to be caught.