Read in many synagogues this past Shabbat, the book of Ecclesiastes consists of the reflections on life and its vicissitudes of “Kohelet the son of David”—identified traditionally as King Solomon. To Noah Millman, Kohelet’s musings on the futility of human endeavors and the ironies and absurdities of earthly existence resemble nothing so much as the soliloquies delivered by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Kohelet, Millman writes may seem like a philosopher, but in fact that’s not quite so:
Ecclesiastes . . . is a record of Kohelet’s philosophical investigations in dialogue with himself. But on closer inspection, the book is not so much a work of philosophy as a first-person account of the failure of philosophy. Kohelet is an individual striving to make some sense out of his life, only to discover that he cannot do this by philosophical means.
Millman points to numerous similarities between the play and the biblical work, such as Kohelet’s “What profit hath a man of all his labor?” and Hamlet’s “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!” But, with help of the great medieval rabbinic commentary of Rashi, Millman identifies a deeper parallel. Hamlet seeks to take revenge on his uncle for killing his father, usurping the throne, and marrying his mother. And Solomon?
Ecclesiastes appears to offer no similar family backstory for making sense of Kohelet’s misery, . . . but if we take the traditional notion that Kohelet is Solomon seriously, comparisons suddenly spring forth. Solomon, after all, was witness to an almost absurdly on-point Oedipal struggle within his own family when his half-brother, Absalom, revolted against their common father, David, and slept with David’s concubines as a way of fortifying his claim to the throne. David’s deathbed advice to Solomon was to kill the man responsible for Absalom’s death—his general, Joab. Solomon also had to commit fratricide to consolidate his power, killing Adonijah, his half-brother, who had himself crowned king first. Solomon’s struggle for the throne was fully as bloody and incestuous as the one in Elsinore, but he played the royal part that Hamlet labors to avoid.
A suggestion of Rashi provides an even more valuable interpretive lens onto the personal drama behind Kohelet’s melancholy. His commentary suggests that King Solomon foresaw the division of the kingdom under his son Rehoboam and that this was the source of Kohelet’s despair. It’s a notion that can be used to bring many of the book’s apparent contradictions into sudden focus. Why, for example, is Kohelet so persistently concerned with the possibility that someone unworthy will enjoy his wealth? With the possibility that his heirs will be fools?