Extracts from essays on Hamlet

From Hamlet and the Ghost

The only explanation for Hamlet’s action, or lack of it, is that he doesn’t believe in the ghost. Once he establishes the facts clearly he has a clear intention to act, even though things don’t go according to plan. Hamlet is impossible to understand unless you understand the importance of this. In 1598 atheists were put to death. Not believing in ghosts or the afterlife was very dangerously close to the wind. This is why Shakespeare set the play in Denmark, a notoriously Lutheran and free thinking country, and has Hamlet and his friend Horatio as Lutheran scholars recently returned from Germany. It gave him a little distance. Nevertheless, Hamlet was right on the edge.

This makes the whole business with the ghost very strange. Shakespeare makes it a very physical ghost, visible to everyone, thumping around under the stage after its appearance in front of Hamlet. If it’s not a ghost it’s just an actor after all, and Shakespeare seems to enjoy this idea. He makes the ghost look ridiculous, a parody of a ghost. It’s just a bloke dressed up in silly clothes.

If this thought is correct, it casts an interesting light on Hamlet’s use of a play to prove Claudius’s guilt. If the ghost is an actor then here the actor is a ghost and Claudius is confronted with his past deeds. Haunting and acting are suddenly the same activity.

This also makes us think about stories. In a world where spirits have no actual effect on conscience storytelling does the same job. It brings back the past and makes us confront the things we did. This, if you think about it, is what ghosts do. It’s the opposite of how we often think of ghosts. We usually view them the other way, from the perspective of what they did. They’re haunting us because they’re unhappy, they did something bad and they can’t get into heaven. They are restless spirits. In fact, it’s our own restless spirits that ghosts really reflect. They bring things back for us to remember. They remind us of things as they were. They confront us with things we did.

Ghosts and stories are inescapably linked. When Claudius sees his misdeeds played out in front of him it’s like he’s seen a ghost. Instead of acting on the ghost, Hamlet has now passed it on. The memory it represented didn’t apply to Hamlet. It was Claudius’s.


From Relationalism

Characters in stories have three categories of existence. They act, they relate to each other and they have relativity to each other. In the first respect, they are functional and structural. That’s pretty clear. Without action there would be no plot. However, the other two categories are constantly muddled up, although having a relationship and being relative are of course very different. In the second respect, a characterisation may be emotional and empathetic, or otherwise. Characters without feelings for or about each other would be irrelevant to us. And in the third respect, they are consistent. It would be impossible, for instance, though perhaps rather amusing, for Quilp to appear in Sons and Lovers, or for Hamlet to appear in The White Devil for that matter. Relative existence is a question of time and place, but particularly of time. Relationships may evolve and change but relative existence shifts constantly, because we are never relative to anyone for long. If functionality is only as stable as cause, relative existence is only as stable as circumstance.

The way we think about stories is dominated by our concept of the individual. We are generally comfortable with the idea that an individual can have freedom of choice and action and that this has consequences relative to other characters; and moreover that we all think and act in consistent, and therefore comprehensible ways. When we read a book we often criticize it in terms of the nature of the personalities it contains – are they sufficiently interesting and lifelike? – and in terms of its consistency – is the story believably carried by its actors? When we think about Hamlet, for instance, we habitually attempt to focus on a person. The play is called after him, after all. If Hamlet isn’t a real person, what is the play about?

This is odd, on the face of it, because characters in stories clearly don’t exist either functionally or relatively, outside the book itself. Action and context is contained within story. If the book is to engage us they have to have the third order of existence, and this is where it becomes clear that this is of a different kind altogether.

Hamlet is a good place to examine this, because the play is about what it means to be an individual. We could say that the play is about what Hamlet is. The title of the play is as much a challenge as a statement. Hamlet is the first work in English literature to carry the name of someone nobody had ever heard of before. A Prince of Denmark? Where’s that? But most importantly, who is he?

If we think about Hamlet in terms of functionality and relativity we soon get lost, because Hamlet does not know what to do, and his world is radically inconsistent. There is a ghost in it, for a start, which may or may not belong to it. Our search for an individual leads us to begin to believe that functionality and consistency are what the play is ‘about’ – but that does not really take us anywhere at all, because they are supposed to be the tools by which we understand individuality in the first place. Thus, Hamlet dissolves.

But Hamlet dissolves because Hamlet is not what was there.

We habitually treat Hamlet as if he exists. But what do we start with when we imagine Hamlet? When we look at our source material for this supposition we find simply a series of pieces of dialogue which form links between Hamlet and others. This dialogue is performed, in infinitely varying ways. Hamlet is never the same person twice. He might speak the same words, more or less, but the way they are delivered is varied by his actor.

We assume easily that dialogue is originated by characters, and we are in the habit of taking these fictional people as our starting points, assuming that authors do the same. We might call this a Creative Fallacy. Almost without thinking, we invent characters from the words they speak and the names they are given. It seems natural to give these names and speeches individuality and identity. Actors are paid to do exactly that. So if we imagine Shakespeare, say, ‘creating’ Hamlet and Gertrude, we might imagine him drawing two people in his mind. But actually that might not be the way that they are conceived at all. Perhaps they are instead conceived as mother and son (and then they are not ‘conceived’ at all because mother/son is something which existed already), and it is not their identity that is interesting but the space between them. So Hamlet’s identity, in relation to his mother, is not ‘Hamlet’ but [mother/son]. And this is then complicated and made more interesting by his other identities, which are [dead father/son], [uncle/nephew] and [stepfather/stepson]. All of these are Hamlet, and all we really know about him – all that exists – are the relational words, the dialogues, which establish these multiple identities. Hamlet is simply the place where they coincide.

All of these identities are established through dialogue. So maybe we should treat the starting point not as the character but as the speech. And what if the dialogue is generated, not by the nature of the individuals, but by the nature of relationships in which they are enmeshed? It is not the individuals that are created or authored, but a kind of network that interrelates them. If this is true, maybe we are often guilty of looking at things back to front.

If we question the status of the individual within a network of relationships, who is not an individual at all, we must also question our view of the story, which would no longer be an individual ‘creation’ but a repetition and variation of familiar relational patterns.

We could say that in any story, characters are unique meeting places for different sets of identities, not formed individuals. If this is true, it might be supposed that literature is not about the ways that individuals influence the world, but about how the world encourages us to form concepts we call individual, and about how these are in fact illusory. But this is to look at it merely from a functional and relative point of view. It’s akin to the reading of Hamlet which sees it as a play about Hamlet’s ability to act. In fact, it does not seem outrageous to suggest that human beings exist primarily relationally, and the degree to which we have the capacity to do so is arguably what sets us apart from other animals. It is the links, the bonds, the associations that we are capable of forming, our emotional lives in short, that really engage us. It is these lives which enable us to imagine ourselves, and, if we wish to do so, to see ourselves as individual, claiming credit for something we only have access to by virtue of the fact that it is not there


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