“Ghosts can't help themselves: they are always where they have to be, not where they want to be, calling out to us from somewhere beyond our own senses.” – Ken Hollings (28)
It starts with dread motion, unnatural noise. “One may recall”, writes Marx in a footnote to Capital, “that China and the tables began to dance when the rest of the world appeared to be standing still” (164). This now-recondite joke seems, on explanation, to hold a more profound flash of insight: it plays on the coincidence of the craze for spiritualism in bourgeois German society with the stifling wave of reaction that followed the 1848 revolutions, and the outbreak of the Taiping Revolt in 1850; in doing so, it hints at a logic, more than coincidence, that evades rational explanation but only resides in the way the joke leaps the gap between these phenomena. It suggests that what is stifled at one point in the circuits of power is not destroyed but reappears in the form of a disquieting upset of reality – or elsewhere, as another outbreak of disturbance. It is perhaps with such a logic in mind that Marx and Engels famously begin the earlier Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism” (54). This is a curious ghost: communism is something as yet non-existent, something insubstantial that still exercises fear in “[a]ll the powers of old Europe” (54); but it is not a trace of something which existed in the past, but still-to-come, which, if it arrives at all, arrives from the future. It emerges then, in relation to time and history, in a similarly unexpected fashion. This slipperiness and undecidability (to use Derrida's term) corresponds with what Jacques Derrida has punningly called hauntology, the logic of the spectre's being (or lack thereof) (10). For Derrida, the ghost is a figure that hovers between states: being dead, it is no longer possessed of the being one expects of the living, but it is not non-existent either; it is precisely this liminality that defines the ghostly. He suggests that behind the Manifesto's opening lies “the first coming of the silent ghost, the apparition of the spirit that does not answer, on those ramparts of Elsinore which is then the old Europe” (11). Perhaps, I would suggest, if we wish to read Hamlet, a play centring on the heart of state power in “the old Europe”, we must read backwards from Marx and Engels' concern with the ghost as an image of the workings of power and political possibility, to the mysterious “thing” (Hamlet I.i.24) at the core of the play: the Ghost of old Hamlet, and the fact of death that he represents, that spreads itself through the fabric of the play. Much critical attention has fallen on the Ghost, excavating the beliefs current to the audiences of Shakespeare's time, and the cultural power-struggles that surrounded the staging of these apparitions, as the Reformation became entrenched in England. These beliefs relate to Elizabethan attitudes to death – the play, this essay will contend, centres on a relationship, and act of communication, with the dead; it is possessed by this unsettling figure of the spectre, and becomes a site of contestation, racked by the epistemological crisis that death had become for Shakespeare's contemporaries. But the persistent reading of the Ghost outside of the broader political and historical context should also be reconsidered: these cultural ideas were structured and saturated by the historic crisis then transforming Europe – the genesis of capitalist modernity, the protracted death of the feudal system, and shaping of the modern nation-state.
We do not begin by reading Hamlet politically. It seems significant that it is mentioned in neither of the seminal volumes of cultural-materialist readings of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, Political Shakespeare (1985) and Jonathan Dollimore's Radical Tragedy (1984). Dollimore rehearses, in the latter volume, the critical divide over readings of tragedy: on the one hand, traditionally it was seen as an expression of necessity, of the working of immutable forces against the individual. Dollimore says of J.W. Lever, representing the other camp,
in contradistinction to [George] Steiner, he sees the causes of suffering and conflict in these tragedies as contingent rather than necessary, the effect of social and historical forces focussed in state power. Though terrifyingly destructive, these forces are not irresistible in the sense of being cosmically or divinely destined (xviii).
Hamlet immediately presents this position with a problem: its action begins with a supernatural intervention. At the play's beginning, the Ghost has already appeared “Two nights together” (I.ii.196); we are witness, in the first scene, to the third apparition of a “thing” that appears in a shape “like the King that's dead” (I.i.44). Such an event goes against the natural law, “shak[ing] the disposition” of those “fools of nature” who watch it (I.iv.54-55). There is no time before the ghost: the world of the play is shaped by the existence of this element of the supernatural, and its whole action is set in motion by the information and command which old Hamlet has returned from the grave to give to his son. Moreover, unlike, say, the history plays, Hamlet does not place the actions of state power in the foreground: the machinations of young Fortinbras occur offstage, hardly remarked on until his troops march over the stage in IV.iv, then invade the death-scene in V.ii; compare, again, with Macbeth, which opens with reports of warfare and whose last act is taken up with battle, or 1 Henry IV or Richard III, both of which include large set-piece battles. The entire action of Hamlet could, indeed, be seen as a relatively minor private episode in a longer history of territorial power struggles, as indicated by the information given by Horatio about old Hamlet's war with “ambitious Norway” and the “sledded Polacks” (I.i.64-66).
But then criticism does not, these days, read the political quite so narrowly. Useful here is Alan Sinfield's notion of “faultlines” that run through texts: “the social order cannot but produce faultlines through which its own criteria of plausibility fall into contest and disarray” (45). The social and familial world of the play, apparently so integral and impervious at the beginning, in the lustrous spectacle of the Danish court, is riven by hidden fractures that, in the course of the action, erupt and threaten to disintegrate it, traceable back to the internal pressures of a society in the process of dissolution and transformation; in the process, the drama in the microcosm of Elsinore tells more about the nature of state power at the end of the 16th century than it could state explicitly. Denmark, indeed, is a prison, and, like all prisons, its dramas disclose what Michel Foucault calls the “micro-physics of power” (26) – and, we might add, its spectral logic.
The faultline is death, and all that surrounds it. It acts both at the level of dramatic motivation and at the more amorphous level of dramatic signification and atmosphere. For Hamlet, the Wittenberg-schooled intellectual, the problem is epistemological: how can he know the truth about death and the afterlife? In his position as we find him at the beginning of the play, we can discern traces not only of the classical scepticism of the afterlife resurrected by Renaissance humanism, but the more radical doubt and free-thinking, released, as Aaron Landau notes, by “the 16th century schism in the Church and the subsequent contention for ultimate religious legitimacy between the different factions into which Christianity had disintegrated”, that shadows the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, and trails itself through the plays of the period (218). I am speaking not simply of its registration at the level of direct statement – such as Machevil's declaration that “I count religion but a childish toy” in the Prologue to the Jew of Malta (14) – but at the level of the blurring or confusion, the incomplete or mutilated reproduction, of ideological certainties. So, in Measure for Measure, Claudio, on his sister's refusal to save him, says that “we know not where” we go when we die (III.i.115); his mind is possessed by the transformation from “sensible warm motion” to “a kneaded clod” (117-118), the horror of having “[t]o lie in cold obstruction, and to rot” (116), of which the imagined torments listed after seem merely an extension; never once does he seem to suggest that a paradisical afterlife is possible. This is something like Hamlet's conception of death, following that of his father. Death is an “undiscover'd country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” (III.i.79-80); there being “something after death” is registered not as certainty but possibility, and that accompanied by “dread” (78). This seems to be one, largely unacknowledged, reason behind Hamlet's efforts to verify the Ghost's claims via the play-within-the-play: if true, it resolves the epistemological quandary in favour of the afterlife. (This perhaps goes some way to explaining Hamlet's sudden conversion to the belief that “[t]here's a divinity that shapes our ends” (V.ii.10), after the springing of The Mousetrap.) As this suggests, the cultural and historical dimensions to the Ghost's apparition are crucial. It refers to a space where it is “for the day confin'd to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg'd away” – suggestive of Purgatory (I.v.11-13). The creation of the Church of England necessitated Purgatory's abolition, and the banishing of the dead to their just resting-place in hell or paradise. As Stephen Greenblatt notes in his study of the concept, it was a means of making the afterlife comprehensible and meaningful to the mourning, an “intimate and familial” space (16-17); it maintained a proximity and reciprocity of the dead to the living (102-103). With its destruction, one can imagine the difficulties posed: the afterlife is no longer real to the now-isolated Protestant subject, must be constituted by the act of faith whose ungroundedness is precisely what defines it as faith. “The blessed souls in Heaven […] had no need of suffrages […] while the damned souls in Hell could not make use of them” (19): the dead were now entirely cut-off from the world of the living, and had no part in its affairs – and, most importantly, they could not come back. This, then, is in part the shock of the Ghost: returning from Purgatory, it realises and makes concrete death and the dead, and in doing so deeply problematises the forms of knowledge about death which dominate the play's juncture, upsets its easy assumptions and separations, in a presaging of the shattering it will effect on the lifeworld of the play, and the Danish state. Freud's analysis of the uncanny is useful here: we are haunted by that which is most familiar and intimate (heimlich) to us, which, in the moment of spooking, unfolds as something horrifically alien (340). Death, in spite of the reassurances of Claudius and Gertrude, is an unresolved issue, a concealed schism running through the new settlement: from the act of communication with the dead, between father and son, the crossing and confounding of the boundary, will emerge everything that will dismantle this wider system. The historical elements of the Ghost, and death itself, will prove baleful: the return of repressed history.