G. Wilson Knight, in his dated but useful essay 'The Embassy of Death', is partly right when he says that, starting in Hamlet himself, death “spreads its effects outwards among the other persons like a blighting disease, and, as the play progresses […] insidiously undermines the health of the state” (32); the play is, rather, shadowed by undeath, by the radical and unsettling undecidability of the spectre. No ghost can exist without a death, but the dead in Hamlet cannot be reduced to that event: the problem is that the dead will not, as their state should dictate, go away. “That sepulchral cataclysm at the beginning”, writes Knight, “is the key to the whole play. Hamlet begins with an explosion in the first act; the rest of the play is the reverberation thereof” (42). The Ghost erupts from events taking place before the start of the play, and over the course of the action eats out the fabric of its world; what is repressed, what had been thought disappeared, into the next life, returns with insidious force. The play rehearses this originary encounter, between a son and his dead father in the graveyard scene, which drags the dead onstage. The event of death reduces man from a subject into an object – an actor to a prop: a wax severed head, or, in this case, a skull. Hamlet does not address Yorick's skull as the remnants of Yorick, or what once was Yorick, but as “poor Yorick”, and speaks of his qualities as a jester in the present tense, noting that “[h]e hath bore me on his back a thousand times” as if he were still capable of it; “those lips that oft I kissed” are not there, except as Hamlet's speech, his “imagination”, conjures them (V.i.178-181). The pose, face to face – Emmanuel Levinas claims that the face is the part through which the presence of the Other is most keenly felt, that mediates relation (50) – summons a ghostly intersubjectivity. Hamlet, it seems, is unable to see the object in his hand as nothing more, but creates a phantom presence behind it; conversely, the situation, of like reflecting like, suggests that Hamlet, too, and all the living, are already fleshless skulls – “let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come” (V.i.187-188). “Unfortunately,” Andrew Sofer says, “the eye must choose between skull and man – and handy-dandy, which is the person, which is the prop?” (52). There is a kind of theatrical double-consciousness going on in this scene: the object-ive fact of death stares us full in the face, but we are forced to think of former life. Thus the quality of the spectral, the uncanny un-life that possesses these objects, and spreads through the fabric of the play, erasing the boundary between the fleshly living and the vanished dead.
Memory, here, is the spectral medium: if Hamlet is thirty at the time, and Yorick “hath lien you i'th'earth three and twenty years” (V.i.166-167), then Hamlet was seven when he died; his childhood memories are filled with “your gibes […], your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment” (V.i.183-4). The object reconstructs the past, a reconstruction made possible only by the severance of death. Yorick, as he lived, in some sense lives on, and rises back up at the moment of Hamlet's remembrance, conjured in his speech; he ceases, at the moment of the Gravedigger's information, to be a passive screen for Hamlet's projections, and becomes an active presence – through memory the dead, too, have agency. In the closet scene, before the Ghost's final entrance, Hamlet commands Gertrude to “Look here upon this picture, and on this, / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers” (III.iv.52-53). This has most often been taken to indicate examples of the miniature portraiture popular among the Elizabethan upper classes, contained in a locket; it is an object intimate to Hamlet, worn against his body. “This”, he tells her, “was your husband”:
[…] what a grace was seated on that brow,
Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill,
A combination and a form indeed
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man (III.iv.55-63).
The likeness of a dead man again confronts the living. These qualities, which have now, in actuality, vanished with the late king, are to be the criterion by which Claudius must be judged; they continue to exercise power past death. The portrait, to Hamlet, is his father, or what of the man remains to him. Certainly, memory displaces what really does remain of him – the bloated, worm-eaten corpse interred two months earlier. When the Ghost makes its first two appearances the witnesses do not imply that it is, in fact, the returned spirit of the king, but something which “usurp'st […] that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march” (I.i.49-52); 'sometimes' here means 'formerly', before the event of death, reaching back to Horatio's own memory of the king (“Such was the very armour he had on” (63)); the Ghost puts on memory, the content of the past, as a garb. Hence Horatio's injunction, “Stay, illusion” (130): as Stephen Greenblatt writes, “'Illusion' marks a difference between what they are all witnessing and what they know to be reality – in this case, the decaying corpse. There is nothing imaginary about the corpse, even if they do not have it before their eyes” (212). Hence the uncanny action by which Hamlet's meditation on the portrait of his father seems to summon the apparition of “[m]y father, in his habit as he liv'd” (III.iv.137): one memory living with vivid force summons another. There is a kind of theatrical double-consciousness going on in these scenes: in one, the object-ive fact of death stares us full in the face, but we are forced to think of former life; in the other we see a “remembrance” of the living form, the 'spiritual body' as it might appear, but it is troubled by the unspoken fact of the material body. Thus, again, that quality of the spectral, the uncanny un-life that possesses these objects, and still spreads through the fabric of the play – bringing us back to the figure of the Ghost: as Greenblatt notes, “their responses suggest the apparition on the battlements is a kind of embodied memory” (212). Memory brands the play with agonising force, the past lingering on with this disturbing half-life. The Ghost's departing injunction to Hamlet is not that of Andrea in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, its nearest known antecedent, who watches the action with a personification of Revenge, or the ur-Hamlet, in which a pale ghost cried “like an oyster-wife, 'Hamlet, revenge'” (qtd. in Greenblatt, 205); it is “Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me” (I.v.90). And Hamlet hardly seems capable of forgetting: even before encountering his father's ghost, he is troubled by the memory of “So excellent a king” – “Heaven and earth, / Must I remember?” (I.ii.139-143); faced with his father's spectre, his command is imprinted irremovably in “the table of my memory” (I.v.98). He distinguishes the quality of this memory from that which he possessed beforehand – “trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there” (I.v.99-101). And modernity has no use for memory: for Claudius, publicly the model of the post-Machievellian statesman, “discretion” must battle with and subdue the 'natural' impulse of grief (I.ii.5), and “remembrance of ourselves” – that is, not only himself but the whole state now embodied in him (and, perhaps, all those on that side of the border of death) – must accompany the memory of “our dear brother's death” (1-7). Modernity marks itself out by opposition to the past that memory preserves; it depends on the liquidation of older forms – of community, family, selfhood, value, everyday practice (such as religion) and production. And anything that will not be remade is “obstinate […] a course / Of impious stubbornness”, “peevish opposition” (93-100). Claudius mistakes the nature of this play's memory: it is a memory that will not let go, automatic, unerasable, and hence unnerving. When the Ghost confronts Hamlet in the closet scene, his first words are the command “Do not forget” (III.iv.110); Greenblatt comments, “Memory depends on a certain fading or dulling of the sense impression, but the apparition is too vivid […] Horatio and the nightwatch are terrified by the repeated appearance of an uncanny figure that startlingly recalls the old king; Hamlet is driven to suicide by comparably unbidden, repeated inward recollections” (213, my italics). One theory[i] concerning the graveyard scene has focused on the use of skulls as memento mori and in the vanitas genre of painting: the skull is an “embodied memory” of the fact of inescapable death lying at the end of one's life; this memory, the unfleshed remnant of the past, is also an injunction to 'remember the future' – the fact that, beneath the thin clothing of skin, we are all already skulls, a fact soon to be realised in the bodies that will pile up on-stage. Memory is not simply retrospective but predictive – it confounds linear time: the revenant's eruption into the present plots the terminus of the drama.
Hamlet is incapable of recognising the flesh/spirit binary by which Christianity legitimises death: the “whoreson dead body” (V.i.166), in its process of putrefaction, is traditionally the obverse to the pure spirit released from its corporeal cage to its maker. Gertrude and Claudius chide Hamlet for “Seek[ing] for thy noble father in the dust” (I.ii.71), his mortal remains where the identity known as old Hamlet will not be found; it is “a fault to heaven” (101), which has taken what they knew as the king, and is just in doing so. The resistance or snag in Hamlet's thinking soon emerges: he cannot stand the corrupt materiality of his own “sullied flesh”, wishes that it could dissolve, but remaining as “a dew”, a transcendental escape seemingly inconceivable (129-130); this wished-for liquidation remains disturbingly corporeal. Thus his obsessive brooding over the process of decay: what value or difference, he asks in a parodic image, should the quickening of life, the “Conception” that might occur to Ophelia (II.ii.184), have if “the sun breed maggots in dead dog” (181), just as much as her “a good kissing carrion” (182): the difference between the dead and the living is minimal. His reply to Claudius after Polonius' killing mocks the body/spirit distinction – they may believe he is “in heaven” or “th'other place” (IV.iii.33-34), but these possibilities are overpowered by the material and olfactory presence of the corpse on the stairs (36). Hamlet is caught between the picture of a devitalised world and horrific evidence of a life after death, who sees in the dynamic processes of the concrete world only horror, but cannot believe in its transcendence. Notably, his most bitter examples of extravagant cynicism occur only after his encounter with the hybrid figure of the Ghost. R.A. Foakes draws attention to the “double nature” of the Ghost's stage-presence: the techniques of “phosphorescence, masks, mists, shadows, green or blue luminosities, and unearthly sounds” that made later Ghosts more ethereal were unused on the Elizabethan stage (42); the Ghost moves across the stage in full head-to-toe armour (whether real or imitation), carrying a truncheon, “with solemn march / […] slow and stately” (I.ii.201-202) – it is difficult to imagine one more fully and imposingly embodied on-stage; he is possessed of what Derrida calls “the tangible intangibility of a proper body without flesh, but still the body of someone as someone other” (6). It is this frictional clash of categories that drives the rhetorical energy, the argument, of the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy. The first words already pose the question, but it is quickly transformed: Hamlet wishes that he could be sure that death was a sleep and “no more” (III.i.61). But it is not so simple: “not to be” may entail continued being, in unknown dreams that haunt the “sleep of death” (66). Dreams, of course, do not possess the solidity of everyday reality: they possess the same relation to waking life as a ghost does to the living man (after his encounter with the Ghost, Hamlet complains to Rosencrantz that “I have bad dreams” (II.ii.256)). Even after the action of making “his quietus [...] / With a bare bodkin” (III.i.75-76), this shadowy, uncanny margin of life – such as might bring the “canoniz'd bones, hearsed in death” to “burst their cerements” and stalk the earth again (I.iv.47-48) – lingers on. The terrible thing about the dead in Hamlet, from the very start, is their persistence.
[i] See for example Jefferey Alan Triggs, “A Mirror for Mankind: The Pose of Hamlet with the Skull of Yorick.” The New Orleans Review 17.3 (Fall 1990): 71-79.