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The King's Two Bodies: Hauntology and Crisis in 'Hamlet'

The apparition, if it does provide evidence about the nature of the afterlife, does not resolve the problem that death posed for the Elizabethans, and poses again in Hamlet. There is no triumphant affirmation of the Ghost's purgatorial origins except in Hamlet's limited view. Unlike The Spanish Tragedy, which portrays its spectre outside the frame of the action looking on at the final slaughter (“these […] spectacles to please my soul” (IV.v.12)) the Ghost does not appear after III.iii, to approve his son's actions; during the closet scene, the Ghost, which had been seen by Horatio and the night-watch at the play's start, is now invisible to all but Hamlet, disappearing further and further from the objectivity its existence gained via the evidence provided by The Mousetrap. Death remains, but is no longer what anyone thought it was. Hence why Greenblatt's comment that Hamlet is “a young man from Wittenberg, with a distinctly Protestant temperament, is haunted by a distinctly Catholic ghost” (240) seems, whilst true, inadequate. It does point to an important fact: that from the Ghost's emergence the stage becomes a space of friction and disruption, in which the “opposing positions challenge each other, clashing and sending shockwaves through the play” (Greenblatt 240); but this framing represses the nature of haunting, the way in which the logic of the spectre undermines such easy separations – brings the past into uncomfortable proximity, erupting out to burst the false integrity of the present. The historic and cultural dimensions of the Ghost's apparition are not as simple as a confrontation between a Protestant modernity and an unerased fragment of that past; rather it tells us something about the operation of history itself. As Freddie Rokem puts it,

What can be seen in Hamlet is how a burden (some kind of unfinished business from the past) becomes transformed in the actor's being and doing 'this thing' on the stage […] continuously performing a return of the repressed on the theatrical stage. […] The ghost in Hamlet appears on the stage as a disturbance of attempts to create meaning and order after the death of the old king


that is, attempts to settle history, to preserve the present (xi). The play displays, in the movement of its dramatic action, the perturbing logic by which repressed history insinuates itself into that present, and threatens to disintegrate it.

Hence the strange dyschronia that infests Hamlet: like King Lear, it is set in an ambiguous temporality – apparently in a past state, as John Taylor notes, “of kings and barons, without legal, ecclesiastical or parliamentary structures, without merchants, artisans or labourers” (qtd. in Halpern 224), the setting nonetheless possesses features of the Elizabethan world, not least the link with the Reformation embodied by Hamlet and Horatio, and the modern statesman, Claudius. It is there in the Ghost's first appearance. It is “[a]rmed at point exactly, cap-á-pie” (I.ii.200), a term, notes Foakes, “properly used to describe a kind of heavy armour that encased the whole body, and was intended for use on horseback […] By the end of the sixteenth century such armour was obsolete in battle” (35); “his archaic costume” associates him with an “obsolete militarism” and “a past that seemed distant and representative of outmoded habits of thought and action” (45) – that is, with the medieval era of open military aggression in Europe, battling from the saddle, and Catholic superstition. This occurs against a background of sentries “costumed in contemporary military costume” (judging by Marcellus' use of the “partisan”, and the Danish court's habit of firing cannons as part of military ceremony) (46): already the queasy disjunction of temporalities – between modernity and a resurgent fragment of the feudal past – is discernible in the stage-picture. What we hear of old Hamlet's career, and his association in Hamlet's mind with Mars, the god of war, connects him with the figure of the medieval warrior-statesman, solving dilemmas in single combat (I.i.85-89); he is an anachronism in a world where Claudius swiftly and bloodlessly deals with the problem of young Fortinbras (I.ii.26-41), and in which flattering courtiers like Osric, unconnected to older notions of aristocratic and military honour, thrive. Hamlet's lament that “[t]he time is out of joint” (I.v.196) reads both as a concretely political statement – that the state is filled with disorder at present (as in Fortinbras' illusion that “[o]ur state […] be disjoint and out of frame” (I.ii.20)) – and – inseparable, I would argue, from this – that time itself in the current moment has gone awry. “[H]aunting,” write Peter Buse and Andrew Stott, “by its very structure, implies a deformation of linear temporality” (1): the spectre is a displaced part of the past, a repetition (“has this thing appear'd again tonight?” (I.i.24), but comes into being-as-spectre – as opposed to who it was in the past – in the present of haunting; as Derrida puts it, “it begins by coming back” (11). The spectre unsettles the present by undoing the narratives of how we arrived at it, the traditional use of history to justify the present's iniquitous shape:

Ghosts are a problem for historicism precisely because they disrupt our sense of a linear teleology in which the consecutive movement of history passes untroubled through the generations. Again we return to the question of anachronism because ghosts are anachronism par excellence, the appearance of something in a time in which they clearly do not belong (14).

The dyschronic qualities of the Ghost, its uncanny historicity seem to possess the rest of the play – and in doing so, over the course of the action, splinter its universe. It seems important in this context to note Horatio and Barnado's associations of the Ghost with political crisis – that Julius Caesar's murder and the subsequent rupture of the Roman state were presaged when “[t]he graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the […] streets” (I.i.118-119); indeed, the current possibility of war is an inheritance from old Hamlet, still “the question of these wars”, the “portentous figure” whose return mirrors that of the issue (112-114). The designation of apparitions as omens was commonplace, but I want to suggest that the sense of linear time breaking down and the swelling of danger to the state articulate something more profound: the moment of historic crisis, as Gramsci formulated it – “the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears” (276). “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.v.90): it is being eaten out from the inside by the catastrophe threatening to wreck it in a “strange eruption” (I.i.72). The Marxist critic Richard Halpern has already explored how Lear seems to play out the anxieties accompanying the process of primitive accumulation, displacing it backwards in history, populating the landscape of England's distant past with “Bedlam beggars” and the remnants of a dispossessed peasantry (262): its tragic arc plays out the crisis of feudalism and the gestation of the absolutist state, in which the values of the feudal order are affirmed by “being reconstituted in another form” (269). If, as Buse and Stott write, “the theory of repression implies that the realm of the political functions in an extraordinarily ghostly fashion” (8), the spectral disjunctions of Hamlet reveal that system in the moment of critical rupture – and, as Greenblatt notes, Shakespeare consistently associated ghosts with “the poetic or tragic structure of history” (173). The ghost and the conflict and crisis of death it crystallises – between late-medieval and Protestant theologies, between modernity itself and what it sought to supplant – articulate the secret of history in the moment when the old forms are being systematically broken down and the newly unleashed forces remain untamed – the moment of suspension before the struggle has been masked.

A wider point must be made here about the historic context of Elizabethan tragedy, which I shall have to briefly sketch. I want to suggest that the dread trauma leaking out in Hamlet is the process named by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation: the transition from a reciprocal-feudal to a market society founded on capital accumulation and commodity-production. Giovanni Arrighi, in The Long Twentieth Century, places the origins of the process further back than many historians, with the merchant banks of Genoa in the mid-15th century (109); from there, as Fredric Jameson puts it, it spread like “a kind of virus, and its development [is] something like an epidemic”, as it overtook the socio-economic metabolisms of successive European nations and “powerfully undermines and destroys the logic of more traditional or pre-capitalist societies and economies” (139-140). The moment of Hamlet comes when, as Zygmunt Bauman argues, this transition was first being effected and the feudal world broken down:

The small and stable [...]world of the pre-modern man came under heavy stress in the sixteenth century, to be irretrievably shattered in the next. For England, the beginning of stress has been located in the half-century starting in 1590 […] (40).

By this point, Christopher Hill writes, “capitalist relations came to pervade all sectors of society” (68); the period saw “a revolutionary break with custom” (49), with an enormous shift from production-for-use to commodity-production, from feudal dependence to independent wage-labour; changes to property ownership, as copyhold and freehold was phased out, enclosure, fen-drainage, “[i]ncreasing entry fines and racking rents” (49), and the 1563 Statute of Labourers, together conspired to create a class of dispossessed labourers, ready for use by the new capital. For the new wage-earning classes it was the beginning of a period of “exceptional hardship”: “The fifteen-nineties were years of bad harvests and high prices, of near-famine conditions” (73) – increasing production of food for sale drove a “great price rise […] accompanied by a wage freeze enforced by the whole power of the state and the ruling class” (68). Here the logic of the spectre that Marx identified returns: the system that enriched the gentry, yeomanry and the new urban commercial class spawned a mass of “unemployed, vagabonds and beggars” (73), and the very disorder and revolt they quailed at. Anti-enclosure riots grew increasingly frequent and minor agrarian revolts occurred in 1596 and 1597 (two years before our earliest dating for Hamlet). It is this, I would contend – the undoing of the integrity of the feudal system – that lies behind the gesture of the delegitimation of authority that occurs repeatedly in Shakespeare's late tragedies – the “historical 'task'” described by Franco Moretti as that of “the destruction of the fundamental paradigm of the dominant culture” (42). But Hamlet does not commit this – in which the medieval/Elizabethan world-picture of social and cosmic harmony, that “handsome edifice […] by the end of the fifth act, has been reduced to rubble” (49) – in the name of the new order that would rise on its foundations. The tragic climax, in which most of the royal household lies dead and the stage broken in upon by young Fortinbras' forces, neither seeks a return to the world of old Hamlet, nor leaves the new state intact. The tragedy shows rather how this nascent new world, relying on the destruction of the old, is still ghosted with its traces.

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