It may suffice for the moment to glance at Hamlet's under-analysed speeches on what he takes to be “the pate of a politician” (or possibly “of a courtier”) and “the skull of a lawyer” in the graveyard scene (V.i.77-81, 96). Like Lear's exile onto the heath, the transition is suggestive: most of our attention has focused on the world of the court; here we are presented with its flipside, the fundament on which that world rests – one of clownish manual labour and, indeed, the ground itself, full of dead bodies. The Gravedigger's jest that he and his fellow diggers “hold up Adam's profession” (V.i.31), and his characterisation of himself as a builder, whose houses “last[...] till doomsday” (59), suggest that man's history has been constructed by death, that death itself is the material base of the civilisation we have seen. Compared to Hamlet's loquaciousness the Gravedigger's responses are a model of dearth and austerity, a revocation of generosity; this “absolute” pedantry is a product of an “age [that] is grown so picked” (133-136), and that levels out social difference, appropriate to the period (“this three years” (135)) not only of peasant starvation but the rise of a proto-bourgeoisie notorious for its crabbed opposition to the feudal-aristocratic superfluity Hamlet would have known. The Gravedigger “o'eroffices” the politician (or courtier), and the “office” for which they intrigued in life – see Hamlet's earlier complaint about “[t]he insolence of office” (III.i.73) – is, in death, converted into the “office” of grave-digger that allows “this ass” to lord it over him (V.i.77-81). But this does not seem be a recitation of conventional wisdom on the 'vanity' of worldly ambition; as Sofer notes, here the generic signifiers of vanitas are “warp[ed] […] from within”, reanimating the skull into a subject at the same time as it converts the actor into an object (48-49); being “knocked about the mazard with a sexton's spade” (V.i.88) is the necessary and dialectical antithesis of political striving, the unfleshed skull simply the dark double to the smooth and pampered face of the courtier – it is, in every sense, what lies beneath it. This sense is reinforced by his speech on the lawyer's skull, which bristles with the new legal jargon concerning property. He imagines “this fellow” as having been among those ambitious to form part of the landed gentry, his property gained not by inheritance but the new mechanisms of exchange that were making land vastly more mobile, an act of self-investment absurd in the face of that very mobility; as a “great buyer of land”, the truth of the property he has accumulated is the 'land' he now lies in (101-102). The grave itself is encompassed by these frameworks, but is what must be repressed for property to function: Hamlet's image of the grave in terms of “the length and breadth of a pair of indentures” demonstrates in spatial terms the symbiotic dependence of the two, but when his lands come to be inherited they will be so shrunk as to “scarcely lie in this box”, undermining ownership itself (107-110); what we find when we delve down into property is a jumbled heap of bones, and the skull's ghostly visage – as Natalka Freeland puts it, property “is frightening and dangerous, conjuring fears of ghosts rather than circulating freely and without history as in the bourgeois ideal” (qtd. in Buse & Stott 9). Death is not simply, as in conventional wisdom, 'the great leveller': it poses as the threat of inversion that haunts the dominant order, by – in a suggestive stage-image later in the scene shows – putting princes in the ground, and pulling the base out from the whole hierarchy – “Here's fine revolution and we had the trick to see't” (89). Should the dead turn insurgent, reappear at another part of the circuit and walk the earth again, that “strange eruption” might be realised.
Hamlet is a play that encourages extravagant claims. But the insights of historical materialism, which has so thoroughly penetrated analyses of Shakespeare's other tragedies, have so far found little purchase on a work that, written in what that theory has recognised as one of the crucial periods in the history of class struggle, still produces conclusions of the 'transcendental' variety. Perhaps, as crisis itself returns to our critical vocabulary, we can begin to re-view its functioning, as a work of art articulating the drama of a society struggling with the undisclosable Real of history. The shadow of death that infects the play and drives the action to its destructive conclusion is an unfolding of a wider transformation and conflict then reshaping human history. The play does not choose to advance a resolution. Rather, it pulls us back, leaves us suspended, in the perturbing moment of the system's first emergence, to show what troubling ghosts accompanied it. It undermines what faith we might have that history works according to the linear narrative, that crises occur to be superseded: rather, it seems, capitalist history in its violence always generates ghosts, and is always haunted by what it seeks to foreclose.
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