'Too Much in the (Black) Sun':

Hamlet's First Soliloquy, A Kristevan View



  1. It may appear to be sheer provocation to attempt a psychoanalytic reading of Shakespeare, be it Kristevan or other, in a decade placed under the rule of the New Historicism.

  2. This is no place to enter into a controversy about the respective merits of the current schools of Shakespeare criticism. Were I to do so, I would enter it anyway as peacefully as Romeo greeting Tybalt at the start of III.i, and probably with the same outcome. There is a surer way of causing an outcry than that tried out by Brian Vickers in his all-out onslaught against recent Shakespeare scholarship. It is to suggest that most reading techniques are instrumental in shedding light on a text, in their own particular way and however different -- or seemingly incompatible -- their rationale. Finding 'good in everything' is sure to raise the same kind of general snigger that the old Duke meets with in some modern (or post-modern?) productions of As You Like It. Yet, even such a polemical survey of contemporary critical disputes as Richard Levin's, keeps stumbling on 'striking resemblances' between seemingly incompatible discourses, recording the 'same formula' under 'new terminology' (1990, 500, 501). He finds this damning, but there might be other ways of looking at it.

  3. Psychoanalysis is said to be fundamentally ahistorical, of refusing contextual evidence in favour of timeless psychical structures. It is charged with seeing the text, not the context. There is a measure of truth in this, and consequently, a measure of untruth as well. Psychoanalytic criticism will certainly place emphasis on the text but it does not follow that it disregards the context. What critical method can afford to do so? Julia Kristeva is careful not to throw out the baby of cultural history with the psychoanalytic bathwater (1987, 16-18). Juliana Schiesari, in her study of the symbolics of loss in Renaissance literature, is anxious to recall that thought on the relationship of grief to clinical melancholia far antedates Freud's 'Mourning and Melancholia' (1917), and goes all the way back to Aristotle. It would be unadvised for balanced criticism to refuse to make use of contemporary conceptions in approaching a text. It would be equally unconscionable not to take into account the attitudes to life, society and ethics which influenced the production of it. In the process one may hopefully come to realize that these perpectives are not necessarily antithetical. Awareness of the demands of genre, plot or the structures of power at a given time in history does not preclude awareness that several levels of signification or language may be at play in one single text. Which is incidentally what most contemporary criticism (Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, new historicist or materialist) elicits eventually. Placing a text at the crossroads of political, social, individual and cultural influences can only result in a welcome awareness of its inherent complexity and therefore in a recognition of the necessity to use more than just one critical approach if one is to grasp as much of its richness as possible. The only casualty of modern approaches, and one which will not be mourned, is the mistaken belief in the glorious univocity of the text.

  4. Ever since Ernest Jones first read Hamlet in the wake of Freud as an Oedipal drama, the play's appeal as an experimental playground has never ceased. Emphasis differs according to whether the father or the mother is the problem. For Jones, Hamlet's successfully repressed jealousy for his father and attraction to his mother is reactivated by Gertrude's remarriage with Claudius. Repression of incestuous and parricidal drives must be carried out again:

    these ancient desires are ringing in his mind, are once more struggling to find conscious expression and need such an expenditure of energy again to 'repress' them that he is reduced to the deplorable mental state he himself so vividly depicts [in his first soliloquy] (Jones 1910, 201).

    Successful repression is hindered by the Ghost's injunction to kill Claudius, that is, to give vent to what he is trying to hold back:

    He is therefore in a dilemma between on the one hand allowing his natural detestation of his uncle to have free play, a consummation which would stir still further his own horrible wishes, and on the other ignoring the imperative call for the vengeance that his obvious duty demands (Jones 1910, 201).

    Hamlet's procrastination, in Jones's view, results from this double-bind.

  5. Janet Adelman recently shifted the emphasis from the father to the mother, who is seen to embody the curse of maternal origin, female power threatening masculine identity. She argues that the son's 'need to make his own identity . . . in relationship to his conception of his father . . . becomes deeply problematic in the presence of the wife/mother', whose 'chief crime is her uncontrolled sexuality' which makes her an object of revulsion for her son (Adelman 1992, 11, 15). Hamlet's first soliloquy bears witness to such revulsion and can be read as an expression of paternal idealization vs. maternal reviling, in the way it balances Hyperion against satyr, adaquate against inadequate mourning, bereavement against remarriage.

  6. But Hamlet's initial soliloquy seems to contain as well, coextensive with this, an underlying sense of maternal loss, the loss of the dyadic merger, that is the ideal state of fusion between mother and child experienced prior to individuation. Such loss is reactivated and symbolized by Gertrude's marriage to Claudius. Thus the loss suffered appears twofold, and I would like to reinstate the mother on a par with the father as an object of mourning, following Julia Kristeva's reading of melancholia in terms of an incomplete or unsuccessful detachment from the mother.

    Mourning the father

  7. Hamlet's first soliloquy is structured by a radical confrontation between two parental couples, Gertrude and Old Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius. Their opposition hinges upon Hamlet's readiness to idealize one and heap scorn on the other, pitting the purity of one against the lasciviousness of the other.

  8. The explicit identification of Old Hamlet with Hyperion is complemented by the implicit association of the unfallen Gertrude with an enclosed garden not yet grown to seed:

    Insofar as the soliloquy expresses Hamlet's sense of his mother's body as an enclosed garden newly breached, it implies the presence of a formerly unbreached garden; the alternatives that govern Hamlet's imagination of his mother's body are the familiar ones of virgin and whore, closed or open, wholly pure or wholly corrupt (Adelman 1992, 19).

    If Janet Adelman is right in detecting the archetype of the enclosed garden as a subtext for I.ii.135 (without necessarily reopening the debate on Shakespeare's religion), then Hamlet's imagination taps the myth of virgin birth to shore up his construct of an ideal triad prior to Gertrude's fall. Only Claudius opens a breach in the garden where he climbs like Satan, 'this first grand thief into God's fold' (Paradise Lost IV, 192). Only his bed is 'stewed in corruption' (III.iv.93). Whatever fruitful seed germinated in the enclosed garden prior to this desecration was the result of divine impregnation, not sex. Kristeva's analysis of the cult of the Virgin Mary in Western culture as a way of controlling some unsettling aspects of maternity (1983, 295-327) is instrumental in understanding the fantasy underlying the first ten lines of Hamlet's soliloquy. The mother, Kristeva claims, is a threat to the patriarchal order insofar as her jouissance threatens to make her a desiring subject. The reassuring sexlessness of the Virgin controls this threat. The virgin birth, a cultural artifact devised by a patriarchal society, combines two of the functions belonging to a woman (wife and mother) and does away with their dangerous corporality (Kristeva 1983, 306).

  9. Hamlet's reconstruction of the parental couple is patently free of unseemly jouissance. No sexual guilt is involved. Gertrude and Old Hamlet are made into a bodiless couple. Genital sexuality is safely rewritten as protection and love as care: 'he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly' (I.ii.141-2). 1 Gertrude in the process is securely confined to the status of object -- the object of Old Hamlet's attention and nurturing: 'she would hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on' (143-5), as well as the grammatical object of the sentence (139-42). The mother is safely placed under paternal control.

  10. Or is she? Upon the talk of the 'increase' of Gertrude's unquenchable 'appetite' the threat of the feminine subject underneath the maternal object is released again. Hamlet's discourse registers it: 'appetite' triggers off the shift from a reassuring 'her' to an angst-ridden 'she' (143) in a telling collocation. The text loses control of the feminine as 'she' takes over (143, 149, 156), bringing syntax to breaking-point. Hamlet makes a last-ditch attempt to anchor the maternal body to the myth of the virgin birth with his secular version of the Mater dolorosa, Niobe (149). Kristeva's 'Stabat Mater' is again instrumental here. The only form of language allowed to the otherwise silent Virgin mother, she writes, is the tears Mary sheds over her lost Son, 'metaphors of non-speech, of a 'semiotics' which ordinary linguistic communication cannot account for' (Kristeva 1983, 312). But, unlike Niobe's, Gertrude's tear are 'unrighteous' (154), just as the garden of her body has lost its purity and 'grows to seed' (136). Hamlet can only record the contamination of the maternal body in the perversion of its very symbols. The metaphor of the prelapsarian garden (which the text suggests only en creux as if it were too fragile a construct to withstand examination) is eventually exploded in II.ii. There, all the sun-god is left to impregnate is the-garden-turned-dead-dog where he breeds maggots, 'being a go[o]d kissing carrion' (II.ii.179). The garden traditionally regarded as the centre of the universe -- and so much the centre of Hamlet's own world, both as the locus of the mother and later as the place of the father's murder -- gives way to that other centre, the 'nasty sty' of Gertrude's closet where she daily fails to remember the difference between Old Hamlet and Claudius.

  11. As has often been recognized, Hamlet splits father and mother into polar opposites, 2 pouring his scorn and disgust of parental sexuality on the illegitimate, unnatural couple of Gertrude and Claudius. Here the satyr finds an apt mate in the lustful woman who, dexteriously posting to incestuous sheets, proves no less than a beast (Alexander 1971, 54). The garden, which was a guarantee of integrity and an image of virtue, now turns into a contaminated space. Shakespeare makes full use of the crude sense of 'garden' as a metaphor for the female sex. The accessibility of the garden/body of the mother is betokened by an outpouring of sexual double-entendres in the body of the text. Garden and mother are lashed with undeleted polysemes. The shameful surplus of sexuality registers in the language, blowing the paternal order at the moon in an explicit rhetoric of disgust (Partridge 1947, passim; Rubinstein 1984, 218):

    How weary, stale [prostitute], flat [to copulate], and unprofitable
    Seem [to fornicate, with additional pun on 'seam': filth] to me all the uses [sexual enjoyment] of this world!
    Fie on't, ah fie [dung], 'tis an unweeded garden [womb]
    That grows [becomes pregnant] to seed [semen], things [male sex] rank [in heat] and gross [lewd] in nature [female sex]
    Possess it [sexually] merely ['merrily', lecherously]. (133-6)

    Hamlet speaks poniards and every pun stabs. Thus huddling jest upon jest against his mother, he can securely equate woman with 'frailty', that is to say, not just fallibility but sensual weakness. In Kristevan terms the Virgin mother has given way to the abject mother. 3

  12. Adelman (1992, 18) has noted the plot conjunction which makes the idealized father's absence coincidental with the release of maternal sexuality. The absence of the godlike father embodying sexless order immediately lets loose the chaos of the feminine. Gertrude, like another Eve, brings death into the world, turning the garden into a graveyard. The first self-proclaimed victim is her son. Self-slaughter is a welcome escape from, or punishment for, sexual contamination, as Hamlet feels his own flesh is sullied by his mother's inconstancy. His vision of suicide plays on the death / orgasm double-entendre in the tradition of the brevis voluptas poems (Kerrigan 1989, 181):

    O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
    Thaw and resolve itself into a dew. (129-30)

    'Melt', 'thaw' and 'dew' leave no doubt as to the orgasmic nature of the 'resolution' (Rubinstein 1984, 218; Erlich 1977, 65) and make the vexed question of the solid (Folio) versus the sallied / sullied reading of Q1 and Q2 immaterial. 4 It rather argues for a deliberate pun, consistent with the association of sin, sex and death in the play. Solid and sullied flesh are one because lust and corruption are one. The death-as-sex imagery of Hamlet's contemplated response to his mother's depravity is moreover an example of the symmetry pertaining to the decorum of crime and punishment in the play: He retaliates in kind for her profligacy by wishing for some permanent post-coital / deathly flaccidity for himself.

  13. Garden imagery in the process continues to run the whole gamut of possible meanings, passing through nature to the eternity of the graveyard for which it is a traditional euphemistic metaphor. 5 Hamlet's paradigmatic exploration of the word in I.ii is complemented by the gradual shift from garden to grave in the dramatic, visual syntax of the play. Old Hamlet's orchard goes through a number of transformations, eventually turning Denmark into a general grave. It first expands into the vision of Ophelia somehow making her own funeral wreath in IV.v.177-181, 6 then into the graveyard of V.i. and finally into the mass grave of V.ii. This was graphically made clear in the set of Adrian Noble's 1993 production of the play. A long narrow window-box of a graveyard ran alongside the stage, scattered with leaves, weeds, small crosses and the odd pansy. From this graveyard the ghost was seen to rise in I.i and Ophelia to pick flowers at random in IV.v; her own grave in V.i was a natural extension of it. After the interval her jettisoned funeral wreaths were left scattered about the stage both as a comment on the action of the final scene and an index of invading death (Royal Shakespeare Company, London and Stratford, 1992-3).

  14. Hamlet's confrontation of the two couples, coherent and well-structured as it may appear, results in an anguish which is largely in excess of its apparent cause as T.S. Eliot suggested (Eliot 1975, 47). Idealization of the father is extravagant, as much as is the reviling of Gertrude and Claudius. Only moments before the Prince launched into his first soliloquy the newly-wedded pair were seen to leave the stage, a sedate not a prurient couple -- they never address each other, barring all directorial initiative to the contrary -- in marked contrast with Hamlet's portraiture of them. Equally disproportionate are the generalizations he manically derives from his manichean, split view of mother and father figures. The abrupt, disrupted syntax progressing by additions and interruptions confuses as much as it clarifies the issue: trusting Claudius and Gertrude's earlier reports (I.ii.68-73, 87-107) as well as Hamlet's own (I.ii.75-86), the audience assumes that the cause of Hamlet's grief is no other than the death of his father, but the unmentionable 'this' sticking in the Prince's throat ('That it should come to this', I.ii.137) turns out to be no other but his mother's o'erhasty marriage. The text seems to sidestep some unnameable centre the better to concentrate on, and come up with, a conveniently creditable tag. It is both too definite and too elusive, the content blatantly contradicting the language. The Prince protests too much.

    Mourning the mother

  15. To put the question simply, one should not disregard the issue of Gertrude's marriage to Claudius underneath the question of Gertrude's marriage to Claudius. The text registers both concerns by using the transitive and intransitive forms of 'marry': 'married with my uncle' (151), 'she married' (156). I am not suggesting that one cannot see the wood for the trees but that one should strive to see the wood and the trees, that is to say both Gertrude's betrayal of her husband and her renewed betrayal of her son. Mourning the mother is as much an issue here as mourning the father. The matter of contention may well be contention about the mater. Plot, imagery and mythological background suggest as much.

  16. Hamlet's memories of the idealized parental couple insists on purity and sexlesssness, rewritten as nurturing and care. The Old King was

    ...so loving to my mother
    That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
    Visit her face too roughly...
    ...she would hang on him
    As if increase of appetite had grown
    By what it fed on. (140-5)

    If one is willing for a moment to obliterate identities and gender roles in order to focus instead on functions (nurturing, in particular), one must grant that this is not so much a husband-and-wife as a mother-and-son couple which is depicted here, a pre-oedipal dyad of blissful dependence and protection which is classically interrupted by the intrusion of a father figure superseding the son: 'she . . . married with my uncle' (148-150).

  17. Hamlet's conjuring up of the idealized husband and wife couple is superimposed on, and re-written as a dyadic merger. This is operated through displacement (the substitution of one element for another via a chain of association) and condensation (the formation of composite structures) as in the dream-work. Roles in the mother-son dyad appear for instance to be reversed. The mother is at the receiving end: 'she would hang on him' (143) with insatiable 'appetite' (144). This puts the child in the role of nurturing parent (145). The construct resulting from the superimposition of the two structures is multi-layered and serves many purposes. It plainly rewrites pre-oedipal attachment as marriage but to leave it at that would not do justice to the complexity of the structure. Its ubiquitous constituents are engaged in a rich play of shifting roles.

  18. The husband-turned-mother: 'he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly' (141-2), makes the nurturing figure both male and female, an instance of the mother-father conglomerate which Kristeva posits in Tales of Love as the archaic object of the child's affection (Kristeva 1983, 39, 281). It is an indication that 'the logic of the Symbolic is already within the maternal body' (Oliver 1993, 78). 7. It provides the support needed to move to the Symbolic order. It also implicitly signals and staves off the danger of reengulfment by the mother. 8 Merger is exorcized even as it is recreated. Masculine identity is not endangered by the primary oneness to which Hamlet regresses. It still lies securely with the father. The mixed image solves the contradictory urges toward symbiotic union with the mother ('pre-oedipal' issues) and secure masculine identity ('oedipal issues'). The self is not lost in the desired fusion. There is no tension left.

  19. The son's ubiquity (nurturing subject and nurtured object, husband, father as well as son) is equally meaningful. The displacement onto the father is in line with the melancholiac's pathological introjection of the lost object described by Freud in Mourning and Melancholia. But Shakespeare makes Hamlet's mourning of the father instrumental in a coextensive reclaiming of the mother inasmuch as paternal identification carries with it all appertaining prerogatives, including enjoyment of the mother, figured here as a return to the lost symbiosis. But the recreated dyadic merger is soon disrupted by the emergence of a new father repeating the oedipal triad and reactivating the initial loss.

  20. An additional benefit of Hamlet's reconstruction of his desires is to be derived from the mother's position at the receiving end of the nurturing relationship, in the position of the infant, nurtured by her own child/husband. This is in keeping with the child's fantasy that he is the only source of the mother's pleasure, and one for whom the oedipal father can only be a poor substitute. Therefore her eventual desertion is made unaccountable, an inexplicable instance of ingratitude, a fault to nature, to reason most absurd:

    -- heaven and earth,
    Must I remember? why, she would hang on him
    As if increase of appetite had grown
    By what it fed on, and yet within a month --
    Let me not think on't; frailty thy name is woman --
    A little month . . .
    . . . why she, even she --
    O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
    Would have mourned longer — married with my uncle,
    My father's brother, but no more like my father
    Than I to Hercules -- within a month.(142-151)

  21. Last but not least, reinscribing a living as a dead figure appears like some vindictive claim that death is the wages of maternal desertion, that only death can follow when access is barred to her (by Claudius). The ubiquitous son of lines 137-145 is obliterated from the new oedipal triad merely ('merrily') figured as a couple frolicking in incestuous sheets. Nothing is left of him but a voice in exile threatened with silence and calling for death as the ultimate object of desire, a consummation devoutly to be wished: 'But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue' (159).

  22. The soliloquy's mythological background attests to the enduring presence of the mother-son dyad beneath the idealized father-son relationship. Hyperion and Niobe though rounded up as ideal father- and mother-figures both appear to be enmeshed in perplexing filial patterns in their respective myths.

  23. Niobe is summoned up as the exemplary mourner who should have inspired Gertrude to emulate her in more than just show (cf. the near homophonic pun on shoes / shows). Gertrude's grief is contrasted with that of Niobe and found wanting. Yet Niobe is not a type of the faithful wife but of the proud mother. Gertrude is (or should be) grieving a husband whereas Niobe 9 laments the death of all four (or twelve, or fourteen or eighteen or twenty...) of her pretty little ones killed at one fell swoop by Artemis and Apollo. Another legend concerning Niobe gives an even more relevant gloss of the mother-father-child nexus in the play. In Parthenios' version she refuses to yield to the incestuous love of her father, who avenges himself on her children as a result. The underlying pattern of reference is that of a mother torn between her children and the demands of an incestuous husband/father whom she virtuously denies, a wishful re-writing of the Gertrude-Claudius union.

  24. Slightly more complex is the Hyperion allusion. Signed up by Hamlet as an epitome of the ideal father/husband in the Prince's own private Olympus, his story is actually a tangle of incest and parricide. One of the Titans, he is the child whom Gaea, the Earth, begot from Uranus, her consort and her own son originally engendered without the benefit of a helpmeet. Hyperion is the offspring of an originally virgin mother-earth later coupling with her own progeny (Kronos, Pontos, Uranus etc.). The Gaea story is a mix of fatherless conception and mother-son incest. The connection of Gaea (the Earth) with Gertrude (the Garden) is unmistakeable while Gaea's kinship with Hyperion reflects on the Gertrude-Hyperion couple, shifting the ground from a husband-wife to a mother-son relationship again. Moreover, on two occasions, Gaea conducts the conflicts between her sons and their fathers, consistently siding with her children, as when she colludes with Cronos in the castration of Uranus, his father. Both the Niobe and the Hyperion similes open up new perspectives into the soliloquy, inviting access from a manifest to a latent content.

  25. The surface structure of the text appears to be one in which the incestuous mother is reviled and the dead father is idealized and mourned. Its deeper layers of imagery suggest a structure in which the father as male principle is by-passed and the emphasis is laid on the son as begetter. The death of old Hamlet prompts a 'regressive reverie', (Kristeva 1987, 25) a pre-oedipal fantasy of fusion with the mother. The emergence of a new father explodes Hamlet's construct, reactivating oedipal issues. Hamlet's first soliloquy thus juxtaposes the pre-oedipal and the oedipal pattern, the dyad and the triad, the merger and the end of the merger. It is the anguished outcry of a dispossessed son bemoaning foreshortened felicity 10 and splitting the mother into a good (gratifying) and a bad (frustrating) object as a result. His melancholia results from an incomplete detachment from the mother as much as from grieving for a dead father. He is too much in the (mother's) sun. Too much in the (black) sun.

    Killing off the mother

  26. Julia Kristeva analyses melancholia in terms of an incomplete or unsuccessful detachment from the mother. Loss of the mother, she holds, is what stands behind, and is reactivated by, all losses whatever their object. The melancholiac has never achieved complete separation from the mother, introjecting her instead as a way of denying loss. Individuation is thus forestalled as it can only be achieved by killing off the mother. Kristeva's view appears at first sight to be a transposed version of the oedipal drama in which the boy kills off the father in order to preserve the self from destruction. But the purpose of this paper is not to discuss Kristevan thought per se, but to emphasize its relevance to Hamlet. 11 Her emphasis on the subject's inadequate mourning of the mother sheds useful light on the play:

    For man and for woman the loss of the mother is a biological and psychic necessity, the first step on the way to autonomy. Matricide is our vital necessity, the sine qua non condition of our individuation, provided that the lost object can be eroticized -- whether recovered as erotic object . . . or transposed by dint of an unbelievable symbolic effort which . . . transforms cultural constructs into a 'sublime' erotic object -- one thinks of the cathexes of men and women in social bonds, intellectual and aesthetic productions (Kristeva 1987, 38).

    This is just what the play's main protagonist fails to achieve. The reemergence on the death of his father of Hamlet's 'regressive reverie' is evidence that the mother has not been killed off. Moreover Ophelia, in the presence of the mother, can only be rejected as an erotic object, in keeping with Kristeva's view that 'the melancholiac cannot cope with Eros, inclining rather toward the Thing, even to the very edge of a negative narcissism that leads him the way to Thanatos' (Kristeva 1987, 30).

  27. Failure to kill off the mother entails violence turned against the self:

    [W]ith the introjection of the lost maternal object, the depressive or melancholic killing of the self is what follows, instead of matricide. In order to protect mother, I kill myself while being aware -- fantasmatic and protective knowledge – that it comes from her. . . . I make Her into an image of Death in order not to fall into pieces through the hatred I bear myself when identifying with Her, for this hatred is theoretically intended for her as an individuating barrier against confusional love (Kristeva 1987, 39).

  28. Introjective identification with the mother was detected in the condensation of infant and mother (144-5). Ambivalent feeling toward the introjected object accounts for Hamlet's self-loathing and wished-for death (129-32) more convincingly perhaps than the contamination theory put forth by Adelman. It is given full vent in the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy, and then again in the Nunnery scene, with a telling collocation of death, guilt, motherhood and self-reviling:

    I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things, that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all, believe none of us. (III.i.120-6. Italics mine).

  29. Lack of separation from the mother implies moreover an inadequate integration into the Symbolic order, with immediate consequences on language. Kristeva insists on the melancholiac's withdrawn quality and disrupted syntax:

    A repetitive rhythm, a toneless melody dominate broken logical sequences, turning them into recurring, obsessive litanies. Then, as this impoverished music runs down, or if, choked by silence, it cannot even get started, the melancholiac appears to discontinue both utterance and idea formation, collapsing either into blank asymbolia or into an overflowing chaos of ideas that he fails to put in order (Kristeva 1987, 45).

    The broken, agitated rhythm of Hamlet's soliloquies, with their interrupted syntax, suspended sentences and wayward clauses moving forward by fits and starts or round in circles but rarely completed according to the rules of rhetoric, fits Kristeva's insightful description. After his initial death wish, the Prince's syntax is disrupted, an array of adverbial and relative clauses disconnected from any main clause (138-43). His long, winding third sentence starts with repetitive adverbials: 'within a month', 'A little month; or ere those shoes were old' (147), interpolated with interjections: 'Let me not think on't; frailty, thy name is woman' (146) and moves reluctantly toward a subject: 'why she, even she' (149) which for two lines he cannot bring himself to connect with a predicate: 'married with my uncle' (151). The final part of the sentence mirrors the beginning: 'within a month', 'ere those shoes were old', 'she married' (153-6). The rest of this syntactical chaos is silence: 'But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue' (159). Soliloquy, Hamlet's favourite mode, is somehow the dramatic equivalent of silence, an utterance without an addressee, not meant to be either shared or heard, except by the audience. It is Shakespeare's dramatic solution to the problem of a character whose particular humour (melancholy), plight (he cannot speak what he knows) and cover (feigned madness and confusion) all seem to confine him to silence. 12

  30. If, as Kristeva writes in Soleil noir, 'the ability to string together signifiers (words or actions) is conditional on the completed mourning of an archaic, vital object' (1987, 52), it is understandable why Hamlet, like the Kristevan melancholiac 'chained to his grief, fails to concatenate and hence to speak or act' (46). Yet as Kristeva points out, the melancholiac's reduced speech and slow rhythm are paradoxically attended by 'an accelerated, creative cognitive process':

    Such hyperactivity with signifiers is displayed in the melancholiac's capacity to connect distant semantic fields in a way that recalls the puns of hypomanics. This is aligned with his outstanding cognitive insight as well as the manic depressive's inability to make a choice or a decision. (Kristeva 1987, 70).

    This 'outstanding insight' she holds to be a mark of exception:

    On the border of life and death, I have often the proud feeling to be a privileged witness to the meaninglessness of Being, to expose the mockery of ties and beings (Kristeva 1987, 14).

    It is almost impossible not to relate these various statements not only to Hamlet's inaction, but also to his consistent punning in his capacity as the unlicensed Jester of the play, passing scathing moral judgments on Denmark in the guise of foolery. 13

  31. The collapse of language in the melancholiac is a sign of his regression into the Imaginary as a result of his failure to mourn the mother. Hamlet, struggling to remember the father and to secure his link to the Symbolic even as he finds himself regressing to the Imaginary, 14 is poised between them and the tension is reflected in the text. It has frequently been noted how Hamlet holds on to established differences -- 'Hyperion' vs. 'satyr' (I.ii.140), 'celestial bed' vs. 'garbage' (I.v.56-7), 'moor' vs. 'fair mountain' (III.iv.66-7) -- on which the order of his world depends. These are defeated by Gertrude who seems intent on collapsing past and present, the departed and the new spouse, husband and brother into one figure. Fineman states that

    it is her sensuality which has abolished Difference in Denmark. By sleeping first with one brother and then with the second . . . Gertrude makes it finally apparent that there is in Denmark No Difference at all, at least no difference around which a secure, a sacrally corroborated, masculine identity can be organized. Hamlet says as much when he shows his mother the two pictures of the two brothers . . . . in an effort to refashion in her the Difference her discovered sexuality, not Claudius' fratricide, has destroyed (Fineman 1980, 89-90).

    Gertrude abolishes among others the difference between appetite and satiety. Desire with her feeds on itself, fuelling self-perpetuating growth, 'As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on' (144-5). The dyad turns cannibalistic. She feeds on, as much as she is fed by, the nurturing husband. The Imaginary gnaws at the Symbolic. The totality to which Hamlet aspires threatens to reengulf him and his father.

  32. This opposition between a dualistic system and one where boundaries are lost coincides with Lacan's opposition between the Imaginary and the Symbolic, but also, in feminist terms, with Cixous' distinction between the Realm of the Gift and the Realm of the Proper, between the female / feminine 'deconstructive space of pleasure and orgasmic interchange with the other' (Moi 1985, 113) and the masculine tendency to structure reality into a rigid hierarchical system of binary oppositions – a paradigm of the initial male / female distinction. The two systems respectively embodied by Gertrude and Old Hamlet stand for two libidinal economies between which Hamlet must make the choice on which his identity depends. The obsessive recurrence of 'two' in this soliloquy: 'two months dead', 'not so much, not two' (138) as much as the system of echoes and repetitions: 'too too solid flesh' (129), 'O God, God' (132), 'Fie on't, ah fie' (135), 'within a month', 'a little month' (145, 147), 'she, even she' (149), 'It is not, nor it cannot come to good' (158) seem intended to restore dualism in order to shore up the loss of boundaries resulting from invasion by the Imaginary. 15 Hamlet clings to some patriarchal guarantee of meaning without which psychosis is precipitated. This is the role of the Father in the Symbolic. But the old King has died. The only Father left is God, to whom Hamlet appeals twice as a witness to this great confusion (132).

  33. Hamlet, torn between his dead father and his all-too present mother is a man to double business bound. The duty of remembering the father takes him along the paths of revenge; the necessity of detaching himself from the mother takes him along that of Kristevan 'matricide', the only alternative to asymbolia, depression and self-destruction . Such complementary demands are registered in the play. Coextensive with the father's 'dread command' to avenge him is Hamlet's readiness to avenge himself on his mother, in spite of the Ghost's injunction:

    Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
    Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven. (I.v.85-6)

    His verbal assault on her in I.ii, his production of The Mousetrap, whose purpose is to catch the conscience of the Queen as much as that of the King, his professed intention to be 'cruel' though 'not unnatural' to her (III.ii.355), his gradual assimilation of words to weapons: 'I will speak daggers to her but use none' (357), his protestation that he will not 'let . . .The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom' (355), all point to increasingly pervasive matricidal imagery. The focal point is of course the Closet scene, where Gertrude's fear: 'What wilt thou do? thou wilt not murder me? / Help, help, ho!' (III.iii.21) abruptly deflects Hamlet's bloody thoughts onto Polonius, turning matricidal intents into pseudo-parricide.

  34. The alternative to killing off the mother, Kristeva suggests, is art as a fetishistic production to the extent that it both posits and denies the existence of the lack:

    If loss, bereavement and absence trigger the work of imagination, persistently fostering it as much as they jeopardize and mar it, it is also to be noted that the work of art as fetish is issued as a way of revoking engrossing sorrow. The artist consumed by melancholia is also the most relentless in his determination to repel the symbolic abdication which anaesthetizes him. (Kristeva 1987, 18)

    Beauty is 'the depressive's other world', – a phrase Kristeva uses as a general title for her study of creative imagination in relation with melancholia. 'Art secures for the artist and connoisseur a sublimatory grasp of the lost Thing' (Kristeva 1987, 109).. The nature of the connection between art and sorrow she leaves undecided: is art the ideal object which never leaves the libido unfulfilled, or is it 'that which restores to the subject, absolutely and forever, the deserting object?' (110).. Whatever else it may be, it is

    dynamically related to sublimation, weaving around and with the depressive void a hyper-sign. Allegory is an enriched elaboration of what no longer is, but assumes again for me an unrivalled meaning because I am capable of re-creating a better, unalterable, harmonious version of absence, here, now and forever, on behalf of another. A sublimatory signification substituted for the underlying, implicit absence of being, artefact makes up for the ephemeral. Beauty appears as the admirable front of loss. (Kristeva 1987, 111)

    This points to the long tradition of 'the noble mind o'erthrown', the melancholiac as artist, linking sadness with artistic triumph. Hamlet's knowledge of plays, players and acting, his choice of drama to unmask Claudius belongs to this tradition. The Mousetrap also enables him to secure the 'sublimatory grasp of the lost Thing' which Kristeva describes, to recreate a Gertrude swearing everlasting faith, a Gertrude pledging that there will be no such man as Claudius:

    Such love must needs be treason in my breast.
    In second husband let me be accurst:
    None wed the second but who killed the first. (III.ii.159-61)

  35. What Alastair Fowler (1987, 177) calls 'the two central scenes of conscience-catching'. 16 the Play scene and the Closet scene, are thus connected each with one of Kristeva's offered solutions: artistic sublimation and matricide. After a fruitless attempt at the former, Hamlet is tempted by the latter. Hamlet the character unsuccessfuly conducts on both fronts his battle with Symbolic collapse. Hamlet the play bequeathes to the audience its unfinished mourning, forever sublimated as aesthetic object. More a Trauerspiel than a tragedy, according to Walter Benjamin's distinction, 17 Hamlet is an acting out of sorrow, a play of mourning left for H/oratio to write as an epitaph and for us to watch. Act V scene ii makes us the repositories of Hamlet's memory and his mourners:

    If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
    Absent thee from felicity awhile,
    And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
    To tell my story. (V.ii.325-8)

    The work of memory is passed on to the actors, 'the abstract and brief chronicles of the time' (II.ii.481) who make remembrance their profession, as long as plays 'live in [their] memory' (II.ii.406). It is passed on to us, too, who are required to remember Hamlet 'whilst memory holds a seat in this distracted globe/Globe' (I.v.96-7) and to perform as audiences the sacred duty of anamnesis, coming to terms for ourselves with the loss of the mother, endlessly repeating the fort-da story 18 that is Hamlet, that is all drama.


  1. All references are to the New Cambridge Shakespeare, ed. Philip Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).


  2. Jones 1949, 138 first suggested that the father image is split into the revered, dead father and the hated usurper; see also Bodkin 1934, 11-14; Barber and Wheeler 1986, 254-5 and 1989, 28; Leverenz 1980, 117.


  3. Kristeva (1980, 10) defines abjection as that which is both fascinating and nauseating, 'a pole of appeal and repulsion which literally places the subject beside himself' threatening language and identity: 'It is the massive, abrupt eruption of something uncanny which may have been familiar in an obscure, forgotten past but now assails me as radically repugnant and other. Neither me nor it, nor nothing. . . . A heavy burden of meaninglessness which is not insignificant and crushes me. It stands on the borderline of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality which annihilates me if ever I acknowledge it.' My translation.


  4. OED defines solid as 'hard and compact.' Solidity is moreover associated with earth, the element corresponding to melancholy. A remedy suggested by Burton was for the excess of earth to melt into water (see Jenkins 1982, 437). The underlying quibble is a bawdy equivalent, suggesting permanent detumescence as the most appropriate remedy to, and punishment for, lust. For an alchemic view of the crux, see Fleissner 1982, 92-3.


  5. 'At two months dead, the problem is not only faded memories above ground, but also decaying flesh below ground that nature grossly repossesses. Hamlet will talk explicitly about the 'convocation of politic worms' that feast on Polonius's corpse, but the macabre transi image seems already to be in Hamlet's mind in his first soliloquy.' (Watson 1990, 206).


  6. In the early modern period, after the death of a young girl, garlands of flowers marked the place where she used to sit in the church. Ophelia's mad scene of IV.v, in its general context of mourning and remembrance clearly points to this tradition and proleptically to her own funeral.


  7. Kelly Oliver suggests that 'the child's identification with the conglomerate mother-father can be read as an identification with its conception. It is a transference to the site of jouissance of the primal scene. . . . Through its identification with the imaginary father, the child, in its imaginary, can replace itself in the mother's womb' (1993, 79). If Kristeva's reading applies to Hamlet, the first soliloquy is yet another instance of the presence of the primal scene in the play, along with the orchard scene (Erlich 1977, 60-67), the Play scene and the Closet scene.


  8. The danger is permanently dispelled in the final plays where motherless daughters are nurtured by their fathers.


  9. Her name is derived from the Latin 'nivis', snow, an additional element in the pattern connecting purity and the ideal woman, of whom Niobe is a figure with Hecuba. Cf. Hamlet's outcry to Ophelia: 'be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not scape calumny' (III.i.132-3).


  10. The text's insistence on the brevity of Gertrude's mourning ('within a month...A little month') can equally be read in this perspective as nostalgic insistence on the brevity of the symbiotic merger.


  11. For such a discussion see Schiesari (1992, 77-93).


  12. The paradox of a character reduced to silence in a genre relying on speech for its very existence is to be related to the paradox of Hamlet's inaction in a genre whose very name means 'action' (the Greek, 'dram').


  13. The moral insight of the melancholiac is initially a construct of Freud in 'Mourning and Melancholia,' p. 247, with specific reference to Hamlet. As Schiesari incisively comments, Freud's Hamlet 'appears as a speaker of truths, here the very porte-parole of the ego ideal, the critical faculty of the conscience, whose biting accusations are leveled against all, questioning (and invalidating) the morality of each. The interests of patriarchal ideology and of psychoanalysis are both served by the mad prince, whose melancholy gives him truly visionary powers, a "keener eye for the truth"' (Schiesari 1992, 59).


  14. Toril Moi provides a convenient definition of these concepts: 'The Imaginary corresponds to the pre-Oedipal period when the child believes itself to be a part of the mother, and perceives no separation between itself and the world. . . . The Oedipal crisis represents the entry into the Symbolic Order. This entry is also linked to the acquisition of language. In the Oedipal crisis the father splits up the dyadic unity between father and child and forbids the child further access to the mother and the mother's body' (Moi 1985, 99).


  15. The doubling of terms, hendiadys, so frequent in the play, is probably to be related to this. Cf. Wright, 1981, 166-93.


  16. Fowler argues convincingly for a double-centered structure, the Closet scene being the numerological centre of the play, the tenth of its nineteen scenes, while the Play scene is its 'strategic centre'. He follows Brown (1973, 11-20).


  17. Walter Benjamin 1977, 139. Literally 'a play of mourning', it is a baroque form of drama which flourished in the second half of the 17th Century in Silesia. Deeply pessimistic, it is to be traced back to Seneca.


  18. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, (1920) Freud reports his interpretation of a game his grandson played with a wooden reel which he repeatedly threw over the end of his cot with a sound resembling the word 'fort' (gone), and pulled back again with a sound resembling the word 'da' (here). This game Freud took to be the child's symbolic representation of absence, the absence of his mother. Freud ends by suggesting briefly that tragedy is an adult equivalent of the child's 'fort-da' game insofar as it provides a representation of loss eventually mastered through catharsis.


List of Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. 1985. 'Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies.' In Shakespeare's Rough Magic: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C.L. Barber, edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn. Cranbury and London: Associated University Presses, 73-103.

Adelman, Janet. 1992. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's plays, 'Hamlet' to 'The Tempest'. London and New York: Routledge.

Alexander, Nigel. 1971. Poison, Play and Duel: A Study in Hamlet. London: Routledge.

Barber, C. L., and Wheeler, Richard P. 1986. The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Barber, C. L., and Wheeler, Richard P. 1989. 'Shakespeare in the Rising Middle Class.' In Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan and Bernard J. Paris. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 17-40.

Benjamin, Walter. 1977. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: New Left Books.

Bodkin, Maud. 1934. Archetypal Patterns in Poetry: Psychological Studies of Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brown, Keith. 1973. 'Form and Cause Conjoin'd': Hamlet and Shakespeare's Workshop.' Shakespeare Survey 26:11-20.

Eliot, T.S. 1975. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode. London: Faber.

Erlich, Avi. 1977. Hamlet's Absent Father. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fineman, Joel. 1980. 'Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles.' In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Coppelia Kahn and Murray M. Schwarz. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 70-109.

Fleissner, Robert. 1982. ' "Sullied" Or "Solid": Hamlet's Flesh Once More.' Hamlet Studies 4:92-3.

Fowler, Alastair. 1987. 'The Plays Within the Play of Hamlet.' In 'Fanned and Winnowed Opinions': Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, edited by John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton. London and New York: Methuen.

Freud, Sigmund. 1953-74. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. 24 vols, trans. James Stachey. London: Hogarth.

[Freud, Sigmund. 1953-74. 'Mourning and Melancholia', XIV, 239ff.

Freud, Sigmund. 1953-74.- Beyond the Pleasure Principle, XVIII, 1ff.]

Girard, Rene. 1991. A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Ernest. 1910; repr.1949. Hamlet and Oedipus. New York: Norton. Quoted from Hamlet, edited by Cyrus Hoy. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1992, 200-7.

Kerrigan, William. 1989. 'The Personal Shakespeare.' In Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan and Bernard J. Paris. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 175-190.

Kristeva, Julia. 1980. Pouvoirs de l'horreur: Essai sur l'abjection. Paris: Seuil.

Kristeva, Julia. 1983. Histoires d'amour. Paris: Denoel.

Kristeva, Julia. 1987. Soleil Noir: Depression et melancolie. Paris: Gallimard.

Leverenz, David. 1980. 'The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View.' In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Coppelia Kahn and Murray M. Schwarz. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 110-128.

Levin, Richard. 1990. 'The Poetics and Politics of Bardicide.' PMLA 105: 491-504.

Moi, Toril. 1985. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen.

Oliver, Kelly. 1993. Reading Kristeva: Unravelling the Double-bind. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Partridge, Eric. 1947. Shakespeare's Bawdy. London and New York: Routledge.

Rubinstein, Frankie. 1984. A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and their Significance. London: MacMillan.

Schiesari, Juliana. 1992. The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Shakespeare, William. 1982. Hamlet. The Arden Shakespeare edn, edited by Harold Jenkins. London and New York: Methuen.

Shakespeare, William. 1985. Hamlet. The New Cambridge Shakespeare edn, edited by Philip Edwards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vickers, Brian. 1993. Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Watson, Robert N. 1990. 'Giving up the Ghost in a World of Decay: Hamlet, Revenge and Denial.' Renaissance Drama 21:199-223.

Wright, George T. 1981. 'Hendiadys and Hamlet.' PMLA 96:168-193.

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Contents © Copyright Anny Crunelle-Vanrigh 1997.
Layout © Copyright Renaissance Forum 1997. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 2, Number 2, Autumn 1997.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 3 December 1997.