Hamlet in Bukit Brown: A Creative Exploration


Do not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.2

The Ghost’s injunction to “not forget” is a point that is belaboured to absurdity, and here (as quoted above) this spectral presence makes a reappearance to command Hamlet to sharpen what has become dull. While the Ghost is a device that is reminiscent of the conventions of Elizabethan revenge tragedies, the Ghost’s primary imperative seems to be a call to remembrance, over a call to revenge. This not only suggested in his beseeching directives for Hamlet to “listen” and “remember”, but also in his response to the stabbing of Polonius. If the image and existence of Polonius’s bleeding body were not compelling enough to assuage the Ghost’s fears of Hamlet’s “blunted purpose”, it perhaps suggests that remembrance as manifested through revenge is not an adequate means of commemoration. Perhaps the idea here is that revenge is not how meaningful and enduring memorialisation takes form.

In light of this, what is it that Hamlet is truly supposed to remember? What does it mean to keep the memory of the Ghost from becoming dull? How is Hamlet supposed to fulfil the command, “Remember me”? And what are we as the audience supposed to take away from this theatrical spectacle and hold in remembrance?

Considering the New Historical approach wherein we think of Shakespeare’s plays as inseparable from the context in which he wrote, we can similarly explore the complex ways in which “Renaissance drama has appropriated the power of weakened or damaged traditional religious institutions.”3 In this way, we can read the Ghost as a device that represents the shifting socio-cultural landscape of the early 1600s, with the Ghost inhabiting the imaginative space left in the wake of the English Reformation’s banishment of Purgatory in 1563.

The Ghost implies that he has returned from Purgatory when he laments that he is “doomed for a certain term to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in days of nature / Are burnt and purged away”4. This allusion, in effect, brings Purgatory back with him, albeit as a temporary and passive idea in a fictionalised setting. His presence thus is a reminder of the notion of Purgatory, an idea that persists in spite of critical Protestant repudiation that hinges on its questioned theological legitimacy.

Further, it is interesting to note that throughout the play, young Hamlet does not seem to be concerned about the eternal destiny of his father. In lieu of such eschatological anxieties, he is preoccupied with decoding the cryptic cipher that is the Ghost’s injunctions for remembrance. He is also more concerned about exposing the misdeeds of Claudius, destabilising the “incestuous” marriage between Gertrude and Claudius, and restoring both moral and emotional order in the household. However, these attempts – ironically – herald much internal collapse and external chaos. The added complexity of his household as royal residence ropes in the political into this conversation as well, intimately entangling what seems like private, domestic issues with the public, legal sphere. Therefore, the tumult of such outward upheaval is a potential comment on the connection between intimate, individual beliefs and its relationship to wider, civil society.

As such, the phantasmal presence of the father as Ghost therefore reminds us of a practice of memorialisation that is no longer theologically sanctioned, and perhaps bespeaks certain anxieties over the socio-political future of the state, as precipitated by such great ideological contestation and denial.

Furthermore, Hamlet’s “conservativeness in its nostalgia for Purgatory”5 brings to the fore another point of contestation: the debate between the modern and the traditional, with Hamlet as the modern, theologically-sanctioned eschatological perspective and the Ghost as the harbinger of traditional modalities to understanding the afterlife (i.e., Purgatory). Additionally, Hamlet represents the modern in his implied views toward revenge while the Ghost represents the “ancient and medieval world of honour, pride, and heroic combat”6. An interesting perspective that some scholars suggest is that Hamlet is associated with modern paradigms of thought because of his ability to understand the futility of revenge, as implied in his linguistic delaying tactics that hold off immediate and atavistic approaches to enacting vengeance.

Looking at the trope of revenge in Elizabethan tragedies through René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, violence, and establishment of society, revenge is posited as a mimetic form of violence – an imitated way of translating resentment into action. In this case, “mimeticity” enables learning that “comprises the existence of an ideal, or a role model from which one can learn.”7 Hamlet’s call to retribution, while in some part motivated by acutely personal feelings of loss, injustice, and a sense of cruelty, is a practice of bereavement that is mimetically informed by medieval laws of retaliation: an eye for an eye. This calculative and vindictive sentiment of revenge is also a seed that is sowed by the Ghost, as he goads Hamlet toward purging “the royal bed of Denmark [as] a couch for luxury and damned incest.”8 Additionally, the Ghost’s calls to obey and mimic are also seen in one of his opening lines, wherein he commands Hamlet to “Mark [him].”9 This call for attention has a connotative image of something being impressed upon; to “mark” is to brand mimetically.

However, Hamlet’s dawdling through his ruminations and cryptic philosophising thwarts the immediate efficacy of mimetic “marking”, and instead presents him as an “intellectual who glories in his mastery of language as a means to defer as long as possible the contact of ideas with practical reality.”10 His modern, intellectual views as suggested in his quips are not simply evocations of nihilistic meaninglessness (“words, words, words”), but also reveal an understanding of how “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”11 retribution is. Instead of charging toward revenge with the medieval fervour of valiant, knightly combat, Hamlet’s tortured philosophising presents a modern paradigm that challenges traditional ways of dealing with loss and mourning.

In this way, the Ghost is the interpretive crux to both Hamlet’s character and the play. Shakespeare’s Ghost is an interesting device that pays homage to the death of Purgatory – it is at once a eulogium of remembrance for things that have gone and a site of active imagination surrounding cultural change. The relationship between Hamlet and the Ghost dredges up many haunts – the dissolution of Purgatory, the contestation between the old and the new, and the preservation of memory and practices of remembrance. The desire to speak to the dead within the play is in itself a reminder that our identity is a concomitant function of the various ghosts of our past. At the heart of it, it raises questions still unanswered about loss – how do we cope with change and adapt to familiar intimacies now upended? What systems of thought do we hold on to as feelings of loss assail us?