"The Abject of Desire" in Shakespeare's Hamlet

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical background
2.1 What is abject/abjection?
2.2 Death and all his friends
2.2.1 The skull
2.2.2 Mourning and funeral rites
2.2.3 The corpse
2.2.4 Ghosts

3. Analysis of the scenes
3.1.1 The first appearance of the ghost: Act 1 Scene 4
3.1.2 The encounter between Hamlet and the ghost: Act 1 Scene 5
3.1.3 The second appearance of the ghost: Act 3 Scene 4
3.2 The grave-yard scene: Act 5 Scene 1
3.2.1 Enter two Clowns
3.2.2 Hamlet’s reflections at the grave
3.2.3 Ophelia’s funeral and the struggle between Hamlet and Laertes

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

Nor dread nor hope attend A dying animal;

A man awaits his end Dreading and hoping all … He knows death to the bone – Man has created death.

(W. B. Yeats, “Death”)

If Yeats is right by saying that man has created death, or rather the idea of death, then it is not surprising that what people thought about death in the past differs from the attitudes we have today and even across different cultures, the feelings concerning death and its representation vary. As Neill states in his study, Renaissance tragic drama is about “the discovery of death and the mapping of its meanings” and he mentions that Hamlet is a play “whose action is obsessively concerned with the exploration of mortality” (1997: 1). According to Zimmerman the play creates an “unsettling atmosphere of existence on the margins, of half-states in which neither life nor death holds sway” (2005: 172). This in–betweenness is also something that Julia Kristeva investigates in her influential study The powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980). She develops the theory of the abject, which is primarily concerned with the state of something that is between subject and object and therefore, arouses a feeling of uncanniness.

This paper is concerned with the exploration of these margins and half-states concerning death in Hamlet. The investigation has two main aims. First, it wants to identify occurrences of death in Hamlet, which are marked by ambiguity and uncertainty, i.e. with an abject death according to Julia Kristeva’s theory. Second, it tries to answer the questions why a particular appearance of death in the play is abject and whether cultural conventions and the religious development of the Reformation in England at that time influenced the effects and affects evoked with the Elizabethan audience.

“Shakespeare’s plays are works that live as much in their written/printed as in their performative re-productions and that [...] are therefore most fruitfully examined in both forms side by side” (Aebischer 2004: 13). Taking this assumption as a preliminary, the analysis in this paper focuses on the text of the play, as well as on practical questions concerning performance and stage conventions in the Elizabethan time. These practical aspects cannot be considered in full detail and are therefore applied, where it serves for a better understanding of the concept and the creation of an abject death.

The analysis of the play will concentrate on a selection of scenes, which are representative concerning the themes and motives of this paper. It will be looked at the scenes where the ghost of King Hamlet appears on stage, i.e. it starts with the first encounter in Act 1 Scene 4, followed by Scene 5 and the reappearance in the Closet Scene in Act 4 Scene 4. The next scene, which will be analysed, is the grave-yard scene in Act 5 Scene 1. In this selection, all the important topics and concepts, in which the study is interested, are dealt with and therefore, a sufficient basis for the analysis is given.

It would go beyond the scope of this introduction to delineate Kristeva's theory of the abject in full detail and therefore, the following chapter deals with the notion of the abject and tries to explain it and put it in the context of the topic of this paper. Following that chapter, the notion of death will be explained and analysed in the historical context of the early modern society in England. There will be a discussion of topics from the sphere of death, including the skull, mourning and funeral rites, the corpse and ghosts. The whole chapter two, which has only an introductory character, serves as the theoretical basis for a better understanding of the following analysis of the scenes in chapter three. The conclusion in chapter four sums up the main points with regard to the questions mentioned above on the basis of the findings of the analysis.

2. Theoretical background

2.1 What is abject/abjection?

Abjection is a “twisted braid of affects and thoughts”, as Julia Kristeva states at the very beginning of her study The powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980). This study will serve as a main basis for the delineation of the concept of the abject/abjection. In her book, Kristeva explains the effects and affects, which a person experiences when he or she sees for example a dead body or a bloody wound. The aim of this chapter is to illustrate what this affect is, where it comes from, why we have it and to draw the connection between this theoretical concept and the main topic of this paper, i.e. death.

According to Kristeva, we experience abjection as “a massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness” (2). She uses in her description the term “uncanniness”, and although she does not use it in the Freudian sense of the uncanny, it is worth contrasting these two notions in order to get a better understanding of Kristeva’s abject.

What can be said is that the affect described by Freud and Kristeva are similar, but what makes the difference is the reason why we experience these emotions. Kristeva whose of the abject is “grounded in Lacanian psychoanalysis” (Zimmerman 2005: 4), is “concerned with the infant proto-subject – the human subject before ego-formation, before Oedipality, before the acquisition of language” (Spooner 2007: 143). Freud’s uncanny has its roots just after the mentioned stages of development. One could argue that the uncanny is a less frightening affect, because it is retrievable in the unconscious and with the abject “we are no longer within the sphere of the unconscious” (Kristeva 1982: 11).

This proto-subject doesn’t recognise itself as a subject and therefore “it cannot distinguish […] its own body from the field of objects that surround it, including most importantly for Kristeva, its mother” (Spooner 2007: 144). When it now tries to identify what is “I” and “not-I” and then expel it as “other” it has to abject itself, because it knows no boundaries between self and other (144). Considering these circumstances it is important that this proto-subject abjects its mother in order to become a subject that recognises itself as such. Therefore the “encounter with the abject reminds us of the initial abjection of the maternal body that the subject has to perform in order to acquire language and to establish the border between self and (m)other” (Kutzbach 2007: 8).

One can say that the abject threatens identity, because it threatens the border of the subject and is accompanied by feelings of loss and loneliness. It is important that one rejects the abject “in order to defend the boundaries of identity” (Kutzbach 2007: 9). Kristeva also talks about the abject and abjection as “safeguards” and “primers of my culture” (1982: 2).

So far, we have located the abject in the development of the human being and answered the question of where it comes from. What is then the abject, which is a threat to identity? Kristeva mentions that the abject “does not have a […] definable object [and] has only one quality of the object – that of being opposed to I” (Kristeva 1982: 1). In other words, what we consider to be abject cannot clearly be regarded as an object. For Kristeva it is “a ‘something’ that I do not recognize as a thing” (2). These statements seem to appear ambiguous and that is exactly what the abject is about: ambiguity. The first subtitle in her essay Approaching Abjection, suggests a possible explanation of the abject as being “Neither Subject nor Object”. So the abject is somewhere between the subject and the object.

In order to make this clear, one could look at examples, which are also mentioned by Kristeva herself in her essay. According to her, a wound with blood and pus or the acrid smell of sweat are abject. They are abject not because they signify death, but because they “show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live” (3). In other words:

The abject, which evokes both loathing and fascination, frightens when it manifests itself as bodily excretion because it is not the body itself, yet still a part of it. It must be expelled to keep intact the border between inside and outside and to prevent corporeal decay. (Kutzbach 2007: 8)

Here again the bodily excretions cannot be seen as mere objects, because it used to be a part of us and now it is not anymore – neither subject nor object. Not only bodily excretions are abject but for Kristeva “the corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life” (4). Kristeva brings it to the point and says that

[i]t is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior. … Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility. […] Abjection, […] is immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles […] a debtor who sells you up, […] a friend who stabs you. (4)

Death is not always abject and the abject does not always have to do with death. The aim of this paper is to investigate the abject and the abjection of death in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. So the focus will be on occurrences where death does not respect borders and is somewhere in- between and ambiguous.

2.2 Death and all his friends

In his study on death, Neill puts up the idea that ‘death’ “has to be constantly reimagined across cultures and through time” (1997: 2). For Elizabethans as well as for our society today, there is a fascination for the representation of death. It might be a “mysterious to many of us”, whereas back then people were “more familiar with the reality of death”. It could have served as a way of overcoming their fears and answering “their curiosity about the body and its obscure relationship with the soul, and the life that they understood to lie beyond the grave” (Simkin 2006: 198).

People were more familiar with death or as Frye says “[t]he Renaissance was schooled in the contemplation of death” (Frye 1984: 205). One could argue that the plagues, where a large number of people died, and the general low average life expectation contributed to the fact that the society was more used to death and it took a larger part in their lives then today. However, Neill argues that “[t]he trauma of epidemic disease was by no means the only factor to the early modern reinvention of death.” Also the new findings in the science of anatomy changed the understanding of the human body (Neill 1997: 102). Simkin, too, states that in the Elizabethan society, there was “a growing interest in the structure of the human body” (Simkin 2006: 178). What can be conclude then, is that a combination of the above mentioned factors contributed to a strong interest in death.

Also the representation of death in the visual arts was important and through tragedy “the culture of early modern England reinvented death” (Neill 1997: 3). English Renaissance tragedy was “more concerned with death than any drama that had previously existed” (Spencer 1936: 232). Theatre in general had an important place in the life of the people in early modern England and Shapiro calls the population of London in Shakespeare’s time the “most experienced playgoers in history” (2005: 10). So, the theatres and the experiences of the people during a performance were able to shape their attitudes towards a wide range of topics, including death.

In the following subchapters, various notions from the sphere of death are going to be delineated. They will serve as a basis for a better understanding of the attitudes towards death and the scenes, which are going to be analysed in this paper. Amongst these notions are the skull, mourning and funeral rites, corpses and ghosts.

2.2.1 The Skull

“The tableau of Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yorick in the graveyard of Elsinore is one of the most famous in the Shakespearean canon” (Frye 1984: 206). For our society it might seem very morbid, seeing a person with a real skull in his or her hands but in Renaissance society there was a long tradition of showing a young man with a skull. There is for instance, a picture by Franz Hals A Young Man with a Skull, which was popular back then (207).

Today the skull usually symbolises death but it has not always had this significance and was frequently used “as an attribute of saints” (207). However, as one can see in various paintings, the depiction of a skull was not restricted to saints or older persons but equally common to young persons (213).

There was also a tradition of possessing and giving as presents small ivory skulls and even skull shaped watches, which were popular in the sixteenth century (210). The skull could be used as a warning that death was inevitable and not as a threat (212). Considering the above mentioned aspects concerning the skull and its representation, the understanding of the and affect of Hamlet standing near a grave, holding Yorick’s skull, for the audience in Shakespeare’s time can be reshaped.

2.2.2 Mourning and funeral rites

Talking about attitudes towards death, one needs to think about the way people mourned and buried the dead. As mentioned in the previous subchapter, death was more frequent experienced in everyday life and therefore funerals and funeral rites “would have been intimately familiar to Elizabethans in 1600, when life expectancy was short and death was a more frequent occurrence among one’s family, friends, and neighbors” (Frye 1984: 246).

The process of mourning is important in order to cope with the loss of a person and imagining “the corpse in the cold ground, the mourner begins the process of separation from the dead and the return to society” (Goodland 2006: 18). Mourning “consists always in attempting to ontologize remains, to make them present, in the first place by identifying the bodily remains and by localizing the dead […] Nothing could be worse, for the work of mourning, than confusion or doubt” (Derrida 1994: 9). Burial customs are therefore necessary as a part of the mourning process. Also for Kristeva mourning is vital, salutary and life- affirming (Drakakis 2008: 92). When we think of mass death, for instance, it evokes horror, which is “most painfully felt in the breakdown of burial custom” (Neill 1997: 18).

Mourning and funeral rites were also influenced by the Reformation, because the Catholic traditions differ from the Protestant rites to a large extent. Catholic rituals of mourning served to keep the dead person present in the consciousness of the living, whereas the Protestants tried to distance the dead, which can also be seen “in the removal of the body from the 1552 burial rite” (Goodland 2006: 3). For Protestants, tears and prayers for the dead displayed separation rather than communion and this kind of grief was regarded as effeminate and barbaric (4). The Reformation’s abolition of various mourning rites, including Purgatory which for Goodland is a “vast, unseen land of memory and emotion” (26), “placed the dead beyond the reach of their survivors” (Neill 1997: 38) and therefore the people had to find a valve for their feelings and in the theatre, as actors and in the audience, they had the chance to weep and mourn over the dead, just as they were used to in the past. “The theater […] seems to have emerged from, criticized, and replaced the Catholic mass” (Dolan 1999: 24) and the popularity of history plays and tragedies after the Reformation shows that there was a need to reflect upon death and what comes after it (Goodland 2006: 181). One can conclude that the Elizabethan society “thirsts for opportunities to weep real or metaphorical tears” and so “the genre of tragedy performs the cultural work of providing a public space for a displaced and oblique form of communal mourning” (176).

The audience was sensitive to the display of funeral rites and therefore, the playwright was able to create “powerful dramatic meanings from the displacement, stinting, or abruption” of them (Neil 1997: 288). “It is therefore no accident that scanted or interrupted funerals, unburied corpses and disinterred skeletons, violated sepulchres and neglected tombs, should feature so prominently in the dramaturgy of plays like […] Hamlet (46). As Drakakis puts it, “ghosts, spectres, tombs and crypts are the foreseeable consequences of failed acts of grief” (93) and “Hamlet, of course, is marked by a profound inadequacy where matters of ritualized grief are concerned” (75). This has also been stated by Lacan, who says about the play that “the rites have been cut short and performed in secret” (1977: 40). In the analysis of the Graveyard scene, more comments will be made concerning burial rites and especially concerning rites for suicides.

2.2.3 The corpse

The religious development during the Reformation also had an influence on the attitudes towards corpses and their representations. One needs to take into account Zimmerman’s assertion that “any discourse concerning Christ as God is at bottom a discourse about the body” (Zimmerman 2007: 25). This is due to the fact that “the body of the dead Christ does not putrefy”. In the Catholic tradition, during the sacrament of the Eucharist the literal body and blood of Christ was sacrificed. Here, the “bodily process was inseparable from spiritual transformation” and the reformers wanted to divide body and spirit (Zimmerman 2005: 102- 3). This led to the above mentioned abandonment of the corpse, which resulted in its symbolic resurrection on the Renaissance stage (Goodland 2006: 4).

Kristeva’s theory of the abject connects with the medieval concept of the body, which was abandoned by the reformers. They are both “nondualistic approache[s] to psychic/religious phenomena that eschew […] categorical clarifications” (Zimmerman 2005: 105). Kristeva is concerned with boundaries between inside and outside and questions of borders and identity. There “is something trans-historical about the fascination with body horror, which has reanimated itself periodically across the centuries” (Simkin 2006: 168) and in early modern England, there was a “popular fascination with the ambiguities of bodily borders” (Zimmerman 2007: 10). This fascination of borders can also be seen in the


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"The Abject of Desire" in Shakespeare's Hamlet
University of Cologne
Hauptseminar: Gothic Renaissance
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
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Shakespeare, Abject, Kristeva, Gothic, Renaissance, Hamlet, Affect, Death, Funeral, Corpses, Ghost, Drama, Early Modern England
Quote paper
André Valente (Author), 2010, "The Abject of Desire" in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/160161


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