"Who's there?" Hamlet's Mourning and His Father's Ghost

Essay, 2009

18 Pages

Free online reading


1. Introduction

2. The Ghost
2.1 The Ghost's identity
2.1.1 Interpretation
2.1.2 Comparison
2.1.3 Discourse
2.2 The Ghost's reality

3. Hamlet's mourning
3.1 Intrafamilial homicide
3.2 Double death
3.3 Re-enters the Ghost

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Is anything more certain

than that in all those vast times and spaces,

If I were allowed to search them,

I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch?

She died. She is dead.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1984:13)

First words have their own magic. What we hear when the curtain opens and "Hamlet" begins is a question that miraculously mirrors the plot of the play as well as the musing of the audience about what to expect of this probably best known and most discussed work of dramatic literature ever written.

"Who's there?" Who is it that we – together with Barnardo, Francisco, Marcellus, Horatio, and, of course, Hamlet – are going to meet in an instant's time? And then: who is acting in front of us? Danish courtiers in a mythical time? Representatives of an Elizabethan world of art, science, philosophy and politics? Actors playing their roles? Individuals entrapped in an intriguing net of personal and collective motives, experiences and tragedy?

To answer these questions means to define a frame of interpretation, one more among the hundreds that have already been used to fill volumes of explanations and critical comments. Since the play itself refuses to provide a concluding answer, it is up to us, the readers or viewers, to make our decisions. It is them that will reveal "who's there": in the text, on the stage and in the awareness of both ourselves and the play's protagonists.

In this essay, I will consider myself being a witness of events experienced, utterances made and actions accomplished by individuals reacting to the death of an important member of their social network. The focus will be on Hamlet, the deceased's son, but other protagonists will be included if and as far as they interact with him. My point of view will be a "naïve" one in the sense of reading the play as a documentary, the text's surface, as it were.[1] Contextual framework – the play's historical setting and prevailing reception – will be considered where appropriate but will not be used as a core interpretative clue.

Out of the abundance of literature in the field of literary criticism I will chose studies focussing on Hamlet's mourning and his father's ghost respectively. It is this ghost – so the main assumption of this essay – that is implied in the play's first sentence, a protagonist simultaneously present and absent, perceived and denied, a question as well as an exclamation mark, a mirror and a motive of Hamlet's tragic mourning.

Grief and mourning are both individual and social phenomena. They express personal emotions while being shaped by social relationships and contextual influences. The deceased's ghost – to put my thesis differently – mediates between Hamlet's "inner" world of emotions, thoughts and motives and the "outer" world of events and relations past and present. By remaining betwixt and between in the dead's characteristic way and by not precisely answering the initial question he is the driving force of Hamlet's fate and the play's plot.

There is a current trend in social scientific studies on death and bereavement towards exploring the ways the dead are present or represented respectively within and around the bereaved and towards the ongoing interaction between the deceased and the mourners (Hallam et al. 1999, Valentine 2008). This essay may contribute to this discussion using a particular "case study". On the other hand, it may help to contextualise Shakespeare's enigmatic Prince in a new perspective.

2. The Ghost

There aren't, and never were, any people.

Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there.

What we call the living are simply those

who have not yet been unmasked.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1984:25)

When the former king's ghost first enters the stage, his appearance is well prepared. The guards on Helsingor talk about him (26,2ff)[2] and so his presence in language precedes his actual arrival. The Ghost's primordial identity is a verbal one, and within this context he gains his specific reality.

2.1 The Ghost's identity

Barnardo's initial question "Who's there?" (25,3) aims at Francisco still hiding in the dark, but it also hints at an ambivalence of identities that is an essential part of all the play's characters. Barnardo and Francisco, the two guards, are interchangeable (25,25) like pawns on a chess set and we will see that the same is true in a certain sense regarding the other protagonists who gain their identity but within a net of assigned social roles and verbal discourses.

The reciprocal mirroring of the characters in Hamlet is one of the play's characteristic features. Hamlet and the Ghost (see below 3.3); Hamlet and Claudius, who despite their antagonism both suffer from the deceitfulness of language using the metaphor of the whore (78,10; 80,33); Hamlet and Ophelia, whose fates are paralleled by the deaths of their fathers and who both transform their mourning into madness; Hamlet and Laertes ("for by the image of my cause, I see / the portraiture of his": 145,14f); Hamlet and Fortinbras, whose vengeance for their murdered fathers is delayed and who despite their antithetical characters respect, even idealise each other (117,4ff; 156,10ff): all these interrelations both establish and differentiate the single characters' identities.

For the first witnesses, the Ghost is dwelling in a space between anonymous objectivity - "this thing" (26,2), "this something" (27,10) – and subjective awareness: "this dreaded sight" (26,6), "this apparition" (26,9). The guards simply address it as "it" (46,7ff), Marcellus being the only one to personalise it as "he" characteristically, however, but after the Ghost's disappearance (47,33; 48,5). Within this rather nebulous setting the Ghost is basically getting its identity by three linguistic means: interpretation, comparison, and the act of discourse itself. I will have a look at each of these in turn.

2.1.1 Interpretation

The Ghost's appearance at midnight (25,9; 44,29) links it with traditional notions implying a distinction between "this side of our known world" (28,13; Horatio) and a world beyond that is usually described by means of hearsay ("I have heard", "some say", "they say": 30,17ff).[3] Parts of these traditions are apocalyptic and eschatological conceptions that are used by the guards to make sense of their experiences (29,7ff; 30,16ff: Horatio; 30,25ff: Marcellus). Additionally, traditional ideas like prophecy or hidden treasures are used to explain the Ghost's possible motivations (29,27.30.33: Horatio).

The general means that the observers on stage use to interpret the Ghost's appearance, therefore, are folk traditions influenced by religious imagery[4], and these notions are confirmed – or mirrored – by the Ghost's own subsequent statement about his being "doom'd for a certain term to walk the night" coming from a place where his "days of nature / are burnt and purg'd away" (48,23.25f).[5] This, however, merely explains the presence of the Ghost as a ghost – not as the specific ghost of the dead King, Hamlet's father. His specific identity is primarily construed by means of comparison.

2.1.2 Comparison

Elihu Pearlman (2002) in his thorough reconstruction of Shakespeare's "Invention of the Ghost" has shown how in Hamlet traditional ghost concepts and their transformations are used to create a new kind of stage character. It was Shakespeare's intent and theatrical masterpiece "to extract the Ghost from some literary never-never land and place him where every hearer's father or grandfather might be imagined to abide" (Pearlman 2002:82). "The Ghost in Hamlet is no longer an alien being rooted in ageless theatrical tradition; he has been reimagined as a fellow creature who just happens to be a spirit" (op. cit.: 80).

According to Pearlman (2002:73), the theatrical means to achieve this effect were developed by Shakespeare in a process probably beginning with the writing of Julius Caesar and are primarily linked with the way the Ghost itself appears and talks. The Ghost's specific identity as a familiar "fellow creature", however, is also established by the protagonists' dialogues. He appears to Barnardo "in the same figure, like the King that's dead" (26,26; my italics). "Is it not like the King?" Marcellus asks, and Horatio, Hamlet's sophisticated friend, answers him: "As thou art to thyself" (27,15f). Shortly afterwards, talking with Hamlet, he confirms that he "knew your father: / these hands are not more like" (38,10f) thus suggesting a symmetry (not identity) between the former King and his ghost and when the latter finally appears in person, he introduces himself to Hamlet as "thy father's spirit" (48,22), thus appealing to Hamlet's memory without suggesting to be identical with his father. In the Ghost's subsequent tale, this identity is claimed retrospectively by using the words "my" and "me" to denote the former king (49,19f), but when the spirit takes up the conversation with Hamlet, he again refers to "thy father's life" (49,23).

The identification of the Ghost with the dead King, thus, is accomplished by comparing an ambiguous present experience with former experiences, i.e. memories. The "sensible and true avouch / of mine own eyes" (27,13f; Horatio) has to be completed by a reminiscential imagery: "So frown'd he once …" (27,19; Horatio). This process is part of a continuous discourse that will not cease as long the observers' memories differ from each other. Therefore, it is ambiguous too. Additionally, the "sensible avouch" may hide something completely unknown and strange to another person as Hamlet's reaction to the guards' description of the Ghost's armour demonstrates (38,30ff). Hamlet is interested in the face behind the "beaver" hoping to find there the beloved features of his father. The information he gets from Horatio matches well with his memory and yet leaves a doubtful emptiness that cannot replace the lost living presence. The Ghost, thus, simultaneously represents and hides the deceased's identity, causing the observer – Hamlet – to continue his painful quest for truth.[6]

2.1.3 Discourse

The identity of the Ghost in Hamlet heavily relies on language, on the words, phrases, metaphors, idioms and quotes used by the play's protagonists. The nightly apparition would be but a dumb anonymous spectre if not gaining meaning in the discourses of its living, remembering, talking counterparts.

Language in Hamlet, however, is far from being an adequate means of mapping reality. From the beginning, from the very first helpless dialogue – "Who's there? / Nay answer me!" – words rather question than facilitate communication. Hamlet's first utterance is an ironic comment spoken beside, a parody of the King's ingratiation ("a little more than kin, and less than kind": 33,21). Using a meta-language, Hamlet sets himself apart from any naïve assumptions about the veracity of speech. He knows and learns how easily words turn into social masks, and so does Ophelia, Hamlet's female counterpart, when commenting on her father's bourgeois self-righteousness (43,2f). Polonius himself, on the other hand, as Osric, the slimy parvenu, is stuck in his language, unable to get beyond his clichés (42,8ff), losing himself in platitudes (57,15) or submissively humouring those his existence depends on (62,20ff: Polonius; 146,18ff: Osric).

Claudius, on his part, though sensing the deceitfulness (80,32ff) and emptiness (102,14) of his words, is unable to find a language that would be in tune with Hamlet's grief. His first comment on Hamlet's behaviour merely repeats conventional ideas about "mourning duties" (34,12) using common sense, morality and religion to demonstrate their natural limits (34,11ff). All this is too obvious part of a conventional "play" (34,8), hardening rather than soothing Hamlet's suffering, and incapable of reaching "that within" (34,9) which has and finds no words that would allow to express or share it ("but break my heart, for I must hold my tongue": 36,18).[7]

Interestingly, though, when Hamlet eventually meets the Ghost, the core means to establish a relationship with him and find out about his identity and purpose is language. If he is a "spirit of health, or goblin damn'd", if his intents are "wicked or charitable" (46,9.11) can only be decided by talking with him: "Thou com'st in such a questionable shape / that I will speak to thee" (46,12f).

It is speech – discourse – that turns questionable awareness into conceptual certainty shaping what has been lost into a new identity. This process, however, is far from being unequivocal. Offering four different meanings – "Hamlet, King, father, royal Dane" (46,13f) – denoting four different fields of experience and social contexts, Hamlet, the son, rather diffuses than clarifies the Ghost's identity. The Ghost, on his part, eludes Hamlet's anxiety to get clear answers from his dead father (48,9f) by establishing a relation with Hamlet that precedes discourse. His first sentence – "Mark me!" (48,11) – questions both Hamlet's previous awareness of the Ghost and his solipsistic identifications.[8]

The Ghost's identity emerges as part of a relation that neither exclusively represents the mourner's innermost "being a thing immortal as itself" (47,7)[9], nor formal language and its rootedness in social frameworks. Hamlet's "Alas, poor Ghost!" (48,16) – an expression of closeness and familiarity – is rejected as well as his previous formal terminology, leaving him in a state of confusion. His reaction to the Ghost's tale ("O my prophetic soul!": 49,25) mirroring his former awareness of the father in his "mind's eye" (37,15) shows that he is unable to objectify the Ghost's identity. The dialogue between him and his father's ghost evolves from and aims at something between them, indeed, leaving the categories of objectivity and subjectivity behind[10] and turning grief into something essentially intersubjective.[11]

2.2 The Ghost's reality

The ghost of Hamlet's father gains its identity in a linguistic framework, i.e. along the dialogues and monologues of the play's protagonists. As we have seen, this identity is fragile and ambiguous, mirroring the witnesses' perspective and idiosyncratic language. In a certain sense, this is also true regarding the Ghost's "reality", its very presence among the (more or less) bereaved.

In her account of bereaved people's experiences with the presence of the dead, Gillian Bennett (1999) has convincingly demonstrated how the "reality" of these experiences is mediated by specific discourses used in specific social settings and relying on specific narrative patterns. The defining moment, though, is a personal experience – however vague – in space and time (Bennett 1999:3).[12]

For Horatio, the learned scholar, the Ghost's reality would be rather questionable "without the sensible and true avouch / of mine own eyes" (27,13f). Correspondingly, Hamlet, when told about the appearances, first inquires about the exact place (38,12) – thus echoing Horatio's own former question (37,14) – then about what the Ghost said (38,15) and finally about what Horatio actually saw (39,1ff). The last question is characteristically differentiated: "saw you not his face?" – "look'd he frowningly?" – "and fix'd his eyes upon you?" (39,1.3.7). Gradually proceeding from seeing to being seen, from the observer's to the observed's agency, Hamlet step by step tests the reliability of his friend's experience.

It would be the Ghost's glance, after all, that probably could answer Hamlet's desperate search for truth and verify his father's presence beyond the original inner view of his beloved features ("methinks I see my father": 37,13). As long as the Ghost's eyes stay blind, the words of his mouth will fail to provide unambiguity, and Hamlet will be let alone in his grief. Consequently, when the Ghost appears for the last time in the chamber of his former wife Gertrude, it is Hamlet alone who perceives him (106,21f) leading Gertrude to the suspicion that "this is the very coinage of your brain" (107,11).

According to Susan Zimmerman, what we witness here is "a diminution of the warrior-king" (Zimmerman 2005:188), i.e. Hamlet's idealised and yearned for father image. "Without Gertrude's corroboration", so Zimmerman, "Hamlet's apotheosis of his father is irrelevant to anyone but himself, a solipsistic fantasy" signalling "a brutalising shift in Hamlet, a turning away from a passion that no longer affords hope" (loc. cit.). As a result, Hamlet's mourning, not even recognized by his beloved father who rather turns his looks at his desperate former wife (106,15), mutates into ruggedness and insensitivity. "When Hamlet attends, finally, to the corpse of Polonius […] that was his beloved Ophelia's father, he seems singularly insensitive to the parallel between her grief and his: 'I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room'"(Zimmerman, loc. cit.).

The dead, then, after the Ghost's final disappearance seem to gain a completely different kind of reality for Hamlet. They turn from individuals with a socially well defined role and position into mere objects, graphically symbolised in the cemetery scene at the beginning of act five (135,20ff). Whereas the Ghost had a vague spiritual presence ('tis here – 'tis here – 'tis gone: 30,7ff), the skulls have a material permanence that at first sight undoubtedly seems to be "real". As Hamlet's sarcastic comments reveal, however, this reality is but the residue of a former existence that was determined not by the bones' materiality but by social settings and relations ("why might not that be the skull of a lawyer …": 136,8ff).

Hamlet's reconstruction of the skulls former, now lost life mimics his search for identity in view of his father's ghost. His addressing the remains of Yorick, the Former king's jester and Hamlet's fatherly friend, literally parallels his first reaction to the Ghost's tale: "Alas, poor Ghost" (48,16) – "Alas poor Yorick" (138,26). Though failing empathy has turned into failing irony, Hamlet's experiences of both the "spiritual" and material signifiers of death and lost are quite similar.

3. Hamlet's mourning

And grief still feels like fear.

Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense.

Or like waiting; just hanging about

waiting for something to happen.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1984:30)

The pièce de résistance of any Hamlet interpretation is the explanation of Hamlet's hesitancy in the face of the Ghost's plea for vengeance. Clearly, it is this not-acting that paradoxically sustains the drama's suspense and eventually leads to its tragic finale. Much has been written about Hamlet's reluctance using dramaturgical as well as psychological methods[13] sometimes even resulting in doubts about the quality of Shakespeare's renowned masterpiece (Mason 1968).

Hamlet himself when reflecting on his situation symptomatically ends in uncertainty: "I do not know / why yet I live to say This thing's to do, / sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / to do't" (116,32ff). Hamlet is lost in a fatal field of disorientation, language and potency all of them reciprocally influencing each other. His ability to act is not really lost, but results in verbal aggression, violent fantasies and a destructive behaviour aimed at both his social circle and himself.

3.1 Intrafamilial homicide

In a social psychological perspective, this way of Hamlet's mourning comes very close to the experiences made by family members of recent victims of intrafamilial homicide. Carolyn Harris Johnson (2007) has described these experiences in an empirical study. She summarises her results by stating that "[t]he inner representations of intrafamilial homicide victims held by those who loved them ensure that they live on within the family, and with significant others, interacting with them daily. Their presence is manifest in changes in the way family members relate to one another, in the individual's physiological and behavioral responses, in survivors' feelings toward the perpetrators, in their discourse, memories, dreams, and reflections" (Johnson 2007:133).

The survivors, like Hamlet, experience "confusion, discord, and torn loyalties among family members" (op. cit.:121). What had happened "changes everything, the way you think and the way you feel" (op. cit.:122; interview statement). It may cause "extreme anger toward perpetrators and their families, expressed in fantasies of revenge – especially by male members of the family" (op. cit.: 125), as well as somatic effects (op. cit.:128), paranormal experiences (op. cit.:129), the inability to perform even ordinary everyday activities (op. cit.:132) and social isolation (op. cit.:130). "I still get upset", one of the interviewees said. "I'm supposed to be a different person. […] I get angry when people say 'You should get over it'. I can't get over it. It's like having a life that should be pushed under the carpet" (op. cit.:130).

In this modern-day perspective, Shakespeare's Hamlet can be read as a case study about a bereaved person's experiences following intrafamilial homicide. The parallels are numerous and obvious: Hamlet's rage, his fantasies and paranormal encounters, the real and assumed lack of understanding among his fellow men (and women) incorporated in Polonius who pleases himself in recapitulating his medical records (64,21ff) and Claudius who urges him to regain normality and "be as ourself in Denmark" (35,13), the obsessive incriminations against Gertrude as the murderer's supposed ally (see Johnson 2007:122 for a description of such "tribal warfare"), Hamlet's reluctance and his profound feeling of loneliness and being at other's mercy movingly expressed in his pipe metaphor (97,30ff).

3.2 Double death

Even the feature of a "double death" – death of the victim and death of the family or other close relationships – that Johnson (2007:122) mentions as a characteristic feature of intrafamilial violence can be found in Hamlet. Hamlet's close, at least in Claudius's view (126,28f) almost symbiotic relationship with his mother is falling apart, the friendship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ends in sarcasm and murder, and Ophelia, Hamlet's fellow sufferer, drowns driven by her lover's reproaches.

Hamlet himself, the mourner, seems to die a mental and social death long before eventually being stabbed by Laertes, as Gerard Kilroy (2003) convincingly has shown. Hamlet's forced departure to England, for example, "has all the elements of a journey to his death. He is intended to die there, and returns with all the mysterious quality of a revenant. Like Orestes, he is thought to be dead, and re-enters the play in the shadow of the graveyard: almost out of the grave itself" (Kilroy 2003:147). Then, before he actually dies, he "twice proclaims himself dead, not just dying: 'I am dead, Horatio […]. Horatio, I am dead' [153,32; 154,4]" (op. cit.:148).[14]

This being dead alive is a social phenomenon, well noticed by Hamlet's counterparts, by the beloved Ophelia ("And with a look so piteous in purport, / as if he had been loosed out of hell, / to speak of horrors: he comes before me": 58,5ff) as well as by the hated King ("Something have you heard / of Hamlet's transformation: so I call it, / sith nor th' exterior nor the inward man / resembles that it was": 59,23ff). It matches well with modern-day experiences of intrafamilial homicide survivors – "it was the end of our lives", one of Johnson's (2007:122) interviewees states – and also throws a new light on the character of the Ghost.

3.3 Re-enters the Ghost

It has long been recognised that Hamlet, the mourner, and Hamlet, the mourned father, are related to one another in a way that exceeds usual family relations. Stanley Kozikowski (1997) in a pleasingly concise article has shown "how substantially Hamlet's self-portraiture draws upon the Ghost's presence in the play" (Kozikowski 1997:126). Hamlet, the son, echoes the Ghost's words: "Remember me" (51,10.32); "This is I, Hamlet the Dane" (141,8f, see 46,13f). He appears before Ophelia in a ghostly manner, "pale as his shirt" (58,4), and leaving her he shows the features of a dying: "And to the last bended [his eyes'] light on me" (58,25). When addressing Gertrude in place of his father he takes the role of the Ghost (107,24f); and to Polonius' puzzled question "Will you walk out of the air my Lord?" he answers "Into my grave" (66,25f).

The Ghost, thus, not only drives the drama's main plot (Yoo 2007:230) but also serves as a "figurative equivalent", "mirroring before Hamlet both his determination and his helplessness" (Kozikowski 1997:127). Hamlet's desperate mourning has its "objective correlative" (loc. cit.) in the Ghost's longing for justice.

4. Conclusion

Hamlet's mourning is part of a complex network of individual memories, feelings, perceptions and actions on the one, social interrelations, discourses and behavioural patterns on the other hand. It is embedded in reciprocal interpretations and role attributions that use language as main media and therefore rely on conceptual, particularly religious traditions. Hamlet's inner ("that within": 34,9) and his outer world are continuously interacting and crystallise, as it were, in permanently renewed linguistic expressions and patterns.

The Ghost, his father's after-death presence, is an integral part of this intersubjective universe. The quest for its/his identity, therefore, implied in the play's very beginning ("who's there?"), necessarily results in continuously changing ambiguous results mirroring the other protagonists' changing perspectives. The main evidence for the Ghost's "reality" is the play's plot itself that develops around the present absence of the mental, social and physical dead.

Many features of Hamlet's experiencing, talking and behaving illustrate recent empirical insights in mourning and grief. The iridescent complexity of mourning as a social phenomenon, however, that the drama is able to unfold will hardly ever be attained by means of social scientific studies.


Bennett, G. (1999): "Alas, Poor Ghost!" Traditions of Belief in Story and Discourse, pp.139-145. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Bloom, H. (1999): Shakespeare – The Invention of the Human. London: Fourth Estate.

Buber, M. (1996): I and Thou. New York: Simon & Schuster. (First German edition 1923).

Goldman, P. (2001): Hamlet's Ghost. A Review Article. (Review of Stephen Greenblatt: Hamlet in Purgatory, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). In: Anthropoetics 7(1). www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0701/ap0701.htm (24.2.2009).

Greenblatt, S. (2001): Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

(2004): The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet. In: The New York Review of Books 51(16). www.nybooks.com/articles/17483 (1.4.09).

Hallam, E. et al. (1999): Beyond the Body. Death and Social Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Holst-Warhaft, G. (2000): The Cue for Passion. Grief and Its Political Uses. London: Harvard University Press.

Johnson, C.H. (2007): Knowing by Heart. Remembering Victims of Intrafamilial Homicide. In: Mitchell, M. (ed.): Remember Me. Constructing Immortality – Beliefs on Immortality, Life, and Death, pp.121-134. New York and London: Routledge.

Kilroy, G. (2003): Requiem for a Prince. Rites of Memory in Hamlet. In: Dutton, R. et al. (eds.): Theatre and Religion. Lancastrian Shakespeare, pp.143-160. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kozikowski, S.J. (1997): Shakespeare's Hamlet. In: The Explicator 56, pp.126-128.

Lewis, C.S. (1984): A Grief Observed. New York: Walker & Company (Linford Inspirational Library).

Low, A. (1999): Hamlet and the Ghost of Purgatory. Intimations of Killing the Father. In: English Literary Renaissance 29(3), pp.443-467.

Mason, H.A. (1968): The Ghost in Hamlet. A Resurrected 'Paper'. In: The Cambridge Quarterly 3(2), pp.127-152.

Pearlman, E. (2002): Shakespeare at Work. The Invention of the Ghost. In: Kinney, A.F. (ed.): Hamlet. New Critical Essays, pp.71-84. New York: Routledge.

Shakespeare, W. (1994): The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. London: Penguin. (= Penguin Popular Classics).

Valentine, C. (2008): Bereavement Narratives. Continuing Bonds in the Twenty-First Century. London and New York: Routledge.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1925): The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In: The Psychology of Art, Ch. 8. www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/ 1925/ art8.htm (25.2.09).

Walter, T. (1999): On Bereavement. The Culture of Grief. Maidenhead and Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Wilson, R. (2003): Introduction. A Torturing Hour – Shakespeare and the Martyrs. In: Dutton, R. et al. (eds.): Theatre and Religion. Lancastrian Shakespeare, pp.1-39. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Wilson, J.D. (1982): What Happens in Hamlet? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (First published 1939)

Yoo, J.-D. (2007): The Dramatic Significance of the Ghost in Hamlet. In: Medieval and Early Modern English Studies 15(1), pp.187-231. Text in Korean; English summary pp.230-231.

Zimmerman, S. (2005): The Early Modern Corpse and Shakespeare's Theatre. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


[1] Since the basic plot of "Hamlet" is well known, I will refrain here from presenting a synopsis of the play. The text referred to is the one presented in the Penguin Popular Classics series (Shakespeare 1994) based on the first Folio edition (1623) and amended with the second Quarto edition (1604). To not stress the play's difficulties, issues of textual criticism will not be discussed.

[2] Quotes from the play are referenced by page and line numbers from Shakespeare 1994.

[3] For features of contemporary ghost lore see Zimmerman (2005:182) quoting Schmitt 1998. The status of these traditions as means of interpreting subjective experiences was already discussed in late sixteenth-century literature; see Bennett 1999:33 quoting Lavater 1572.

[4] This parallels the ways of interpretation used by Gillian Bennett's (1999) twentieth-century interview partners talking about their experiences of the presence of deceased people. This presence is "real" as far as it is rooted in specific folklore traditions and related discourses.

[5] Since Wilson 1982[1939], there has been much discussion about the question whether the religious tradition used in Hamlet has its roots in Protestant or Catholic believes. Low 1999 and Greenblatt 2001, using evidence from Shakespeare's biography, clearly affirm the Catholic background. See Wilson 2003 for a detailed and instructive historical analysis and Goldman 2001 for a critical view on Greenblatt's position. – Because I am focusing here rather on processes than on contents, this discussion can be ignored in my context.

[6] Susan Zimmerman (2005:193, note 20) citing Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass (2001) understands "the ghost's armour as a 'literalized' and 'superficial' embodiment of Hamlet Sr, an 'insignia of identity' that seems to materialise the mnemonic that is the ghost." In this view, Hamlet cannot but fail in his attempt to meet the demand of his idealised father who both appears and disappears in the heroic outfit of the Ghost. – Zimmerman draws on this ambivalence to reconstruct Hamlet's mourning in a Lacanian perspective.

[7] The emptiness of conventional language and the impossibility to convey lost, anger and grief even in close social settings are often experienced by bereaved people. See Valentine 2008:107 and Johnson 2007:130 for examples and Walter 1999:69ff for an analysis of the importance of everyday conversations about the deceased as well as modern social factors that hinder or facilitate them.

[8] Pearlman's (2002:79) characterisation of these "two short words" as "almost comic in their superfluity" is understandable as part of his stressing the Ghost's familiarity but clearly misses the point.

[9] Zimmerman (2005:184) in this context notes a "sinister reciprocity" between Hamlet and the Ghost, a notion that is confirmed by the odd symmetry of the protagonists' reciprocal appeals: "Speak!" (48,9; Hamlet) – "Mark me!" (48,11; Ghost).

[10] The philosophical concept of "the between" as a distinct ontological category based on dialogue was developed by Martin Buber (1996[1923]).

[11] For the role of discourse to establish and sustain "continuous bonds" with the deceased see Walter 1996. The notion of an "intersubjective self" of the dead that emerges in what bereaved people perceive, remember and convey is vividly illustrated in Christine Valentine's (2008) interviews. – An aspect of discourse that seems to be underestimated by both Walter and Valentine, however, is the tendency of any language to miss or distort the essential loneliness and forsakenness of the bereaved so impressively demonstrated in Hamlet's behaviour and fate.

[12] Since in this paper I am focussing on Hamlet and his mourning, I will not go at length into the question, how the Ghost's reality is construed by other protagonists, though the way Horatio and Barnardo localise the Ghost's appearance within a political discourse (28,7ff) and thus establish its ongoing agency (29,6) could be revealing. – Additionally, because the question of the Ghost's identity and his reality respectively are closely connected and much has already been said about discourses, I will concentrate in the following on experiential aspects. – The question how the Ghost's reality was conceived of by Shakespeare and the play's first audiences – interesting as it is – is beyond the scope of this paper (see Pearlman 2002 for a historical perspective).

[13] See Vygotsky 1925 for a concise summary and still inspiring dramaturgical approach.

[14] Kilroy (2003) interprets the play's concern with the (literally and figuratively) dead as reference to forbidden contemporary "rites of memory": "So preoccupied have we been in the last one hundred and fifty years with the psychological readings of Hamlet's mysterious lack of action in this world that we have ignored the central concern of the play with the other world: specifically the world of the soul and the dead. […] The play seems to honour the dead, to provide them with the rituals of remembrance and lying to rest denied the people of Elizabethan England" (Kilroy 2003:154.156). In the perspective of the play's reception, then, Hamlet's characterisation as "revenant" (op. cit.:147) might have served as a coded protest, turning private grief into public mourning in a way reminding Gail Holst-Warhaft's (2000) concept of the political use of grief. – How far Shakespeare's own grief at his son's Hamnet premature death as well as his (corresponding) confessional affiliation are involved in Hamlet is a matter of debate; see Bloom 1999:400 and most notably Greenblatt 2004 for affirmative views.

18 of 18 pages


"Who's there?" Hamlet's Mourning and His Father's Ghost
University of Bath  (Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences)
MSc Death & Society
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
File size
402 KB
hamlet, mourning, father, ghost
Quote paper
Hans Ulrich Hauenstein (Author), 2009, "Who's there?" Hamlet's Mourning and His Father's Ghost, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/320628


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: "Who's there?" Hamlet's Mourning and His Father's Ghost

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free