Hamlet Tragedy Essay Research Paper The dramatis

The dramatis personae of mythical or literary tragedy are characters

towards whom fate slowly reveals inevitable destruction, but tragedy is

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not limited to the unfolding of an unavoidable fate. In Hamlet, tragedy

extends its concerns into landscape and axial directionality. Landscapes

in plays of myth and literature give a specific location for imagining

the moods and elements for the particular genre. Axial direction refers

to the aim of the play’s action, as in what direction is the play’s

action aimed. The clowns at the grave, much like the ghost Hamlet,

orient the Dane prince to the psychology of verticality, and, by means

of homeopathic language, lead young Hamlet’s soul into memoria.

Any serious investigation of tragedy, and tragedy is vested in

seriousness, needs to track ideational antecedents (rather, go into the

past by means of tragedy’s relationship with past events). Aristotle

(1992) laid the first tie on the track to the modern understanding of

tragedy when he wrote the following:

Tragedy, therefore, is an imitation of a worthy or illustrious and

perfect action, possessing magnitude, in pleasing language, using

separately the several species of imitation in its parts, by men acting,

and not through narration, through pity and fear effecting a

purification from such like passions. (pp. 10-11; italics mine)

The action of tragedy is perfect since it is inextricably tied to fate.

There is no way out of the circumstances except onward and further into

them. The magnitude that tragedy possesses is a leap out of a personal

history and into the realm of mythology. Theater-goers from Aristotle to

present seek tragedy to witness “myth, which gives full place to every

sort of atrocity, [and] offers more objectivity to the study of such

lives and deaths than any examination of personal motivation” (Hillman

1964/1988, p. 81). Pity and fear (or terror) are principle emotions of

the characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The words, “Alas, poor ghost”

(Shakespeare, p. 894), marks Hamlet’s pity for the ghost, and terror is

expressed in his cry, “Oh, God” (ibid.)! Hamlet pities the skull of poor

Yorick at the open grave, and his imagination becomes full of terror and

abhorrence as he contemplates death (p. 927). The language of the Hamlet

tragedy is pleasing to the audience but not the characters, and it is

the possessive magnitude of tragedy’s language that pleases.

An obscure association rises when Chaucer’s idea of tragedy in the

Canterbury Tales is juxtaposed to the image of the grave in tragedy. The

monk defines tragedy as “a story concerning someone who has enjoyed

great prosperity but has fallen from his high position into misfortune

and ends in wreched-ness (sic.). Tragedies are commonly written in verse

with six feet, called hexameters” (Chaucer 1989, p.575; italics mine).

Contemporary associations with the metaphor of ’six feet’ leads to

imagining a grave, as in six feet under. Elizabethan graves were shallow

(Rogers-Gardner 1995) and bear no direct allusion to contemporary

notions of a grave’s depth, but, as meaning-making through imagination

takes place today, the association is allowed. What this obscure

excursion elucidates is the relatively mercurial influence that the

image of the grave provides tragedy. Somehow, the grave is difficult to

approach directly; therefore, by means of indirection I make my

direction known.

The deep impression of the grave’s image in tragedy is indirectly

contained in Nietzsche’s idea of the effect of tragedy. “Now the grave

events are supposed to be leading pity and terror inexorably towards

the relief of discharge” (1993, p. 106-7; italics mine). Nietzsche uses

the word ‘grave’ to carry a weighty importance for the plot of tragedy.

He does not use the grave plot as a weighty image for tragedy. Where do

some of the principal characters of tragedy lie in the end? Oedipus at

Colonos, Medea’s children, Antigone, Haimon, Polyneices, King Hamlet,

and Ophelia all relentlessly end in a grave plot. The very image of the

grave imbues people with pity and terror.

Pity is feeling which arrests the mind in the presence whatsoever is

grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human

sufferer. Terror is feeling which arrests the mind in the presence

whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with

the secret cause. (Joyce 1916/1970, p. 204)

Joyce uses the word “grave” much as Nietzsche does above, to express

serious importance. There is a grave pity for the human sufferer and a

grave terror of the secret cause in tragedy. For Hamlet, pity is the

emotion that enables him to feel into, in other words ‘unite with’, the

personal sufferings of his father’s spirit. Also, terror is the emotion

that binds Hamlet into swearing to remember the ghost. A major complaint

of Hamlet, other than the begging question of madness, lies in his

inability to act. The action of tragedy, according to Joyce, is arrested

because the feelings are equivocally static. “The tragic emotion, in

fact, is a face looking two ways, towards terror and pity” (Joyce, p.

205). Is it a wonder that Hamlet does not act overtly in the tragic

landscape of Elsinore when his emotion is arrested between pity and


Although the emotion may be arrested in tragedy, what do landscape and

vertical directionality have to do with the tragedy of Hamlet? The

global landscapes of Hamlet are as follows: a platform, rooms in castles

and houses, the queen’s closet, a plain, a hall, a church yard. They

offer little in a macrocosmic scheme and beg for detail. So if landscape

may offer anything in particular to the understanding of tragedy, it

must come through a specific detail (taken up below). The vertical

psychology of Hamlet is below: a question of the throne’s succession,

the ghost’s intonement to swear from beneath the platform — “fellow in

the cellarage” (Shakespeare, p. 895), the shallow depth of the grave,

Claudius’ speech to Hamlet about lineage. Vertical imagination takes H

amlet into ancestry, the ghost, and the grave.

The grave is an image of tragedy left out of much psychological and

literary reflection. For example, the grave scene with the clowns in

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is brushed off by literary critics as superfluous

and trivial (Rogers-Gardner 1995, lecture, May). Literary critics

question the necessity of the scene and propose that its removal

improves the play (ibid.). I searched the MLA and the Psychology

Journals and Books at San Jose State’s Clarke Library for Hamlet and

Gravediggers or Clowns. Out of 1122 literary books and journals about

Hamlet, the search yielded one five-page article on the combination. The

psychological search on Hamlet was not as fruitful, having no references

in 42 journals and 24 books. In the last art presentation of our class,

the artist proclaimed that the little girl with the knife in her chest

was dead and on her way to the grave. Many students would not allow

themselves to imagine this little girl dead and in a grave. How can the

grave’s image, so preponderant in tragedy, be covered up with dirty


Archetypal psychology starts in pathology (Hillman 1993), and what could

be more pathological than to go against one of the fundamental

prescriptions from Christianity: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any

graven image” (Exodus 21:3). A graven image is one that is etched in

stone, permanently engraved. A grave’s tombstone is not only an artifice

for remembrance of a dead body’s place, it is engraved (indelibly fixed)

with an epitaph that holds a particular image of the deceased. The plot

of Hamlet is to indelibly fix Claudius for his murderous sin against the

throne. It is my fantasy here that the 2000-plus year sanction against

graven images inhibits fantasizing about the image of tragedy’s grave.

Completing his thoughts about knowing the downward plunge and imagining

an upward ?lan, Bachelard writes, “The fact is that we have great

difficulty imagining what we know. On this point, Blake writes: ‘Natural

Objects always did & now do Weaken deaden & obliterate Imagination in

Me…’” (1943/1988, p. 92). We know that we die and bury the dead in one

grave or another. The fact of the statement ‘death is natural’ keeps us

from imagining fantasy into nature.

Material anthropology indicates that culture began with the first

burial. A grave site is imagined as evidence that people remembered the

once-living by means of reflection. The burial ground or grave is

thought to give the dead a landscape in the imagination of those alive.

Living people paid homage to and remembered the lives of the dead

through burial, and burial or the grave focused the living on memory.

The ghost breaks into Hamlet’s black-biled bereavement to instill a

furor melancholia and to demand of him to keep alive the memory of his

father. The ghost does not respond to the earlier demands of Horatio:

have something good to say; tell of the country’s fate that it may, if

forewarned, avoid; give information of a buried treasure. Marcellus and

Bernardo threaten the ghost with spears. Is it a wonder the ghost leaves

without a word? The manner in which Hamlet approaches the ghost is less

demanding and “more phenomenological. He says he will call it as it

seems, ‘Hamlet, King, father, royal Dane’; he confesses himself a fool,

limited, ignorant of supernatural truths, so when the ghost beckons, he

follows” (Berry, p. 129). On another part of the platform, the ghost

reveals to Hamlet the detail of the death of its likeness: “‘Tis given

out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me…. But now, thou

noble youth, the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his

crown” (Shakespeare, p. 894). Homeopathic (like cures like) forensics:

If you are to catch a serpent you must speak as a serpent-with a forked

tongue that makes two points! The equivocation of the serpent is

precisely what the ghost initiates into Hamlet: the vertical psychology

of the ghost is to speak and hear equivocally.

Although Hamlet accepts the vertical psychology of the ghost and

promises the oath to remember, he squanders his new orientation when he

is once again on the horizontal plateau with his comrades. Here is where

Hamlet reports lightly of his meeting with the ghost: “Hillo, ho, ho,

boy! Come, bird, come” “Oh, wonderful!” “Ah, ha, boy! Say’st thou so?

Art thou there truepenney” “Well said, old mole! …once more remove,

good friends” (Shakespeare, p. 895). Each time for four times that

Hamlet entreats his comrades to swear to secrecy and the ghost intones

“swear” from beneath the stage, Hamlet shifts to another location.

“Hamlet’s triviality, giddiness, superficiality-the ‘more removed

ground’ here becomes a horizontal defense, shifting ground to

evade-nevertheless attest to the seriousness of Hamlet’s task” (Berry,

p. 134). The task of bringing his newfound vertical axis to the realm of

Elsinore is difficult in deed!

Let us review the image of a ‘removed ground,’ for it is a grave image.

Horatio says, “It waves you to a removed ground” (Shakespeare, p. 893).

With the ghost, a grave conversation takes place on removed ground which

leads Hamlet to swear to remember; with the clown, the ground removed

creates the grave over which a conversation puts Hamlet’s wit to the

memory of his childhood with King Hamlet vis-?-vis Yorick’s skull, and,

by equivocation, the ghost. The clown conjures up through equivocation

the oath to the ghost at the grave.

What is in the landscape of the grave site? It is set in a churchyard.

There is a priest in the background. Two clowns or gravediggers use

equivocal language to sort through the efficacy of nobility in relation

to Christian burial law regarding suicides. Jokes are told and songs

sung as skulls are unearthed. There is irony in the juxtaposition of

community or religious concern (the hair-splitting argument of the

Christian burial of a suicide) with an unbefitting emotional display (a

knave song and jocularity while digging a grave). A clown makes

reference to Adam as the original digger, and King Hamlet was poisoned

in the garden (remember the serpent?). The O.E.D. says, “clown form

Colonus, one that plougheth the ground” (p. 443). Etymologically the

word clown means, ‘clod,’ ‘clot,’ ‘lump.’ The clowns derange the

naturalistic fallacy with their clod-like jokes, songs and rude

mannerisms. “What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the

shipwright, or the carpenter?”, asks clown 1 (Shakespeare, p. 925).

Clown 2 offers the answer of a gallows-maker, “for that frame outlives

a thousand tenants” (ibid.). As Hamlet and Horatio enter the churchyard,

clown 1 announces with finality, “‘A gravemaker.’ The houses that he

makes last till Doomsday” (p. 926). Before he appears on the scene, the

clowns foreshadow the return of Hamlet through the use of equivocal

language. Double entendres, puns, and equivocations precede like a ghost

Hamlet’s return to Elsinore.

Hamlet’s concerns are of the qualities of Polonius and Ophelia, the

people whom have died due to his earlier actions. Hamlet carries

Polonius in respect to the language that focuses on custom: “Has this

fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making” (p.

926). Hamlet wears his Ophelia as he naively goes along reconstructing

the possible life of a random skull and imagining a generalized death.

Whereas Hamlet and Horatio were high on the platform when the ghost

appeared, they peer beneath the earth’s crust when they come upon the

grave. It is here that Hamlet makes a move similar to when he

phenomenologically met the ghost-saying, “I will speak to thee. I’ll

call thee Hamlet, King, Father, royal Dane” (p. 893); he decides to

speak to this fellow, this gravedigger, for here Hamlet again seeks out

assurance of what has come across his path.

Hamlet. …Whose grave’s this, sirrah?

I.Clown. Mine, sir. [sings]

Haml. I think it be thine indeed, for thou liest in ‘t.

I.Clo. You lie out on ‘t, sir, and therefore ’tis not yours. For my

part, I do not lie in ‘t, and yet it is mine.

Haml. Thou dost lie in ‘t, to be in ‘t and say it is thine. ‘Tis for the

dead, not for the quick, therefore thou liest.

I.Clo. ‘Tis a quick lie, sir, ’twill away again, from me to you.

Hamlet is coached by the gravedigger into crafting space between

meaning. The gravedigger’s job is to create a space wherein a dead body

may be laid to rest. ‘To lie’ is the equivocation through which the

gravedigger vertically orients Hamlet. The gravedigger calls it like it

is: Hamlet, in your job, “you lie out on it, sir.” You are lying down on

the job and your job–crafting equivocal space of meaning–is to lie.

“‘Twill away again, from me to you,” may be the very meta-hodos or

method by which Hamlet creates confusion and uncovers buried truths via

linguistic puns and double-entendres.

The clown is the sole character of the play who produces words

(equivocation, puns, and double-entendres) that work to beguile Hamlet.

Hamlet digs deeper with inquiry, as if he did not learn the equivocative

lesson well enough from the gravedigger.

Haml. What man dost thou dig it for?

I.Clo. For no man, sir.

Haml. What woman, then?

I.Clo. For none, neither.

Haml. Who is to be buried in ‘t?

I.Clo. One that was a woman, sir, but, rest her soul, she’s dead.

Haml. How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or

equivocation will undo us.

Hamlet begins to feel the very method that he employed with all of the

previous characters of the play. “By poisoning what is said,” writes

Berry, “[Hamlet] creates a space within which words because of their

duplicity (multiplicity) have meaning” (1982, p. 139). Hamlet’s

insouciant attitude upon his return goes through a mortification (he is

mortified by the gravediggers nonchalant attitude while grave-making) by

speaking to the clown. Hamlet re-members his method of speech by a dose

of homeopathic dis-course with the clown. There is just one element

missing: remembrance.

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