The armour

I would like to contextualize the above reading of the Ghost by placing it against the background of pre-Reformation representations of ghosts as investigated by Jean Claude Schmitt. The issue I shall focus on is the tension between private and public significances of the Ghost's appearances.

Jean Claude Schmitt has shown that ghosts possessed a certain kind of corporeality and evinced the in-betweenness that so fascinates Derrida. (Schmitt, 236) Medieval ghosts were not imagined as made of pure spirit. Their condition was that of an intermediary stage in between the soul, which was immaterial, and the body. It is this partial corporeality that explains why they could experience physical pain, mostly caused by the purging fires of purgatory or hell. The physicality of the ghosts could sometimes be fully perceived by the living. Schmitt mentions the early fifteenth century Yorkshire ghosts who would burst out of their graves and would further engage in very concrete fist-to-fist fights with the living. The villagers had to open the graves and burn the corpses to prevent the revenants from coming back and harassing them. (Schmitt, 239) Hamlet's projection of the ghost's violent emergence out of the grave — "why thy canonised bones, hearsed in death, /Have burst their cerements" (1.4.48), (cerements meaning grave-clothes)— echoes the description of the Yorkshire ghosts and testifies to the strong impact these stories still had on the Jacobean audiences. There is a further strange relationship that ghosts had with their respective corpses. The bodies were said not to rot and to preserve their initial shapes. (Schmitt, 239) The accounts Schmitt discusses would suggest to us the possibility that what Hamlet, Horatio and the two guards saw could have been the very body of the dead king and not merely a projection of this body. This body was intact and could easily be identified. There is only one change— the Ghost does not appear in the clothes he was buried in but in the armour he wore thirty-one years before when he defeated the King of Norway in single combat.

Why should the Ghost be wearing this particular armour? Derrida reads the cap a pied armour as a form of protection for the Ghost, which at the same time gives it a shape. The armour prevents witnesses from noticing the "nothing" the Ghost actually is. (Derrida, 8) Schmitt's study helps us contextualize this reading. The medieval period boasted of a full-blown iconography of spectres with ghosts shown to be simply invisible, or Lazarus like resurrected from the grave and wrapped up in the shroud, or as highly immaterial phantom like figures, etc. As far as the ghosts of knights were concerned, it was common practice for them to appear in full armour. The armour and in particular the helmet indicated their status and their position of authority. The ghost's clothes generally functioned as social signifiers by means of which they could easily be recognised by the living. (Schmitt, 241-42.) Furthermore Jean Claude Schmitt insists on the embeddedness of ghosts in social relations and practices. Their appearance was an event that recreated a dense web of social relations. The choice of persons the ghosts showed themselves to, the relations they established with their witnesses were highly significant in constructing the social meaning of the ghost. (Schmitt,224).

Let us employ these data in the analysis of the ghost's appearance. The fact that the ghost of the old king should first appear in full armour in front of his soldiers, represented on the stage by the two guards Barnardo and Marcellus, acquires meanings that cannot be neglected.

To begin with, the choice of witnesses is designed to indicate his official capacity as king and warrior. The message he is expected to deliver would have first and foremost public relevance. Horatio expects him to reveal something of crucial importance to the fate of the country, a disaster that could be averted by having his people warned in due time: "if thou art privy to thy country's fate, /which happily foreknowing may avoid, /Oh speak" (1.1.131-32). What makes Horatio expect this kind of information from the former king is not only the belief that ghosts may be able to see into "the seeds of time". I think he makes indirect reference to the new definition kings had acquired in the early modern age when religious dimensions were transferred from the church to the state. Kings were no longer expected to act as mere magistrates who wield the sword and but also as shepherds who take care of their flock and show them the way into the future (Senellart, 136-18, 163)Secondly the armour and the ghost's martial appearance inevitably anticipate reference to some military conflict. The strained relations between Denmark and Norway immediately spring to mind. It is only a few lines earlier that Horatio established narrative links between past and present events telling the story of the armour: Old Hamlet wore the armour when he performed his greatest chivalry feat defeating old Fortinbras in single combat. This settled the conflict between the two countries to the advantage of Denmark, which gained a piece of land. The audience cannot help wondering: Is the reoccurrence of this very armour a warning against young Fortinbras's plans to attack Denmark and regain the lost land? Isn't it uncanny that the play should start with the Ghost wearing this particular armour and that it should end with the total undoing of the old king's victory when young Fortinbras's army invades Denmark? The past does seem to come back in the present in order to warn about the future, but somehow fails to have the desired impact. Why should it be so?

What is particularly mystifying about the Ghost is that he does not make any reference to this danger. The links Horatio establishes between past and present with a foretaste of the future are no longer taken up. Has the Ghost forgotten what might have been his initial intent, namely to warn about the danger Fortinbras represents? What is further bewildering is that the Ghost's speech does conjure up a moment in the past but this differs from the one signified by his armour. The moment in the past the ghost recounts refers exclusively to his own person, to his wife's infidelity and to his brother's murder. It can be said to have a primarily personal, private significance. This does not mean that we neglect the close interweaving of private and public issues in the life of a king, nor that the consequence of a brother's murder had radical political consequences for the state of Denmark. The question that we would like to raise may be marginal, but it is nevertheless occasioned by the text: Is the Ghost too much taken up with family matters and with the enemies within to concentrate on enemies outside? Or is he too much obsessed with past wrongs to be able to concentrate on future dangers?

When one tries to solve the puzzle of the armour one cannot help feeling a tension between the meanings generated by the Ghost's martial appearance and the message he delivers. Does the Ghost somehow fail in his public role as protector of Denmark?[7] Later on in the play the Ghost appears in his "night dress". The distance from an armour to a nightgown is great and can be a source of rich comedy.

Schmitt's work helps us trace the nightgown in medieval representations of ghosts. There is a large number of tales with the ghosts of deceased husbands harassing the remarried widows by appearing in their bedroom and disrupting their amorous pleasures with the new husbands. Going back to the armour that is displaced by the nightdress, we wonder if this change in clothes might suggest an increasing emphasis on personal, private issues at the expense of the public, heroic dimension introduced in the first scene.

© Universitatea din Bucuresti, 2002. All rights reserved.
No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission of the University of Bucharest, except for short quotations with the indication of the website address and the web page.
Comments to: Mãdãlina NICOLAESCU
Last update: August 2002
Text editor: Raluca OVAC
Web design: Monica CIUCIU