A spirit of health?

Considering that the play is very much about remembering the dead,[8] the image of the king in his armour offers an ideal image of how the king should be remembered. This image can function as an icon for his son, his people and for the next generations, in to a way in which the victory he won in this armour is regarded as emblematic of a glorious past. The king in his armour indirectly imposes norms and sets standards of action. It is against these norms that the degradation of the world, which is turning info an "unweeded garden", can be judged. The image of the king in his armour serves to project Old Hamlet as the "figure of order", to use a term introduced by Northorp Frye. To put it in the Lacanian jargon, he is the Big Other, the embodiment of the paternal metaphor. One function of the Big Other is to ensure the moral coherence and relevance of the actions of ordinary people.

Stephen Greenblatt has most aptly defined the Ghost in its/his armour as an "embodied memory of the past". The act of remembering the former king in his past glory could involve the re-membering of the dismembered country. Remembrance would further ensure that the disjointed time (see the famous "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right "(1.5.188-189)) can be re-jointed and its disrupted sequentiality restored. This is one of the reasons why the prince decides to follow the ghost.[9] Remembrance is understood to have a restorative effect - it re-establishes the community with the former generations, it restores psychological and political well being both to the individual and to the body politic. (The healing of the latter presupposes a public form of memorialization and not merely a private one and is intimately associated with the administration of justice and the purging of the state of its rank forms of corruption). Looked at from this context, Hamlet's address to the Ghost as "a spirit of health", that brings "airs from Heavens" and has "charitable intents" expresses the hopes with respect to the future of Denmark, hopes that both he and Horatio had pinned on the apparition .

The Ghost as a "spirit of health" could be compared with the ghosts that appear in the last act of Richard III and which on the one hand condemn the tyrant and on the other hand bless Richmond and pave the way for his victory. Not unlike the Ghost in Hamlet they represent the repressed/suppressed past that returns to set history back on its proper track and set time right. Greenblatt identifies them as " an element in the moral structure of the universe, a universe that is not, the play repeatedly insists, merely neutral, indifferent, or empty." Unlike the Senecan ghosts croaking for revenge, these ghosts "function as well as agents of a restored health and wholeness to the damaged community" (Greenblat,179-180) This could well be the function that the Ghost is expected to discharge in Hamlet as well.

But what if this agent of health, this "figure of order", the Big Other is flawed? The Ghost's above-mentioned failure to warn of future dangers might suggest flaws. What if the Ghost appears flawed because his is an overdetermined image, a composite figure made up of several overlapping identities . He is not only the heroic warrior but also the dead father who is in pain expiating sins ; worse even, he may be the image of "goblin damned", who is assuming the identity of the king in order to tempt the prince and usurp the new king.

The dead father urging his son to remember him is "fasting in fires" in Purgatory to do penance for all his "imperfections" and sins. We are not told which these sins were, but this version of the former king definitely does not tally with Hamlet's idealized descriptions of him. His sudden death caught him unprepared for the last reckoning:

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,

No reckoning made, but sent to my account

With all the imperfections on my head.

O, horrible! O, horrible! Most horrible! (1.5. (77-80) (my emphasis)

This obviously Catholic king experiences the nightmare that the medieval morality Everyman dramatizes. It is the fear produced by sudden death and the consequences of the lack of preparation for death, that is, the failure to do penance while one of a number of sins, so that the last reckoning may become more bearable. What is of interest to us is the status of the former king, as a man "cut off in the blossoms of his sin" and dependent on his son for intercession to alleviate his suffering in Purgatory. The private dimension of the Ghost's request renders the public meanings of his appearance as an "embodied memory" highly problematic.

If the act of remembrance presupposes a line of action that is designed to put an end to tyranny, to re-establish the right sequence and accession to the throne and to redeem a suppressed past, than these public, political implications involve the son in a sacrificial plot, placing a great burden upon the father who makes such a request. Catherine Belsey wonders what kind of father would expose his son to the possibility of death and damnation that the act of revenge inevitably presupposes. She finds that the play reduplicates fathers who seem to risk their son's immortal souls by demanding acts of violence as proof of love. (Belsey, Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden, 160-162) Old Fortinbras, Achilles, whose blood incites the rugged Pyrrhus to kill Priam, and finally Polonius, are such fathers. Claudius speaks on Polonius's behalf and repeats the appeal of the Ghost: "Laertes was your father dear to you?/ Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,/ A face without heart?" (4.7. 1o6-108) Challenged to demonstrate filial love, Laertes offers the most sacrilegious of murders: "To cut his throat i'th' church." (4.7. 125) A response to the Ghost's passionate appeal would also involve horrendous crimes such as the prince's turning against his mother: "O most pernicious woman". (1.5.105) His revenge further means killing her husband, that is his uncle, and it entails a breach of both family values and the authority structure of a patriarchal Renaissance regime, where the king Belsey considers the significances of the murder of an uncle and furthermore of regicide (Claudius like Henry IV is apparently, until proved otherwise, the lawful king). She concludes that "the Ghost confronts Hamlet with an impossible dilemma: nature, love and duty require an act which constitutes the repudiation of nature, love and duty" (161). The public and private dimensions of the Ghost's appeal clash against each other and are contradictory. The Ghost relies upon family values, the love and obedience a son owes to his father, to impose a line of actions that undermine rather than restore these values. The private grievances, the spirit's status as tainted further compromise and mire the public undertaking.

The Ghost's anguished appeal not to be forgotten may also appear redundant in the economy of the play, considering the emphasis on Hamlet's protracted mourning. Doesn't this mourning as well as Hamlet's melancholic pose make it clear that the son has anything but forgotten his father? Why should the Ghost still harp on it? Or to put it differently, what social or political pressures that are not explicitly voiced in the play is the Ghost's appearance designed to counteract?

The most important role ghosts fulfilled was related to what Freud called the work of mourning. Freud conceives the latter as a process of healing whereby the subject gradually overcomes his/her feeling of loss over the death of a beloved person and manages to cathect new objects of desire. In the medieval period the work of mourning was not conceived of as purely private, interior and psychological. It was regulated by powerful rituals and practices. Ghosts discharged the important cultural function of reinforcing these rituals. They not only established a communication between this world and the next one, but also reinforced a sense of solidarity between the dead and the living, a solidarity that had emerged in the 12th century. The Ghost's appearance along with other rituals undertaken in the memory and in the aid of the dead were strategies designed to alleviate the suffering caused by guilt, longing, regret that one feels at the death of persons close to oneself. The ban that the Protestant Church put on a large number of funeral rituals and practices of mourning deprived survivors of former therapeutic practices and only increased the burden of remembrance. (Neill, 245-246) The prince in his inky coat and melancholic pose could symbolize a catholic form of mourning, the lack of respect for which appears as unnatural. Hence his outrage at his mother's hasty remarriage, at the festive mood at court and of course, at the oblivion his father was consigned to. From the perspective of the new religion, however, his protracted mourning and grief, his solidarity with the dead is no longer valorised as a way of healing but is considered to be deviant. Claudius is the slick spokesman of this position:

......to persevere

In obstinate condolement is a course

Of impious stubbornness, 'tis unmanly grief,

It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,

A heart unfortified, a mind impatient

An understanding simple and unschooled.

For what we know must be, and is as common

As any the most vulgar thing to sense,

why should we in our peevish opposition

Take it to heart? Fie, `tis a fault to heaven,

A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,

To reason most absurd, whose common theme

Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,

From the first corse till he that died today,

"This must be so"... (1.2.92-106)

Notice how the new ideology of mourning is "naturalized": it is shown to be anything but new, its validity extends " from the first corse till he that died today". The traditional practices are "othered" and redefined as irrational, irreligious and subversive. The custom of respecting longer periods of mourning that ensured that the dead are not forgotten too hastily is now deemed to be "a fault to nature", "to reason most absurd". Since religion and politics were inextricably related, practices of mourning that departed from the established ones were attached subversive political significances. Representing the official position, Claudius describes Hamlet's behaviour as "impious stubbornness", showing "a will most incorrect to heaven", "peevish opposition", "tis a fault to heaven". Claudius's speech indicates the strong religious and political pressure that was still being exerted to stamp out residual rituals for the dead as well as the beliefs underpinning these rituals. This is what the Ghost has to fight against . The murder of the elder brother and the latter's haunting powerfully enact a religious and cultural conflict.[10] This explains the weight to his injunction: Remember me!. His words make indirect reference to a cultural struggle that might have still been going on, even if largely suppressed and silenced. [11]

There arises the question as to which position carries greater legitimacy in the play. The official one voiced by Claudius, the new "figure of order", yet a Machiavellian usurper? Or the one embodied in the Ghost, the spectre of the legitimate king, yet returning in "a questionable shape"? We should not forget the overdetermined quality of the image of the Ghost: besides standing for the figure of a dead father, the Ghost may just as well be "a goblin damned".

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