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Mourning, memory, and performance

There is a wonderful Christopher Rush novel, Will (2007), in which Shakespeare says that what he does best is death: “I do deaths you see. And I can do the deaths of children. Their lips were four red roses on a stalk… – that sort of thing.” From the death of young Rutland in 2 Henry VI to the unexpected death of Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s plays are full of loss.

If Shakespeare was interested in death, he was also interested in its corollaries for the survivors: grief and mourning. These are topics which belong to the area of study we now know as History of the Emotions. Critics trace a shift in attitudes to death about 1600. The shift was from consolation (there was no need to grieve because the dead were now in a better place) to condolence (from the Latin verb con-dolere: to sorrow with someone). If you sorrow with someone you acknowledge that they have reasons for sorrow. This shift in both attitude and terminology is very marked in Elizabethan poetry — G. W. Pigman pinpoints the shift quite precisely, to about 1600. That shift doesn’t map on to drama as easily as it does to poetry but it can’t be a coincidence that Hamlet was written in 1600-01 and is very preoccupied with how one grieves.

Part of the preoccupation is because of Hamlet’s preoccupation with acting and with sincerity. How does one perform sincerity? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? In As You Like It, written just before Hamlet, one character says “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” Artifice/craftsmanship in poetry — like performance in grief — can actually be not insincere but an expression of sincerity.

It is the performative, of course, which Hamlet initially mistrusts: inky cloaks, sighs, tears, “dejected… visage, / Together with all Formes, Moods, shewes  of Griefe … These … are actions that a man might play” (1.2.81–84). Hamlet draws a distinction here between the outward trappings of grief as displayed by the court – sighs, tears — and his own interior suffering.

‘Ophelia’ by Alexandre Cabanel. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The relations among memory of loss, grief, and theatrical simulation reappear in the scene with the players in 2.2 where a narrative of loss (the fall of Troy) is performed. Hamlet asks the Player for “a passionate speech” and specifies “Aeneas Tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially, where he speaks of Priams slaughter.” Far from appearing insincere, the Player’s performance is emotionally moving for both the actor and spectator. The actor’s performance is no different from the mourner’s performance–the tears, distraction, and broken voice of the mourner and the player are described identically by Hamlet in 1.2 and 2.2. What Hamlet distrusts in court behaviour, he admires in the theatre. When in Act 5 Yorick’s skull prompts the prince to dispense prosaic memento mori wisdom, Hamlet’s grief, although calmer, is not less sincere. It is just less performative.

Hamlet was written at a cusp: the border of two centuries. But it also sits on a cultural cusp: Catholic/Protestant. Protestantism established its strong foothold with Elizabeth (who came to the throne in 1558) but memories were long: everyone in 1600 had a Catholic grandparent; many had Catholic parents. What does this mean for Hamlet and grief?

The Reformation swept away many of the performative aspects of mourning which had characterized Catholic ritual. The rituals of mourning which should surround death and comfort the living are consistently maimed in Hamlet. The mourning period for Hamlet Sr is terminated incongruously by Gertrude’s remarriage; Polonius has an “obscure buriall; / No Trophee, Sword, nor Hatchment o’re his bones, / No noble rite, nor formall ostentation”; Ophelia is denied full Christian burial. Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes wander through the play suffering a grief that is denied the mediated outlet of full mourning. The prince’s infamous middle-acts stasis does not constitute delay so much as a comment on the unavailability of official forms of mourning, an unavailability reinforced by the cold indifference of the elegiac world of pastoral: the royal orchard harbours a serpent and hosts a murder; Denmark is an “unweeded garden”; Ophelia drowns amidst flowers and weeds; and all that “country” can provide in this play is the material for crude sexual innuendo. For Hamlet and Laertes, revenge takes the place of mourning; for Ophelia, madness. Revenge and madness can both be performed when mourning cannot.

If mourning is maimed, so is its associated entity, theatre. The Mousetrap is as truncated as the play’s funeral rites. Drama, like grief, requires performance: an interrupted play is as emotionally destabilizing as an incomplete mourning. The theatrical nature of the vocabulary in 5.2, as Hamlet and Horatio gaze at the court “Mutes or audience to this act,” leads to instructions for staging Hamlet’s funeral: “let this same be presently perform’d /…Lest more mischance / On plots and errors happen. … Beare Hamlet like a Soldier to the Stage” (my emphasis). The first complete performance in the play is about to take place; mourning and theatre finally coalesce.

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