by Andrew T. Castro

Copyright ©1995 The Ares Press

The dramatis personae of mythical or literary tragedy are characters towards whom fate slowly reveals inevitable destruction, but tragedy is 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 terror?

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 Hamlet 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 insignificance?

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 élan, 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-à-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.
Hamlet dips into memoria with the gravedigger. By asking the clown how long he has been a gravedigger, the events around Hamlet's birth and the King Hamlet are remembered to him. The clown dredges up a particular skull and recalls its tenancy in the Doomsday house. He gives particular images for the life that the skull housed--a whoreson, a mad rogue, the King's jester, Yorick. The act of imagining the past qualities of Yorick's life while holding the skull is precisely what the Scholastics called memoria. Frances A. Yates (1966) defines memoria roughly as imagination with the addition of past time.

Hamlet asks for the skull (the imagines agentes) and, like a runner receives a baton, he takes it. Images agentes are remarkably beautiful, hideous or ridiculous and their power is that "such images... 'move strongly' and so adhere to the soul" (Yates, pp. 67). Hamlet's soul is strongly moved, even tortured. With a similar and parallel phenomenological approach of description he employed when he met the ghost, Hamlet remembers Yorick as "-a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is" (Shakespeare, p. 927). Hamlet remembers the lips he kissed, Yorick's merrimental flashes that aroused crowds of laughter, and ponders where the jester's gibes are now. The images evoked by the memory of Yorick begin Hamlet's return to his ghost pledge: remember, remember, remember.

Yet Hamlet is not quite ready to encounter the funerary party. Shakespeare takes him a step down. Hamlet dips further into memoria, to an impersonal landscape, when he asks Horatio if he thought "Alexander looked o' this fashion i' the earth" (ibid.). Shakespeare's use of Alexander the Great begs us to think that Hamlet's personal reflection on death is such that death happens to the great ones too. I think that another door is open here. Alexander the Great is great, that is true, but he is also historically removed from Hamlet's present moment-an image of the species and a species-specific image. He is once more removed in time from Hamlet than is Yorick. Horatio says very little but he affirmatively supports his friend. Hamlet responds in a curiously disgusted manner: "and smelt so" (Shakespeare, p. 927)? Hamlet has come to his senses. Something foul is in the air. He is reacquainted to his "secret cause" of remembering the ghost. Hamlet then puts down Yorick's skull and dives full-heartedly into the tragedy.

I imagine that Hamlet is fully in remembrance of his oath to the ghost when he puts the skull down. Immediately after he puts down Yorick's skull, Hamlet's mind races with the speed of his furor melancholia and his language dashes to make flashes of association. Hamlet's argument for how Alexander could be meagerly stopping up a bunghole parallels his earlier argument for the process of how a King could be ingested into the belly of a peasant. Hamlet takes the step from personal memory into impersonal memoria, a place wherein his words have no regard for the person before him but concern only for the violent and luxuriant space his equivocation may craft.

The grave is the scene in which Hamlet adopts the vertical psychology of the ghost without any of the earlier horizontal defenses. We do not know what happened on the pirate ship or with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. All we know is that he needed the grave's depth to complete his initiation into vertical psychology, prompted by the spirit of his father.

With all that the image of the grave offers, how can archetypal psychology ignore the depth of the grave's image in tragedy? A tenet of archetypal psychology is to 'stick to the image.' I decided to write on the grave when I could get no response from Pacifica's professors or librarian to the image of the grave in tragedy. Is this not a grave statement of archetypal psychology that it would leave such a potent image to barrenness? The grave image in Hamlet only deepened what the ghost initiated. I know how to evoke the ghost. Follow me in this joke, if you will... I say, "knock-knock," and you wisely respond with:


Aristotle (1992). The Poetics. Translated by Theadore Buckley. Buffalo,
New York: Prometheus.
Bachelard, Gaston (1988). Air and dreams: an essay on the imagination of movement. (Trans. Edith & C. Farrel). Dallas, TX: The Dallas Institute Publications.
Berry, Patricia (1982). Echo's subtle body. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications.
Compact edition of the Oxford English dictionary (1989). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hillman, James (1993, November 7&8). In defense of melancholy. (Cassette Recording). Santa Barbara: Pacifica Graduate Institute.
Hillman, James (1988). Suicide and the soul. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1993). The birth of tragedy. Michael Tanner (Ed.). (Trans. Shaun Whiteside). New York: Penguin Books.
Rogers-Gardner, Barbara (1995, May). Hamlet and the Bacchae. Unpublished lecture presented at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.
Shakespeare, William (1963). Hamlet. In Shakespeare the complete works
(pp. 880-934). Ed. G.B. Harrison.
The holy bible (1956). Chicago: Good Counsel Publishing Company.
The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1989). Edited by M.C. Howatson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Yates, Frances A. (1966). The art of memory. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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