Between nature and eternity: (present)ing absence in theatrical representations of Shakespeare as the ghost of Hamlet

Jones, Kelly (2006) Between nature and eternity: (present)ing absence in theatrical representations of Shakespeare as the ghost of Hamlet. Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, 8 (3). ISSN 1470-5648

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Between nature and eternity: (present)ing absence in theatrical representations of Shakespeare as the ghost of Hamlet

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A poem that was published in The London Magazine in the summer of 1750 depicts an episode in which the ghost of Shakespeare appears to the actor David Garrick, inciting him to avenge the wrongs done to his works by those who would mutilate his natural genius through their own vainglorious adaptations. As Michael Dobson notes in his study, The Making of the National Poet, the poem capitalized upon the popular mid-eighteenth century representations that mythologized the relationship between the ghostly poet-playwright and the actor who was doing so much to expand and promote Shakespeare’s position at the zenith of the literary pantheon as analogous to that of the famous Danish prince (incidentally Garrick’s most famous theatrical role) and the Ghost of Hamlet Senior. So celebrated was this analogy that it became the victim of parody when Garrick became the prodigal son and disobeyed his spiritual father’s orders and he proceeded to stage his own adaptations of Hamlet and the representation of Shakespeare as the Ghost of Old Hamlet was made even more explicit as he returned to haunt Garrick, chastising him for bringing his work ‘upon the stage/With all your horrible imperfections on my head!’ (cited in Dobson, 1992, 173). Garrick’s supporters retaliated with a piece called, ‘Shakespeare and Garrick, a New Dialogue, occasioned by the Alterations lately made in the Tragedy of Hamlet, as acted at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane’, in which Shakespeare again appears as the ghost of Old Hamlet to an awe-struck Garrick/Hamlet/Claudius:

[The Spirit of Shakespeare arises]

[Garr.] Angels and Ministers of Grace! –

Shakespear. Proceed;

And let my organs spiritually feed

From those harmonious lips, whose quick’ning breath

So oft hath chear’d me in the arms of death;

And now by potency of magic sound

Calls up my spirit from the deep profound:

Speak to thy Shakespear –

Garrick. Hail, much honour’d name!

Friend of my life and father of my fame:

If whilst I draw each weed, that idly creeps

Around the tomb, where thy lov’d Hamlet sleeps,

Incautiously I have forgot to spare

Some flower, which thy full hand had scatter’d there,

Impute it not –

Shakespear. Freely correct my Page:

I wrote to please a rude unpolish’d age;

Thou, happy man, art fated to display

Thy dazzling talents in a brighter day;

Let me partake this night’s applause with thee,

And thou shalt share immortal fame with me.

(Cited in Dobson, 1992 175)

This was not the first time that Shakespeare had appeared as a ghostly illusion – many times before the spectre of the Bard had been summoned from beyond the grave to serve as a prologue to various performances of his plays and their adaptations, and yet it was the analogy between Shakespeare’s authorship and the Ghost in Hamlet that persistently haunted the stage in the late seventeenth century and early to mid-eighteenth century. There is even a rumour, which started courtesy of Nicholas Rowe, the first editor of Shakespeare’s plays, and which is still in circulation today that Shakespeare himself was the first performer to play the role of Old Hamlet. Neither is this alignment between Shakespeare and Hamlet’s Ghost innovative in terms of more contemporary critical perspectives on the text, and Marjorie Garber in her study, Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers speaks of how the authorial presence of Shakespeare persistently haunts his corpus of plays: ‘The Ghost is Shakespeare…the one who comes as a revenant, belatedly instated, regarded as originally authoritative, rather than retrospectively canonized, and deriving increased authority from this very instatement of authority backward, over time’ (1987, 176), and Garber boldly substantiates Rowe’s assertion, ‘[w]e know that Shakespeare played the part of the Ghost in Hamlet. What could not be foreseen, except through anamorphic reading, was that he would become that Ghost’ (1987, 176). Whether or not there was any veracity behind Rowe’s claim, the alignment between author and spectre draws explicit attention to the uncanny function that both entities bring to the act of theatrical performance. This essay will explore the connotations of this association between ghost and author when each entity simultaneously enacts both its presence and absence in the liminal realm of representation, wherein ghost becomes author; author becomes ghost, and performance becomes a kind of séance, conjuring up the spirits of the dead and materializing them through the performer’s body. In order to do this, I will explore the extent to which stage representations of Old Hamlet from the sixteenth century onwards have been haunted by contemporary appropriations and attitudes towards the playwright. In so doing, I argue that the production choices made regarding the appearance of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father say less about contemporary attitudes towards the supernatural than they do about existing perspectives and exploitations of Shakespeare, his authorial status and how it is permitted to haunt the theatrical event. In so doing I confess that I make no attempts to present a comprehensive history of Hamlet in performance. Such a task is beyond the remit of a single essay. However, the present project is offered to the reader to be accepted as a provocation to inspire further thought rather than to be received as an end in itself. I must further stress that my study consciously recognises its limitations, and for this reason I have confined my focus to a study of productions of Hamlet on the English stage. This is not to disparage future considerations of the representation of the Ghost on more international stages and in wider global contexts.

Keywords:Drama, Criticism, History
Subjects:W Creative Arts and Design > W400 Drama
Divisions:College of Arts > School of Fine & Performing Arts > School of Fine & Performing Arts (Performing Arts)
ID Code:1465
Deposited On:20 Nov 2007

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