previous chapter
Three— Succession, Revenge, and History: The Political Hamlet
next chapter

Succession, Revenge, and History:
The Political Hamlet


Vpon Thurseday it was treason to cry God saue king lames king of England, and vpon Friday hye treason not to cry so. In the morning no voice heard but murmures and lamentation, at noone nothing but shoutes of gladnes & triumph . . .
Behold, that miracle-worker, who in one minute turnd our generall mourning to a generall mirth, does now againe in a moment alter that gladnes to shrikes & lamentation.
Thomas Dekker, The Wonderfull Yeare 1603

Succession stories are about treason and the aversion of treason; the definition of the word rides on the agenda of the victors.[1] In Thomas Dekker's account of the lamentation, joy, then sustained plaguy misery attendant upon James's accession, the arbitrariness of the designation "treason" anticipates a more severe, less intelligible caprice.[2] Dekker suggests that something has gone painfully, even supernally wrong with the process of dynastic sequence—as if treason were itself being conducted outside the sphere of human influence, wreaking its disturbances uncontrollably, absent of point or purpose.

By mid-May 1603, it was evident that James's glorious entry into the city had become an evasive maneuver, a cowed, skulking dash from his now dangerous subjects and from his princely role. For the presence of


bubonic plague forced the new monarch to dodge his own admirers. The crowds of gapers, gadabouts, and waterflies had already proven troublesome enough even before the disease was at its height. William McElwee writes that by the time James and his entourage had reached the northern city of York, two strains of preference seekers, the "north-bound English place hunters, and the impoverished Scots hurrying south for fear of missing the pickings, had swollen the train to a disorderly rabble of over a thousand which gave the King no peace and placed an intolerable burden on hosts."[3] On May 7, in the fields at the outskirts of London, the mob became "so greedy . . . to behold the countenance of the King, that with much unruliness they injured and hurt one another, some even hazarded to the daunger of death."[4] But with the epidemic in rising tide, the besieging admirers presented a still greater threat to one another and to the monarch. In plague time, service and homage looked like treason or insurrection: the pressure of the crowds, their thronging love, impinged too heavily on the royal body.

Plagues are harbingers and porous containers of disaster; the chaos that accompanied James to the throne augured ill for the reign. The sickness perfected anarchy, civic and national, because when an epidemic hit, the central authority figures were the first to surrender their physical place. Their absence facilitated the spread of the disease because laws designed to restrain it could not be enforced. Plague thus configured a treason abetted by the ruling politicians; the problem of fatal contagion, in other words, was inextricable from the problem of rule. With the epidemic in full swing, a Privy Council clerk, William Waad, wrote to Robert Cecil about the failure of local governance:

Notwithstanding the Orders set down, there come Londoners from infected places into cottages in all the villages about London, and . . . presume no man or officer will lay hands on them, because it is known the sickness is in their houses. . . . The absence of the Aldermen from the City, and the Justices in the shire . . . hath bred liberty, and scope, in their lamentable cases and disorders.[5]

The disease caused a power outage and a displaced power surge; as the wealthy and influential fled the heavily infected areas, the disenfranchised and tainted became feared—because, for once, the consequences of disregarding them could be disastrous. In 1604, for instance, with the plague still raging, the mayor of York implored his fellow officials to remain in town: "The infection doth so greatly increase in this city that unless we the magistrates have great care and do take pains in the reliev-


ing of them, the poorer sort will not be ruled."[6] Some of the moribund populace rioted, actively seeking to spread their diseases. There were stories of the sick endeavoring to infect the sound by thrusting themselves into their company and by dispersing linen and other personal belongings on the streets of the city.[7] The general disorder, in many respects, was comparable to insurrection.[8]

Not only a threat to power, however, the epidemic behaved metaphorically as power's surrogate, its negative image. In the Renaissance, and particularly at the inception of James's regime, plague was an ersatz sovereign, an antithetical authority; it thus seemed a monarchical insurgence. The disease metaphorized a subversive strain within power itself . Impervious and globally destructive, the sickness took on rhetorical rule, perhaps as a result of its removal of kings and governors.[9] When it occupied a given place, it was said to "reign" there; spreading from town to town, it was commonly described as being on progress.[10] From the human ruler's point of view, the only effective remedy for the sickness was to escape it, to keep in constant motion. However, flight compounded the problem of rule. Abandonment of place openly exposed the impotence of the king to maintain centrality, to govern. And in James's case, the plague vexingly accompanied the court. Throughout the summer of 1603, the Jacobean entourage carried contagion with them: from London to Oatlands, Richmond to Woodstock, where two members of Queen Anne's household died of the disease.[11] On September 17, at the height of the mortality, Thomas Crewe wrote to the Countess of Shrewsbury, "The Queen removes hence today, the King upon Tuesday, towards Winchester, where will be a standing Court, unless the sickness drive them thence, which hitherto hath followed them." A letter on the same day from Thomas Edmonds to the earl of Shrewsbury confirms the court's pessimism about the possibility of health: "We are now removing shortly to Winchester, where we shall stay till we have also infected that place, as we have done all others where we have come."[12] Sure enough, Winchester was contaminated just two weeks after the court's arrival there; tireless with their lives at stake, they then escaped to Wilton (Wilson, Plague , 107).

The court's self-consciousness about its own taint is compelling. Even more significant is the nation's perception of the new regime's vulnerability. Suddenly, James was on an antiprogress, a royal egress. Forced to flee, the new ruler appeared embarrassingly ordinary and mortal. The body was too much with the king, his mortality in open view, but the king was not with the political body, his people—and this separation,


necessary for survival, did extensive damage to James's image as a king. Looking back from the perspective of the revivified plague in 1609, John Davies of Hereford recalls the inauguration of the Jacobean regime:

The King himself (O wretched Times the while!)
From place to place, to save himself did fly,
Which from himself himself did seek t'exile,
Who (as amaz'd) knew not where safe to lie.
It's hard with Subjects when the Sovereign
Hath no place free from plagues, his head to hide;
And hardly can we say the King doth reign,
That no where, for just fear, can well abide.[13]

"Hardly can we say the King doth reign": although the king's fear is "just," the abject spectacle of the fleeing, self-exiled monarch was debilitating. While it is mean-spirited in the extreme to blame him for wanting to save his life, even James had to admit that his flight was politically undesirable. In a proclamation issued from Hampton Court on July 29, the king undermined the desired demeanor of mastery by confessing the scandal of his own disappearance: "The Coronation being happily over," the proclamation notes, "considering the evils the country suffers from the absence of its natural leaders . . . the King hereby commands all persons not detained at Court to depart at once."[14] Audibly relieved at the completion of his maimed rites, James evacuated the kingdom and, for a time, his own kingship. The epidemic dashed the ideological façade of monarchy's limitless ability to confer order and peace upon the kingdom, or to protect the bodies of the corporate whole. In the presence of plague, the human sovereign did not reign.

What should have been a joyous celebration of the Jacobean succession turned instead into cultural tragedy, a calamity of spectacular sorrow and terror. This alteration was the more painful in that it both mimicked and threatened a disaster which England had just narrowly escaped: political chaos. Although James's inheritance was in the works for several years prior to Elizabeth's death, and although most court insiders and many outsiders knew of the likely candidate, nothing was certain, and indeed, all comment about the question was severely interdicted.[15] So when the queen finally proclaimed James from her deathbed in March, the problem, in the words of one historian, "was settled before any other candidate had time to raise a disturbance, and, to the astonishment and relief of those who had been stockpiling arms against the queen's death, the succession crisis passed off in complete peace."[16] But by visiting confusion on a country that had just evaded it, by trans-


figuring the glorious into the miserable, plague thoroughly undid the preternatural pleasure of the succession.[17] Disease reanimated a national anxiety that had just been buried with the queen—the fear of having no monarch. Plague effected a surprise interregnum, replacing the ruler with nothing. As it happened, the pestilence continued to rage throughout the winter, and James had to wait nearly a year for his public coronation pageant. Between the death of Elizabeth (March 24) and the Stuart coronation (July 25)—in the enforced absence of visibly legitimate monarchy—the bubonic plague took hold of the nation.[18]

A new regime, frustrated, endangered, and forestalled; the king pestered from place to place by an inexorable, usurper-tyrant of a disease; the impeded succession causing the abdication of royal privilege immediately upon assumption of that privilege; the nation aghast at its own savage misfortune, at the impotence of the royal office—into this orbit of images I would like to project the next phase of Hamlet 's historical inscriptions and operations of meaning. The topic of the Jacobean succession, as many critics have noted, is intimate with the subject of Hamlet in history, especially as the story of the hero touches so tantalizingly closely at so many points on the story of King James's life. Before I rehearse some of these well-documented connections, however, I would like to explore the textual indicators of Hamlet's belated kingship. Until now I have stressed the play's intertwining of prince and villain-king as a primary effect of dramatic contagion; Hamlet's gradual assumption of tyranny registers his eccentric approach to the throne. This convergence makes an ethical point by intensifying the contradictions of Hamlet's task—that is, by sketching his approximation and configuration of that which he must kill—but it makes a political point as well: it seeds the notion of Hamlet as a king, blocked from the place which was his due. In 1603, plague spilled James from power. Barred from his own succession by nothing, by death, James lived the extended exclusion from place that Denmark's prince only rarely protests in the second quarto. Hamlet artistically renders obstacles not only to revenge but also to rule. These barriers may arise from within—as limitations of the susceptible, hesitant mind or vulnerable body. More often, they occur from without: from the massive ideological bulwark against regicide; the choking anxieties of court intrigue and family pressure; the immense weight of the past.

Interpretively disturbing possibilities are embedded deep within the history of national health that is inscribed in the second quarto of Hamlet . The great general treason of the bubonic plague of 1603 is that it


seemed to be England's bodily reaction against the presence of a new king. In the wake of Elizabeth's death, the sickness seriously impaired the prestige or the charisma of the Scots monarch.[19] Whatever the eventual ramifications, the closer James got to London, to the seat of power and to his own visibility as a power, the more disorder accrued, and the closer he drew to infection.[20] Disease in Hamlet bears ironic historical lineaments. For the play bitterly imagines an accession tableau in which deadly treason takes over authority's place—at least until the true prince, the proper heir, can bring unmitigated disaster to the state.


The Ghost of King Hamlet tells the heir apparent many things in their first interview, but the political status of the youth goes conspicuously unmentioned; both royal Hamlets seem concerned about things other than the legalities of the succession. The Ghost never protests young Hamlet's loss of position, only his own. Nor does Hamlet himself, for most of the play, lament his preemption from rule. In spite of his disenfranchisement, however, other characters defer to him as being at or near the top of the political hierarchy. Yet he represses or deflects this position, and the obeisance due to it, as in this parting exchange with the guards on watch:



Our dutie to your honor.


Your loues, as mine to you, farewell.

In valuing love over duty, reciprocity over rank, Hamlet here denies his social place and tries to establish a priority of affective authenticity over external form and service, a priority which will ultimately enable the antihierarchical act of regicide.[21] As much as he denies his stature, however, it remains obvious to other characters. Laertes, for one, seems quite convinced early in the play that Hamlet is the future king, and he employs that notion, alongside its allied bromide of the body politic, to discourage Ophelia from a romance with the prince:



His greatness wayd, his will is not his owne. . .
. . . for on his choice depends
The salty and health of this whole state,
And therefore must his choice be circumscribd


Vnto the voyce and yeelding of that body
Whereof he is the head.

Laertes speaks as if the prince is already burdened with royal choices, as if a new King Hamlet has been proclaimed and is considering a wife.[22] Ophelia takes up a similar refrain when she calls Hamlet "Th'expectation and Rose of the faire state" (G3). It could be that Polonius's children keenly feel their own political marginality and so exaggerate Hamlet's proximity to the throne. But these lines seem prologue to some promise that the play makes about Hamlet's aptness and destiny for kingship, a promise that Fortinbras eventually apologizes for in Hamlet's absent presence: "he was likely, had he beene put on, / To haue prooued most royall" (O2).

The extreme indirection with which the play broaches the hero's privation from rule lets us know that something weird has happened to the procedure, not just the outcome, of the succession.[23] Hamlet's political station is one of the play's legion mysteries. Although the king proclaims him "the most imediate to our throne" and then invites him to "be as our selfe in Denmarke" (C1), there ought to be some question—especially in the first scenes of the play—why the able-bodied, scholarly youth is not already king. Yet no one utters a peep of protest against Claudius. Because generations of critics have reminded us of Denmark's elective monarchy, Hamlet's exclusion from the throne has been normalized over time. But then it should seem just as odd that the only son has failed to win election as it does that he has failed to inherit.[24] As a "fact" of Danish culture, the elective monarchical process goes unmentioned, unexplicated, and wholly unquestioned until the last scene of the play. Is the issue of succession in Denmark really clear, or simply unprotested? Has Claudius been unanimously elected, and by whom? By "the people," or by a complicitous body of counselors and elders? By mystifying the procedure through which Claudius came to power, the drama gives multiple impressions about mechanisms of state: they malfunction while no one notices or cares; they are inherently corruptible; they are mysterious, and not to be questioned or trusted. The drama plays a game of royal bait and switch with the expected male inheritor and the audience, throwing a cloak over the succession process. In late Elizabethan England, the image of a clearly legitimate heir who is stealthily denied his place would be particularly appalling.

We need to know what the play resolutely refuses or is unable to tell:


the influence, if any, of the royal marriage upon the nation's choice; the political influence, that is, of the queen. But because we cannot determine whether Claudius's marriage to Gertrude preceded or followed his election, the succession mystery remains intact. The king himself seems to suggest that the marriage, shady at best in the light of his brother's funeral, followed his ascension to the throne: "Though . . . it vs befitted . . . our whole Kingdome, To be contracted in one browe of woe . . . Yet . . . we . . . thinke on him Together with remembrance of our selues. . . . Therefore . . . our Queene Th'imperial ioyntresse to this warlike state Haue we . . . Taken to wife" (B3v). Despite Claudius's sovereign and proprietary manner, his epithet "th'imperial ioyntress" for Gertrude implies an equivalence in their control of the kingdom and suggests at least the possibility that the king's rights go hand in hand with the queen's graces, her political indulgence. He is probably not just being courtly to his new bride; more probably, the phrase represents a prenuptial agreement, a legal consensus. But even if "Therefore . . . Haue we . . . taken to wife" implies a temporal sequence and thus the king's unlimited prerogatives, a deliberately elusive account of power emerges here; even Claudius's official version of cause and effect implies that Gertrude has been "taken" as an act of homage and remembrance (of "ourselves," no less), and for no other reason. The royal rhetoric constantly evades (but nervously alludes to) the king's contingent relationship to his own kingship: his dependence on high-level complicity ("Your better wisdomes, which haue freely gone / With this affaire along" [B3V); his extrapolitical—that is, sexual—motivations; and his consolidation of power through legitimizing marriage. Claudius's indeterminately figured access to rule might then have derived primarily from the fraternal relationship of inheritance or from the marital one of coercive force.

For reasons that will become clear, I prefer the latter explanation. Hamlet's birthright (which admittedly may be no more of a "right" than that of the child of a United States president to inherit the office) may then have been effectively blocked by his mother's "o'erhasty marriage," which has secured the position to which Claudius may or may not have won election. I do not wish to land too heavily on this shaky interpretive plank. But the play sustains the possibility that whereas Hamlet's nobility descends patrilineally, it is impeded matrilineally—that is, matrimonially. "I say we will haue no mo marriage, those that are married alreadie, all but one shall liue" (G3), Hamlet bellows in a fit of unfeigned distemper. His rage against marriage may articulate a specifically political frustration that contains both psychological and his-


torical ingredients. If he has been blocked or discouraged from kingship by his mother's wedlock, Hamlet's situation exactly reverses that of King James, whose mother, Mary Queen of Scots, provided him with the claim to Scotland's and eventually England's throne; additionally, Mary's bad marital choices actually hastened the Scottish prince's inheritance, as I discuss below. If Hamlet's exasperation at marriage is political, it remains the prince's only serious grievance that he does not expound upon at length—that the text does not wish to speak out loud. Hamlet's specifically marital, sexual hostility toward the mother who has not helped him secure a monarchy shields a more immediate historical antagonism: James's frustration with his political mother, Elizabeth, for her prolonged deferral of his English kingship.

The first quarto of Hamlet allows its protagonist to express political desire; when pondering the range of the Player's verbal potential, for example, Hamlet asks: "What would he do an if he hadde my losse? / His father murdred, and a Crowne bereft him?" (FI). The second quarto, however, postpones overt signs of Hamlet's aspirations just as carefully as it evades the political implications and intricacies of Claudius's election. Evidence of Hamlet's interest in kingship per se is spotty, and scarcely appears at all until the middle of the drama. In a rare moment of unguarded self-revelation susceptible of political interpretation, he does mention to Ophelia that he is "very proude, reuengefull, ambitious, with more offences at my beck, then I haue thoughts to put them in," and then he affirms and retreats from the confession: "wee are arrant knaues, beleeue none of vs" (G3). But after The Murder of Gonzago , Hamlet responds to Rosencrantz's question about the cause of his "distemper" by saying: "Sir, I lacke aduauncement" (H4). Perhaps he thinks he is being calculating—the response should look to the audience (and to Hamlet himself) like a lie—but let us assume for a moment that he has let something slip, that his heart's desire and mind's detachments can be traced to this missing commodity "advancement." After Hamlet expresses his "lacke," Rosencrantz helpfully replies that the prince should not worry about his hierarchical position, "when you haue the voyce of the King himselfe for your succession in Denmarke" (H4). This reply dovetails with Laertes' certainty about Hamlet's royal future, but it also enhances the impression of thematic contagion: Hamlet has the king's voice as a promise, as a possession. Voice is the text's symbolic vial of plague. A sinister and lovely polysemy, this double sense of voice resurfaces at the end of the play when Hamlet ambivalently endorses a more successful avenger than he has been: "I doe prophecie


th'ellection lights / On Fortinbrasse , he has my dying voyce, / So tell him" (OIV). In Hamlet's last moments, the transfer of vocality and power goes beyond a vote of confidence: it is a curse, a guarantee of life caught in the vise of office and the fatal pressure of royal responsibility. At the point of death, Hamlet, finally fully invested with a king's voice, has for just a moment completely taken over the king's identity and position, in precisely the same sense of his earlier self-recrimination, "how stand I then / That haue a father kild, a mother staind"; the dying voice he gives to Fortinbras figures an ironic bequest, a gift of death. In a potentate's proclaimed or juridical will lies coiled fact: "I sentence" or "I decree" signifies a performative linguistic act. During the play's last moments, plot becomes plaguy Jacobean history: transitional monarchy waits upon but also seemingly bequeaths mortality. Hamlet's political apotheosis comes when his language attains, through the prerogative of choosing a successor, monarchical tones; but his royal prerogative is only and entirely coextensive with death—the end of the Hamlet family line, if not the whole culture.

Since monarchical identity and demolition are interdependent in the play, it makes good sense that Hamlet first openly confesses his political interests when telling Horatio about his ruination of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet has managed to trope (to turn verbally) Claudius's scheme by killing the messengers, effectively erasing and rewriting the king's intentions. His expropriation of Claudius's plot crucially involves an imprinting of kingly identity: "I had my fathers signet in my purse / Which was the modill of that Danish seale, / Folded the writ vp in the forme of th'other, / Subcribe [sic ] it, gau't th'impression, plac'd it safely, / The changling neuer knowne" (NIV-N2).[25] Hamlet's expert forgery and complex, murderous enfoldings (reversing the play's opening command, "Stand and vnfolde your selfe") do him regal, not yeoman service: he moves from resembling Claudius to overtaking him; he assumes the king's monarch-function, a murderer's business. If identity is the vanishing point of resemblance, Hamlet begins to vanish into identity with kingship once he fully surrogates both Claudius and King Hamlet. The forged and folded letter resurrects the homicidal force of the father, who is remembered in the signet; but that force is deployed by fraud—that is, as Claudius would wield it. Hamlet's royal acts reunite the deadly, sundered brothers of Denmark.

What gulls us into denial about Hamlet's darker deeds, his murders and plots, is that they so entirely are the acts of a king, and we have been hoodwinked into believing the prince's denials about his ambition. But


his practices are precisely those of a ruthless monarch, of one who will lustily devour enemies to nourish himself with power, and spit out the bones with no remorse. This realization takes Horatio aback:



So Guyldenstern  and  Rosencrans  goe too't.


They are not neere my conscience, their defeat
Dooes by their owne insinnuation growe,
Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Betweene the passe and fell incenced points
Of mighty opposits.


Why what a King is this!

Indeed—but which king? Horatio's customary taciturnity applies equally to Claudius, engineer of the first letter plot, and to Hamlet, its second engineer: "Why what a King you are!"

Hamlet's identity with royalty, his plaguy sameness with villainy, exposes his implication in specifically political desire. But he soon grasps one complication impeding this desire: tactical political success in Denmark follows on the heels of erotic success, and erotics are every bit as problematic for Hamlet as politics; the two are always interlaced. For instance, he perceives Claudius's achievement as a coherent mosaic of sex and statecraft, as he suggests to Horatio:



Dooes it not thinke thee stand me now vppon?
He that hath kild my King, and whor'd my mother,
Pop't in betweene th'election and my hopes,
Throwne out his Angle for my proper life,
And with such cusnage, is't not perfect conscience?

These lines contain the play's (and Hamlet's) first specific complaints about a succession process which suddenly seems wholly suspect. Claudius's triumph now looks less electoral than erectional, as Hamlet assigns his own monarchical exclusion to his uncle's phallic deftness. In juxtaposition with "whor'd my mother," Hamlet describes the entrance of Claudius into monarchy as a specifically sexual breach, a popping in, reminiscent of Paris's costly intervention in Menelaus's love life: "For thus popped Paris in his hardiment / And parted thus you and your argument" (Troilus and Cressida , 4.5.27–28). Claudius's popping in, like Paris's, figures cuckoldry, but Hamlet (not his father) is the cuckold here; in the lines "whor'd my mother, / Pop't in betweene th'election


and my hopes," Hamlet blames the king for sequentially impeding access to two oedipal prizes: the mother's sexuality and the father's authority.

As a description of Claudius's misdeeds, the phrase "pop't in" muddies the referent of Hamlet's desire, equating the maternal with the political space: each is erotically charged, sexually receptive, attainable. Again, the question of the succession remains unclear, the actual order of events still unresolved, but it is at last apparent at least to Hamlet that Claudius's adult heterosexuality has secured the election—the succession—at Hamlet's (unconsummated) expense. It is possible that he understood this mechanism earlier in the play. Significantly, in the politically potent sphere of his mother's bedroom, Hamlet records his first protest about the succession process when he calls Claudius "a cut-purse of the Empire and the rule, / That from a shelfe the precious Diadem stole / And put it in his pocket" (J3V). Having already been blocked by the Polonius family on the sexual path, the prince looks for a different erotics of advancement.

The Claudius model suggests that heterosexuality consummates political triumph, but it still takes an act of homoerotic violence to clear the way for that victory; and thus the bodies of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become crucial props in Hamlet's rehearsal for the autocrat's part. Like Claudius, who destroyed his brother by pouring a dangerous juice into his unguarded orifice, Hamlet emulates the craft of kingship with a sexually coded assault of his two former friends:



Vp from my Cabin,
My sea-gowne scarft about me in the darke
Gropt I to find out them, had my desire,
Fingard their packet, and in fine with-drew
To mine owne roome againe.

His condition of being "vp" (erect), his groping to find them, the fulfillment of his desire, his fingering of their packet (letters, but also slang for genitalia), and his satisfied withdrawal all suggest homoerotic dalliance, intercourse, or in this case rape, stealthily mounted.[26] Syntactically, he has his desire before he fingers their packets, after he's groped them—the lines hint that the exchange of letters is not the prince's primary desire. Hamlet justifies his homoerotic destruction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by asserting that "their defeat / Dooes by their owne insinnuation growe" (N2); to unpack this comment, we may look to Thomas


Wilson's early description of rhetorical "insinuation": "a priuie twining, or close creeping in, to win fauor with much circumstance."[27] The court spies are typically allied in Hamlet's mind with privy twining, a purely genital sexuality, as we see when he first greets them:



Then you live about her wast, or in the middle of her fauors.


Faith her priuates we.


In the secret parts of Fortune, oh most true, she is a strumpet.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's basely sexual nature metaphorizes their basely political nature, and teases out Hamlet's thinly disguised fury with them. Just after Gonzago , when the two companions have been sent to discover the cause of his "distemper," Hamlet accuses them of trying to manipulate him, to play on him like a pipe. He expresses a paranoia that appropriately mixes erotics and politics, a fear of being blown on, into, or away; he doesn't want to be fingered or handled as a mere instrument. He is so agitated that his metaphors begin to go off key: "you would plucke out the hart of my mistery. . . and there is much musique excellent voyce in this little organ." Then, collecting himself: "call mee what instrument you wil, though you fret me not, you cannot play vpon me" (H4).[28] Plucking out the heart of his mystery and fretting him are more apposite figures for stringed instruments, which Shakespeare could have furnished theatrically, were he so inclined. But instead he chooses the phallic pipe, another kind of little organ, as the stage vehicle: "wil you play vpon this pipe?" "My lord I cannot." The pipe, like the men and their surveillance mission, configures a sexual threat. Not wishing to be penetrated or plucked at, Hamlet will instead prove intrusive, protruding, and he takes his own digital, sexually charged revenge on them.

In a line the second quarto lacks, Hamlet restates to Horatio his justification for killing the king's instruments: "Why man, they did make love to this employment." The folio line helps clarify the prince's rage: he detests their servicing of the state at least as much as their disloyalty to him; he is repelled by their metonymic character as entirely sexual/ political beings. But his revulsion, I believe, is contaminated by fear of discovery, an anger at their relentless exposure of his political needs, unknown as he would like those to remain. The folio again is more explicit than the second quarto can be on this point, and fully illustrates Hamlet's resentment of the court spies. In another passage absent from Q2, Hamlet and the men engage in dark banter about Denmark: "To me


it is a prison," Hamlet says in the folio. "Why," Rosencrantz replies, "then your ambition makes it one." Hamlet haughtily deflects the accusation ("O God I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space"), but the topic of Hamlet's cramped kingship and unfulfilled, shadowy ambition (as Guildenstern warns, "The very substance of the ambitious is but the shadow of a dream") infiltrates and pollutes the prince's lofty discursive space. Although he regards the subject as beneath him, as indeed he regards most desires as emanating from beneath, Hamlet in the folio lets slip a fixation on kingship in the act of denying it. Q2 manages to camouflage the fixation somewhat, but not completely. On learning from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the players are about to arrive, Hamlet's first words are: "He that playes the King shal be welcome" (F2).

Despite (or because of) the intrusions of the two functionaries, Hamlet defers, for as long as he can, his own involvement in the nexus of political and sexual desire. He defends against a world in which sexuality operates extensively within, on behalf of, as a substitute for, political strength. One important sign of Hamlet's deferral comes in his early, almost defiant use of the word "election" specifically to help articulate his distance from intrigue and influence: the word enunciates a pure love, untainted by politics. We know that the royal election, whatever form it took, did not go Hamlet's way. So it may be in part a form of psychological compensation that causes the prince, in tones of carefully emasculated passion, to speak love to Horatio, and to tell him that the most important election is affective.



Nay, doe not thinke I flatter,
For what aduancement may I hope from thee . . .?
No, let the candied tongue licke absurd pompe,
And crooke the pregnant hindges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fauning; doost thou heare,
Since my deare soule was mistris of her choice,
And could of men distinguish her election,
S'hath seald thee for herselfe.

By describing his soul's faculty of rational choice in feminine terms, Hamlet dissolves a masculinist Renaissance distinction between anima (fem., principle of life) and animus (masc., principle of intellection and rationality). As we saw in Troilus and Cressida , self-feminization has many functions for the male Shakespearean speaker; but here, self-


denigration is not among them. Instead, Hamlet presents his mistresssoul as female but not as weak or vulnerable, a pledge to Horatio in an act of homosocial free will.[29] This expression of love complicates gender identity for two purposes: it allows Hamlet to deny sexuality, and it notarizes his repudiation of ambition. A feminine identity—adorned with rational, free will but unpolluted by sexual "will"—relieves Hamlet from the burdens of a male, court-constructed subjectivity in which intense sexual and social ambition are normative. He contrasts his love for Horatio with the beloved's inability to provide "advancement," but that inability is the very source of Hamlet's love: political engagement is precisely what Hamlet is avoiding by plighting troth to his friend. The word "election" here, even in the context of a discussion of Hamlet's soul, carries the harmonics of state more than religious doctrine. He contrasts the soul's elevated marriage seal with the crude sexual synecdoche of the candied tongue licking pomp, the pregnant knee of the flatterer—the slaveringly ambitious and bodily opportunistic. At this point in the play, prior to the Gonzago scene, Hamlet can still freely rush into Horatio's chaste and depoliticized affections: "giue me that man / That is not passions slaue, and I will weare him / In my harts core, / I in my hart of hart / As I do thee." Horatio is explicitly not "a pype for Fortunes finger / To sound what stop she please." To be phallically sexual is to be vulnerable; Hamlet professes a grateful, feminized chastity to his friend, for Horatio offers release from the power-soaked world, the world where "election" once and always represents a succession manipulated in bed. But Hamlet's attitudes change in the context of Gonzago , with his increased proximity to monarchy. Presently, the brutality of his interview with Ophelia ("Doe you thinke I meant country matters? . . . That's a fayre thought to lye betweene maydes legs" [HI]) and the putrid invective he afterward hurls at his mother ("Nay but to liue in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed . . .") underline his sullied descent from matters of the soul to those of the groin—where he and the play locate vortices of political force.

Terror of the erotic accompanies and also encodes a fear of the political and, as such, conjures succession anxiety—Hamlet's and the play's. Queen Elizabeth's chastity cult, despite its ideological dissonances at the end of her reign, provided one kind of comfort, the little boy's safety of not having to imagine his mother (or grandmother) as a sexual being. But the fact of chastity also proved disturbing in that it meant the lack of an heir, which no ideological or iconographical manipulation could make good. Hamlet never enjoys psychic ease about either his queen


mother's sexuality or succession politics in Denmark; Gertrude's erotic life not only fails to produce an unequivocal succession but actively mucks things up. The play is in this way a worst-case historical scenario, a tragic psychosis of the political unconscious in which anxieties about sex and politics constantly chafe one another. What if there were a rightful successor and he could not, so to speak, get in? Hamlet comes to embrace this imaginative despair. Just after his declaration of love to Horatio, the king and his train enter, and Claudius asks the prince how he fares. Apparently punning on the meaning of "fares" as "eats," Hamlet answers: "Excellent yfaith, / Of the Camelions dish, I eate the ayre, / Promiscram'd, you cannot feede Capons so" (H4). The more important pun, however, turns on statecraft, not gastronomy. The paranomasia of the politically discouraged resounds here: "I eat the heir" means that Hamlet is forced to consume his own ambitions and survive on only an airy promise of being the most immediate to the throne. It also means that we will have no more Hamlets, insofar as his dictum against wedlock ("I say we will haue no mo marriage") is self-consuming, and the succession will not pass lineally through him. At this point, he sees himself shut out of, and complicitous in, the predigested succession.

Yet the prince's revenge task would, if effective, presumably make the monarchy available to him—but Hamlet and the second quarto are exceedingly reluctant to consider this as a supporting motive. Hamlet as revenger apparent would compromise the purity (if any exists) of the desire for vengeance, because it would openly admit political craving. In pointed contrast, Laertes returns from France to avenge his father's death and directly challenges Claudius by leading a popular uprising. As if to underscore the process from which Hamlet has been excluded, Laertes' royal encroachment is framed as an election, albeit an unruly one:



. . . the rabble call him Lord . . .
The cry choose we, Laertes shall be King,
Caps, hands, and tongues applau'd it to the clouds,
Laertes shall be King, Laertes King.

This extraordinary report glosses Hamlet's disappointments and political failures. It shows that Denmark's political forms are stable in all situations, if even the rabble and their rousers insist on their own election of a favored candidate ("choose we, Laertes ").[30] It is significant that Hamlet, though "loued of the distracted multitude," never marshals a revolt of this sort—yet presumably he could, especially as his


cause is even more reasonable, just, with more extensive ramifications than Laertes'. Why doesn't the prince stage an overt insurrection to convert revenge from the private to the public arena? The play as a whole suggests, as perhaps a vestigial recollection of Essex, that direct challenges to power will fail, which Claudius demonstrates by defusing Laertes' popular revolt without breaking a sweat. In any case, open challenge is for Hamlet inconceivable, for it would place him before the mirror of his repressed desires. These desires are not necessarily something he consciously wants and cannot, because of external restrictions, obtain; they are what, because of these restrictions, he cannot stand to believe he may want. He has long shied from political life, reluctantly remaining at Elsinore after his father's funeral, never fully pressing or protesting for his royal rights. He engages the court only in oblique, passive-aggressive disruptions, not in outright revolt; and he noticeably fails for most of the play even to mention his considerable political disappointments, which could serve quite nicely as "excytements of my reason and my blood" (K3v)—that is, as further motivations to revenge, if he wanted them.

But Hamlet's death-infected commitment to retributive murder becomes increasingly difficult to square with any civic impulse or will to office. The unacknowledged plot to secure political place—the succession plot—proves inimical to the urgent desire to do "bitter business" and obliterate monarchy, consequences and souls be damned—the revenge plot. Paradoxically, of course, Hamlet's revenge is prerequisite to his own succession. But the wild impulse and capacity for revenge and the orderly wish and capability to rule confute one another. Like negative and positive integers, they define mutually exclusive grounds. Further complicating this practical and ideological conflict is the paradramatic level of discourse—that is, the historical context of the work. The play as a whole and Hamlet in particular skittishly engage a complicated desire that they can neither fully confront nor comfortably resolve: the desire, perhaps again translated from the Essex revolt, to contest and control monarchy, to master the space where authority resides—but not to occupy that space. Instead, contestation and control lead Hamlet to mimic the historical effects of that antimonarch, the bubonic plague: he will prevent the new king's peace and pleasure. He is like Lear's Fool in this sense: a reverse clown. His urge to interrupt authority's revels is a defective oedipal impulse. He seeks mainly to stymie the reigning force, not to seize it.

Hamlet's conflictual urges toward and away from kingship constitute


one of the play's many insoluble contradictions. The text sustains an impressively steady inconsistency in its attitude toward Hamlet's possible succession. This waffling may have to do with dramatic necessity as much as ideological or historical conflict: if Claudius's election were portrayed as overtly illegal, or Hamlet's desire for rule showed too strong, the prince would have markedly less reason not to commit expeditious revenge. Still, after Hamlet's return from his perilous sea voyage, after his ghastly fight in Ophelia's grave and exciting narrative to Horatio about the plots he has overcome, the play seems ready to endorse the hitherto impossible dual ideal of Hamlet's readiness to take revenge and to reign. But remarkably, the text trumps the succession question one final time. Hamlet's "readiness" becomes a synonym for the anticipation of death, not for the belated ability to achieve revenge and royalty all at once: "there is speciall prouidence in the fall of a Sparrowe. . . if it be not now, yet it well come, the readines is all" (N3V).

How did the revenge and succession questions get diverted? Let me quote again Hamlet's tally of Claudius's crimes:



Dooes it not thinke thee stand me now vppon?
He that hath kild my King, and whor'd my mother,
Pop't in betweene th'election and my hopes,
Throwne out his Angle for my proper life,
And with such cusnage, i'st not perfect conscience?

Hamlet asks Horatio two questions that the text of the second quarto only half-completes. The rhetorical immediacy of the queries obscures the fact that they are both missing the crucial referent, and that both are therefore grammatically incoherent. Does Horatio not think what "stand[s] mee now vppon"? Is what not perfect conscience? The referent of both questions—"To quit him with this arm"—is missing in Q2, and must (again) be supplied by the folio. Hamlet asks Horatio: don't you think I am justified, indeed, is it not perfect conscience, to requite Claudius for the harms he has done—to kill him? The folio does what the quarto cannot: it directly confronts the possibility of Hamlet as a justified regicide, a political revenger. The quarto seems racked by anxiety about the prospect of Hamlet's ambition and succession. Let us recall in this context that Q2 also fails to include (whether because of revision, negligence, or censorship) the passage about the child actors and the Wars of the Theaters. In wishing to know how the "little eyases" thrive, Hamlet in the folio asks incredulously whether the children will


not, once they have grown into "common players," have already been made by their writers to "exclaim against their own succession." Hamlet's question betrays his identification with their plight. Theatrically occupying a contestatory space, the prince seems always to have to exclaim against the succession which is his due; he lives the irreconcilable contradiction of revenger and candidate, caroming between childish impulses and adult responsibilities. He is not unlike King James in this, an heir presumptive who had, as best he could, to remain silent about (if not to exclaim against) his own succession.

Questions of political inheritance or consequence cause the second quarto to suffer bouts of amnesia or incoherence. I want to insist on these dysfunctions as significant: they are textual arrows aimed at the historical blank of failed or perplexed—diseased—succession. Just at the moment in Q2 when Hamlet's revenge seems most imminent, most replete with reasons and emotions, it is edited out, unstated and imprecise—and at just that moment, as if to further disburden the play of its impulses and justifications for king killing, Osric enters with Laertes' swordfight challenge. An exceedingly odd plot contortion then occurs: after finally speaking his clear desire for kingship ("th'election and my hopes"), after hinting that his conscience would be not only untroubled but satisfied by taking arms against a sea of cultural imperatives, Hamlet suddenly forgets, or allows himself to be diverted from, his own intense emotions. He abdicates his newly focused desires at the prospect of the sword fight with Laertes. When Hamlet seems ready to prosecute his right to the throne by taking the long-pondered revenge, the play introduces one more distraction from the purpose—the final, mortal distraction.[31]

The second quarto's conspicuous avoidance of the succession question shadows similar, contemporary historical indirections. For James's long incumbency also had to navigate cultural reticence—the silence of interested courtiers, the Elizabethan Parliament's suppression of debate on the question (1602). And as the play closes toward death and a new regime, its relationship to its cultural contexts becomes at once more intimate and more turbulent.


Unlike the histories in which it partakes, Hamlet seems present to us in full—more than full, in fact, for three whole and separate versions (Q1, Q2, F) exist. But in toto these versions intolerably complicate the ques-


tion of history's functional interpretability in literary production. Hamlet 's variants are a visible if aphasic report of untold other drafts, accidents, influences, choices, replete with meaning across their range of gaps, consistencies, and contradictions. Despite the obvious volubility of the idea of Hamlet , the three divergent textual manifestations of the play impair claims to completeness that any one of them might ordinarily make. Each text is fragmentary by reason of the others' presence: none can be the authoritative Hamlet . To try to determine historical operations in a collated version of the play presents an insuperable challenge because of the grossly indeterminate chronology that such a version introduces; our only chance at making such determinations rests in analyzing one of the variants—in this case, the second quarto—whose historical indicators are clearly marked and, at times, just as clearly erased.

The textual conundrum of Hamlet produces all sorts of methodological and interpretive pitfalls, but even more vexing is the vigorous, multiform, and refractory presence of the past in the drama. By way of introducing another stage in my argument about the possible operations of history in Shakespearean texts, I begin with this caveat: not only is what we call Hamlet an unstable object of inquiry in itself, but its reservoir of historical referentiality overflows, flooding semantic containment. In an attempt to delimit some of the signifying possibilities of history's operation in the text, I return to the distant past: specifically, to one possible prehistory of the Hamlets . However, this prehistory is itself rippled with confusion, secrets, propaganda, and scandal. I cannot then use it as an interpretive template so much as a companion example—a marvelous analogue and potential source of the dramatic texts which I think it helped form. I shall interject historiography here to help qualify Q2 Hamlet 's strained attitudes toward cultural supersession—to offer an account of that text's nervousness about its own succession plot. I wish now to rehearse the tale of James's first ascent to the throne, the throne of Scotland, circa 1566. The events of this period establish, on one level, the foundation for that brief moment of genera mista , the glorious and tragic arrival at kingship suffered by James and the English nation in the spring of 1603. On another, obviously related level, the tale prepares Hamlet 's most basic theatrical interests—its plot formation and its character set.

To feed early Jacobean history into the machinery of a Hamlet reading might seem a risky enterprise. Even local analyses, I would suggest, can suffer from tenuous connectedness: historical analogues to literature


too often seem at best suggestive, at worst deceptive or immaterial; most often, resonant but coincidental. So an interpretation of a work grounded on a context some four decades distant and a national border removed dangles simultaneously on two frayed ropes: if one should snap, the other will be likelier to detach because of the added downward force. Nonetheless, Hamlet itself thematizes the infectious influence of much earlier events; I can thus align my central interpretive gesture here with the text's own premises. Just as the significance of a present moment in an individual's life can arc back to an event or idea several decades prior to that moment—such as a psychological trauma that leaves a permanent residue in subsequent affect and relations—so too can we find the significant antecedents of a culture's present practices and anxieties in its own preadolescence or even nativity. A text's most pressing concerns, too, can be traced back to a time that it (or its author, or its culture) can hardly recall. The notion of a ghostly, virtually unremembered past that jostles the present time takes center stage in Hamlet 's (and Hamlet's) constructions of meaning.

The topic of political succession likewise carries within it theoretical and methodological appropriateness about the material relevance of the past to the present. How do we decide where the history of a current moment meaningfully begins? Since claims to the throne typically extend back many generations, legitimacy itself is often an interpretive fiction in which significant ancestry is determined from political expediency; monarchs, like meanings, are made and not born. The principle of monarchical selection can seem nearly as arbitrary, and certainly as fraught, as that of interpretive choice among a field of contending and contradictory data. Here I shall reread James's first perilous transit into power, a horrifying movement into succession that reappears as one group of essential contexts for Denmark's political scene.

The tale in brief:

Mary Queen of Scots married her cousin, the young Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in July 1565. Described by the historian J. E. Neale as arrogant, inebriated, vicious and despicable, Darnley in time was regarded even less highly than that by Mary.[32] Although she soon became pregnant, the queen quickly grew estranged from her dissolute husband, and she "absolutely refused to grant him the Crown Matrimonial which would have made him King of Scotland for his lifetime as well as hers"; indeed, the unborn child meant, for Darnley, permanent exclusion from succession "to both the crowns he coveted" (McElwee, Wisest Fool , 20). Darnley sought to rectify this situation with the aid of lords who had


long opposed Mary. He helped hatch a plot to kill the queen's French secretary, David Rizzio, with whom she had allegedly become intimate; the murder was to be performed at dinner in the presence of the queen, then six months pregnant. The plot's primary aim was to force a miscarriage, but some of the rebel lords, including Darnley, probably meant to dispatch the queen as well in the ensuing confusion. Although the unfortunate Rizzio was butchered, Mary and her unborn child managed to escape the bloody fray, escorted through the havoc by the earl of Huntly and James Hepburn, fourth earl of Bothwell. (The prince was born in relative peace and safety three months later, on June 19, 1566.) James's father could not even remain true to his co-conspirators in the Rizzio plot; he attempted to betray them to Mary after she survived the episode, but they countered by revealing his written complicity in the murder, after which point she could not, understandably enough, forgive him, whether because of his iniquity or his stupidity. Following recovery from childbirth and the coup attempt, Mary reconsolidated her power and superficially reconciled with her husband. But she soon turned her affections toward her savior, Bothwell—an ambitious, bold noble who desired that crown matrimonial which eluded Darnley. Bothwell knew that Darnley represented a continuing danger and obstacle, and had to be removed; the earl did not hesitate long, and Mary apparently did not disdain to help him.

For several months after James's birth, foreign reports circulated of Darnley's renewed plots; the most alarming involved kidnapping the infant prince and using him as a bargaining chip for privilege and favor. Meanwhile, Bothwell and possibly Mary advanced plots of their own. The queen brought Darnley—now badly disfigured and recuperating from a bout of smallpox—to a house in Edinburgh, the basement of which had been packed with barrels of gunpowder in anticipation of the royal husband's stay there. Mary visited him on the evening of February 9, 1567, and left around midnight. Two hours later, the house exploded. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, "was found naked in the garden, unmarked by powder" (McElwee, Wisest Fool , 26); there was speculation that he had been strangled after the explosion failed to finish him off, but no one knows exactly how he died or even the full extent of Mary's complicity in his death. Bothwell came under immediate suspicion for the crime. The queen's subsequent actions did not allay the nation's doubts about her role in the incident: after a scandalously short mourning period, and in the teeth of her in-laws' cries for revenge against the widely suspected Bothwell, she married the earl on May 12. David Har-


ris Willson notes that through this alliance "Mary not only abandoned James but placed his life in dire peril. Bothwell sought at once to gain possession of the Prince, and Mary was ready to yield" (King James , 18). The Protestant nobility, "though they had all been implicated more or less in Bothwell's band against Darnley . . . had the brazen effrontery to march out under a banner depicting his naked body crying for revenge" (McElwee, Wisest Fool , 29). Their concern was as much to preserve James as to punish the usurping lord; the child, they feared, would be jeopardized by his stepfather's desire for the crown and fear of inevitable revenge. Worse came to worst, and facing nearly unanimous opposition, Mary was forced to surrender to the Scottish lords. She was lucky (maybe not the best word for it) to survive; Edinburgh mobs blistered her with invective, calling her whore and adulteress. By the end of July, she was made to abdicate the throne to the infant James, and a protectorate was installed. Within a year of the assassination Darnley's parents, the earl and countess of Lennox, commissioned a memorial painting which presents a compellingly slanted version of the death of James's father. Darnley appears as a martyr (unmarked by smallpox) in the work, which depicts among other things a plaque that reads: "If they, who are already old, would be deprived of this life before the majority of their descendent, the King of Scots, he may have a memorial from them in order that he shut not out of his memory the recent atrocious murder of the King his father, until God should avenge it through him."[33]

The Darnley episode, from one perspective, is this: a tale about the murder of the pocky, disfigured father by the stepfather—a tale inextricably bound with the queen mother's disgrace, culminating in the son's conscription to revenge. This history so thoroughly anticipates Hamlet 's central storyline that we may be sure that the play eyes, even stares straight at, James. But the angle of vision, as always, is somewhat bent. Henry Stuart's death and the clarion call to remember and avenge it occurred in James's infancy, when the events could not have imprinted themselves directly on the prince's consciousness. Hamlet, by contrast, arrives at sentience in the play virtually as a result of mourning his father and pondering the injunction to avenge him. The dead king is, for the first few acts of the play, ever present to Hamlet's mind ("My father, me thinkes I see my father," he says even before the Ghost appears to him), claiming an immediacy that Darnley could not have had for the infant James. Hamlet's self-consciousness, and what I have called his knowledge, seem declined almost entirely from information about his namesake's disfiguration and demise, Queen Gertrude's "adultery," and


Claudius's ambitious lust, all of which make (as Hamlet thinks) a wreck of the nation.

Despite these alterations, Hamlet uncannily remembers the family violence and scandal that punctuated James's infant accession.[34] By resurrecting nightmarish events from the new king's early life, the drama draws heavily on the material presence of history and on the question of memorial pressure upon the present. Just as the Lennox family made sure to establish "a memorial . . . in order that [James] shut not out of his memory the recent atrocious murder of the King his father," so the Ghost repeatedly expresses its concern that Hamlet recall what he has heard; but Hamlet, like James, cannot quite remember. The problem is that memory, like history, proves infinitely corruptible from within or without—subject to narrative contamination, ideological whitewash, psychological evasion, wish fulfillment, and any number of other interpretive and perceptual deformations. Indeed, the Darnley painting shows just this tendency through its simple act of calling James's father "King" ("the King his father"), which he patently was not. Darnley, son of Henry VII's granddaughter Margaret Douglas, actually had a legitimate if oblique claim to the English crown, but he was called "King Henry" during his lifetime only as an honorific title; his power in Scotland depended on Mary, and never was he a crowned or proclaimed monarch.[35] The Darnley memorial also, more manipulatively, depicts Henry Stuart's martyrdom while (of course) excising all of his considerable duplicity and greed. Pollutions of memory with respect to events—fictional choices, factual exclusions—nicely analogize the relationship of the literary to the historical. Art reassembles cultural trauma and historical crux; the very anxiety of the moment pressures, interrupts, and distends the representation.

James's unremembered past provides, then, a constitutive history for the play; central events of the monarch's life are reanimated as foundational plot elements in Shakespeare's Denmark. At or near the point of James's full political maturation—his ascent to England's throne—Hamlet appears, and induces a dramaturgic rebirth of his infant trauma. The play thus participates bifocally in history. It merges two stages of the king's life story, each of which is occupied, in a radically different way, with immense succession anxiety: the past horror of Darnley's murder and Mary's disgrace; and the contemporary crisis of James's blocked ascent to the throne. What further complicates the play's inscriprive processes is that the present succession crisis, circa 1603, can by no means be regarded as a monad, a unity; it too separates into two


stages, before and after Elizabeth's death. The queen's sustained prevention of James's kingship (through longevity and her unyielding refusal to name a successor) and the epidemic disease that scotched James's happy entry into kingship are both, I believe, inscribed in Hamlet . Both disease and female power are reconfigured as barriers to (Hamlet's, James's) succession in the second quarto of 1604.[36] Hamlet's intense political and sexual angst about Gertrude, as well as the theatrical efflorescence of contagion imagery, allude to succession histories. James's seemingly interminable displacement from England's throne thus finds a correlate in the drama's obsessions with history's returns: the text deploys a prior story about the new king's infant accession at the historical moment of his mature, frustrated, and long-delayed assumption of rule.

What point does such a divided inscription make? It may have an unconscious ideological function, alleviating a certain pressure from the monarchy—and from the patriarchy. James cannot, the play suggests at a slant, be held accountable for his own succession woes. Despite the extraordinary coincidence of the arrival of a new regime with a brutal onslaught of plague, the new king cannot reasonably be charged with bringing on the epidemic any more than he, as a newly crowned toddler, could have been blamed for the commotion of Scottish politics in 1567. The structural presence of contagion in the play suggests that individual anguish is contiguous with national pain in the life of royalty: ailments cease to become individual property, and paradoxically lose their damning, their particular taint. Hamlet emphasizes that one man's infections can come to corrupt national health. While I have blamed Hamlet for this corruption, in that he disperses a mutated form of what he absorbs from the father, there is another sense in which he is thrown into a history whose conditions are most profoundly not of his own choosing. He is infected unawares, and although he amplifies and exacerbates the illness, he cannot be held fully accountable for it. The play, that is, tries on one level to liberate the royal subject from the burden of personal responsibility in history. Hamlet 's recollection of the nuclear family nightmare that ushered James into premature kingship (and Mary into captivity) suggests the considerable extent to which the monarch is a subject, imperiled by uncontrollable, external forces.

The particular subjugating forces take considerably different form in the theater than in history. Note, for example, that James's biological father plotted heinously against his mother (and probably against the infant king himself) to seize royal power. But Shakespeare's plot inscribes history to redeem—at least on the surface—the male ancestor.


Frequently, especially in the second quarto, this redemption occurs at the expense of the queen; and, of course, it operates wholly in opposition to the usurping stepfather. In one reading of the play's employment of its contexts, then, Hamlet is a screen memory, a fantasy produced on behalf of the new monarch to occlude both an intolerable present social reality and an equally stressful personal history.[37]Hamlet submerges plague into interpersonal structure, and it translates Stuart debauchery (Darnley's wickedness) into fatherly martyrdom. The play summons so as to transform and partly inter an historical trauma of what amounts to child abuse: not a sexual exploitation but a political one. Turbulent early events effectively foreclosed James's agency in his own political fortunes while placing on him a dual burden he could not, in his infancy, have understood: kingship and revenge. Hamlet also, on the ideological plane, sets up a cultural screen on behalf of a reprobate but legitimate patriarchy. The text makes insubstantial or ghostly the father's historical culpability—Darnley's despicable character—and displaces it onto the illicit male, the stepfather, now written as a justifiably reviled brother and patriarchal interloper.

But Hamlet is far from being an apology for a sullied history (James's) or a compromised ideological structure (patriarchy). Indeed, the drama almost obsessively replays the depredations of fathers upon families; the hero's active hostility toward the father constantly makes itself felt: in the Pyrrhus tale, in Hamlet's behavior toward Polonius, in his daft rage at Claudius. On one level, the play exculpates dissolute fatherhood and reverses historical, parental culpability: the villainy of the (legitimate) father is obscured and urgently transferred onto the wicked stepfather; and the blame attached to the mother in history is never, in the second quarto, relinquished. But the text also refuses to prettify—indeed, I believe it highlights—the father's monstrosity. It also in turn problematizes the stepfather's supposed rascality. Along these lines, we should recall that the Lord Darnley-Mary Stuart marriage was a union of cousins, both grandchildren of Henry VII; if this is not incestuous, it is at least highly endogamous. The Jacobean line was founded on preexistent family ties. Here lurks a sub rosa Shakespearean irony of reversed identification: Claudius's supposedly terrible act of "incestuous" adultery recalls the original marriage between James's father and the queen and may represent a kind of genetic, inscriptive memory in which the alleged villain moves instinctively toward historical legitimacy. When Claudius refers to his nephew as "my Cosin Hamlet , and my sonne" (B4v), he speaks what are properly Darnley's words, not


Bothwell's. Hamlet works as a valve to release the pressures of disgraceful, embarrassing historical reality—James's verminous, unkingly father and reckless mother—but the valve clogs with the complexities of that reality. The contaminations of context cannot be purged.

A text illuminates its historical correlates most when it diverges from and only intermittently overlaps with them, revealing difference rather than sameness; perfect parallels can measure only a level semantic space between lines that never touch. Intersections, though, produce positions and orientations. Another compelling but screwy parallel in the James-Hamlet nexus is a reversal of power and gender conducted in the movement from history to theater. If we accept that King James occupied a subject position closely but problematically replicated by Hamlet's, and that the king inherited a buried history in his infancy that Hamlet must consciously live through, we cannot fail to note that the location of monarchical power shifts dramatically from historical past to theatrical present. In the years prior to King James's birth, Queen Mary embodied the recognized, dynastic power of Scotland. Yet in Shakespeare's Denmark, Hamlet the Elder is every inch the king—and Gertrude seems not to have much to do with any of the practicalities of rule. The play does hint, as I have proposed, that Claudius owes his crown to his speedy marriage to Gertrude. Thus sexually, and only thus, could he have "pop't in" between the election and Hamlet's hopes; so the second king's privilege may derive from a woman, even as Darnley's did, and just as James's monarchical privilege flowed from Elizabeth's alleged deathbed proclamation. But the queen in Q2 Hamlet remains passive and powerless. Gertrude does not function politically much like either Mary or, to be sure, Elizabeth, her possible historical antecedents. Instead, her resemblance to Mary is erotic, not political. This inscriptive alteration affects the play's other representations of the past. For in the wake of Shakespeare's erasure of historical female power and prerogative, in the portrayal of a queen who is the oblivious prize of violent male contention rather than the engineer of or participant in it, the play allows for the possibility of considerable moral differences between the men who vie for her—between the prior (supposedly exalted) husband and the subsequent (allegedly debased) cutpurse of the realm. But Mary's active hostility to Darnley, and her subsequent league with Bothwell, point to an immense rift in the royal marriage and remind us of Darnley's undeserved status as martyr. The historical record suggests that Henry Stuart was a victim not only of the usurping villain but more centrally of his own plots and unsteady alliances. Yet in repeatedly re-


calling the silent scandal of the queen's remarriage to a murderer—that is, a scandal about which only the son speaks and against which the mother is powerless to defend herself—Hamlet eliminates all trace of female choice . Historically, this choice of husbands was in Mary's case founded on the huge characterological deficiencies of James's biological father. The play suppresses the mother's potency and will so that it may salvage the father's virtue.

Even though the worst features of Lord Darnley are resuscitated theatrically in Claudius, the stepfather, not in the image of the biological father where they belong; even though the play thus historically demonizes Bothwell through analogy as a drunken lecher who murders a righteous and legitimate king; even if Bothwell was something of a military hero and apparently cared far more for Mary than Darnley did—despite all of these translated character formations, neither the play nor Hamlet can fully prevent the seepage of contrary, suppressed signals from the past. As the furious, ugly, and profoundly unclear recitation of the Ghost suggests, the victimized father cannot play the martyr or even the noble father role without great strain. And while the Ghost, like the second quarto text as a whole, actively participates in the myth of the queen's culpable passivity, this fiction cannot convincingly authorize all of Hamlet's antifeminism. That is, Shakespeare's evacuation of female agency does not entirely turn back the onslaught of historical indicators; Hamlet himself must repeatedly block out the strong possibility that Gertrude, too, has made a choice , one which threatens to damage the pristine status of his suddenly anonymous father. "What iudgement," he asks his mother rhetorically while comparing pictures of King Hamlet and Claudius, "Would step from this to this?" (J3). Guilt slides: the queen must have inertly enabled the stepfather's iniquity and aggression, must not have used "iudgement." Hamlet at this moment can only misogynistically interpret the possibility of his mother's choice as the product of passive female delusion, not lust or "loue, for at your age / The heyday in the blood is tame" (J3). Yet the referential ambiguity of "this to this" underlines precisely the leveling of difference between father and stepfather that the prince cannot stand to admit may justify his mother's behavior. If there is not a great distance between "this" and "this"—not even so great as between "this" and "that"—the possibility arises that Gertrude's remarriage and her failure to mourn Hamlet's father are not perverse but rather rational . The further, all but unspeakable possibility is that the wrong "this" may actually be preferable. Indeed, for the Lennox clan, the bulky embarrassment of Mary's choice


amounts to an erasure of Darnley and necessitates the memorial painting, in which the queen is, unsurprisingly, not represented.

But Hamlet contaminates, even as it reconfigures, the historical and fictional father's memorial: the suppressed history of James's vile sire has a defiant presence in the play. On one level, the queen's lack of volition may be seen to excuse retroactively some of Mary's darker deeds. Ultimately, however, the off-kilter parallel between Darnley and the elder Hamlet submerges the historical trace of Queen Mary's monarchical strength and pleasure, and instead catapults into memorial prominence only the sexual scandal of her inadequate mourning and sprightly remarriage. Hamlet, after swearing to remember the Ghost's commandment, exclaims, "O most pernicious woman," a good gauge of how perceived passivity excuses women from male judgment. The play's evocation of James's history vaporizes the image of Mary Queen of Scots as a potent sovereign and instead only augments her fame as the adulteress of the realm, whose outrageous behavior seemed constantly to hinder her son's access to power. But Mary is twice scapegoated then—for her foolish, o'erhasty marriage to Bothwell accidentally enabled James's ascent in that it led to her premature abdication. The mother's infidelity and downfall were, as it happened, preconditions of James's succession. In the theater, it is not until Gertrude falls that Hamlet can be king; not until the queen's unlamented demise does the dying prince pronounce Fortinbras.

The text's process of symbolic or displaced Mary-bashing becomes clearest during Hamlet's wild accusations against Gertrude in the closet scene. He admits that his butchering of Polonius is "a bloody deede, almost as bad, good mother / As kill a King, and marry with his brother" (J2v). The queen leaves the gross, baseless charge intact, undenied in Q2: "As kill a King" is her stunned reply, save for her following uncomprehending questions: "What haue I done, that thou dar'st wagge thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?" and "Ay me, what act?" The play stays cagey about the extent of Gertrude's complicity in the murder, as Hamlet levels nearly exactly the same charges against his mother as those which ended Mary's reign in 1567. The difference is that in Hamlet , awareness of the mother's infamy is entirely cocooned in the prince's mind, never to be dislodged nor revealed to anyone other than Gertrude and the audience—while the kingdom remains unaware of any hint of wrongdoing. Mary Queen of Scots was jettisoned by the nobility, friend and foe, but Gertrude never fields any opprobrium from anyone other than her son (and very indirectly, Ophelia: "How should I


your true love know . . .?"). So Q2 etches an intaglio of Mary with Gertrude's features: in one respect the not-to-be-dishonored mother of the king, with the evasive evidence about her guilt providing partial exoneration; in another respect the fountainhead of years of anti-Elizabeth plots and violence, the Catholic whore of Babylon ("O most pernicious woman").

The historical currents are exceedingly rough and hard to navigate here. As a Jacobean (post-Elizabethan) text, the second quarto discredits Queen Mary as a ruler through analogy with Gertrude, reducing female power solely to sexuality, pointedly segregating the son's nobility from the mother's taint. Yet mitigating this position is the fact that the queen's taint resides mainly in the son's mind and in her ambiguous role in preventing his access to kingship. It is true that Mary's Catholic and foreign status helped problematize James's claim to the English throne. But she was also specifically enabling in a way that the play does not permit Gertrude to be. What is more, Mary, like Darnley, was the unremembered past: James grew up, in effect, without her; and while she was nationally demonized, she may have been personally almost negligible.[38] James's first and second kingships were achieved only through the fact of female absence and ruin: through Mary's scandal and abdication, through Elizabeth's death.

The drama's neurotically oscillating treatment of female integrity be-speaks its strained relationship to the politics of its contexts.[39] The queen, like the stepfather, is on balance a negative figure. But Gertrude, an inscriptive complex of Marian and Elizabethan attributes, absorbs residual antifeminist energies that ought to have dissipated by the time of Hamlet . On the one hand, the testimony of none other than the demonized stepfather, James Hepburn, exculpates Mary. The murderous earl of Bothwell (whose marriage with the queen was annulled in 1570) fled Scotland in James's infancy, and he died abroad when the king was just twelve years old. But he supposedly made a full deathbed confession that exonerated the queen of Scots for any guilt in the Darnley murder plot. "Thereafter there was no more vengeance to exact, and for the rest of his life James remained convinced that his mother had not been involved in the initial murder."[40] Yet Hamlet confounds or ignores this testimony, and refuses to endorse the idea of the queen's innocence until the very end. This refusal makes Shakespeare's succession tragedy vaguely accusatory, but uncomfortably enough, the accusation applies to more than one queen. In 1601, a theatrical proclamation against a queen's integrity would sound raucously seditious; in 1603, in the post-Elizabe-


than play that I posit, it could seem explanatory of James's elusive political fortunes.

Hamlet 's variations from the historical record protect patriarchy, Stuart family history, and male legitimacy from the possibility of arbitrary female choice and power. They also offer, more generally, a way to understand mythographic processes—the imaginary patchwork or the integument over the real. At best, literature positions itself asymptotically near the axes of history: it approaches those axes extremely closely at some points, but it always keeps an actual and theoretical distance. Hamlet and its prehistory's confusing parallels, accretions, crossings, and separations tempt a blanket statement of the historicist's creed: the play reproduces in moral and symbolic ambiguities and evasions several analogous historical complexities. The multiply articulated convergence between Hamlet, Claudius, and the Ghost complicate the neat categories of hero and villain that all historical and psychological mythologizing tries to construct. The consequences of such selective constructions can emerge in rhetorical strain. As stubbornly as Hamlet clings to the desire to differentiate his mother's supposedly malignant new husband from her unparagoned old, his own disordered language betrays the impracticability of the task:

what deuill wast
That thus hath cosund you at hodman blind;
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Eares without hands, or eyes, smelling sance all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sence
Could not so mope: o shame where is thy blush?

Eyes without feeling? Ears without hands or eyes! He sounds like Nick Bottom here, emerging from a discombobulated dream of his own potency and virtue; his discourse flies out of its frame of reason, inadvertently comic in its catalogue of Gertrude's misperceptions while ruthlessly exposing his own. But through Hamlet's operose attempts at differentiating father from stepfather, the play inspires a look back at the rivalry between Darnley and Bothwell. Since Mary risked so much, so rashly for Bothwell, we ought not to suppose that the earl was unmistakably inferior in charms or virtues to the legitimate, the initial husband. The odious Darnley was no sainted grace, no "forme indeede, / Where euery God did seeme to set his seale / To giue the world assurance of a man" (J2v). Darnley defies representation as Hyperion, as the


Ghost does; similarly, the unquestionably criminal Bothwell had his heroic attributes. The central historical pressure here—the father's iniquity, the stepfather's integrity—is up to Hamlet to misunderstand.

With his stubborn refusal to process the copious evidence in the Ghost's narrative about his father's extensive flaws, Hamlet yields to and conducts a passionate misreading of history. And in this misprision, he also loses a chance to read his own predicament as (like James's) something of a fortunate fall, politically speaking. The temporary triumph of the alleged villain creates a viaduct of power for the true heir. But Hamlet is so reluctant to claim royal privilege that he seems almost an imaginative reconstruction of the infant James, vulnerable and innocent—"I am set naked on your kingdom"—who obliviously suffered what Hamlet must consciously endure and mend. In other respects, Hamlet wishes to reside for as long as he can between the positions of revolt and rule—to live in political adolescence. He misinterprets this liminal posture as reluctance to commit violence, which we know is not his problem; critics mistake the delay for high moral objection or cowardice; but his inability to act may have more pressing historical than psychological sources. James Stuart, while awaiting Elizabeth's death and throne, had to downplay his own eagerness for the English kingship and remain silent about, or at least inactive concerning, the succession (although he could not, as we shall see, fully manage to do so); Hamlet can take a more aggressive tack against a monarchy he never feels is within range of his possessing, but his position is similar to James's in 1603. He is adjacent to royal prerogative and obstructed from it; as he draws ever closer to kingship, he seems to broadcast a poisonous threat, nearing death in the process and leaving bodies in his wake.

Hamlet can be read as a fugue on James's two successions, on two disparate historical moments. The chaotic prehistory of James's infant kingship comprises the burden of the tragic Danish plot: a tale about the impossibility of escape from the father's historical nightmare of murder, adultery, and revenge, a nightmare further compounded by prolonged subjection to, or inability to emerge from, a fixed perception of the mother's shame. The second moment, configured nonspecifically across the entire expanse of the 1604 quarto text, is James's second accession: the botched progress of the king's arrival in England in the spring of 1603. This second story may provide the imagistic substructure of Hamlet 's plot, but it is a structure that undoes plot. The language and action of contagion so infect the play that narrative coherence continually breaks down. In the relation of the two Jacobean successions lies the


connection between Hamlet's story and that of England's new king. For like Hamlet, James's first entry into royal prerogative was an entry into a familial disaster and a revenge oath; his second accession was a movement into the threat of deadly contamination—the moral morass of Elsinore's court, the poisonous atmosphere of plaguy England. Hamlet, in his royal identity, contracts corruption: the contaminations of memory and desire, educed by the ghost of the past; the immersion in a pollution he must try to cleanse. For both Danish prince and Scottish king, mortal vulnerability comes into being at the moment of monarchical responsibility.

Shakespeare's textual origami—the creation of clefts, folds, new figures and depths from a flat material history—reconstructs an intricate image of Jacobean succession trouble. James's prechildhood induction into monarchical pressure takes new form in the shock of Hamlet's unwilled conscription to avenge a murder he knows too little about; and the Danish prince's many subsequent impediments to rule inscribe James's several barriers to English kingship, which culminated in the plague's impassable presence. The outbreak of 1603 displaced an authority that did not have a chance to arrive. All the same, Hamlet, unlike James, is not merely deflected or discouraged from kingship; he actively avoids for the longest time his own interest in it. He only assaults and momentarily assumes monarchy once he is dying—indeed, once he is sped ("I am dead, Horatio"). Thus we may suppose either that he has not desired kingship or that it is all he has desired, all along.


In the Shakespearean theatrical consciousness, plague and the succession are intertwined through the operational dysfunctions of compromised, transitional authority. Shakespeare's early Jacobean opus displays diseased power that frequently behaves like the plague. This power is Macbeth, bestowing death madly and trying to murder the future; it is Duke Vincentio, sparing people unaccountably, irrespective of their morality or capacity for virtue; it is Timon, retreating arbitrarily to cast poisonous curses on Athens from outside the city walls, where plagues customarily began; it is Coriolanus, an anger raging unabated, without mercy. By these examples I mean to suggest that the subliminal and structural presence of plague in Hamlet is scarcely anomalous in Shakespeare's text.


Let us take the less obvious case of Vincentio. The often observed parallels between James's character and reign, and those of the Duke in Measure for Measure , should include both rulers' response to the presence of disease in their realms. In Vienna, contagion takes venereal and metaphoric form as a sexual license whose only putative cure is a proliferating legal repression. Angelo, the substitute ruler, is engaged to mend this disorder. But he almost immediately exposes himself as infected with what he has been installed to cure—desire—and his election by Vincentio comes quickly to seem increasingly arbitrary, even cruel, possibly deliberately incriminating. The Duke's reasons for choosing Angelo are unconvincingly or, alternatively, too lushly motivated. Does he wish to demolish or test the man's virtue, to get someone else to perform his political dirty work, to cure the corruption his own leniency has allowed, to play puppetmaster, or simply to dress up like a monk and take confession? In Vincentio's contradictory, multiple motives to abdicate we can discover an historical intervention that shapes, compels the plot. The play (circa 1604) extends from the circumstance of plague, which has as deep a foundational presence in Vienna as it does in Denmark, or in England. The Duke, for instance, is paranoid about crowds; King James's own tense entry into the mobbed and infected outskirts of London in 1603 might rationalize this feature of theatrical personality. More significant, Vincentio's conscious abandonment of his ruling position figures Shakespeare's resourceful transformation of Jacobean necessity into royal prerogative. The absolute need to abandon place in the presence of that terrible plague which still reigned when Measure for Measure was written becomes the stage absolutist's intentional (if confused) production of his own provisional, manipulative abdication. But the epidemic irony bleeds through: The Duke's fantastical plotting, and the arbitrary justice he imposes on his sick state, ultimately suggest that physical infections have political sources and are incurable either by tainted rulers or by the abandonment of rule. Measure for Measure pictures the infections of power, the contagions of which operate across potentates and regimes. The disease and James were not in any rational way equatable, but they may have been subliminally congruent when the epidemic hit so quickly after Queen Elizabeth's death and the Scottish succession. In fact, the Stuart reign not only began but also ended (in 1625) with especially grim outbreaks of the sickness. Not surprisingly, some Englishmen accused James of bringing down plague from the north.[41]


My brief hypothesis about the plaguy plot origins of Measure for Measure is meant to suggest the analogy of epidemic disease to history: it acts on Shakespearean texts as it acts on the culture at large. It repeatedly infiltrates, occupies, structures, and destabilizes meanings. In this respect, plague, like history, figures unpredictably but finally irresistibly; we know it is there, but we cannot always tell in what form, what phase, or what signification. Other important historical contexts for Hamlet will demonstrate this thesis further. The simple point is that many English and Scottish histories are arrayed in theatrical Denmark; the more difficult notion is that Hamlet absorbs these histories incontinently, to indiscriminate, often shifting and incoherent ends. Past or local contexts appear in the play like cloud formations: now a camel, now very like a whale, now merely the ceiling at Elsinore, the limit of the imaginative horizon. History exceeds the text's use or organization of it, extending beyond paraphrase—or cogency. I shall conclude my treatment of the play with further explorations of this idea. But first I would like to darken (intensify, and obscure) further traces of the past in the second quarto.[42]

It is time once again for that strange ghost Devereux, the earl of Essex, to put in an appearance; any talk about the Jacobean succession in England and its relationship to Hamlet ought to include a mention of his machinations. Essex took active part not only in James's project but also in elements of Hamlet's personality: in the madness, vacillation, and melancholy, in the subversive energy and cultural representativeness of the Danish prince. Similarities of character and behavior abound; at least one parallel between the fictional and historical figures throws Hamlet's political interests into relief. John Harington, Queen Elizabeth's "saucy godson," perceived that Essex, a former benefactor, suffered from severely frustrated desire:

It restethe wythe me in opynion, that ambition thwarted in its career, dothe speedilie lead on to madness; herein I am strengthened by what I learne in my Lord of Essex, who shyftethe from sorrowe and repentaunce to rage and rebellion so suddenlie, as well provethe him devoide of goode reason or right mynde. . . . His speeches of the Queene becomethe no man who hathe mens sana in corpore sano .[43]

Hamlet's speeches of the queen are none too rational either, and Harington's thoughts about Essex illuminate Hamlet: they bolster the possibility that Hamlet's unrestrained fury at Gertrude, and much of his other


madness besides, is explicitly thwarted ambition. Almost anything is easier than acknowledging political neuroses and exclusions. Like James, Essex suffered the sustained embarrassment of political frustration; unlike James, the earl reacted intemperately.

That both Essex and James may contribute to the figure of Hamlet was first suggested by Lillian Winstanley:

At the period when Hamlet was written [circa 1600, according to Winstanley], the two great subjects of universal interest were the question of the Scottish succession and the fate of the Essex conspirators; moreover, these two subjects were so intimately connected that they formed but one in the popular mind and, therefore, in treating them as one, Shakespeare would simply be working to a unity already existing in the minds of his audience. The fate of Essex and the fate of James have been blent in one destiny.[44]

I am not sanguine about engaging in a critical practice that finds a single historical figure, even one so potent as Essex, in work after work of contemporary fiction—in Troilus and Cressida , in Henry V , in Hamlet . Still, as a cynosure of national interest, Essex could reasonably be supposed to exert an abiding pressure on the theatrical imagination. Winstanley's argument is smartly post-old-historicist, which is to say, it moves beyond the reflective hypothesis: she says, to her endless credit, "It would be, I think, unfair to say that Hamlet is the portrait of anyone" (176). But she does say, with some warrant and only a slightly disappointing breach of decorum, that "Hamlet is mainly James I, but there are certainly large elements in his character and story taken from Essex" (173). This idea has a certain luster because of its built-in alibi for the character's incoherence: Hamlet can be forgiven for not making sense because of his multiple origins in different historical subjectivities. But if this alibi seems a flimsy justification for inscriptive reading, the method has other advantages; it does, for instance, follow representational logic. Because we know that Devereux worked sedulously to secure the Scottish succession, which could have brought him and his faction, had he survived, to the greatest prominence in the new regime, the characterological alliance with James seems plausible. James and Essex were intertwined on the stage of history before they fused, however complexly, in the literary form of Hamlet. And James's pardoning of the Essex conspirators in his first official act as new king also seems suggestive, a kind of debt payment to the man he later called his martyr.[45]

But historically and figurally too, there are substantive divisions as


well as convergences between Devereux, James, and Hamlet. In the summer of 1599, Lord Mountjoy, of Essex's faction, felt it necessary to reassure James that the earl was not a rival for the succession to the English throne but was rather trying to support and promote the Scottish claim.[46] James, like many government officials in England and abroad, became suspicious of Essex's soaring ambition, his busy self-aggrandizement—and thus even of his advocacy. When the earl was killed, James grieved for him, and he held a long, brutal grudge against Sir Walter Ralegh for his opposition to Devereux; but in light of Robert Cecil's silky political stewardship after the Essex affair, James realized that he had originally made a poor choice of English allies. Hamlet does in certain ways contain and combine the two historical figures of Essex and James; the most interesting, perhaps, is his contradictory (specifically Elizabethan) position as both heir apparent (or pretender) and active threat to the monarchy. In the second quarto, Hamlet deflects his overt desire for political place, but he never voluntarily removes himself from the neighborhood of rule. The conflicting activities of the Danish prince vis-à-vis the throne may reproduce two historical vectors of desire for kingship, each in alternating unity and conflict. Essex, for all his diligence on James's behalf, would not have been averse to recognition as most potent, as kingmaker; at his trial for treason, however, he proclaimed, not wholly believably, "For the crown, I never affected it" (McManaway, "Elizabeth, Essex, and James," 226). And while James never hid his wish for the English crown, he had to tiptoe around this desire very carefully, lest a subversive noise alarm his cousin Elizabeth, as it had already alarmed other Englishmen who heard invasion rumors from the north. In 1599, James announced to the Scottish parliament that he "was not certain how soon he should have to use arms" to gain the English crown; "but whenever it should be, he knew his right and would venture crown and all for it."[47] He would have dared damnation, but (unlike Essex) he fortunately did not. In Prince Hamlet, two mingled and historically implicated relationships to monarchy are played out—repeated, and exhausted.

Eventually revealed or constructed as an enemy to the state, Essex lived but could not outlive the consequences of a sustained competition with royalty. He became an insurgent, as both Elizabeth and James feared: a threat to power from within, like Hamlet, like Claudius before him—like plague. Hamlet performs some of Essex's ambitions and disruptions, and in the trans figured form of the prince, the earl is obliquely


granted (perhaps as another debt payment) a wished-for prerogative he never quite attained: the chance to pronounce and thereby apparently control the succession. Essex's image penetrates several representations in the play; as with Troilus and Cressida , some of the Hamlet doors unlock with the Essex skeleton key. But Essex is historically constrained to the Elizabethan era, and so he has limited usefulness in a Jacobean reading of Hamlet . Let us return to the play's involvement in the form and fate of James's early succession struggles and its mutations of Jacobean history.

After Polonius's murder, Claudius sends Hamlet off to die. The voyage to England is supposed to culminate in the prince's execution, but instead he manages, through fortune and fortitude, to escape, as he writes to Horatio:

Ere wee were two daies old at Sea, a Pyrat of very warlike appointment gaue vs chase[;] finding ourselues too slow of salle, wee put on a compelled valour, and in the grapple I boorded them[;] on the instant they got cleere of our shyp, so I alone became theyr prisoner[;] they haue dealt with me like thieues of mercie, but they knew what they did, I am to doe a turne for them. (L2v).

Hamlet's boarding the pirate ship—the crucial interruption in the journey—brings him back to Denmark with far greater celerity than a smooth voyage to England would have allowed. Just as important, the events of the voyage bring him a momentary salvation, to which his ironic Christ references point (thieves of mercy who do know what they do). Along with its peculiarity as a plot device, the intervention of the pirate ship performs a weird, marvelous displacement of historical figuration. For in his exiled and marginalized phase, Hamlet briefly ceases to resemble James, or even Essex for that matter. Instead, he takes on the trappings of a different, an antithetical figure—that of the supposed villain of the historical piece. Roland M. Frye briefly chronicles the escape of Darnley's murderer:

Bothwell first fled from the mainland to the outer islands, pursued by the Confederate Lords, whom he escaped by sailing to Scandinavia as the leader of a group of pirates. For several years he appears to have prospered . . . but in June, 1573, he was imprisoned by the king of Denmark for crimes real and reputed. In solitary confinement . . . he declined into insanity and died on April 4, 1578. Efforts to bring him back to justice in Scotland had all failed.[48]


Pursued by the Scottish authorities for the murder of Henry Stuart, Bothwell embraced criminality, put on a compelled valor as a pirate, sailed to Scandinavia and was eventually imprisoned and died a madman in . . . Denmark. This miniature history shimmers with enticements for a reading of Hamlet . What the theatrical pirate episode (delivered from a distance, by letter) begins to suggest is the extraordinary capaciousness of the play as a vessel for historical inscription. For the prince's temporary piracy, not to mention the threat of his madness and imprisonment, absorbs and transfigures yet another nodule of the past—not James's history, exactly, but the history that eluded him: that of Bothwell, the murdering stepfather. Certain restrictions (reversals, transformations) apply. For Hamlet, imprisonment and the threat of death come in the process of leaving Denmark; more important, Hamlet's pirate phase, unlike Bothwell's, is a success, actually enabling his safe and defiant return to the shores of his homeland. In marking the pirate episode as a positive point in Hamlet's biography, Shakespeare reroutes historical meaning; he analogically recuperates the Stuart failure of Bothwell's escape as a necessary, lifesaving stage in Hamlet's trip toward kingship. Absorption into and salvation by piracy allow Hamlet to appropriate the last stage of Bothwell's career, an apparently unabashed sequence of criminality coming to no good end. Ironic, then, that the pirate episode manages Hamlet's symbolic rebirth, a prelude to his arriving on the shore "naked." Noteworthy too is that the episode signals political rebirth; from having lain "worse than the mutines in the bilbo" (N1), he announces his presence to Claudius, who (as we have seen) takes it as a sign of Hamlet's probable royal leanings: "If he be now returned / As the King at his voyage. . . ."

Hamlet hereby incorporates and triumphs over a traumatic stage of James's history; as a consequence of his identification with James and his subsequent imitation of Bothwell's escape, one frustrating episode in the Stuart royal narrative is contained, revised, and put to redemptive use. Historically, James could not commit revenge against Bothwell even had he wanted to because of Denmark's refusal to extradite (and because, as noted, Bothwell died when James was twelve). Thus at one juncture of the text, Prince Hamlet can be construed as a fantasy Jacobean construction: he passes through Bothwell's elusive villainy as if it were a chrysalis. This history is not, however, entirely redemptive; indeed, we could interpret Hamlet's habitation of the Bothwell piracy as effectively contaminating. After all, the episode marks the avenger's


most precipitous moral decline in the drama, for he adorns his escape from Claudius's plot with the gratuitous execution and attempted damnation of his former friends: he alters the commission so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be killed "not shriving time allowed," their souls forfeit to his anger. The enabling past—the Bothwell legacy—also, inevitably, becomes corrupting; the Ghost of metahistory haunts every present occasion. Despite his characterological deformations, Hamlet completes a deficiency in James's biography, or at least knits up a frayed, unfinished end in the fabric of regicide and revenge that wrapped the king's young life. This reading gives historical warrant to a literary process: Hamlet must fully absorb wickedness to correct the depredations of the stepfather; he must become like Bothwell to secure a proper succession—one sanctioned by royal pronouncement and legitimized by the self-revelation of depraved, criminal monarchy.

Having capitalized on luck and wit, Hamlet survives the usurper's plot against him. Because Claudius's scheme is overcome through a chance event which Hamlet turns to mastery, we may be invited to read the exile portion of the plot as a sign that inherited history is actually conquerable and can lead to a new self and a new story. Nobody chooses his or her own past—we selectively summon and rephrase our histories so that we may continue living unappalled—but the question in all endeavor is how best to deal with one's inherited options. To make part of the Bothwell plot (the exile, escape, and foreign capture of the murderer) a stage in Hamlet's own successful return and temporary triumph against the murderer is briefly to sustain hope that time can be rejointed, the past rewritten. Hamlet's voyage into death ends in a brief reprieve by reason of chance, craft, courage (compelled and put on), brutality, deceptiveness—and not in the least by piracy. Carried back to Denmark on a "Pyrat," Hamlet seems a James figure miraculously borne by the shadow of Bothwell, James's familial bogeyman. The threatening Jacobean past merges with Hamlet's fictional present, receiving representation as serendipity in the gloomiest circumstance.

But Hamlet's and James's imaginary victory over history does not last. The play runs the reel of time backwards: Hamlet's return to the court marks the beginning of the end, foretelling not a birth but a being-borne-into: death. History's nightmare can seem to dissolve into new beginnings, but those look none too rosy. For the return to Denmark can mean only regicide, the last remaining corridor through which Hamlet may enter the monarchy.





Good my Lord, voutsafe me a word with you.


Sir a whole historie.

There may be such a thing as a whole history—but Hamlet will neither vouchsafe it nor increase a reader's confidence in its possibility. Instead, the play insistently arrays history in fragments. One of the vital scraps of history that surely belongs in a reading of the play involves the idea of revenge as a political doctrine. The historical contexts of Hamlet suggest that vengeance can be understood as having a dynastic function, not just a theatrical, affective, or symbolic one. Revenge was actually put into play by James and his men near the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign as a strategy , a mode of acquiring the throne and securing the succession. James McManaway has pointed to the fascinating mechanism by which the Scottish king in 1599 deployed a public revenge oath to secure both his safety and his rights to the English crown. This bond among the Scots nobility restates and even quotes an earlier, better-known document: Queen Elizabeth's 1584 Bond of Association. The original bond was the Tudor privy council's crafty response to the seemingly endless Catholic plots against Queen Elizabeth's life, which were almost exclusively aimed at replacing her with Mary Stuart. The document enlisted its signers—presumably the Protestant aristocracy, but perhaps also ordinary, obedient citizens—to pledge "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors . . . to pursue implacably anyone who might attempt to assassinate Elizabeth or remotely benefit by such an attempt" (McManaway, "Elizabeth, Essex, and James," 220). One obvious, not remote beneficiary of a successful attempt would have been James VI of Scotland, conspicuously next in the royal line after Mary, but one who, by the terms of the precautionary bond, "would be disabled in his claim" in the event of a successful plot against Queen Elizabeth.

But in 1599, McManaway shows, the Scots revived and reconfigured the Elizabethan bond, with considerable overlap in phrase and meaning and with a potent sense of irony, for the worthy twin expedients of James's bodily defense and insurance for his succession. John Chamberlain heard of the deed and dryly describes it thus: "The Scottish nobilitie find themseves greeved that theyre king is no more respected, and have lately made an association among themselves against all those that shall hinder his right and succession."[49] Their clever redaction transformed a document earlier meant to inhibit the Stuart claim to England's throne


into a bold assertion of Stuart royal prerogative. The headnote to the "generall band" explains it succinctly: "made by the good subjects of the kings Matie for the preseruation of his highnes person, & pursuit of his vndoubted right of the Crowne of England and Ireland" (McManaway, "Elizabeth, Essex, and James," 228). This simple sentence exemplifies the Bond's larger purpose: its remarkable, really seismic shift from an oath to defend the king of one sovereign nation into an oath to secure that king's right of succession to the throne of another:

we solemnelye vowe and promise before the great god . . . to serve, and humblye obey our said soueraigne against . . . all sortes of persones . . . as shall attempte or vndertake by deede, counsell, or concealment, to any practise that may in any respect tend to the harme of his Maties most Royall person. . . . And by cause almightie god . . . hath established the vndoubted right of the Crownes of England & Ireland . . . next to his dear sister Elizabeth nowe Queene of England . . . we . . . solemnly swear and protest . . . to maintaine & defend our soveraigne in his vndoubted right and title to the crowne of England and Ireland against all other pretenders whatsoever, but like wise shall . . . bestowe our selves, our lives, children, . . . what sowuer else in the persuite there of against what soeuer person, that shall after the death of the Queene of England, hinder impugn or with stand his Maties heires or successors, in the peaceable getting and enioying, or possessing of the said crownes of England and Ireland. And shall by forceable meanes take the vttermost revenge vpon them . . . and neuer desist till we haue established our dearest soueraigne . . . in the Royall Kingdome . . . without prejudice All wayes to his Maties dearest sister Queene Elizabeth, during all the dayes of hir life tyme.
                                                                                                                                                                                             (McManaway, "Elizabeth, Essex, and James," 229)

The great care taken in this document to exclude the possibility of James's ascending Elizabeth's throne in her lifetime may be intended to defuse the contemporary rumors about a Scottish invasion to secure that succession. Rhetorically, however, the Bond's promise to await the death of Elizabeth only underscores the clenched-fist claim James makes on her throne. But most significant for our purposes is the notion that Jacobean legitimacy comes not from an unequivocally established hereditary right, an argument the bond neglects to make; rather, legitimacy stems from its own forceful assertion and from the willingness, even the passionate dedication, to the extremities of revenge should that right be abridged. James's council in 1599 reversed a history of his exclusion and propelled his monarchy into yet another revenge oath—but this time it was an adult oath of choice, not a child's unknowing inheritance. The bond of 1599, unlike the one sworn for him by his grandparents against Bothwell, makes revenge the sign of monarchical privilege,


and establishes revenge as a possible foundation upon which succession will be achieved. And in its way, of course, the document itself is a form of revenge—condign retribution, perhaps, against the person who had kept James so long from the apex of authority.

In Hamlet's case, revenge and the succession weirdly seem both interdependent and mutually exclusive. The throne will not be available until Claudius is forcibly removed from it; but any open act against the king would be treason. Thus, to open a position in the monarchy requires seditious violence that disqualifies Hamlet from candidacy, if it does not kill him first. As it happens, the play gives revenge ideological sanction by thrusting it upon Hamlet in a context and at a moment apparently not of his own choosing—but this illusion of nonchoice, of chance or random opportunity, is Hamlet's chosen vehicle throughout his descending orbit to the throne.[50] His impulsive act produces a seemingly fortuitous, inculpable vengeance. But before this point, the prince has begun to link (in a poorly articulated way) the two issues of revenge and election or succession as complementary motivations: "Dooes it not thinke thee stand me now vppon? / He that hath kild my King . . . / Pop't in betweene th'election and my hopes, / . . . ist not perfect conscience?" James's Scottish bond of 1599 feeds into this crucial turn in Hamlet 's plot: it enunciates a move from oppression by the idea and doctrine of revenge (Elizabeth's 1584 Bond of Association) to active empowerment through that selfsame idea and doctrine. James's bond, like Elizabeth's before him, was intended to discourage attempts at regicide by announcing the inevitability of retribution; but at the same time, his open declaration of the right to succession may well have had a dampening effect upon the queen's already limp impulse to nominate a successor.

Hamlet, too, must negotiate a narrow walkway of disclosure and concealment, but as the Gonzago scene shows, he is unable to do so, revealing in the ambivalent figure of Lucianus a desire for both murder and rule. The conflation of the morally discredited motive of personal, murderous rage with the more ideologically justifiable interests of political privilege and familial oath retards Hamlet's expeditious move into kingship. So on the monarchy's behalf the final swordfight scene makes an astonishing turn: Hamlet completes the long-intended revenge, but for a different crime than the one that has fueled the energy of the rest of the play. That energy is clearly dissipating, heading elsewhere. When Laertes' accusation of Claudius unequivocally exposes the king's guilt, Hamlet leaps into regicidal action as a result of the rigged swordfight and his mother's death—not as a way of obtaining either the kingship or


vengeance for his father. Hamlet becomes defender of exogamy, taunter of his perverted uncle: "Heare thou incestious damned Dane, / Drinke of this potion . . . / Follow my mother" (O1). The murder of Claudius deflects any royalist anxieties about a regicide undertaken only for the sake of a succession, and so it accords nicely with the threats and restraints of James's 1599 bond. Thus Hamlet, unlike Claudius before him, can kill a king without formally or lastingly becoming one. And James can become a king, as his bond promises, without having killed one, while nonetheless having used the revenge mechanism to ensure his right.

One other restriction on Hamlet's acts should draw our attention outward from the play to the environing history. Gertrude's swoon precedes and facilitates Hamlet's realization of his revenge. Theatrically, to establish the succession, however brief and abortive, the death of the queen must occur. This death, more than any other, enables the subsequent act of regicide and catalyzes Hamlet's last push toward what limited power he can obtain. In the morbid Gertrude, images of Mary and Elizabeth as predecessor monarchs again converge: power is drawn from a female source. The Jacobean Hamlet demonstrates that "power" should not be misunderstood as "office." Hamlet is no crowned king, but he can name the next one; conversely, during his plaguy ascension to the throne, James had the name of king without the full complement of privileges. But the power could not have been granted him without the death of queens.

It is safe to say that the more recent death, Elizabeth's, had been long awaited. Indeed, the Scottish king had endured a vexed relationship to his English cousin since at least the mid-1580s—from the time that James's mother lived under the threat of execution for plots real and imagined. Elizabeth carried out the execution in 1587 with her customary mixture of reluctance and plausible deniability. Just as she had been urged to eliminate the threat Mary posed, James was pressured to respond to the outrage of his mother's death; he was challenged, in fact, to take vengeance on England for the murder of the Scots queen.[51] After Mary's execution, the possibility lingered that James might well carry a grudge against Elizabeth, even to the point of forming a potentially disastrous alliance with Spain against England.[52] The fears never panned out, but Elizabeth and James maintained a delicately antagonistic relationship throughout the 1590s; she took the role of nettled instructor and defender of all things Protestant, while her student-cousin had to remain vaguely apologetic about his monarchical deficiencies and his tolerance of Catholics. Even when, late in the century, James's English succession began to look more and more likely, he came close to ruining


his chances by backing the increasingly antiauthoritarian earl of Essex. This relationship flirted with disaster when James seriously considered Essex's plea to invade England to save the earl and the nation. Such an act would have marked James as more an enemy of the state than its savior, one who "would attempt to gather fruit before it is ripe."[53] Essex wanted James to strong-arm his enemies at court—to take revenge on the nation's slighting of the Scots king and (closer to the mark) on the treacherous Cecilian faction.

The more we see of politically motivated acts of revenge in history, the less intelligibly revenge functions as a measurable quantity, a rational object of inquiry. On one side, through the Scottish Bond of Association, the possibility of group vengeance may have helped authorize and thus secure a new king for England. But alternatively, any aggressive Jacobean act of revenge against England would have demolished what prudent delay facilitated. James's succession was the fruit, in a real sense, that he did not attempt to gather before it was ripe—the fruit of not having avenged his mother's death when he might have, of not having militarily, at Essex's request, jumped the gun for love or honor. In the literary space, retribution against the king (which the play takes great pains to disguise as revenge) clears a path for a new king as well—but it is not the king we should be pleased to have. The cynical replacement figure Fortinbras, previously an enemy to Denmark, achieves the monarchy by capitalizing on Hamlet's belated actions against Claudius. (It is this belatedness that ensures Hamlet's failure to ascend and possess the throne.) Because Hamlet's flawed, unpremeditated vengeance is taken virtually posthumously, it seals and stamps his last act as tragic. Revenge is good, revenge is not good; it briefly gratifies, and permanently demolishes.

The complications proliferate. James's own revenge document, the second Bond of Association, suggests that the specter of retribution can protect a monarch whose revenge oath amounts to a national vote of confidence; thus can an odd sort of legitimacy be compelled through a promise of retaliatory violence. The bond never amounted to much, as far as I know, but it never had to, and so it did its work: it sufficiently proclaimed support for James as the only enforceable candidate for the English crown. It was a calculated threat. At the same time, James's right to succeed to the throne depended, conspicuously if not entirely, on the "dying voice" of the queen, and not on revenge at all. (Perhaps this right depended merely on the fiction of her approving vote; the succession actually hung upon Robert Cecil's craft and efficacy. We cannot know


what, if anything, the queen expressed when she lay dying; but Cecil and historians after him deemed significant the story of the explicit nomination of James.) It is curious that Hamlet, so complexly Jacobean all along, achieves Elizabeth's prerogative in his final moments alive; the rights of his monarchy become last rites, as he performs the naming of kingship in the presence of death. At once he seems fractionally Jameslike again, caricaturing the king's 1603 arrival into death-surrounded rule: the coroner is the crowner.[54] Much of Hamlet's experience throughout the play has involved being shut out of kingship. His entry into power mimics James's: it comes too late, and it smells of mortality. The long-postponed revenge to which both figures were consigned shows at the last as an attenuated thing: it's hard to know, with all the bodies strewn everywhere, what the fuss was about.

In the first quarto, published in 1603, Hamlet never does establish the succession or voice the best candidate. Indeed, he has no inkling, prophecy, or preference concerning Fortinbras's takeover. In other words, until 1603, he and Shakespeare remain unimplicated in the politics of the arriving regime. But in the second quarto, Hamlet helps legitimize a succession that names the son of a former enemy of state: symbolically, James himself, the invading son from the north, has been elected. The later text thereby offers an exquisitely complicated Jacobean fantasy: James, although having been excluded for so long, finally metaphorically establishes himself in his own succession after the queen's death and after having guiltlessly rid himself of the ancestral obligations of revenge. Hamlet naming Fortinbras is a translated version of James naming James.

The historical identifications here may seem to veer toward arithmetical parody, requiring something akin to a transitive law of inscriptive relevance: "If James equals Hamlet and Hamlet equals Fortinbras, then James equals Hamlet plus the sum of characters A and B such that . . ." Any reasonable critical investigation would seek to avoid such parodic potential. Yet, as Troilus and Cressida suggests, Shakespearean representations of high-level politics repeatedly deploy multiple vessels for the portrayal of single, immensely complicated historical subjects, and these vessels are often, and justly so within the logic of the plot, antithetical forces, or complementary versions of opposing internalities. James, no less than Essex, can be figured as a conflictual entity whose divisions unify representationally in unpredictable convergences—such as in the odd respect Hamlet and Fortinbras accord one another. Thus the literary text can avoid parody, can reproduce the historical person


not as a caricature but as an ethically complex, ideologically torn personage, at once more and less attractive than he or she appears in either official or underground historical discourse. At the same time, however, this theatrical reconstitution of subjectivity tends potentially toward the uncomfortably schematic; as arrayed in Troilus and Cressida , for instance, the single subject Essex splits neatly into two tight, corollary personae, each of which rather coldly metonymizes one version of Devereux's psychic discords. But I hope to have shown by now that Shakespeare's inscriptive procedure varies from play to play; it even varies substantially within individual texts. The immense range of Hamlet 's major historical referentialities—the second quarto's subliminal enactment of epidemic disease, its more overt but not more simplistic delineation of Jacobean history—defies pure schematization. And just as the play reenacts without sanitizing Stuart family scandal and succession taint, so does it offer only partial settlements and further confusions in the ideology of revenge. By evoking James through the marginally successful, accidental avenger Hamlet and the politically opportunistic, nonavenging, best-remaining-candidate Fortinbras, the play insolubly problematizes the meaning of the Jacobean succession and the discourse of revenge that helped, however indirectly, to secure it.

As the history of Hamlet criticism demonstrates, revenge cannot cohere as both a dramatic and an historical fact. The idea can be rationalized as a cathartic theatrical principle—villains should be punished by wronged avengers who ought to prevail—but that position stands against both a dominant cultural sentiment (the Christian prohibition that "God will repay") and the recent events of succession politics. Good doctrine does not generally support or produce good theater. Conversely, revenge may be a functional part of the pragmatic state intelligence (we shall avenge the death of our future sovereign), but such a corporate plot falls fiat in the theater, which tends to privilege and anatomize individual agon.[55] From any angle, however, the problematic topic is huge, overdetermined. Revenge's historical polysemy is magnified by its literary complications. No single political valence, no moral or religious argument about what "Shakespeare's audience would have felt" (always a desperate interpretive gambit), can possibly unify the conflicted subject of revenge in the play, just as no interpretation can satisfactorily and completely respond to the politics of Hamlet 's and Hamlet's last act. For instance, it does us no good to think that in some Calvinist political theory, citizens had the duty, the perfect conscience, to take vengeful action against tyrants when Hamlet himself displays so


many features of the tyrant. Is this to suggest that Hamlet ought to commit suicide? On the other hand, however, could the prince really suffer meekly throughout the play, waiting for falling sparrows, while Shakespeare's company sold no tickets? The play is trapped in the interstices of political, moral, and theatrical imperatives. The audience is blocked, finally and frustratingly, from responding to the issue of vengeance in an unconflicted way.

The conditions under which the prince finally secures his tantalizing objects of desire—revenge, the throne—are precisely conditions which preclude any conceivable gratification in the event: Hamlet himself is dying and can inherit nothing except the (superficially considerable but actually supererogatory) power to control the election, to name Fortinbras. By the beginning of the swordfight, Hamlet has, unbelievably, forgotten about the revenge plot of the play; by the end, that plot has become extraneous. Revenge occurs as the result of chance, in the midst of a scuffle. Hamlet's acts have long since become scattershot, finally unintelligible in terms of the traditional vengeance story that has meant so much to him. Killing the king becomes merely another movement of sword and cup in a frenzy of stage business. What is more, once Claudius's crimes have been revealed (but not, significantly enough, by Hamlet), the king does not have much of a career left. So an audience is robbed of even the perplexed pleasure of a dramatic climax to Hamlet's bloody and vengeful premeditations. The other reward that has been promised, Hamlet's assumption of authority, also vanishes. The investiture of Fortinbras with Hamlet's voice may give the cherished illusion of monarchical power to the moribund prince, but even in elected kingships, might makes right, and the entry of Norway's prince into the now defenseless, depopulated Danish court makes it clear that the voice vote was a gratuity, a self-flattering dream or at best (as Hamlet says) a prophecy. What Hamlet's political influence really amounts to is a derisive recycling of history that dismantles all of the previous real-estate gains of his father. So revenge's final irony is that the Ghost's fiat ultimately sacrifices the entire kingdom to the national enemy. And we must not forget that young Fortinbras's own deflection from revenge by his supposedly impotent uncle has essentially guaranteed the restitution of his ancestral properties, his tenebrous rights of memory to all of Denmark, without his having to fire a shot in anger, only in triumph—the play's final sounds. Fortinbras's determination not to attack the state, not to actively avenge his father's defeat, has brought him a far deeper, more unconventional revenge: the gratification of the winner. He has


gained a much more extensive empire than the lex talionis could have ensured.

So where can we stand in relation to the question of vengeance? We cannot orient ourselves to it in any one way, because it is such a skittery signifier, a political, intellectual, and moral will-o'-the-wisp. Revenge is obviously justified and gratifying in rare cases, a cynical expedient in many, finally stupid and self-defeating in most; but it is utterly necessary to the dramatic structure, however deformed and postponed, of this tragedy. Vengeance cannot be theorized completely and coherently as both a philosophical and a literary phenomenon, especially when that theory bounces off of historical reference. In the last years of Elizabeth's rule, and in the brisk activity surrounding the succession of James, "revenge" was a presence (as it was in James's reign) of intense but finally indeterminate importance.[56] In forebearing from avenging his mother's death, James enabled his own succession; but by reconfiguring the Bond of Association, he subscribed to a national promise of vengeance, thus helping to clear a path to that succession. The play and its historical inscriptions orbit the revenge question erratically at best, fluctuating weirdly within the mysterious apogee and perigee of choice and chance; in Hamlet , vengeance finally shows as an ambivalent and, again, indeterminate accident. Because retributive violence, regnant at the end of the play, passes from human will into happenstance, which some call providence, it cannot be judged as an intention. Thus, Shakespeare can dramatistically both bless and criticize revenge without embracing or being held responsible for its bloodthirsty and globally destructive doctrine.

Literature may record a fissure of ambivalence or confusion where a correlative incoherence exists in history, and to ask of Hamlet something that Tudor-Stuart culture cannot provide—a clear valence to revenge—is to ask an unanswerable question. We should instead ask, in our final phase of analyzing Hamlet 's historical conditions, how revenge's semantic irreconcilability functions in a play that seems to forget the issue entirely by the end. I believe that the question of vengeance is simply the most renowned conundrum in a text whose every aspect points in multiple directions. A pocket of incoherence in itself, revenge also spreads (like compost on weeds) a chaos of contradictory cultural signifiers. It functions as an irony machine.

One of the more peculiar of revenge's produced ironies is that, as I have suggested, Fortinbras resembles in his nonavenging, unprotested succession no one so much as King James. The similarity produces fur-


ther foreboding about the nature of both the Scottish and the Norwegian successions: the man with some "rights of memory" comes to preside over a court of the dead. If both Fortinbras and Hamlet represent possibilities of Jacobean inscription, the play's ambivalence about succession shades into doomsaying. The most positive prognosis the play allows for Denmark is that the state's recovery from Hamlet's actions will come at great cost. That cost is Fortinbras, who eerily evokes in his memorial claim to the throne an image of invasion-turned-legitimate succession; of plague-become-cure. As the play's most cynical flourish on the whole topic of succession, the triumph of Fortinbras cannot help but negatively color James's inheritance, throwing shadows on the son of England's enemy. Something goes badly wrong not only with plot at the end of Hamlet , in that the entire revenge theme becomes a weak afterthought, but also with the connections between the text and its historical referents. One of these referents, the cultural upheaval produced by the plague, achieves dramaturgic, eidetic prominence at the moment of Fortinbras's glory, as bodies lie scattered in a tableau of sudden, caught catastrophe. But the phenomenon of pest, like the problematic of revenge, calls forth more questions of identification and value than it answers. The complex figuration of plague in Hamlet articulates the palsied plot of cultural conditions circa 1603, when James's long-awaited succession resulted not in the serene occupancy of the throne but rather in his mortifying flight from it. James could not prevent the burgeoning of fatal disease on his accession any more than Hamlet can finally prevent the entry of a strong-arming conqueror. But Hamlet does not merely prophesy Fortinbras; he sanctions and virtually conjures him, laying waste to the state in a way that even plague could not. Hamlet and Fortinbras together shut down the whole Danish dynastic line.[57] The problem of inscription becomes pressing at this point; we witness not only a succession but a demolition. And James is the figure in the carpet, the lurking, still unclear image of succession and destruction.


This jigsaw of history and theater might usefully be reassembled in the frame of plague. Epidemic illness corrupts and compromises not only the political but also the aesthetic process. Because contagion by definition erases boundaries, it produces multiple likenesses; in the context of the sickness, every threat to stability becomes alarmingly similar, a disease of the state. Fortinbras and Hamlet fall into a historical pool of


resemblance. They enter a similarity with the physical and psychological operations and effects of pestilence, miming its depredations upon culture.

But while it seems reasonable enough to suppose that one or two fictional personages represent or evoke, in part or in whole, an historical figure, it must ring false to argue that a character or even a cast of characters can function as simulacra for epidemic disease—a transhistorical force. Interpretive ethics should harness the impulse to map such an intensely complicated, formidable presence as the plague onto dramatic characters, no matter how complex they are. For while Hamlet's language partakes of the marvelous, infused with the amperage of a transcendental, murderous energy, he remains a figure of a man, finally subject in his world to the fragility of the flesh. Despite the strong hint that he linguistically surpasses his own physical limitations—three times he states his death as a fact ("I am dead Horatio . . . Horatio I am dead . . . I die Horatio " [OI–OIV]), yet each time he survives his own sentence and continues to speak—he does expire at last. His mortality casts doubt on his ability to represent an essentially transcendent, historically unbound disaster. Likewise, his mighty opposite Claudius, while certainly capable of wickedness, never passes much beyond the human motivations "for which I did the murther; / My Crowne, mine owne ambition, and my Queene" (JI). Finally, Fortinbras, king of the dead, lacks either Hamlet's pestilent inhumanity or the disease's harsh motivelessness; he is middle management, not an obvious bearer of supernatural destruction.

There is of course a credible, inhuman inscription of the disease in the play: the Ghost. The image of King Hamlet can be regarded as the founding infestation; it hexes the language and health of the state. The Ghost certainly emblematizes plague's key attributes: a disembodied, corruptive energy, the pivotal effect of which is to set death in motion and to overthrow a king. Hamlet himself tells us that when the Ghost first appears—in "the very witching time of night"—is also when "hell it selfe breakes out / Contagion to this world" (H4v). But the surest analogy between the Ghost and the plague lies in the fact that both are recurrent phenomena. The idea of "haunting" now used mostly in reference to poltergeists and other spooks is based etymologically not so much on occupation as on repetition, on habitual action or location.[58] And "to haunt" in one Renaissance usage referred to "unseen or immaterial visitants" including disease, such hauntings being especially "causes of distraction or trouble" (OED , "haunt," s.v. 5.a). This sense


of haunting links Hamlet's diseased distractions to plague's unique character in the Renaissance as a common supernatural event. When James's entourage was being followed by (and, seemingly, endlessly producing) the disease, Thomas Edmonds wrote that "the Court hath been so continually haunted with the sickness . . . as we are forced to remove from place to place."[59] For all the catastrophic alteration signified by plagues, they more frighteningly meant recursion : the same death was replayed on a national scale, the same books of cures were translated and reprinted, the same laws against vagrancy and vagabondage were resurrected, and terribly familiar demographics prevailed. The plague was an episodic crisis of the past now present: a crisis of history's return.

A ghost always represents and ushers in historical crises. This Ghost's many (indirect) victims signify that a submission to the imperatives of the past can demolish entire cultures as well as individuals. However, King Hamlet's haunting is particular, not general: the spirit pours its worst poison directly into the son. The myriad relationships of sickness to history are conducted through Hamlet, not the Ghost. By adopting the father's infective mode and transmitting the ancestor's disease, Hamlet seizes what the present time has denied him: he seizes power, if only the terminal power to undo the present. Ironically, when he attempts to put his power into use at last, he calls forth as the successor to the throne a past name, the name of the father's vanquished enemy. Burdens of history convect in Hamlet's character, and he always makes of these pressures something contagious and destructive. The effect of the Ghost on Hamlet is, in a like but tortuous way, replayed through the sphere of inscription, in the effect of history on the text of the second quarto. Temporal borders rupture; the imaginative plague that is the past overtakes the theatrical present, absorbs and disperses Jacobean history. The defeated elder Bothwell is recalled in redemptive piracy; Darnley dies again and returns newly disfigured, seeking vengeance; Mary reappears as the target of Hamlet's most misogynistic imaginary accusations. And with this reemergence of Stuart history, present identifications grow strange. Claudius is unaccountably like James, insofar as both are victims of subversive diseases; Fortinbras, opportunistic infection that he is, also figures the new king; and Hamlet throughout forms homologies and displacements among several Tudor and Stuart personages and forces, including Essex (in his advocacy of and danger to the succession), Elizabeth (through his dying voice), and the much-troubled James.

One more example will suffice to sketch the uprooted, fragmentary


historiography of the play and suggest the plaguy destruction of categories in which Hamlet 's histories engage. As a kind of coda to the Bothwell legacy, another, identically named nemesis pestered King James in his maturity. Mary's second husband was James Hepburn, fourth earl of Bothwell; his nephew was Francis Stewart-Hepburn, fifth earl of Bothwell, who became one of James's most dangerous enemies. Just as Fortinbras junior returns at the end of Hamlet to visit (or perhaps redeem) the sins of the fathers upon the nation of the son, so the second Bothwell returned, with the name of the past, to haunt King James. The complex source of the younger Bothwell's hostility was a mixture of personal ambition, religious outrage at James's conciliatory stance toward rebel Catholic lords, and fiscal fury at the king's appropriation, throughout the early 1590s, of many of the nobility's lands and powers. The short version of the story is that Bothwell fought back, inflicting several outrages upon the dignity and person of James with minimal royal retribution; finally, in 1593, he apprehended and detained James under a brief house arrest. The king managed to escape, eventually arresting the younger Bothwell in turn and finally working the exile of his enemy—but not before young Stewart-Hepburn had driven a wedge between James and Elizabeth.[60] The queen objected to her cousin's continued leniency to, and inaction concerning, the rebel lord; James for his part was furious that Elizabeth repeatedly refused to apprehend his energetic young enemy.

Looking to this complicated history, Lillian Winstanley has excavated another wing in the subterranean archive of Hamlet 's representational processes:

An excellent drama can . . . be made by combining in one the parts played by the two Bothwells. There is nothing difficult in such a conception: the two belonged to the same family, they were uncle and nephew, they held the same title. . . . [E]ven modern Scottish historians have remarked that the younger Bothwell seemed like a reincarnation of the elder.

The device of putting the two in one is quite simple and obvious . . .: the crimes committed by Claudius are the crimes of the elder Bothwell which are far more striking and dramatic than the crimes of the younger Bothwell; but the relation of Hamlet to Claudius is the relation of James to the younger Bothwell. Why not?[61]

Here is why not: because to be so admirably tidy about the conduct of history in this drama is assuredly to be wrong—although Winstanley is not, I think, on the wrong track. Her favorite combination-inscription formula opens up further interpretive possibilities for, but also disjunc-


tions between, the text and the Jacobean story. Added bits of information seriously compromise her historical identifications—such as, for example, James's conviction that the younger Bothwell was dabbling in witchcraft. The king's paranoia about the occult was keen after he returned from his wedding trip to Denmark in 1590, where, as Christina Larner notes, "Witch-hunting was endemic. . . . [James] is likely to have been impressed by the fact that the learned and important in that country took the terrors and menace of witchcraft seriously."[62] The intense interest he took in the subject was, as Larner makes clear, an interest in treason; the two topics were necessarily enmeshed in his mind. He determined to implicate the younger Bothwell in conspiratorial witchery as a way to demonize, exorcise, and apprehend (seize, understand) him. Winstanley does not discuss the possible ramifications of the younger Bothwell's suspected sorcery; once the question of the paranormal is brought into the discussion of Hamlet , historical identifications once again become confoundingly sloppy. True, Claudius is referred to as "that incestuous, that adulterate beast, / With witchcraft of his wits" (D3). So far, so good: the younger Bothwell might thus be said to help constitute the figure of Claudius. But it is Hamlet who speaks with the Ghost and who announces, after Gonzago , that "Tis now the very witching time of night." If there is converse with the supernatural, if there is magical treason staged by the play, Hamlet performs it.

It is not my intent to fault Winstanley's critical approach, because I am obviously much in its debt; I only question its simplifications. The problem with reading historical inscription in Hamlet is that end points to identification are elusive; as soon as the reader finds a secure historical purchase, just one more fact or a differently perceived resemblance causes a landslide of semantic slippage. What seems extraordinarily suggestive but unresolvable in the colloquy between the drama and its Jacobean-Bothwellian connections is the perplexing chiasm between the uncle-nephew relationship in history—the Team Bothwell as Jacobean nemesis—and the same relation, also converging on a unity, between Hamlet and Claudius in the text. What spirograph is traced here? We must abandon the notion of single or dual historical correspondence in favor of a multidimensional constellation of references: the two Bothwells variously confounded James, who has been victimized like Hamlet, who seditiously hounds the king, who in turn is like the two Bothwells in both his villainy and frustrating power to evade punishment. Uncle and nephew of the past, the criminal, witchy, treasonous (but not unquestionably wicked) Bothwells, and uncle/nephew of the textual pre-


sent, Claudius and Hamlet, diverge structurally, but at key points they are disturbingly similar in the threat they pose to political order.

If the writing-in of the past in Hamlet has a gnomic point, it is that theater can reconstitute history without reducing or caricaturing it. But can the text represent its contexts coherently? Can it construct, out of the widely signifying past, a moment of meaning and resolve? The play displays, reanimates, but does not cleanly anatomize or limit historical energies that tend toward the entropic; the writing-in yields a hermeneutic opening out. Contentious participants in culture, over time, resemble one another; disordering influences are analogized with infection; notions of cause, justification, ideological difference slip away. In Hamlet , layers of similitude among characters break down categorical boundaries between them, foisting interpretive uncertainty not only upon an audience, but also upon the history glancingly represented. Shakespeare's alarming convergences of Hamlet and Claudius, Hamlet and Fortinbras, Hamlet and any other producers of discord call forth an unwelcome contagion between categories that most audiences (and certainly the characters themselves) wish to keep separate: uncle/father, winner/loser, ruler/subject, hero/villain, present/past, structure/chaos. Neat layers of significance blend into one another, as when the Bothwell earls receive theatrical life as an antagonistic but convergent division (Hamlet/Claudius), not a unity, as Winstanley would have it. Determination of historical codes or references in the play must be provisional: Hamlet only haltingly, intermittently represents the put-upon and succession-starved King James; and it seems that every twist in the plot introduces another possibility for the aesthetic return of some aspect of the new king's past. For instance, I have placed the intrusion of young Bothwell into James's life in the same referential frame as the intrusion of young Fortinbras into Denmark. The return of Fortinbras figures an historical rerun of precisely the sort that Francis Stewart-Hepburn must have seemed: the frights of memory. Yet this inscription juggles with us. For Fortinbras as a type of Young Bothwell coexists with Fortinbras as James, the northern ruler and potential invader feared by some Englishmen. If we take the possible reverberations of history seriously here, then the self becomes its demonic other as James and young Bothwell funnel into the figure of Fortinbras. A fractured mirage of Jacobean images begins to assemble. Just like a dream in which the dreamer plays every role and suffers each character's triumphs and handicaps, Hamlet sutures intimate scraps of James's history into a patchwork body of personal figurations that are also topical, cultural figurations—because


when the dreamer is the king, his portents are national. If the figure of James lends some conceptual unity to the baffling historiographical imbrications and discontinuities in Hamlet , the play, as a displaced dream of someone else's anxieties, still cannot deploy those inscriptions in an entirely rational, unified manner. History becomes random Jacobean anthology in the text. Unlike the operative mimetic coherence of contemporary contexts in Troilus and Cressida , Denmark's referential fragments are dysfunctional as representations: their sheer multiplicity, their dubious genealogy, makes them poorly matched pieces, yoked by theatrical violence in a plot whose dream logic never quite gels.

Hamlet establishes the endless complexity of persons in history, and this establishment depends on the play's refusal, or rather inability, to schematize persons and history, to isolate a group of histories and distinguish among them. In this incompetence lies a vast disorganizing potential. Stuffed with orts out of joint from the Jacobean past, the second quarto of Hamlet absorbs immense cultural and historical incoherence without completely digesting it.

There are two ways to take the drama's internalization and decomposition of its contexts. The first is to assign full aesthetic intentionality to the author and the text: to say that Shakespeare has a conscious mimetic program which produces the cracked histories I have traced. If this program is intentional, however, it is also a theatrical failure: it results in huge disruptions in plot and psychology that have long bothered critics of Hamlet . These critics have labored for centuries under the despotism of an assumption that the play makes sense. One would have to conclude from the contextual reading that the text is disturbed by its own mimetic process, its inscriptional procedure, a procedure it cannot manage given the range and variety of materials enfolded in the stories of James, the succession, and the bubonic plague.

But another way to read the presence of history in the text would take the plague as a model, not merely an example, of historical intervention. King Hamlet's demise inevitably evokes memories of the Darnley murder, and creates an aperture for history to enter the text; from that point, "history" cannot be kept out, and its effects as well as its boundaries spread. It becomes an infectious pressure on and a pollutant in the interpretive and mimetic function. Here is the problem: once we see the foundation of the plot as materially derived from historical fact—the Darnley murder, say, or James's ongoing problems with the Bothwells—the drama cannot easily be read except through the filter of that controlling story; that story becomes the text's touchstone, its stable meaning. This


hermeneutic trap is the accidental but necessary consequence of the work's having admitted any clear and pivotal topicality into the theater. A piece of history that contributes, for instance, a crucial plot twist, a primary image cluster, or the likeness of a major character also dangles a lure for readers—a promise of accessibility. More often than not, Shakespeare makes good on this promise; only rarely do his histories lead nowhere. His plays are typically choosy repositories of reference. But when the social and cultural fields that surround the text infiltrate it apparently at random, the structures on which literary form traditionally depends can break down. Any art must deploy its cultural referentiality with care if it hopes to arrange the scatterings of the past and present; if, that is, it hopes to derive sense from temporality. A text which draws promiscuously on or helplessly absorbs the contradictions and multiplicities of history will suffer hermeneutic disruptions, nonproductive polysemy, dysfunctional theatrics. In Hamlet , history becomes an unwholesome influence that the text can neither resist nor contain.

Plague, as a model of the aesthetic process of historical intervention in Hamlet , replaces sociological or psychological sense with contagion patterns that gesture toward but frustrate design. The disease's multiple manifestations and interventions rationalize (if anything can) the second quarto's radically discontinuous acts of referentiality, in which several characters variously configure a single historical fact, or one character absorbs osmotically but fractionally several historical features, identities, or relations. But even a flexible theoretical understanding of the text's interplay with disease has limited usefulness. Plague, after all, is not historically an effete structure or an aesthetic object; it is a thuggish fact, an agonizing assault on the body. Its torque and sudden danger exceed stability; it cannot be fully controlled or transformed into something the imagination can stand and use. When Shakespeare's artistic tools are sharp, the sickness in Denmark appears to metaphorize a dynamic, contagious process of epistemological, moral, and social dissolution. But the play cannot sustain a single coherent image of the disease. A culture contains but is also described by its illnesses; just so, the play is tainted by the pathological environment it describes.

I cannot say with certainty that the second quarto of 1604 represents a postaccession and postplague revision or therefore that the play definitively acknowledges the recent national horror. Its precise dates of composition, redaction, and performance will remain elusive. No matter. What is clear is that Hamlet draws on the interregnum imagination, one


which included the presence of sickness. The play stages a threat to monarchy from an antithetical energy; it pictures a cavern where force falls and tosses about. Like the second tetralogy, Hamlet considers the transitional, contingent nature of monarchy and the corkscrew trajectories of an ambition that has been blocked from its plotted ascent. The text's primary subliminal energy—the frustrated desire for political success, for succession—charges a place that has been blasted from within by a mysterious corruption.

The presence of James's past in the text ought to dictate certain plots and organize certain theatrical experiences, but it actually undoes and disorganizes plot and experience: partly because it was a past that was never satisfactorily resolved (the murderer of the father escaped, the murderer's nephew returned like a ghost to pester James); partly because the history itself was contradictory (the stepfather in many ways was at least morally comparable to the reprobate father); and partly because James was haunted by tragedy in his succession. The second quarto, rattled by its indiscriminate absorption of the king's troubling and suspended past, has made itself vulnerably subject to too many histories. The play compounds history's unreadability by linking James and Hamlet, the dramatis personae and the contexts of the drama, in a unity of intellectual misgiving; Hamlet imitates the plague's style of category disturbance by implicitly engaging dramatic subjectivity in acts of contagion so that everything means everything. Its sometimes deliberate, often slurred construal of the past results in overdeterminations that take their toll on the interpretive potential, the knowability, of the play.[63] No chart of historical figures, currents, or quadrants can stabilize this work.

The text further blocks interpretive maneuvers by depicting not only national histories but also minutely personal connections to the past, and not all of these are James's connections. As everyone knows, the very name "Hamlet" echoes that of Shakespeare's son Hamnet, who was buried in 1596. The boy was, suggestively enough, a twin—his sister, Judith, survived. In Shakespeare's theatrical transformation of tragic familial fact, the twinning phenomenon becomes nightmarish, memorializing a past that cannot be buried: the son calls the father-Ghost by his own name ("Ile call thee Hamlet " [DIV]) and so levels the differences between them, between then and now, death and life. The scene of the son calling out to the dead father mirrors the biographical scene that the play actually performs: the living father Shakespeare calling out to his dead son who bore the name the father bestows again on


a play, a tragical history of father and son. In this context the play becomes a personal mourning ritual, encoding the author's own difficulty in processing the terrible knowledge of the past, the death of his child. Of course, Hamlet's severe imperfections complicate this touching elegiac tableau. And as with the drama's more political histories, the complications proliferate, for the name has further ramifications evoked but unresolved by the text. A young woman named Katherine Hamlett, one of Shakespeare's childhood neighbors, drowned in the Avon in 1579. Not only did she meet Ophelia's fate, but, like Ophelia, she was the subject of a coroner's inquest.[64] Shakespeare writes a play around a name besmirched by doom: "Hamlet" is attached in history to two morbid destinies that converge, temporally and semantically out of sync, in the author's life. The fate of Ophelia, because it remembers Katherine Hamlett's demise, obliquely recalls the name of the son; and although the fictional Hamlet is conspicuously absent from the scene of Ophelia's death, her funeral brings him, poorly led, into the grave.

These twinnings typify the opaque and garbled referentiality in which the play engages at every turn. Hamlet comprises, with indecipherable complexity, buried histories: cultural and monarchical remembrances fused with those even more elusive and painful memorial reconstructions of the author. The play's myriad cultural influences have a nonlogical, unstructured relationship to one another. And I have not even touched on the influx of "ideas of the time," prominent histories in their own right—accounts of what it was possible to think and thus to mean or not to mean.[65] The figure of Hamlet and his intercourse with his burdens reify some central political and philosophical struggles of the high Renaissance: conflicts of spiritual piety versus worldly business; tension between improvisational rashness and cautious rationality; sympathy to a politically oppositional Catholicism versus loyalty to reformation structures and ideologies (a conflict contained in the purgatorial Ghost and in the predestinarian convictions of Claudius and Hamlet). The prince enacts all of these conflictual relations and also bears the immense representational burden of Jacobean history that I have labored to unpack. But finally, Hamlet's figuration as a repository of Renaissance culture cannot secure human status. He is a portrait of unification without unity, of collocation without coherence.

What can we make at last of the play's rewriting of James's life, of Hamlet's polyvalent intake and dispersal of contemporary and foundational Stuart contexts? The convolutions of the inscriptive process suggest that even particular histories are uncontrollable or chance elements,


impervious to literary management—that history is an intellectual banquet whereby "a little more than a little is by much too much." The theatrical text will always, as Quince says with inadvertent brilliance in A Midsummer Night's Dream , come "to disfigure, or to present" a reality external to itself; it inevitably presents a disfigured approximation, an amended shadow of impinging shapes of the real. However, theater's deformation and reformation of its historical material need not signify incapability or failure. It may instead betoken triumph over the intractable elements of workaday life. In theater, the alternatives of the past and the potentialities of the present can be laid beside one another, remembered and processed, forming new semantic relations. Theater construes the possibilities of history, the nearly lived and barely avoided. Certainly, Hamlet does not passively receive inchoate contexts. At its best, the play marvelously deploys cultural referentiality to intensify theatrical experience. What I wish finally to suggest, however, is that Hamlet cannot contain its histories as themes or influences. If the play is a virtual anthology of historical coordinates, it also necessarily becomes a repository of illogic, its contexts frustrating form and the instrumentality of the past.

I have been discussing the relationship of succession anxieties to the concerns of the second quarto, but it should be noted at last that the idea of succession is integral to all literary plot—if by "succession" one means a sequence of events that comes to semantic fruition. The happy succession saga is a model story, really, a narrative perfection: one event follows causally on another until tension resolves in the denouement of a new regime, logically consummating the old. A prior story is now superseded, and ideally, order prevails; whatever treason occurred in the tale functioned merely as the plot obstacle, so satisfying and necessary to overcome. In Hamlet , however, failed succession is narratively self-referential as well as historically situated: the story of frustrated inheritance and ironic takeover stages its own metafiction of narrative incoherence. The prince's experience of prolonged political disappointment, and the play's obstructed catharsis and revenge, are perfect examples of fictional anticlimax; plot fails to provide cumulative understanding. Plot in Denmark conspicuously and repeatedly trips, interrupts itself, dawdles, and postpones to the point of tragedy the achievement of royalty: as everyone knows, Hamlet makes belatedness and delay the very condition of its form. These features do resonate with the history of James's successions, the past and present historical contexts, but they structurally exaggerate the character of those contexts. The least pleasant fea-


tures of Jacobean succession history, including the disturbing adjacency of monarchy and disease, become the most prominent elements in Hamlet 's antisuccession plot. Historically, the epidemic only momentarily wrecked the plot of succession; plague was but temporarily inimical to the story of English rule that had been uninterrupted for forty-four years.[66] But theatrically, disease takes dominion everywhere; the political structure and the form of the narrative are both shot through with illness. And treason in the plot is not merely a brief interruption before the denouement, but rather the constant activity of the rightful heir, whose aggressive self-consumption causes the story of succession to make less and less sense.

Hamlet 's illogicalities arise in part because the play and its wide, dark river of referents share a chaotic flow; in the turbulence, text is put profoundly into question as a meaning-bearing object. If the historically overburdened second quarto fails to synthesize itself, or even to allow the possibility of synthesis, at least it acknowledges the world that formed it, the contexts that stress its present meanings. Twelfth Night , by contrast, avoids such acknowledgments.


previous chapter
Three— Succession, Revenge, and History: The Political Hamlet
next chapter