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Chapter Six Hamlet's Ghost Fear
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Custom, writes Jonathan Dollimore, was the sixteenth century's word for ideology. Customs were regarded as both social practices and a means for the ruling class to control society.[8] But customs are not just instruments of oppression, argues Marshall Sahlins in Culture and Practical Reason . They are expressions of a more deeply symbolic order. Customs are arbitrary in the sense Ferdinand de Saussure meant when he noted that there is no inherent relation between a sound-image and a concept. All words that express similar concepts in a given language determine the value of any term. Moreover, language mediates our perception of objects. Taken alone, neither practical reason nor culture (defined as a common understanding that transcends immediate circumstances) accounts for the symbolic logic that organizes behavior. Both together determine social forms. For Sahlins, therefore, a culture harnesses nature to its own symbolic work, because symbolism is not inherent in objects, but instead arises from a culture's perception of objects.[9]

Hamlet faces a particular, even emblematic, problem of custom when he must respond to his dead father's presence. More than a catalyst to action, the ghost's appearance calls Hamlet to articulate his passionate attachment to the forms of things past whose loss he mourns. A variety of social ambiguities tease us because they offer themselves to historical positioning—current debates over drinking,[10] or the fashion of wearing hats, or child actors—everything from suits of woe to Italian penmanship. Hamlet dies in a rapier duel, a social practice that had only recently come into fashion in late sixteenth-century England.

The effect of Hamlet's mirroring of contemporary England is to establish the illusion that new customs are urging themselves to the fore


in Elsinore. Ophelia takes as a sign of madness that Hamlet came to her with "no hat upon his head" (Hamlet 2.1.76). But later, Hamlet offers Osric a subtle lesson in how a social system may refuse to recognize another's good intentions, when he mocks Osric's social address by asking him to put his "bonnet to his right use, 'tis for the head" (Hamlet 5.2.92).[11] For Osric, the forms of ceremony require that he take off his hat when speaking to his superior. Osric then experiences the panic of one for whom specific rules fail. When Montaigne visited Italy, he could not get over the fact that Alfonso if, the duke of Ferrara, removed his hat as a mark of respect to his visitors when they entered, and did not replace it until the audience ended.[12] In contrast a later entry in his journal noted that the pope doffed his cap to no one ("le pape ne tire jamais le bonnet à qui que ce soit").[13] Lancelot Andrewes traces to the Apostles' times the contention over "whether men were to pray uncovered , and women veiled or no?"[14] Sumner (who knew Hamlet ) cited tipping the hat among usages that "contain no principle of welfare, but serve convenience so long as all know what they are expected to do."[15] Although Boccaccio in his Filocolo makes a game of whether doffing a garland or putting it on signals more respect, the issue could be very serious.[16] Suffolk's pride could not endure that he should "stand uncover'd to the vulgar groom" (2 Henry VI 4.1.124-128). These questions of what came to be called etiquette produce an anxiety of civility—civility in the sense Puttenham means it, as that which has to do with public society.[17]

If sixteenth-century thinkers did not define customs as the arbitrary and symbolic expression of a culture, they nonetheless questioned the validity of customs as a source of values, despite their apparent usefulness. Customs represented the voice of the past but still required interpretation, giving them a two-faced or Janus-like quality. They were able to undergo change through time while remaining one and the same thing, like a substance that remains constant while what Aristotle would call its "accidents" change. Customs, since they were of no certain origin, were both always old and always new. This notion of precedence is the key to the strange concept of the "ancient constitution" that played


such a strong role in shaping English common law in the years when Shakespeare was writing.

The essence of custom was that it was immemorial, and the argument could . . . be used that, since the people had retained a given custom through many centuries, it had proved itself apt to meet all the emergencies which had arisen during that period. Custom was tam antiqua et tam nova , always immemorial and always perfectly up-to-date.[18]

Custom was also a rhetorical as well as legal topic.[19] When Thomas Wilson in his Arte of Rhetorique defined custom as that "which long time hath confirmed, being partly grounded upon nature, and partly upon reason," he did so to show how an orator could manipulate custom to suit his persuasive purpose.[20] That is, the orator could discourse on time, nature, or reason, and define each to suit his topic. In particular the possibility of defining time to fit one's argument had been recognized at least since Saint Augustine, who confessed that he knew what time was as long as no one asked him, but when someone asked "What is time?" he did not know. Paul Ricoeur begins Time and Narrative with Augustine's remark to support his claim that time cannot be defined, only narrated.[21] Ricoeur's thought, in turn, suggests that narrative is not so much a literary form as a category of knowledge, as time and space were for Kant. In postmodern terms, stories structure our experience of the world.[22] When a dying Hamlet instructs Horatio "to tell my story," he realizes that Horatio will only be able to recount it "more or less": "the rest is silence" (Hamlet 5.2.349, 357-358).

The temporal indeterminacy of Shakespeare's As You Like It , another play about a young man whose father's spirit impels him to action against current corruption,[23] corresponds to our inability to construct a full account of Hamlet . In the comedy, probably written just before Hamlet , it is unclear how long Duke Senior has lived in the Forest of Arden: Charles the wrestler implies at one point that Duke Frederick has only recently banished his brother, but Celia later says she was "young"


when the banishment occurred.[24] When Duke Senior asks his forest followers whether "old custom" has not "made this life more sweet / Than that of painted pomp?" (As You Like It 2.1.2.), he may mean that he and his followers have grown accustomed over a long time to winter and rough weather, or he may mean that they have rediscovered in the pastoral setting certain lost virtues of friendship and consideration—the "old custom" that, the play suggests, they will bring back to court as soon as the plot allows them to return after their sojourn in the forest.

Hamlet never learns what to do—or more precisely, when to do it. Orlando, by contrast, receives good instruction. Rosalind's education of her lover, moreover, takes the form of lessons in timing, from her initial lecture on the varying pace of time—it trots, ambles, or gallops according to circumstances—to her insistence that Orlando be on time in keeping his appointments with her. As a strong woman who shapes the social order to suit herself, Rosalind is Shakespeare's successor to Spenser's Britomart and Ariosto's female warriors (Marfisa and Bradamante), who compete with men in the customs of chivalry, often by controlling time, while wandering through the forests of romance. Rosalind's instruction of a rather bewildered Orlando—she cures his passion by polishing his manners—turns her restoration, by means of the play's powers of illusion, into the vision of a better world of courtesy and civility, a world of good customs to which the medieval concept of chivalry continues to be applied.[25]

The proper names of As You Like It (Arden, Orlando, Oliver, Charles) echo those of the Italian romanzi . (In Thomas Lodge's euphuistic pastoral Rosalynde , Shakespeare's direct source, the hero is named Rosader, not Orlando.) Shakespeare almost certainly knew the custom of the castle topos, not just from John Harington's translation of the Furioso or from The Faerie Queene , but also from commonly reprinted chivalric romances such as Malory's Morte Darthur, Bevis of Hampton, Palmerin of Englande, Palmerin d'Oliva , and especially Amadis of Gaul , where every adventure of both Amadis and his brother Galaor involves a castle and a foul custom, often the product of an enchantment that prevents a young


lady from attaining her rightful inheritance.[26] Given the shift in mode from chivalric narrative to drama, the custom of the castle forms the background to Shakespeare's imagery if not the object of his direct imitation. Customs remain an important theme in Shakespeare's later plays, one whose meaning can be brought out by keeping in mind the elements of the custom of the castle topos: the keeper of the custom, the errant knight who faces it, the nature of the custom, and the castle that contains it.

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Chapter Six Hamlet's Ghost Fear
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