April 17

June 9, 2019

CST’s Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

A Scholar’s Perspective

"Remember Me"

By Stuart Sherman, Professor of English at Fordham University

“Adieu, adieu,” the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father bids his son at the end of their harrowing first conversation. “Remember me.”

That’s a tough assignment. Vengeance is the pressure of the past upon the present. A dark thing done needs doing again, by way of remembrance and retaliation. The Ghost’s “Remember me” does not ask for mere affection; it insists on action. To remember must mean to kill.

Part of what has made Hamlet unique on the world’s stage is the sheer heft and power of the remembering it entails for everyone involved: for the characters and actors on the stage; for the play’s first audiences in the early seventeenth century; and for us now, four centuries and more down the line.

Virtually every character in the play bears burdens of memory, and part of our headrush, from beginning to end, consists in reconstructing the pasts that encumber them from the start. Both Ophelia and Hamlet recall obsessively their failed love affair (which we’ve seen nothing of). Horatio (astute), and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (clueless), all work to reconcile their memories of the brilliant, glowing prince they first befriended long ago with the turbulent prince they know now. The new king is haunted by the murder that has brought him to the throne, and Hamlet’s mother by mingled feelings of guilt and bafflement. Even the gravediggers recall with remarkable precision some important dates in the history of Denmark and in Hamlet’s own life story—as well as, improbably enough, the exact identity of the man who once inhabited the old skull that has now cropped up, random and disembodied, amid new gravedigging. (Alas, poor Yorick!)

Among these rememberers, Hamlet is of course the most emburdened. He cannot tear himself away from memories of his loved, lost father; his mother’s new marriage; his broken passion for Ophelia; his father’s homicidal, life-changing and life-immobilizing assignment. Most of his mighty soliloquies pivot upon the pain brought forth by memories, and the maddening question of what to do with them. “Heaven and earth,” he exclaims to himself, even before he’s met the Ghost: “Must I remember?” He has no idea how abundantly, and how harrowingly, the remainder of his life will answer “yes.”

The play’s earliest performances likely entailed another layer of memory. Strong tradition holds that the role of the Ghost was first performed by Shakespeare himself. Resonant casting: Shakespeare’s own son Hamnet had died, about a year earlier, at ten years old. If tradition tells true, then (as James Joyce suggests hauntingly at the midpoint of Ulysses) Shakespeare, the living father of a dead son, had chosen to write and perform the role of a dead father addressing a living son with a near-identical name. Most of the cast—and perhaps even some in the audience—would have known of the playwright’s loss—and would have felt its additional undertow.

But Shakespeare had also built into Hamlet more public, less personal memories—rooted in a play that all theatergoers already knew on their own pulses. Twelve years earlier, the playwright Thomas Kyd had created, in his Spanish Tragedy, the period’s very first revenge play, and its most lasting hit. In retrospect, The Spanish Tragedy reads like Hamlet mirrored and reversed: a father must avenge his son (Horatio!), who has been murdered, like King Hamlet, in a garden. Two women—the slain son’s mother and his lover—commit suicide (and the mother runs mad before she does so). The avenging father intermittently runs mad, and then puts on a play in order to entrap his enemies; the bloodbath at the Tragedy’s end became the benchmark for all the revenge tragedies to come.

Hamlet’s first audiences could not have watched any moment of Shakespeare’s play without remembering Kyd’s. Shakespeare was giving them something they already adored, and trying at the same time to make it new at every turn. His chief tactic was expansion. Kyd’s protagonist must simply decide whether, when, and how to accomplish his revenge. Hamlet, by contrast, parleys the practical problems of vengeance into questions of human essence and existence: whether to do or not to do; to be or not to be. Shakespeare’s expansive tactics certainly succeeded in the long run (because, well, here we are), but not in the short. Kyd’s play, all but unknown to us these days, emphatically outdrew Hamlet at the box office throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Nowadays, when we watch Hamlet, we are likely to remember not other plays but other, earlier performances of this one. All those films and videos; all the live performances you may have caught at sundry lifepoints; not to mention all the times we and our friends have quoted the play, intentionally or incidentally (since its lines suffuse our culture, even when we’re not sure of their source).

Shakespeare just may have foreseen, and foretold, this accumulation, this durability. To the Ghost’s “Remember me” (spoken perhaps by Shakespeare himself), Hamlet replies:

Remember thee?

Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat

In this distracted globe.

On the line’s surface, that “globe” is the skull where memory resides. But Shakespeare has layered an intensely present-tense pun: Hamlet was one of the first plays produced at the new Globe, whose sole in-house playwright here quietly savors his power to “distract” (excite, animate) audiences, seated and standing, beyond anything in their experience or expectations. Hamlet insists that the Ghost (and perhaps Shakespeare too?) will be remembered—that the theater won’t forget.

True enough. Playgoing furnishes a kind of pause-point in our real lives, poised between the past that frets our memories, and the future that demands our actions. Small wonder, then, that perhaps the most hypnotic play of all perches itself at that point where aching memories abound, and what’s to come is still unsure.

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