By : Raghad Alach
Each individual has a set of unique memories that are his own; therefore, it could be argued that memories are an inherent part of personality and that they play an important role in making each person who he is.
Memory is not only unique to each person but is also much clouded by perception and one’s state of mind, so that two people witnessing the same event will later recall it differently. In Shakespeare’s famous play, “Hamlet”, memory plays a central role.
To honor his father Hamlet must avenge him and in order to do this he must forget all else and only remember him. In this play memory also serves to either inform the audience or allows them to compare their knowledge with a given characters recount of a certain event, thus drawing them into the play and forcing them also to remember.
From the moment Hamlet is introduced he talks of his grief and mourning for the loss of his father. His mother in Act One Scene Two tells him that the time of mourning has passed and that death is natural.
To this Hamlet replies saying in essence that true grief can not be quickly cast off. Then when he is alone he goes on to remember his father, showing that his grief is true because he still remembers, unlike his mother who has moved on.
Hamlet a few scenes later is confronted by the ghost of his father who imparts two things to his son. The first thing: “If thou didst ever thy father love…Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”(I.iv.23-25), and the second a command: “…Hamlet, remember me”(I.iv.91).
The ghost therefore says that to prove his love Hamlet must avenge his father and his final words to his son were “remember me” showing that the rest of the play is centered around Hamlet remembering his father and more importantly remembering his promise to avenge him.
After the ghost leaves, Hamlet promptly shows his obedience when he says that he will wipe his memory clean leaving only the order of revenge from his father: “Remember thee? Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records …And they commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my bran Unmixed with baser matter” (I.iv.97-104).
In Act Three scene one, Hamlet true to his word, demonstrates how he has forgotten all but the memory of his father when he snubs Ophelia and denies his love for her. She says: “I have remembrances of yours” (line 95). He coldly replies: “I never gave you aught”(line 98).
“That Hamlet was at one time genuinely in love with Ophelia no serious critic has,…ever questioned”(Wilson 108), but it may very well be the case that Hamlet did stop loving Ophelia because keeping the memory of his father alive by revenging him consumed all this thoughts.
It is also interesting to note that Ophelia who later on dies, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, commands remembrance. When talking to Laerts she says: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray, love, remember” (V.iv.172-173).
And like Hamlet, Laertes goes on to seek revenge for the murder of his father, insanity of his sister and her resulting death. “…But my revenge will come.”(V.vii.29) he says. Therefore, “The summons of death…is…thus the call to action” (Helgerson 89) as one critic put it.
While Hamlet and Laertes are at opposite ends fighting each other they are in truth both seeking the same thing, namely revenge.
But while Laertes devises a plan sets about to avenge the death of his loved ones, Hamlet consumes three quarters of the play to accomplish the same task because of his consumption with remembering and mourning his father.
Another example of Hamlet’s preoccupation with the memory of his father and the way in which to avenge him is seen when Hamlet asks the players to say a few lines. “One speech in it I chiefly loved…where he speaks of Priam’s slaughter. If it live in your memory begin at this line…”(II.ii.426-429). Hamlet’s asking the player to recite nothing else but a revenge scene that mirrors what he himself must do is a testament to the memory of his father and how it consumes all his thoughts.
“Conscious memory sought merely a display of passion,…[to] show off the actor’s ability, but what it found was an image of Hamlet’s cause, an incitement to revenge and a reminder of the dreadful consequences of revenge” (Helgerson 69). Clearly Hamlet wants to avenge his father, but he deems it necessary to be sure that Clauduis did truly murder him because of the serious implications that murdering his uncle and claiming he killed his father would bring about.
To this end Hamlet uses the Murder Of Gonzago.
Memory is used in this instance in two ways; first, by remembering something he has heard “…-About, my brain/I have heard…”(II.ii.565-567), Hamlet devises the scheme of determining Claudius’ guilt.
And secondly the proof of Claudius’ guilt is also based on memory because when Claudius sees the play of murder he will remember his own actions and his guilt will become apparent though his reaction. Furthermore, it is known that Hamlet composes around 16 lines and enters them into this play, although it will never be known for certain which lines he entered “Hamlet can be expected to have written: Purpose is but slave to memory…” (qtd. in Bloom 424). This speech in the play within a play clearly shows Hamlet’s preoccupation with memory because the speech talks about the fact that one’s goals are determined by one’s memory.
It then goes on to say how people often forget to carry out the promises they made to themselves in moments of passion. This speech reflects Hamlet’s problem which is that he promised to avenge his dad’s death and so far has taken no action in that regards.
Just as remembering is used to show Hamlet’s concern and love for his father, it could be said that simply by Claudius’ lack of remembering his dead brother he is guilty. “That we with wisest sorrow think on him Together with remembrance of ourselves” (I.ii.6-7). This shows Claudius’ preoccupation with himself and lack of concern or proper mourning of his dead brother.
As one author put it: “Claudius is seldom in danger of forgetting himself” (MORE ABOUT HAMLET). This fact is alluded to several times by Hamlet himself while commenting on the hasty marriage of Claudius and Gertrude. Claudius not only does not mourn his brother properly, rather he also criticizes Hamlet for doing so when he says about hamlet’s mourning: “…But to persever/In obstinate condolement is a course/Of impious stubbornness, ‘tis unmanly grief”(I.ii.92-94).
The two extremes, one of exaggerated remembrance, mourning, and grief and the other of lack of memory and feeling which are portrayed by Hamlet and Claudius respectively, show that to remember is to care and in Hamlet’s case to avenge his dead father, while not remembering is in effect an admittance of guilt as in Claudius’ case.
While memory mainly serves as a means to keep the purpose of revenge in mind, it also helps to clarify to the audience what happened in the past.
For example, without the Ghost’s recollection of how he was killed the audience would never have known until much later in the play.
At the same time the ghost’s recollection tells us of Gertrude’s relationship with Hamlet’s father.
Hamlet also informs the audience of this relationship “Must I remember? Why she would hang on him/As if increase of appetite had grown”(I.ii.143-144). The audience sees no interaction between Gertrude and her former husband, since he is already dead at the beginning of the play, therefore these recollections of a pleasingly loving marriage help the audience understand Hamlet’s disgust at his mother’s remarriage. On the other hand, “The ghost may be suggesting more about Gertrude and Claudius before the murder…”(Cohen 36).
The audience though is left to come to their own conclusions concerning this matter.
Like the Ghosts death, the audience is told of Ophelia’s death through the recollections of Gertrude.
But while Gertrude claims it was an accident, later the priest and the gravediggers imply that Ophelia’s death was suicide.
The audience has no way to decipher the truth since they did not witness the murder committed and therefore can not recall it.
“[Shakespeare] informs us through the mouth of the gravediggers and the priest that a conflict of opinion had arisen over the death of Ophelia”(Wilson 295).
Here again the audience is left to come to their own conclusions despite the fact that the only way for them to do this is through the recollection of various characters which can clearly be clouded by biases.
Memory is also used to convey to the audience Hamlet’s deep preoccupation with death. In the graveyard scene when Hamlet sees the King’s jester’s skull he remembers all the times of mirth he had with him and then remarks “Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?” (IV.i.175-177).
Here memory and death are intertwined which would in effect serve to remind the audience of the fact that those who are dead are often remembered and that remembering has consequences.
In the graveyard scene Hamlet goes on to ponder over the question of death and what happens to the person, while when he remembers his father he is reminded of the need to avenge his murder.
Conversely an instance where the audience knows something and the character doesn’t is during the scene where Claudius is confessing his crime.
“While the audience is assured that Claudius did in fact murder his brother…Hamlet thinks he sees Claudius ‘in the pruging of his soul,…fit and season’d for his passage’(III.iii.85-6)” (qtd. in Liebler 185).
When Claudius during his confession recalls the murder of his brother the audience can then know without a doubt that he is guilty. Hamlet on the other hand, who does not hear this confession, refuses to kill Claudius at that time because he thinks that Claudius is absolving himself.
Finally the uses of repeated recalls forces the audience to use their own memory. Throughout the play characters are narrating events that the audience has already witnessed, therefore the audience can compare what truly happened to the given character’s claim. For example in the beginning of the play the audience knows that Hamlet Sr. has been dead for two months.
That period through is successively shortened by Hamlet in an effort to portray his deep mourning and allow understanding of why he is upset with his mom “…how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within’s two hours” (III.ii.114-5).
When Ophelia corrects him saying that it has been two months since his father’s death, he is shocked by the length and goes on to wonder how long a mans memory will live on. “For him the issue is not chronological accuracy but for how long one should properly remember and mourn his father” (Liebler 173).
Hamlet’s remark serves to confirm to the audience that he is wrapped up in remembering because he said two hours and the audience knows that it was two months ago.
Another instance in which the audience uses their memory of a prior event to correct what a character is saying is during the cemetery scene in which the clown tells Hamlet that he was sent to England to recover from his madness, when in truth the audience recalls from a few scenes ago that Claudius sent Hamlet abroad to kill him.
The audience is further encouraged to remember, by Hamlet’s quote to the ghost “…Remember thee!/Ay thou poor Ghost whiles memory hold a seat/in this distracted Globe” (I.iv.95-7).
“Memory indeed ‘holds a seat’ in the theater that houses the play as in that skull that houses Hamlet’s recollection” (Liebler 192). Here Hamlet is not only saying that he will remember his father, but by alluding to the Globe Theater he is also drawing in the audience and encouraging them to pay attention and remember the events that they will witness. The final action of the play likewise encourages the audience to use their memory because first the audience hears Claudius and Laertes carefully plan the murder of Hamlet.
Then the audience watches that death unfold during the final scene of the play. Finally they hear Hamlet’s last words to Horatio are “Report me and my cause aright” (IV.ii.281), which is in essence telling Horatio “remember me”.
Therefore, “[Hamlet] is much concerned with the name that he leaves behind” (Helgerson 67), and “Like his father before him, his final wish is to be remembered. It is thus only through ‘remembering’ that identity survives, whether that identity is personal, communal, or national” (Liebler 194).
So even in death Hamlet is preoccupied with remembrance and having his memory live on. This can also be seen as an invitation to the audience to remember and recount the two hours action that they have just seen.
There is no doubt that Hamlet is one of the most intricate and complex plays ever written, therefore many themes and “life lessons” can be found throughout it. Memory is one of the main themes that are repeated in “Hamlet”.
It serves not only as a main function to guide Hamlet’s actions and allow him to avenge his father, but it also keeps the audience alert throughout the play and draws their attention to their own memories and what they mean to them.
Furthermore, as was seen in Hamlet memories often force their owners to take action and in some cases right a wrong that was carried out against them or those whom they cherish.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead
Cohen, Michael. Hamlet in My Mind’s Eye. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Liebler, Naomi. Shakespeare’s festive Tragedy: The ritual foundations of genre.
New York: Routledge, 1995.
Wilson, J. Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. New York: Cambridge University Press,1964.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et., al. New York: Norton, 1997.
Helgerson, Richard. “What Hamlet Remembers.” Shakespeare Studies 10 (1977):(67-97).