Hamlet and Liminality
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How would you rate the Merchant test?
E) Very difficult
Hamlet and Liminality
What does liminality mean?
A) B) C) D) E)
Different or unusual Better or higher Lower or below Between or on the margin At the end
Liminality as defined according to the anthropologist Victor Turner: Liminality is a term borrowed from Arnold van Gennep's formulation of rites de passage, or "transition rites"-which accompany every change of state or social position, or certain points in age. These are marked by three phases: • separation, • margin (or limen-the Latin for threshold, signifying the great importance of real or symbolic thresholds at the middle period of the rites, though cunicular, "being in a tunnel," would better describe the quality of this phase in many cases, its hidden nature, its sometimes mysterious darkness), • and reaggregation.
Turner (cont’d) • The first phase, separation, comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or the group from either an earlier fixed point in the social structure or from an established set of social conditions (a "state"). • During the intervening liminal period, the state of the ritual subject (the "passenger," or "liminar,") becomes ambiguous, neither here nor there, betwixt and between all fixed points of classification; he passes through a symbolic domain that has few or none of the attributes of his past or coming state. • In the third phase the passage is consummated and the ritual subject, the neophyte or initiand reenters the social structure, often, but not always at a higher status level.
Liminality, according to Turner, can thus be characterized by the following: • An interval during some kind of transition from one state to another • A subject ("passenger" or "liminar"), whether an individual or group, that makes the transition • An ambiguous state "betwixt and between" recognizable structures--a state of possibilities. • A state of being outside or set apart from social structures
How might this idea of an "ambiguous, neither here nor there, betwixt and between" transitional state inform Hamlet? Consider the opening scene: pp. 3-4, 1.1.1-10 What transitions do we find in this opening scene?
Changing of the guards
Changing of kings
Does the opening scene create the sense of smooth transitions? A) Yes E) No
Sense of Confusion: • Francisco on guard duty, but Barnardo says "who's there?" • Future events (preparing for war with Norway) usurp the place of the present. • In the rest of play, the past (ghost and its demands) usurps the present. • Rapid exchange of dialogue confuses audience. • Looming sense of uncertainty.
There is an uncertainty over the very setting of the opening to the play: "A guard platform of the castle"?
– which castle? – and which country? • We are at the very margins of the play's space • Consider opening scenes from 1948 Olivier Hamlet (6 ½ mins) and 1996 Kenneth Branagh Hamlet (3 ½ mins.)
How do these two films differently portray uncertainty in their openings to Hamlet?
Stuck in Repeated Temporal Interruptions: The ghost's first appearance interrupts Barnardo's narrative: Last night of all When yond same star that's westward from the pole Had made his course t'illume that part of heaven Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself, The bell then beating one-- (1.1.35-39) Interruption both within the narrated event and in the external narration of the event itself.
Political Valence - Horatio accuses the ghost of "usurping" / "erupting" time: What art thou that usurp'st this time of night, Together with that fair and warlike form In which the majesty of buried Denmark Did sometimes march? (1.1.46-49) Added Spatial Valence - Horatio says the ghost's appearance "bodes some strange eruption to the state" (1.1.69) Two senses in which ghost's "appearance" usurps/erupts time: • Appearance as an action (i.e. to appear) interrupts conversation • Physical appearance (the way it looks) as a figure from the past who has been dead. – Time both broken and reordered. – The past usurps the present.
Stuck in Extended Intervals of Time: The past extends into present -- past is still present • The crowing cock (p. 9:1,158-65) • The persistent threat from Norway, thought to have been resolved under the former King Hamlet (1.1.80-107). Well may it sort that this portentous figure Comes armèd through our watch so like the King That was and is the question of these wars. (1.1.109-11, emphasis added)
• The "betwixt and between state" of Purgatory, where the ghost serves time: I am thy father's spirit, Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, And for the day confined to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purged away. (1.5.9-13)
Purgatory as stuck “in between”
In the larger play world of Hamlet, “The time is out of joint” • We are stuck in time, inbetween
Eruption/Interruption and Extended Intervals of Time: • The ghost's purpose: to disrupt/interrupt the transition between reigns • Hamlet also attempts to disrupt and delay the transition to Claudius's reign by persistently mourning for his father (pp. 13-14; 1.2.87-112). • Claudius's mistakes contribute to disruption and delay: – Tries to step into the role of father ("think of us / As of a father" 1.2.107-8) – Restores Hamlet to his future role as successor to the throne (1.2.108-9) – Marries the wife of the previous king -- inadvertently allows the previous regime to linger (p. 10; 1.2.1-14)
Claudius does achieve one definitive break with the past: • Claudius works by indirect, political manipulation vs direct combat challenge (the method of the former King Hamlet)
Setting Time Right • On the positive side, disruption and delay in transitions creates an interval of possibilities for Hamlet • But this must occur in a world ruled by Claudius • That is, Hamlet must operate within a new world of intrigue in order to correct disjointed time: "The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right!" (1.5.188-89)
A question for consideration: • What is the new "reaggregated" state to which the play moves? How are things different in the end versus the beginning?
And why all the apparent emphases on transitions in this play? • Hamlet within literary history: – Birth of modern psychological realism in drama • Hamlet within Shakespeare's literary career: – Written around 1600 (First, "bad " quarto, 1603 - Second, "good" quarto, 1604) – "Early" vs. "Late" Shakespeare? • Cusp between the 16th and 17th centuries. – Succession issue a persistent cause of anxiety.