Study Guide


by William Shakespeare

Hamlet Essay - Grinning Death's-Head: Hamlet and the Vision of the Grotesque

Grinning Death's-Head: Hamlet and the Vision of the Grotesque

Yasuhiro Ogawa, Hokkaido University

In its perennial phase tragedy is a metaphysics of death, death seen preeminently as eternity, silence, that is to say, as mystery. The individual "pass[es] through nature to eternity" (1.2.73) and "the rest is silence" (5.2.358). These memorable phrases from Hamlet sound like a resigned acceptance of the common human condition of death, which makes us realize that the concern of tragedy is coming to terms with death—the final mystery. Yet the philosophical acquiescence will come only after Todesschmerz—if we may be permitted to appropriate the term coined by a famous thanatologist in analogy with Weltschmerz1—is experienced to the utmost in its most agonizing fear and trembling and is made, figuratively speaking, analgesic.

The way Hamlet dramatizes this Schmerz is impressive; "the subject of Hamlet is death"2 to the extent that this cannot be said of any other Shakespearean tragedy. But the peculiarity of this play in respect to this theme does not so much spring from the singleness of vision concerning it as from the curious fact that it is a rendering of a particular mode of thinking that is preoccupied with "being dead. "3 The thinking is pursued in terms of "the dread of something after death" (3.1.77), and this "something" involves not merely "the soul's destiny" but "the body's" as well.4 The solicitude for the body's destiny after its shuffling off of the mortal coil takes on an obsession with its imaginary transformation into something loathsome, reeking, and despicable.

Hamlet portrays the dead Polonius as suffering an ignominious fate. According to Hamlet's quaint, cynical imagination, Polonius is now "At supper. . . . /Not where he eats, but where 'a is eaten; a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him" (4.3.17-21). The corpse of the late lord chamberlain has fallen a prey to wily fornicating worms. We may callously say that perhaps this is an instance of retributive justice meted out to a Machiavellian of Polonius's caliber. (May not this imagined scene remind us of the one in which Julius Caesar was assassinated by "a certain convocation of politic[al]" men led by Brutus? In Hamlet, which is the immediate successor to Julius Caesar—these two have always been companion plays—we learn on Polonius's own avowal that, as a university student, he used to play the role of Julius Caesar in dramatic performances mounted by the university [the University of Wittenberg, Hamlet's alma mater?], the Caesar who he expressly adds is to be killed by Brutus [3.2.98-104]. Julius-Polonius is being assaulted by a party of political man-worms.) The pitiable condition is, however, not solely Polonius's. Hamlet makes a generalization.

Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. (4.3.21-23)

We fatten ourselves by eating all other living things which we fatten for that purpose, but all this is finally for the ingestion of us as prey by maggots. As far as dietary business goes, "Your worm" is supposed to hold sovereign sway.

Nevertheless, pace Hamlet "your worm" cannot be said to be the absolute victor in this process. It will be eaten by a fish, of which Hamlet himself is by no means unaware. Hamlet accompanies the statement by a variation upon the theme.

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm. (27-28)

Dull-witted King Claudius, to whom all these remarks of Hamlet are directed, is stupefied: "What dost thou mean by this?" (29) But is the meaning of this statement so difficult to grasp? It seems to us to be fairly obvious. Let us put aside for a moment "a king" and replace it with "a human being." Then a totally disquieting situation arises: man-eating maggots are eaten by fish, which will in turn be eaten by men. In Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights worms do eat dead human bodies. However, in Hamlet the eating does not stop there; it goes on endlessly, forming something like a vicious circle.

Note the uroboric shape the formula takes. The person who initiates this voracious movement finally meets fish-eating men. Through the carnivorous process, the initial person becomes, in the last analysis, part of other people's flesh. What is thrust upon us is virtual cannibalism. If the spectacle of an individual's corpse being devoured by maggots alone must arouse a sense of the grotesque within the minds of the spectators, the eerie sensation will be immensely increased by Hamlet's fantasy of a cannibalistic state of things.5

The imaginary situation assumes implications of lèsemajesté in case we interpret Hamlet's saying in its original phraseology. For not only an ordinary human being but also a king is subject to the predatory cycle, and it is specifically "a king" to whom Hamlet refers. Hamlet sticks to "a king." In the face of King Claudius, he says, "your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table—that's the end" (23-25). At last Hamlet's intent is revealed. What he has been driving at all along is, in his own words, "Nothing, but to show you [Claudius] how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar" (30-31). Hamlet's language is dangerously charged. A king is vulnerable to murderous aggression and may be forced to tread the way of all flesh, which will take the form of a procession, an incomparably impoverished one at that, "through the guts of a beggar." A royal progress to be carried out with pomp and circumstance will transmogrify itself into an anti-progress, something unimaginably demeaning. Hamlet's view uncrowns, being radically democratic; it is a perverse version of the notion that death levels all people. Or it may be closer to the mark to say that death creates a sort of festive moment, turning the world upside down. The elevated are superseded by the humble. By the simple process of eating a fish which has incorporated "a king," "a beggar" puts the king under absolute subjugation. He is immeasurably superior to the fish-king.

I resume, man-eating worms will be eaten by fish that will conversely be eaten by men. . . . Ad infinitum and ad nauseam. The conceit of this circular migration originates in our hero's all-too-curious, idiosyncratic, even pathological habit of thinking—a major factor in making this play markedly different from other Shakespearean tragedies. Hamlet establishes a special perspective in which death is viewed as an occasion for bodily putrescence feeding maggots, thus ushering in the obscene natural system of preying among people, maggots, and fish that will include resultant cannibalism. The topic of this "cannibalism feeding on putrefaction" can be best described as "grotesque nonsense."6

Another unexpected dimension may lend itself to the sense of the grotesque when those man-eating maggots are correlated with those the sun breeds in a dead dog. Hamlet abruptly broaches the matter:

HAMLET: For if the sun breed maggots in a
dead dog, being a good
kissing carrion—Have you a daughter?
POLONIUS: I have, my lord.
HAMLET: Let her not walk i' th' sun.
Conception is a blessing, but as
your daughter may conceive, friend, look to 't.


In the cryptic and disjointed discourse that might resemble a passage from a metaphysical poem, the extraordinary force derives from Ophelia's being likened to a dead dog that bears maggots. Like the dead dog or "a good kissing carrion," Ophelia will breed; she will breed persons who, when dead, will be food for maggots. (In a Russian cinematic version of Hamlet and a Japanese literary work which is a rehashing in a dramatic form of the same play, Ophelia is pregnant.) The ultimate source of conception is traceable to the sun. Conception is far from being a blessing: it entails death that brings about putrefactive cannibalism by mediation of maggots that the sun causes to be bred. Can not the very conception be corruption?—"the sun is a powerful agent of corruption."7 We recall Hamlet's petulant rejoinder to Claudius: "I am too much i' the sun." (1.2.67). Seeing that Claudius, as a king in Renaissance England, may be made to figure as the sun on earth in the archetypal mystique surrounding kingship that may conceivably have been still a sector of lived ideology at that time, Hamlet's complaint rings perilously defiant.

Hamlet, and through him we, vicariously, inhabits an unredeemed world in which "an ineradicable corruption [inheres] in the nature of life itself,"8 the world unshunnably impregnated with "the thought of foulness as the basis of life."9

At this juncture, we are also reminded of an unusual dialogue that occurs several lines before the passage pertaining to the sun-bred maggots, To Polonius's somewhat ridiculing query, "Do you know me, my lord?" Hamlet answers promptly: "Excellent well; you are a fishmonger" (2.2.173-74). Taken at literal value, this baffling fling leaves a weird reverberation.10

These "appalling jokes about worms and maggots"11 are anticipatory of the Graveyard Scene (5.1), where Hamlet asks the grave-digging Clown about the length of time "a man will lie i' th' earth ere he rot" (164). His curiosity about "the tempo of decay in corpses"12 is characteristic enough. The information it elicits is forbidding and slightly funny: "Faith, if 'a be not rotten before 'a die—as we have many pocky corses, that will scarce hold the laying in—'a will last you some eight year or nine year. A tanner will last you nine year. . . . His hide is so tann'd with his trade, that 'a will keep out water a great while, and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body" (165-77). The debate coalesces with the episode of putrefaction that triggers the wry imaginary ecology of the predatory man-maggot-fish-man cycle.

Still, much more horrifying is the gaze of the skull over which Hamlet proceeds to contemplate upon the vanity of all vanities. The gruesomeness of "the skull which has shed the final mask of humanity and wears only the perpetual grin of death"13 is stunning. Death that the skull emblematizes is itself gruesome. The idea of death that Mathew Winston unfolds in his discussion of black humor is seminal.

Death is the final divorce between body and spirit, the ultimate disjunction in a form that dwells on violent incongruities. Often it is reduced to its physical manifestation, the corpse, which is man become thing; rigor motris is the reductio ad absurdum of Bergsonian automatism.14

The skull is a localization of the corpse that is the product of physical reductio ad absurdum, which deathly rigidity partakes of the Bergsonian automatism of the comic.15

The gaze of the skull is awfully repulsive, and at the same time it holds irresistible fascination. We may be drawn to the ineffably expressive visage. Its intense visual fixation may make us wonder whether life itself be not the "grave joke of death,"16 for, being a didactic property of emblematic significance, the skull serves as a grim reminder of the end of all human endeavors. An agonizing intuition seizes us that death has instituted grotesque comedy, or what Mathew Winston prescribes as black humor that dictates the world of human beings who must be finally turned, in absurd reduction, into the grinning skull.

The skull exudes the uncanny, which emanates supposedly from the grin with which it is so inextricably bound up that that particular type of laugh has become its sole epithet. The skull is part of an individual become dead matter and yet this lifeless, nonhuman object, despite its lifelessness and nonhumanness, is apparently intent upon the live, quasi-human gesture of grinning. The grotesque may gestate in this discrepancy. To formularize, the picture of an inanimate object beginning to look like a man or vice versa gives the impression of the grotesque; it shows the reversible concourse of categorically disparate things.

The skull secretes the grotesque because the dead matter is tinged with the illusion of human agency. There is a palpable complexity, which resides in the genesis of the skull. It is not necessarily dead matter per se. It is the physical wreck of its former living self. It was originally a human being that has returned to a lifeless object. In this respect, the grin is a resuscitation of the grin that the very human being may have expressed during his lifetime.

It is suggestive that Hamlet is offered by the grave-digging Clown "this same skull. . . Yorick's skull, the king's jester" (5.1.180-81). (How could the gravedigger identify the skull from among the numerous others scattered in the churchyard? But we had better bypass such a question that realism's demand for verisimilitude will raise.) The grinning was presumably Yorick the court jester's professional tact of behavior. In a grinning, seriocomic vein, the king's jester may have hinted darkly at the reality of nothingness, the truth of mortality, the essential vacuity of mundane kingly pomp and pride when contemplated sub specie aeternitatis. We can even imagine a prank of his, his showing up before the king and his courtiers, wearing the mask of a skull. At least Hamlet can think of such a practical joke Yorick was prone to. Talking to the skull of Yorick scoffingly, Hamlet presses him: "Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that" (192-95). But Yorick has outlived his "flashes of merriment"; "Not one now" is left "to mock your own grinning—quite chop-fall'n" (190-92). "A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy" (184-85) is dead and has become the skull wearing the eternal grin. "And now how abhorr'd in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it" (186-88). The grin Yorick wears now proves to be his last . . ."serious joke." We are convinced that "the skull is the first and one of the most important components of Shakespeare's memento mori episode."17 In conjunction with the motif of the Dance of Death that we will examine later, the skull constitutes the Renaissance carryover of medieval Weltanschauung, a worldview indigenous to that age of contemptus mundi, that is, the contempt of the world.18

Hamlet's confrontation with the skull leads to flighty reveries on the vanity of human wishes. His imagination locates "the noble dust of Alexander till 'a find it stopping a bunghole" (203-04):

Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel? (208-12)

The way in which the dead Alexander is reduced to a loamy gadget to stop a beer barrel is undoubtedly ludicrous. "Imperious Caesar" is not exempt from this sort of comic degradation.

Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall t'expel the winter's flaw!


Hamlet's doggerel-like poem narrates jocular metamorphosis that might take hold of Caesar—is this Caesar Julius or Octavius?—in his afterlife, which might be equally the lot of Alexander. These two peerless personages representing the classical Graeco-Roman world are forcibly put to "base uses" (202). Broadly speaking, this is a variety of Lucianic humor brewed in the dialogue with the dead which Rabelais and his most brilliant literary successor Swift loved. In a parodic form of spiritual peregrination in the other world the protagonist encounters historical celebrities who have descended into incredibly undignified circumstances—I am to blame for my deliberate imprecision about details. In the fabulous otherworldly journey that he himself fabricated, Hamlet drops in with the risible ruin of imperious, awe-inspiring Alexander and Caesar. The abject vicissitude that befalls them, presented with gelastic overtones, induces Hamlet's deepest reflection upon the very substance of earthly glory, which is worth contempt. (Such a sentiment would be supposed to be in unison with the mental readiness for the contempt of the world.) Alexander's beer-barrel stopper and Caesar's hole filler are blatantly debasing images indicative of absurd reduction.

Horatio counters Hamlet's overingenious view: "'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so" (205-6). Possessed of extraordinary capability of such an extreme logic that explodes with irreverent, provocative truth,19 Hamlet is a veritable Shakespearean fool. It was not for nothing that in his boyhood he saw Yorick as a kind of surrogate father: with nostalgic feeling Hamlet recollects that "He hath bore me on his back a thousand times" (185-86). Our hero is the jester's disciple. He has profound affinity with the latter.

There is, however, one thing that Hamlet finds unbearable about Yorick. Hamlet is obliged to interrupt the remembrance of things past in which he steeps himself, on account of a physical problem that has survived Yorick: "Alas, poor Yorick!" You stink! Disgusted by the stench the skull gives forth, Hamlet hastily puts it down with revulsion. Forces of putrefaction are formidable; universal decay is inescapable for the dead thing. Yorick's skull is now being ravened by microbic worms, emitting insufferable odor. "Alas, poor Yorick!" (184).

As we have seen, it is the grave-digging Clown who has informed Hamlet of the identity of Yorick's skull. Now, who on earth is this strange figure? The gravedigger performs his job nonchalantly, even joyously, crooning a snatch of ballad about sweet bygone love, which leads Hamlet to suspect total absence of "feeling of his business" (65). "Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness" (67-68), Horatio chimes in. Hamlet examines in a derisive manner "the pate of a politician . . . one that would circumvent God," that of an affable, yet vilely wistful "courtier," that of "a lawyer" who, while he was alive, exploited and prevaricated with his display of vertiginous vocabulary, employing such legal jargons as "his quiddities . . . , his quillets, his cases, his tenures, .. . his tricks, .. . his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries . . . indentures . . . conveyances"—all these grotesquely technical words were unable to fend off death and some of them are subjected to our hero's parodic treatment through punning. What astonishes Hamlet is that "the mazzard," "the sconce" of each of these very important persons, receives merciless and disrespectful blows from "a dirty shovel" of "a sexton's spade," "as if 'twere Cain's jaw-bone, that did the first murder." Indeed, "Here's fine revolution," says Hamlet (75-112). After such a scrutiny, Hamlet speaks to the fellow:

HAMLET: Whose grave's this, sirrah?
I CLOWN: Mine, sir. . . .
HAMLET: I think it be thine, indeed, for thou liest in't.

I CLOWN: You lie out on't sir, and therefore 't
is not yours; for my part I do not lie in't
and yet it is mine.

HAMLET: Thou dost lie in't, to be in't and say
it is thine. 'Tis for the dead, not for the
quick; therefore thou liest.

I CLOWN: 'Tis a quick lie, sir, 'twill away
again from me to you.

HAMLET: What man dost thou dig it for?
I CLOWN: For no man, sir.
HAMLET: What woman then?
I CLOWN: For none neither.
HAMLET: Who is to be buried in't?

I CLOWN: One that was a woman, sir, but, rest
her soul, she's dead.


Paronomastic playing with "lie," "quick," and "man" is involved. Even if it is too much to say that this is a textual conundrum, this is a fairly difficult passage that we cannot hope to decipher completely. A tentative reading will be:

It is a lie to say that a grave belongs to a person who happens to be within it for digging, since it is essentially for the dead, not for the quick [the living], that is, its true tenant is only someone deceased for whom it was dug. On the other hand, one is deceived to think that one has nothing to do with it, since it will be one's inevitable habitation sooner or later. It is a deceptive idea that the living tend to hold, which will be quickly belied to the very living. Here gender does not matter, as man and woman are equally destined for the grave. And strictly speaking, we can not say that a grave is a man's or woman's even though he or she is to be buried in it; the most correct way of putting it is that it is that of "One that was [a man]" or of "One that was a woman." Death forbids the use of present tense for a man's or a woman's being.

The wit combat Hamlet was forced to fight drives him to despair: "equivocation will undo us" (138). Only by going through this exhausting conversation ruled by labyrinthine wordplay do we learn that the grave in question is Ophelia's.20

We happen to discover an interesting item in the curriculum vitae of this Clown.

HAMLET: HOW long hast thou been grave-maker?

I CLOWN: Of all the days Γ th' year I came to't
that day that our last king Hamlet overcame

HAMLET: How long is that since?

I CLOWN: Cannot you tell that? every fool can
tell that. It was that very day that young
Hamlet was born—he that is mad and sent
into England.


Of all the days, the Clown became a sexton on the very day of the year that the Danish nation reached the apex of glory by the late King Hamlet's defeat of Fortinbras. It is also the day when our Hamlet was born, the prince most immediate to the glorious throne of Denmark. Both Denmark's future and Hamlet's career have been ominously clouded.

Apart from Danish destiny, the days of Hamlet were numbered. On the strength of this state of affairs, G. R. Elliott speculates that "maybe he [the Clown] is Death."21 Willard Farnham is of the same opinion; what he has to say, recognizing the Clown for what he is, is insightful and profitable:

And in medieval terms the clown with his spade does what the figure of Death does in the Dance of Death. The Dance traditionally has that figure as a human being already dead who points one of the living the way to the grave. In pictorial representation he is a decaying corpse or a skeleton who comes from the grave and calls, one by one, upon living figures ranging in rank from pope or emperor down to natural fool or innocent child, to prepare for death and follow him. The grave-digging clown in Hamlet takes the place of this corpse or skeleton. He occupies a grave he claims as his at the same time that he makes it for Ophelia. In it he is Death itself and from it he can speak to Hamlet of bodily dissolution with grotesque authority. To debate whether the grave he digs is his or Ophelia's is pointless. It belongs to him because it belongs to Everyman, alive or dead. The word-twisting that goes on over whether he "lies" in the grave that he says is his and whether it is for the quick or the dead finally brings a riddling summons from the clown, as Everyman-Death, to Hamlet, whose tragedy has drawn near to its ending in death: "Tis a quick lie, sir; 'twill away again from me to you."22

The Clown, who lies in the grave and indulges there in a bantering dialogue with Hamlet, is Death ringleading the Dance of Death. It may be said that, as such, he invites Hamlet "to join the dance [that] means to die";23 he virtually points Hamlet the way to the grave as he is nearing his end at the close of his tragedy. Hamlet's encounter with the Clown may be considered a teleological one. At the end his purpose was fulfilled. This is the be-all and end-all of his life's quest. It seems as though the Clown-Death had been shadowing Hamlet ever since the very day that he came into the world, somewhat in the same way that the "son of a whore Death," in a version of the Dance of Death from volume seven of Tristram Shandy, perpetually ferrets Tristram out.24 The Clown-Death has overtaken Hamlet. Hamlet is doomed.

Granted that the Clown is Death in the Dance of Death, it is undeniable that Hamlet himself impersonates Death. He "has above all that preternatural aptitude for mocking each man according to his station and peculiar folly which was the distinguishing mark of Death itself in the Dance of Death."25 A student the Dance of Death instructs us that "'Death' in the Dance of Death has been variously styled—'la railleuse par excellence—variée à l'infini mais toujours boufonne'—and as exhibiting a 'cynisme railleur.'"26 According to G. Wilson Knight's testimony, Hamlet is not innocent of "the demon of cynicism," "the cancer of cynicism," and "the hell of cynicism."27 Another Shakespearean scholar concludes that Hamlet's responses are "the jests of Death" and that the diseased wit which is admittedly Hamlet's (3.2.321-22) is "Death's own."28 Even if "Death is not the only character whose qualities Hamlet has inherited,"29 it is a preponderant aspect of Hamlet's makeup. Hamlet is a principal persona in this drama of the Dance of Death, a macabre medieval legacy. It may be said that Hamlet plays Death in the status of a jester, albeit officially he has no cap and bells.

In this context Hamlet's "antic disposition" (1.5.172) poses itself. Contrary to the notion that it denotes assumed madness with "antic" being synonymous with "mad, crazy, or lunatic," lexicographical investigation of the word "antic" reveals that the phrase signifies something like "grotesque demeanor" since the most fundamental meaning of the word current at the date Shakespeare composed our play corresponds to "grotesque." The etymological explanation that The Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed. on CD-ROM) gives is cogent: "appl. ad. It. antico, but used as equivalent to It. grottesco, f. grotta, 'a cauerne or hole vnder grounde' (Florio), orig. applied to fantastic representations of human, animal, and floral forms, incongruously running into one another, found in exhuming some ancient remains (as the Baths of Titus) in Rome, whence extended to anything similarly incongruous or bizarre: see grotesque'" The word "antic" comes from the Italian "antica" (la manièra antica, i.e., the antique fashion) but in its actual usage, historically it referred to "[la manièra] grottesca" literally rendered, "the manner of the grotto." In any theoretical consideration of the grotesque its basic connection with the Italian "grotta" in its derivation is unanimously recognized. Hence "antic" as denotative of "grotesque." (We may be given to venture a hypothesis that the "antic" fashion, the ancient way, could have impressed those exposed to it with a sense of regression into the remotest primordial world peopled by phenomenal, phantasmagoric images, where human beings, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects merged in natural confusion and profusion, the world as symbolized, in a manner, by the grotto. In the psychoanalytic language of evolution this immemorial world is translated as the unconscious. In our idiom manifestation of such a regression is grotesque.) Let us further found our argument on the said dictionary, this time for its definition (we want to omit historical illustrations):

"A. adj.

1. Arch and Decorative Art. Grotesque, in composition or shape; grouped or figured with fantastic incongruity; bizarre.

2. Absurd from fantastic incongruity; grotesque, bizarre, uncouthly ludicrous.

3. Having the features grotesquely distorted like 'antics' in architecture; grinning. Obs."

It is noteworthy that for the adjectival meaning, the OED (2d ed.) lists only these three items. The substantive usage perfectly reflects the adjectival one so that we do not think it worthwhile to cite it as a whole. Suffice it to heed the fourth definition: "4. A performer who plays a grotesque or ludicrous part, a clown, mountebank, or merry-andrew." Quotation from a Shakespearean text in its subdivision is more to the purpose:

"b. transf. and fig.

1593 Shakes. Rich II, iii. ii. 162 There [death] the Antique sits, Scoffing his state, and grinning at his Pompe."

Parenthetical addition of "death" in the quotation is that of the OED. Fuller citation of the passage would have made the meaning unmistakable:

KING RICHARD: .. . for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp.

The OED supplements the quotation above with reference to a fascinating illustration, which, unfortunately, we could not verify: "1631 A death's head grins like an 'antic.'"

The foregoing perspective is also set forth by Eleanor Prosser in her succinct formulation regarding the usage of the word "antic" in Hamlet.

Hamlet's choice of words, "antic disposition," is significant. In Shakespeare's day, "antic" did not mean "mad." It was the usual epithet for Death and meant "grotesque," "ludicrous." The term is appropriated for the grinning skull and the tradition of Death laughing all to scorn, scoffing at the pretenses of puny man.30

The term "antic" covers the whole range of the grotesquerie that death gives rise to. It connotes the grinning skull and the traditional motif of the macabre Dance of Death with which our play implodes. Its semantic consideration allows us to apply it to the grave-digging Clown whose speech is replete with grotesque sporting with death.

When it comes to characterization of our hero, the "antic disposition" he decides to put on proves to be a grotesque mask he wears, a mask designed to conceal his true colors and befuddle his enemies with a view to executing his revenge more conveniently. His ludicrous simulation of madness is to be necessarily overshadowed by Death, for whom "antic" as meaning "grotesque" served as the usual epithet in the age of Shakespeare. Hamlet is the titular protagonist of the antic hay that this tragedy is geared to.

The characteristic melancholy, the mythical sorrows of Hamlet that often end up in detracting from his personality, can be deemed a form of such "an antic disposition" (even if it is an involuntary one) redolent of death. Melancholy is traditionally associated with Saturn, which is "symbolic of the sad tranquility of death."31 Hamlet's brooding melancholy partakes of Saturnian death. If we may go further and attend to a literary convention that Saturn is a patron-god for satirists and to the satiric temper that informs Hamlet to a certain degree, Hamlet's character will be delineated like this: Hamlet as melancholiac and satirist (the satirist in English Renaissance literature was almost invariably a melancholiac) is under Saturn's influence.32 And that is the price of his being a genius as revealer of dark truths.

The world of Hamlet is probably presided over by Saturn, who makes such problematical epiphany in Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, which has prompted A. C. Spearing to link the pagan god to the absurd of the sort that Samuel Beckett creates and Jan Kott's literary criticism envisions.33 Under Saturn the world is "antic" and absurd. Saturn alias Cronos (mistaken, in etymological confusion, for Chronos ["time" in Greek] devouring his own children, drawn by Goya with his consummate artistry) is emblematic of the absurd nature of Time, who blindly annihilates what he has begotten. Time is a bodeful presence suffused with the spirit of death. The melancholy, death-heralding Father Time in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure who appears invested with naked allegory is a grotesque composite figure whose actual boyhood is wholly blighted by his untimely physical corrugation and spiritual incorrigible volition of not living. He kills Jude's children as well as himself.

Probably Saturn is identical to Death, and Hamlet's "antic disposition" is ultimately Saturn's machination. . . . Hamlet is Time's fool.

Be that as it may, Hamlet's rage for punning can be taken for manifestation of the same pattern of deportment that we are discussing. A pun can even be personified. "[A pun] is an antic which does not stand upon manners, but comes bounding into the presence," thus Charles Lamb in Elia, which the OED supplies as another example of the transferential or figurative meaning of the noun "antic," no. 4 (parentheses in the quote added by the OED.) A pun is an antic, that is, a grotesque, clownish creature who, intruding as a nuisance, breaches courtesy in decent speech. A recidivistic pun-maker, Hamlet can be labeled (or libeled) as pun incarnate. It is fruitful to take a glance at Willard Farnham's idea expressed in his book devoted to the exploration of The Shakespearean Grotesque:

In its grotesqueness the pun is a monstrous union of incompatible things that has at times a complexity carried beyond doubleness. Its wholeness built of incompatibility is prone to be incompatible with and defiant of dignity.34

An apposite instance may be Hamlet's utterance "I am too much in the sun," which is supposed to comprehend ventriloquistic undertones of "I am too much in the son."35 The phrases that will exemplify the case are legion. But we want to refrain from analyzing them. Suffice it to remark that in his antic disposition Hamlet is addicted to making the pun that is an antic, that is to say, grotesque figure of speech in its monstrous yoking together of incompatible things, the pun that, like the joke of which it is a prominent component, partially discloses the dark recesses of the human mind.36

The skull not only of Yorick but also of the Godcircumventing politician, the cannily sycophantic courtier, the tergiversating lawyer, and the grave-digging Clown is equivalent to Death in the macabre Dance of Death and Hamlet himself, who is, as practicer of antic disposition, a character distinguished by the grotesque. Hamlet is a gallery of grotesque figures, the gallery which mirrors the inferno that the world has become, for "through the depiction of grotesque characters" Shakespeare, just like Bosch, "shows us Hell, the Hell of man's making."37 Anyway, the gallery accommodates other characters than these. For example, Osric. To begin with, his name has an unpalatable resemblance to "ostrich," which sounds, at the least, ludicrous.38 Farcical naming notwithstanding, he "comes, like some grotesque angel of death, to announce to Hamlet his fate, and to announce it in the strangest and most distorted language of all, a language which Hamlet gleefully parodies."39 Osric was apparently dispatched to Hamlet to claim him on behalf of "this fell sergeant, Death, [who] / Is strict in his arrest" (5.2.336-48).

And Claudius. In mythical terms he is the Serpent that corrupted the Garden of Eden, Gertrude being a fallen Eve. The poison resorted to by him to murder his brother in the garden and his stealthy steps in committing the crime accord with the surreptitious, poisonous wiles that the Archenemy used to tempt Eve and eventually to bring about humanity's fall from paradise. In both cases death has ensued from the malefactory activity. (Is it workable, in an experimental production of the play, to have the Claudius role speak in hissing, sibilant intonation?) The world has now drastically changed from its prelapsarian state. "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (1.4.90). Denmark is at present ruled by a king embodying corruption in its multifarious ramifications. If Denmark is, to say nothing of a hell, "a prison" (2.2.243), as Hamlet declares, Claudius has to do with it (we may even suspect that Claudius's reign is that of terror, with his people being forced to live in an incarcerate environment, always insidiously watched, under strictest policing). The world is decisively not what it used to be. Something alarmingly fatal has happened. "Then is doomsday near" (238), so Hamlet thinks. Hamlet's elegiac monologue tells of the world that is now "an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed" "Possessed] merely" by "things rank and gross in nature" (1.2.135-37). The paradisiacal garden has degenerated to a garden burdened with rank and gross vegetation apparently endowed with demonic vitality. "That it should come to this!" (137). The world has already, let us dare to say, grotesquely changed. In our view, the grotesque is a sign of the tremendous, catastrophic alteration of the world occasioned by original sin.

But we have to tone it down a bit. What is more interesting about Claudius is the fact that he is frequently the butt of Hamlet's satiric attacks. In Hamlet's opinion or prejudice, Claudius is "a satyr," a lecherous humanoid being, the fabulous hybrid of man-beast in stark contrast with his brother who is comparable to "Hyperion" (140). The distinction is all the more striking, as Hamlet praises, in the interview with his mother, his deceased father hyperbolically, even in mythical apotheosis, itemizing "Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself, / An eye like Mars, to threaten and command, / A station like the herald Mercury / New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill" (3.4.56-59), whereas on the same occasion Hamlet calls his uncle Claudius, vituperatively and ridiculingly, first a "mildewed ear, / Blasting his wholesome brother" and then:

A murtherer and a villain!
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord, a Vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket—. . . .
A king of shreds and patches,—

(64-65, 96-102)

Hamlet even sketches him in the image of the devil. In his denunciation of Gertrude's incestuous remarriage Hamlet exclaims: "What devil was't / That thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?" (76-77). The devil may refer to Claudius as well as to devilish lust that urged Gertrude to an infamous union. Taking into account these circumstances, Paul Hamill argues that Claudius's deed is reminiscent of "the pranks of Vice on stage and of Death in the Dance of Death," that "in the Dance of Death, when Death steals valuables or plays with crowns, he is thief not only of material goods but of honor and pride—as here Claudius has stolen kingship—of life, and sometimes of grace" and that "finally, this [Claudius] is 'a king of shreds and patches'—a detail that associates him again with death and the devil, both of whom may wear the rags of harlequin."40 There is a sense in which the enormity of regicide and Cain-like fratricide, "the offense [that] is rank [and] smells to heaven, / [Which] hath the primal curse upon't, / A brother's murther" (3.3.36-38) that Claudius is guilty of is intelligible within the framework of the so-called "allegory of evil" and "comedy of evil."41 Hamill's conclusion is that Claudius "is a grotesque parody of the first [King Hamlet]."42 (Renovation of production may be encompassed by having these two parts doubled, which is technically possible since these two persons never appear simultaneously on the stage.) Hamlet is a dramatization of the myth of two brothers who are antipodally distinct from each other. Half-brothers Edgar and Edmund (the quasi-alliterative similarity of their names is noticeable), who engaged in mythical sibling rivalry in the Gloucester subplot of King Lear, conform to the configuration. The mythical (or melodramatic) composition opens up a horizon of Manichaean opposition between the forces of good and evil, God and the devil.

One of the most salient facets of irony in Hamlet is that King Hamlet, who is, again in Hamill's view, "not a god, of course, but a representation of godly perfection in man,"43 approximates, in his advent to this world, what his extremely inferior brother, who may be termed his "counterfeit" (3.4.54), supposedly impersonates. The comedic form Hamill supposes for Claudius is inapplicable to King Hamlet. Still the latter appears as the devil and Death. Left uncertain about the true identity of the Ghost, Hamlet's mind misgives him that "The spirit that I have seen / May be a dev'l, and the dev'l hath power / T' assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps, / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits, / Abuses me to damn me" (2.2.598-603). Horatio is sceptical about the intention of the Ghost so that he dissuades Hamlet from following it lest at a certain dangerous spot it should "assume some . . . horrible form" and precipitate him into derangement (1.4.72-74). Death bulks large when King Hamlet emerges as a visitant from the land of the dead. In spite of the critical disagreement as to its true nature,44 this much can be said, that the Ghost, apparently surrounded with the strange aura of death, is its dreadful messenger, for what he recounts to Hamlet is "his foul and most unnatural murder" (1.5.25) by his own brother and what he enjoins him to do is to revenge it, which is tantamount to slaying the murderer. He is forbidden to, but could, tell the secrets beyond the grave that are suggested with sensational vividness. Pertaining genetically to Senecan revenge tragedy, Hamlet is laden, to a certain degree, with crude, sadistic, horror-inspiring scenes. Horrors of Gothic nature color the play. "Blasts from hell" (1.4.41) are blowing through it.

No less frightful is the revolting physical deformation of King Hamlet because of the "leprous distillment" poured by his brother in "the porches of my ears." The "effect" of the "juice of cursed hebona in a vial . . . / Holds such an enmity with blood of man" that coursing throughout the body,

with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter bark'd about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.


(In view of this striking bodily change that the King has suffered, it is puzzling that nobody seemingly suspected a foul hand in his death.) The story of his death will be reproduced in the play within a play in fulsome reference to "Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected, / With Hecate's ban thrice blasted, thrice infected, / Thy natural magic and dire property / On wholesome life usurps immediately" (3.2.257-60).

The scene of Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost is haunted by apprehension and brain-racking mystery; Hamlet's query is desperate:

O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canoniz'd bones hearséd in death
Have burst their cerements? why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn'd,
Hath op'd his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous, and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say why is this? wherefore? what should we do?


The Ghost, a "dead corse" whose "canoniz'd bones [were] hearsed in death," turns up in a clap, "Making night hideous" and pushing Hamlet off into radical interrogation about the wherefore of this visitation. Hamlet is right, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (1.5.166-67). In your philosophy, that is, in your physics, natural science.

The Ghost is a completely unexpected intruder from "The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns" (3.1.78-79) and how he could and why he did return from it remain only a mystery in the ultimate sense of the word. Hamlet has been pestered from the very outset by radical uncertainty due to his inability to unveil the Ghost. Is it "a spirit of health, or goblin damn'd"? does it "Bring with [it] airs from heaven, or blasts from hell"? are its "intents wicked, or charitable"? and so on (1.4.40-42). Mystery lingers on till it is finally resolved in the play within a play in which the Ghost's revelation tests true. The interval is permeated with painful insecurity that is almost beyond our hero's endurance. Irresolvable, disconcerting ambiguity exists up to a certain stage, giving birth to perception of the grotesque, as the world is left incapable of rationality and orderly dispensation. Chaos is come again. In the words of Wolfgang Kayser, a major scholar of the grotesque, "what intrudes remains incomprehensible, inexplicable."45

And "impersonal," so Kayser adds.46 Indeed, the neutral, impersonal mode perseveres when it comes to mentioning the Ghost; the Ghost is called "this thing" ("What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?" [1.1.21]), then "this dreaded sight" (25) and thenceforth "it" several times consecutively. Kayser's theory that the grotesque is prescribed as "the objectivation of the 'It,' the ghostly 'It'" is strangely relevant here.47

The considerable fear with which this nondescript presence strikes the guard prompts an inverted qui-vive.

Indeed, the play begins with a question "Who's there?" that Bernardo, coming to relieve the guard, hurls at Francisco, the other sentinel who has been on duty there. Needless to say, it's the other way around; it is Francisco who should have challenged Bernardo. Apart from its being inverted, the question itself is rather gratuitous, for who else should be there but Francisco as someone standing on watch? The inversion and gratuitousness of the question prefigure the fearful secrecy that "the ghostly 'It'" foments.48

Confronting himself with the Ghost, Horatio questions it: "What art thou that usurp'st this time of night... ?" (46-49). In spite of the personal pronoun "thou," the ominous, sinister quality of the revenant does not mitigate itself. The Ghost and the atmosphere it brings with it, together with the dreadful chill and alienating darkness that govern the scene, can be meaningfully designated as "numinous."49 What Hamlet experiences on this occasion is .. . a supreme moment that will have far-reaching consequences upon the ontological phase of a man concerned, transforming his being utterly. The chronological sequence of an everyday way of being is disrupted; a crisis comes to Hamlet. Hamlet's "antic disposition" is due to his exposure to such a climactic, timeless moment.

The Ghost "usurp[s] this time of night," yet it is not only a usurper of this specific time of night but of time in general, time itself, for it is the past incarnate who has intruded upon the present and by this intrusion it has infringed the inviolable law of time; it has disintegrated the solid coherence of time. It seems as if the Ghost had been cast up not so much from "the sepulchre" as from the rift of time. . . . "The Time is out of joint" (1.5.188), Hamlet cries out after the Ghost disappears. Kayser tells us that the grotesque amounts exactly to the sense of this sort of out-of-jointness (Ausden-Fugensein).50 "O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!" (188-89), Hamlet grieves. It's a shame that Hamlet has to redress the grotesque reality.

The grotesque "contradicts the very laws which rule our familiar world."51 The Ghost has violated the very law of temporal irreversibility that dictates our everyday reality. Another Kayserian precept that "the grotesque is 'supernatural'"52 has a singular vibration: the Ghost should be said to be above "nature" (temporality), since by dying it has "pass[ed] through nature to eternity." And that it has not reached "eternity" underscores the paradoxical nature of it. The paradox is parallel to the grotesque. The Ghost occupies an epistemologica! interstice.

The abrupt apparition of the Ghost surprises Hamlet and others. "Suddenness and surprise are essential elements of the grotesque."53 Its unexpected emergence that engenders horror, mystery, and the sense of "the time" being "out of joint" causes us to share in "the basic feeling" .. . of surprise and horror, an agonizing fear in the presence of a world which breaks apart and remains inaccessible."54 The feeling is admittedly indicative of the grotesque.

Listening to the subterranean voice that the Ghost has uttered, Hamlet observes pejoratively: "Well said, old mole! canst work i' th' earth so fast? / A worthy pioneer!" (162-63). The "old mole" is, as Norman N. Holland suggests so perceptively, retrospective of Hamlet's earlier dictum "some vicious mole of nature" (1.4.24) which will court as "the dram of ev'l" (36) the final collapse of integrity in humanity.55 The Ghost, being an "old mole," is associated with the devil, who, like the subterranean creature mole, is an inhabitant of the netherworld. The Ghost as "worthy pioneer" mines or undermines our familiar world. Being perhaps, metaphorically speaking, mors ex machina, it is "an alien force that has taken hold of'56 Hamlet and, through him, other characters of this play. In the hands of this antic force "they have lost their confidence and their orientation."57 "The characters are all watching one another, forming theories about one another, listening, contriving, full of anxiety. The world of Hamlet is a world where one has lost one's way," says C. S. Lewis in his celebrated essay on our play.58Angst predominates in Hamlet. "THE GROTESQUE IS THE ESTRANGED WORLD," Kayser asseverates in a capitalized aphorism, which seems to hold true of the world of Hamlet.59

As in that of The Tempest, we see in the world of Hamlet that metamorphosis is consequent upon the sea experience. Our hero's sea journey to England leads to a remarkable alteration of his personality. No doubt "a sea-change" (The Tempest, 1.2.401) visits him.

This change is qualitatively different from his former self-imposed transformation of character, the "antic disposition" that has embarrassed so irritably those around him. His voyage to a foreign country may have contributed to his heightened awareness of national identity. "This is I, / Hamlet the Dane!" (5.1.257-58), Hamlet asserts, plainly and resolutely, to Laertes and to the rest of Ophelia's mourners.60 Hamlet has attained this simplest truth about his own self that has been hitherto a cause of existential malaise to himself. Just before the fatal duel Hamlet apologizes sympathetically to Laertes for his "madness," to which he attributes the outrageous deed done to the Polonius family. Hamlet confesses—we should not necessarily take it for a crafty self-justification on his part—that "His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy" (5.2.239). And now Hamlet has vanquished this ruthless opponent. Terribilità of the morbid, obsessive vision that "this distracted globe" (1.5.97) of his had created has left him. His passion is spent. He is seized with serene perception:

. . . there's special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. (5.2.219-22)

The redundant, tautological allusion to the maturation or eventuation of the unspecified "it" discloses the self-evident, inevitable property of that which "it" implies. After all is said and done, "the readiness is all." That's why, despite foreboding misgivings, "defy[ing] augury" (219), Hamlet accepts the invitation of the deadly duel that Osric, emissary of Death, delivers him.

In the catastrophic dénouement, which is too well known or notorious (in truth, it is too Senecan for the tragedy not to be vitiated as an artistic form), Hamlet meets his death, leaving his beautiful dying words, "the rest is silence" (358). It is as if grace had come, all of a sudden, undeservedly, like a miracle. "In this play, perhaps the noisiest of Shakespeare's tragedies, the shock of silence stuns."61 The mysterious silence Hamlet confronts is numinous.

The eternal pun-maker Hamlet might have dropped a hint that the "rest" includes repose.62 It may be paradoxical that this particular anagnorisis is conveyed by words. In any event, the recognition is tragic in that it involves the mystery of death as "silence" and, by extension, eternity.63

But we must admit that, finally, the vision has been wrested from Death through the unflinching stare at the skull. Given that in the world of Rabelais as elucidated by Mikhail Bakhtin, the grotesque functions as immunization against the fear of death through the essential homogeneity of "comicity" and "cosmicity,"64 macabre engagement with the skull has domesticated Death for Hamlet. Tristram's antic dance with Death eventuates in its transfiguration into a dance of life in which "he rather confounds Death by no longer fearing him."65 In Tristram's case, "thus he must dance off; but it is a festive, not a macabre, dance."66 The Todesschmerz that had been rankling in Hamlet's heart seems to have undergone a healing, which has been accomplished only through homeopathic procedure.

By dying in the process of eventually fulfilling the mandatory revenge, Hamlet has to die no more. "Death destroys death," which "was a common conceit" in Elizabethan tragedy.67 "So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men, / And Death once dead, there's no more dying then," so the poet in The Sonnets asserts in a metaphysical concept.68 "And fight and die is death destroying death," a character in Richard III encourages the then crestfallen Richard (3.2.184).

At the moment of his dying, Hamlet requests Horatio to tell a story that will vindicate his career:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.


Hamlet is in a resigned position to regard death as "felicity" that he persuades Horatio to defer when the latter shows a willingness to commit suicide in order to follow him. Our hero has achieved spiritual maturity; he has reached a completely new stage nurtured even by religious tranquility. A horizon of transcendence is in prospect. "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" (359-60), Horatio voices a touching epitaph in honor of him.

We should say that throughout the tragedy of Hamlet what Herman Melville describes as "the knowledge of the demonism in the world"69 has been consistently addressed by our hero. "The demonic, that force of chaos which annihilates all order, whether it be religious, social or psychological, and which manifests itself in the whiteness of the whale or the ash heap vision of Endgame or any world turned inside out upon itself, is integral to the concept of the grotesque."70 But as Kayser has the last say in this matter, "in spite of all the helplessness and horror inspired by the dark forces which lurk in and behind our world and have power to estrange it, the truly artistic portrayal effects a secret liberation."

The darkness has been sighted, the ominous powers discovered, the incomprehensible forces challenged. And thus we arrive at a final interpretation of the grotesque: AN ATTEMPT TO INVOKE AND SUBDUE THE DEMONIC ASPECTS OF THE WORLD.71

What Hamlet has performed may be assessed as this invocation and subdual of the demonic residing in the world.

Hamlet is dead. And yet closure of Hamlet does not necessarily synchronize with the titular hero's death. Horatio's story of Hamlet remains to be told. As he promises Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince, who pops up at the very end of this tragedy as its final victor, Horatio will give an account

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on th' inventors' heads.


Horatio's recapitulation undoubtedly reflects a weighty side of a tragedy in which our hero has played a principal part. Still, isn't it a rather distorted version? Can it be said to do justice to our hero's potential tragic stature? Would the recently departed Hamlet be satisfied with it? "The grotesque is more cruel than tragedy"—Jan Kott's perspicacity is tremendous as ever.72

In a post-Hamlet world tragedy ceases to be viable. (It goes without saying that in a sense the tragedy of Hamlet itself is a verdict of death delivered upon tragedy. But that is another matter.) Whether intentionally or not, Horatio will try to deprive Hamlet's story of its (vestigial) tragic quality of pity and terror, consigning it to the genre of revenge play as launched eponymously by Seneca, pervaded with "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts," from which Hamlet has descended in terms of genre. Horatio's future narrative will be an atavistic reproduction of Hamlet's tragic story. There is no denying that "my story" will sustain a kind of reductio ad absurdum.

Horatio deconstructs Hamlet's originally tragic story. Now that the parties to the affair have all perished, nobody could possibly interpellate the authority with which he spins the yarn. It is hardly possible for anybody to object to Horatio's authoritative narrative performance. We cannot eradicate a suspicion that "all" those events that he says he can "Truly deliver" (385-86) with the eager Fortinbras and "the noblest" of his court as the "audience" (387) may be easily manipulated in such a way as to be built in the mechanism of consolidation of power that the Norwegian prince will certainly set about. Hamlet's dying voice for Fortinbras regarding the next Danish throne, which Hamlet has also entrusted to Horatio (355-58), together with Fortinbras's own claim of "some rights, of memory in this [Danish] kingdom" (389), will be conducive to the legitimation of power. Fortinbras might capitalize on this opportune story, emphasizing the unspeakable corruption and monstrous atrocity that dominated the bygone regime of "this kingdom," the quondam Danish court, and thus enhancing the justice of his rule of the realm. Horatio, assigned the task of storytelling at the end of the tragedy—etymologically, his name stands for "oratorical recitation"—might be deliberately made to negotiate with the newly established power in a way inauspicious to "my story." "Horatio, I am dead, / Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied" (338-40). Contrary to Hamlet's keenest wish, "my cause" will be irretrievably misrepresented. How sad! Alas, poor Hamlet!

Whatever the case may be, tragedy is over. The final Hamlet landscape that an eminent Shakespearean critic depicts is awful. After referring to the "sound" of the "musings and indecision of Hamlet" that "have been a frantically personal obbligato in the Senecan movement of revenge," Thomas McFarland closes his existentialist reading of the play with this statement: "Now at last [the] sound is stilled, the skulls grin, and the play moves toward its universal night."73 The "universal night" that the critic assumes for the play's final tableau could be apocalyptic. Perhaps apocalypse is intrinsically grotesque. And in our modern time we will be exposed to such an apocalyptic scenery. In his enormously provocative and problematical tirade, Lucky in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a grotesque parody of "man thinking" as he is,74 betraying glossolalia and logorrhea, talks compulsively and ceaselessly about "the skull the skull the skull the skull" that supposedly abounds in the universal graveyard that his visionary reflection reveals our entire world has become. Lucky's antic discourse is, as he himself paradoxically avers at its temporary end, left "unfinished. . . ."75


I have amended the original text of this essay, which appeared in The Northern Review (The English Department, Hokkaido University, Hokkaido, Japan) 8 (1980). All Shakespearean references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). I have taken the liberty of removing all the parenthetical additions that are found in this edition.

In addition to those I have adduced directly in the notes I would like to acknowledge my indebtedness to the following important studies for understanding the grotesque: G. Wilson Knight, "King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque," in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy (1930; London: Methuen, 1972), pp. 160-76; Robert Eisler, "Danse Macabre," Traditio 6 (1948): 187-225; Vivian Mercier, "Macabre and Grotesque Humour in the Irish Tradition," in The Irish Comic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University, 1962), pp. 47-77; Lee Byron Jennings, "The Term 'Grotesque,'" in The Ludicrous Demon: Aspects of the Grotesque in German Post-Romantic Prose, University of California Publications in Modern Philology 71 (Berkeley: University of California, 1963), pp. 1-27; Howard Daniel, Devils, Monsters, and Nightmares: An Introduction to the Grotesque and Fantastic in Art (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1964); Frances K. Barasch, The Grotesque: A Study in Meanings (The Hague: Mouton, 1971); Philip Thomson, The Grotesque, The Critical Idiom Series (London: Methuen, 1972); Richard M. Cook, "The Grotesque and Melville's Mardi," ESQ 21, 2d Quarter (1975): 103-10; Frederick Busch, "Dickens: The Smile of the Face of the Dead," Mosaic 9 (summer 1976): 149-56; Richard M. Cook, "Evolving the Inscrutable: The Grotesque in Melville's Fiction," American Literature 49 (January 1978): 544-59; M. B. van Buren, "The Grotesque in Visual Art and Literature," Dutch Quarterly Review 12 (1982): 42-53; Geoffrey G. Harpham, On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (Princeton: Princeton University, 1982).

1 Jacques Choron, Death and Modern Man (New York: Macmillan, Collier Books, 1964), p. 163.

2 C. S. Lewis, "Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem," in Studies in Shakespeare: British Academy Lectures, ed. Peter Alexander (London: Oxford University, 1964), p. 211.

3 Lewis, p. 212.

4 Lewis, p. 212.

5 In his treatment of Elizabethan Grotesque (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 42, Neil Rhodes mentions the provocative use that Thomas Nashe and François Rabelais made of "grotesque food imagery" for portraiture of the protean body: "sharply aware of the body's capacity for mutation, both Nashe and Rabelais use grotesque food imagery to remind us of the essential similarity between our own flesh and the flesh we feed it with: the devourer is devoured." In our opinion, what amplifies the grotesque ambience is the endless cyclical reciprocation of eating mobilized by death.

6 Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 2d ed. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University, 1971), p. 205.

7 Richard D. Altick, "Hamlet and the Odor of Mortality," Shakespeare Quarterly 5 (spring 1954): 168.

8 M. M. Mahood, "Hamlet, " in Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 112.

9 G. Wilson Knight, "The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet," in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy (1930; London: Methuen, 1972), p. 22.

10 Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (1948; rev. ed., New York: Dutton, 1969), informs us that in the age of Shakespeare, the word "fishmonger" had the bawdy connotation of "a procurer; a pimp." It was synonymous with "fleshmonger," or "wencher," and was apparently made on the analogy of a "whoremonger." Polonius is a Pandarus. As a matter of fact, he looses his daughter Ophelia to Hamlet with a view to sounding the mystery of the prince's behavior. In their confrontation Hamlet bursts out to his former sweetheart in an uncontrollable bout of anger: "Get thee to a nunn'ry. .. . / Go thy ways to a nunn'ry" (3.1.120, 128-29). This is equally an innuendo. Partridge says that "'nunnery' . . . bears the fairly common Elizabethan slang sense 'brothel.'" Hamlet has detected Polonius's scheme. By no means will he be taken in by a whore Ophelia set on by a whoremonger Polonius.

On the other hand, we can take the passage in another sense, quite literally. That is to say, Hamlet is trying to confine Ophelia's disturbing sexuality, darkly associated with death and decomposition through maggots, to an institution where it may be safely contained. As the sight of Celia shitting dumbfounds Swift's ingenuous persona, Ophelia's liability to conception (whose causation may be thought to be her seductive beauty, irresistible carnal attraction) repels and saddens Hamlet. He blames Ophelia ruthlessly, "why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" (120-21). Conception is never a blessing; it is the damnable act of breeding a sinner. Conception as the fruit of sinful sexuality—so it seems to our hero—can be regarded as perpetual reproduction (in the economic sense of the word, as well) of sin, since daughters of Ophelia will successively be breeders of sinners. Procreation is a practice of eternal return.

Defining himself as a sinner, he catalogues a number of his faults, the defects that flesh is heir to. His agony culminates in a self-denunciation: "What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?" (126-28). Hamlet thinks of himself as a vile creature crawling between heaven and earth, a kind of reptile wriggling its way on earth, unable to find any meaning for his herpetological existence. (Without much offending the susceptibility on the part of the audience, a Hamlet actor could, if he would, adopt here a grotesque reptilian posture of prostrate crawling.)

With maniacal tenacity Hamlet urges Ophelia: "Get thee to a nunn'ry, farewell. .. . To a nunn'ry, go, and quickly too. .. . To a nunn'ry, go" (136-49). Like any sexually unruly woman, Ophelia must be excluded from a conjugal life. At least Hamlet wants to shun the yoke, for unlike a fool who only is fit for marriage, he is wise enough to know what a "monster" Ophelia will make of him (138-39). The "monster" refers, admittedly, to a cuckold, a man growing horns on his forehead on account of his wife's infidelity. Hamlet is congener with the comic protagonist Panurge in Rabeiais's novel who takes such aversion to becoming a cocu that he goes on quest for the wondrous means to avoid the infamous destiny and with Othello, who is demonically concerned with "this forked plague" (Othello, 3.3.276). Marriage is a civilized institution geared to production of male monstrosities. Many a monster (a grotesque conglomeration of man and beast) dwells in Venice, Iago whispers gleefully to the wretch Othello (Othello, 4.1.62-64).

Speaking of marriage, it turns out another species of monster. Taking his leave for his journey to England, Hamlet accosts Claudius:

HAMLET: Farewell, dear mother.
KING: Thy loving father, Hamlet.
HAMLET: My mother: father and mother is man
and wife, man and wife is one flesh—so,
my mother.


The biblical proposition is given an accursed exegesis. It is interpreted to the letter by deploying irrefutable syllogism, and in the event Claudius is passed off as Hamlet's mother. What an extraordinary and yet funny logic it is! (As we will see in due course, Hamlet is a fool, a talented one at that. Only a fool has propensity for such unpredictable verbal ingenuity. In passing, the fool Hamlet and the whore Ophelia are specular images of their prototypical counterparts in one of the sources of Hamlet.) Being a man-wife, Claudius looms up as a double-gendered aberration, an anamorphic case, a teratological phenomenon. . . .

A modern student of depth psychology would find fitting material for his or her study of the so-called primal scene in the fantastic union of Hamlet's father and mother. Enormously offensive is Hamlet's prurient, even voyeuristic depiction of the scene.

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making
Over the nasty sty!


In their sexual life that Hamlet daydreams and actually verbalizes in the presence of his mother, Claudius and Gertrude appear as satyrs (Claudius is, as a matter of fact, called "a satyr" on the same occasion)—mythically conceived beastly figures endued with inordinate lust.

Hamlet has no right to pry into, still less reveal, the most private, secret part of his parents' marital life. Still their marriage causes another disturbance to Hamlet. Their incestuous union seems to have affected a sound family relationship. "My uncle-father and aunt-mother" (2.2.376), once Hamlet so called Claudius and Gertrude, respectively. It is a question of civil register. And how would anthropology deal with this anomaly in kinship structure? How would it resolve this exceptional case of mixed familial appellation? "A little more than kin, and less than kind" (1.2.64-65)—Hamlet's riddling reply to Claudius's greeting words "my cousin Hamlet, and my son" (63) might remain unamenable to facile explanation.

"Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral, p. 5: 'There was a performance of Hamlet in the Turk-Sib region which the audience decided spontaneously was farce'" (Norman O. Brown, Closing Time [1973; New York: Vintage Books, 1974], p. 50).

Or if it is genre that matters, we could surmise that an item on the impressive list Polonius has compiled is eligible for generic nomenclature applicable to our play: "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral" (2.2.398-99). And will this miscegenated qualifier strike us as grotesque?

11 Prosser, p. 205.

12 G. R. Elliott, Scourge and Minister: A Study of Hamlet as Tragedy of Revengefulness and Justice (1951; New York: AMS Press, 1965), p. 164.

13 Nigel Alexander, Poison, Play, and Duel: A Study in Hamlet (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 162.

14 Mathew Winston, "Humour noir and Black Humor," in Veins of Humor, ed. Harry Levin, Harvard English Studies 3 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1972), p. 283.

15 Henri Bergson, "Laughter," in Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Anchor, 1956).

16 Alexander, p. 163: "one of the most vital moments in the play is when Hamlet, examining the 'chap-fall'n' skull of Yorick, appears to accept that the end of all the playing, and all the painting, must be the last grave joke of death." I have stretched Alexander's idea in my favor.

17 Harry Morris, "Hamlet as a Memento Mori Poem," PMLA 85 (October 1970): 1037. The skull of Yorick signals that which has been irremediably lost in the passage of time, and it immediately propels Hamlet to retrieve it. What a Shakespeare critic terms "the myth of memory," which is, incidentally, one of the most important themes in Proust's monumental novel Remembrance of Things Past (1954) in 3 vols., trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (1981; New York: Vintage Books, 1982), is inscribed in the impassioned episode; see James P. Hammersmith, "Hamlet and the Myth of Memory," E.L.H. 45 (winter 1978): 597-605: "The issue of time and its relationship to memory in Hamlet is raised in its most problematical aspect by the memento mori, the skull of Yorick" (p. 597).

18 For this subject in our play, see D. R. Howard, "Hamlet and the Contempt of the World," The South Atlantic Quarterly 58 (spring 1959): 167-75. In it Howard points out "the popularity during Shakespeare's time of the Dance of Death and of memento mori devices, both of which reflect contempt of the world," and argues that "motifs in popular and religious art seem to have been employed with a certain mild humor as a popular convention which traditionally, though perhaps not very effectively, reminded men of the brevity of life and the need for repentance" and that "no doubt a certain amount of Weltschmerz attached itself to them" (p. 168). Man-devouring worms and the dusty or clayey fate that awaits a person after death, which we will subsequently discuss, are to be fixed in this tradition: "man's body was called worms' meat or food for worms, and his life was likened to dust or ashes, clay, smoke, fire, wax, and so on" (p. 169).

19 Apropos of logical ultraism, Arthur Clayborough treats Swift in terms of "The Fantasy of Extreme Logic" in his study The Grotesque in English Literature (1965; rpt. with corrections, Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), pp. 112-57.

20 Because of the suspiciousness of her dying, Ophelia is allowed only the "maimed rites" (5.1.219), at which Laertes utters forth imprecations accompanied by a supplication "from her fair and unpolluted flesh / May violets spring!" (239-40). Ophelia's supplicated passage into floral being may remind us of Ovidian metamorphoses which are occasionally marked by the grotesque. But I am not sure whether it has a shade of the Ovidian grotesque. Her "mermaid-like" (4.7.176) death may sound equally Ovidian.

21 Elliott, p. 164.

22 Willard Farnham, The Shakespearean Grotesque: Its Genesis and Transformations (Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 116-17. The focal scene appears to be imbued with "fear of death and humour." According to Earle P. Scarlett, "The Dance of Death," The Dalhousie Review 37 (winter 1958): 384, "the very incongruity of these two things" is characteristic of a design of the Dance of Death.

23 James M. Clark, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Glasgow: Jackson, 1950), p. 105.

24 Thomas M. Columbus, "Tristram's Dance with Death—Volume VII of Tristram Shandy," The University of Dayton Review 8 (fall 1971): 3-15.

25 Paul Hamill, "Death's Lively Image: The Emblematic Significance of the Closet Scene in Hamlet" Texas Studies in Literature and Language 16 (summer 1974): 258.

26 Leonard P. Kurtz, The Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit in European Literature (New York: Columbia University, 1934), p. 1.

27 Knight, pp. 27, 30, and 41, respectively. Incidentally, in respect to inordinate death-consciousness, Knight links Hamlet with Stavrogin in Dostoyevski's The Possessed (or The Devils (1870-72) (p. 35). When we focus on the problematics of suicide, however, Hamlet appears to be more akin to Kirilov, that extraordinary, superhuman proponent of the philosophy of suicide. Anyway, these three men are coordinated in a triptych; Hamlet shows a striking proclivity for suicidal imaginings, while, like Kirilov, Stavrogin kills himself. As Eleanore Rowe says in a chapter called "Dostoevsky and Hamlet" in her book Hamlet: A Window on Russia (New York: New York University, 1976), p. 87, "the theme of suicide seems to evoke Hamlet for Dostoevsky."

To continue the comparison between Hamlet and Dostoevsky, our hero also reminds us of "the underground" man of the Russian writer's creating. Hamlet's correlative to the Dostoevskian "underground" is the "nutshell in [which] I could be bounded, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams" (2.2.254-56). Another name for both Hamlet's "nutshell" and Dostoevsky's "underground" is the "grotto" in our diction: their claustrophile, reclusive way of living is "grotto-esque," that is, grotesque. For exciting discussion of the sympathy between these antiheroic protagonists, see Stanley Cooperman, "Shakespeare's Anti-Hero: Hamlet and the Underground Man," Shakespeare Studies 1, ed. J. Leeds Barroll (1965): 37-63.

28 Hamill, p. 258.

29 Hamill, p. 259.

30 Prosser, p. 151.

31 Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art (London: Thomas Nelson, 1964), p. 197.

32 I found the following studies greatly stimulating: Oscar James Campbell, "What Is the Matter with Hamlet?" The Yale Review 32 (1942): 309-22; the same author's Shakespeare's Satire (1943; rpt., Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1963); Lawrence Babb, The Elizabethan Malady: A Study of Melancholia in English Literature from 1580 to 1642 (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1951); Alvin Kernan, The Cankered Muse: Satire of the English Renaissance (1959; rpt., Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976); Robert C. Elliott, "Saturnalia, Satire, and Utopia," in The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970), pp. 3-24; Bridget Geliert Lyons, Voices of Melancholy: Studies in Literary Treatments of Melancholy in Renaissance England (New York: Norton, 1971).

33The Knight's Tale from The Canterbury Tales, ed. A. C. Spearing with introduction (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University, 1966). Spearing concludes his introduction with this observation: "The twentieth century can perhaps legitimately see in this fourteenth-century poem a view of the human condition as neither comic nor tragic but absurd—a view of life similar to that expressed by a modern writer such as Samuel Beckett and found in Shakespeare by a modern critic such as Jan Kott. The poem's view of life does not seem to me to be that of orthodox medieval Christianity, nor is it necessarily Chaucer's own total and final view. . . . Perhaps the world is ruled by Saturn: this is the hypothesis into which The Knight's Tale invites us to enter, and it is all the more challenging and disturbing a poem because its view of human life is not pure but dubious and mixed" (p. 79).

34 Farnham, p. 61.

35 Bernard Grebanier, The Heart of Hamlet: The Play Shakespeare Wrote, with the text of the play (New York: Apollo Editions [Thomas Y. Crowell], 1960), p. 321, scrutinizes the son-sun quibble, demonstrating six ways of interpreting it.

36 Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey (1960; New York: Norton, 1963).

37 Guy Mermier, "The Grotesque in French Medieval Literature: A Study in Forms and Meanings," Genre 9 (1976/77): 381.

38 Maurice Charney, Style in Hamlet (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1969), p. 69.

39 Norman N. Holland, "Hamlet, " in The Shakespearean Imagination (2d ed., Bloomington: Indiana University, 1975), p. 176. Emphasis added.

40 Hamill, p. 253.

41 On my mind are the two fascinating Shakespeare tomes: Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of a Metaphor in Relation to His Major Villains (New York: Columbia University, 1958); and Charlotte Spivack, The Comedy of Evil on Shakespeare's Stage (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/London: Associated University Presses, 1978).

42 Hamill, p. 253.

43 Hamill, p. 252.

44 On the Ghost a great number of studies are available. The following seem to be typical: John Dover Wilson, "Ghost or Devil?" in What Happens in Hamlet (1935; rpt., Cambridge Eng.: Cambridge University, 1970), pp. 51-86; Madeleine Doran, "That Undiscovered Country: A Problem concerning the Use of the Supernatural in Hamlet and Macbeth," Philological Quarterly 20 (July 1941): 413-27; I. J. Semper, "The Ghost in Hamlet: Pagan or Christian?" The Month (April 1953): 222-34; J. C. Maxwell, "The Ghost from the Grave: A Note on Shakespeare's Apparitions," Durham University Journal, n.s. 17 (March 1956): 55-59; Sister Miriam Joseph, "Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet" PMLA 76 (December 1961): 493-502; Niels L. Anthonisen, "The Ghost in Hamlet," American Imago 22 (winter 1965): 232-49; Eleanor Prosser, "Enter Ghost" and "Spirit of Health or Goblin Damned?" in Hamlet and Revenge, pp. 97-117 and 118-43; Robert H. West, "King Hamlet's Ambiguous Ghost," in Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1968), pp. 56-68.

45 Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, trans. Ulrich Weisstein (1963; rpt, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 185.

46 Kayser, p. 185.

47 Kayser, p. 185. Emphasis added.

48 For description of this paragraph, I am indebted to Harry Levin's excellent study The Question of Hamlet (London: Oxford University, 1959). The dominant theme and atmosphere of mystery in our play are ably discussed by: Maynard Mack, "The World of Hamlet," Yale Review 41 (September 1951): 502-23 (rpt. in Tragic Themes in Western Literature, ed. Cleanth Brooks [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1955], pp. 30-58); Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay; West, Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery; Robert G. Hunter, "Hamlet, " in Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments (Athens: University of Georgia, 1976), pp. 101-26; John Arthos, "The Undiscovered Country," in Shakespeare's Use of Dream and Vision (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1977), pp. 137-72. Mahood's contention in this respect deserves special attention (pp. 111-12): "To the Elizabethan audience, it [Hamlet] must have been primarily a mystery drama in the cinema-poster sense of the word. It is a detective story: almost everyone in it is involved in some form of detection. . . . Hamlet is also a mystery play of a deeper kind. It is a mystery play in the medieval sense and its background of a Catholic eschatology keeps us constantly in mind of something after death. Murder and incest are unnatural acts; but behind and beyond the discovered crimes lies an evil which is supernatural. . . . Philosophy, however (as Hamlet tells Horatio), does not comprehend mysteries of this order. Hamlet's own insight into such mysteries sets him apart from friends and enemies alike. Everyone else is concerned in the unmasking of legal crimes. Hamlet alone, surrounded by the politic ferrets of a Machiavellian court, knows that the action in which he is involved is 'not a story of detection, of crime and its punishment, but of sin and expiation.'"

49 The numinous constitutes the idea of the holy that Rudolf Otto developed in his epoch-making study The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, trans. John W. Harvey (1923; rpt., London: Oxford University, 1979). For the germaneness of the numinous with the grotesque, see Carl Skrade, God and the Grotesque (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), passim. I feel grateful to the late James Luther Adams for having directed my attention to Skrade's interesting book.

50 This is one of the most vital ideas in Kayser's theory of the grotesque.

51 Kayser, p. 31.

52 Kayser, p. 31.

53 Kayser, p. 184.

54 Kayser, p. 31.

55 Holland, p. 172, says: "That fatal revelation is the disease, the rottenness, at the core of the play. Early on, Hamlet speaks of the tragic flaw that a man may have: he calls it 'the dram of e'il,' 'some vicious mole of nature,' and later he calls the Ghost 'old mole.' Indeed, the Ghost is the walking blemish of the land, the figure who proves by his very presence that 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.' The Ghost turns this blight, this disease, onto Hamlet himself, so that Hamlet becomes, in the words of the King, 'the quick of the ulcer,' the living, growing part of the disease."

56 Kayser, p. 15.

57 Kayser, pp. 14-15.

58 Lewis, p. 212. Emphasis added.

59 Kayser, p. 184.

60 James L. Calderwood finds this self-definition that our hero attains to be of pivotal significance for Hamlet; see his study To Be and Not to Be: Negation and Metadrama in Hamlet (New York: Columbia University, 1983). Calderwood's Shakespeare volume is one of the major contributions to the study of Hamlet in our modern time.

61 Prosser, p. 238.

62 I owe this idea to Norman N. Holland, p. 171: "and he [i.e., Hamlet] dies on a pun: 'The rest is silence'—'rest' as either 'repose' or 'remainder.'"

63 Shakespeare's idealistic view of silence and eternity (as in "Passing through nature to eternity") is not immune to deflating commentary, which is provided by Tom Stoppard in his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (New York: Grove Press, 1967):

But no one gets up after death—there is no applause—there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that's—death—. (p. 123)

Death followed by eternity .. . the worst of both worlds. It is a terrible thought, (p. 72)

Stoppard's dramatic work, whose title is a quotation from Hamlet (5.2.371), can be called a meta-Hamlet play, living on Hamlet and constituting critique of it.

64 See Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1968). I borrowed the notion of the convergence of "comicity" and "cosmicity" from Farnham, p. 50.

65 Columbus, pp. 14-15.

66 Columbus, p. 14.

67 Theodore Spencer, Death and Elizabethan Tragedy: A Study of Convention and Opinion in the Elizabethan Drama (New York: Pageant Books, 1960), p. 155.

68 William Shakespeare, "The Sonnet 146," in The Sonnets, ed. William Burto (New York: New American Library, 1964), p. 186.

69 Herman Melville, "The Whiteness of the Whale," in Moby-Dick, A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker (New York: Norton, 1967), p. 169.

70 G. Farrell Lee, "Grotesque and the Demonism of Silence: Beckett's Endgame," Notre Dame English Journal 14 (winter 1981): 59.

71 Kayser, p. 188.

72 Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski, with preface by Peter Brook (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 67.

73 Thomas McFarland, Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 59. Emphasis added.

74 In reviewing Waiting for Godot (17 January 1953), Jacques Lemarchand evaluates Lucky's tour de force thinking performance as "a remarkable recital of the parodic, baroque monologue of 'man thinking'": Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, ed. Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 92.

75 Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), p. 29b. For explication of Lucky's monologue see my article '"In the Muddle the Sound-dance': Lucky and His Tirade in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, " Gengobunka-bu Kiyo (Bulletin of the Institute of Language and Culture Studies) (Hokkaido University, Hokkaido, Japan) 24 (1993): 95-130.

Source: "Grinning Death's-Head: Hamlet and the Vision of the Grotesque," in The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections, edited by James Luther Adams and Wilson Yates, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997, pp. 193-226.