This Is I, Hamlet The Dane!

We’ve all been there. The time comes for you to go round the group and introduce yourselves. The phrase “say a little bit about yourself”, so inviting, so modest, so demonstrably easy, is also a phrase that strikes fear into the sturdiest of hearts. Will you say too much, or too little? Will you appear arrogant, or worse, underwhelming and fey? Will your witty intro be perceived as trivial, or be met with blank stares of incomprehension? And, if you are near the end of a very long line, you may begin to worry whether words will even come out of your mouth, or whether a hysterical snort laugh will be your only utterance. Last week I started my fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Study. Their unique early career fellowship gives emergent academics like me the opportunity to develop their profile and skills through the ACE training system. Inevitably, the dreaded moment came when we had to introduce ourselves. Yes, I did do the terrible snort laugh, but I managed words as well, so it wasn’t too bad. While I thought this would be my least favourite part of the day, it turned out to be the moment when I realised how very exciting this fellowship had the potential to be.

As each of the new fellows introduced themselves in turn, it became clear that the ‘interdisciplinary’ nature of this fellowship was far more than just buzzwords in a funding application. The group featured scholars whose projects were based in areas as disparate as Statistics, and Italian Studies, Veterinary Epidemiology, and History. Even more exciting than this eclectic group being gathered in one room, were the clear parallels and links that emerged as we described our research. After four years working on my PhD, in which my research was focussed towards the sole aim of finishing my thesis, I think my view of my subject had become a little narrow. The conversation in the room really got me thinking about exciting aspects of my area of research that I’d either put on the back burner, or completely failed to see before. Mixing in new or unusual perspectives can only make work, and life, more interesting. Like the ingredients of my favourite breakfast, Eggs Benedict, different academic disciplines can produce wonderful results when mixed together.

It’s not only research and breakfast that can benefit from an exciting and unexpected ingredient. Shakespeare’s plays are famous for examples of generic mixing. Shockingly to some, Shakespeare’s drama mixed comic and tragic elements, and princes shared their plays with clowns and drunkards. Often Shakespeare’s most thought- provoking moments are produced by this sort of surprising combination. Sometimes two parallel plots exist in one play, juxtaposing different types of comedy: raucous ‘low’ characters, with rough and ready humour, undercut the marriage plots of loftier figures. For example, this ‘upstairs, downstairs’ structure is at work in Twelfth Night as the wooing of Countess Olivia by Duke Orsino, is shadowed and contrasted by the scatological, sexual humour exploding under Maria’s supervision. At other times a comic character will appear in a tragedy, exposing, through riddles or jokes, an essential truth that eludes the tragic hero. In King Lear the Fool provides a commentary through his jokes and songs through much of the play, but in Hamlet, the wisecracking gravediggers (sometimes called Clowns one and two) appear only once, at a pivotal moment in the plot.

In Act V Scene I Hamlet returns from England a changed man. He has spent most of the play dithering, and torturing himself about what he should do about the fact that his uncle murdered his father, usurped his crown, and married his mother. It’s a common struggle. But in Act V Scene I Hamlet declares himself “the Dane” and seems to take his destiny in hand. By assuming the title “Hamlet the Dane”, the prince takes up the role of his father (whose ghost he addresses as “royal Dane” in Act I Scene IV), signalling his refusal to continue in the strange state of indecision and lack of identity caused by his failure to respond to his uncle’s crime and his usurpation of the throne. His father's ghostly purgatory is reflected by Hamlet's purgatory on earth. Hamlet acknowledges his role as revenger in a revenge tragedy, but it is a figure from an entirely different genre that catalyses this realisation of generic destiny. Hamlet and Horatio come across two men digging a grave, and the prince and gravedigger exchange witty banter, full of puns. Hamlet, who has not revealed his identity, hears himself described as a mad man.
First Clown: he that is mad, and sent into England.
Hamlet: Ay, marry, why was be sent into England?
First Clown: Why, because 'a was mad. 'A shall recover his wits there; or, if 'a do not, 'tis no great matter there.
Hamlet: Why?
First Clown: 'Twill not he seen in him there. There the men are as mad as he.
This is an easy joke, which would have tickled the English audience of the play, and is characteristic of the gravedigger’s humour. In this way the scene provides a bit of light relief, but also a serious meditation on mortality. The commoner, standing in the grave, cheekily addressing Prince Hamlet with no reverence or sense of hierarchy, is reminder of the levelling nature of death. Whether clowns or kings, all flesh is mortal and ends up as dust. Hamlet asks the gravedigger for whom the grave is being dug, and after a bit of back and forth, the gravedigger gives his answer,
Hamlet: What man dost thou dig it for?
First Clown: For no man, sir.
Hamlet: What woman then?
First Clown: For none neither.
Hamlet: Who is to be buried in't?
First Clown: One that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, she's dead.
The frustrating badinage of the gravedigger presents the corpse as divorced from its former identity. The corpse has become neither man nor woman, because these identities designate a living body. The gravedigger not only refuses to assign a gender to the corpse, but also to give any further identification. Hamlet seems to be expecting a name, but even when the gravedigger reveals the grave is for “One that was a woman”, the prince’s wish to know more is unsatisfied, because after death these signifiers become irrelevant. All skulls look more or less the same, whether they used to belong to royalty or beggars. Hamlet transforms the gravedigger’s banter into a polished meditation.
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay, 
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. 
O, that the earth which kept the world in awe 
Should patch a wall t' expel the winter's flaw!
Even great leaders like Caesar end up as dust, the same as anyone else. Hamlet’s tone here may be wistful but it is also undoubtedly comic. The idea of the mighty Caesar patching up a hole in the wall is a classic example of bathos. But this idea – that death makes us all equal – is not new to Hamlet. Before he leaves for England, Hamlet accidentally murders Polonius and, in Act IV Scene III, rails at Claudius that “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar”. It is unclear whether Hamlet’s ‘madness’ in this scene is genuine or an antic disposition he has “put on”, but either way, he continues to fail in his role as revenger. At this earlier point Hamlet’s assertion of man’s mortality, and the indifference of death to status seems to induce anger in him, rather than amused acceptance, as it does in the grave scene. In revenge tragedy, the inevitable fate of the revenger is death. In accepting the role of revenger, Hamlet also accepts his own death. Shakespeare’s imposition of the comic gravedigger into Hamlet’s tragedy enables him to realise and accept the truth of his situation.

Much less dramatically, in our own lives, the introduction of a new perspective, or an unexpected situation can often provide clarity or insight. Meeting researchers from different disciplines has given me the opportunity not only to explore new ideas, and potential collaborations, but also to see my own work afresh, as if with new eyes. It has to be said that Hamlet’s choice to introduce his newly motivated and focussed identity by leaping into a grave and shouting “This is I! Hamlet the Dane!” makes my terrible snort laugh at the IAS look positively like a social success. Whatever, happens, we can all be glad we’re not Hamlet. My good fortune at becoming an IAS early career fellow almost seems like the happy conclusion of a comedy, but I know it’s only the start of an exciting new act of a longer play. I am very much looking forward to exploring all the new avenues and perspectives that my exciting opportunity with the IAS will afford. Eggs Benedict anyone?

Thomasin Bailey

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  1. such a nice post im searching similir kind of this im also working on this
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