Hamlet: looking backwards

Emma Smith reads Hamlet as a play obsessed with retrospection, repetition and the theatre of the past.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is often seen as a text that looks forward, anticipating some of the psychological dilemmas of modern existence in its depiction of the young prince’s morbid self-consciousness. Critics including Coleridge, Marx and Freud have found in the play the key to their own understanding of their world, and directors throughout the 20th century have imagined a contemporary Hamlet dressed, like David Tennant for the Royal Shakespeare Company (directed by Greg Doran in 2008 and televised in 2009), in a beanie and parka.

Photograph of David Tennant as Hamlet in 2008

Photograph of David Tennant as Hamlet in 2008

David Tennant, giving the famous ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ speech, in the graveyard scene of Hamlet.

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Usage terms Hamlet 2008: Photo by Ellie Kurttz © Royal Shakespeare Company
Held by© Royal Shakespeare Company

Alongside this proto-modernity, however, the play moves in a quite different direction: towards retrospection and the past. Like its hero, the play looks backwards. Hamlet’s own instincts are towards undoing, rather than doing. In his opening scene, his agreement not to return to university fixes him in the role of a child, contrasted with Laertes who is leaving his family for adventure in Paris. His obsession with his father’s death is described as ‘unmanly grief’ by Claudius who reminds him, pragmatically, that nature’s ‘common theme / Is death of fathers’ (1.2.94, 103–04).

No such progress for Hamlet, who is stuck, physically and emotionally. He seems frozen. ‘Man delights not me’, he tells his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and adds, in response to their smirks, ‘no, nor women neither’ (2.2.309). Hamlet’s strongest affections are towards the dead, including his father and Yorick, rather than the living: it is only at Ophelia’s funeral that he can acknowledge his love for her.


Hamlet’s personal situation reflects the political concerns of the period. For some reason the play never fully explains, this adult male heir does not inherit the throne from his father. The play is thus obliquely concerned with the great but unspeakable topical preoccupation of the end of the 16th century: the question of who would succeed the unmarried Queen Elizabeth. It was a crime to discuss the succession directly, but the theatre was able to glance at it through parallel, and in this way Hamlet has close affinities with Shakespeare’s plays on English historical subjects which rehearse similar issues.

Drawings of the funeral procession of Elizabeth I

Drawings of the funeral procession of Elizabeth 1

Hamlet was written before Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, but the play is obliquely concerned with the question of who would succeed her.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Re-venge and re-membering

In part Hamlet’s sense of stasis, of being stuck, is psychological. Mourning for his dead father, Hamlet is caught in the throes of the past: ‘must I remember?’ (1.2.143). The ghost of King Hamlet is the powerful visualisation of this tug backwards, trapped in Purgatory (the post-death location where, for Catholics, earthly sins were to be atoned) while the ‘foul crimes’ of his earthly past ‘are burnt and purg’d away’ (1.5.12–13). His demands on his son are made in the name of the past: ‘If thou didst ever thy dear father love’ ‘Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther’ (1.5.23, 25).

Painting of Purgatory, 1454

Painting of Purgatory, 1454

Painting of souls tormented in the flames of Purgatory (1454)

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Usage terms © DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/ Getty Images

But that ‘re’ prefix of ‘revenge’ echoes again with the ghost’s second command: ‘remember me’ (1.5.91). Re-venge, like re-membering, takes on the quality of repetition, just as the play repeats images and moments from its own past. When the guards turn on the kingly ghost or when Laertes rushes into the throne-room, the memory of regicide – the murder of a king – is recalled; the players’ production of ‘The Mousetrap’ repeats the ghost’s story of sleeping in his orchard; Fortinbras, son of Fortinbras, is the military echo of the cerebral Hamlet, son of Hamlet: both men struggle with the emotional inheritance from their powerful fathers. The play resembles a detective story inasmuch as it must resolve a past and contested event – the death of the king – and like the detective genre it must conduct a retrospective investigation. Memory reverberates in a play preoccupied with the past, and when Fortinbras steps forward at the end to take up the empty throne of Denmark, he does so in the name of history: ‘I have some rights, of memory in this kingdom’ (5.2.389).

The play as forensic tool

As detective, Hamlet’s main forensic tool is theatrical: ‘The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King’ (2.2.604–05). Here, too, his tastes are decidedly retro. The form of his chosen production from the travelling players’ repertoire, ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, resembles the outdated theatre of 50 years previously in separating out the story into mimed action followed by rhetorical speeches. The play Gorboduc, performed for Queen Elizabeth in the early years of her reign, is a similar example: to theatregoers in 1601, this would have seemed as old-fashioned as crackly black and white television programmes to us now. And prompting the player to recall a speech about the sack of Troy, Hamlet looks back to Virgil’s founding myth from the Aeneid, the classical epic which told the story of Aeneas’s founding of Rome. There is also room in this exchange for a small joke about the more immediate past too. Polonius’ recollection of playing Julius Caesar where ‘I was killed i’ th’ Capitol’ (3.2.102) is almost certainly a reminder of one of the company’s previous Shakespeare plays, performed a couple of years earlier, in which the same actor played the title role. But ideas of ancient Rome keep resurfacing in the play. Horatio wants to drink of the poisoned cup in the final scene as ‘more an antique Roman than a Dane’ (5.2.341): the past, and its obligations and conventions, are everywhere in Hamlet.

The Reformation

One aspect of that unquiet past might be England’s rejected Catholicism in the Reformation – a religious and cultural movement of the 16th century which split the Christian Church. Lots of critics have noted that Hamlet straddles the theological divide of early modern culture in its depiction of a Wittenberg-educated son – the university at Wittenberg was indelibly associated with the Protestant reformer Martin Luther – and his Catholic father doomed to Purgatory. The existence, or not, of ghosts was itself a point of theological controversy at the time, and the play expresses both a belief in a Purgatory from which a ghost might return, and the post-Reformation understanding of death as ‘the undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’ (3.1.78–79). The ghost in Hamlet is both a theatrical trick, clanking in the ‘cellarage’ (1.5.151) under the stage, and a serious witness to his posthumous torments. We can see the nostalgic tone of the play in the light of post-Reformation understandings of an alienated Catholic past.

Views of Wittenberg and Elsinore in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

Views of Wittenberg and Elsinore in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

Hand-coloured view of Wittenberg in an opulent atlas of the world’s cities (c. 1600–1623)

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Descriptions of Wittenberg and Padua, 1600

Description of Protestant city of Wittenberg, 1600

In his guide to universities of his day, Samuel Lewkenor says that Wittenberg is famous for ‘disputations of religion’ provoked by Martin Luther.

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The theatrical past

There are other resonant histories too. When Kenneth Branagh filmed Hamlet in 1996, he cast the veteran actor Charlton Heston as the Player King: the choice of actor was a tribute to the outdated but heroic style of a previous acting generation. Shakespeare seems to have been doing something similar in writing the play. He draws on the popular genre of revenge tragedy, and in particular on its blockbuster hit, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1590). From Kyd, Shakespeare seems to have taken the figure of the ghost and the idea of the play-within-a-play; the hero of The Spanish Tragedy is called Horatio, and there too a woman runs mad with grief and kills herself. Kyd’s play establishes the emotional and ideological obligations of the father-son bond, and the proximity of madness, mourning and revenge. It gives Shakespeare, in short, the coordinates for his own drama, but it also casts Hamlet as a kind of homage. Like Hamlet the prince, we might say, Hamlet the play is haunted by a more successful predecessor it tries to imitate but cannot quite shake off. Whereas for us the epitome of theatre itself might be the iconic image of Hamlet and a skull, perhaps with the line ‘to be or not to be’ (3.1.55), for the Elizabethans the most memorable play was Kyd’s, with the highly rhetorical speech of its revenger Hieronimo: ‘O eyes, no eyes, but fountains full of tears’. The real ghost of Hamlet is the theatrical past.

Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, 1615

Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, 1615

Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy was first printed in this 1615 edition.

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The skull

It’s no wonder, then, that this haunted and retrospective play has been distilled into one image: Hamlet face to face with the skull. It’s an image of mortality, of course – the skull as memento mori (an object kept as a reminder of the inevitability of death) so familiar to the 16th century and which stage tragedy came to epitomise. But the skull Hamlet encounters is not an anonymous harbinger of death but a specific reminder of the past: ‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio … He hath bore me on his back a thousand times’ (5.1.184–86). It is the detail of memory here that is affecting and recognisable: ‘a poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once’ (5.1.180).

Skull given by Victor Hugo to Sarah Bernhardt

Skull given by Victor Hugo to Sarah Bernhardt

Human skull, given by the novelist Victor Hugo to the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, and used when she performed Hamlet in 1899.

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Usage terms © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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Personal loss and retrospection converge in Shakespeare’s characterisation of Hamlet to produce a play that looks backwards: theatrically, psychologically, structurally and religiously. Overshadowed by all these pasts, neither Hamlet nor Hamlet can make progress. Hamlet as revenger is also Hamlet who must be revenged: seeking retribution for his father’s death he kills another father and makes his own death a circular inevitability. Like its hero, the play loses its way in the structural fug of the trip to England, the pirates and the preposterous figure of Osric. A work that has come to seem so modern and so contemporary ends when the play’s many pasts catch up with it, and the price of their revenge is the foreshortened future. Gertrude’s lament for the dead Ophelia, ‘I had thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid, / And not have strew’d thy grave’ (5.1.245–46) stands as a more general elegy for a play where the burden of the past overcomes the hope of the future.

More on this topic in my podcast in the ‘Approaching Shakespeare’ series from iTunesU or podcasts.ox.ac.uk

  • Emma Smith
  • Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College Oxford. She has published on many aspects of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in historical, bibliographic and performance contexts. Her books include The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book. Her podcast lectures, ‘Approaching Shakespeare’ can be downloaded from University of Oxford podcasts or iTunesU.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.