Hamlet and Derrida, Brought to you by Penumbra


Hamlet 1 hamlet's ghost

Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match.

-Shakespeare (Henry IV, part 2)

To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of the concept.


By Alyssa Noelle Rasmussen, Web Editor

Deconstruction is seen as a destructive theory by many scholars. They conceptualize Derrida’s thought as a labyrinth that requests that you play about while trapped within it; an activity as unnerving as Pip surely was when Miss Havisham commanded him to play in her creepy, rotting, sitting room. For deconstructionists, meaning laboriously makes itself and then scuttles off  (or undergoes metamorphosis) still more quickly; for those in pursuit of knowledge that can be grasped or leaned upon, deconstruction appears a fickle, mercurial, approach. So why apply it to Hamlet? In Hamlet alone a number of deconstructionist themes including ‘the Just’, uncanniness, the spectre, the repetition compulsion, and the nom du pere, can be explored. Here we are most concerned with how the ghostly (non)entity symbolizes and how that symbol plays itself out both in Hamlet’s drive and his ability to fulfill the ghost’s commandment. As Laurent Dubreuil points out in her reading of Helen Cixuous’s novel Le jour ou je n’etais pas la (The Day I Wasn’t There), “spectrality is in no way a detail. Insofar as spectrality is supposed to escape from, even ruin, ontology, it is related to the whole meaning of deconstruction (111).” For deconstructionists, Hamlet’s ghost is significant in and of itself, perhaps more significant than the news it delivers. Due to this, Hamlet’s march beyond Scene 1, after his initial meeting with the ghost, must be read through a ghost-tainted lens: his actions are clouded and effected by his consorting with, and commitment to, an entity whose very form destroys ontology. Unlike the messenger in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, who has the task of telling Cleopatra of Anthony’s betrayal and, upon hearing her threat to his physical health, states in defense, “I that do bring the news made not the match,” (giving birth to the phrase ‘don’t shoot the messenger’) a deconstructive reading approaches the messenger expectantly: the ghostly shape calls attention to the bearer rather than the news, although the news has its store of Derridean implications as well.  The ‘effects’ produced by engaging with this non-being are expounded as Hamlet accedes to its commandment; Hamlet’s post-visitation behavior and thought are to be read as a result of this promise; this pledge to remember that which is present-Father/ghost/”thing” and absent-nothing at once.

For deconstructionists there is no pure present. Every presence is sullied by the presence of absence within and about it. Absence is what presence is not, but also that which from which it emerges. As presence’s opposite, absence plays a crucial role in presence’s establishment. The phenomenon of sea-foam illustrates this present/absent binary well; sea foam is no longer algal bloom; sea water; or lignins – it surfaces, becomes present, as part of and as other than that which participates in its creation, bearing traces of all that it is not while demonstrating what it is. It calls upon these absences in the very act of presenting itself as distinct from them. Hamlet’s ghost epitomizes this presence/absence paradox well but goes beyond it into the nature of being and non-being; escaping from or jeopardizing the concept of being, the “spectre is a “Thing” (Shakespeare’s term) and yet not a thing, not a substance. It hovers uncertainly between material embodiment and disembodiment. It inhabits a space of pure virtuality, and what in that space is swallowed up is the ontological ground of Being itself (Prendergast, 45).”  There but not there, visible but not material, the spectre epitomizes a presence and an absence that has been disturbed and dislodged. The commandment “remember me,” imparted to Hamlet from this spectral space, is laden with, and is harbinger for, Hamlet’s greater ontological ambiguity.

HAMLET: O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?

And shall I couple hell? O fie, hold, hold, my heart,

And you, my sinows, grow not instant old,

But bear me [stiffly] up. Remember thee!

Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat

In this distracted globe. Remember thee!

Yea, from the table of my memory

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past

That youth and observation copied there,

And thy commandment all alone shall live

Within the book and volume of my brain,

Unmix’d with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!

O most pernicious woman!

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!

My tables – meet it is I set it down

That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!

At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.  [He writes.]

So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word.

It is “Adieu, adieu! Remember me.”

I have sworn’t.

Act 1, Scene 5, 92-112

Readers of Hamlet would probably concur that the play’s namesake, though delayed, does his best to fulfill the ghost’s commandment. In the passage above Hamlet’s aspiration to “wipe away all trivial fond records,/ All saws of books,/ all forms,/ all pressures past” in order to live “thy commandment alone” can be read not only as an emotional response asserting familial devotion but by wishing to do so in memory of thee – the ghost, he also shows an adherence to adopt and enact, in reiterated remembrance of him/it, a ghostly present. Hamlet’s inclination to erase all but this phantasmal commandment would result in a single-car train of thought, free from the workings of Derrida’s concept of ‘supplementation at the origin’ by which:

“each presence requires supplementation by something else to which it refers or relates and from which it differs…what is present in the mind has a kind of ghost effect, a flickering of passing moments that are differentially constituted by their relations and their interconnectness, they have no full, substantial presence (Rivkin and Ryan, 258).”

And if supplementation is blocked or diminished by a reduction of referents? What does living ghostly logic entail – would it function as a ‘presence‘ vacuum? What is to become of anyone if they wipe clean the slate and have naught else to relate but the memory of that which is neither present nor absent – a ghost whose ‘flickering’ gestures at, and then demolishes, ontology? Eliminating all else in order to enact or live by “thy commandment alone,” that of remembering, Hamlet’s promise to the ghost marks a shift in his relationship to presence and to being.

Though he doesn’t differentiate the pre-phantasmal Hamlet from the post-encounter one, Christopher Prendergast, drawing from Nietzsche’s comment that Hamlet’s nature “is not – as in the standard view – that thinks too much, but that he thinks too well” claims that “the sheer lucidity of his thinking corrodes the ground of all possible action in a world dominated by an instrumental logic of means and ends (44, 44-5).” Prendergast, examining the deconstructionist affinities of ontology and justice, weighs the assemblage, or dispersal, of them in Derrida’s concept of spectrality. The ghost, as is sketched in Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, hovers between presence and absence – it’s “radical indeterminancy” fuels and combusts that which would be present, leaving us with a ‘being’ that is always only evanescent. On the other hand, Hamlet’s perspicacious insight that “the time is out of joint” is bound to justice, which, referencing a past wrong harkens a resolution that can only exist in some future where “the historical, the political, and the ontological will come together in a final moment of pure present (46).” Prendergast argues that the inability to agree upon either the location or definition of the original fault inhibits such a moment from ever manifesting and perpetuates, in its wake, a never-ending cycle of violence. For Derrida, to engage with the concept of enacting justice is to participate in the making of “history as an endless revenge-tragedy” (47). The spectre and the commandment he presses upon Hamlet work cogently upon Hamlet’s mind; in his commitment to remember he pledges to seek justice while also aware of the disjointedness and futility of such a commitment. Hamlet’s ghost-encounter hones his already discerning thought; he sees himself as another player in a history of those that have been requested to seek revenge in order to locate a much sought after but ever-absconding justice.

Hamlet's ghost by William Blake

If Hamlet were to succeed in “erasing all previous forms” enabling the ghost’s commandment to inhabit his mind “unmix’d with baser matter” how would it render him? A justice-seeking avenger burdened by the inconsequentiality of his project? Emptying himself of all previous experience, all “flickers”, all “interconnectedness”, would Hamlet come to live a presence, like that of the ghost, which acts as catalyst in the differentiation between presence and absence but is, itself, marked as not quite either? Does his ensuing madness (“I penchance hereafter shall think meet/ to put an antic disposition on”) answer to this? Would his apparition uncannily enjoin or harken others as a contagion would (think: his mother’s, Polonius’ and Ophelia’s reports and accounts) toward a similar deconstruction of ontology? And if Hamlet does succeed in his aspiration to occupy the space that swallows ontology, what referents can be found not-there? Hamlet’s intimate relation and concession with such a foreboding shape asks us to comb through the signification of being haunted thus. Hamlet’s ghost beckons us to explore the space/non-space that it inhabits and leaves behind; to discern its form and its function we call upon a store of oppositions that it has already destroyed in its passage.

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Introduction: Introductory Deconstruction in Literary Theory: An Anthology  ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998. 257-262.

Culler, Jonathon. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism, 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Cornell University Press, 2007.  

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Susanne L. Wofford. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994. Print.

-Murfin, Ross C. What is Deconstruction? 283-296.

-Garber, Marjorie. Hamlet: Giving up the Ghost. 296-331

Dubreuil, Laurent. “The Presences of Deconstruction.” New Literary History 37 (2006): 107-117.

Prendergast, Christopher. “Derrida’s Hamlet.” University of Wisconsin Press 34.1.106 (2005): 44-47.


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