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Descent, Deduction and Mimesis: An Anthropological Reading of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

Monday, February 18th, 2013

1. Anthropology, Kinship Studies and Literary Analysis

The typical formula of a revenge tragedy encompasses the following steps: murder, the discovery of the identity of the murderer by a victim’s close kinsman, the failed attempt by the kinsman to seek justice from an official institution, the hunt after the murderer by the victim’s kinsman and the triumphant murder of the murderer by the victim’s kinsman. Throughout the process, the hero runs into various circumstantial hurdles and overcomes them on the way to reach his goal. But none of these problems have anything to do with the psychology of the avenger. As far as his inner world goes, he is fully committed to performing the mission of revenge.

While “Hamlet” falls squarely into the genre of Revenge Tragedy, which was well-developed by Shakespeare’s times, it has become commonplace in Shakespearean scholarship to treat “Hamlet” as a didactic play condemning internecine violence, murder and revenge. “Hamlet” is thought to occupy a transitional stage between the ancient blood ritual of revenge and the Modern emphasis on humanity and forgiveness. Unlike the typical hero of the Revenge Tragedy genre, Hamlet is deeply divided about revenge; he lapses into this pre-modern practice only to pay for this misstep with his life.

The key question that critics usually ask about Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is why it took Hamlet so long to avenge his father’s death and kill his uncle Claudius? Different answers has been provided, most prominently by a prominent Freudian, Ernest Jones, and by the brilliant theorist of mimesis, Rene Girard, but none of them stems from an analysis informed by kinship studies. One of the foremost 20th century theorists of kinship, Claude Levi-Strauss, developed a structural approach to myth that, I believe, remains a viable tool for the analysis of folklore and literature. Levi-Strauss reinterpreted myth from a linear sequence of imaginary events to a paradigmatic structure of relations, thus marrying in a novel approach to mythology insights from both structural linguistics and kinship studies. Although Levi-Strauss’s analysis of “Oedipus Rex” characterized by a focus on synchronic paradigms representing deep structures of thought initially caused an avalanche of critical remarks from classicists, K. R. Walters (“Another Showdown at the Cleft Way: An Inquiry into Classicists’ Criticism of Levi-Strauss’ Myth Analysis,” Classical World 77 (6) (1984), p. 351) reaffirmed its validity:

“What makes Levi-Strauss’ analysis of the Oedipus myth important and worthy of serious inquiry is ultimately its utility, that it provides a means to deal economically with the multifarious versions of the myth, with its surface contradictions, with its otherwise trivial and inexplicable, but naggingly insistent, details. What makes it viable is its power to explain rationally and systematically these aspects of myth that are so often ignored. What lends it credibility, finally, is its power to predict, to alert us to the possible survival of confirming data and to tell us where and how to search for that data.”

Levi-Strauss developed and perfected his paradigmatic method on the materials of classical and American Indian mythology. It’s widely believed that there’s a chasm separating the collective process that generates mythology and folklore from the individual process that underlies literature. Without attempting to debunk this artificial separation on a theoretical level, I will show, in the course of the analysis of “Hamlet,” that the Levi-Straussian method and some of his terminology (e.g., “mytheme”) work just as good with High Medieval (“Amadís de Gaula”), Early Modern (“Hamlet”) and Modern (“Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”) literature as they do with folklore and mythology. Mythemes seem to form a suprageneric level of literary works indicative of the workings of ancient cultural codes. This is not something entirely new for the world of Shakespeare scholarship. Bert States (States, Bert O. 1987. “Hamlet’s Older Brother,” Hudson Review 39 (4), 537-538) discovered something similar to mythemes when he reported on

“the recurrent combinations of character traits and situations within the closed field of Shakespeare’s practice… so that overall we find operating in the canon a principle of natural selection, if not recombinant genetics, whereby the successful “genes” of one character are passed along and adapted to the characters that follow.”

Cross-culturally death is related to kinship as intricately as birth and marriage (Dziebel 2007; Sahlins 2011). The plot of “Hamlet” is an especially fertile territory to apply  insights from kinship studies because Shakespeare’s play so tightly marries ontology, death and kin ties. It is centered on the struggles of Prince Hamlet whose father, King Hamlet, is allegedly murdered by his father’s brother, Claudius, and it traces the progressive collapse of a Danish royal family in the flames of bloody revenge. The characters in “Hamlet” fall into two distinct role types – kinsmen and outsiders. Every turn of Hamlet’s revenge journey is enabled by a non-kinsman, an outsider. First, the confirmation of the story told by the Ghost came as a result of the arrival of a troupe of actors to Elsinor. Then, Hamlet gets a taste of murder when Polonius hides behind the arras while spying on him and his mother Gertrude. Hamlet stabs through the cloth believing that it was his mortal enemy, Polonius who was hiding there. The murder of Polonius initiated a new track of hatred, revenge and death, as Polonius’s son set out to kill Hamlet, while Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, committed suicide. Subsequently, ashamed of his own lack of motivation to perform the filial duty of avenging for “father kill’d and mother stained,” Hamlet finds that his “dull revenge” is spurred by the brutal victory of a non-kinsman Prince Fortinbras over the Poles. This external example plants “bloody thoughts” in Hamlet’s head. Finally, it’s a non-kinsman Laertes whose sudden jump into Ophelia’s grave and an accusatory speech resuscitates Hamlet’s love for Ophelia and propels the revenge story into its final deadly moments.

One is amazed at the diversity of death types, murder types and death attitudes presented in “Hamlet.”

1. Death from poison (King Hamlet gets poison poured into his ear while he was asleep; Prince Hamlet dies from a poison-dipped sword).

2. Straightforward murder with a weapon (King Hamlet kills King Fortinbras in a duel)

3. Accidental manslaughter (Prince Hamlet kills Polonius because he took him for Polonius; Gertrude dies from drinking the wine poisoned by Claudius)

4. Suicide (Ophelia drowns herself)

5. Aborted murder (Prince Hamlet chooses not to kill Claudius during his moment of prayer)

6. Murder using the victim’s weapon (Prince Hamlet kills Claudius and Laertes with Laertes’s own sword; he continues to pour the wine poisoned by Claudius down Claudius’s throat)

7. Revenge (Laertes kills Hamlet, Hamlet kills Claudius)

2. Hamlet and Holmes: Between Revenge Tragedy and Detective Story

In a subtle and insightful essay “Hamlet’s Older Brother,” Bert States challenges the common perception that Hamlet is passive in the face of the task that the Ghost imposed on him. The “delay” in the execution of the Ghost’s injunction doesn’t mean that Hamlet was inactive.

“When Hamlet leaves the platform after his frenzied meeting with the Ghost and re-enters 290 lines later, I instantly sense a “change” in his deportment. He has charged out of the play only to stroll back into it “reading on a book.”…The seed of Hamlet’s mystery is located in the parenthesis of these two appearances. Somehow you know here, if you didn’t know before, that Hamlet is constitutionally incapable of tending to the business end of revenge. It has chiefly to do with Shakespeare decision to present him in this oblique-ironic posture, rather than showing him bustling, as Richard III would say. One can’t argue that there are still three acts to go and that Shakespeare couldn’t have him closing in this early because it is quite easy to write a long revenge play without arousing suspicions of delay. It is basically a matter of the kinds of things Shakespeare put in Hamlet’s path. A prime example of his offering us indirections instead of directions is the fact that he here feeds Hamlet poor Polonius rather than Claudius. This is a very subtle tactic and it opens the way to a whole series of surrogate or mini-revenges Hamlet can take while avoiding the main one. Thus, depending on how you choose to interpret Hamlet’s scruples, you can claim that he isn’t delaying at all but working at fever pitch, though not on the right project. And what in the way of depth psychology, haven’t we been able to make out of the fact that Hamlet, either with sword or word play, seems always to be killing someone other than Claudius!” (States 1987, 548).

States makes a surprising discovery: Hamlet has an antecedent among Shakespeare’s characters. It’s Prince of Wales Harry, or Prince Hal (note immediately the similarity in the names) who is introduced in “Henry IV” as the king’s son and heir and who becomes king in “Henry V.” Both Hal and Hamlet are heirs to the throne, sons of kings who have to deal with a difficult situation not of their choosing – Hal is struggling to become a king, Hamlet is struggling to kill a king (and becomes a king for a short while before dying) – and who hang back from standard social responsibilities and are engaged in erratic behavior. Hal is pivotal to the evolution of Shakespeare’s characters. It’s from Hal onwards that one feels the “existence of an inner life from which character’ motivation and action both spring” (Seltzer, Daniel. 1977. “Prince Hal and the Tragic Style,” in Shakespeare Survey 30: 13-27). Hal marks the genesis of the Modern subject who constantly surprises, constantly evolves and who drives the logic of the drama. The “delay” in Hamlet’s execution of his dead father’s will has something to do with the genesis of the subject both within the play and within the broader evolution of modern literature. The generational conflict that both Hal and Hamlet find themselves thrown in continues to haunt European literature for centuries to come, surfacing prominently in Ivan Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” (1862). Alongside the generational conflict comes the complex of a “superfluous man” famously embodied by such characters as Onegin (“Eugene Onegin,” by Alexander Pushkin), Pechorin (“A Hero of Our Times,” by Mikhail Lermontov) and Bazarov (“Fathers and Sons”). Unlike the nihilist Bazarov, Hal and Hamlet do not yet reject the cultural molds inherited from the older generation. But, unlike Laertes, as we will see, Hamlet is not a typical “son of his father” either. Through Hal and Hamlet you can hear how the Medieval system of kin status transmission slowly yields to pressures from the emerging Modern subject.

It would be a mistake to assume that the Modern subject is averse to murder. Murder as punishment for murder remains part of the penal code of most countries. What sets apart our times from the times of Hamlet is the current existence of specialized institutions to establish the fact of murder and to punish the criminal. Hamlet is faced with the reality of his father’s murder but he does not have access to an institution to right this wrong using impersonal, bureaucratic and objective means. It is with this qualifying lens in mind that we need to look at the Hamletian phenomenon. What may look like revenge may not be revenge in reality. What looks like punishment may in reality be no different from revenge.

In order to place Hamlet and the modern Subject on the same test bench and properly evaluate death, murder and revenge as subjective experiences, it is instructive to briefly compare the medieval Revenge Tragedy genre with the late modern Detective Story genre as exemplified by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. By Conan Doyle’s times Detective Story was a young but alerady well-established and popular genre. The Detective Story formula runs as follows: a violent death is observed, a detective sets out to find the murderer, once the murderer is found and apprehended he’s handed over to the official institutions for trial or, else, shot on the spot by the authorized agency of the state, the police. The Sherlock Holmes example is particularly interesting because Sherlock Holmes is a private detective (“consulting detective,” as he calls himself) who is contrasted with the official crimes detection agency, the Scotland Yard. He uses a unique cognitive method of “deduction” to piece together the original circumstances of the crime, describe the properties of the killer, discover his whereabouts and hand him over to the police. Deductive reasoning is the Holmes family talent: Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, possesses it even to a greater degree, but he lacks Sherlock’s energy and ambition to apply it to the real world. The contrast between Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Lestrade is always stark: Lestrade is a hot-headed, impatient, jealous, no-nonsense sleuth who is constantly led astray by his hasty, simplistic and outright stupid (or, as Holmes politely says “conventional”) judgments, which leads to the detention of wrong people, but he is impeccable at the task of apprehending the killers correctly identified by Holmes. Holmes takes his time to critically examine all the traces left by the murderer, employs guerilla techniques to collect further information, delivers brilliant insights about the circumstances of the murder – all through the medium of a powerful inner process of deduction – then leaves it to Lestrade and the state to apprehend the criminal and punish him. In Revenge Tragedy, the identity of the murderer is determined at the early stages of the plot, and it’s the revenge itself that takes time. The whole purpose of a detective story is to expose the process of identifying the murderer, while his apprehension and punishment is beyond the point of the genre. A detective has to handle lots of issues related to families and inheritance, but he himself has no blood connection to the victim or the murderer. He is an outsider. An avenger is related by blood at least to the victim and often, as in the case of Hamlet, to the murderer, too. Inspector Lestrade’s linear approach to crime detection is reminiscent of the linear nature of the pre-Hamletian revenge tragedies, whereas Holmes’s investigations are always delayed due to the demands of the deductive method that he professes. But it’s precisely the deductive method that leads to the correct identification of villains.

There are some unmistakable parallels between Hamlet and Holmes (not counting the uncanny resemblance between their names). To my knowledge, only Pasquale Accardo (Diagnosis and Detection: The Medical Iconography of Sherlock Holmes. Rutherford, 1984, pp. 60-64) noticed that Holmes and Hamlet are not as wide apart as we are used to think. Accardo, however, focused his attention on one of the antecedents of the Shakespeare play, the tale of Prince Amleth by Saxo Grammaticus (1150-1216), in which the hero uses guile to avenge his father’s death. In Shakespeare, Hamlet is everywhere accompanied by his “friend” Horatio just like Holmes is paired with Dr. Watson. The figure of Horatio has always been puzzling to literary critics, as he is ubiquitous in the play, he can hear the ghost’s instructions just like Hamlet, but he is completely extricated from the revenge process. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, while Hamlet is dying, Hamlet stops Horatio from drinking the poisoned wine and, instead, instructs Horatio to stay alive to tell his story.

Give me the cup: let go; by heaven, I’ll have’t.
O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
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.

Similarly, Watson is Holmes’s biographer. In “The Final Problem” (1893) Holmes allows Watson to leave the scene of the impending mortal fight between him and Professor Moriarty anticipating that he is not going to survive. And, indeed, Holmes and Moriarty die together by falling into the Reichenbach gorge. Holmes is rarely implicated in the deaths of his criminals – usually he directs the murderers’ own weapons against them (just like Hamlet who killed Laertes and Claudius with Laertes’s own poison-dipped sword) or surrenders them to the police. But when time comes for Holmes to die, he dies together with the paramount criminal, Moriarty, again in a manner similar to the simultaneous death of Hamlet, on the one hand, and Laertes and Claudius, on the other. (Later Conan-Doyle revived Holmes in response to the multiple requests of his readers.)

Most importantly, the ability of Hamlet to interact with his father’s ghost and to obtain information from him regarding the circumstances of his father’s death and the identity of the murderer can be compared with Holmes’s detective genius. As Lawrence Frank writes, Holmes is capable of “stimulating a divine genius without being divine” (Frank, Lawrence. “Reading the Gravel Page” Lyell, Darwin, and Conan Doyle,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature 44, no. 3 (December 1989): 367-368). In “The Greek Interpreter” (1893) Conan Doyle tells us that in Holmes deduction is of hereditary nature.

“It was after tea on a summer evening, and the conversation, which had roamed in a desultory, spasmodic fashion from golf clubs to the causes of the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic, came round at last to the question of atavism and hereditary aptitudes. The point under discussion was, how far any singular gift in an individual was due to his ancestry and how far to his own early training. “In your own case,” said I [Watson.-G.D.], “from all that you have told me, it seems obvious that your faculty of observation and your peculiar facility for deduction are due to your own systematic training.” “To some extent,” he answered, thoughtfully. “My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class. But, none the less, my turn that way is in my veins, and may have come with my grandmother, who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist. Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” “But how do you know that it is hereditary?” “Because my brother Mycroft possesses it in a larger degree than I do.”

Interestingly, the heritable nature of Holmes’s deductive genius is formulated by Holmes himself, as a speaker, as another deductive judgment. Holmes doesn’t offer any direct proof of deduction being inherited (he even doesn’t mention either of his parents as having the same talent), but instead deduces it from the fact that his brother Mycroft has it. Holmes’s deduction, therefore, comes as a quasi-biological reflex functioning as an Austinian performative statement laying a foundation for all past and previous instances of applying this unique method. Holmes is compelled by his deductive genius to solve murder puzzles just like Hamlet is compelled by the ghost of his father to take revenge on Claudius.

The power of the deductive method to reconstruct the original circumstances of the crime and to identify the killer leads to the profound identification between Sherlock Holmes and the murderer. In Holmes’s world, identifying the villain equals identifying with the villain. (E.g., in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” Holmes ensnares the sophisticated and elusive murderer, Mr. Stapleton, into his investigative web and makes the amateur entomologist and avid collector of rare species flutter in his own net “as helpless as one of his [Stapleton’s] own butterflies.”) Curiously, a careful reading of “Hamlet” reveal several instances when Hamlet identifies himself with Claudius. As Paul Gottschalk (“Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge,” Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (2) (1973), 163) noted, the play “The Murder of Gonzago” staged by Hamlet to ascertain the guilt of Claudius “holds the mirror of nature up to the King so he may feel and proclaim his guilt; Hamlet’s commentary holds the mirror up to Hamlet: he is threatening Claudius, and he is threatening him in the mode of revenge-villain.” The soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” (II. ii. 576ff), continues Gottschalk, juxtaposes Hamlet’s attacks on Claudius with attacks on himself, so that Hamlet cannot accuse Claudius without accusing himself, too.

“Having compared himself with an actor who weeps for Hecuba, Hamlet then turns to an imaginary opponent who challenges him with an insult to a duel (“Who calls me villain? … gives me the lie i’ th’ throat / As deep as to the lungs?”) But instead of accepting the challenge, Hamlet accepts the insults (“‘Swounds, I should take it!) and continues them himself, in his own person. then the challenge lashes out again – but this time at Claudius (“Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!) and again the challenges suddenly again lapses into self-reproach (“O vengeance! /  Why, what an ass am I!).” (Gottschalk 1973, 163).

When Hamlet stands over the body of Polonius, he refers to himself as both “scourge and minister,” reaffirming therefore the unity of the avenger and the murderer.

“For this same lord
I do repent; but heaven hath pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister” (III, iv, 175-178).

Hamlet’s identification with Claudius is more intense than Holmes’s identification with the villain because Hamlet feels his “guilt” viscerally as a family or, more specifically, a paternal bloodline trait shared between his father, his father’s brother and himself. The reason his father’s spirit is restless is because King Hamlet died unrepented after having committed multiple sins, including the killing of King Fortinbras of Norway. According to the Catholic belief, a soul like his spends time in the Purgatory before leaving for Heaven (or Hell) and it spends nights wandering around as a ghost. Hamlet speaks directly to the congenital nature of his “sin”:

“I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I
could accuse me of such things that it were better my
mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful,
ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have
thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape,
or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do
crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us.” (III, i, 122-129)

Hamlet deduces the presence of the “sin” in himself by looking at his father and his father’s brother. This deep-seated congenital reality is isomorphic with his royal status and his Danish ethnicity (Hamlet refers to the Ghost as “Hamlet, King, father, royal Dane” – I, iv, 44-45). Both of these qualities passed down from father to son. Hamlet’s father held the royal office, his brother Claudius usurped it from him and Hamlet usurped it from Claudius (this “incestuous, murderous, damned Dane”) only to pass it along to Prince Fortinbras of Norway, thus ending his family’s rule over Denmark. Unlike Hamlet, of course, Holmes is more of a romantic hero. He is ethically distinct from his villains and his deduction serves to identify a villain outside of himself. Holmes does not avenge murders but he is nevertheless deeply involved psychologically in the process of detecting and capturing the villain. These differences from Hamlet, however, do not preclude him from dying a la Hamlet – violently and concurrently with the villain. And controlled violence against the villain is presented as just and laudable.

The structural isomorphisms between the narratives of Hamlet and Holmes suggest that the reason for Hamlet’s delay with the execution of revenge against Claudius is the same as the reason for why Holmes’s investigation always took him longer than that of Lestrade. Both Hamlet and Holmes wanted to lift deceptive appearances and punish the right villain.

3. Hamlet and Don Quixote: Between Revenge Tragedy and Chivalric Romance

The structure of a typical chivalric novel runs as follows:

“Following classical and medieval precedent, the protagonist of a romance of chivalry is always male and invariably of royal blood – a prince. His lineage is usually specified. Through some mishap he is separated from his parents and his homeland when still a baby; he may be stolen away by evildoers, or carried off my a boat, or simply be abandoned by his mother because of the circumstances surrounding his birth, which often was illegitimate. He grows up in the court of another ruler, far away, though he may have been sheltered first by farmers or other such humble people. Usually there will remain with him some clue, either a mark on his body, or some artifact which accompanies him…to eventually provide the “proof” of his true identity when anagnorisis arrives. He will eventually learn his true identity and be reunited with his parents and family, either at the midpoint or near the end of the book. The protagonist shows signs from a very early age of his royal blood and the corresponding great abilities which were thought of as the natural endowments of a great ruler. ” (Eisenberg, Daniel. Romances of Chivalry in the Spanish Golden Age. Newark: Juan de la Cuesta, 1982, pp. 56-59).

As a concrete example of a chivalric novel, let’s take “Amadís de Gaula,” the romance famously reenacted by Cervantes’s Don Quixote. The story of Amadís opens with King Perión of Gaul visiting the court of Garinter, king of Little Britain. Perión falls in love with Garinter’s younger daughter, Elisena. Only Elisena’s maid knows of their relationship, and she extracts a promise of marriage from Perión before the two lovers consummate their love. Perión and Elisena’s love remains a secret as does the birth of their son, Amadís, who is placed in a chest and cast adrift on a river by Elisena. She also places in the chest a ring given to her by Perión, his sword and a piece of paper with Amadís written on it as the boy’s name.  The chest floats out to sea where Amadís is rescued by Gandales, a Scottish knight, who adopts him as a son. Gandales is informed by a great enchantress, Urganda la Desconocida (the Unrecognizable), that the mysterious child he rescued – known as El Doncel del Mar (Child of the Sea)— will become the greatest knight and most faithful lover ever. One day, Gandales receives a visit from Languines, king of Scotland.  Languines is so impressed by Amadís – who is then 7 years old — that he takes him to be raised in his court.  A few years later, Lisuarte, the king of Great Britain visits Languines, accompanied by his daughter, Oriana, whose beauty is unequalled. She and Amadís immediately fall in love, although Amadís is too timid to declare himself.  Shortly after, King Perión arrives at the court of Languines, seeking help to fight against Abiés, the king of Ireland.  By this time, Amadís is ready to be made knight-errant and requests that he be dubbed by Perión whose fame he has heard about. Amadís is duly knighted by his father but neither Perión, nor Amadís are aware of their kinship. After a series of adventures as a newly-dubbed knight, Amadís meets King Perión again. They fight a heated battle with the King of Ireland and his men. Amadís fights valiantly and saves King Perión and his troops from defeat, and the battle ends with an agreement to end the war with hand-to-hand combat between the King of Ireland and Amadís. The winner gets Gaul, the loser gets death. Amadís defeats the King of Ireland. Amadís’s gold ring and sword cause King Perión and Queen Elisena to realize that he is their son and his name is Amadís. There is much rejoicing.

Without making a broad claim about the overall differences between the chivalric and revenge genres of High Medieval and Early Modern literature, it’s worth pointing out, following Ivan Turgenev, that Hamlet and Don Quixote are two polar figures in European literature expressing two polar national ideologies – the spirit of the North and the spirit of the South. The spirit of the North is “oppressive, sombre, deprived of harmony and bright colors…but strong, profound, versatile, independent and dominant”; the spirit of the South is “bright, happy, ingenious and receptive” (Turgenev, Ivan. “Hamlet and Don Quixote,” Chicago Review17 (4) (1965): 92-109). The onomastic convention of “Hamlet” somewhat undermines the categorical nature of this contrast – some characters have Roman names that may express the “spirit of the South” (Claudius, Polonius), while others (Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, Hamlet) have traditional Danish names. Also, as Accardo (1987, 57-60) notes, there are some intriguing similarities between Cervantes and Conan Doyle (both authors were sons of incompetent fathers, hence there is no filial love in either Don Quixote or in Sherlock Holmes) and between Don Quixote and Sherlock Holmes (e.g., the pair Sherlock Holmes and Watson mirrors the companionship of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as well as the friendship of Hamlet and Horatio), just like there are underlying parallels between Hamlet and Sherlock Holmes. Don Quixote considers himself the one “who was born into the world to right such wrongs” (1.52) – Hamlet corrects the wrong committed against his father and mother. Don Quixote refers to himself as Sancho Panza as “Heaven’s ministers upon earth, and the arms by which God executes its justice” (1.13) – Hamlet speaks of himself, more ambivalently, as “scourge and minister.” Don Quixote is linked to the female character Dulcinea, Hamlet to Ophelia, Sherlock Holmes to Irene Adler.

But these similarities should not distract us from the stark differences.

“Hamlet” is tightly packed with death and murder. Death is the raison d’etre of the whole narrative. As Hartley Coleridge (“On the Character of Hamlet,” in Essays and Marginalia. London, 1851) rightly observed, Hamlet purges himself of all the love for Ophelia in order to focus on “revengeful justice.” A romance of chivalry is never a story of death and murder but of a hero’s investigation into the circumstances of his birth. The theme of investigation into the circumstances of a hero’s birth in chivalric romances may have provided another historical antecedent to the theme of investigation that later comes to dominate the detective genre. In both cases, the inference about the truth – about illegitimate birth in the case of the romance and about murder (illegitimate death) in the case of the detective story – is established on the basis of a secondary clue such as a cross on the neck of a knight-errant.

When one compares  “Amadís de Gaula” with “Hamlet,” the diametrical contrast between the structure of the latter and the structure of a chivalric romance is laid bare. The opposition between the mytheme “ghost of father” in ‘Hamlet” and the mytheme “unknown paternity” is similar to one of the key structural oppositions that Levi-Strauss (“The Structural Study of Myth,” Journal of American Folklore 68 (270) (1955), 433-434) argued defines the Oedipus myth, namely the one between “overrating blood relations” and “underrating blood relations.” While the similarity is strong, the two mythemes that contrast “Hamlet” and a typical chivalric novel are not identical to the two Levi-Straussian ones. In Oedipus, overrating blood relations (Oedipus marries his mother Jocasta) and underrating blood relations (Oedipus kills his father Laios) both stem from the “unknown parenthood” mytheme, while the “ghost of father” mytheme is absent. In “Hamlet” the secret is that the protagonist’s father-king was murdered, in “Amadís de Gaula” the secret is that the protagonist was born to a king. In “Hamlet,” “father” is a social role: vacated by King Hamlet it is mechanically filled by Claudius (Claudius addresses Hamlet as “son”). Shakespeare highlights the surrogate nature of the King Hamlet’s family role when he shows the passive acceptance of incest by Gertrude as if she doesn’t notice the difference between King Hamlet and his brother. Royal statuses override family roles and deprive the relationships between Prince Hamlet and King Hamlet, between King Hamlet and Gertrude and between Gertrude and Claudius of any filial or amorous substance. On the contrary, “Amadís de Gaula” fatherhood is construed as an abstract natural property: Amadís experiences his father only as a king and himself only as a knight, not as his father’s son. The mystery of death is contrasted with the mystery of birth. Hamlet’s father confronts Hamlet as a ghost and confirms his son’s aptitude to execute revenge; Amadís’s father appears before his son alive to pronounce him knight but neither of them know that they are father and son. In the former case, a fatherly ghost appears without existing, in the latter case fatherhood exists without appearing. Hamlet and Amadís also occupy radically divergent positions in their attitude to love. As I mentioned above, Hamlet extinguishes his love for Ophelia in order to be able to pursue revenge. Amadís, on the contrary, is unable to function as a knight-errant without love. When the love of his life, Oriana, accuses him of developing affection for Queen Briolanja of Sobradisa, Amadís adopts a new name and withdraws to an island to do penance in the name of love. Only when he receives another letter from Oriana admitting her error and asking his pardon can he resume his chivalric life. Amadís grew up without a mother and his faithful love for Oriana has a ring of filial attachment to it. His masculinity is not autonomous but hinges on permission from a woman. The compensatory grounding of an affinal bond by means of blood kinship can be seen as an instance of Levi-Straussian mytheme of “overrating of blood connections.” One caveat applies here: Amadís never directly experienced his mother, but he transposed the defining features of motherhood – a woman who stands in a unique, singular relationship to me and makes me into what I am – to a new object, Oriana. If Amadís suffered from the absence of his mother and he filled in the void with a courtly love object, Hamlet grappled with the fact that Gertrude was with him all along but, by easily engaging in an incestuous relationship with Claudius (in “Amadís de Gaula” Oriana suspects that Amadís is unfaithful), she failed to live up to her role as a mother. He resolved this problem by eliminating the cultural notion of motherhood altogether. As he famously put it to Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery [brothel. – G.D.]: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (III, i, 121-122).

Paradoxically, the stark surface contrasts that separate “Hamlet” and “Amadís de Gaula” cannot obscure certain deep commonalities between the two narratives of descent and affinity. Both Hamlet and Amadís achieve a transposition of sentiment from a mother to a lover: Hamlet does it negatively and destructively, Amadís positively and passionately but the underlying symbolic function is the same. Amadís’s faithful fixation on Oriana and Hamlet’s compulsive need to sacrifice love to spur himself on the path of revenge end up looking like two surface manifestations of the same pattern of exploitation of earthly love for the sake of attaining a higher purpose. Despite the fact that Hamlet knows his father, he still struggles to be his son; despite the fact that Oriana is not Amadís’s mother, he can’t help but treat her as if he were her son.

4. Freud and Girard on Hamlet

Freud famously postulated that neurosis is driven by the repressed desire to have an incestuous relationship with the mother and by the identification and rivalry with the father. Ernest Jones, building on earlier remarks by Freud himself, advanced a thoroughly Freudian reading of “Hamlet” (Jones E. 1910. “The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive," American Journal of Psychology 21 (1): 72-113.) The play, he argued, dramatizes the repressed desire by Hamlet to marry his mother and kill his father.

“The call of duty to slay his uncle cannot be obeyed because it links itself with the call of his nature to slay his mother’s husband, whether this is the first or the second; the latter call is strongly ‘repressed,’ and therefore necessarily the former also” (Jones 1910, 101).

Freud and Jones explain Hamlet’s prolonged delay with executing his father’s injunction by suggesting that Claudius had fulfilled both of Hamlet’s secret desires and, consequently, it was hard for Hamlet to inflict punishment onto a person who was, in essence, a more successful version of himself. Truth be told, Claudius’s behavior (killing Hamlet’s father and marrying his mother) is a perfect example of the Oedipus Complex and if one is willing to believe that it mirrors Hamlet’s childhood fantasies, then it is indeed easy to see why Hamlet, as an adult, hesitated to kill Claudius.

Critics have noted, however, that there is nothing in the Shakespearean text itself that indicates that Hamlet harbored incestuous thoughts about his mother or murderous intentions toward his father. A Freudian answer to this intratextual objection is that Oedipus Complex is repressed in an individual. It may not be directly observable in his thoughts and actions and only appear in such rarefied psychic media as dreams. In principle, this could be the case but the Shakespearean text doesn’t fall short of documenting Hamlet’s repressed attitudes toward his mother. These attitudes, however, have nothing to do with sex. Instead, they have to do with Hamlet’s desire to kill his mother. He bashes his mother for entering into a sexual and civil union with Claudius (“Nay, but to live, In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love Over the nasty sty”) and he is so merciless with his words that Gertrude begs: “These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears.” Hamlet uses the same metaphor of daggers when speaking of his mother: “Let me be cruel, not unnatural, I will speak daggers to her but use none” (III, ii, 284). The Ghost warns Hamlet to refrain from doing harm to his mother, Gertrude, and to focus instead entirely on Claudius. Gertrude’s destiny is left to God and to her own guilt.

“But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.” (I, v, 84).

Unaware of the instructions given by the Ghost to Hamlet, Polonius observes Hamlet’s erratic behavior and fears that enraged Hamlet may kill Gertrude. By all Freudian standards (the ghost as a Super-Ego repressing the desire, the use of metaphoric weaponry), these facts indicate a repressed desire to kill the mother in response to her inability to faithfully live up to the ideal of motherhood. The peculiarity of kinship terms as linguistic signs is that they not only denote an object but they performatively construct it in relation to the subject. There is a certain code of conduct associated with a kinship term. While we would never expect a cow to perform like a cow, we expect people whom we call “mothers” to behave like mothers.

The Ghost’s plea to leave Gertrude to God and her own guilt is fulfilled during the final climatic moments of the play when Gertrude mistakenly drinks the wine poisoned by Claudius. Just like the figure of a ghost (an entity that appears but doesn’t exist) in “Hamlet” contrasts with the figure of ignorance of mutual kinship between Amadís and Perión (an entity that exists but doesn’t appear), so does Hamlet’s symbolic violence toward Gertrude (daggers that don’t kill) opposes Gertrude’s actual death from an ostensibly innocent substance (wine that kills). Hamlet achieves the killing of his mother by letting Providence do its job, and she ends up dying, exactly like her ex-husband, King Hamlet, from the poison concocted by Claudius. (Notably, Gertrude earlier complained that Hamlet’s verbal daggers enter her ears, again in an uncanny resemblance to Claudius pouring poison into King Hamlet’s ear.)

Jones (1940, 123-124) correctly observes that Hamlet has three kinds of fathers to deal with – his actual father, King Hamlet, his step-father, his mother’s husband and his father’s brother Claudius and father-type Polonius. King Hamlet commands adoration (“so excellent a king…so loving to my mother”), filial love and piety but he is physically absent from the scene. Claudius, on the other hand, is a living substitute for King Hamlet; he is Hamlet’s legal father whom Hamlet is expected to call ‘father’ but toward whom he has no desire to behave like a son. Finally, Polonius is someone else’s father. Polonius embodies a fatherly stereotype for Hamlet, without being his actual father, and he may become his father-in-law and a grandfather to his children. Polonius and Laertes signify to Hamlet a picture-perfect father-son relationship, the one that he presumably never had with his actual father.

Contra the prediction of the Oedipus triangle model, Hamlet never wished his father dead. As Fred Tromley (2010, 163) noted, Hamlet is characterized by the desire to be possessed by his father. Indeed, Hamlet’s life and identity are inseparable from the Ghost’s guidance. (Later, in Sherlock Holmes, this ghostly guidance would be interpreted as a congenital talent to solve mysteries.) The death of his father put Hamlet in a suicidal state of mind, and it is the appearance of the Ghost and the revelation of the violent nature of his father’s death that stemmed Hamlet’s suicidal thoughts. While there will always be ambiguity regarding the meaning of Hamlet’s monologue “To be or not to be,” there is little doubt that he was trying to decide whether to avenge his father’s death or to commit suicide and he chose revenge as the way of being. As the play progresses, the growing ghostliness of Hamlet becomes more and more obvious (Tromley 2010, 179-180). In the end Hamlet becomes King of Denmark and just like the Ghost before he prevents Horatio from committing suicide. He wants Horatio to tell “my story,” but, in Tromley’s words, it is the Ghost who is functioning as a ghostwriter here. As Hamlet is dying we realize that being consumed by a Ghost and being alive is incompatible but also that it is impossible to achieve personal autonomy without taking a page from one’s father’s book. Seen in the light of the play’s mortal ending, Hamlet came full circle from where he was at the time of the “To be or not to be” monologue: it is not matter of living vs. dying, it is a matter of which kind of death affirms “being.” Hamlet chose not a solitary death from suicide but a public death filled with kinship meaning.

If Jones’s imputation of an Oedipus triangle to Hamlet does not withstand scrutiny, he is justified in giving serious attention (especially in his book “Oedipus and Hamlet” [Jones, E. Hamlet and Oedipus. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1940]) to the unpremeditated murder of Polonius by Hamlet. Polonius, according to Jones,

personates a group of obnoxious elderly attributes, and secondly presents the equally objectional attitude of the dog-in-the-manger father who grudges to others what he
possesses, but cannot enjoy, himself.  In this way, therefore, Polonius represents the repellant characteristics of both the father and the grandfather of mythology, and we are not surprised to find that, just as Perseus accidentally slew his grandfather Acrisios, who had locked up his daughter Danae so as to preserve her virginity, so does Hamlet “accidentally” slay Polonius, by a deed that resolves the situation as correctly from the dramatic as from the mythological point of view.” (Jones 1910, 108).

Polonius is the perfect example of the schizogenic “double bind” that anthropologist Gregory Bateson (Bateson, G., D. Jackson, J. Haley, and J. Weakland. ‘Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia’, Behavioural Science 1 (1956), pp. 251-254) famously argued are commonly found in such intense relationships as parents and children. Polonius charges his kneeling son to be true to himself, while instructing him not to listen to other people. Shakespeare seems to deliberately place Gertrude and Polonius in a symmetrical relation to Hamlet’s rage. Hamlet subjects Gertrude to verbal “daggers” for succumbing to Claudius and then takes a quick break to stab Polonius, whom he mistook for Claudius, with a sword and resumes his accusations of his mother. Hamlet wants to kill his mother but refrains from doing it; Hamlet does not mean to kill Polonius but does it nonetheless. The callousness of Hamlet’s verbal attack on Gertrude is paired with his constant mockery of Polonius and his cold-blooded response to his death: “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!” (III, iv, 31), “I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room” (III, iv, 212). The accidental but satisfying killing of Polonius can be interpreted as a repressed revolt against the cliche of fatherhood by Hamlet, the fatherhood that would have become part of Hamlet’s family life had he not killed him and had he married Ophelia. It’s the failure of Gertrude to live up to Hamlet’s expectation of motherhood and the failure of Polonius to bring the right fatherhood into his life that determine the Prince’s backlash against them.

The constant theme in “Hamlet” is Polonius’s spying on Hamlet on behalf of Claudius to make sure Hamlet’s “lunacy” does not hurt Gertrude and Ophelia. If the ghost is a dead person who shows itself to Hamlet, a spy is a living person who watches Hamlet without being seen by Hamlet. Ironically, as Hamlet later confesses to Laertes, it’s his “madness” that led him to kill Polonius. Polonius is Claudius’s eyes, he maintains Claudius’s mental presence in places where Claudius does not want to be present himself. In a sense, Polonius is Claudius’s apparition that behaves in a way that’s opposite from a ghost. When the Ghost appeared to Hamlet for the first time, Hamlet had to solve the problem of whether the Ghost is a true representation of his father. This time Hamlet has to solve the riddle of whether he is being spied on by the true villain. Hamlet makes a mistake but there is a seed of correct identification of the villain in this mistake. Correspondingly, the Ghost interferes to distract Hamlet from thoughts about killing Gertrude and to encourage him not to be detracted by the accidental murder from the mission of killing the ultimate villain, Claudius.

Refuting Freud, Girard argued that the object of desire is never given to an individual; desire always focuses on some object already desired by the model. Essentially Girard reduced the Oedipus Complex to the identification with the model from which desire for the object is then born. Girard showed his indebtedness to Levi-Strauss in the importance he assigned in literary analysis to the Levi-Straussian notion of reciprocity.

“The reciprocity of tragic action makes all characters more and more similar; since the protagonists normally fight each other, they all commit the same actions. The revenge seekers pattern themselves scrupulously on their intended victims, who may become their murderers. Retaliation and reprisals are a form of imitation” (Girard 1984, 161).

Girard’s departure from Levi-Strauss is in highlighting the similarities between characters, events and actions in contradistinction to Levi-Strauss’s focus on structural oppositions. Girard believes that the working of mimetic desire results in the creation of “doubles,” or superficially different manifestations of ontologically identical emotions and actions. The surface difference between a villain and a victim is negated on the structural level by the fact that they share multiple properties with each other. These similarities are caused by imitation of the villain by the victim and of the victim by the villain.

Here are some examples of doubles in “Hamlet.”

1. Prince Hamlet and his father, the late King Hamlet, have the same name.

2. Crown Prince of Norway, Fortinbras, who takes over Denmark after the death of Claudius and Prince Hamlet, has the same name as his father, King Fortinbras, who had earlier been killed in battle by King Hamlet.

3. Prince Hamlet contemplates suicide (“When he himself might his quietus make, With a bare Bodkin”) after his father’s death. Ophelia commits suicide after her father’s death. Prince Hamlet opts out of suicide having now a more noble objective in front of him – to avenge for his father’s death. He later would prevent his friend Horatio from drinking the poisoned wine and encourage him to wait awhile with dying in order to be able to “tell his story.” In all these cases, mourning for a relative causes suicidal thoughts or actions, but when it’s possible suicidal thoughts are dispelled in favor of a more noble way to die.

4. Prince Fortinbras comes to take over Denmark just like King Hamlet obtained some Norwegian lands as part of the mutual pledge established between him and King Fortinbras prior to their duel.

5. After murdering Hamlet’s father, Claudius marries Hamlet’s mother to become a father-like figure for Hamlet.

6. After finding out that his father was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet behaves erratically (he rushes into Ophelia’s room, stares at her and says nothing)/After being reminded of his crime during the presentation of the play “The Murder of Gonzago,” Claudius, too, acts erratically (he abruptly rises and leaves the room)/After Hamlet accidentally kills Ophelia’s father, Polonius, she, too, begin acting crazily and finally commits suicide.

7. Diverted by the diplomacy by Prince Hamlet’s uncle Claudius and Prince Fortinbras’s uncle, “Old Norway,” Prince Fortinbras attacks Poland (“smites Polacks”) instead of Denmark. Correspondingly, Prince Hamlet kills Claudius’s chief counselor, Polonius (the Romanized form meaning “Polack”) by mistake, his intention being to kill Claudius who he thought was the man hiding behind the arras. Shakespeare clearly pairs the victimization of Polonius by Hamlet with the victimization of Poland by Fortinbras (England, Eugene. “Hamlet Against Revenge,” in Literature and Relief 7 (1987): 61).

But reciprocity also entails differentiation and the analysis of a literary work using a Girardian approach also needs to benefit from the restoration of the essential principle of the Levi-Straussian structuralist method, namely the one of structural oppositions. The problem that “Hamlet” poses for Girard’s mimetic theory is that, while in Girard’s theory mimesis creates an object of desire, in “Hamlet” the object of desire (Claudius’s death for Hamlet) precedes mimesis. The troupe of actors, Polonius, Laertes, Prince Fortinbras all provide means to an end but they don’t create the object of desire. Prince Hamlet inherits it from King Hamlet or “deduces” it with the help of his father’s ghost. In some respects, “Hamlet” directly contradicts Girard’s theory. In Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” or in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (both used by Girard as prime early modern literary examples of mimetic desire) books provide models that create an object of desire for the heroes. Don Quixote believes every word of chivalric novels and reenacts the famed “Amadís de Gaula” by re-interpreting his daily reality to fit into a literary model.

“I want you to know, Sancho, that the famous Amadís de Gaula was one of the greatest knights-errant. No, I’m wrong in saying ‘one of,’ he was the only one, the best, he was unique, and in his time the lord of all those in the world… He was the guiding light, the star of all brave and enamored knights, and all of us who fight under the banner of love and chivalry should imitate him… I want to imitate Amadís … ” (Don Quixote I, ch. 25).

Similarly, Paolo and Francesca fall in love with each other while reading about other people’s love.

Contrariwise, Hamlet explicitly rejects bookish knowledge as impeding him from fulfilling the Ghost’s injunction (I, v, 96).

“Ay, thou poor Ghost, while 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!”

The “baser” matter refers, as a minimum, to amorous affairs, hence Hamlet is alienated from Ophelia in the aftermath of his encounter with the Ghost. Love is an epitome of desire for Girard (love is central to the experience of both Don Quixote and Paolo and Francesca) but Hamlet clearly displaces love to focus on fulfilling his filial duty.

This model works perfectly for “Don Quixote” and “Divine Comedy.” But when it comes to “Hamlet” the reality is that Hamlet does something opposite from erecting models to draw desire for objects from. Instead, the story of Hamlet is the one of progressive sacrifice of models attached to objects and the fathering of the Subject. This begins early in the play beginning with Hamlet’s determination to wipe away “from the table of my memory…all trivial fond records” in order to fulfill the Father Ghost’s commandment. Hamlet’s critical mind doesn’t take the Ghost’s speech at face value but immediately questions its benevolence (II, ii, 599):

“The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
To 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.”

Hamlet is trying to differentiate between two similar phenomena: on the one hand, his uncle Claudius is notorious for putting up pleasant appearances to hide gruesome truths; on the other hand, the Devil could do the same thing by means of a ghost. Hamlet decides to test the veracity of the information provided by the Ghost. He applies what would become Holmes’s deductive method when he stages a play, “The Murder of Gonzago,” to reenact the murder of his father and to study Claudius’s reaction to it. He wants to “catch the conscience of the king” (II. ii. 607). When Hamlet sees that, at the presentation of the murder scene, Claudius rises abruptly (as if “frighted with false fire”) and leaves the room, he treats this reaction as proof that Claudius is guilty. At the same time, he unnecessarily identifies Lucianus as “nephew to the king” and makes it obvious to Claudius that he is desperate to kill him (Kastan, David S. “’His semblable in his mirror’: Hamlet and the Imitation of Revenge,” in Shakespeare Studies 19 (14), 1987: 118). This is a further indication that Hamlet is committed to openness and transparency and refuses to surrender to the atmosphere of false pretenses and secrecy created by Claudius.

He reaffirms the same revolt against mimesis when he says:

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”

Claudius epitomizes the man caught into the business of following and spawning seductive models (in the Ghost’s words, “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast, With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts — O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen”) and this makes him a coward (to dispose of his enemies, he always uses poison, a cowardly and unmanly weapon). What Hamlet is seeking is truth and justice hidden behind the mimesis of appearances. Contra Girard, he is not ambiguous toward revenge (in fact, he embraced it wholeheartedly, as his phrase “drink hot blood” (III, ii, 382) indicates) but he wants to achieve the right kind of revenge for the kind of person Claudius is. A key to understanding Shakespeare’s intent here is the moment when Hamlet deliberately avoids killing Claudius. He sees Claudius praying, while remaining unseen by Claudius, and unsheathes his sword to kill him. But the very fact that he caught Claudius in the middle of his prayer stops him (III, iii, 2356).

“Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes.”

In the Catholic tradition, a criminal may be forgiven his sins if he repents. Hamlet wants to make sure Claudius does not go to Heaven but instead ends up in hell. He wants to take justice in his own hands and make sure that Claudius doesn’t take advantage of a Catholic loophole and secure a place in Heaven. For the right kind of revenge to happen, Hamlet has to catch Claudius in the act. In the later detective story genre, it’s imperative for the detective to catch the murderer in the act to prove his guilt (Holmes exposes Sir Henry Baskerville to mortal danger but he has to use him as a bait to make Stapleton unleash his hound and catch him in the act), but this requirement is stripped of all the religious meaning. We also learn from this passage that Claudius’s crimes go beyond just fratricide and incest. He is a drunk, the frequent user of foul language and a gambler. He is an all-around criminal type. In addition, killing Claudius from behind would have made Hamlet a coward and hence the chaser of Girardian mimetic models.

Selecting the right kind of revenge apparently makes Hamlet eligible to go to heaven after death. Upon Hamlet’s death, Horatio declares: “Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” (V, ii, 4021).

As the parallelism between Hamlet and Holmes suggested above indicates, Hamlet was not engaged in a synchronic imitation of Claudius. His identification with Claudius was part of a deeper psychological process of posterior rationalization of a congenital reality of descent that he inherited on his father’s side just like he did his royal Danish status.

Laertes plays a critical role for for Girard’s mimetic reading of Hamlet. Hamlet, according to Girard, is ambiguous about revenge; Laertes is a quintessential hot-headed avenger, “simple and unreflective” (in the realm of Detective Story his counterpart is Inspector Lestrade, whose name, again, bears uncanny similarity to the name Laertes): once he learn that his father Polonius is killed, he rushes back to Denmark, collects the mob, takes the castle and confronts Claudius. At first he thinks that it’s Claudius who killed his father (“O thy vile king! Give me my father!” – 4.5.116-117). But Claudius informs Laertes that it was Hamlet and incites Laertes to kill him. Laertes’s sister, Ophelia, commits suicide by drowning, and Laertes blames Hamlet for the death of both his father and his sister. Hamlet and Laertes wrestle in Ophelia’s grave and a fencing match is scheduled to settle their issues. Girard interprets this situation as evidence that Hamlet borrows Laertes’s desire for revenge.

“But it is not the actor, ultimately, or the army of Fortinbras; it is Laertes, I believe, who determines Hamlet to act. Laertes provides the most persuasive spectacle not because he provides the “best” example but because his situation parallels that of Hamlet. Being Hamlet’s peer, at least to a point, his passionate stance constitutes the most powerful challenge imaginable. In such circumstances, even the most apathetic man’s sense of emulation must rise to such a pitch that the sort of disaster that the fulfillment of the revenge demands can finally be achieved” (Girard, 1984, 179).

Laertes was raised as s a man of custom: he faithfully follows the social convention. Confronted by Laertes, Girard argued, Hamlet is electrified by his uninhibited rage and overcomes the last vestiges of his own inhibition to kill Claudius. However, at closer inspection, Girard’s interpretation falls apart. First, Hamlet behaves as rashly and hot-headedly as Laertes when he accidentally kills Laertes’s father, Polonius. Hamlet’s desire for revenge, therefore, precedes Laertes’s and can’t be a derivative thereof. Second, if Hamlet borrowed his desire for revenge from Laertes, who did Laertes borrow his from? Laertes is incited by Claudius, true, but Claudius is a coward who can’t energize other people to take revenge. Third, Hamlet later offers his apology to Laertes. One would not expect a man who supposedly owes another man for making his heart set on revenge to indulge in apologies. Finally and most critically, Laertes and Hamlet engage in rivalry (the natural outcome of the workings of mimetic desire), but not apropos revenge, but apropos love for Ophelia. Here, indeed, we see the impact Laertes’s behavior has on Hamlet. As Hamlet later tells Horatio, “But, sure, the bravery of his grief did put me Into a towering passion” (V, ii, 79-80). But Hamlet is talking about his feelings for Ophelia, not about his feelings for Claudius.

I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum.” (V, i, 269-271).

Hamlet is ready to commit suicide out of love for Ophelia and to challenge the depth of Laertes’s feeling for her. Hamlet is torn between avenging his father’s murder and expressing solidarity with Ophelia’s suicide.

“Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I” (V, i, 277-279)

Laertes woke up in Hamlet the dormant love for Ophelia, and in response Hamlet puts his feelings above the brotherly feelings of Laertes’s. Hamlet’s feelings spring from his heart, while Laertes’s feelings are dictated by custom. Laertes is almost more distressed by the improper burial than by the loss itself. Rivalry is evident here, but it’s mimetic foundation is more complex than Girard imagines. Hamlet’s love and Laertes’s love for the same object are of different nature: Hamlet is Ophelia’s would-be fiance, Laertes is her brother. Hamlet used to have feelings for Ophelia and those feelings were not borrowed from Laertes. Hamlet stifled the chivalric love to focus on revenge, but Laertes’s public display of grief brought it back. Laertes’s spectacle is symmetrical in its psychological effect on Hamlet to the effect that “The Murder of Gonzago” had on Claudius. “The Murder of Gonzago” brought out Claudius’s “conscience,” while Laertes’s theatrical display brought out Hamlet’s passion.

There’s deep parallelism between the Hamlet’s and Laertes’s situations. Hamlet took Laertes’s father, Polonius, for Claudius and accidentally killed him. Laertes initially thought it was Claudius who killed his father. Claudius incites Laertes to kill Hamlet just like the Ghost incited Hamlet to kill Claudius. As Fred Tromley (Fathers and Sons in Shakespeare: The Debt Never Promised. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, 159) rightly observed, Claudius gives Laertes his father by assuming that role himself. Laertes and Hamlet become near-perfect doubles of each other – both lost their fathers, both are adopted and patronized by Claudius.

Just before the fencing match Hamlet apologizes to Laertes. He does not want to follow the model of custom that does not discriminate between accidental manslaughter and purposeful murder. Hamlet’s apology satisfies Laertes’s natural rage but he still insists on a duel because custom dictates that he defends his honor. It is really not so much about avenging for Polonius’s death anymore as it is about following Claudius’s injunction. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes is not willing to sacrifice his mimetic models. Claudius and Laertes conspire to dip Laertes’s sword in poison and to prepare poisoned wine. In the fencing match, Laertes pierces Hamlet with his poisoned sword, Hamlet turns Laertes’s sword against him and against Claudius. Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine. Laertes confesses in the plot masterminded by Claudius. Hamlet pours the poisoned wine down Claudius’s throat. Hamlet and Laertes exchange forgiveness (“Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, Nor thine on me” – V, ii, 330-331) and call each other “brothers.” This is the end of the Danish royal family. Hamlet sacrificed the last of his models, namely his own earthly presence, for the sake of achieving immortality for his Subject by securing a place in heaven for his soul and having Horatio tell his story to posterity. Contra Girard, when it comes to revenge it is Hamlet who eventually succeeds in changing Laertes’s mind. Just like Sherlock Holmes shows Lestrade how to go beyond the surface appearances and look at the cause of a crime from the right point of view, Hamlet teaches Laertes how to identify the true perpetrator, Claudius. Although technically Hamlet murdered Laertes’s father, Polonius, he did it by mistake, and the true villain behind the chain of deaths is Claudius. In the end, Claudius (“incestuous, murderous, damned Dane”) is held solely responsible for the deadly outcome by everyone.

This ending poses a problem to another piece of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, namely to his theory of scapegoating. Girard’s believes that the escalation of mimesis leads to violence and society has to sacrifice an innocent individual in order to extricate itself from the cycle of revenge. Hamlet is the victim (and a hereditary victim – by trying to right the wrong committed against his father, he himself is wronged), but he manages to turn public rage against the true perpetrator, Claudius. This indicates only one thing – the celebration of the Modern subject that now, with the help of divinity and deductive reasoning, is finally capable of punishing the true perpetrator. Although Hamlet is slain, he manages to expose and punish the evil in a manner compelling to society.


“Hamlet” is a powerful testimony to the fact that a literary work can be heavily structured by Levi-Straussian opposites and Girardian doubles. Reciprocity between the various mythemes found in “Hamlet” and other literary works by Shakespeare and others is so strong that it transcends the content of the story and drives even the formal similarity between such pivotal names as Hamlet, Hal and Holmes. Quite unexpectedly, a literary work such as “Hamlet” is richer in the density of these oppositions and doubles than a typical myth suggesting that the evolution from myth to literature involved the intensification of the mythological not the ex-nihilo emergence of the literary. While Girard is right about the presence of a powerful theme of interpersonal mediation in the grand works of European literature, he erred in reducing interpersonal mediation to affective mimesis that is first clearly outlined by Cervantes in “Don Quixote.” The story of Hamlet is not the one of mimetic desire for external objects but the one of engendering the Subject by sacrificing models. In Hamlet, interpersonal mediation involves the fathering of the Self, or the dramatic construction of the Subject through relations with his kin and through the creation of fictive kinship, all taking place against the ontological background of birth, death and mating. Just like Girard argued that there is no linear pathway connecting an individual to his object of desire, as his desire is just a shadow of the desires of others, there is no genesis of the Subject without others involved. Hamlet is fundamentally a “son of” and it’s precisely the “bloody thought” that results in the careful sorting out of individual and familial properties of his immediate social circle, so that he can arrive at a definition of the Self that would outlast his body. “Hamlet” is also incompatible with the Freudian Oedipus complex: while a certain triangulation occurs between Hamlet, his father and his mother, textual evidence suggests that this triangulation involved not the desire to possess the mother and to kill the father, but the desire to kill the mother and be possessed by the (dead) father.

Reading Ivan Bunin’s “A Merry Courtyard” Through the Lens of Marshall Sahlins’s Thoughts on Kinship

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

I was thoroughly pleased to read Marshall Sahlins’s two-part piece in JRAI entitled “What Kinship Is,” as it conjured up some the themes of my own book “The Phenomenon of Kinship” published in Russian in 2001. Basically, Sahlins argues for the need to think of kinship as an ontological problem transcending the nature-culture, natal-postnatal, real-fictive dichotomies politicized and perpetuated by the Schneiderian downturn in kinship studies. Sahlins amassed an impressive array of ethnographic examples that show that human kinship is fundamentally about the “mutuality of being,” as expressed through the dense networks of shared biological, material and mental substances that spring from the same ontological ground. Kinship involves fellow humans participating in each other’s existence, and, conversely, humanity is engendered, from an evolutionary standpoint, by the capacity for sharing psychological states with others, which is missing from the populations of big apes.

Sahlins refused to “drag the discussion of kinship into dark philosophical waters” – the risk I readily took in “The Phenomenon of Kinship.” When it came to the task of going beyond the pesky existential dichotomies in the study of kinship, it was too tempting for me not to attempt to read the anthropological turn in philosophical ontology that began with Martin Heidegger against anthropology, especially since anthropology is apochryphally defined as “empirical philosophy.” Sahlins latched on Descrates’s cogito ergo sum to exemplify the solipsistic orientation of Western philosophy, whereas I went a step further in trying to express the new kinship-like ontology as cogito ergo progigno (I think therefore I procreate). At the same time, Sahlins imports the generic concept of “ontology” into the anthropology of kinship by referring to the domains of kinship, nationalism, religion (in Schneider), magic and gift (in Viveiros de Castro) as ontologically (rather than “culturally,” as Schneider had it) similar. He sides with Viveiros de Castro in an anti-Schneiderian move to elevate kinship to the status of a cosmic totality instead of taking it off the table as a research subject. (I did the same thing in “The Phenomenon of Kinship” by coining the term “kinship cosmos.”) Sahlins follows Viveiros de Castro in inviting indigenous epistemologies to determine the exact way in which kinship acquires the status of a cosmic totality but at the same time he remains blind to the non-anthropological traditions of research into some of those ontologically kinship-like domains. Sahlins gives only a passing nod to linguistics, while mechanically cataloging the connections of his anthropological “mutuality of being” to such linguistic phenomena as personal pronouns, possessive predication and naming. “‘I think therefore I am’, said Descartes. ‘I also think. Therefore, I’m Descartes’.” Sahlins drops this Cartesian bon mot into an endnote without attempting to analyze the deictic and metapragmatic constituents of this philosophical paradox. Again, I chose to engage with linguistics on a much deeper level sensing the fundamental relevance of anthropological accounts of the social role of kinship terms, on the one hand, to linguistic approaches to “shifters” and speech act pragmatics and philosophical (as in Saul Kripke) approaches to naming reference, on the other. I arrive at a definition of kinship that emphasizes the interpenetration of the symbolic and the material, the cultural and the biological: kinship involves thinking with entities of your own kind, kinship is about treating fellow humans as signs of one another, a kinship system is a system of reproduction of unique human selves. Articulated in this way, kinship is renewed as a central object of anthropology, while putting anthropology in the center of linguistic, philosophical and other inquiries.

It’s rewarding to see Sahlins include death into his discussion of the “mutuality of being.” He borrows from Janet Carsten a catchy phrase “kinsmen are people who live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths.”Most common,” writes Sahlins (pp. 231-232), “are mourning practices that signify a mutual death: that is, dying with one’s kinsmen by self-mutilation, tearing one’s clothing, going unwashed, not working, and other such forms of withdrawal from normal sociality.” I, too, both in “The Phenomenon of Kinship” (2001) and “The Genius of Kinship” (2007) integrated death into the definition of kinship and drew on Heidegger’s use of death as the way to give ontology a human, Da-Sein dimension. My interest in death from a kinship perspective originally stemmed from pure logic: if kinship is about birth and every birth is followed by death, then kinship must be equally about death and about birth. Sahlins’s examples (that can be further expanded, see “The Genius of Kinship”) demonstrate that, indeed, non-Western cultures treat death as much a kinship-constituting event as we treat birth. Among Inuits and !San, for example, it’s the reincarnation of a deceased person in a new born or the patterns of name inheritance that determine what kin relations are going to be and how kin terms are going to apply. This creates an impression of fluidity and arbitrariness of kinship relations but this is only because the exact paths of reincarnation and name inheritance are not as well understood as relations established through birth and marriage.

From a cross-cultural perspective, there’s something very limiting and artificial (in a curious contradiction to the notion of “fictive kinship”) in the folk Western and pre-constructivist anthropological focus on birth as the key constituent of what we call “kinship.” It’s not a matter to giving preference to biology vs. culture, as death is just as biological as birth. It’s a matter of cutting lived experience into arbitrary chunks. And Schneider, although he ostensibly revolted against the arbitrary labels, didn’t care about restoring the unity of lived experience, which is still longing for the “lost relatives” to re-unite.

In the context of the pronounced separation of kinship and death in Western cultures, it’s all the more intriguing to find an instance of the pairing of death and kinship in the Western literary tradition. The theme of kinship and death is explored by the Russian writer, Ivan Bunin, in “A Merry Courtyard” (Veselyi dvor) published in 1911 as part of a cycle of short stories about the Russian peasant countryside. They stand out as a departure from the more traditional 19th century depictions of Russian village life, such as Ivan Turgeven’s, centered on the estate of a landowner (dvorianskoe gnezdo, lit. “gentry’s nest”). Bunin’s writings tend to be uncompromising, illusion-free, critical, persnickety, often somber inquiries into the true nature of the Russian peasant condition. I’ve already blogged about Bunin here, here and here. This new gem goes to the heart of the issues raised by Sahlins for anthropological kinship studies.

The title of the story is sarcastic – villagers so dubbed one impoverished, unlucky, abusive household. It was run by a widow Anisya Minaeva, a woman so skinny from malnutrition that neighbors nicknamed her Ukhvat (Pan Handle). She was hard-working, humble, self-effacing and quiet. She lived there with her son, Yegor Minaev, who was a spitting image of his father – a foul-mouthed, ne’er do well who smoked like a chimney. They were different in only one way – Yegor was nicer and not abusive. Neighbors were okay with him and considered him a good stoveman, but despised him for being incapable of accruing wealth and building a life of his own. In every inner and outward respect, Yegor looked and acted the opposite from his mother, so that it was hard to believe they were parent and child. He was blondish, broad-boned, had a nasty habit of never taking off his shoes, always sick, sometimes cowardly, sometimes unabashed, always partying with other people away from home just to let another day pass by quicker. She was dark, skinny, dried-out “like a mummy,” even-tempered, humble and quiet, never sick, always barefoot, always lonely with an empty stomach, suffering from gripping sadness. Her other kids died, her husband froze to death, and her household soon after began to deteriorate. After a cock pecked her eye out, Anisya couldn’t find anymore work. The garden that she had – Yegor sold it. Every now and then she had to beg for food and money, but never did she remind her neighbors that there were times when she was helping them. “The earth has forgotten me, the sinful one,” Anisya used to say. Her sole purpose of existence was to save the house for Yegor when he gets married. But Yegor saw no reason to get married: “I never gonna marry. These days I’m free as a Cossack but once I marry I’ll have to care for my wife.” Yegor “didn’t care for family, property or motherland.”

One day Yegor was hired by a wealthy landowner to guard his woods, and he moved 15 miles away from his mother. His wages were paid in food with very little cash, so, once he moved out, he entirely stopped helping his mother. But he would use his elderly and sick mother as a pretext to ask his employer for advance wages, which he then would fritter away on booze with his buddy, a blacksmith. Sucking on the last morsel of bread, Anisya collected herself to go visit him hoping to live with him over the summer and partake of his food. “Even a defected child is beautiful in his mother’s eye,” she thought. “A son won’t refuse food to his mother,” a neighbor encouraged her. After a sleepless night, with her legs burned by bedbugs and stung by flies, she set out on her journey thanking God for the happiness of starting a new life, enjoying a new day and loving her son. But Anisya was too weak to handle the trip, and when she didn’t find Yegor in his roofless guardian’s dwelling, she lay down on a bench and passed away. Yegor, in the meantime was drinking vodka with his blacksmith buddy in another village close by talking about whether one can become a saint by eating only radish and whether tempering one’s body with ice-cold water will make it withstand putrefaction after death. When he returned home, he found her body and bellowed with his coarse voice scaring his dog out of her hideout in the bushes. Later, at the funeral Yegor drank so much that he almost passed away. “He danced right there at the grave for everybody’s entertainment oddly twisting his feet dressed in bast sandals, throwing his cap on the ground and giggling.” He felt a mix of emptiness and freedom. He aged quickly, within a month after his mother’s death. While she was alive, he felt younger – now nobody would call him “Anisya’s son,” just Yegor. “And the earth, the whole earth, just got empty.” Soon, when he was on a night watch with a group of teenagers and slept near railroad tracks, he suddenly woke up at dawn. The boys realized that something was wrong but Yegor calmed them down by smiling and saying he saw an apparition of sorts. They stayed awake and Yegor began telling them a story, while smoking, coughing and cursing after every word. As he heard a train approaching, he abruptly got on his feet, ran up the slope to the tracks and threw himself under the train.

As the drama was coming to an end, Bunin shifted from highlighting the differences between Anisya and Yegor to making some stark moral contrasts (the pointless procrastination of Yegor taking place at the time when his mother was dying in a forlorn guardian dwelling) and unearthing some critical similarities (“Yegor has been feeling lately what Anisya was feeling: physical frailty, diffused anxiety and disorderly thoughts”). Although far from being old, Yegor shared with his elderly mother the strange forebodings of death. His sight weakened, the darkness of the forest began assuming demonic shapes, and his guardian’s house started giving him nightmares. Anisya’s death came upon her through neglect by others, including Yegor. And Yegor himself kept having suicidal thoughts. Eventually, these suicidal thoughts came to fruition, thus laying bare the invisible ties of kinship that connected Yegor and his mother.

Kartvelian Sibling Terms

Friday, March 30th, 2012

In The Genius of Kinship, 278-279, I described a type 8 sibling set among the Svan, the most divergent language of the Kartvelian family. At the time of the writing of the book, I was not aware of Klimov’s Etymological Dictionary of the Kartvelian Languages (Berlin, 1998). Regarding Svan udil ‘woman’s sister’, Klimov (p. 36) confirms that it must be the earliest meaning simplified in other branches of Kartvelian to mean ‘sister’.

This supports the global trend toward simplification by the deletion of semantic distinctions, as widely observed in sibling sets.

Indo-European KInship Terms: A Discussion with P.A.Kerkhof

Friday, March 30th, 2012

More than a year ago I had a productive discussion regarding Indo-European kinship terms with P. A. Kerkhof (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) at Wanana sculon Francon.

Burushaski and North Caucasian Sibling Terms

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Bengston & Blažek defend the Dene-Caucasian hypothesis against the recent claim by I. Cašule that Burushaski is related to Indo-European. As part of their defense, they suggest (p. 55) etymological links between Burushaski and North Caucasian sibling terms.

Burushaski has a version of a typologically rare sibling type 8 (see Dziebel, The Genius of Kinship, 290). North Caucasian languages have type E, with the same underlying root for both brother and sister, which is two mutational steps down from type 8. The Burushaski term for ‘brother of male’ and ‘sister of female’ fits well with the North Caucasian root underlying the brother and sister terms. Bengston & Blažek see the same root behind one of Basque sibling terms and the only term for ‘sibling’ in Ket. The Dene-Caucasian hypothesis has not been well-received by the mainstream academic establishment, but it’s infinitely more robust than the Casule proposal. In light of the rarity of type 8 globally, it’s noteworthy, as I pointed out in The Genius of Kinship, that Basque, another member of the putative Dene-Caucasian stock, shares sibling type 8 with Burushaski. The reduction from type 8 to type E (North Caucasian) or A (Ket) is consistent with the global phylogeny of sibling sets.


Bengston, John D., and Václav Blažek. 2011. On the Burushaski-Indo-European Hypothesis by I. Cašule. Journal of Language Relationship 6: 25-63.

Grammatical Marking of Relative Age in Yakima Kinship Terms

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Joana Jansen, in her Ph.D. dissertation “A Grammar of Yakima Ichshkin/Sahaptin” (University of Oregon, 2010, p. 152) reports that in Yakima, possessive forms of kin terms take different grammatical modifiers depending on whether the designated relative belongs to an older generation or to a younger/same generation as Ego.

The grammatization of the older-younger distinction in kin terms is also recorded in another Sahaptin language, Umatilla.

No grammatical encoding of Speaker Gender is reported, although Yakima has different referential terms for younger siblings of a man and younger siblings of a woman.

The Genius of Kinship blog

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

Welcome to the Genius of Kinship blog!

In the past additions to a book had to await a new edition. These days authors can blog to update the readers on the ways in which more recent research confirmed or disproved the observations, hypotheses or theories advanced in their books.

New research pertaining to the issues raised in The Genius of Kinship emerges every day. Old research is also becoming increasingly available thanks to the new information-processing and information-sharing capabilities offered by software and the Internet. I will try to update my readers on the new findings in kinship studies, linguistics, genetics, ethnology or physical anthropology, which seem relevant to the themes discussed in the book. Sometimes it’ll be nitty-gritty factoids, sometimes full-fledged studies.