Hamlet and His Other

by Robert Silhol

March 23, 1999


A close reading of the first act of Hamlet reveals how the play demonstrates a great many truths about the way a human personality is constituted and the nature of the psychoanalytic subject. In particular, we see matters of identity, the name of the father, the priority of mirroring, the necessity of going beyond the rational ego, and the importance of dreams and fantasies. In the references to "ears" in the last scene, we can understand how the father inscribes, in the register of the symbolic order, the impossible weight of his desire in the child and how the child in turn is destined to live out the desire of the Other--which is, in the last lines of Act I, repressed.


p>    In Hamlet, everything plays out in the first minutes. Indeed, by the end of the first act, once the ghost has exited, everything has already in fact been played. That is, in any case, the reading that I will make of this play of Shakespeare's, or more exactly the analysis, since these two things, to the extent that one can do so, must be thought of as separate and distinct.1

    What then is happening in these first moments of the tragedy, in this primary act? The actors have hardly exchanged some twenty speeches--twenty lines which among other things establish the scene and speak of relief (which is surely one of the central themes of the play)--before someone mentions the "thing": "What, has this thing appeared again tonight?" (1.1.21.)

It is the wise Horatio, he who believes in reason, who puts the question. The others have invited him: if the "apparition" comes again perhaps he will be able to speak to it. At all events, he will very clearly see that they have not invented anything and that this "dreaded sight" that they have witnessed is quite real.

    What they have seen is the phantom or ghost, who does not delay in reappearing and will from this point on haunt the entire first act. For, although Shakespeare does not put him onstage immediately, the dialogue remains constantly connected to him. In the second scene, a scene in part about mourning, the characters scarcely speak of anything else but the dead father and the death of fathers.2 And next, in scene iii, Ophelia, Laertes, and Polonius appear. Quite clearly this is the register of the oedipal triad. And we see that this father, in giving moral counsels to his children, conducts himself no differently from the ghost.3 Just after this (scene iv), our phantom is onstage again, a superego, whom I will now call the Other.

    Such is the extraordinary coherence of the play4 that even the subplot, the one that introduces Fortinbras, is once again a history of father and son. The son wants to recapture the lands lost by the dead father, in an enterprise which has every characteristic of vengeance.5

    People have written a great deal about vengeance--to be sure, it was a popular theme in the period- either to make vengeance the primary energizing force in Hamlet or, on the contrary, to see it as only the vehicle for more profound themes: death, madness, even the nature of reality. Whatever the importance we give to vengeance in Hamlet, we must nevertheless agree that the unfolding of the play, its factual construction, which is at least the appearance and surface of the story, relies heavily on that theme.

    The sources of the play by Shakespeare are well known: from the Amleth of Saxo Grammaticus to the Ur-Hamlet of 1594, including the Histoires Tragiques of Belleforest (1576). In every case vengeance plays a central part.

    As for this particular vengeance, it is the appearance of the ghost that starts the process. One could even simplify and from this point on ignore that particular theme. What I wish to show is simply the importance of the ghost's appearance. Without his meeting with Hamlet, there is no tragedy. This is the beginning of the action that I want to explore. Not, of course, to state the "meaning" of Hamlet or once again to define the "true" Hamlet but to try to find out the truths in this material, to show what Shakespeare's text harbors that we can analyze today, truths that live in us as they lived in Shakespeare and which have dictated his words, shaping them into the form they have.

    Of course, it is a triadic structure which organizes the play. Hamlet is made of triangles -- that is obvious. Beyond that oedipal scheme, however (developed by Ernest Jones), the representation perfectly shows how human personality is constituted and in particular that "subject" of which psychoanalysis speaks. It is this firsthand textual information which I will analyze in this essay. It is enough simply to listen to the language of which the play is made.

    The problem is posed in the very first line:

Who's there?

I understand this as a question of identity. It does not matter much that it is not the son of the dead king who speaks this question, since we will be looking first of all at the collection of explicit signifiers. It is enough for us to know that the question has been thought by the author first of all. He is concerned with an essential question that we all pose ourselves. And it is a question that often finds no answer unless the person who asks it is engaged in a psychoanalysis. We can understand easily, then, that the response in the second line is first of all, "No." Then there is a command which only reflects the question back like a mirror:

Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself (2).

"Unfold yourself." That serves as a commentary.

    These first twenty lines that precede the first reference to the ghost,6 introduce several things. But, all the same, the characters continue to speak a good deal about identity. Thus, a second time, "Who is there?" Then: "What, is Horatio there?" which evokes this interesting reply: "A piece of him." And if someone were to say to me that these questions about identity are not particularly astonishing since these characters are soldiers who are keeping watch, I would answer that, beyond realism, there is still the question of the conditions of production, in short, of "signification" on that tower or covered way. Why this place, for the beginning, if not because it puts onstage guards, men whose job it is to protect and defend the King? One can surmise that we are precisely in the register of the symbolic: Hamlet's job will be indeed, if not to protect the dead King, at least to defend his name, le nom du père.

We note the entrance onstage of this latter person at line 40; he makes his first "real" appearance. And what the witnesses first say is that he resembles the dead king:

In the same figure like the king that's dead (41).
Looks 'a not like the king? Mark it, Horatio. (42)

After several repetitions, this is said:

Is it not like the king?
As thou art to thyself . . . (58 59)7

    To be sure, we must not neglect the beliefs of the period. The audience at the Globe was accustomed to ghost stories. The duality than I have just underlined had its origin not only in what is termed body and soul, but also in demons and guardian angels. Thus, Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Night by Ludwig Lavater (translated into English in 1572)8 mentions evil angels who can bewitch us, claiming to be concerned about souls that are capable of being saved.

    Nevertheless, it quite seems that what is being put in evidence is more than a simple duality. Someone who in effect discounts the repetitions of "like" (in the sense of "resemble" or "be as") in this first act (in which "like" even serves for "likely," probably) might note the way this theme of resemblance comes back in the next scene. That suggests more than simply a duality--a symmetry.

    Perhaps it's only normal, after all, that this insistence on resemblance should follow on a question about identity. After, "Who's there?", a possible echo of "Who am I?," which would be more precise only if it were conscious, the idea, the wish, to look in a mirror seems perfectly natural.

    This theme of resemblance comes back in the second scene, when Horatio speaks to Hamlet of the apparition: "A figure like your father . . . I knew your father. These hands are not more like" (1.2.199,217). Such a recourse to symmetry seems to me to evoke a commentary, all the more so since one finds traces of it in the repetitive style of writing.

Hamlet: My father--methinks I see my father (1.3.184).
Hamlet: 'A was a man, take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again (187-88).
My lord, the king your father.
The king my father? (191-2)
Very like, very like. Stayed it long? . . .

Longer, longer (236-8).

    What would have been only fantasized, once the question of identity is posed, will be the actual appearance of an image. But what image? Well! Quite simply, the ghost! The mirror stage, we know, functions like an identification, and what would seem to corroborate my hypothesis thoroughly, is that both the father and the son are called Hamlet. What could be more symmetrical?

    We shall understand better then, why these first scenes show a second instance of the ghost's appearance: because of this need to enter into communication with the ghost, to speak to him and above all to make him speak. It is somewhat toward that end that the soldiers made Horatio come (according to line 29)9, and they call on him as soon as the ghost appears: "Thou art a scholar: speak to it, Horatio" (1.1.42).

    You who know, you who have studied, speak to it. The references to language in this scene are legion: the ghost, Bernardo remarks, "would be spoke to." Horatio insists, "By heaven, I charge thee, speak." And he even seems to lose patience: "Stay! Speak, speak, I charge thee, speak" (51).

    Perhaps Horatio, too reasonable, too confident in the forces of the ego, hasn't got the knack. The ghost, whatever he is, disappears for an interval, and Shakespeare lets us breathe while the characters speak to us of history, of war, of politics, that is to say, of Fortinbras. Once this exposition of fifty-five lines is over, Shakespeare brings his ghost back onstage. And there, again, what they ask of him is to speak.

If thou hast any sound or use of voice,

Speak to me (128-9).

Speak to me (132).

O speak! (135)

    That passage is, surely, an interrogation of the great mysteries of life and death. Consciously, no doubt, the playwright has his characters address these questions to the dead King Hamlet10: "Speak of it, / Stay, and speak" (139). But the passage deals as well with a question about the nature of our hallucinations, dreams, and nightmares, a query into our own phantoms. That is not much removed from the question of identity with which the play begins. I shall attempt to state the reason the ghost cannot yet speak or, more precisely, what is at stake in this depiction, but already, one can acknowledge that the passage concerns a question addressed to the mirror . . . and perhaps to the parent. A modern transcription of the question might be: "Ah! If our nightmares could speak, they could explain themselves," or better, even, "If I knew who was haunting me, I would know who I am." It is precisely with that that Freud began, with focusing on the dream.

    As for what this sort of interrogation focuses on, one need only turn to the first meeting of the ghost and Hamlet to discover what it is. Hamlet asks:

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned . . .
Thou com'st in such a questionable shape,
That I will speak to thee. I'll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane. O, answer me! (1.4.40-45)

The aim of the speech is clear: What do our hallucinations mean--"What may this mean?", says Hamlet--or our nightmares--"Making night hideous"--and why are there these mysteries--"thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?" (51-56.)

    The beginnings of an answer appear. The ghost makes a sign to Hamlet, and Horatio says:

It beckons you to go away with it,
As if it some impartment did desire
To you alone (58-60).

Yes, to you alone.

    Now perhaps we understand better why the ghost has nothing to say to Horatio. Surely it is because he does not bear the name of Hamlet! There we are again, facing the mirror--or the parent--and in any case we are in symmetry, identification, but the picture has been enriched by one stroke. The ghost makes a sign and even does so very courteously. "Look with what courteous action / It waves you to a more removed ground" (60-61). Hamlet, more patient than Horatio--or the better analyst--decides to follow it. "It will not speak; then I will follow it" (63). Already, that is an indication to us, of how often the word will be repeated . . .

It waves me forth again. I'll follow it (68).

    Horatio has quite put the prince on guard, speaking to him of a leap into the flood, of the cliff, of falling (castration), evoking a nightmarish monster ("horrible form"), warning him finally that he risks his reason if he so continues, that he will go mad, but it is all to no effect.11 Regardless, Hamlet is like the prisoner of a compulsion. Nobody can stop him ("Unhand me, gentlemen," 84). It is his destiny that calls him ("My fate cries out," 81). He says again that he will follow the ghost, and that in an instant takes hold of his mind completely: "Go on, I'll follow thee" (86).

    There. They are finally face to face, the ghost of the dead king and the prince. And right away the tone is established--"Speak"--a motif we have already met in the preceding scenes. But here, in scene iv, it is developed to the point where it will tell us much more, clarifying regions that are still in the dark. At this "Speak," the ghost answers, "Mark me," which introduces one final theme, surely the most important: lend me your ear. In these three pages, in effect, three words recur again and again, words we have already met: "speak," "hear" (and sometimes "ear"), and finally "swear," a new word, the final word.

    The ghost, then, is going to reveal his secret to Hamlet. But he does not do it without a precaution and we need to consider that first:

Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold (1.5.5-6).

"Lend," "serious," "hearing": these words say it all, or more exactly do--write--it all. It is a matter of the child, here, the son, lending something, his ear. Perhaps that is why these few words are so essential to the history of this subject, Hamlet, that Shakespeare has repeated here "unfold," already encountered in the second line of the play. "Unfolding" insists on an entrance, and this, which the confrontation in the mirror has not been able to produce--and for a reason--is going to take place now perhaps. We are no longer in the register of the ego, but in that of the subject. In any case, the child is under a spell or, I would say, orders:

Speak; I am bound to hear (1.v.6).

The phrasing itself says more than a long discourse could. I am attached, I am a prisoner, I am obliged, it is not possible that I not listen, it is my destiny to hear. It will be understood that I am speaking of the discourse, of desire, of the Other.

    Here is the revelation, and it will be necessary to analyze it, for what is said has more symbolic weight than at first appears:

Ghost: List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love--
Hamlet: O God!
Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther (21-25).

    At one relatively simple level, the oedipal pattern is, in several ways, involved. There is, first, the desire to eliminate the father or, even better, to see him eliminated by others besides oneself (here Claudius). This shows like a strategy of disguise for that unconscious desire in which Claudius' act offers the son the appearance of an innocent motive, frees him from guilt, and lets him pursue out of hatred the murderer of the ideal father. That this murderer is also the husband of the queen, however, makes him in other ways a father-figure, the other side of the father, no longer the ideal parent whom the child takes as a model, but the parent hated because of the place he occupies in the oedipal triangle.

    Let's now analyse the tenor of the message by which Shakespeare describes the fate the murdered king underwent . . .

Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouse'led, disappointed,12 unanel'd (74-77).

    We note several signifiers for castration and loss: cut off, un-hous'led, dis appointed, un-anel'd. Some lines before, Shakespeare had written: "Brief, let me be brief," and that says the same thing. Assassinated, deprived of his queen and kingdom, the dead father demands vengeance from his son. What can I say? More secret, more complex than the simple triangle evoked previously (which nevertheless is correct as a first analysis), this request from the ideal father, the mission that he entrusts to Hamlet, reveals itself, I think, as a representation of the desire of the Other. The modality according to which the ghost's recital is made will be for us a highly valuable index to the way the connections between parent and child are woven.

    I have underlined the importance of hearing, of the ear and of spoken language. We have noticed in particular to lend one's ear. To listen, to hear, in the scenes we have just run through, is just that, to undergo, to lend oneself to the inscription of an Other's desire (or better, not to be able to not lend oneself).

    One can go further. What does one think of the way in which Claudius killed the king? he poured poison ("leperous distillment" - 64) in the ear of his brother ("in the porches of my ears"). Yes, Shakespeare has even used the plural, "ears". The ghost moreover repeats this image of an orifice in speaking of "the natural gates and alleys of the body." And, since there is also a serpent, the picture is complete.13

    Can we understand why the father's ghost asks the son to lend his ear (in just that phrasing)? Well, then! It is a way of projecting onto the child a weight impossible to carry (castration). The mechanism is well known. In pouring his speech into the ear, the ear appears therefore "sexualized" but the act also symbolizes the inscribing of unconscious desire in a more general way. The father makes the son his object. He puts his commands into his memory. "Remember me," says the ghost, and Hamlet says he will erase everything from his memory and live for that commandment "all alone" (102). He extends obedience even to writing himself that message: "My tables--meet it is I set it down . . . " True, he is speaking of the discovery that he has just made and of Claudius. But can one not see there also an insistence on bending hmself to the desire of the Other of whom we are speaking? His commandment in every case, several times repeated, is simple: "Remember me." It is a matter precisely of inscription, of unconscious memory.

    Yet, isn't there one more thing? A second sense which subtends the first and makes it more specific? For remember can equally be read as a vow of reconstruction: "re-member me," un-castrate me. This, too, the ghost is saying. This reading explains quite clearly that Prince Hamlet, possessed now by this desire of an Other, is caught in a double restraint. The key to Hamlet's delayings is no doubt partly here. That is, he is to remember the ideal father and avenge him; he is to act, but at the same time he is to reconstitute that dismembered parent as he has been ordered. For that second task, he is to offer himself to that parent as an object, and that implies passivity and difficulty in acting.

    It remains only to say that the inscribing of this desire of the Other is effective only if it remains underground, unknown, secret, and, to put it bluntly, repressed. Thus the act ends with an injunction:

Never make known what you have seen tonight (1.5.143).

They will swear, and the ghost--under the stage!--will four times join his voice to those of the living, demanding secrecy, "Swear."


1. See Robert Silhol, "C'est à quel sujet?," Le Sens, Cahiers Charles V, 16, Paris, autonne 1993.


Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green (1.2.1-2).

'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But you must know your father lost a father,
That father lost, lost his  . . . (87-90).


There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character" (Polonius to Laertes, 1.3.57-59).

Marry, I will teach you (Polonius to Ophelia, 105).

Note the image of inscribing in the memory: "Look thou character," i.e., engrave. Waiting for their father, Laertes too gave Ophelia a lesson:

Farewell, Ophelia; and remember well
What I have said to you.

And she answered:

'Tis in my memory lock'd,
And you yourself shall keep the key of it (84-86).

4. Cf. Harley Granville-Barker: "A unity of dramatic action for the first act . . . was not hard to find: for the story, as Shakespeare tells it, carries us at a sustained stretch and upon a plainly indicated time-scheme to the Ghost's revelation and Hamlet's heartsick acceptance of his task. "Hamlet," Prefaces to Shakespeare (New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), 35.


 . . . which is no other . . .
But to recover of us, by strong hand
And terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands
So by his father lost (1.1.100-4).

6. An allusion to the king in line 2, for even if it uses a catchphrase or empty formula ("Long live the King!"), it is an instance of saying his name. There is an alllusion to competition in the artifice of this expression: "the rivals of my watch" (13). But there is above all an insistence on relief, or, as it could be read, alongside the military formula, the idea of replacement, of deposing ("Bernardo hath my place" --16), in short a reference to the fate of the dead king. But there is also an idea of "relieving" that is, ultimately, quite close to the aspect of "remember" that this analysis will bring to light further on.

7. It is after this first appearance of the ghost that Shakespeare seems to change the subject for a moment, introducing a short socio political discussion, an echo, surely, of contemporary discussions:

And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war; (73-74)

On that subject, Horatio has an opinion. He explains the sounds of war by introducing Fortinbras, who is, even so, a way of returnig to the theme of fathers and sons. This socio-political interruption, in any case, lasts only fifty five lines.

8. Translated into English by R. H. [Robert Harrison], London, 1572.

9. "He may approve our eyes and speak to it" (29).


Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death (136-38).

11. "Questionable" supports several meanings: raising questions in us, but also strange, equivocal.

12. The commentators agree in reading "disappointed" as unprepared. But could one not also read it in a secondary, supplementary sense: who has lost his position?


 . . . sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me (1.5.35-36).

The image is phallic, naturally, and one could well consider that it foreshadows the mortal wound that Hamlet will receive during the final duel, since it is the poison on the end of the sword that kills him.

Translated by Norman N. Holland

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Robert Silhol "Hamlet and His Other". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/silhol-hamlet_and_his_other. April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 30, 1999, Published: March 23, 1999. Copyright © 1999 Robert Silhol