Post-Human Hamlets: Ghosts in the Machine

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Although Hamlet has long been associated with Renaissance humanism, Todd Andrew Borlik’s essay, which begins the volume’s explorations of postmodern adaptations of Hamlet, argues that Hamlet has more recently become associated with the post-human. Focusing on Nam June Paik’s Hamlet Robot, Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, Emma Vieceli’s Manga Shakespeare: Hamlet, and Nick O’Donohoe’s Too Too Solid Flesh, Borlik argues that postmodern thinkers are using Shakespeare’s quintessentially humanist play to “unthink the human.” As he places Hamlet’s ideas regarding body versus machine in conversation with Cartesian mechanics, Borlik considers early modern conceptions of man/machine and what those understandings of the human mean for the postmodern man/machine. Borlik sees parody and humor as central to the postmodern vision of Hamlet, arguing that “the play’s enduring relevance in the post-modern, post-Gutenberg, and post-human age may depend on … sardonic adaptations that infuse it in varying mixtures with the agony and ecstasy of the technological sublime.”

Elizabeth Klett’s essay also examines Hamlet in an unconventional medium. Her examination of Hamlet in Wheeldon’s 2007 ballet, Misericordes/Elsinore, focuses on the struggle of a choreographer who fundamentally felt that “Hamlet doesn’t make sense. ...” Klett argues that Hamlet, in large part because of its textual exhaustion, was able to play multiple (and paradoxical) roles in the piece, for Klett finds in this ballet that Hamlet is both origin (and thus textual authority) as well as a block to artistic completion. In the final version of the ballet, allusions are both absent and present, visible and invisible, as one can watch the ballet without realizing that one is watching Hamlet. Klett argues that Wheeldon’s “rejection of Hamlet was based in two convictions, both of which indicate that we are perhaps living in a ‘post-Hamlet’ moment. First, he became convinced that the play does not make sense, due to its continual contradictions and questionings. Second, he concluded that its narrative complexity made it unsuitable for ballet.” Ultimately, Klett concludes that, for this particular performance, “Hamlet is both an essential frame of reference and entirely superfluous.”

Further exploring how elements of Hamlet have been turned to new and distinctively twenty-first-century concerns, Chloe Owen analyzes the ways Ophelia and imagery related to her constitutes an important part of representations of mental disability in the work of author and song writer Emilie Autumn. Owen contends that Autumn’s novel, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, engages critically with a dangerous cultural preoccupation with Ophelia’s madness, isolation, and suicide. The “Opheliac” identity in Autumn’s works reflects the potential manipulation or abuse of people with mental disabilities. Owen concludes that, by laying bare the unsettlingly romanticized aspects of Ophelia’s suffering, Autumn invites readers to question potentially damaging attitudes toward those with mental disabilities.

Jim Casey’s essay examines the ways in which we are increasingly becoming “post-Hamlet” on a global level. Drawing on adaptation theory, particularly Douglas Lanier’s “Shakespearean Rhizomatics” and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s conceptual rhizomes, Casey examines the visuality of international Shakespeare films (Feng Xiaogang’s 2006 Chinese wuxia film The Banquet and Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2014 Indian crime drama Haider). This chapter argues that film is increasingly bringing us into an era in which Shakespeare has become “post-textual.” Focusing on the ways in which these two films are haunted by “ghosts of Shakespeares past,” Casey argues that they manifest their postmodern aesthetics through what he describes as “anti-pastiche.” Although many have argued for the value of Shakespeare’s language as that which is fundamentally “Shakespearean” about Hamlet, Casey concludes that authenticity is as spectral as Old Hamlet’s ghost. As in The Banquet and Haider, the “image of Shakespeare ... is disconnected from any original reality. ... Like Umberto Eco’s ‘Absolute Fake,’ Baudrillard’s hyperreal simulacra, or Jacques Derrida’s spectrogenic ghost, this ‘Fakespeare’ has supplanted the ‘real’ Shakespeare and is more real than the real, even (perhaps especially) when in translation.”

In Chapter 6, Amrita Sen returns us to Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider. Offering a political reading of the film, she points out the many criticisms that scholars and activists of Kashmir have leveled at this controversial Hamlet adaptation. Concerned with Shakespeare and appropriation, but also with the political effects of Shakespeare as the figure who appropriates, Sen questions the motivations of Bhardwaj. Essentially, the filmmaker uses Shakespeare as an authorizing agent to appropriate tragic events in Kashmir. In addition, the film presents an uncomfortable conflation of character and geographical (and heavily politicized) space: as the filmmaker explained in an interview, “In my film, in a way, Kashmir becomes Hamlet.” Sen ultimately questions both the underlying motives and potential ethical outcomes of transforming a place into a “consumable theatrical object.” Perhaps this production is truly post-Shakespeare, as the cultural capital associated with the Bard is transformed from a source for appropriation into a force that appropriates.

Introducing the cluster of essays addressing “post-Hamlet” performances, Sheila T. Cavanagh’s essay explores unconventional performances of Hamlet that are simultaneously posed as both performance and rehabilitation. Drawing connections between performances of Hamlet in prison (for the purposes of “rehabilitation”) and performances of Hamlet for children on the autism spectrum (for the purposes of play “therapy”), Cavanagh’s essay reflects on the ways that both incarceration and inclusion may change our vision of Hamlet. Taking her examples from noted practitioners in the field, such as Curt Tofteland (Shakespeare Behind Bars), Kelly Hunter (Flute Theatre), Scott Jackson (Shakespeare Notre Dame and Westville Correctional Facility), Steve Rowland (Monroe Correctional Facility and Shakespeare Central), and Jonathan Shailor (Shakespeare Prison Project, Wisconsin), Cavanagh explores how the inclusive programs she discusses “demonstrate the ways that active involvement with Shakespeare can enable individual participants access to new emotional, intellectual, and bodily knowledge.”

Developing the discussions of Hamlet in translation, Yi-Hsin Hsu’s chapter examines the history of Hamlet performances in Japan. Specifically, Hsu gives special focus to Anzai Tetsuo’s Hamlet Q1 (1983) and Sugihara Kunio’s KUNIO 11 HAMLET (2014), adaptations that represent a dramatic change in Japanese productions of Shakespeare’s play. Performances that use the so-called “bad” quarto as a foundation have a productively subversive opportunity to provide “revisionist alternatives to established types of Shakespearean performances: intercultural Shakespeare, canonical Shakespeare, and experimental Shakespeare.” Non-Anglophone performances, Hsu argues, can “provide ideal sites for the productions of a non-canonical quarto whose dramaturgical merits often fall victim to its linguistic inferiority”: rather than focusing on Shakespeare’s linguistic merits—which may not come through in translation—these performances use Q1 as a resource for novelty, pragmatism, and accessibility.

In Chapter 9, Adam Sheaffer continues the discussion of unconventional performance by examining Joseph Papp’s Naked Hamlet—a drastically cut version of Shakespeare’s text that was performed in a variety of non-traditional theater spaces. Drawing on performance theorists and phenomenologists such as Bert O. States, Richard Schechner, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Gaston Bachelard, Sheaffer addresses the ways that new types of performance venues provide a “vital component in illuminating and refreshing the meaning of Hamlet,” even though Papp’s radical rewriting may have threatened to exhaust it. Space is of central importance to Sheaffer’s reading of Naked Hamlet: “In the course of these perambulations around and in various architectural, educational, and recreational spaces, the Naked Hamlet—an admixture of Shakespeare’s text, contemporary gesture, music, scenic and costume design, and even actor biography—unfolded and stretched as the addition of contemporary materials and the reverberations of each space informed and expanded the production.” Combining archival theater research with a reading of Michel Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces,” Sheaffer examines the relationship between physical place, performance space, and textual exhaustion.

Introducing the volume’s discussions of Hamlet pedagogy, Deneen Senasi finds Shakespeare’s Hamlet to be a text obsessed not only with death and with rituals of mourning, but also with its own process of ending. Indeed, Senasi argues that this obsession with ending creates a play that “dramatizes the contingency of cultural memory, and envisions a sense of textual exhaustion that threatens to encompass all utterance, including the play itself.” Combining a close reading of Hamlet with modern appropriations she has presented to her own students (particularly Hamlet cartoons, which she sees as containing the tightly “compressed form of the meme”), Senasi questions the role of Hamlet appropriations in the contemporary college classroom. Do such appropriations build on students’ knowledge of Shakespeare’s text? Are allusions to Hamlet finally so ubiquitous in our culture that such appropriations can be taught as stand-alone texts? Combining stories of real-life classroom experiences with a fresh reading of Shakespeare’s text, Senasi’s essay considers the future roles that Hamlet may play in the liberal arts classroom and suggests that “If we wish to think through what may become of readers in an age of textual exhaustion, Hamlet serves as a key case study, both in terms of how reading is represented in Shakespeare’s play and how that text is being read in the complex cultural matrices of the twenty-first century.”

Turning from classroom education to the developmental representation of a “post-Hamlet” bildungsroman, Victoria R. Farmer explores the productively feminist rewriting of Ophelia’s story in Lisa Klein’s novel Ophelia. Considering damaging elements of Ophelia’s cultural significance—primarily as a stereotyped object of patriarchal oppression whose story is a monitory tale about thwarted female identity—Farmer proposes that Klein’s novel offers a moderating view of this figure’s symbolic power for twenty-first-century readers. Farmer’s discussion focuses on elements of the novel’s structure (including an appendix, “A Reading List from Ophelia,” which include medieval and Renaissance texts on romantic relationships, motherhood, and self-fashioning) and its depictions of Ophelia’s scholarly and practical education. The novel’s progressive message about Ophelia’s agency, Farmer contends, is complicated by a lack of autonomy—Ophelia’s identity is conditioned by her relationships with other characters—but ultimately, this depiction represents a dynamic, “evolving person who contributes indispensably to those around her.”

In the concluding chapter on educational development and Hamlet, Erin Presley discusses the role of “relatability” in teaching Hamlet to a generation of college students who are decidedly “post-Hamlet.” While “relatability” is a difficult criterion to define, the term has become an increasingly important part of pedagogy conversations: addressing texts such as the Modern Language Association’s Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet and work from the National Council of Teachers of English, Presley finds the Danish prince’s relatability to be significant in the college classroom. Focusing on both the potential relatability of Shakespeare’s original character and also William Powers’s deliberate employment of relatability in Hamlet’s Blackberry, Presley argues that “through the structured use of appropriative works and carefully crafted lesson plans, relatable Hamlet can reinvigorate both classroom and scholarly discussions about the play and provide students with meaningful connections to Shakespeare and contemporary writers.”

Finally, the volume’s post-script draws attention to the performative aspects of Hamlet criticism (and to playing the role of the post-Hamlet critic) in an age overwhelmed by a plethora of Shakespearean scholarship. Fusing elements of creative writing, autobiography, and literary criticism to interrogate questions of authorship, naming, and memory, this chapter focuses particularly on the historical reconstruction (sometimes accurate and sometimes erroneous) of significant cultural texts. Effacing even his own name as author, the late Mr. ——— contemplates the ways in which we read names, nicknames, and the erasure of identities and names. In doing so, he questions what counts as a cultural text and interrogates the processes by which we, as literary scholars, determine the weight and significance of such texts—and the names attached (or not attached) to them. (For example, does a scholarly journal from bygone days represent a text worthy of close reading in relation to Shakespeare’s Hamlet? And if so, what happens when we attempt to close-read it?) The unnamed author posits that, when it comes to reading the overread text (such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet), we may find ourselves forced to engage in acts of “too-close reading.” The possible dangers and potential rewards of too-close readings of Hamlet become all too apparent in this post-script’s self-consciously post-modern construction—and especially in its playfully lengthy “works (not) cited.”
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationShakespeare's Hamlet in an Era of Textual Exhaustion
EditorsSonya Freeman Loftis, Alison Kellar, Lisa Ulevich
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781315265537
ISBN (Print)9781138291270, 9780367886165
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2017

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Shakespeare


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