Shakespeare’s Hamlet offers an insight into trauma and the difficulties that survivors of trauma might have coping with the aftermath of a violent situation. When a traumatic event has occurred, the psyche immediately begins looking for ways to process the trauma as well as ways to contain it. The containment of trauma might not be immediately apparent but it is a key step in processing and moving on from trauma. Shakespeare was particularly adept at representing the effects of trauma both physically and emotionally, and tragedies such as Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Coriolanus and King Lear all present different ways in which these effects can occur.
When Hamlet comes back to Denmark after receiving the devastating news of his father’s death, he first attempts to reconstruct the events that surrounded his father and mother in the days before and after the death was announced. It soon becomes clear that his father was the victim of a murder, at which point the Ghost of his father first appears on stage. The Ghost exerts an impressive amount of control over the rest of the characters, whether they are on stage or not. It becomes clear to the audience that the Ghost is an apparition, and Horatio even attempts to explain away the Ghost as mere fantasy. The question of whether the Ghost is real or not does not change the fact that just by virtue of Hamlet believing in it, it has already become a tool in the processing of trauma.
In an article about the Ghost, scholar Sarah Outterson-Murphy states that "watchers onstage describe the Ghost as a spectacle teetering between reality and representation" (Outterson-Murphy, 256). In the first instance, the Ghost is a visual reminder that Hamlet’s father was murdered, but more importantly, the Ghost is the phantasmic embodiment of a traumatic injury. As Hamlet describes him "[be] thou a spirit of health or goblin damned, Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, Be they intents wicked or charitable, Thou comest in such a questionable shape, That I will speak to thee" (Hamlet, 1.4. 40-4). The Ghost’s intentions are not clear during this exchange but it is that ambiguity which reminds Hamlet, as well as the audience, of the overwhelming and confusing nature of trauma.
In an essay on trauma theory, Deborah Willis explains that "trauma does not stop with the individual victim; rather, family members and others close to the victim experience a form of secondary trauma" (Willis, 25). Trauma does not have clearly demarcated limits and while Hamlet’s father was the sole victim of murder, Hamlet suffered the injury of losing his father prematurely. In order to regain control over the situation, Hamlet becomes a perpetrator of violence to endure the "profound threats to self-concept and [...] overwhelming emotion" (Willis, 25) he is faced with.
Hamlet’s attempt to regain control is centered on the repetition of trauma. From the very first "I’ll call thee Hamlet" (Hamlet, 1.4.44) Hamlet is recreating traumatic events in order to eventually substitute the tragic consequences each will bring. By giving his own name to the Ghost, Hamlet is both projecting himself onto the spectre as well as finding a measure of identification with it. Both Hamlet and the Ghost are products of trauma, though not in the same way. The Ghost is a literal product of a traumatic injury, which consisted of murder, and is directly linked to the late king. On the other hand, Hamlet's sense of self has been affected by his father's murder, and he has lost his place as both a son (at least to his father) and king of Denmark. Hamlet's distress, his 'madness', is the result of an overwhelming amount of trauma, which was incidentally delivered in a very short time window. Hamlet's inability to cope with the loss of those parts of himself as well as the brutality of his father's death culminate with him equating himself to the Ghost. The Ghost then becomes a pivotal tool of repetition whenever he appears as he doubles Hamlet himself and allows for him to "[reenact] trauma with the roles reversed, working its perverse cure through repetition and overtopping" (Willis, 48). While the attempt of repetition can seem to promise satisfactory results, Hamlet soon becomes aware of the fatal flaw of his plan, which is that no amount of revenge and reenactment can undo what has already happened.
Hamlet’s repetition occurs in simple, private ways, and in public, grand gestures. When Hamlet speaks to the Ghost for the first time they are completely alone and he tells the Ghost that he will call him Hamlet. On the other hand, when Hamlet prepares a play in which the actors reenact a man killing his brother to become king, Hamlet is reenacting the traumatic injury in public, in front of many witnesses. Both cases have the same result, however different the scenes were, given that Hamlet is no closer to healing from his trauma than he was before he put these scenes into motion.
Ultimately, the repetition of revenge has as a goal to "restore the imbalance created by the original offense by imposing punishment commensurate with it" (McClelland, 197). By the end of the play, it becomes clear for Hamlet and for the audience that no amount of reversal of roles can undo the injury suffered, and the only way for Hamlet to truly escape his trauma is through his own death. In Hamlet’s own words, "the rest is silence" (Hamlet, 5.2.342).
McClelland, R. (2010). The Pleasures of Revenge. The Journal of Mind and Behaviour 31. no. ¾. JSTOR.
Outterson-Murphy, S. (2016). "Remember me." Shakespeare Bulletin 34, no. 2. JSTOR. Shakespeare, W. (2016). Hamlet. Edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. London: Bloomsbury.
Willis, D. (2002). ”The Gnawing Vulture”: Revenge, Trauma Theory, and Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no.1. JSTOR.
Selous, H.C. and Wentworth, F. (c.1864-8). Hamlet and the Ghost in Act I (6/23). Retrieved from: https://shakespeareillustration.org/2016/08/08/hamlet-and-ghost-2/ Selous, H.C. and Wentworth, F. (c.1864-68). The Ghost in Act I, scene 1 (3/23). Retrieved from: https://shakespeareillustration.org/2016/08/08/the-ghost-3/
Hamlet and the Ghost in Act I. (1864). Retrieved from: https://shakespeareillustration.org/2021/07/06/hamlet-2/