Print Friendly and PDF
only search

Do we need the ghost of the father or of the son?

A production of Hamlet reminds the author of other ghost stories, including the contemporary literary whodunnit and myth, Luis de Miranda's "Who killed the poet"?

Last time I saw Hamlet, the themes that struck me most were all those to do with order - the way that the succession from Hamlet's father to his uncle destroys order and eventually destroys the kingdom. The disorder in the kingdom, of course, if keenly felt by Hamlet, who exhibits his own version of that disorder which then feeds into the downfall of the kingdom. And the representation, in the play within the play, of his mother's and uncle's crime precipitates the political unravelling. So one reading - probably the most natural- is about legitimacy. The uncle has committed a crime; his monarchy cannot be considered legitimate; and through Hamlet, the illegitimacy find its power to change and to restore a moral order.

But I had also just been reading Julian Jaynes - the very intriguing Princeton psychologist, who examines the role of "voices" - the voices of Gods and ancestors - in maintaining order in traditional society. Jaynes has a theory that many find fanciful, but I find inherently plausible, that devotional places and statues were created in order to quite literally invite the voice of an authority to speak to one. When traditional religious texts speak of God's word, they often should be read quite literally to mean that. When Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son, it is literally a command that he hears. And when an angel intercedes at the last moment, it is also, literally, a contrary voiced instruction that Abraham follows. And to ascribe it to a messenger of God is a way of papering over the contradictions in the voices - contradictions which become more common and more keenly felt amongst the God fearing as society becomes more complex, and as man gains power over Gods.

With that in mind, I was tempted to watch the Hamlet unfolding in a different way. The voice of the father is the traditional voice of order. It is hallucinated by Hamlet - remember, only Hamlet can speak to the ghost, even if others can dimly perceive it - because Hamlet is the representative of dynastic order made flesh. The principle of legitimacy that has been broken is simply another will - a will to continuity of power. And that will can command the hallucinations of its agents.

To take this reading all the way to its conclusion, one would have to stage Hamlet as if the uncle had not murdered the king. Hamlet, the agent of patriarchal order, simply creates chaos, misery and death around him because that is what competing wills to power do when they cannot come to terms. And an agent in the grip of a hallucination, in the grip of an ordering principle of patriarchy, is not one who can be made to see sense. In this reading, the tragedy of Hamlet is the tragedy for Denmark, the tragedy at the heart of the way that monarchies try to preserve the continuity of order.

Soon after these musings about Hamlet - I have yet to go back to the text to see how much one would have to excise to actually stage this version - Luis de Miranda sent me a copy of his novel, "Who killed the poet?". By a great coincidence, this is also a story about Hamlet, ghosts, patriarchy and hallucinations. In a masterful creation of a modern myth, the narrator is a flaneur who is torn from a life of Parisian afternoons with possible lovers at the Cafe des Philosophes by the need to get to the bottom of the death of his twin, the poet. The twin - the other whom the narrator could have been - is a hypersensitive aesthete who had had an unfortunate and passionate love affair with the daughter of a professor of English Literature who could not concede that there had been a poet since Byron.

The poet is visited by a ghost - but not a patriarchal one. This is the ghost of a son - an "enfantome", in de Miranda's often delightful punning. The hallucination of the son, like the hallucination of the father in Hamlet, does eventually kill the mind it inhabits. But in de Miranda's myth, the ghost is ultimately victorious. We do not get to the collapse of order, but rather to the collapse of the killer of poetry - in an appropriate inversion, the ancestral voice of the dominating, abusing, father is killed in a confrontation with the child. In the form of a literary whodunnit, the poet-slaying patriarch out of the Hamlet dynasty is destroyed by the bond of love from Romeo and Juliet.

As we look at our contemporary world and its "order of the fathers" - think of the appalling nature of the Hobbesian bargain playing out in Syria today; the decimation of human potential in the third generation of Kims in North Korea; think of the dynastic politics and other forms of ancestor worship that seem such a natural organising force at every level of society ... The need for an organising force like the "enfantome" - the childish, loving voice of the future - seems ever more to be needed.

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.