Hamlet and Liminality

How would you rate the Merchant test?
A) Easy
 E) Very difficult
Hamlet and Liminality
What does liminality mean?
Different or unusual
Better or higher
Lower or below
Between or on the margin
At the end
Liminality as defined according to the
anthropologist Victor Turner:
Liminality is a term borrowed from Arnold van
Gennep's formulation of rites de passage, or
"transition rites"-which accompany every change
of state or social position, or certain points in age.
These are marked by three phases:
• separation,
• margin (or limen-the Latin for threshold, signifying
the great importance of real or symbolic
thresholds at the middle period of the rites, though
cunicular, "being in a tunnel," would better
describe the quality of this phase in many cases,
its hidden nature, its sometimes mysterious
• and reaggregation.
Turner (cont’d)
• The first phase, separation, comprises symbolic
behavior signifying the detachment of the individual
or the group from either an earlier fixed point in the
social structure or from an established set of social
conditions (a "state").
• During the intervening liminal period, the state of
the ritual subject (the "passenger," or "liminar,")
becomes ambiguous, neither here nor there,
betwixt and between all fixed points of
classification; he passes through a symbolic domain
that has few or none of the attributes of his past or
coming state.
• In the third phase the passage is consummated and
the ritual subject, the neophyte or initiand reenters
the social structure, often, but not always at a higher
status level.
Liminality, according to Turner, can thus
be characterized by the following:
• An interval during some kind of transition
from one state to another
• A subject ("passenger" or "liminar"), whether
an individual or group, that makes the
• An ambiguous state "betwixt and between"
recognizable structures--a state of
• A state of being outside or set apart from
social structures
How might this idea of an "ambiguous,
neither here nor there, betwixt and between"
transitional state inform Hamlet?
Consider the opening scene: pp. 3-4, 1.1.1-10
What transitions do we find in this opening
Changing of the guards
Changing of kings
Does the opening scene create the sense of
smooth transitions?
A) Yes  E) No
Sense of Confusion:
• Francisco on guard duty, but Barnardo says
"who's there?"
• Future events (preparing for war with Norway)
usurp the place of the present.
• In the rest of play, the past (ghost and its
demands) usurps the present.
• Rapid exchange of dialogue confuses audience.
• Looming sense of uncertainty.
There is an uncertainty over the very
setting of the opening to the play:
"A guard platform of the castle"?
– which castle?
– and which country?
• We are at the very margins of the play's space
• Consider opening scenes from 1948 Olivier
Hamlet (6 ½ mins) and 1996 Kenneth
Branagh Hamlet (3 ½ mins.)
How do these two films differently
portray uncertainty in their openings to
Stuck in Repeated Temporal Interruptions:
The ghost's first appearance interrupts Barnardo's
Last night of all
When yond same star that's westward from
the pole
Had made his course t'illume that part of
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one-- (1.1.35-39)
Interruption both within the narrated event and in
the external narration of the event itself.
Political Valence - Horatio accuses the ghost
of "usurping" / "erupting" time:
What art thou that usurp'st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? (1.1.46-49)
Added Spatial Valence - Horatio says the ghost's appearance
"bodes some strange eruption to the state" (1.1.69)
Two senses in which ghost's "appearance" usurps/erupts time:
• Appearance as an action (i.e. to appear) interrupts
• Physical appearance (the way it looks) as a figure from the
past who has been dead.
– Time both broken and reordered.
– The past usurps the present.
Stuck in Extended Intervals of Time:
The past extends into present -- past is still present
• The crowing cock (p. 9:1,158-65)
• The persistent threat from Norway, thought to
have been resolved under the former King
Hamlet (1.1.80-107).
Well may it sort that this portentous figure
Comes armèd through our watch so like the King
That was and is the question of these wars.
(1.1.109-11, emphasis added)
• The "betwixt and between state" of Purgatory,
where the ghost serves time:
I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. (1.5.9-13)
Purgatory as
stuck “in
In the larger play world of Hamlet,
“The time is out of joint”
• We are stuck in time, inbetween
and Extended Intervals of Time:
• The ghost's purpose: to disrupt/interrupt the
transition between reigns
• Hamlet also attempts to disrupt and delay the
transition to Claudius's reign by persistently
mourning for his father (pp. 13-14; 1.2.87-112).
• Claudius's mistakes contribute to disruption and
– Tries to step into the role of father ("think of us / As of a
father" 1.2.107-8)
– Restores Hamlet to his future role as successor to the
throne (1.2.108-9)
– Marries the wife of the previous king -- inadvertently
allows the previous regime to linger (p. 10; 1.2.1-14)
Claudius does achieve one definitive
break with the past:
• Claudius works by indirect, political
manipulation vs direct combat challenge
(the method of the former King Hamlet)
Setting Time Right
• On the positive side, disruption and delay in
transitions creates an interval of
possibilities for Hamlet
• But this must occur in a world ruled by
• That is, Hamlet must operate within a new
world of intrigue in order to correct
disjointed time: "The time is out of joint. O
cursèd spite,/ That ever I was born to set it
right!" (1.5.188-89)
A question for consideration:
• What is the new "reaggregated" state to
which the play moves? How are things
different in the end versus the beginning?
And why all the apparent emphases
on transitions in this play?
• Hamlet within literary history:
– Birth of modern psychological realism in
• Hamlet within Shakespeare's literary career:
– Written around 1600 (First, "bad " quarto,
1603 - Second, "good" quarto, 1604)
– "Early" vs. "Late" Shakespeare?
• Cusp between the 16th and 17th centuries.
– Succession issue a persistent cause of