Religion has largely replaced psychology as the explanatory focus for trying to understand Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, but it may be that the turn to religion has come too quickly in our reading of Hamlet. It is not that religion doesn’t matter, but it matters somewhat differently than has usually been assumed. Hamlet begins haunted only by his father’s memory. Religious concerns come after. The chapter shows how the language of the play derives from the contemporary theological thinking about death and dying, but what is perhaps most remarkable about the play, and yet rarely remarked, is how much forgetting is the characteristic act of the play, not remembering, which scholars have rightly identified with religious mourning practices. He announces his promise to remember the Ghost by promising also to forget everything he has previously been taught; in the famous soliloquy Hamlet talks about death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns,” incredibly forgetting the Ghost that has occupied almost all of his thinking; and at the end he kills Claudius with no apparent memory of his promise to the Ghost to “remember,” only as a reflexive response to his discover of Claudius’s role in the poisonings. But, if for Freud “the work of remembering” is the way out of the “compulsion to repeat,” for Shakespeare perhaps it lies in the possibility of forgetting.
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