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Shakespearean loss: Mourning interminable

Lynne M Simpson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Shakespearean mourners display aggression in lieu of grief, they rely upon introjection and substitution, and they manifestly deny their loss. Denial of death runs throughout the canon; however, it is best epitomized in Antony and Cleopatra and the romances. Shakespeare's most famous mourner, Hamlet, introjects his dead Hyperion father to deny death and contain mourning. Nevertheless, the comedies argue that introjection of a lost object is no substitute for mourning, and in Pericles, introjection even threatens the life of the mourner. If denial represents the final strategy for the containment of grief for Shakespeare, then the conversion of grief into revenge is probably his first. Beginning with the English histories, Shakespeare genders mourning, prescribing socially constructed “masculine” and “feminine” modes of behavior. Men convert their grief into martial revenge; therefore, the first tetralogy is dominated by avenging sons, culminating in the unexpected bereavement of Richard III. The famous lamentation scene of Richard III, part of a tradition of communal and powerful women's mourning, stages a locus of female resistance to male revenge. The comedies star women who mourn: Viola in Twelfth Night and Helena in All's Well pursue the love-object with difficulty after the death of their fathers. Helena's denial of grief and her substitution of Bertram for her dead father have been so successful they produce guilt. A central issue for me is Helena's inability to mourn: remembering rather than forgetting the dead. In Hamlet, a father's ghost returns insisting, “Remember me.” This Trauerspiel or “mourning play” struggles to construct male identity by mastering grief and exhausting revenge. Fearing he too will not be remembered when the rest is silence, Hamlet asks Horatio to tell his story. And by telling stories, we remember—and mourn—the dead. Cleopatra's dolor, like Hamlet's, leads to and ultimately transcends thanatos. This late tragedy prefigures the romances where women who grieve, like Marina, will be given unprecedented power of rejuvenation. What Shakespeare's art finally arrives at is the suggestion that Freud was wrong: mourning never ends. Raise the dead, and no one need ever mourn again.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Theater

Recommended Citation

Simpson, Lynne M, "Shakespearean loss: Mourning interminable" (1999). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9920651.