Explain and illustrate (not the same thing) the role of the ghost in Hamlet in terms of the two key ideas we have discussed this semester: the epitaph and ‘mise-en-abyme’. Please be creative and have fun with this assignment. Remember, though, it counts as fifty percent of your final grade. Points will be awarded for creation of character and strength of voice. You may attempt a poem. Good luck! I will publish the best response on my blog. C.P.
Okay, the day before the play is the dumb show.
And if it’s not exactly The Murder of Gonzago,
we still try to surprise the students every year.
A school tradition, if you will—call it shock learning,
call it dramaturgical eschatology,
call it our modest attempt to bring ‘Shakespeare,
the Theologian’ closer to the students.
We try to ‘make it new’ each year.
Surprise them like death surprises.
A ghost appears. He pours this substance, ‘bleach’
—it smells like bleach, we use an old Clorox
bottle—into a jar full of ammonia.
He growls, he cackles. It’s Clement Pettigrew.
He’s been teaching at St. Jerome for years now,
both drama and religion. The man’s an aspiring actor.
He did some soaps, a couple commercials
on TV, something off-off Broadway.
We think of him as one of our top teachers.
The Pettigrew/ ghost uses this bleach/ ammonia
like it’s a bomb. He sprays the class, attacks Miss Wilson.
A few (carefully coached) students pass out. Miss Wilson
gets sick, vomiting on the desk—really—it’s pretty
convincing. She’s good. She twists, convulses on
the floor. She dies. The end…
I know, I know, how lurid. Hamlet meets Columbine.
The student’s assignment for tonight is a good one,
though: compose an epitaph for the ghost.
Not the teacher. Not Miss Wilson. The ghost.
We’ll see the whole show tomorrow.
Now everybody knows you don’t go mixing
ammonia and bleach. Even in jest. Chlorine,
it rips the lungs apart, right? Hitler used it. Anyway,
this time the ghost pours bleach into the jar for real,
he takes a deep breath and becomes Mr. Pettigrew, dead
on stage, a dead religion teacher. There’s your ‘mise-en-abyme’.
The sheets fall away. He seems to be dead—really dead.
A lump on stage…
Miss Wilson screams. The boys, though—
their assignment was just to understand ‘mise-en-abyme’—
not suck chlorine. Fucking get some windows open,
will you? No one knows what ghost Pettigrew has done,
but he seems dead, real dead. Dial 911.
No one knows why either. Some ‘mise-en-abyme’—
He has written Death Voilá… on the board.
I announce to the school—
Okay, just the graduating seniors—
In twenty-five words or less, explain this epitaph.
Your diploma depends on the final answer.
The police will be here soon.
But wait, he’s not dead yet, the ghost. Peek
behind the curtains, ICU. That beep
means still some life, the heart still pumps, his brain
is charging, discharging. His lungs are ripped
apart, it’s true. He can’t breathe or talk.
He mouths ‘mise-en-abyme’… He dies. The end.
Here’s some of the epitaphs proposed for Mr. Pettigrew—
I am my own objective correlative;
Here lies Clem, who choked on phlegm;
Departed while he farted;
even Inclement weather, Clement.
We choose this one—The little dog laughed to see
such sport…—as this year’s epitaph winner.
It takes the edge off things. Your epitaph,
remember, is written for the living, a kind
of communication with the dead,
a way of ‘doing business’ with them,
so to speak. Learn to profit from your burdens!
Keep your sunny side up, mate!
Thus, all epitaphs must function as a ‘mise-en-abyme’.
It is a place where ghosts must flourish…
Besides, this way, we can save—
…and the dish ran away with the spoon.
— for next year’s performance.
I hope you like it, Mr. Pettigrew.
—Cathy Percy, Class of 2010, St. Jerome Invictus