Barrie, Robert. “Telmahs: Carnival Laughter in Hamlet.” New Essays on Hamlet. Ed. Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning. Hamlet Collection 1. New York: AMS, 1994. 83-100.


This essay approaches Hamlet “as his own Fool,” who “can be seen to subvert Hamlet so thoroughly as to reduce to laughter the very idea of serious tragedy” (83). A review of concurring critics (e.g., Levin, Graves, McGee, Wiles, Bristol) provides some basis for this argument. Theater history suggests changes in theatrical conventions to explain why Hamlet’s laughter has been subverted: while Elizabethan audiences were encouraged to “participate,” modern audiences fear making a faux pas and suffer from the social constraints of an elitist forum (91). Perhaps Elizabethan audiences would have perceived Hamlet’s “insults to the groundlings” as “rough intimacies” (92), laughing at the ritualistic sacrifice of the fool in carnivalesque style and at Horatio’s suggestion of singing angels (94). Hamlet “appears to erase itself not merely through metadrama or other linguistics-based critical theory, but through the laughter of Death, which is not satirical laughter but the inclusive, absolute, all-affirming, feasting, social laughter of the folk (all the people), the laughter of carnival” (97).

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Bristol, Michael D. "'Funeral bak'd-meats': Carnival and the Carnivalesque in Hamlet." William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Ed. Susanne L. Wofford. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Boston: St. Martin's, 1994. 348-67. [Reprinted in Shakespeare's Tragedies, ed. Susan Zimmerman (1998).]


While supplying a summary of Marxist theory and of Bakhtin's principles of the Carnival, this essay contends that Claudius and Hamlet camouflage themselves with carnivalesque masks but that Hamlet has an advantageous "understanding of the corrosive and clarifying power of laughter" (350). Appearing "as a complex variant of the Lord of Misrule," Claudius first speaks of a festive commingling between marriage and death, but he only appropriates carnivalesque themes and values "in order to make legitimate his own questionable authority" (355). Ironically, his means of securing the crown "typically mocks and uncrowns all authority" (356). Although Hamlet initially rejects festivities, his killing of Polonius marks the change in him. Hamlet's use of "grotesque Carnival equivocation" in the following scene with the King, his father/mother, suggests Hamlet's development (358). Hamlet's interaction with "actual representatives of the unprivileged," the Gravediggers, completes Hamlet's training in carnivalism (359). Aside from the "clear and explicit critique of the basis for social hierarchy" (360), this scene shows Hamlet reflecting on death, body identity, community, and laughter. He confronts Yorick's skull but learns that "the power of laughter is indestructible": "Even a dead jester can make us laugh" (361). Now Hamlet is ready to participate in Claudius' final festival, the duel. True to the carnival tendencies, the play ends with "violent social protest" and "a change in the political order" (364). Unfortunately, Fortinbras' claim to the throne maintains "the tension between 'high' political drama and a 'low' audience of nonparticipating witnesses" (365).

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Burnett, Mark Thornton. "'For they are actions that a man might play': Hamlet as Trickster." Hamlet. Ed. Peter J. Smith and Nigel Wood. Theory in Practice. Buckingham: Open UP, 1996. 24-54.


This essay's "hoped-for result is to draw attention to a set of relations between the trickster theme in the play and the social, economic and political forces which lend Hamlet its note of specifically Elizabethan urgency" (29). Shakespeare's play conjures "a spectrum of archetypal trickster intrigues" through multiple characters (34): "it "enlists the traditions of the fox, the fool, and the rogue, complicating the expectation that the play can be understood in terms of a diagrammatic relationship between those who trick and those who are tricked" (43). But the focus is primarily on "Hamlet's own tricksy practices" (34). While the Prince "follows in the path of the trickster in choosing words and theatre as the weapons with which he will secure his role as revenger," "his sense of purpose is often blunted, from within (by Claudius) and from without (by the Ghost)"-like the traditional trickster who battles multiple foes of "local or familial networks" (37). Historically, the trickster's "malleable form presented itself as an answer to, and an expression of, the early modern epistemological dilemma" (51). For example, Hamlet raises concerns of religion, succession, and gender, comparable to the "unprecedented social forms and new ideological configurations" experienced while Elizabeth I reigned as monarch (49-50). In a carnivalesque style, Hamlet affords Elizabethans "a release of tensions" and a means of "social protest" through its trickster(s) (50).

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Gorfain, Phyllis. “Toward a Theory of Play and the Carnivalesque in Hamlet.” Hamlet Studies 13 (1991): 25-49. [Reprinted in Donald Keesey’s Contexts for Criticism (1994) and in Ronald Knowles’ Shakespeare and Carnival: After Bakhtin (1998).]


Drawing heavily on Bakhtin’s understanding of carnivalesque, this article approaches Hamlet “as Shakespeare’s most ludic and metatheatrical tragedy” (26). The “carnivalesque in Hamlet intensifies its complex tragic mode” (27), as the “irreversible and vertical movement of tragic form joins to the reversible and horizontal continuum of carnival in Hamlet to produce the double vision” (28). “The alliance of linear consequence with cyclical carnivalesque reversibility becomes most evident in the final act of Hamlet”: on the one hand, the play “concludes with a carnivalesque fearlessness and freedom as Hamlet decides to engage in an open-ended fencing match”; but, on the other hand, it “also concludes with a devastating finality when the cheating and intrigue of Claudius defeat this ludic spirit” (31). “This consolidation of irreversible history and reversible art matches other patterns of assertion and denial in the play” (31), such as “wordplay (punning, witty literalism, clownish malapropism, word corruptions, nonsense)” (31) and storytelling (which “in Hamlet then replaces revenge)” (29). The repetitive presentation of Old Hamlet’s murder, through narrative, mime, and performance, demonstrates how the “self-reflexive play with the boundaries between event and representation, past and present, subjunctive and actual, audience and performers defines and dissolves the differences between the world of the play and the world of the theater” (29). “As carnival obscures the differences between performers and audience, blending us all in a comedic vision of performance culture, so Hamlet uses its reflexive ending to make us observers of our own observing, objects of our own subjective knowledge, inheritors of the playful knowledge paradox” (43)—and “the noblest” audience (5.21.88).

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