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I decided to use post-structuralism for my essay on Hamlet, primarily for the reason being that I still have a hard time understanding this particular literary theory. I figured I would do my best interpretations of the texts surrounding this school of thought and that maybe after finishing a paper to the best of my abilities, I may come to a better understanding through experimentation.
In order to help me understand the theory, I read “Semiology and Grammatology” by Jacques Derrida. As I read Hamlet I discovered many signs that acted as both signifiers and signified, that is, certain “elements” referred to themselves. An example of this is the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. He’s a trace of the formerly living father, but he’s not completely out of existence. In a way, the Ghost is both living and dead. The binary pair would therefore be life/death and the Ghost exists between both of these. Additionally, because the king is never introduced in the play, it’s missing its origin and because he reappears throughout the play, it never disappears. Without an origin inside the text, the Ghost disobeys Derrida’s “supplement at the origin.” The Ghost is an entity of that signifies itself.
Derrida says in “Semiology and Grammatology” that
“The play of differences supposes, in effect, syntheses and referrals which forbid at any moment, or in any sense, that a simple element be present in and of itself, referring only to itself. Whether in the order of spoken or written discourse, no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present. . . . Nothing, neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present or absent” (Derrida 337).
The Ghost in the play, when serving as a sign, is both present and absent, as it exists between life and death. According to the text above, this would be impossible unless it referred to Hamlet’s father. In an attempt to be risky, I’m trying to show that the Ghost doesn’t truly signify Hamlet’s father because the father was never “present” in the play when he was alive. Through this interpretation, the Ghost is a “floating signifier.”
Despite the status of the Ghost as a “floating signifier,” this still works when it comes to Derrida’s statements about traces. Because Hamlet has memory “traces” of the father, then the Ghost never acts as a signifier for Hamlet’s father, but more accurately, the Ghost acts as a signifier for Hamlet’s memory of his father. This would relieve the Ghost as a paradox and fit in line with Derrida’s above statement.
While I still don’t know if I’m understanding everything I’ve read about post-structuralism, I feel I may be on the right track. I thought this post about the Ghost helped me understand much of what Derrida talks about.