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SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET AND

POE’S USHER: PERCEPTION OF


SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

Alejandro Manniello

Instituto Santa Trinidad

March 2006
CONTENTS

1. Introduction and research focus..............................4

2. Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark ...........................6

3. Poe’s Roderick Usher ........................................... 12

4. Concluding Words ............................................... 17

5. References......................................................... 21

Alejandro Manniello 2
Instituto Santa Trinidad
March 2006
ABSTRACT

Four centuries ago, William Shakespeare gave the


world The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of
Denmark (c.1603). In it, a tormented prince
swayed between revenge and doubt after the
assassination of his noble father, the king of the
Nordic country. Prince Hamlet’s personality has
been universally acknowledged to be perhaps the
most complex in the history of human letters.
More than two hundred years later, Edgar Allan
Poe, a poet of New England, and also tormented
by his personal circumstances, envisioned a
noble, almost kingly character, Roderick Usher, in
his story called The Fall of the House of Usher
(1839). The tale presents the reader with a man
whose life is devastated by mental insanity and
by the knowledge that his death will mean the
end of his dynastic line. It is the aim of this paper
to examine Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Poe’s
Roderick Usher, with a view to exploring their
possible perception of their changing
environments through possible areas of
comparison and contrast. It should be noted that
the areas that are addressed both in the tragedy
and in the story are not limited to the characters
in question, but may touch upon other elements
surrounding these characters, the exploration of
which has been found to be relevant to the scope
of this paper.

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SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET AND POE’S USHER:
PERCEPTION OF SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

1. Introduction and research focus

The beginning of the seventeenth century in England saw the crucial

political transition from the long and firm rule of Queen Elizabeth I to

the start of a new dynasty. Although the passage from Tudor to

Stuart was not uneventful or irrelevant to historians, the matrix of a

new social system, capitalism, had already been formed long before

towards the end of the Middle Ages (McNall Burns, 1973). However, it

would be senseless to state that reaffirmation of a social system does

not include remains, or elements that belong to the previous ones:

the medieval tradition did not die altogether with the arrival of the

new system.

It is in the middle of this historical moment that William Shakespeare

gave the world The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

(c.1603)1. In this drama the tormented Prince sways between

revenge and doubt after the assassination of his noble father, the

king of the Nordic country. Authors have in general agreed that

Prince Hamlet’s personality is perhaps the most complex in the

1
Although the play was first printed in 1603, there is evidence that the stage history of
Hamlet seems to date back to 1589 (Lott, 1968)

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history of human letters. Numberless books and articles have been

written about the troubled prince, and it has been suggested that a

whole lifetime would not be enough for anyone to read all that has

been written about the drama and its protagonists.

More than two hundred years later, half a century after the birth of

the American nation, a poet of New England, whose soul was different

but not as tormented as the Shakespearean prince’s, embarked on a

literary career which would not bear its fruit or achieve any success

till well after the writer died (Regan, 1967). Edgar Allan Poe, famous

for his mystery and powerfully hallucinating poetry, gave birth to a

character, Roderick Usher, who has a clear but tormented perception

of the end of his dynastic line and of his own death. The protagonist

of The Fall of the House of Usher indeed realizes, by extension, that

he lives and is part of a social system whose days, like his own, are

numbered. Different elements in the character’s personality reveal

this tragic awareness.

The present paper aims to examine perception of socio-historical

change through the comparison between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and

Poe’s Usher, informed by the working hypothesis that both characters

might evidence some degree of awareness of the inevitable fall of a

socio-political system, and the subsequent emergence of a new one.

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The parameters of comparison will mainly be related to the

omnipresent themes of mental disorder on the one hand,

decomposition and decadence on the other. Additionally, reference

will be made to the characters' state of depression and lack of worldly

pleasure, as well as the instances where the natural order becomes

subverted, as is perceived by the characters in question.

It should be observed that there are multiple details in both

Shakespeare’s tragedy and Poe’s story which might definitely suggest

perception of social change. However, mostly elements connected to

the above characters and their immediate surroundings are to be

considered for the purpose of the present study.

2. Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark

There are clear indicators that the Elizabethan and Jacobean

audiences were not new to the story of Hamlet (Lott, 1968). Indeed,

the story goes that an early tragedy about Prince Hamlet was written

and presented on stage to the people of London. Unfortunately, only

a few references to the performances have been found, the original

play having been lost. It might be a likely case that, by writing

Hamlet, Shakespeare in fact responded to a popular interest in the

life of a prince. Yet, there is little doubt that the subtle complexities

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of this character were largely enriched and enhanced by

Shakespeare.

The young prince is brought up in a typically feudal environment:

evidence of this can be found in his mastery of such feudal practices

as riding and fencing. However, as time goes by, and Hamlet

becomes a young student, he goes to study at the University of

Wittenberg, in Germany. This centre of higher education has

traditionally been considered one of the cradles of humanism, a

movement that mostly propounded and exalted the virtues and

qualities of man (Hooker, 1996). It goes without saying that this

movement is directly related to the Renaissance, a period that is in

turn born into the emerging capitalist system (McNall Burns 1973).

The cult of individuality would never have been possible in feudal

times. Therefore, young Hamlet, at the beginning of the play might

be positioned in between two opposing structures: his early

upbringing and the new humanistic intellectual life in Europe.

Nevertheless, unnatural though it is by Medieval standards, Hamlet

manages to kill Claudius in the end. Challenging all feudal values and

fuelled by his passion, he does commit regicide: he does become a

modern man.

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Although the real complicator of the drama points to the death of

Hamlet’s father, the prince’s conflict really starts when the imposing

figure of the ghost of Old Hamlet, standing in full armour, informs his

perplexed son that he has been murdered. The ghost poisons

Hamlet’s ear with this horrendous information, in the same way that

the late king himself is poisoned to death by his own brother. From

that moment onward, the young prince’s life will change altogether:

he doubts the ghost’s credentials, but he intends to avenge the late

king’s death.

Hamlet hits on the idea of putting “an antic disposition on” (I.v.172)

for a number of reasons that critics have never ceased to debate

(Lott, 1968): while some believe that he needed to stand away from

the rest in order to corroborate the ghost’s story and plan his

revenge, others suggest that his feigned madness comes from the

need to have more time. Some authors affirm that Hamlet’s insanity

is real, not pretended.

Pretended or genuine, there is madness in Hamlet. Under the

influence of Polonius, chief advisor to the king, both King Claudius

and his newly-wed Queen Gertrude Hamlet’s mother are

convinced that the young prince is definitely insane and assume that

the cause of his mental derangement is the prince’s intense and

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unrequited love for Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia. Hamlet indeed acts

very strangely towards Ophelia, coming to see her in ragged clothes,

frightening her and, above all, unleashing his anger at her consent to

be her father’s instrument of espionage, through insulting words that

lead her to a madness which cannot be seen as pretended, since it

finishes with her life. On the other hand, Polonius, another future

victim of Hamlet’s rage, realizes that the prince’s “mad” behaviour

does have a certain pattern: when Hamlet chooses to insult and

belittle him, treating the king’s official as a stupid old man, the really

stupid old advisor affirms that “[t]hough this be madness, yet there is

method in’t” (II.ii.203). This can be a likely perception that Hamlet’s

madness is not genuine. However, there comes a moment in the play

when tension and its resulting chaos, as well as inaction and

postponement, are the direct result of Hamlet’s special state of mind,

be it constructed or real.

The complex issues associated with the spirit are strongly contrasted

to a central theme related to organic matter: decomposition or

putrefaction, closely linked with the idea of corruption. Indeed, the

first mention of the topic in the play is made by a minor character,

Marcellus, in a clear allusion to political corruption: when he hears

about the political trouble that Denmark is going through, he sadly

points out that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”

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(I.v.90). In direct allusion to Danish decadence, it is the Prince who

makes explicit reference to images of putrefaction and decay when he

treats Polonius as if he were a fishmonger and, after a brief reference

to “maggots” and “carrion”, Shakespeare makes powerful use of irony

by juxtaposition as Hamlet immediately goes on to ask Polonius about

his honesty. Allusions like this one are plentiful in Hamlet’s

conversations with Ophelia. Whether caused by the prince’s over-

Oedipal relationship with his mother, his unclear sexual inclination, or

both, it seems clear that Hamlet is aware of corruption and its

associations with organic putrefaction. This is clear, even when the

Prince cynically narrates about the likely presence of a king inside the

intestines of a beggar, one of the most memorable, sarcastic and

witty parts spoken by Hamlet (IV.iii.30-1). It is impossible to deny

that this remark is directly aimed at Claudius’ corruption, a direct

metaphoric extension of nature’s inexorable process of organic

decomposition, the basis of physical, social and even political

decadence.

The above elements in the play reside in Elsinore as well as in Prince

Hamlet’s particular state of mind: his depression and his incapacity to

enjoy worldly pleasures. The first time the audience sees Hamlet, he

is in the company of his mother, his uncle and practically the whole

Danish court. Yet, he is away from the rest and down-hearted. His

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depression stems from the death of his father and from his mother’s

hasty marriage to his uncle, the new king. No matter how hard

Claudius and Gertrude try to cheer up the young prince, Hamlet’s

spirits cannot be lifted. Greater is his depression when he meets his

father’s ghost: even if his acts of madness provide the play with acid,

witty and even humorous parts, the underlying state is one of

absolute depression. This can clearly be seen in Hamlet’s dramatic

soliloquies, in which he dramatically and sadly condemns female

“frailty” (I.ii.129-158), he accuses himself of inaction as he compares

himself with the talent of visiting actors (II.ii.521-580), or he thinks

about committing suicide (III.i.56-90). The clearest and most

dramatic confession to his incapacity for pleasure comes before the

climax of the play, that is, before the performance of ‘The Murder of

Gonzago’, by the group of travelling players. In a remarkably broken-

hearted soliloquy, he admits to his stupidly cynical “friends”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in surprising prose:

“… I have of late but therefore I know not – lost all my mirth,


forgone all customs of exercises; and this indeed, it goes so
heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth,
seems to me sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy,
the air, look you, this brave o’ erhanging firmament, this
majestic roof freted with golden fire why it appears no other
thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours
[…] Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither” (II.ii.289-
302).

It is remarkable to see such a stunning self-confession especially

when, in the middle of it, Shakespeare makes Hamlet utter one of the

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most beautiful definitions of humanism: “what a piece of work is

man” (II.ii.286). This indeed accentuates, through shocking

contraposition, Hamlet’s profound depression.

3. Poe’s Roderick Usher

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher was written in 1839

in ‘Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine’. In this story, a puzzled narrator

rides to the mansion of his old friend Roderick Usher, whom he has

not seen for many long years, and arrives only to see a decaying

house within a gloomy, lugubrious atmosphere. When he meets his

aristocratic friend, the narrator sees a completely changed man.

Roderick looks emaciated and decadent. Living in complete seclusion,

only in the company of a dying twin sister, Roderick’s disease is

explained to the narrator, who accompanies his friend along a sad

path to death, an individual death which marks the end of his

dynastic line, and even the physical destruction of the whole

mansion, a catastrophic even from which the narrator can barely

escape from.

The first element that the narrator perceives is the mental state of his

friend Roderick: he is gloomy, depressed, and he describes a strange

and abnormal hyper-sensibility that makes him avoid any relatively

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strong sensory stimulus. Usher simply cannot bear to stand in the

sunlight, and his hearing powers are overwhelmed by any loud sound

with the exception of that coming from certain stringed instruments.

The significance of the mention of stringed instruments makes the

reader turn back to the story’s epigraph, in which it is relatively

simple to discover the strong symbolic link between the tension of the

lute’s strings and Usher’s depressed and nervous state:

Son coeur est un luth suspendu;


Sitot qu'ôn le touche il resónne.
De Beranger.2

As time passes, the narrator becomes acquainted with Usher’s story,

and the reader is told that Usher is the last of his dynastic line: his

impending death will entail the end of a solid aristocratic family line.

Indeed there is a sister, his twin: Lady Madelaine of Usher. She has

been Usher’s sole companion for long years and now she is suffering

a disease as strange as her brother’s mental disorder. Yet her malady

is of a cataleptic nature. This immediately warns the reader of a

possible premature burial.

Additionally, there is a hint that “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible

nature had always existed” (Poe, 259) between brother and sister: a

2
His heart is a suspended lute;
Whenever one touches it, it resounds.

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possible reference to an incestuous relationship between them.

Disease and incest seem to constitute a solid structure that might

have its origin in family intermarriage, a common practice among the

aristocracy so as not to allow “plebeian” or “common” blood to come

into their lineage. This type of practice has, for example, generated

haemophilia among numberless male members of the European

aristocracy, given that constant marriage of cousins and / or other

close relationships may cause serious genetic alterations that may

translate into self-immune disease (Giangrande 1997).

Yet, incest might suggest a possible climax to the long tradition of

family intermingling. This peak of tension seems to be the last

attempt at closing in on and preserving the family line that was

inexorably coming to an end. This appears to be, from a sociological

perspective, the remains of an old feudal order refusing to come to

an end and be replaced by the new capitalist order (the so-called

“plebeian” blood). The Ushers’ malady and their imminent deaths also

seem to stand for and symbolise the end of a social system and of a

political order.

Mental insanity is undoubtedly present in The Fall of the House of

Usher, and can be seen clearly in the character of Roderick. Apart

from his depression and his strange hyper-sensibility, Poe makes

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direct reference to the loss of reason as a palpable reality. This vision

of mental derangement is closely and exquisitely associated with the

central theme of the interface between the end of a family line and

the complete destruction of their mansion: the strange link between

living and non-living entities. The noble human is seen as a palace in

the small poem ‘The Haunted Palace’, inserted in the story, and

supposedly recited by Usher to the narrator:

I.
In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once fair and stately palace
Radiant palace --reared its head.
In the monarch Thought's dominion
-- It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.

[…]

V. But evil things, in robes of sorrow,


Assailed the monarch's high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.

VI.
And travellers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh --but smile no more.

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The first and the last two stanzas of this little inserted masterpiece

should serve to illustrate Poe’s construction of a palace obviously

representing the domains of the old landed aristocracy, and the

invading powers of madness. There is a striking use of personification

all the way through the poem, since this palace is indeed a human

head, with “Thought” as its king. Gradually this palace is invaded,

“assailed”, and the place undergoes changes which can easily be

perceived as the slow process of the end of reason, closely tied to the

decadence and fall of a social system. Insanity appears to be seen by

Poe as the old feudal regime’s incapacity to adapt to the new system,

and this leads to the final catastrophe.

An interesting element in Poe’s story is the relationship between

organic and non-organic matter. From the very beginning, the

narrator perceives something more than a gloomy atmosphere

pervading the Usher mansion: there were minute fungi overspreading

the stones of the house, and decayed trees standing around. These

elements, together with the small crack in the wall which will later on

gape out and destroy the house, illustrate the general decadence and

decomposition that will bring the story to its ending. However, the

nature of decay is not simply present for no apparent reason: Usher

firmly believes in a the power of “sentience” that inanimate objects

possess. In his particular view, his mental disorder, the end of a

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dynasty and the objects that make up and surround his house exist in

a sort of harmony that is slowly being upset or subverted now. Non-

organic matter indeed “feels”, in the sick man’s view. This

undoubtedly generates a vision of decomposition and putrefaction

that goes beyond what can be simply or scientifically explained. The

strange character affirms that all objects have a life, and this

“sentience” stands harmonious with their environment, be it animal,

vegetable or mineral.

4. Concluding Words

Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet and Poe’s Roderick Usher share

interesting characteristics but present striking differences. Although

differences do outweigh similitudes, some elements in the above

examination seem to throw some light on the main focus of this

paper.

Indeed, it can be safely concluded that both characters evidence,

perhaps semi-consciously and indirectly, a certain degree of

awareness of a changing world, although they lived in different ages:

Hamlet goes through the conflictive plot of the tragedy at a time

when a new social order is emerging, and the Old Hamlet-Claudius

opposition represents the passage from the old feudal system to the

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new capitalist order. Unlike the Prince of Denmark, Poe’s Usher lives

a post-French Revolution reality: the old nobility has already been

displaced and replaced by an already strong bourgeoisie that holds

economic and political power (McNall Burns, 1973).

Whereas madness in Hamlet, pretended or genuine, clearly stems

from the murder of his father, and the marriage of his mother to the

murderer, mental disorder in Usher is deeply rooted in the end of a

dynastic line, which would also bring upon the complete destruction

of his physical and tangible surroundings. However, Hamlet’s

insanity, as well as Usher’s, is also related to the perception of the

end of an era. The permanent comparisons that he draws between

his father and the present king constantly speak of his nostalgia for

the times gone. Hamlet tells the king’s spies Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern that his depression is accompanied by a lack of

enthusiasm about the medieval sports he used to practise. Besides,

he is longing to go back to Wittemberg, as if a new humanist Europe

were calling him, and is finally able to break through Medieval

ideological barriers when he finally commits regicide, though at the

cost of his own life. Usher, on the other hand, is mentally

unbalanced, but he knows that his malady is directly connected with

his coming death, the end of his family line, which represents the

slow fall of a once powerful and hegemonic social class.

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As regards the characters’ depression, it should be interesting to note

that both of them feel deep nostalgia for the past. This omnipresent

ubi sunt attitude can be clearly perceived in Hamlet’s recollections of

his father in grim contrast with his uncle, and in the sad awareness

that his country is going through a period of absolute decadence

under Claudius. Roderick Usher also remembers old times with

sadness, and this is strongly reinforced by the inserted poem ‘The

Haunted Palace’, which depicts the once radiant palace of king

Thought being attacked and invaded by madness, in direct allusion to

Usher’s situation.

The ideas of decomposition, putrefaction and corruption play an

important part in both characters. Hamlet makes use of the topics of

decomposition and corruption (two practically synonymous terms) to

constantly refer to life, death and the sad state his beloved country is

in. There are numberless references to the putrefaction of organic

matter to illustrate issues ranging from misogyny to gruesomeness,

from life and death to the political present of Denmark. On the other

hand, in Poe’s Usher decomposition seems to form part of a more

complex structure. The lord of the mansion perceives not only the

inevitability of his death, but also has a clear vision of the “sentient”

nature of inanimate objects. In the same way that Shakespeare

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portrays nature revolting against the action of regicide in Macbeth

(Ludowyc, 1964), that is, the upsetting of the Medieval natural order,

Poe makes Usher’s environment conform to the Medieval vision,

although slightly anachronically, that is, long after the nobility ceased

to be the ruling class.

Both Shakespeare in the seventeenth century and Poe two centuries

later were able to create two remarkably complex characters: Prince

Hamlet and Roderick Usher. It may be stated that their decadent

mental disorder and depression, as well as the slow but inexorable

decomposition of their environment, allows these two characters to at

least partially or subconsciously perceive the transformations of their

socio-historical settings. Moreover, they are, above all, dramatically

and tragically affected, respectively, by a changing social structure,

and by an already changed world where there still existed suffering

and dying survivors of an old order.

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5. References

Beebe, M. (1956). ‘The Universe of Roderick Usher’, in Regan, R. (Ed)


(1967).

Giangrande P.L.F. (1997). ‘The history of haemophilia’ (Online)


Available at: http: //www.medicine.ox.ac.uk / ohc / history.htm

Hooker R. (1996). ‘Humanism’ (Online) Available at: http: //


www.wsu.edu:8080 / ~dee / ren /humanism.htm.

Lott, B.(Ed.) (1968). New Swan Shakespeare: Hamlet. London:


Longman.

Ludowyc, E.F.C. (1964). Understanding Shakespeare. Cambridge:


Cambridge University Press.

McNall Burns, E. (1973). Western Civilizations (8th Edition). New


York: Norton.

Poe, E.A. (1839). The Fall of the House of Usher. In Van Doren Stern,
P. (Ed.) (1945).

Regan, R. (Ed) (1967). Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays.


Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Shakespeare, W. (C.1603). Hamlet. In Lott, B.(Ed.) (1968).

Van Doren Stern, P. (Ed.) (1945). The Portable Poe. New York:
Penguin.

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