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"Remember me": Technologies of Memory in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet
by Katherine Rowe

Abstract: Recent work on Shakespeare and film has tended to leave the text behind in order to move beyond questions of cinematic faithfulness. Yet this reasonable impulse effectively obscures the ways cultural practices based on older technologies, such as playtexts and writing, persist in and shape our uses of newer forms, such as film and video. Michael Almereyda's film Hamlet offers an opportunity for comparatist analysis of what Michel Serres would call the "polychronic" nature of these technologies: the early technologies allegorized in Shakespeare's play; the multimedia practices illustrated in John Willis's 1621 manual, The Art of Memory; the mnemonic grammar of television and video editing; and even the forms of quotation we use in scholarly discussions of printed and audio-visual texts.

We are always simultaneously making gestures that are archaic, modern, and futuristic. Earlier I took the example of a car, which can be dated from several eras; every historical era is likewise multitemporal, simultaneously drawing from the obsolete, the contemporary, and the futuristic. An object, a circumstance, is thus polychronic, multitemporal, and reveals a time that is gathered together, with multiple pleats. —Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time

In his influential, late-twentieth century account of modernity, Pierre Nora attributes the impoverished condition of modern memory to the proliferation of new technologies. As Nora tells it, our modern condition of memory is technological dependency as well as loss. The communications and storage media we depend on to shore up the past also ruin it. They offer only "sifted and sorted" fragments of its actual plenitude (Nora: 1989, 8). That plenitude consisted in a time of unmediated "true memory" and in "skills passed down by unspoken traditions, in the body’s inherent self-knowledge, in unstudied reflexes… social, collective [and] all-encompassing" (Nora: 1989, 13). What remains to us now is "a mode of historical perception which, with the help of the media, has substituted for a memory entwined in the intimacy of a collective heritage the ephemeral film of current events" (Nora 1989: 7). In a trenchant critique of Nora’s theory, John Frow outlines its underlying nostalgia. Nora’s model depends on a set of structuring contradictions "between a realm of authenticity and fullness of being, and the actually existing ‘forms of human association’. It displays a "spirituality independent of the materiality of the sign; it is unstructured by social technologies of learning or recall; it is incapable of reflexivity (it cannot take itself as an object), and its mode of apprehension is thus rooted in the ‘inherent self-knowledge’ and ‘unstudied reflexes’ of the body; it is organically related to its community and partakes of the continuity of tradition" (222). Periodizing in a way that abjects modernity, Nora projects the split between these different forms of mnemonic experience onto the advent of a modern representational technology, film. As Frow observes, this pattern repeats itself with successive modern representational form: against an idealized vision of the forms that precede it, each new technology appears impoverished.

Recent apologies for new media—particularly electronic media—contest their social and phenomenological impoverishment. Yet these apologies betray a similar desire for immediate experience projected into an idealized past. Recent examples are Allucquére Roseanne Stone’s vision of electronic community and Malcolm McCullough’s idea of virtual "handicraft." The former argues for the social and collective nature of electronic communication, the latter for a skill-based understanding of electronic design. In making these arguments, both critics project their media back, across the void of modernity, into the idealized plenitude of traditional, artisan community. Virtual handicraft has the Benjaminian quality of being "thrown," McCullough tells us, retaining the maker’s unique and direct impressions as clay does a potter’s hand. Little if anything of earlier modes of making is lost in this progressive vision, while much is gained that serves human memory and desire.

What’s missing from such progressive, technophilic models is real cost-benefit analysis: a fuller account of the needs we bring to any given technology, an exploration of the different losses and gains intrinsic to the varied media that serve those needs. Our current and past memory technologies are both mediated and phenomenally rich in ways that serve some interests but not others. Instead of a richer account of these qualities, nostalgic arguments like Nora’s offer invidious contrasts, while apologic ones offer celebratory analogies.

In what follows, I emphasize the limitations of both these stances: limitations in the ways they periodize technology and idealize its relations to individual and cultural memory. My text is the western locus of memory to which we regularly return to play out the conflict between a desire for presence and the technologies that mediate and shore up our losses—Hamlet. Michael Almereyda’s recent adaptation of the play foregrounds this conflict, in an extended meditation on the resources film and digital video bring to the problem. In exploring the different technologies dramatized in the film, I am responding in part to Frow’s call for a fuller account of the specific representational forms which structure Western invocations to memory (Frow: 1997, 223-4). As an alternative to Nora, Frow suggests we should conceive of memory as always already technological: a function of the cognitive and social practices of representation that mediate past experience (indeed all experience) and selectively describe it for the present. "Technology," in this root sense of art or craft (tekhne), denotes a range of devices and practices:

…on the one hand storage-and-retrieval devices and sites such as books, calendars, computers, shrines, or museums; and on the other hand particular practices of recall—techniques of learning acquired in school, structured confession or reminiscence, the writing of autobiography or history, the giving of evidence in court, the telling of stories related to an artifact or a photograph, and even such apparently immediate forms of recollection as the epiphanic flash of involuntary memory or the obsessive insistence of the symptom. (Frow: 1997, 230).

Frow draws this integrated model of cognitive and social praxis, liberally quoted below, from early modern theories of memory—particularly the art of mental "writing." Writing serves him as the trans-historical type of all the forms and practices named above, which select, sort, and reproduce the matter of the past as a text. This technophilic alternative to Nora is enormously appealing, in part because its embrace of mediated, textualized experience seems to free us from the unproductive desire for presence, and with that desire, from the perception of loss. Yet a progressive account of memory-as-technology does not get rid of the problems Nora raises—specifically the problem of loss—any more than Hamlet’s "tables" allow him, in his most famous moment of remembrance, to "wipe away" the memory of his mother (1.5.99). By reducing loss to nostalgia, Frow stops short of a richly comparatist exploration of the different ways various representational forms constrain and serve human memory. Oddly, what is missing most urgently from Frow’s analysis is a broader recognition of the historically composite nature of the specific technologies through which individuals and cultures remember. Michel Serres reminds us that any technology develops polychronically, a "disparate aggregate" of technical solutions, practices and uses arising from multiple historical contexts. Over time, any given technology may turn out to be neutral to the desire for immediacy, the embrace of mediation, or perceptions of belatedness and loss. The same technical solution may serve some of these impulses at different moments, or even serve conflicting impulses at the same time. Finally the meaning of immediacy itself and its relation to memory technologies may change significantly in different periods. This is true for the figure of "writing on tables" that dominates early modern memory arts. It is equally true for the modern memory arts of the moving image.


The first observation a Serresian critic might make about Almereyda’s Hamlet is that the viewing experience most of us have of the film is not, in fact, cinematic. Most readers of this essay will have watched the film—if they have at all—on VHS or DVD, forms that begin to simulate something like a print-based experience that allows for non-linear reading, replay, and even (in the case of DVD) delivers the text in chapters. This point may seem a quibble. In fact, it is an important instance of the polychronic needs we bring to any representational form (and not incidentally, an important element of Almereyda’s mise-en-scène). As a medium, film exists largely as an experience in memory. For all the phenomenological richness and collective social experience of the cinema, we tend to view films only once in this way, only to return to this experience in memory: in later conversation, commentary (as in this essay), or classroom analysis. Unredacted, uncited, unrehearsed films do not have a robust existence. For those with access to video and DVD, the loss of the social and aesthetic impact associated with cinema may balanced by the more quotable and rehearsable experience supported by video replay.

To pursue the polychrony of film and video further, however, we need a fuller account of the earlier memory arts that these media inherit and renovate. For a film like Hamlet, this means looking back not only to some of its film predecessors (for a sketch of the form and uses of film in Shakespearean adaptation), but also to Shakespeare’s text and the memory arts it invokes. Recent work on Shakespeare and film has tended to leave the text behind in order to move beyond the limitations of the fidelity model of adaptation (how faithful is the film to the play being the only question the text seems to answer). This reasonable impulse effectively obscures the ways older practices of memory persist in and shape our uses of the newer forms. The same impulse makes it harder for us to see how Shakespeare's own plays allegorize their relation to media that were both new and old at the time of their earliest performance and publication. Almereyda adapts an allegory of earlier memory technologies worked out in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As an experiment in polychronic reading, then, this essay begins with those early technologies, sketching the multimedia practices of early modern memory as illustrated in John Willis’s 1621 manual, The Art of Memory, and as evoked (much more anxiously) in Shakespeare’s play.

Memory was understood in early modern Europe as a cognitive and social discipline that marshals past knowledge and experience for present uses. In this model, recollection satisfies present needs by means of—rather than in spite of—technologies of representation that "sift," "sort," and otherwise manipulate the matter of the past. This view, essentially technophilic, emphasizes the different kinds of cognitive leverage different forms of representation and remembering environments provide. Early modern memory arts draw on theatrical environments and practices, writing and printing, painting and emblem books, religious observance, and so on. John Willis relies on all of these media when he sets out to popularize the classical memory arts. Willis translates his own earlier treatise in Latin to English, so as to expand its potential audience: anyone aspiring to the status of civil gentleman but lacking, perhaps, the classical education that might sustain civil subjectivity. The arts Willis describes are accessible in part because they depend on familiar technologies of representation and storage. These include an anachronistic mix of classical and early modern technologies: the tablets (Hamlet’s "tables") in which ideas may be cognitively inscribed; pamphlets; books ("tables" again, but also books for collective reading like missals); emblems; the mental house or theater in which ideas can be placed until future need, often as moving and audible scenes (Willis 1621: 13)."Idea" is Willis’s technical term for the visual metaphors in which we commit matter (events, information) to memory. Willis describes several orders of memory ideas, including scenes of human figures in motion—a Smith working, a "duell fought between two combatants"—and important sayings inscribed on "tables" and hung on the wall (Willis 1621: 12-15).

For Willis, writing and mise-en-scène are not just metaphors for cognitive activities but practical constraints on such activity. The mental memory theater Willis describes has precise dimensions and optical limits. For example, how we store ideas depends on where our mind’s eye is positioned as we face our mental theater. Imagine your mental house or theater "wide open to our view," he advises, with a stage "one yard high above the level of the ground whereon we stand" (Willis 1621: 3). "Such a fashioned Repositorie are we to prefix before the eyes of our mind, as often as we intend to commit things to memory, supposing ourselves to be right against the midst therof, and in the distance of two yards there from" (Willis 1621: 8).

Figure 1. Design for a mental memory theater (Willis 1621: 6)

Willis’s memory arts depend on modes of visual perception that combine theatrical spectation with reading. He is specific about the material conditions of mise-en-page, or layout, as well as architecture, in ways that may seem extraordinary to modern readers. For example, he takes pains to explain the proper shape of letters, line spacing, marginal citation conventions, and capitalization involved in mental writing—as well as the materials involved. Your table should be plain, sturdily framed (of broad oak), and the right size for what you write on it. Most importantly, your letters should "be all of such bignesse as that they may plainly be read by him that standeth on this side of the Repositorie; like unto the writings which we see in Churches." Thus, when remembering important sayings—sententiae—it is best to inscribe them on the tables of your brain using large initials, that can be clearly seen by your mind’s eye as they hang on the wall:

A single word and quotation, must be written in a tablet one foote and an halfe broad, and a foote high; and their first letter must be a great Romane capitall letter of extraordinary bignesse above the rest, and the transcendencies of the small letters also, if there be any must be drawne much higher or lower than is usuall in common writing. For by this meanes they are the more easily attracted by the visuall facultie, and transferred to the memory. (Willis 1621: 33-35)

The imperative to keep ideas at the right size positions the memorial subject simultaneously as a reader and spectator-participant, as the allusion to Church writings suggests. Here the differences between Willis’s plain-style memory theater and the more elaborate, multi-roomed memory houses of his classical sources show clearly. Willis’s remembering subject takes the position of a fixed spectator: never turning to view his other rooms (coded by color) but apparently substituting each one into the same spatial configuration in front of him, as needed. The optical constraints of this fixed spectatorial position are particularly evident in the case of remembered objects (in general, Willis emphasizes memory for idea/things—res—over memory for text—verba). Objects that are too big to fit on the mental stage or too little to be seen need to be metaphorically reduced or enhanced. To remember a pearl, for example, you’d have to mentally pile a bushel of pearls on your stage (Willis 1621: 16). To remember something enormous or sublime, like a city or mountain—"whose Idea in the full bigness, cannot be contained in a place of the Repositorie"—you’d have to paint it in small on the wall in your theater (Willis 1621: 17-18). Such formal techniques for manipulating remembered things help to optimize their retrieval. Retrieval typically means, for Willis, recombining the matter in memory to suit the needs of a given occasion, not playing it back sequentially. Prodigious artificial memories were distinguished by the degree to which they could recombine and reverse the matter in memory. Familiar examples include the monks who could recite any Psalm backwards, or run through the sequence starting anywhere, or redact random verses as you call out their numbers (Carruthers 1990: 82).

The point to be taken here is the profound shaping force that early modern technologies of representation—architecture, theatrical performance, written texts—were understood to have on cognitive processes. Like other Renaissance arts, memory arts were distinguished from the "natural" memory of an embodied mind shaped by outside forces, both physical and social. With practice, a civil gentleman might use such arts to discipline and improve his natural faculties (Willis 1621: A4). These arts protected against both inordinate environmental pressures and the organic failures of memory intrinsic to humoral cognition—vulnerable to environmental impressions from the outside and unruly humors within. The immediacy and force of humoral affections were understood to be such that forgetting past impressions might be as difficult as remembering them. The ability to filter and forget impressions—as well as to train the memory to sort significant matter—was a requirement for successful remembering as critical as retention (Sullivan 1999).


The interplay of impressions in this material psychology seems especially fraught in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The question of whether internal disciplines actually work—and the ways in which technical supplements support or fail them—turns out to be a critical problem in the play. The problem is most acute, I would suggest, precisely at a moment in which the polychronic nature of one dominant technology—writing on tables—shows most clearly. That is, when Hamlet formally accepts the Ghost’s charge, "remember me:"

…Remember thee?

Yea, from the table of my memory

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past

That youth and observation copied there,

And thy commandment all alone shall live

Within the book and volume of my brain,

Unmix’d with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!

O most pernicious woman. (1.5.97-105)

Much critical attention has been paid to these lines. They serve here briefly to emphasize three points. First, the "pressures past" recorded in Hamlet’s memory are simultaneously bodily and immediate (fond, youth) and deliberate (observation). Second, immediacy is here an obstacle to true memory rather than—as for Nora—its privilege. Hamlet needs to forget the combined impressions of his natural and artificial memory—which he cannot quite succeed in doing, as the pun on "baser matter" makes clear. Matter implies, of course, both the rhetorical matter—"trivial fond records"—of early modern education, and the physical matter of the affections and humors, their frailties conflated with mater. The spontaneous break of memory in line 1.5.104 which recalls Hamlet’s mother to mind suggests it may be as difficult to wipe away artful impressions (the Latin of a classical education or of Roman Catholic observance) as natural ones. Indeed, the pun suggests it is impossible to distinguish the two.

The third point to be taken here returns us to question of the historicity of memory technologies like writing on tables. Scholars have tended to gloss the figure as either a reference to the ancient technology (and memory metaphor) of tablets or a concrete object (like ivory writing tablets) that Hamlet carries. Significantly, as Peter Stallybrass and Roger Chartier remind us, the word "table" in the early modern period denotes a range of book technologies, from archaic to cutting edge. Recent discoveries by Stallybrass, Chartier and several collaborators suggests a third referent, a new form of portable notebook with treated, eraseable leaves. They invite us, accordingly, to read this passage as an exploration of the strengths and limitations of different kinds of writing-on-tables in the period. Ancient wax tablets were reuseable but somewhat challenging to erase, and they never entirely lost impressions—a fact that Shane Butler reminds us made them a formidable source of forensic evidence for scholars like Cicero (Butler 2002: 66-67). In the context of Hamlet’s pun on matter, it is tempting to associate this form of storage with the weaknesses of a humoral memory: not easily wiped of impressions in a way that permits reordered priorities of recall. In response, Hamlet reaches for the latest technology to redress the failures of an earlier one. He looks to a portable repository, invitingly separable from the matter of an embodied mind and more easily wiped. If, as Stallybrass and his coauthors urge, we resist the temptation to collapse "table," "book," "volume," and writing into a single kind of technology, Hamlet seems to be groping through a variety of storage forms here, seeking the one that best serves the functions of sorting and reordering the matter of the past. Judging by the force of spontaneous recollections that follow—his mother’s affections, sententiae about smiling villains—the attempt is at best a partial success.


The transitional, polychronic nature of early modern technologies such as Hamlet’s tables provides some insight into the stances towards memory in recent film adaptations of Shakespeare. In particular, the early examples help explain these filmmakers’ preoccupation with anachronism, their sense that the matter of the past is reversible and manipulable, and their notion that Shakespeare’s plays are particularly congenial to such manipulation. These preoccupations slant what Peter Donaldson has called the "media allegory" in Baz Luhrmann’s Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1997), with its out-of-control culture of mass media and advertizing (Donaldson: 1999, 62). Film and video technologies become the focus of a similar allegory of recording media in Almereyda’s Hamlet. Both filmmakers subscribe to a non-nostalgic notion of memory as a cognitive and social techné. Acts of memory, for them, serve as opportunities to assess the adequacy of different technologies in relation to present needs not past actualities. Almereyda’s Hamlet seems at first to personify the psychological costs and mnemonic impoverishment Nora attributes to modern media, when we encounter him absorbed in a melancholy session of video replay. In fact, Almereyda’s film probes both the strengths and limitations of different memory technologies, including photography, film, video and digital video. The film also serves to remind us that these media, like earlier forms of artificial memory, are historically composite technologies that incorporate multiple stances towards remembering—technophilic, nostalgic, skeptical—often at the same time.

This approach is different enough from other film adaptations that it is worth marshalling a few examples for comparison. For adapters like Kenneth Branagh, for instance, the Shakespearean text functions as the material trace of lost experiences to be reconstructed as fully as possible, against the relentless rush forward of history. Barbara Hodgdon describes Branagh’s mise-en-scène as a continual negotiation between the demands of audience accessibility and authenticity (Hodgdon, 2001). His choice of source text for debated line readings in Hamlet (1996)—Harold Jenkins’s magisterial Arden edition—suggests Branagh’s affiliation to the project of reconstruction. As several scholars have observed, this project is actually a double one: to reconstruct both a lost theatrical and a lost cinematic experience. His films explore the increasing difficulty of achieving the experience of immersion established so powerfully in Olivier’s classic Shakespearean oeuvre (Donaldson; Hodgdon).

Olivier’s adaptations seemed to answer the problems of editorial reconstruction with the seamlessness of cinematic suture, restoring us to a fullness of experience not present in the partial text. At the same time, Olivier reveled in the technical mediation that made this renovation possible, to the point almost of exposing his technical resources. His glee is particularly clear in Hamlet (1948). In a famous moment in Gertrude’s closet, for example, the vertiginous sweep of Olivier’s camera gradually reveals the mnemonic force of cinema, commanding its audience to an audition that returns the past to the present. By contrast to the early modern technologies the playtext evokes, this moment of audition emphasizes a supremely successful technical management of memory and emotion. Addressing the Ghost, Hamlet indicates the camera in a way that explicitly calls attention to the cinematic moment. First, he seems to assert the camera’s ghostly oversight and prowess: "…Look you how pale he glares. / His form and cause conjoin’d, preaching to stones, / Would make them capable" (3.4.25-27). Then he wards off that force, still in the meta-cinematic mode, addressing the camera in the second person, "Do not look on me." For Branagh, by contrast, the authority of this second-person address comes hard, if at all. Olivier’s camera-work and the Shakespearean text together serve as the origins whose authenticity is affirmed by proclaiming their loss. Accordingly, his revivals frame the past nostalgically: its beauty and power are most visible and authentic at the moment that we recognize it as no longer ours.

For Luhrmann, Almereyda and Julie Taymor, by contrast, Shakespeare’s plays serve as robust compendia of traces of the past, to be recycled according to specific investments. Taymor, describes Titus Andronicus as a "complete…dissertation on violence" (Schechner: 1999: 46). The play offers a systematic survey of knowledge about violence that anyone thinking about the topic right now will benefit from. Luhrmann and Almereyda come to their plays for similar reasons: seeking commonplace knowledge on specific topics, many times renovated and circulated. Neither authenticity nor accessibility are the main concerns of these directors, as their embrace of anachronism and play with cinematic distance makes clear. In this context, the practice of "sifting and sorting" this knowledge—far from reductive, as Nora imagines it—turns out to be fundamental to its cognitive and emotional utility for those who remember. Memory, understood as both a cognitive and social phenomenon, reworks traces of the past according to present interests, anxieties, and desires; as Frow observes: "rather than being the repetition of the physical traces of the past, [memory] is a construction of it under conditions and constraints determined by the present" (Frow 1997: 228). Like the temporality of a text, the temporality of memory is "not the linear, before-and-after, cause-and-effect time embedded in the logic of the archive but the time of a continuous analeptic and proleptic shaping… In such a model the past is a function of the system: rather than having a meaning and a truth determined once and for all by its status as event, it’s meaning and its truth are constituted retroactively and repeatedly" (Frow: 1998, 229).

For these film-makers, as for Willis, accurate retrieval of the matter of the past is less important than its effective use. Thus, technologies of recording and retrieval in their films are marked by their belatedness in regards to present needs: both the older technologies of book and theater, and apparently cutting edge technologies of modern communications and transport, that proliferate in their hyper-modern, urban settings. Luhrmann and Almereyda layer technologies in a way that regularly feels anachronistic, altering the viewer’s sense of distance from the modern mise-en-scène and from the Shakespearean text. It can be hard to tell which feels the most stylized and belated. The clash between the archaic language (delivered flatly) and the modern settings (delivered with visual energy) might suggest an aesthetic progressivism. But Luhrmann’s use of a high-speed delivery service ("Post Haste") that arrives too late to give Romeo news of the Friar’s ruse reverses the relation, framing modern technology in decidedly belated terms. Less obvious anachronisms can be just as telling. Absurdly, in a story that supposedly takes place in AD 2000, Almereyda’s Hamlet transmits Claudius’s message to England via disk rather than email. The choice is dramatically necessary, of course. Yet the just-in-time economy of the web is wholly absent in the film.

All technologies in these Shakespearean worlds tend to lag behind our needs of them. But nostalgia is not the only register in which the films address this problem. A brief example from Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet reminds us that such lags are features to be reckoned with in most representational forms and practices, and always have been. Like Taymor, Luhrmann finds Shakespearean language and dramatic conventions readily available to his present interests. Indeed, they seem as available and current as the conventions of Australian Mardi Gras or the earlier film Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Donaldson: 2002, 72). When Luhrmann’s Director of Photography, Donald McAlpine, calls Shakespeare a great "Australian" he speaks only partly tongue in cheek (Luhrmann 2000: laserdisc commentary track). The matter of Romeo and Juliet communicates no more or less legibly in a global context than local Australian matter. Luhrmann adapts Shakespeare in part because he’s interested in the global transport of performance forms. He is surprisingly confident about the degree to which performance conventions remain legible across time and geopolitical boundaries. If the past is a foreign country, it’s subject to the same challenges and opportunities of translation that apply to all cultural exchanges under globalism. Luhrmann’s figure for such global translations is Shakespeare’s "wooden O," stood up vertically, on end. The setting, a blasted-out cinema palace, introduces us to Romeo in the middle of a solitary experiment in love-melancholy:

Clip 1. Romeo + Juliet (D: Baz Luhrmann, 1996)

This blasted theater is a global conduit through which we receive conventional matter from far-away places. Romeo’s stale Petrarchisms travel West as we look East through the center of a proscenium arch, into the rising sun. They hark forward in time as we listen back to their archaic patterns: "Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate! / O any thing, of nothing first create!" (I.i.176-7). Romeo’s oxymorons exemplify the conventional matter that will pass through this setting later in the film: Mercutio’s drag performance, the Western shootout in which he dies. The Petrarchan conventions are thin and outdated, but their belatedness makes them recyclable for Luhrmann as for Shakespeare. Romeo’s musings are conveyed by multiple vehicles here: the modern soundtrack, his handwriting, his note book (a commonplace book?), the limousine, the theatrical setting. A longer clip would show us other modes of transport: TV screens, radio, more cars.

To the extent that we recognize this setting as a vertical "wooden O," we’re being asked to see these diverse vehicles not as anachronisms but as historically composite technologies. They are like the composite car described by Michel Serres: a combination of ancient technologies (the wheel), modern ones (internal combustion engine), and the latest composite plastics (Serres 1995: 45). As Ovid is to Petrarch and Petrarch to Shakespeare, so Shakespeare is to Luhrmann: a source of commonplace conventions for interiority, to be reworked and reapplied in surprising ways. However, where the composite technologies of a car present themselves as seamlessly integrated—so well, indeed, that it can be hard to recognize their historical heterogeneity—Romeo’s Petrarchan toolkit for conjuring subjectivity emphasizes the very fact of borrowing. Its appeal is the belatedness of its own devices and the engaging dissonance such belatedness can generate.

The media allegory in Almereyda’s Hamlet focusses more narrowly on technologies of memory. His preoccupation is the way film and video mediate past experience, both for the individual and the community. Yet Almereyda is more concerned than Luhrmann with the trade-offs these different technologies entail. For Almereyda’s Hamlet, the personal video is the technology of interiority among a variety of modern media, including telephones, television, photography, film, and so on. All but one of Hamlet’s soliloquies are framed as video sequences that he has composed. As Hamlet dies, we see his life flash back in the same grainy black and white collage. Like Willis’s visual topoi, Hamlet’s videos create narratives of the past not for the purpose of accurate retrieval but in response to present interests and desires. The formal features of film and video supply a cognitive grammar for the mind as it stores and recombines the traces of the past. Whereas for John Willis, as I noted, the constraints of mise-en-page and mise-en-scène governed the way in which ideas are stored and retrieved, Almereyda’s key constraints are the framed screen (film or video) and the conventions of editing that create a continuous experience out of fragmented images. We see this in Hamlet’s first soliloquy, which unfolds characteristically, in a home video. Before the opening credits, we enter the film through a video collage that turns out to be what Hamlet watches as he works at his desk. While the audio track voices over his melancholy thoughts— "I have of late . . . lost all my mirth … " —Hamlet’s gestures link the work of his editing hands, moving on the track pad, with his mental experience.

Clip 2. Hamlet (D: Michael Almereyda, 2000)

The clips Hamlet has spliced into this video look at first like what Pierre Nora would call the "sifted and sorted historical traces" of a lost past: Renaissance painting, military footage, cartoon monster. They seem like fragments of collective memory, a loose collection of "pop images and simulacra" through which, as Frederic Jameson warns, we may be "condemned to seek History…" in the nostalgic mode (Jameson 25; cited in Frow 1997: 218). But what Almereyda sees in these screens is a composite vehicle like Luhrmann’s Globe. What Hamlet seeks in his videos is not history but a connection between collective experience and his own loss. We are asked here to understand his interiority in terms of the video record he manipulates.

The grainy, shimmery quality of the video image, and the way Hamlet addresses the camera in this video-within-the film recall early video memoires by Sadie Benning and others, in the 1980s. These are already-belated conventions for video soliloquy that use a dated technology of their own. The camera we see in Hamlet’s hands early in the film is a Pixelvision camera rigged to a digital recorder. The watery, shifting signature of Pixelvision images echoes other imagined breaks through clear surfaces in the film, into private and protected space. When Ophelia later imagines herself diving into the pool to escape Polonius’s relentless toadying and exposure, the surface breaks into a similar screening, protective pattern of bubbles.

At a different level, however, we’re asked to recognize that our perception of interiority depends on much older technologies of self. The next time Almereyda offers us a video soliloquy, he emphasizes the composite technologies that transmit a shared past. Once again, we watch Hamlet replay a home video of his parents in a second soliloquy, on the "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable" uses of this world. A medium shot establishes Hamlet (from behind) seated at his desk. Then the camera reverses to a medium shot from the other side of the desk. A stack of books at the bottom of the screen complete a frame with the two monitors on either side (it is hard to see in this shot, but we see later that there is a photograph lying on top of the books).

Clip 3. Hamlet (D: Michael Almereyda, 2000)

The books and monitors work together to put Hamlet’s inner life on screen for us. Indeed, this window into his thoughts will expand in a zoom to include the whole screen. The zoom reorients our attention to a different set of frames as well. From foreground to background, our field of view is defined by the two screens Hamlet sits between: the monitors between the camera and his body, and the window behind him, with its striped reflections, that serves as backdrop and double to the frame. As the clip continues and the camera zooms in, Hamlet plays and replays his father’s image, offering us what will become a signature action for Old Hamlet, as he brushes his hand across his temple and ear.

The emphasis of all these video soliloquies is Hamlet’s editorial process. There is no possibility of knowing the past in this film except through captured images processed by the self. The opportunity to process in this intimate way makes these traces more than simulacra. Hamlet forges an authentic connection to the past, if not a perfect one. We know this, I hazard, because of the conventions of cinematic reversal on which this connection depends. Two kinds of reversal are in play here. The first is the reversibility of video traces of the past: rewound, edited, played back again by hand. These videos explore the notion, critical to recent art-house film-making, of digital media as so-called "haptic" technologies, serving a sense of touch as well as sight. Almereyda offers the protected, psychic experience afforded by Hamlet’s camera-holding and by his editing as an analogy and extension to earlier modes of representation and storage. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, like Willis’s memorial subject, remembers according to the cognitive structures of "book and volume" and the theater; we know the ins and outs of his experience by watching him manipulate conventional matter—"trivial, fond saws" or a player’s speech—in strategic and occasional ways. Similarly, Almereyda’s memory arts depend on the representational constraints of film and video, assimilating and integrating the formal aspects of other media. Notably, some of Hamlet’s other speeches (such as one to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern) are assimilated into the mode of video soliloquy. And—as if producing ephemeral photographs—Hamlet puts his videos on pause frequently, turning moving images into digital stills.

Our sense that Hamlet has an authentic memorial experience with these polychronic videos depends, however, on a visual organizing principle that is particularly cinematic. A second kind of reversal organizes the series of eye-line cuts in the editing soliloquy, cited above, that come very close to the standard convention of shot/response shot. The scene stages Hamlet’s meditation in alternating shots of Hamlet’s face and the video he plays with. Shot/response shot cuts are a staple of continuity editing, often used to establish the fiction of intimate exchange. In classic cinema, the technique involves cuts that switch point of view back and forth between two characters in dialogue. The camera stays on the same side of the two characters, but reverses its angle across an imaginary line that runs 180 degrees between them. We sit at person A’s shoulder, watching person B react as A talks (as if we’re seeing what A sees). Then we sit at person B’s shoulder and watch A react as B replies. Shot/response shot is a cinematic trope that makes us feel party to an intimate exchange, creating the fiction that we can know both points of view simultaneously. Using this convention for example, Olivier lets us know that Claudius suspects and hates Hamlet and that Hamlet requites the feelings. In sequences like this, alternating shots are sutured together so as to "seem to constitute a perfect whole," assuring the viewer that "his or her gaze suffers under no constraints" (Silverman 1988: 12).

Turning back to the editing sequence from Almereyda’s film, we can see Almereyda adapting this device and referencing its classic effects. The camera cuts from our view of Hamlet through the monitors, to the video he watches. Then it reverses to a close shot of his eyes, then reverses again to the wider shot of his hand editing the video. In these tight, alternating shots we watch Hamlet react to the video, then see the video player respond to Hamlet’s manipulation. Tellingly, as Hamlet replays and stops the images he internalizes his father’s gesture, hand to the temple. As in classic shot/response shot the camera stays on the same side of both figures. What would be the 180 degree line falls about at the plane of the monitor screen. There is a kind of naturalized emotional transmission that happens in these reversals, intimate enough that Hamlet internalizes his father’s gesture from shot to response shot. At this moment, digital video editing looks intensely kin to a handicraft, a medium of trained as well as spontaneous gesture passed on as organic experience.

Whereas the spectator in Willis’s memory theater remains in a fixed optical relation to the matter stored in memory, the camera work in classical shot/response shot moves us along a defined axis within the field of dramatic action. The conventions of cinema sustain this diffused, mobile spectating position for the remembering subject in Almereyda’s film. Yet as the story unfolds, Almereyda’s editing affords even greater play across the barrier of the past: the glass screen or wall through which the camera repeatedly moves along its defined axis. Indeed, in Hamlet’s first encounter with the ghost, Old Hamlet appears easily out of this screen past. The camera crosses the screen barrier, taking the spectators over and then returning—bringing the ghost back through its plane with us.

Clip 4. Hamlet (D: Michael Almereyda, 2000)

This sequence is gradual, and it is important to notice some of the differences between this shot arrangement and classical shot/response shot. As the actors cross each other, the camera switches not only point of view but also moves from one side of the mise-en-scène to the other, eventually tracking around to reverse position with the spectators. As the scene begins, Hamlet wakes up to a phone ringing. Then the ghost appears on the balcony. After a series of medium shots establish emotional connection between the dead and the living, the ghost easily crosses the screen barrier, the glass wall of the 180 degree line that had been a backdrop for the video soliloquy. The dialogue that marks this crossing is the Ghost’s command—"mark me"—and Hamlet’s acquiesence—"I will." There is no apparent emotional barrier between father and son here, a fact that’s emphasized by the ghost’s behavior as he tells of his death. The ghost repeats his gesture (handkerchief to poisoned ear), then reaches to touch Hamlet in the same place, holding his head close. As the scene unfolds, the actors and camera circle until they have reversed positions from their opening arrangement. Hamlet and the ghost stand roughly where the camera had positioned the spectator as the scene opened. At the same time, the editing resolves into more classic arrangements of shot and response shot, with a less mobile camera. With the wall of memory technologies as backdrop—photographs, monitors, digital editor, even a film reel on the desk—the sequence hits its climax and they embrade. This ghost is tangible and emotionally available (despite the casting of Sam Shepherd).

Clip 5. Hamlet (D: Michael Almereyda, 2000)

The shot/response shot structure repeats throughout the film, most often in the flexible mode of the first soliloquy than in the classical mode, moving both actors and spectators across the screen/surface boundary as we see here. Almereyda’s conceit is that this crossing is the condition of intimacy between the self and others. Intimacy results from the projection of self simultaneously behind and in front of a screen, a projection that makes the self accessible because it provides a cognitive grammar for transmitting and internalizing multiple points of view. Yet for Almereyda’s Hamlet, as for Shakespeare’s, such knowledge—gained through editorial process—appears at to be a primarily private experience, hard transmit to others.

The real conflict in the film and the source of Hamlet’s melancholy is thus not the technical mediation of experience, but its social circulation. At first the easy circulation of public images seems to be precisely the problem. The private and autonomous record digital video makes possible appears as a necessary protection against the appropriation of memory technologies by large corporate systems. (A shot of a huge PANASONIC screen launches the first video soliloquy.) The struggle over who controls the technologies of memory emerges as the opening credits roll, in the scene of a press conference where Claudius presides as the new CEO of Denmark Corporation. As it films the papparazzi filming Claudius’s speech, Hamlet’s camera serves as a "particular" rather than a "common" lens—picking up on the oppositional stance Gertrude desribes in 1.2.75.

Queen. …Thou know’st ‘tis common, all that lives must die,

Passing through nature to eternity.

Hamlet: Ay, madam, it is common.

Queen. If it be,

Why seems it so particular with thee? (1.2.72-75)}

In this public scene we are invited to see Hamlet’s manipulations of his own video record as oppositional: a resistance to the official counter-memories of the corporate-media-advertizing-complex that swallowed his father. The ghost’s dissolve through the Pepsi machine, gateway to the underworld, captures the nature of this threat:

Clip 6. Hamlet (D: Michael Almereyda, 2000)

In this context, Hamlet’s obsessive replays serve not to slow the rush of present into the past but to organize memory records for meditation and self-reflection. Of course, such meditation cannot be understood as fully private. The opening sequence "I have at present lost all my mirth" starts as news footage of the Gulf War, before cutting to the news conference. (Hamlet’s memories and affects are collective in their origins as well as familial and personal.) Moreover, Hamlet gets the matter and inspiration for the "to be" speech from found footage taped from the TV. The soliloquy emerges in fragments (as if in a play on the different Folio and Quarto versions), to emerge in its most familiar Folio form only through editing, interruption, and playback. (Did the collaborative conditions of the early modern stage, obliquely referenced here, offer a more fully social scene of editing?) As this comparison makes clear, it is the editorial handling of Hamlet’s video soliloquies that Almereyda sees as privatized in powerful ways. Video replay and collage serve to appropriate found footage from the media environment and recycle it for private audition. Yet the common grammar that makes such edited matter legible derives from a different medium. This fact emerges in the screening of the Mousetrap video, where it becomes clear that Hamlet seeks other applications for his collages than meditation and mourning. Hamlet edits his found footage in this video-within-the-film so as to expose the "real" interests behind Claudius’s media show. In the process, he attempts to retrieve the memory of his mother’s affection for his father from behind the counter-memory of her lust for his uncle.

When Hamlet turns to the conventions of cinema in this way Almereyda introduces a different set of concerns than the problem of who controls modern mnemotechnologies. Indeed, that concern turns out by the end of the film to be secondary to the problem how well modern media technologies extend the social self: providing for intimacy with others as well as self-reflection, meeting the demands of occasion, as Willis understands memory to do. In order to trap his uncle, Hamlet needs a medium that serves collective audition: the arena of the screening room where he premiers "The Mousetrap" as a "film/video." The found footage in "The Mousetrap" works differently from Hamlet’s home videos: stitching together fragments of familiar images in a way that evokes a variety of earlier forms associated with the cinematic experiences of visual presence. These include sequences from silent films, stop-motion footage, advertising footage, and film pornography. In stitching these sequences together, the film/video vividly evokes Bruce Conner’s cinematic formalism, addressing the viewer aggressively in Conner’s "second-person" mode, "reworking the already coded and manipulated cultural material of the movies" and peripheral media like advertising (Jenkins 1999: 187).

The Mousetrap generates strong individual and collective responses in Hamlet’s on-screen audience, as some of the other imaging technologies in the film do (Ophelia’s photographs for example). By contrast, home video technologies remain so individuated that we still have no idea if we can go around handing our version of the past to someone else—as Ophelia does her photographs—and expect it to be legible. It is worth remembering back even a short time to the period in which Almereyda’s film premiered, at the turn of the century: a period in which such technologies seemed permanently untouched by the common standards that ensure what the industry calls "interoperability." As many as eight different formats competed on the market at the time, as a contemporary article in the New York Times "Circuits" section lamented. At this writing, no industry standard ensures that this medium may be exchanged between different users or support their shared experience of different pasts. From Almereyda’s point of view this is a contemporary challenge as pressing as the threat of corporate control. The apotheosis of technically extended experience, in his film, is not for Hamlet to transcend mediating technologies but to inhabit them in a way that is fully portable and transmissible to others.

Our solution to the social and cognitive demands of memory technologies, Almereyda argues, is a necessarily composite work-around. Once the memory of Old Hamlet’s death cycles through the shared venue of cinema audition, its powerful affects may extend in turn to private modes of audition: the scene of Claudius, in his limo, repenting his rank offense in front of a small TV screen. For such purposes, Almereyda suggests, video allows us to receive and process content in intimate ways. Yet cinema provides the cognitive grammar that organizes that content in socially legible terms and produces it as shared knowledge. The claim is particularly clear in Hamlet’s final moments. There video supplies the grainy, black and white final memories of Hamlet dying, products of intimate collection, sorting, and recollection. But those memories are also shots from the film: meaningful because conflated with and recycled through our cinematic audition.

The text of a film is unattainable because it is an unquotable text.- Raymond Bellour, The Analysis of Film


In its print form, this essay is caught between polychronic interests and desires of its own—interests that derive from the modern technologies of film and video and the older craft of the scholarly essay. Ideally, you will be reading this essay in a web-based version of the kind AHR pioneered in 2000. In this format, readers may read, hear, and view audio-visual quotations, in the form of playable clips embedded in the text above. The few stills offered in the print version of this essay capture the aesthetic dimensions of film—a patterned sequence of moving images and sounds—as poorly as a print quotation of a poem would if it reproduced only the outline of the poem on the page. Without a medium that quotes the work in its own material dimensions, this essay has no cinematic text to close-read. Raymond Bellour explained the problem eloquently in 1975. Print quotations reproduce print "by a reduplication whose fascination has been fully felt by modern thought. . . . This effect . . . lies in the undivided conformity of the object of study and the means of study, in the absolute material coincidence between language and language" (Bellour 2000: 22). By selecting and sorting the matter of a work (so as to illustrate, exemplify, and jog the reader’s memory) print quotation produces a print work as a text. To the extent that the textuality of any work becomes visible only in this possibility of quotation, Bellour reminds us that stills paradoxically open up the textuality of the film just at the moment they interrupt its unfolding:

In a sense [this] is really what is done when a reader stops at a sentence in a book to re-read it and reflect on it. But it is not the same movement that is frozen. Continuity is suspended, meaning fragmented; but the material specificity of a means of expression is not interfered with in the same way. The cinema, through the moving image, is the only art of time which, when we go against the principle on which it is based, still turns out to give us something to see, and moreover something alone that allows us to feel its textuality fully. (Bellour 2000: 26)

For as long as it remains feasible to host, readers may explore one alternative mode of quotation by reading this online version with playable clips. Yet in the larger analysis, double publication of this kind represents a duct-tape work-around to a system of scholarly communication that lags behind our current needs. For reasons that are largely economic, legal, and social—not technical—academics in the languages and literatures have, as a group, been slower than other fields to explore the resources of online publication beyond electronic delivery and the electronic archive. The murky state of fair use law for cinematic texts is changing. Yet for many years it has kept film studies to the limited mode of quotation that Bellour described more than 25 years ago. Like theorists of the novel—who work with a form also defined by its aesthetic copia and extensiveness—we reproduce film texts by condensing, summarizing, and naming generic moves and tropes. But we have done so in a medium that radically limits our ability to address the material specificity and phenomenological dimensions of that text.

If online publication offers a viable alternative mode of quotation, what it adds is phenomenological complexity. But what is at stake in that addition is discursive complexity. In any print quotation of a print original, the selective processes of quotation will be relatively more visible to a reader than it is in a still of a moving image. Scholarly quotations serve academic discourse in a variety of ways, to be sure. Yet to my mind the most urgent of these is the way in which quotation inevitably exceeds the writer’s account of a work. That excess sustains a critical dialogue between writer and reader in which a reader tests, compares, and evaluates the writer’s selective assertions on the basis of her own memory of the text in play. Sparking skepticism as well as assent, print quotation sets an intellectual standard for scholarly discourse that our current conventions for writing on film do not meet. When the institutional conditions for scholarly discourse do not sustain our key intellectual values, scholars have an obligation to articulate those values and experiment with the technologies that will support them. Quotation is not, of course, our only interest when we choose venues and media of publication. Still it makes a good case for attending more carefully to the polychronic nature of our scholarly protocols. Reading the web-based version of the essay you may more easily disagree or elaborate on my reading of Almereyda’s film; but how easily can you scribble your thoughts in the margins? And will it still be there should you wish to read it? Such questions are the place to begin, not arrive. We too readily lament the costs or celebrate the benefits of different technical solutions before we explore the actual trade-offs they entail in a searching way.

About this essay

This project was originally conceived as a series of web pages for Bryn Mawr College's film studies website, as a teaching resource. These web pages were the result of extensive collaboration between undergraduates, faculty, library staff, and multi-media services at Bryn Mawr College. The work was supported by curriculum development funds from Bryn Mawr College and by a State of Pennsylvania Department of Education Link-to-Learn Higher Education Grant: Improving Technology at Colleges and Universities. Professor Katherine Rowe's essay, on Michael Almereyda's film Hamlet (2000), was written during the fall of 2001 while she was teaching Hamlet in English 250, Methods of Literary Study.

A print version of the essay is published in Shakespeare, the Movie, II: Popularizing the Plays on Film, Television, and DVD, ed. Richard Burt and Lynda Boose.New York: Routledge, 2003.


For their generous technical and scholarly insights, which now go way back, I owe thanks to Kim Benston, Scott Black, Richard Burt, Tom Cartelli, Ralph Del Giudice, Peter Donaldson, Nora Gully, Gretchen Hitt, Jenny Horne, Nora Johnson, Jonathan Kahana, John Norman, Lauren Shohet, Rod Matthews, Kristin Poole, Richard Rowe, Lyn Tribble, Julian Yates; also Lyn Tribble’s graduate seminar on Shakespearean Optics, Temple University, and the undergraduates in English 250 at Bryn Mawr.

For Warren Jacobson, in memoriam.

Works Cited

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Belton, John. 1994. American Cinema / American Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Bellour, Raymond. 1975. "Unattainable Text." Trans. Ben Brewster. In Constance Penley, ed. 2000. The Analysis of Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Butler, Shane. 2002. The Hand of Cicero. London; New York: Routledge.

Chartier, Roger, Frank Mowery, Peter Stallybrass, Heather Wolfe. "Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England." Essay in progress shared by the authors in private communication, Mon, 2 Sep 2002.

Carruthers, Mary. 1990. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Donaldson, Peter. 1999. '"All Which It Inherit': Shakespeare, Globes and Global Media." Shakespeare Survey. 52: 183-200.

——————. 2002. "'In fair Verona': Media, Spectacle and Performance in William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet" in Richard Burt, ed, Shakespeare after Mass Media. New York: Palgrave. 59-82.

Floyd-Wilson, Mary. English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

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Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Jenkins, Bruce. 1999. "Explosion in a Film Factory: The Cinema of Bruce Conner." 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II. Catalog of an exhibition held at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minn. Oct. 9 1999-Jan. 2, 2000.

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Paster, Gail Kern. 1993.The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell UP.

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Films Cited

Almereyda, Michael. 2000. Hamlet. USA. Miramax/Buena Vista Entertainment. Sound, col. 113 mins. (DVD edition).

Branagh, Kenneth, dir. 1997. Hamlet. UK Columbia TriStar Home Video. Sound, col. 242 mins. (VHS edition).

Luhrmann, Baz, dir. 1997. William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. USA.Twentieth Century Fox. Sound, col. 120 mins. (DVD edition).

Olivier, Laurence, dir. 1948. Hamlet. UK. Two Cities Film Ltd. 2000. The Criterion Collection, Carlton International Media Limited. Sound, bw. 153 mins. (DVD edition).

Taymor, Julie, dir. 1999. Titus. USA. Twentieth Century Fox. (DVD edition).

Editing Video Memories: Hamlet's Inner Life on the Screen by Michael Almereyda (2000) This clip exists as part of a larger project investigating the relationship between technology and memory in Shakespeare's work.