Louis Armand


Horatio:       give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to view,
And let me speak to th’yet unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements … [Hamlet V.ii.382-87]


In the last chapter of the Traumdeuting, Freud describes a dream in which a father encounters in his sleep the ghost of his dead son: "the child was standing by his bed, clasping his arms and crying reproachfully: ‘Father, don’t you see that I’m burning?’"1 In the father’s dream of the son, the spectre of reproachfulness, guilt, failed responsibility: the ghost’s words echo in his ear, as though to say why have you forgotten me? Why are you sleeping?

In this play of spectres, however, the dead child really is burning–in the next room. The ghost comes to tell the father, in his dream, that, in reality, he is burning. But this ghost is already the emanation of a prior "guilt," that arising from the son’s death. The son, presumably, who has, according to the formula of the old law, taken the place of the father. The embodiment of the guilty conscience. But on the other side of this phantasmagoria, what is it that is being played out between the father’s apparent blindness and the meaning of the son’s veritable incendiarism?

By means of a curious inversion, this spectral play describes a series of relations which we also find in Hamlet. "What is he burning with, if not with that which we see emerging at other points designated by the Freudian topology, namely, the weight of the sins of the father, born by the ghost in the myth of Hamlet, which Freud couples with the myth of Oedipus?"2 Beyond the spectrality of Hamlet’s ghost, which is to say, Hamlet’s father, his antecedent ego, there is the spectrality of the son, and of the play itself. At a crucial stage in Hamlet, at the precise terminus of the play-within-the-play, Hamlet addresses himself to the departing figure of the one he is invited to address as "father," in lieu of his ghostly double: What? Frighted by false fire?

But in this play of mimetic incendiarism (we are forever working our way through Plato’s cave), there is not yet any illuminating feature which is not already caught up in the pageant that can only end with yet another funeral, exhumation, pyre; another burial or crematorium: "mourning turned into a Saturnalia where fathers and sons exchange places: ‘Take up the bodies’ (V.ii.406)."3 At the play’s end, Horatio stands before the audience, directing the scene. The bodies of Laertes, Hamlet, his mother and his step-father, are set up on a stage as the prelude to yet another Oedipal pantomime. The argument is about to proceed. The figured speech which will signal the interminability of this mise en scène as mise en abyme (behind which there is nothing but the stage itself, the sole memorial)–its serial metamorphoses, each of which may be named tropically Hamlet: But if by turns this show of theatrical re-animation should fail, Horatio warns, "I have forgotten everything."

Who then is this Horatio-Hamlet, exercising, or exorcising, these "rights of memory" (as Fortinbras says); these rites of mourning? On the circuit of a repetition compulsion which takes on an ever increasingly mechanistic aspect–ever more vexed, melodramatic, hysterical, parodic–rerun of the play-actor donning the costume of the ghost he already is, authoring his own role (is it any wonder that the theatre houses such a cult of superstition?). But it is not providence which dictates the schedule of Hamlet’s incarnations.

The words "give order," by which the players are commanded to perform again, to re-enact (according to an increasingly pre-arranged script) certain "accidental judgements": echoing the order given to Hamlet by the ghost of the father, "remember me" (the author rereading, redirecting this play of itself, himself)–an interminable deferral in the name, in the "words," of Hamlet. As Lacan suggests, "The father, the Name-of-the-father, sustains the structure of desire with the structure of the law–but the inheritance of the father is that which Kierkegaard designates for us, namely, his sin." Which is another way of giving orders and of not receiving them. Namely, transgression in the structure of transference of translation, repositioning the corpses. "Where does Hamlet’s ghost emerge from, if not from the place from which he denounces his brother for surprising him and cutting him off in the full flower of his sins? And far from providing Hamlet with the prohibitions of the Law that would allow his desire to survive, this too ideal father is constantly being doubted."4

This too-ideal father, who is also ubiquitous (the translated figure of all that stands in the interim between the name and the name-of-the-name, the play and the play-within-a-play), is equally a figure of scepticism, doubt. The ideal father-scriptor who is no longer the author of divine providence, but merely a conductor of rhetorical exercises (to be or not to be): the spectre-ego who returns in the reflexivity of a thought whose speculative expression always takes on the form of a certain theatre of reflection or mirror stage. "Descartes tells us–By virtue of the fact that I doubt, I am sure that I think, and […] by virtue of thinking, I am."5


HAMLET O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space–were it not that I have bad dreams.
GUILDENSTERN Which dreams indeed are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.
HAMLET A dream itself is but a shadow. [II.ii.254-260]

To put it in a nutshell, it seems to me that the "I think," to which it is intended that presence be reduced, continues to imply, no matter how indeterminate one may make it, all the powers of reflection [réflexion] by which subject and consciousness are confounded–namely, the mirage which psychoanalytic experience places at the basis [principe] of the misrecognition [méconnaissance] of the subject and which I myself have tried to focus on in the stade du miroir by concentrating it here. (Lacan)6

Placed side by side, two ambivalent statements by Hamlet: "The king is a thing," and; "The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king." And this third: "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king [a thing?] of infinite space." What remains, of the resonance, perhaps, of a question, which haunts and yet somehow determines this play, to speculate (or not), as to "what is a thing?"

Between the play-within-a-play’s seemingly infinite reflexivity, that is, the reflexivity of a certain "thing," the thing, and the conscience of that other "thing"–one which is both its object and its predicate (that which it is predicated upon, in fact, the thing in itself). One thing or another, on this circuit of recursion and reduplication. Between what is "bounded" and what is "caught." Which is what "counts." And the other, figure of temporal entrapment itself, herself: "Ophelia. Her Heart is a clock" in Heiner Müller’s version (Hamletmachine, Act 2). In this infinite space, time is out of joint, and Hamlet (the two, the three) is the name of the machine who sets right, countering and substituting, operating the gaps in repetitional oblivion–displaying, as Lacan says, "the miraculous character of a thing, this thing, which […] pursues a human hypothesis, whether man be there or not."7

This miraculous character (the one who does not lie still and keeps returning), in pursuit of its own hypotheses, "to be or not to be" (subjectless, objectless), followed by a question mark whose form is in almost every respect similar to that stooped shadow haunting the pages of Hamlet (whether man be there or not). Which is also to say, that in the end, it is this interminable hypothesis which makes such work of him, such a work–as Hamlet says: "what a piece of work is a man?" Like the human hypothesis of Descartes (Discourse on Method, On Man), this figure is also a machine, and it works, too, insofar as it can tell the time, or a hawk from a handsaw. A perverse semic machine, unpacking its heart with words (Hamlet, II.ii.581), which may also be characterised in the mirroring relation of the (Lacanian) subject and the symbolic: "The machine embodies the most radical symbolic activity of man."8

The machine-hypothesis, then, is also a stage–a stade du miroir–within the space or time of which the interminable drama of "identification" is played out (between a certain specularis and a certain scepticus) in the illusion of a perfect reflexivity: "Thus it is that if man comes to thinking about the Symbolic Order, it is because he is caught in it from the first in his being. The illusion that he has formed it by his consciousness results from the fact that it was by the way of a gap [béance] specific to his Imaginary relation to his counterpart, that he was able to make this entrance by the radical defile of the Word […] each time the subject addresses himself to the Other as absolute, that is to say, as the Other who can nullify the subject himself, in the same way as he can do for him, that is, by making himself an object in order to deceive him."9

This Hamletmachine is productive of counterparts of its own, inscribing, re-inscribing itself in the endless play of ruse and subversion, the "I doubt" which predicates and retroactively asserts itself in the avowal of the Cartesian cogito. Its metonymic doubling and forethrow describes a schematic rendering of itself, depicting "the coupled reciprocal Imaginary objectification" which Lacan represents in the stade du miroir, and elsewhere (here, in what Lacan refers to as the "Schéma L")10:


The Cartesian subject is thence drawn to the four corners of this schema: "S, his ineffable and stupid existence; a, his objects; a’, his moi–that is, what is reflected of his form in his objects; and A, the locus from which the question of his existence may be put to him."11

In this fourfold relation (described through the occult image of the double inverted triangle, as "tropic" counterpart to the 3+1 structure of the classical stage with its fons scaenae) it is the S which stands in the position of a hypothesis, linked to the other three figures by two broken lines: the "Es" or it which commonly in Lacan’s writings designates the trinity of the Subject, the Symbolic, and the Signifier. This it which is not only the object of an hypothesis, of a speculation, but is also a "thing," whose "pursuit of a human hypothesis" here programmes the relationship of the moi and its others, and consequently projects in "it" the erroneous idea of the ego as either verisimile or substance. Hence: "If it is in fact true that consciousness is transparent to itself, and grasps itself as such, it does seem that the I is not on that account transparent to it. It is not given to it as different from an object. The apprehension of an object by consciousness does not by the same token reveal its properties. The same is true for the I."12

This, too, is an effect of transmission, of the false-mirror of recognition, in which the "Es" figures as anything other than the object of a certain fantasy of the I, or the symbolic fourth term of the dialectic? And so: "If this I is in fact presented to us as a kind of immediate given in the act of reflection by which consciousness grasps itself as transparent to itself, for all that, nothing indicates that the whole of this reality […] would be exhausted by this." Hamlet-actor puts on costume and mask, miming (it is unavoidable) THE SPECTRE WHICH MADE HIM and which is made to return like the circuit of hands on the face of a clock (the out-of-joint, infinite space of its interminable repetition, at least up until the crucial moment of its dysfunction; the moment of truth?): "OPHELIA Do you still want to eat my heart, Hamlet?" (Müller) Her lac, doesn’t he want to eat "it," this Lacanmachine?


HAMLET My father–me thinks I see my father–
HORATIO Where, my lord?
HAMLET In my mind’s eye Horatio. [I.ii.183-185]

As elsewhere, it is also a question of situating the double destination of Hamlet’s letter–le double et le nom propre, "trait au problème du double, de son inquiétante étrangeté ou son étrange familiarité."13 The "a" of this nom-du-père, nom-du-fils, Hamlet: the silenced aspirant which gives to the first syllable the vocalisation of the first person singular, present indicative of to be–and that strange counterpart ("Horatio. Co-conspirator of my thoughts," as Müller says), henceforth an ōrātōrius, which is to say a figure of speech. It is this Horatio who, in giving orders, speaking "to the yet unknowing world," will restart the clock, will re-enact from the beginning this drama of the name, Hamlet, and of how "these things came about" (is it not this oratorius who first brings word of the ghost and puts words in Hamlet’s mouth, giving him to call it by his own doubly poisoned name?).

A ratio of the speculative and the symbolic, describing itself through the locus of the fac-similé–Hamlet-Horatio, Horatio-Ophelia, Horatio-Polonius, Hamlet-Claudius, Hamlet-Laertes, Ophelia-Gertrude, and so on seriatim. "Le jeu du nom propre–anasémique quand il désigne et polysémique lorsqu’il signifie,"14 which at the same time masks a fundamental antagonism in each of these relations (that of impersonation itself, of the "it" as Signifier of the occultation of any present … actor/murderer/suicide; faceless agent of its own dis-appearance, in that it is made to re-present everything which denies it, dis-avows "it"?).

In the "Schéma L" Lacan describes the double relationship between the self (moi) and other (autre) as one of "aggressive" objectification, similar to Sartre’s analysis of the sadomasochistic impulse (towards the other who is an object for us, or for whom we make ourselves into an object). The tenor of aggression is associated with a form of paranoiac identification, in which the subject’s imagined persecution is linked to those "others" with whom it will have previously identified. The moi (object pronoun) is thus an other, an alter ego, but is nevertheless other in a different sense to the (subject pronoun) je of Rimbaud’s expression, Je est un autre.15 As Hamlet says: me thinks I see my father. "The subject addresses himself to the Other … as the one who can nullify the subject …" And so Hamlet, too, makes himself into an object to deceive the other, "his ineffable and stupid existence" which nevertheless maintains its disguise of reflexivity.

Hamlet no more "feigns" madness than he does the stupidity of conscientious rationalism: a mechanism of error, in whose compounded self-deduction the "coupled reciprocity" of thinking and being resides (and on account of which we may arrive at the conclusion that the hands of fate, the sleight of hand of the Cartesian artifex maximus, are no less than those misguidingly humanistic colophons of the temporal prosthesis). In this, also, we may identify a certain impasse which is nonetheless constitutive of the "object" of what Lacan will term the stade du miroir. The orientation of this movement hangs entirely upon a compulsive or compulsory dysfunction: a "dialectic of jealousy-sympathy, expressed precisely in traditional psychology by the incompatibility of consciousness. This does not mean that one consciousness cannot conceive another, but that an ego which hangs completely in the unity of another ego is strictly incompatible with it on the plane of desire."16

The drama set in place between the je and the moi takes on the form of an aporia: "This rivalry, which is constitutive of knowledge in the pure state, is obviously a virtual stage. There is no such thing as knowledge in the pure state, for the strict community of ego and other in desiring the object initiates something completely different, namely recognition." Moreover, "for them not to be forced to destroy themselves on account of the convergence of their desire–which in fact is the same desire, since at this level they are one and the same being–it would be necessary […] to inform the other, to say to it–I desire that. That’s impossible. Admitting that there is an I would immediately turn it into you desire that. I desire that means–You, the other, who is my unity, you desire that."17 Most importantly, this assumption of "something which isn’t knowledge [connaissance], but recognition [reconnaissance]," suggests that the ego "can in no way be anything other than an imaginary function, even if at a certain level it determines the structuration of the subject. It is as ambiguous as the object itself, of which it is in some way, not only a stage, but the identical correlate."18

This then implies what Lacan refers to as the "third term," a classical figure of dialectics which already, in the "Schéma L," requires a fourth (a sinthome)–since, indeed "a quadrapartite structure has, since the introduction of the unconscious, always been required in the construction of a subjective ordering." And what is this subjective ordering but the apotheosis of a certain thing in itself (ding an sich, as Freud says)? That is, insofar as this speculative mechanism (stade du miroir) embodies the most "radical symbolic activity of man"–an "it," or mechanism of inertia, entropy, like a clock constantly winding down and being re-set. A ritual détournement played out in the time of the mirror–in the between time ("out of joint")–an immediation of a certain effect of reflexive delay, where the clock is the equivalent in time of the mirror in space.

In the mind’s eye, the reflection of two hands in constant pursuit of one another. And the one called the "second" hand, the one which comes after and yet somehow also precedes the other (its perennial ghost): the future, as they say, is in one’s hands, or at least in someone’s hand, Shakespeare’s perhaps … But what of this Hamlet-thing, the one whose mechanism is in truth manufactured to run down, to affect in itself the spiral entropy which is the "present" and on-going state of affairs? Time is out of joint, and in its disjoining Hamlet is "born." To set right or re-set the time of which he himself is the principal, if unseemly incarnation, would equally be to construct an anti-machine, a counter-mechanism, a mirror-apparatus to fill this gap of "infinite space." An infernal machine, elaborating its self-purpose in a reductio ad absurdum of which what "seems" is at last the symptom of what it means for the ghost of this second hand to return only in the commencement, in the shadow of a shadow.


1. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridon (London: Hogarth Press, 1977) 34.

2. Johannes Birringer, Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) 87.

3. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 34-5.

4. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 35.

5. Jacques Lacan, "Maurice Merleau-Ponty," Les Temps Modernes 184-5 (1961) 248-9.

6. Jacques Lacan, "Freud, Hegel and the Machine," The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955, trans. S. Tomaselli (London: Cambridge University Press, 1988) 73.

7. Lacan, "Freud, Hegel and the Machine," 74.

8. Jacques Lacan, "Le Séminaire sur La lettre volée," La Psychanalyse II (1956) 9.

9. Jacques Lacan, Écrits I. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1966: 548.

10. Jacques Lacan, "D’une question préliminaire à tout traitement possible de la psychose," La Psychanalyse IV (1958) 18.

11. Lacan, "Psychology and metapsychology," The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II, 6.

12. René Major, Lacan avec Derrida (Paris: Flammarion, 2001) 95.

13. Major, "´Hamletª sur le Gange," Lacan avec Derrida, 45.

14. Lacan, "Psychology and metapsychology," 7.

15. Lacan, "A materialist definition of the phenomenon of consciousness," The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II, 51.

16. Lacan, "A materialist definition," 51.

17. Lacan, "A materialist definition," 52.

18. Lacan, "Kant avec Sade," Écrits I, 774.