Abstract for Week 7

by staffpostgraduate14

Hamlet, Horror and Horripilation

This paper argues that horripilation—having one’s hair stand on end—assumes a peculiar significance in Shakespeare’s drama as the bodily response to supernatural soliciting. Locating horripilation both theatrically and culturally, I consider the way in which this basic, biological response receives a particular post-Reformation inflection. Drawing on sermon material, I suggest that horripilation is part of a more general cultivation of anxiety encouraged by Calvinism. In the theater, horripilation is evidence that the staging of the supernatural served to elicit a range of particular affective responses. In contrast to approaches that focus on questions of belief (or unbelief) and confessional theology, attention to the connection between special affects and the supernatural presents the theater as a distinctive site that resists disenchantment through the cultivation of both horror and wonder.

Thomas Walkington, a seventeenth-century divine, described his ideal preacher as capable of awaking profound emotional responses: “Give me that blessed man of God, that truly anointed of the Lord, who like the thunder can pierce and wound the inward heart, make the hair to stand upright, the flesh to tremble.” Similarly, the godly Elizabethan William Perkins was remembered as one who “would pronounce the word Damn with such an emphasis as left a doleful Echo in his auditors’ ears a good while after. And when Catechist of Christ College, in expounding the Commandments, applied them so home, able almost to make his hearers hearts fall down, and hairs to stand upright.” The idea that horripilation is a mark of the preacher’s success is arguably a Calvinist position, but the dominance of Calvinism in English church at the close of the sixteenth century insured its ubiquity. Discussing the English Jeremiad, the historian Alexandra Walsham has suggested that some auditors found “terror tactics and tongue-lashings rather invigorating . . . much as there modern counterparts might relish a horror film.” Walsham’s primary point is that zealous Protestantism could be popular religion, but the analogy also suggests that horripilation is an important point of contact between pulpit and theater.

Theatrical horripilation communicates an extraordinary degree of dread; and because it is an involuntary response that cannot be feigned, unlike knocking knees and chattering teeth, it points to a genuine bodily agitation. At the same time, precisely because it is unperformable, the response remains invisible to the audience: its presence must be announced. Hamlet has two conspicuous references to this reaction. The most famous description of hair standing on end in English literature is surely the apparition’s claim that it could a tale unfold that would make “Thy knotted and combined locks to part, /And each particular hair to stand an end / Like quills upon the fretful porcupine” (1.5.18-20). The apparition here adopts the position of the hellfire preacher able to rehearse the horrors of damnation, but the response is importantly hypothetical. The tale cannot be told to “ears of flesh and blood,” and the peculiarly vivid image is unrealized on the stage. However, in the closet scene, the alarmed Gertrude describes Hamlet’s hair, as he bends his “eye on vacancy” and speaks with the “incorporal air,” in an extended simile: “And, as the sleeping soldiers in th’alarm, / Your bedded hair, like life in excrements, / Start up and stand an end” (3.4.120-22). Here the audience is encouraged to “see” Hamlet’s hair standing on end; moreover, despite Gertrude’s own naturalistic account of the phenomena, the audience is clearly encouraged to share in Hamlet’s horrified dread at the reappearance of the ghost.

Hamlet’s treatment of the physical and psychological responses to supernatural soliciting puts it decisively in a post-Reformation context, a moment that has been described by Peter Lake as “strewn with the wreckage of partially disrupted belief systems, sets of assumptions about how the world worked and where the holy was to be found and how it might be approached, invoked, and manipulated.” Hamlet’s horripilation does not settle the status of the ghost, but the centrality of this response in the play is itself significant. It suggests that we might consider more carefully the affective responses generated both by the theater and the large scale cultural transformation formerly known as the Reformation. In the rush to identify the ghost (or the play) in theological and confessional terms, we have been too quick to pass over a response that precedes cognition proper. A theater that harrows its audience with fear and wonder points to something profoundly unsettling: a sense of the world populated by invisible spiritual agencies that remain implacably mysterious.

Jesse M. Lander
University of Notre Dame