To be or not to be: the question never asked in Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”

“We’ve already found one correlation no one could have thought of who wasn’t looking for a connection.”

A.S.Byatt Possession


Hamlet is probably Shakespeare´s most popular play and has exhaustively been studied over the centuries, being subject to an infinite range of interpretations. In very general terms, it deals with the issue of revenge and Hamlet’s hesitance to proceed with it. However, it is a much more complex work, as a great variety of side motifs enriches its dramatic purpose. Some of these are: metatheatricality; liminality; the problem of the division between the natural body and the body politic as related to the moral corruption of the State; sexual issues such as lust, fidelity, virginity, and adultery; the discordance between reality and appearance; and the nature of man and his duality: Beast and God, a topic which links with the Renaissance concept of man in the light of the writings of Montaigne and Pico de la Mirandola.

The Remains of the Day might seem falling wide off the mark from all these issues. Nevertheless, the aim of this paper is to show how Ishiguro has situated Stevens, his complex and fascinating main character, faced to a situation closely related to Hamlet’s, though a more intimate and ultimately desperate one. This situation is the aftermath of all possible action. For, what if Hamlet had finally not done anything, had chosen “not to be” and merely let things stand? What if he had preferred the deep and dreamless sleep? Would it indeed have been, as he suspected, dreamless after all? How much of himself would he have had to annihilate and thoroughly suffocate in order not to have any dreams? As Harold Bloom says “Si Hamlet hubiera permanecido pasivo después de la visita del Espectro, entonces Polonio, Ofelia, Laertes, Rosencratz, Guildenstern, Claudio, Gertrud y el propio Hamlet no hubieran muerto de muerte violenta. Todo en la obra depende de la respuesta de Hamlet al Espectro”. Another very different spectre from the past turns up in Stevens’ life to draw a response. Miss Kenton. And Stevens is spurred into undertaking a journey.

Twenty years have been allowed to elapse, and an aging Stevens-Hamlet makes a final attempt at discovering the forever-lost turning point in his life when action could have been possible. The turning points he remembers are always linked to Miss Kenton, for he only chooses to consider action in relation to her, being he incapable of it as things stand. I will add here a mention to Elaine Showalter, who comments on Ophelia’s story “as the female subtext of the tragedy, the repressed story of Hamlet”, an idea that closely links with David  Leverenz’s comments on Hamlet’s “feminine passivity”. Accordingly, the responsibility of taking action is passed on to her, who makes the best of it she can, never getting any response. In addition, she is the character that bridges Stevens’ separation from the facts of life, from true reality, and it is through her that Stevens is constantly reminded of the question he would not ask himself, namely, “To be or not to be”.

In the meantime, History, with the slow pace that is its due, has already taken revenge on Lord Darlington for his idealistic political errors –which include an indirect murder, that of the two Jewish maids he dismisses and whose destiny is not known but can be easily inferred by the reader-. Finally, Stevens is left alone to decide if he will accept the fact of his non-participation in this matter, as well as the consequences of History’s judgement of Lord Darlington upon his own life. As I have said, Stevens never asks himself the crucial question, “To be or not to be”.  He has already made up his mind about it. Blindness is his choice, though after the years the question still hovers, unspoken, over him.


I will start this argumentation playing with words: a hamlet is a small village or group of houses in the country. So is also Darlington Hall, which, as all the lordly mansions of its time, could perfectly be considered a self-contained realm, which is why we are hardly surprised to discover Stevens has only left the place when accompanying Lord Darlington on his visits. Outside Darlington Hall, “wilderness” exists for him, an alien world, which adds to the sense of how self-sufficient and self-centred Darlington Hall is. It is a microcosm and the sun around which Stevens’s life gravitates. The very sun in which he will eventually burn, for though he does turn away from it during his trip, its hold over him is too strong, being away amounts to thinking all over again what it was to be inside. In the end, he cannot but return and come to some terms with this return -terms I will come back later to-. Denmark was, five centuries before, the microcosm Hamlet could not escape from, the cankered prison that eventually destroyed him.

Another odd coincidence occurs between the two works in the name of the protagonists, something that adds a new layer of meaning to the narration. Hamlet’s father is called King Hamlet and Stevens’ father is also called Stevens. In fact, Stevens insists in Miss Kenton adding a proper ‘Mr’ to his father’s name because he is much more than a common underbutler. We have been told previously in the story that his father is to Stevens an example of the concept of dignity because of his past behaviour, though Miss Kenton, of course, cannot know that. Stevens tries to restore and maintain the greatness that age and time’s oblivion has bereft his father of. By doing so, he is also justifying his own attempt to achieve a similar dignity. Times are changing and everything that the term ‘dignity’ means for Stevens is about to disappear. Similarly, Hamlet tries to restore his father into the kingship bereft by Claudius. By doing so, he is defending his own right to the throne after his father’s death, impeded by Claudius, and restore the order of succession. There is, besides, a foreign threat of invasion that menaces this status quo. At the same time, Hamlet tries to restore his father’s integrity and rightfulness in having continued holding the crown, as well as, by not forgetting him (the ghost insists on that, “do not forget me”), allowing his soul to rest in peace. Stevens and Hamlet are both the solitary paladins of their progenitor’s cause. Personally, they both aspire to the greatness of their predecessors. However, Hamlet lacks his father’s capacity for action –we know he was a great warrior-, while Stevens lacks his father’s humanity –we know he had a family, a wife and two sons he had to take care of by himself-. Though the character of Mr. Stevens senior could seem too stiff to indulge humanitarian feelings, he does harbour them deep inside, as we glimpse just before his death. He is quite aware then that something is amiss in his son, and he feels responsible for it. That is why he says: “I’m proud of you. A good son. I hope I’ve been a good father to you. I suppose I haven’t”. This, to me, is both an obscure and a revealing commentary. I mean, it seems as though Stevens senior must acknowledge to his son he has fulfilled all his father’s expectations in becoming what he is, but that these expectations were wrong from the very beginning, thus, he has not been a good father.

The starting point of both texts is, of course, very different. Stevens is a full-time, life-commited servant of Lord Darlington. Not suddenly –revelation is sudden in Hamlet, though deferment of action transforms it into a delayed process- but slowly along Ishiguro’s novel does truth dawn on him that the man he has all his life looked up to as the epitome of moral worth was thoroughly mistaken. He has even put at risk the security of the nation by delaying its awareness of Hitler’s threat in the years before the Second World War. At the beginning of the story, History has already judged Lord Darlington for his dangerous and irresponsible naiveté, and has taken revenge on him, discrediting him, and ruining his life. A broken man, Lord Darlington has only recently died, and a wealthy American, Mr Farraday, has purchased Darlington Hall. Fortinbras, a secondary character in Hamlet whose name, curiously enough, also starts with an “F”, encircles Shakespeare’s play, as Philip Edwards explains: “Since it is his threat to the kingdom which is the cause of the watch being set, young Fortinbras may be said to start the play off. In fact, he encircles it, seeing that he enters at the very end to take over the kingdom without having to fight for it. (…) Fortinbras succeeds where Hamlet fails.” Farraday, and everything he represents – the present, modernity, and the U.S., with all that this implies in a postcolonial reading of the New Empire’s rising, and the setting of the sun on the Old British Empire- has also taken over the “realm” of Darlington Hall without having to fight for it, only having to pay. A new era has come for both Denmark and England. Argumentatively and structurally, Farraday also encircles Ishiguro’s novel. His reduced staff at Darlington Hall causes Stevens to start musing on the possibility of having Miss Kenton back there to help him, as there is too much work for him alone. Again, at the end of the novel Stevens turns his mind to him and to the way he will have to be a proper match to Farraday’s bantering on his return to Darlington Hall.


The choice of these two names, Darlington and Farraday, does not seem, on the other hand, aleatory to me. While the former echoes affection and closeness in Stevens’ mind – in fact, deceitful concepts-, the latter –though on the whole a less formal man- suggests distance and detachment, precisely the man to see Stevens’ need to leave Darlington Hall and start his personal journey to the truth of his own life. Furthermore, a “day” that seemed “far” off has actually come: Time and History have put things in their place again. The only thing that really “remains of the day” is the personal story of one of those loose threads History and Time leave flying about. Stevens’ life. For Stevens another “far off day” is also due: the moment of encounter between him and Miss Kenton and the painful revelations it brings with it. Stevens will discover that Miss Kenton is definitely out of his reach –and so is the ultimate salvation he expected from a successful and much pondered on encounter with her, which would probably have voiced the constantly deferred question of being or not being, acting or not acting, choosing to know or to ignore, choosing to live or to die. All of these are questions only Miss Kenton –never Mrs. Benn- could have prompted. But she is not Miss Kenton any more.


It is precisely this character, Miss Kenton, which first made me think of Shakespeare’s play. This contemporary Ophelia matches her model in some very striking facts, apart from loving the main male character, and is developed much further, right into her and our time, though not quite leaving the main lines appointed by Shakespeare to his own creation. Stevens remarks she has an “exemplary professionalism”, insisting on this fact even though she leaves service in order to get married, something Stevens is very particular about and that amounts to him as to being characteristic of a wanting and dubious –tainted- servant. Despite this fact, and to his eyes, she is perfectly professional, this last being a characteristic also to be found in Ophelia, dutiful and professional in her role as daughter to Polonious. However, Ophelia loves Hamlet and due to his rejection of her, besides the fact he murders her father in spite of which she still loves him, she commits suicide. Miss Kenton loves Stevens, is rejected by him and knows he is responsible by omission of the death of two Jewish maids. At the same time, she is under the emotional influence of her aunt’s recent death, which also precipitates her metaphoric suicide of marrying another man she does not love. Both Ophelia and Miss Kenton suffer the deaths of their only progenitors –Miss Kenton’s aunt as if she were-,are loved by Hamlet and Stevens respectively, but neither of them know for sure, or better said, they do know but cannot find a reasonable explanation to why they are rejected. Ophelia, in the madness brought about by her thwarted love and her father’s death, gives flowers to those she meets. Miss Kenton brings flowers to Stevens’ pantry, “so stark and bereft of colour”. We do not know what kind of flowers she gives him, the flower symbolism of Shakespeare’s play being lost here but not completely. The aim of these flowers is to bring some light into Stevens’ dark and dreary room-life, and this way illuminate him, that is, make him conscious of what he is lacking, what he is in want of, namely human warmth and love, but above all insight. Flowers also reveal Miss Kenton’s feelings for Stevens, but as he chooses to stay in the dark, he is unable to see. This is an indirect way of categorising and defining him, which is exactly what Ophelia does with the characters she gives flowers to.

But overall it is the way both female characters disappear from the scenery that is most remarkable. Ophelia drowns in a river and Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn, returns to her husband and a life that, in spite of her protestations, we consider very much like Stevens sees it (and she herself said in her letter), stretching “like an emptiness” before her, amid the pouring rain. Still, in both something deep has been left untouched: Ophelia’s virginity is intact, though useless, and Miss Kenton, due to now being the Mrs Benn she has been transformed into by her metaphoric death, is expecting the birth of a grandchild, a symbol of innocence, though as useless to her own destiny as Ophelia’s virginity.

As to the relation they both hold to the men they love, a noticeable outburst of Miss Kenton is when she accuses Stevens of being always pretending, “Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?”  It is precisely Hamlet’s pretending not to love Ophelia one of the causes of her losing her mind. Miss Kenton knows better. She is quite aware of the attraction Stevens feels for her, in fact, she constantly pushes him to the limit of acknowledging it, but always unsuccessfully. There is no way she can disarm him. He is most intimately and hopelessly committed to his role. So is Hamlet committed to his father’s cause, from which he will not be distracted by love. Ophelia has often been accused of not being capable of helping Hamlet. If she had, things might have turned out differently. Miss Kenton, a more contemporary woman, could also have helped Stevens, but for his denial to accept her help. Both Hamlet and Stevens push Ophelia and Miss Kenton away from them. This way the ultimate confirmation of Stevens’ love for Miss Kenton and Hamlet’s love for Ophelia does never take place. In fact, not even Stevens is fully aware of it until his heart silently breaks in the final moment of their brief encounter. Similarly, Hamlet acknowledges his love for Ophelia only in front of her grave, the true dimensions of this feeling only then becoming fully evident to him.

Thus, Hamlet’s and Stevens’ negation of love have two main female victims: Ophelia and Miss Kenton. Other victims also ensue, the maids and Polonius. But while Hamlet eventually decides on action, and thus many more victims occur in the play, Stevens does not, and so there will be no more victims except himself. Enough, however, to see that whether choosing to be or choosing not to be, destruction is in waiting.


This issue of pretending brings about the topic of metatheatricality that I mentioned before.

“Hamlet is a play that is constantly referring to itself as a theatrical artefact.” In fact, Hamlet takes on himself the role of actor and even of playwright. Pretending is a major feature of his behaviour, since he has put on “an antic disposition” in order to carry out his revenge, and there are seldom any moments when, in the company of others, he is not pretending to some extent. In addition, he instructs the players in the play-inside-the play on how to act, and he includes some lines written by himself in this play. It is also as a writer that he manipulates the letters that will lead Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their death. Hamlet’s relation to pretending is stated from the very beginning of the play (Hamlet 1.2.75), when, according to Marta Cerezo Moreno, he expresses his view that “man is an actor that can perform a certain role by dressing in the right clothes and by showing the right feelings. However, his pain cannot be expressed by any outward expression since his pain is inexpressible”.

When commenting on the issue of what makes a dignified butler, Stevens says: “The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost (…).They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit (…)he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity’”. Both Hamlet and Stevens live their roles to the end of their lives. Even in the intimate reclusion of Stevens’ stark pantry, in one of those rare moments supposedly out of service, when he seems but harmlessly to be perusing a book, he is still wearing his costume, for he interprets Miss Kenton’s intruding on him as a personal advance while he is carrying on the “very professional duty” of bettering his English. Therefore, not even when entirely alone does Stevens renounce to his role. A great ordeal puts their acting to the test. Stevens believes that this moment takes place when his father dies and he does not leave his post. However, it is not then. His true ordeal is his intimate battle with his feelings for Miss Kenton and his commitment to emulating his father. He succeeds. He is, indeed, a great performer. Hamlet’s ordeal is his intimate battle between his doubts on the righteousness of his acts and his promise to his father. In the end, his ironic performing also succeeds in laying corruption bare. So, both succeed in their acting, though not in their lives.

Fathers are, indeed, disrupting elements in both stories. Not to mention the fact that both Hamlet and Stevens have a ‘second’ father, Claudius and Lord Darlington, whose presence is even more pernicious in their lives. As to the mother figure, one of the issues in Hamlet is adultery. Gertrude is guilty of this with Claudius even before he murders her husband. All we know of Stevens’ mother is that she left her husband for another man. However, the mother figures deeply influence both Hamlet’s and Stevens’ relation to women. They are doubtlessly attracted by them but intimately reject them at the same time. Again, Hamlet and Stevens coincide. The way their relation with women has been understood is that of repression. In fact, Brian W. Shaffer greatly insists on Stevens being a repressed man. However, I cannot agree with him. Stevens, as Hamlet could have, has made a choice: a willing blindness, passivity, inaction. It seems to me too easy to deal away with Stevens’ attitude recurring to repression.


Further evidence of metatheatricality, in this case metafiction, is that the narrative of The Remains  has a diary form, with a homodiegetic narrator, implicit to the text and participant in the actions he narrates, but who tells the reader all from the supposed intimacy of the very form that has been adopted. Diaries are intimate by definition, something that does not necessarily imply they are truthful. However, Stevens’ diary does not seem at all intimate. His sense of a dignified role pervades his style, what has been called “butlerspeak”. Appearance and reality have become so intertwined they cannot be separated from one another in Stevens. In a parallel line, appearance and reality are so mixed up in Hamlet that he has been called by Bloom as the “Mona Lisa” of literature. Stevens’ professional role, his sense of dignity and greatness, have grown into him and corrupted his life. Accordingly, as a narrator, he cannot but be unreliable. (As unreliable as Hamlet can be when he speaks in riddles.) All possible freedom the diary form could have given him is vain, for he is not a free man; he is not even a repressed man –repression, as I have said before, is in The Remains of the Day an issue I will not subscribe: Ishiguro himself said in an interview that his was not a novel about repression but about self-denial-.


Much has been said on this issue of the reliability of the narrator in The Remains, and I will not insist upon it. Instead, I will turn again to Hamlet. Hamlet constantly uses a double discourse: the public and the private one. The public discourse is witty, ironical, and poignant. The private one expresses his otherwise cloaked feelings, and offers a view of his doubts, his suffering and his supposedly melancholy and world-weary disposition. However, and most importantly, it allows the spectator-reader to glimpse the way Hamlet deceives himself into dangerous footing, imagination and imaginating, the best place where taking action can be deferred. Deferment leads him to erring, erring leads him to killing, killing leads him to guilt, and guilt to poetic justice. He can never win.

The very first sentence of The Remains mentions ‘imagination’, a feature that, when having read the entire novel, we come back to, are suspicious of such as Stevens was, and cannot but wonder about. “It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days”. On a second reading, Stevens does not strike us as an imaginative man. Thus, that is not what is meant here. The first time the word ‘imagination’ is mentioned in Hamlet is by Horatio. The ghost has just beckoned Hamlet to follow him to a private spot, away from the guards, and Horatio, one of these, sensing the danger this could imply –after all, the true nature of the ghost and his intentions are not clear-, disobeys Hamlet and follows him, saying: “He waxes desperate with imagination.(…)Have after. To what issue will this come?” To this, Marcellus, another guard, adds: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. The other three times the word “imagination” occurs in Shakespeare’s play it is mentioned by Hamlet. They are:

-I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. (Hamlet, 3.1.122)

-Let me see. (Takes the skull) Alas poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy, he hath borne me on his back a thousand times – and now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. (Hamlet, 5.1.156)

-To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till a find it stopping a bunghole?

To this last remark, Horatio comments: “Twere to consider too curiously to consider so”, to which Hamlet answers: “No faith, not a jot, but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead us, as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?” (Hamlet, 5.1.171)

As Horatio puts it, imagination leads to over-elaboration. Both Hamlet and Horatio are aware of the dangers of imagination, on all occasions linked in the play to death and evil. And over-elaboration is what Stevens does with all the business of Miss Kenton’s letter, the trip to the West Country, and his very role of dignified butlering. He is right in being preoccupied. Death and evil lurk in the word. And what is he imagining? He imagines he is going to undertake a trip. This, again and far from innocent, brings to mind the word “undertaker”, with all its deadly connotations. But this word is, at the same time, loaded with irony, for what Stevens is going to do in his long, diary-form speech is unbury facts from his memory, unbury Lord Darlington and his love for Miss Kenton and look at them in the face, much as Hamlet does with Yorick’s skull, right next to where a real undertaker has just buried Ophelia’s body, soon after Lord Darlington has died.

Wherever could this coinciding play on words lead us? It would deserve some deconstructive reading, but I will return to Stevens.

He is quick to react. Immediately after that first sentence of the novel Stevens backs down and begins mentioning the trip in more positive terms. Delusion has taken a hold on him. However, the process of imagining is at work. Over-elaboration is going on, and with it, deferment. Deferment is already and markedly present in this first sentence. “It seems increasingly likely”, he says. Deferment of reality. Denial of reality. This leads Stevens to self-denial, self-denial leads to delusion and erring, erring leads to killing –here, metaphorically, his own death by drowning in passivity, the inducing of Miss Kenton’s death by indirect suicide (marrying a man she does not love), and the most probable death of the two maids he dismisses in Lord Darlington’s name, committing a crime of omission, omission of interference- killing leads to guilt –again, metaphoric guilt, and as unexpressed as all of Stevens’ deep emotions (guilt is voiced by Lord Darlington himself, when a year after the dismissal he acknowledges it was a mistake), an issue that links to the terms he has had to come to in order to remain and return to Darlington Hall, his only possible abode, far from any real life, a magnificent prison, a magnificent sepulchre-, and guilt leads to poetic justice. Stevens can never win.


As to the issue of liminality, this factor has been studied in both Hamlet andThe Remains of the Day by several critics. Of course, these studies are not connected in any way, so I will take the notes on liminality made on Hamlet by Patricia Fumerton in collaboration with Steve Deng, which I have found quite schematic and accessible, and apply them to Ishiguro’s novel. These notes begin with a fragment by the anthropologist Victor Turner on the three phases of a transition rite. These phases are separation, in which the individual is detached from his previous state; margin or liminal period, in which the state of the individual becomes ambiguous, neither here nor there, betwixt and between, a symbolic domain; reaggregation, in which the individual re-enters the social structure. The liminal phase is characterized in Hamlet by temporal and spatial disruptions, the main cause of the sense of ambiguity, confusion, and uncertainty one has on reading the play. (Harold Bloom even points out that while during the first acts Hamlet is supposed to be around twenty years old, in the final acts he is a young but mature man of thirty, and that Shakespeare, though aware of this incongruence, did not attempt to correct it).

According to Fumerton, time “becomes temporarily stuck” during this phase. Initially, the future usurps the place of the present, something illustrated by the dark forebodings the guards have concerning the future of the Danish State and by the menace of Fortinbras, reason for the guard to be set up. Fortinbras will eventually take Denmark at the end of the play. Immediately after this beginning, the past usurps the present and this will be the situation in the rest of the play. But the most interesting fact is that this period of transition and disruption allows an extended interval of possibility during which everything is possible for Hamlet, he can both proceed with his revenge and delay it, he can be both mad and lucid, he can indulge doubts and muse on certainties. Fumerton adds “Hamlet, in ‘playing’ mad, traverses boundaries of identity, and eventually reveals the truth about Claudius”.

After the initial foreboding feeling one has on reading The Remains of the Day, which I have already explained, provoked by Stevens‘ own uneasy feelings regarding his about-to-begin journey, something I interpret as the future usurping the present, practically all the rest of the novel is made out of the past usurping the present through Steven’s memories. Time here is also ‘stuck’, and allows Stevens to believe everything is possible, any interpretation of Miss Kenton’s words in her letter, any interpretation of Lord Darlinton’s past acts. In addition, when Stevens unwillingly ‘plays’ being a Lord at the Taylors’ in Moscombe, the truth about Lord Darlington and the truth about the real value of dignity is made clear to him.

Thus, both Hamlet and Stevens are, for a time, inside and outside themselves, and it is during this period of liminality that truth is revealed to them.

Fumerton says “Holding a mirror up to the times will be the way for Hamlet to move beyond the times, to restore time from its disjointed state and move forward past the confused, ambiguous, betwixt and between transitional interval to some new state in which things eventually become ‘reaggregated’”. But not before discovering terrible truths about themselves. In the case of Hamlet, that he is not the man his father, the late King Hamlet and now spectre, expects him to be, as he constantly drifts away from his appointment. In the case of Stevens, that he has become even more than what his father expected him to be but that, in the hour of truth, his father admits having been wrong in this. “I hope I’ve been a good father to you. I suppose I haven’t”.

“Thus consciousness makes cowards of us all” says Hamlet in his famous soliloquy. Thinking and moral awareness can inhibit action; can make us act like cowards. Where can we see an example of this in The Remains of the Day? Again, it is in relation with the issue of the dismissal of the two Jewish maids. In this case, consciousness affects both Stevens and Miss Kenton. Both are aware that reaction would have been necessary –though Stevens only acknowledges this later on, when he says, “Naturally, one disapproved of the dismissals. One would have thought that quite self-evident”- but the former is too bend on thinking about his professional dignity and his obeyance to Lord Darlington, while the second, on thinking about the result of taking action and deciding to leave Darlington Hall, becomes a coward because she has nowhere to go, “I felt so strongly about what happened. Had I been anyone worthy of any respect at all, I dare say I would have left Darlington Hall long ago. (…) It was cowardice, Mr. Stevens. Simple cowardice. Where could I have gone?”


Another striking resemblance between the two works is the fact that Hamlet’s centre is the death of Hamlet’s father, and what triggers Hamlet’s suffering is the absence of mourning of that death, mainly on the part of his mother. In Ishiguro’s novel, the death of Stevens’ father is also a central point and Stevens’ negative to indulge mourning, too. At the opening of the novel, when discussing the dignity of a butler, he tells us this dignity tends to show up only in crucial moments, and an example of one of them is Stevens’ father’s reaction at having to serve the man responsible for his other son’s death. Stevens understands his non-indulgence to mourning as a proof of his dignity. His own absence of mourning when his father dies proves to be his own crucial moment, when his own dignity can show.

Contrasting with this attitude towards death is Miss Kenton’s reaction when her aunt –like a mother- dies. She does take time for mourning. In addition, after the years Stevens chooses to interpret-remember her crying as this very same mourning. However, she was crying for his rejection of her. A curious mingling of events.


Having considered all these matters, it will not sound too farfetched to add that in the following quote from Hamlet lies a clue to better understanding the title of Ishiguro’s novel. The quote is from Hamlet speaking to Gertrude in the third act: “I must be cruel, only to be kind; thus bad begins, and worse remains behind”. Philip Edwards’ notes explain this is “the recognition (Hamlet’s) of the heaviness of his task. His own cruelty repels him. He sees the death of Polonius as the bad beginning of a vengeance that will yet be worse.” I disagree with the second part of this explanation. From my point of view, Hamlet is aware that his vengeance has begun badly and will get even worse, but however bad the unveiling of the truth and the revenge itself is yet to become, it can never be worse than what “remains behind”, which is unchastised murder, falsity, and corruption. What needs be done needs be done.  It is in this way that I think the quote is enlightening to Ishiguro’s novel. What remains for Stevens after having unveiled and acknowledged the load of his past, the remains of his day, however hard his return to Darlington Hall may be, however hard the acquired wisdom of his ‘dignity’ being less that a whiff of air may be to live with, however hard it is going to be living without the hope of ever giving his love another chance, it cannot be worse that continue living in deception. Stevens’ self-denial has finally denied him everything, except the possibility of some wisdom. The remains of his day will be the living up to his losses. But worse is left behind.


Overall, my conclusion is that Ishiguro has revisited Hamlet, has subtly and exquisitively rewrought a choice of characters and topics from this play, and used it as a means of reflecting about some very interesting and disturbing matters. Among these are man’s capacity to penetrate truth about himself and others, his efforts to survive with the knowledge he thus acquires, and whether his reaction to this knowledge, if eventually leading him to passivity, could be considered an equivalent to moral death.




*Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

*The New Cambridge Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, edited by Philip Edwards

*Marta Cerezo Moreno, Critical Approaches to Shakespeare: Shakespeare for all time

*Brian W. Shaffer, Understanding Kazuo Ishiguro

*W.B.Worthen, Review on The Absent One: Mourning ritual, Tragedy and the Performance of ambivalence, by Susan Letzler Cole

*Elaine Showalter, Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism

*David Leverenz, The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View

*Michel Terestchenko, Servility and Destructiveness in Kazuo  Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day

*Rocía G. Davis, The Remains of the day: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Sonnet on his Blindness

* Patricia Fumerton in collaboration with Steve Deng, Hamlet and Liminality

*Karen Scherzinger, The Butler in (the) Passage: the Liminal Narrative of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The remains of the Day














Un pensamiento en “To be or not to be: the question never asked in Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”


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