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.

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Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a game of mirrors

During the year 1599 Shakespeare was to bring forth two high comedies, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, the last of his plays dedicated to English sovereigns, Henry V, and a roman play, Julius Caesar, while probably preparing Hamlet. Though the shortest of them all and considered simple and straightforward enough so as to be chosen a typical high school reading, Julius Caesar gives rise to a series of questions that cannot easily be answered. These range from trying to decide who the true hero of the play is, Brutus or Julius Caesar, to whether the hero is a tragic one in the classic sense or not, in what way Shakespeare followed suit or fruitfully betrayed his sources, how to make a historically contextualized reading of the play in order to draw the supposedly many parallels between Rome and Elizabethan England, or the making of a comparative reading between Julius Caesar and Hamlet, as both portray the story of a victim and its killer. Furthermore, as H. Bloom points out, Brutus is difficult to characterize. In fact, his ambiguity is such that some critics have considered it to be the real theme of the play, while others have said that it is “a play about a problem: the difficulty – perhaps the impossibility – of knowing the truth of men and of history”[1]

The aim of this paper is to offer possible answers from the starting point of Shakespeare’s sources. The process is as follows: by analyzing what Shakespeare probably took to be the true facts of the real characters depicted in the play, according to his sources, and then considering how and why he adapted this “truth” to his own interests, we might reach the core of the play. At the same time I will draw parallel lines with what I consider to be a key issue to the understanding of the play: the fact that the characters of Brutus and Hamlet were very closely linked in Shakespeare’s mind and intentions.

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