Shakespeare Quarterly 54.4 (2004) 424-448
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Hamlet's "first corse":
Repetition, Trauma, and the Displacement of Redemptive Typology
In the opening chapter of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Thomas Browne comments with characteristic wryness on contemporary depictions of the Fall in Eden, the cataclysmic incident he understands as both the source and model of all human error. Browne alludes to the received notion that a particularly human way of thinking—exhibited first by Adam and Eve and then passed on to their descendants—permits the misconstrual of God's earliest threat of death:
. . . They [Adam and Eve] might for ought we know, be still deceived in the unbelief of their mortality, even after they had eat of the fruit. For Eve observing no immediate execution of the curse, she delivered the fruit unto Adam; who after the taste thereof, perceiving himself still to live, might yet remain in doubt, whether he had incurred death; which perhaps he did not indubitably beleeve, untill he was after convicted in the visible example of Abel. For he that would not beleeve the menace of God at first, it may be doubted whether before an ocular example he beleeved the curse at last. And therefore they are not without all reason, who have disputed the fact of Cain, that is although he purposed to mischief, whether he intended to murther his brother; or designed that, whereof he had not beheld an example in his own kinde; there might be somewhat in it that he would not have done, or desired undone.1
Browne's narrative strategy here, his pairing of Adam and Eve's initial disobedience with Cain's murder of Abel, is a Renaissance commonplace: as Catherine Belsey has stated recently, "the conventional visual sequence in representations of the Fall . . . makes a direct link between the Expulsion and the first murder."2 But the insistence that the death of Abel is not only linked to the first parents' first sin [End Page 424] but required in order for them to believe that they have incurred death is part of a hermeneutic logic that, I will try to demonstrate, is in critical ways also at work in Hamlet. The logic is that of trauma, or the interpretive structure by which a prior devastation, precisely because its full horror cannot be comprehended at the moment when it occurs, is realized or recognized only through subsequent devastation, the impact of which is always conditioned by the earlier event. As Cathy Caruth explains, "Trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual's past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on."3 In other words, according to Jean Laplanche, trauma is a "two-stage mechanism, and neither of its stages can be detected on its own. . . . it always takes two traumas to make a trauma."4
Browne's description obeys such a mechanism: it presents a picture of Adam and Eve as unpersuaded by God's curse until a second event clarifies for them the full consequences of their actions. Cain's fratricide, in this account, is not simply the result of his parents' disobedience: it retroactively instantiates a Fall whose mortal repercussions, until this point, have not been entirely acknowledged. Such a notion may indeed be an unorthodox "vulgar error," as commentaries on Genesis would suggest;5 the biblical account itself explains that, even before they endure the punishments of expulsion, enmity, and labor "in the sweat of thy face" (Genesis 3:19), [End Page 425] Adam and Eve feel the immediate effects of their transgression: "Then the eyes of them bothe were opened, & they knewe that they were naked" (Genesis 3:7).6 But, ironically, Browne's narrative can be seen to expose the depth, endorsed by early modern doctrine, of Adam and Eve's violation: for the other side of their nonchalance is the possibility that the first parents' first sin is so grievous...