In order to understand or conceptualize ‘rites’ one must begin with an understanding of ‘ritual.’ As Durkheim first identified and elaborated, the ritual is designed to functionally attune for two outcomes: Belief and Belonging.(Marshall 360) The ritual is that through which cultural expectations are expressed and issued forth in an almost ghostly medium which imposes subordinate behavior through impositions of force and awe. Messages are communicated more or less but must be done in a way that is in adherence to the power of action from the mobilization of the living for the sake of the abstract or more literally, the ‘dead.’
Especially when these rights concern rulers, are they ever more persuasive and powerful. There is more magic in their coercion, more detail in their demands, and more contradiction in their meaning. A greater instigation of the unnatural and a greater potential for tragedy is latent as there is so much more being transacted and so much more being invested. Designed to invoke performances, often in a solemn tone, they carry such weight and demand so much of the person that they are tremendous rather than trivial.(Goodin 283)
The issue of ‘rites’ is especially relevant for a reconsideration of Hamlet because many great interpreters of the work, i.e. Kittredge, have focused on Hamlet’s character. In choosing to focus rather on rites, one gets a more complex understanding because the problematical interaction between cultural expectations and individual tendencies are tragically intertwined as all too often they cannot be melded neatly and swiftly.
While virtue is very much important in assessing the individual, which makes Claudius all the more sympathetic to many because he does feel guilt and cannot console himself fully for his guilty actions; from a more cultural and tradition-bound understanding an explicit judgment on action and morality that does not consider how a person might feel about it binds us towards a more sophisticated account of what is occurring in Hamlet. This account can tease out contradictions between interpretative mechanisms that either put too much emphasis on individual terminology or too much on a strictly legalistic and traditional classificatory mechanism.
As the tragic can be understood as two historical tendencies working against each other and never being able to surrender or accommodate in a satisfactory manner. Interpreting Hamlet with a special focus on ‘rites’ allows for the modernization of the use so a dramaturgical anthropology can be formed which is especially sensitive to differences between the legalistic and action-bound against the subjective and intention-bound. To try to assess more robustly and recommend perhaps new perspectives in considering a great and much sifted over work, it is necessary to attempt to reconcile what has too often been stressed with what has been understated; The personable individual against the situation or setting and its absolutism of disagreeable demands.
Marshall, Douglas. “Behavior, Belonging and Belief: A Theory of Ritual Practice.” Sociological Theory 20.3 (2002): 360-380.
Goodin, Robert. “Rites of Rulers.” The British Journal of Sociology 29.3 (1978): 281-299.