Mind Your Memory: Remembering, Forgetting, and Mental Manipulation in Early Modern Literature

Amina H Tajbhai, Fordham University


When the Ghost of Hamlet commands his son to “Remember me,” Hamlet goes a step further and claims he will erase everything in his mind except for his father’s words. This display of mental control is admirable, but what happens when Hamlet stops paying attention? And is it problematic that Hamlet’s memory is so malleable? “Mind Your Memory” considers how authors in the early modern period dealt with the anxieties surrounding remembering and forgetting. In a time of cultural change, when the memory arts were becoming less popular and writing more common, how did authors negotiate their weakening minds? This dissertation focuses on the works of three canonical authors: William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and John Milton. Though each writer engages with memory in different ways, each seems to suggest that, ultimately, attempts to control memory, like Hamlet’s deliberate erasure, are futile. “Mind Your Memory” begins with controlling political memory in Shakespeare’s first tetralogy. Adopting Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire, I suggest that Shakespeare plays with the audience’s memories of historical events while, at the same time, revealing that such attempts to control memory can only happen on stage. Chapter 2 turns to Ben Jonson and the manipulation of social memory in his city comedies. While Jonson is usually seen as a proponent of remembering, best seen in his poetry, the city comedies imply that forgetting and moral decay are inevitable. Finally, my third chapter turns to Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and the question of satanic memory. Satanic memory is usually defined by forgetfulness; however, I argue that Satan’s memory shows the beginnings of a Theory of Mind. To conclude, the dissertation ends with a brief consideration of Jane Austen’s Emma, where we can see how the varying engagements with memory in the early modern period show up 150 years later. “Mind Your Memory” does not attempt to provide an exhaustive consideration of memory control during the early modern period, but it suggests that authors during this time were very aware of the mind’s fragility.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Tajbhai, Amina H, "Mind Your Memory: Remembering, Forgetting, and Mental Manipulation in Early Modern Literature" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI13884229.