Ambiguity in “The Love Suicide at Amijima” and “Hamlet”

Chikamatsu is notorious for his plays on words that include double meanings, irony, and references to other plays. These phrases add to the romantic aspect of the piece. Chikamatsu shows here that he likes to illustrate a realistic world that is not guided by strict laws. The ambiguity begins on the first page with the opening poem. We cannot know whether Chikamatsu meant the phrases to make no sense or have some sort of meaning to them. The strange opening works to further deepen the mysteries embedded in the play. We see this alot not just with Chikamatsu but also in Shakespeare’s plays like Hamlet. I will be comparing some of their similarities especially along the lines of showing how they both use strange opening works to further deepen the mysteries embedded in the play.

One technique that Chikamatsu uses is his use of platitude, which is a statement that has been used too often to no longer be interesting or thoughtful. The first line of the play begins: “The love of a prostitute is deep beyond measure; it’s a bottomless sea of affection that cannot be emptied or dried” (Keene 388). The opening is echoed in the beginning of Act 3: “The shoals of love and affection are here at the Shijimi River” (Shively 87). In a similar manner, Chikamatsu’s “universal truth” is immediately questioned because of its ironic undertones. Koharu, a prostitute, is a loving woman who harbors no ill feelings for Jihei despite his lack of trust in her. However, Jihei is not the only man who loves Koharu. Tahei  is also attracted to Koharu as we see here “Comrades, this is the Koharu-dono I’ve told you about privately, the most sincere, the most open-hearted, and the best in bed” (Shively 66). 

Koharu’s love is not restricted to Jihei and Tahei. Her love for Jihei is tempered by her great esteem for Osan “If I entice her beloved husband to a love suicide, she will consider me a typically deceitful prostitute, a treacherous person who has no sense of obligation. I should certainly rather have a thousand, a myriad people [think this], than to have the contempt and hatred of Osan alone” (Shively 93). In the end, it is Koharu who suggests that the two lovers die in separate spots so as not to upset Osan. Koharu respects Osan to the point that she overturns the procedures of a traditional love suicide. In the original play it is written in Japanese. Shively’s annotation tells us, the question not only asks whether Koharu has sincere love for Jihei, but also whether she will commit love suicide with him. The two distinct meanings of the questions are related. The points out that faithfulness can be demonstrated by committing a love suicide, while unfaithfulness may result in a refusal to commit a love suicide.

The question we all wanted to know at this time was does Koharu commit shinjū because she loves Jihei? Or because she hates Tahei? I do not want to go on a tangent by saying that the lovers have ulterior motives to their suicides, but that their motives may be more complex than a single reading of the play allows for ambiguosity. By reading the title readers would have expected a tragedy, but there are moments of comedy in the text that come off as a surprise. There are a lot of things in the end that we never really get to know the answer to. Like what will happen to Osan and the children? How will they recover their finances? Although much of the play deals with practical issues, Chikamatsu decides to end the play with a romantic close when writing“It spreads from mouth to mouth until the story soon becomes a play, the Amijima Love Suicide, and they probably directly attain Buddhahood and deliverance from reincarnation, in accordance with the vow of the Buddha’s net. In the eyes of all who see it there are tears” (Shively 96). This passage includes a double meaning, an allusion, and a platitude.Will the lovers go to Paradise and be reborn on the same lotus blossom? Or are they fated for hell to pay for their sins?As I said above this is one of the things that the piece does not answer directly. In light of all these contradictory remarks as to whether the couple will end up in hell or heaven.Now that we have gone over the events of ambiguity in The Love Suicides at Amijima, we can talk about how complex it becomes because of it. While diving into the scenes we can now see how some annotations are different from the traditional translations, but is either one considered wrong or right? Chikamatsu believes humans are frequently unaware, and society is often a cruel and unfair place. 

Since most of the posts I have read have compared The Love Suicides at Amijima to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I will be using Shakespeare’s Hamlet to draw similarities and differences of the use of ambiguity. Starting with the Protagonist Hamlet, he displays an ambiguously divided personality as his traditions dictate the need to avenge his father’s death. Therefore, ambiguity is part of an essential framework of the text in ultimately revealing revenge as a destructive act for Hamlet that he cannot fight off. The protagonists from each share ideals that we may not pick up on since they are portrayed much differently. Shakespeare’s characterisation of Hamlet is in a state of perpetual ambiguity leads to his human nature that drives the poisonous revenge. This is most evident to the reader through Hamlet’s soliloquies, as they tell the reader about Hamlet’s deep obsession in over analysing. We also come to see that Hamlet is ultimately indecisive. We see this relate back to The Love Suicides at Amijima since Koharu and Jihei seem rather indecisive about their love for eachother even though they may not say it. Constantly we question whether their love is genuine or to simply get out of a tough situation. Hamlet in his ‘to be, or not to be, that is the question’’ soliloquy ponders on the problematic state of existence relating back to his normal human nature. This sense of questioning of uncertainty highlights his character traits that restricts his overall abilities as a human. Hamlet’s soliloquies are embedded with inner workings of the Christian mind hiding between the lines. Shakespeare’s characterisation of Hamlet with a complex mix of personality and language helps escalate the play’s revenge tragedy so that Hamlet’s conflicting problem is both individual as well as representative of humanity showing his indecisiveness. Therefore, Hamlet’s moral and religious challenges adds a whole other aspect to the play.

The play begins with the first line of dialogue being a question which is, “who’s there?” These first words foreshadow the questions and ambiguities that will plague Hamlet’s search for truth and justice and eventually establish a setting of uncertainty. Questioning is a feature of his that uses up until his resignation. We have also seen this same use of questions in The Love Suicides at Amijima. Hamlet debates whether he must endure the sorrow of life or end them with a death, “to die, to sleep – / to sleep, perchance to dream.” We see this sense of indecisiveness again which relates back to Jihei and Koharu and how they never really chose what they truly wanted. I mean of course if that’s what they truly wanted which is rather unsure to know due to the lack of answers in the text. His use of the repetition of “to die, to sleep,” establishes the ambiguous undertone throughout the soliloquy on whether there actually is “a dreamless sleep,” or retribution for committing the sin of suicide. In the time of The Love Suicides at Amijima we saw that bieng involved with a murder suicide is more than just a serious crime. 

A major and rather obvious difference between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Love Suicide at Amijima is that Hamlet’s whole storyline is formed around his need for revenge, while The Love Suicide at Amijima is focused around two lovers trying to find their way to each other. Obviously as we can see the title The Love Suicide at Amijima give a lot more away than Shakespeare’s title of Hamlet. As I have said above both of these pieces show ambiguity but in completely different ways. Relating to something as easy as Romeo and Juliet seemed too easy to relate the content of the story. I was more focused on relating the themes together and styles of the authors. The tale of Hamlet has such a different type of story but is structuralized in very similar ways to The Love Suicide at Amijima.

Work Cited:

Shively, Donald. The Love Suicide at Amijima: A Study of Japanese Domestic Tragedy by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953. Print.

Keene, Donald. Major Plays of Chikamatsu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New Folger’s ed. New York: Washington Square Press/Pocket Books, 1992.

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