Death In Shakespeare’s Hamlet
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Published: Fri, 05 May 2017
The Issue Of Death In Shakespeare’s Hamlet And Its Relation To The Renaissance Thinking
The issue of death is inseparably linked with a traditional idea of tragedy. Such ancient dramatists as Aeschylus, Euripides, Seneca and Sophocles implemented the theme of death into their dramatic works to reflect the essence of their own times and the attitude of ancient people towards death. Their treatment of death was presented through serious and tragic elements that intensified a portrayal of certain events and characters, but the concept of death was restricted by the ancient religious dogmas. The Renaissance gave birth to new visions and interpretations of various issues of existence, especially concerning life and death. According to William Engel (2002), The decline and decay of every individual is an old theme with many ways of being expressed during the Renaissance (p.14). Although William Shakespeare, a famous English dramatist of the Renaissance period, constantly applies to various aspects of death in his tragedies, he goes beyond the ancient and Renaissance conception on death. Shakespeare interprets the issue of death through both tragic and comic elements, making an attempt to solve one of the most crucial issues of that era. The dramatist revives some medieval customs associated with death and interprets them through the Renaissance vision. His idea of death is connected with both religious dogmas and atheistic values; for him, death simultaneously embodies everything and nothing. The aim of this essay is two-fold: 1) to analyse the empowerment of death in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and 2) to evaluate the concept’s relation with the Renaissance thinking of Michel de Montaigne, Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh and Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus.
In Renaissance England death was perceived as a mysterious phenomenon that aroused debates among Elizabethan philosophers, priests and writers (Cressy, 1997, pp.465-468). The lack of knowledge in regard to various diseases resulted in constant increase of mortality rates. Thus, death was regarded as a leveller that eliminated social inequality, that is, both the poor and rich could die of an incurable illness or be murdered (Duddley, 1999, pp.277-281). Executions and mutilations were usually conducted in public and were rather popular among certain groups of British population. As Michael Neill (1997) puts it, death and other funerary issues constitute a crucial part of any Elizabethan drama that is aimed at transforming individual death into a common recollection (pp.12-17). During Elizabethan ruling various funeral images and buildings were created in Britain, so that people could constantly think of their mortality (Gittins, 1984, pp.140). Death became an integral part of British existence; as Nigel Llewellyn (1991) claims, Images reminding people about their own mortality were to be found in all kinds of public and private situations In early Modern England, Death always accompanied the individual on the streets or at home among the family (p.25). Thus, Renaissance literature reflects this aesthetics of death, as Neill claims (p.356). In this regard, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is also overwhelmed with characters’ deaths that usually come out from revenge or deception.
This is just the case with almost all principal characters of the play. For instance, Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, is masterfully deceived by Claudius and dies. Claudius makes Laertes avenge Hamlet who is accused of the murder of Laertes’ father. As Claudius claims, Laertes, was your father dear to you? / Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, / As face without heart? (Shakespeare, 1985 4.7.107-109). Although Hamlet makes an attempt to apologise for Polonius’ death, Laertes refuses to forgive him, because he feels fury and anger, as his sister Ophelia and his father Polonius are dead. Laertes utilises the poison sword during the dual, but Hamlet accidentally changes the sword and kills Laertes. Ophelia’s death does not fall under the category of revenge; instead her suicide is closely connected with her sexual desires towards Hamlet. As Jonathan Dollimore (1998) puts it, Death inhabits sexuality: perversely, lethally, ecstatically (p.xi). As Ophelia experiences strong desires for the Prince, she implicitly wishes death. Dollimore (1998) demonstrates that there is a close connection between sexual desires and death; the Renaissance ideas on love reveal that love is a changing phenomenon, and if it is so, sexual desires are also exposed to changes. With the loss of love and desires a person starts to feel a desire for death. According to Dollimore (1998), For the Jacobeans, as for us, what connects death with desire is mutability – the sense that all being is governed by a ceaseless process of change inseparable from an inconsolable sense of loss (p.xii). Such a thought is consistent with a Christian dogma that human desires bring destruction and death, as is just the case with Eve’s desire for an apple. Claudius’ death also conforms to the Christian principles; he is punished for his cruel actions and is killed by Hamlet. Claudius’ obsession with wealth and power results in many deaths and troubles; thus Shakespeare reveals that Claudius deserves death.
But despite so many deaths, Shakespeare’s treatment of the issue of death is especially obvious through his portrayal of Hamlet who is presented as a person preoccupied with the idea of death and the Ghost of King Hamlet. It is through these characters that the dramatist reveals his ambiguous representation of the principal theme. From the very beginning Hamlet reflects a youthful idolization of death, living life as a journey toward death (Engel, 2002, p.10); although he is afraid of the Ghost, he tries to get in touch with him. Initially Hamlet is anxious about death, because he does not know what awaits him after death. Hamlet reflects his anxiety in his famous soliloquy To be or not to be, where he demonstrates the controversy of the issue of death. As he claims, But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country from whose bourne / No traveler returns, puzzles the will / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than to fly to others we know not of (Shakespeare, 1985 3.1.86-90). However, as Hamlet collides with cruelty, murders, injustice and deaths, he seems to form a certain unconcern towards death. In his search of revenge, Hamlet thinks much about death and afterlife.
But these attempts to revenge for his father are only a prerequisite to Hamlet’s thoughts of committing suicide. This obsession with death gradually drives him mad; William Shakespeare demonstrates this obsession with implicit mockery. For instance, when Hamlet kills Ophelia’s father, he is not able to remember, where he hides his body; instead he starts to madly speak about the worms that eat a dead body. Shakespeare demonstrates that even Hamlet’s appearance shows his obsession with death; he wears black clothes and looks depressed. In the graveyard scene Shakespeare intensifies Hamlet’s preoccupation with death, revealing Hamlet’s gloomy thoughts. As he claims, No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough and likelihood to lead it; as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returned into dust; the dust is earth (Shakespeare, 1985 5.1.201-206). In fact, the image of the grave is shown several times throughout the play to reveal the character’s attitude towards death. With the exception of Hamlet, all characters demonstrate fear and pity at the sight of the grave that they associate with death. As Hamlet constantly thinks of death, he does not value his own life, as well as other people’s lives. As a result, Hamlet appears to be also responsible for the death of Ophelia, Claudius, Polonius, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz.
Thus, Hamlet’s obsession transforms him from a miserable youth into a cruel murderer. However, contrary to other characters’ deaths that are portrayed with a certain degree of irony, Hamlet’s death is depicted in more serious terms. From the very beginning of Shakespeare’s play each death seems to be blackened and is soon forgotten by other characters. For instance, Hamlet demonstrates that his father’s death is already neglected by people, although King Hamlet died only a couple of months ago. When Horatio claims, My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral, Hamlet responds: I prithee, do not mock me, fellow student. I think it was to see my mother’s wedding (Shakespeare, 1985 1.2.183-185). Such an ironic viewpoint reveals that even the most generous people are forgotten. The death of Polonius is also ignored by the principal characters; Ophelia and Laertes are too preoccupied with their emotions and feelings to remember their father, and Hamlet who accidentally kills Polonius expresses only some sympathetic words: Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell (Shakespeare, 1985 3.4.38). Ophelia’s death is described in even more ironical portrayal, as the dramatist presupposes that her death is a result of suicide and asks: Is she to be buried in Christian burial, when she wilfully seeks her own salvation? (Shakespeare, 1985 3.4.38). Similar to Ophelia’s death, the deaths of Gertrude, Claudius, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are able to arouse only sympathy in readers. In this regard, Hamlet’s death stands out against a background of other deaths; it evokes respect and powerful emotions towards the character. Although Hamlet expresses irony to death throughout the play, his death is a tragedy for those who knew him.
As Horatio claims, Now cracks a noble heart. / Goodnight sweet prince. And a flight of angels sing thee to thy rest (Shakespeare, 1985 5.2.397-398). Hamlet’s death is the tragedy for the whole country, because it has lost its noble king and can hardly find another great person. Fortinbras considers that For he was likely, had he been put upon, to have proved most royal Speak loudly for him (Shakespeare, 1985 5.2.443-446). Hamlet’s noble death corresponds with the ideas of death maintained by such a Renaissance philosopher as Michel de Montaigne (1910) who claims that death uncovers the true essence of a person. According to him, a person can be really judged at his/her last moments. The similar attitude towards death is revealed by Sir Walter Raleigh who claimed that only death could provide people with real understanding of life. During his imprisonment Raleigh demonstrated real courage and was not afraid of death. As he wrote in the latter to his wife, I perceive that my death was determined from the first day (Raleigh, 1940, p.82). In this regard, Hamlet’s real self is obvious only after his death. At the end of the play Hamlet accepts his death with courage and inevitability. However, Shakespeare demonstrates that, despite Hamlet’s indifference to life, he needs much time and courage to prepare himself for killing and death. As Hamlet observes numerous deaths, he becomes immune to his own fortune. He starts to perceive death with irony, realising that life has no value for him. To a certain extent, it is Hamlet’s insanity that helps him to adjust to the idea of death and succeed in his revenge. As Hamlet collides with cruel reality, he seems to be mentally destroyed by it: Who does it, then? His madness. If’t be so, / Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d; His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy (Shakespeare, 1985 2.233-235).
Simultaneously, the principal character manages to create an ironical attitude towards death that is intensified by the utilisation of Biblical and classical allusions. For instance, Hamlet’s revenge resembles the classical story of Priam and Pyrrhus; when Priam kills the father of Pyrrhus, the latter decides to kill Priam in revenge. In Hamlet’s case the irony is explained by the repetition of the situation, but Hamlet finds it difficult to succeed in his revenge; he avoids some fortunate situations and kills Claudius only at the end of the play. Another allusion is taken from the Bible: when Shakespeare (1985) mentions the primal eldest curse A brother’s murder (3.3.40-41), he draws a parallel between the story of Cain and Abel with the murder of King Hamlet by Claudius. Although Claudius seems to ask for forgiveness in the church, he does not really repent of his action. When Hamlet recognises the truth about his father’s death, he decides to make a play ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, where he implicitly depicts the murder of his father by King Claudius. Ironically, the play has a great impact on Hamlet who has to suppress his desire to kill Claudius and his mother Gertrude. As he states, Let not ever the soul of Nero enter this firm bosom. / Let me be firm, not unnatural. / I will speak daggers to her, but use none (Shakespeare, 1985 3.2.426-429).
As Agrippina, the character of the play ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, is killed by her son Nero, Hamlet is afraid of his desire to also kill his mother. Another element of death that Shakespeare strengthens in his play is the Dance of Death that is crucial for understanding the dramatist’s interpretation of the issue. In the Renaissance this dance was performed in the form of a carnival, during which some people disguised themselves into skeletons and guided other people into ‘afterlife’. As a humorous festivity, the Dance of Death was popular among different groups of people and was depicted in many dramatic works (Freedberg, 1989). The image of the Dance of Death occupies the principal place in Hamlet’s graveyard scene. In Hamlet’s conversation with the gravedigger, Shakespeare uncovers many important issues of existence. For instance, Hamlet asks Did these bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggets with them? Mine ache to think on’t (Shakespeare, 1985 5.1.91). The Dance of Death has a great impact on Hamlet, especially when he sees the skull of his friend Yorick who occupied a position of fool in the court during his life (Triggs, 1990, pp.73-76). Hamlet realises that death is inevitable for all people, as he puts it, We fat all creatures else to fat us and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service – two dishes but to one table (Shakespeare, 1985 4.2.21-24).
But this scene also reveals that the gravedigger and Hamlet are blasphemous in their treatment of death, although to a different extent (Frye, 1979, pp.17-22). As the gravedigger prepares the grave for Ophelia, he sings songs; Hamlet regards this action as awful, although his further action is more cruel. When he finds Yorick’s skull, he begins to mock at him, simultaneously laughing at death: Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment that wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? (Shakespeare, 1985 5.1.196-199). Such an ironic vision of the principal character reveals Hamlet’s inner degradation; Ewan Fernie (2002) considers that Hamlet involves into the depth of mortality and destruction, because he feels shame that makes him regard death in an easy and obscure manner. Hamlet thinks that the inner destruction is a necessary prerequisite of revenge, and the failure of this tragic hero works against the illusion and the tyranny of the self (Fernie, 2002, p.225). Although death is a natural phenomenon, Shakespeare demonstrates that people imagine and endure death before they really die, as the ancient culture forms an attitude of people towards death based on suffering and purgatory. As Stephen Greenblatt (2001) puts it, by the late Middle Ages in Western Europe, Purgatory had achieved both a doctrinal and a social success (p.14). In other words, it not only concerned the religious side and the idea of existence, but was also associated with society and its attitude towards reality. In the sixteenth century there were two religious groups in Britain – Catholics and Protestants; the first group maintained the idea of Purgatory, while the second group opposed it.
Although during the Renaissance period Protestants made everything to eliminate the principles of Purgatory, Shakespeare demonstrates that Purgatory was also closely connected with cultural beliefs of British people. In this regard, the Ghost of King Hamlet confirms to the dogma of Purgatory, as he appears as a creature that suffers much because of his murder and that demands revenge. In fact, the very image of the Ghost brings up the question of death and supernatural elements, simultaneously demonstrating an ambiguous attitude of Renaissance literature towards the issue of death. On the one hand, on the example of his principal character Shakespeare reveals people’s wish to communicate with dead people, but, on the other hand, he shows the wish of the dead to communicate with human beings. Thus, the Ghost in the play seems to ask not only for revenge, but also for recollection. Despite the fact that Shakespeare does not utilise the word ‘purgatory’ in regard to the Ghost, the dramatist implicitly mentions that the Ghost comes back from this particular place. As Shakespeare (1985) states, Doomed for a certain term to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in days of nature / Are burnt and purged away (1.5.11-14).
Purgatory, mystery plays and various medieval rituals were prohibited by the Church of England in the era of Reformation, destroying many important aspects of English culture. Purgatory was closely connected with the beliefs in phantoms, that is why the Church made everything to suppress the spread of these beliefs. However, Renaissance tragedy seems to revive some earlier traditions and customs associated with the dead, and Shakespeare is considered to be one of the principal Renaissance dramatists who combine medieval and Renaissance cultural traditions. Making the Ghost come back from Purgatory, Shakespeare simultaneously signifies the revival of the very concept of Purgatory, although in a changed form. In this regard, William Shakespeare resembles a famous Renaissance philosopher Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1994) who also rejected many religious dogmas of Protestants and tried to revive some traditions, such as Purgatory. In his work Praise of Folly (1509) Erasmus reveals an ironical vision towards the issue of death, although he believed in God. According to Greenblatt (2001), Shakespeare’s play takes part in a cult of the dead (p.203), investigating in depth various aspects of death. Shakespeare demonstrates that Purgatory is an important tool for preserving a connection between society and continuity, between life and death; thus the rejection of the principles of Purgatory is considered by the dramatist as the destruction of the Renaissance cultural traditions. In this context, Shakespeare’s interpretation of the issue of death corresponds with the thinking of such conservative philosophers as More, Erasmus, Montaigne and Raleigh. In particular, Sir Thomas More in his works The Supplication of Souls (1529) and The Last Things demonstrates the importance of Purgatory for saving the ghosts and establishing relations between the quick and the dead.
Thomas More also discusses the issue of death through the Seven Deadly Sins that are closely connected with Purgatory (More, 1997, pp.142-160). On the other hand, Shakespeare does not explicitly reveal his support for the issue of Purgatory. Although he challenges the Reformists’ rejection of Purgatory, he avoids taking one or another side. Shakespeare shows that the image of the Ghost is crucial for the Renaissance public, as Ghost stories were an integral part of British cultural traditions. Despite the fact that other Renaissance tragedies also portray the images of Ghosts, Shakespeare’s interpretation of the issue greatly differs from other interpretations. As Greenblatt (2001) puts it, Shakespeare’s ghost is presented in three different images: the Ghost as a figure of false surmise, the Ghost as a figure of history’s nightmare, and the Ghost as a figure of deep psychic disturbances (p.157). All these images demonstrate that Shakespeare treats the Ghost in a rather serious way, considering that it can give answers to some issues of existence, albeit the dramatist does not reveal these answers; he simply points at the possibility to get these answers. The fact is that Shakespeare intentionally makes the Ghost a controversial creature, so that readers can interpret this image in their own ways.
The controversy of the Ghost reflects the controversial attitude of Elizabethan society to the issue of death and afterlife. If the Ghost is thought to come back from Purgatory, then Hamlet may believe that it is the Ghost of his father who suffers much and is in search of revenge (Low, 1999, pp.463-472). However, the Ghost may also appear to come back from Hell; in this regard, his aim is to turn Hamlet into insanity. William Shakespeare reveals this controversy, but he does not solve it. The issue remains open throughout the play and is aggravated with the disappearance of the Ghost. Greenblatt (2001) even claims that purgatory exists in the imaginary universe of Hamlet and [it provides] many of the deep imaginative experiences, the tangled longing, guilt, pity and rage evoked by More (p.252). However, the deaths of Hamlet and other principal characters of the play uncover the truth about these people. In particular, throughout the narration Hamlet pretends to have a secret, although he does not reveal it, but at the end he seems to expose his heart and all his secrets: Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart; but it is no matter It is but foolery (Shakespeare, 1985 5.2.208-211). Hamlet tries to fool other characters, but instead he fools himself, as he is not able to admit that he is also afraid of death.
Analysing the treatment of death in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the essay suggests that the play contributes much to the Renaissance debate on the issue of death. In particular, the dramatist goes beyond the ancient and Renaissance understanding of death, reviving some medieval death customs in Hamlet and challenging the traditional religious dogmas in regard to death. Introducing the image of the Ghost of King Hamlet, Shakespeare brings up the crucial issues of life and death and eliminates the suppression of the Purgatory concepts.
According to the dramatist, the suppression of some earlier beliefs, such as the belief in Purgatory, destroys Renaissance culture. Shakespeare’s thinking cooperates with the thoughts of such philosophers as Erasmus, Raleigh, More and Montaigne who also demonstrate the necessity to preserve the medieval beliefs and traditions and who believe that a person reveals his true self only at death, while life is a preparation for death. However, Shakespeare avoids supporting either side of the Renaissance death debate; although he revives some concepts, he does not provide an explicit answer to the controversial issue of death. In this regard, the reasons for his characters’ death are also different; such characters as Hamlet and Laertes die because of their anger and revenge, Claudius dies because of his murderous actions, Ophelia dies as a result of her madness and sexual desires towards Hamlet, while her father Polonius and Hamlet’s mother die from an unintentional murder, similar to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. Applying to these characters’ deaths, Shakespeare reveals both serious and ironical attitude to death that, on the one hand, reflects Renaissance preoccupation with death, while, on the other hand, demonstrates his own philosophical treatment of this crucial issue.
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