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Death is omnipresent, and the works of William Shakespeare offer no exception. From the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth (c.1605) to Hamlet's 'To be, or not to be' (Hamlet 2.3. 26, 28), death was a ubiquitous motif. In Renaissance England, death was central to the religious and social conduct of the living. Yet, according to Eamon Duffy, 'Reformation meant ruin, in more senses than one' (49). The aftermath of this turbulent transition is omnipresent in literature, as society suffered the shock of a newly-absent system of complex rituals which had buoyed faith and eased the separation that mortality wrought. Looking to John Donne as an example, we are told: 'never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee' (Meditation 17, 1305). Similarly, William Shakespeare further elucidates upon this with Macbeth's warning of death's unpredictability: 'Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow' (5.5.21, 512). While echoing the melancholy preoccupation with an uneasy journey towards death, such writing highlights that the unpredictability of mortality could no longer be eased by religious stability.
Before we proceed into the essay proper, I will clarify what is meant when I refer to the community of the living and the dead. Death has two histories, one in the origins of sin and Christ's redemption, and the other in how humans have coped with mortality. However, one has inevitably influenced the other (Cressy 379), and so in the 16th Century religious practise was closely tied to the human grieving process. The Reformation disturbed beliefs about the salvation of the soul, such as the Protestant denunciation of Purgatory, and thus uprooted practises which had determined the actions of the living from birth to burial for almost a thousand years. This not only raised great levels of insecurity about the mysteries of death, but the community of the living and the dead, a relationship bound by the conscientious commemoration of relatives and loved ones, was destroyed. Thus, a self-concious fear about the oblivion of death was born. As early as sonnet 13, Shakespeare refers to the 'barren rage of death's eternal cold' (13.12), and also alludes to the fear of being forgotten: 'The world will be thy widow and still weep,/ that thou no form of thee hast left behind' (9.5-6). The lack of any remains or memorial 'left behind' asserts the lack of connection between the departed and the world, a melancholy situation Shakespeare goes on to depict in the later sonnets. Shakespeare thus utilizes a landscape of ruined monuments within the middle section of the Sonnets in order to emphasise not only the physical loss of commemoration but also the broken nature of the bond between the community of the living and the dead.
Ruin and destruction are key themes within the Sonnets, as they represent the violent displacement from a now lost society, and more specifically focus upon the nostalgic mourning for that world. Sonnet 64 is brimming with imagery of ruin and decay, and not only decay of architecture but of the tombstones and monuments that defined the community of the living and the dead. The speaker records his reactions to seeing the decayed and vandalised elaborate monuments to the dead:
When I have seen by time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age,
When sometime lofty towers I see down razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage (64.1-4).
The use of adjectives 'defaced', 'razed' insinuate great destruction of the 'lofty towers' and monuments, while their specific rhyming accentuates both the strength and repetition of the aggressive actions. The speaker seems to be prophesising Iconoclasm, as 'mortal rage' insinuates deliberate demolition by humans. As John Weever's writings demonstrate, physical monuments did not only play a large part in Catholic commemoration, but in all religions, and for all but zealous Puritans the widespread destruction of graves would have been shocking. Weever was particularly upset by the 'foulest and most inhumane action [â€¦] the violation of Funerall Monuments' (50). He goes on to describe:
Tombes hackt and hewne apeeces; Images or representations of
the defunct, broken, erased, cut or dismembered, Inscriptions or
Epitaphs, especially if they began with an orate pro anima, or concluded
with cuius anime propitietur Deus. . . . These Commissioners . . . these
Tombe-breakers, these graue-diggers, made such deepe and dilligent
search into the bottome of ancient Sepulchres, in hope there to finde
(belike) some long-hidden treasure (50).
The use of similar destructive adjectives here demonstrates a unity of opinion, highlighting the brutal manner with which these 'ancient' monuments were destroyed. Moreover, this also highlights the brutal manner in which the physical testaments to the dead were erased from the landscape, thus contributing a broken, disconnected community of the living and the dead. Cressy argues that 'death and internment were meaningless in Christian England if shorn of their religious significance' (379). When this idea is applied specifically to tombs and monuments, we can see how troubling the destruction of graves would be for those who relied upon them to cope with mortality. Burial grounds were 'shorn of their religious significance', and as a result people could no longer trust their faith to protect the deceased soul, or indeed themselves in the afterlife. Furthermore, 'buried age' (64.2 cleverly suggests that, not only are the old ways separated or 'buried' from society, but by extension these ways have also been destroyed through desecration, thus disconnecting the living from the past and the dead.
As a result of this widespread destruction, Shakespeare goes on to present a fear of what will happen to their loved ones, and indeed themselves, if they are not commemorated upon the earth. In Sonnet 64, the speaker explains: 'Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,/ That time will come and take my love away' (64.12). The phonetic play of 'ruin' and 'ruminate' suggests that ruin is at the forefront of the speaker's mind, while 'ruminate' implies the speaker does not simply think about death, rather he obsessively turns it over in his mind. Furthermore, the use of 'away', while often used as a euphemism for death, offers no remains for his love to be remembered by. Thus, the link between them is lost, and the community of the living and the dead remains broken. Shakespeare was clearly preoccupied with this idea, as evident in Claudio's speech in Measure for Measure (c.1604):
Ay, but to die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods or to reside
In thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world. (3.1.130-138, 338)
Such reference to rotting and 'cold obstruction' is a bleak outlook for the fate of the body after it is laid to rest, but one that resonates with the broken tombs of the past and the 'viewless winds' of death. It is clear that, even if Shakespeare was not personally affected by the fears surrounding death, he undeniably registered the tensions surrounding burial and what followed.
It was not only Shakespeare who explored these fears. John Donne was notably gripped by the notion of death and explored the religious and social apprehension's surrounding it with equal depth. Donne extends Shakespeare's portrayal of the fear of a meaningless burial in 'The Relic'  . Included in his 'Sonnets and Songs' collection (1633), this poem exhibits a speaker who considers the destruction of his own grave. The opening line 'When my grave is broke up again' (1), shows that the speaker expects his grave to be violated. Here Donne is not only bringing the ruin of graves to the present reality, but he is fulfilling the fear that death brings no comfort, only destruction. Furthermore, the grave digger continues to discover 'A bracelet of bright hair about the bone' (6), meaning the grave has been desecrated so far that the bodies have been exposed, something that was not supposed to occur until Judgement day, as detailed in Revelation. Donne's poem extends the nostalgia within the Sonnets to a sense of reality, as he describes a direct violation of a grave. Moreover, the reference to the 'loving couple' (8) echoes Shakespeare's mention of 'my love' (64.12) as aforementioned. Through love, both poets relate back to the emotional ties that the community of the living and the dead once sustained beyond the barriers of mortality. By doing so, the poets emphasise the awful prospect of loosing a loved one, and being unable to commemorate them or preserve their memory through a physical monument.
Naturally, people sought to overcome the ruined past and tried to find new ways of commemorating their loved ones. Without physical monuments, Shakespeare turns to the power of memory in order to keep his connection with his loved one when they have died. The sonnet form was extremely popular in the 1590's, and I believe its universal structure appealed to Shakespeare as the perfect realm in which to preserve the memory of the dead. Michael R.G. Spiller describes the sonnet as always giving 'an impression of immediacy' (5) due to its brevity, a quality which would have made it perfect for keeping a memory alive, thus effectively becoming a kind of tombstone. In this light, I shall turn to Sonnet 55, where the speaker faces the possibility of his lover's death. The sonnet opens with: 'Nor marble nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme' (55, 1-2). The syntax used here emphasises the longevity of words, and that the 'pow'rful rhyme' will surpass both 'marble' and the 'gilded monuments of princes'. While Shakespeare again refers to the destruction of monuments: 'When wasteful war shall statures overturn' (55.5), he goes on to say: ''Gainst death and all oblivious enmity/ Shall you pace forth' (55. 9-10), again suggesting that 'you' has surpassed both 'death' and 'oblivious enmity' by using enjambment to this time entirely separate the 'you' from them. The speaker seems hopeful that he shall restore the link between the living and the dead in this way, stating that the poem shall preserve 'the living record of your memory' (55.8), the use of 'living record' emphasising that this form of commemoration will allow his love to live on in his memory, and to some extent healing the divide between the living and the dead.
However, despite all of this, Shakespeare does not seem able to fully reconcile the lost methods of commemoration for the dead. Even within Sonnet 55, there are several subtle contradictions that do not fully convince the reader of the immortality of the rhyme. The word 'rhyme' at the end of line two is rhymed with 'time' in line four, reminding the reader that despite the rhyme being 'pow'rful' (55.2) it is still inescapably linked with time, and will eventually suffer its effects. Furthermore, while the sonnets engage in the claim that as long as they are being read, they can survive, (Shoenfeldt PAGE), Shakespeare reminds readers that paper is easily destroyed. 'Fire', 'sword' and 'war' are symbols of ultimate destruction, and hark back to Sonnet 64's images of buildings being razed to the ground. Furthermore, the phrase 'living record of your memory' is followed closely by 'oblivious enmity', a reversal of the syntactic technique used before, 'oblivious' comes after 'memory', thus cancelling it out. In addition, 'oblivious' directly connects to oblivion, thus carrying connotations of obscurity and nothingness. This makes us question whether Shakespeare believed that he could recover a link with the dead that ease the destruction of mortality.
Shakespeare again presents this contradictory commemoration in Sonnet 81, with the lines: 'Or I shall live your epitaph to make' (81.1) and 'Your name from hence immortal life shall have' (81.5). Muir argues that 'your name' is significant because 'Shakespeare creates a tomb or monument that is already defaced, the name already struck out' (36). The name which would make an epitaph possible is missing from the text, a contradictory dilemma that both undermines the speaker's desire to immortalise his loved one and shows that remembrance has been ruined by demolition. Furthermore, the fact an epitaph, a form of literature itself, has been destroyed again works against the speaker's attempt to preserve memory by text. The defaced epitaph and broken tomb are symbolic of the dead being reduced to less than a memory. It seems that each time Shakespeare attempts to create a monument that will last, he reverts back to images of ruin and decay. Whether this is conscious or not, it does demonstrate the confused minds of the time, who were slowly coming to terms with the idea that nothing, including religion, is eternal.
In this light, Sonnet 71 appears to be a bitter resignation to the changing world. The opening line: 'No longer mourn for me when I am dead' (71, 1) is an instruction which bitterly accepts a world where gravestones and epitaphs are defaced, and the ability to 'mourn' has been forsaken. He anticipates his body will not be commemorated, simply 'compounded am with clay' (71, 10), an image carrying connotations of a cruel, painful burial. The speaker requests to be forgotten: 'That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,/ If thinking on me then should make you woe' (71, 7-8). The speaker suggests that his love shall have no means to remember him by, as he asks his love to forget who wrote 'this line'. As there is no mention of any memorial, we can assume the speaker expects to be simply forgotten, as this is the only way his love can deal with their grief. This is an extremely poignant situation, as it demonstrates the difficulties of expressing and channelling grief without physical markers or the guidance of the old ways. The final phrase 'I am gone' ends the poem on a note that is reminiscent of the word oblivion as previously discussed. 'Gone' does not simply mean he had died, but implies he has utterly vanished. There is no link remaining between the speaker and his love here, and this melancholy realisation echoes the irrecoverable community of the living and the dead that held society together.
In the Sonnets, the attempt to both remember and forget not only echoes the fear of being forgotten, but also the impossibility of opposing time, change and ruin. While Shakespeare does attempt to create a lasting memorial to oppose the chaos of 16th century religion, and to restore the community of the living and the dead that had once existed, I believe he ultimately recognised that this was an impossible feat. The landscape of broken graves, desecrated tombs and shattered idols represented not only religious turmoil but the unstoppable product of time: change. I believe the Sonnet's preoccupation of with ruined tombs displays the discomfort of enduring unprecedented change in England, one that literally uprooted social order. Therefore death, a key part of society already charged with so much mystery, sorrow and was affected the most. Manifestations of this discomfort in literature would naturally reach back to the comfort of the old order, where the stable community of the living and the dead existed, and would also seek to find a new way to cope with mortality. I believe Shakespeare did not achieve this, however he did reflect a society in mourning for something they could never reclaim, as is the nature of death.