drama

The Mystery of Death in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

Photo by James Lafayette. Public domain.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

With it being the 450th celebration to William Shakespeare’s birthday, there’s a lot of hype going around about his life’s work.  Look to any theater playhouse, and you will likely see a lineup for a couple of Shakespearean productions this season.  In fact, I have already seen three this year– Richard III, Hamlet, and The Merchant of Venice.  It has been a great season for me, too, because I want to see every play Shakespeare ever wrote performed live on stage.  Call it a bucket list, if you will.  Film renditions, such as the 1948 Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet or Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest, do not count towards my endeavor to “see them all.”  They must be performed on the stage if I want to check them off my list.  What can I say, it’s a long-term goal.
Every chance I get, I go to the theater for a Shakespearean play.  I have seen quite a few already, too.  Othello, Macbeth, Love’s Labour’s Lost, to name a few.  All of them have lived up to their reputations in every respect.  By far, my favorite has been the tragedy Hamlet, which I saw for the first time this past fall.  I have read Hamlet on several occasions.  In fact, I know the play very well, as I taught its iambic pentameter and its rhyme schemes to undergraduates once upon a time.  What a challenge that was, trying to give students who had never read Shakespeare an introduction to what may be considered his greatest work, in as little as three weeks even.  Regardless, they rose to the challenge and walked away all the better for having done so; at least I hope they did.  There is a lot to take away from a play like Hamlet.  Not only is it a marvelous example for the craftsmanship of an English dramatist during the Elizabethan era, but it also contains a deep message within its lines, one that even applies to today’s readers; but therein lies the challenge, as many modern readers find it difficult to understand the middle English language of Shakespeare’s hand.  Don’t let a lack of understanding for what Shakespeare wrote detour you from the scope of this masterpiece.  There is much to learn from Hamlet and his melancholy if you only learn to read between the lines.  Of course, this takes practice and time.

The Plot

Considered to be one of the most famous tragedies to ever be performed, Hamlet is a tale about revenge.  The young Danish prince, Hamlet, is in mourning for the loss of his father, the king.  In the early acts of the play, the king appears as a vengeful spirit, much in anguish for his demise, and reveals who his murderer is to his son.  Stricken with grief by this revelation, the young Hamlet sets his will to exact his revenge by thwarting his lecherous uncle, Claudius — now the King of Denmark.  The conflict here lies in his affections for the female supporting roles: Gertrude, his mother and Queen of Denmark, innocent of the murderous plot and the young Ophelia, daughter to Polonius, Lord Chamberlain to King Claudius.  Initially, Hamlet acts partially insane to throw off any attempts at deciphering his motives, while he goes about trying to “catch the conscience of the king” (Act II, sc. II).  With events in motion, Hamlet has a visiting theater troop draft a play to fit a version of his father’s death, and learns from Claudius’s reaction that he indeed murdered his own brother, so that he might ascend the throne.  As one might guess, the rest of the story is an utter disaster with nearly everyone in the cast dying, except for Horatio, the loyal servant to Hamlet and his father, the King.

The Message

Deeply embedded under the revenge plot, though, lies a rich philosophical subtext for a topic so timeless, that it beseeches us even today.  In all of its shapes and forms, Hamlet (moreover the author Shakespeare) lays forth a discourse for what it means to be mortal.  “The undiscovered country” is how he refers to death, which fits even in today’s understanding for the topic; for death is the one aspect of life that remains to be truly and wholly understood.  It is not what happens so much to the physical shell of our bodies that he seeks to understand but more so the essence of our lives, the soul.  “Therein lies the rub” (so beautifully put in Act III)– what becomes of the human soul when our mortal bodies wither and die, no longer able to sustain our mental capacities?  Do we simply phase out to nothingness, our life experiences amounting to only what our physical bodies limit us to, or is there a part of us that lives on beyond our mortal means?  It is this question that makes Hamlet the enduring classic one would expect it to be.
The very first scene sets this discourse in motion, where Marcellus and Bernardo, two guards at their post, encounter the ghost of Hamlet’s recently deceased father during the witching hour (midnight).  His unrest, portrayed as supernatural and uncanny, sets the tension for the play.  Horatio, a dear friend to Prince Hamlet, is informed, and he reveals this dire news to the prince.  In Act I, scene IV, Horatio, Marcellus and Hamlet meet his father’s ghost in the courtyard, again during the witching hour, but Hamlet isn’t sure if this ghost is truly his father’s or some evil abomination attempting to trick him.  Curiosity getting the best of him, he steels himself to seeking out the truth, insisting to his companions that the apparition cannot harm his immortal soul, and thus confides in the spirit’s demands.  Here, Hamlet learns why the ghost is left in limbo, unable to transcend to a heavenly state, and he swears to avenge its demise.  With the tension mounting, this scene becomes a very important part of the plot, but it also challenges the viewers’ beliefs from the very beginning, regarding whether or not the human soul really is capable of an outerly state, such as one of that being lost in limbo or one that ascends to a divine state.

Contemplating Life

With the knowledge of his father’s demise at the hands of his uncle, who poisoned him while sleeping, the situation for Hamlet becomes difficult.  He is torn by the grief he has for his father’s death and for his mother’s contemptuous marriage to her husband’s brother.  Clearly, the king’s brother, Claudius, murdered him to usurp his throne.  Wrought by this knowledge and the helplessness he feels for his situation, Hamlet goes to his father’s tomb to seek advice, hoping to learn what he should do.  Mourning is seen as a natural part of life, contrary to what many in the play say to Hamlet for doing so.  The subtext that comes from this part of the play clearly shows Hamlet’s feelings for his father’s loss, but they also do more than reveal his own subjective views; moreover, they add to the discussion about death that seems to be mounting in the play.  This passage becomes one of the most famous soliloquies Shakespeare ever wrote: the beginning to Act III, scene I where Hamlet reasons and debates with himself the notion of suicide and the motivation of life.  The richness and depth of this passage is worth quoting in full, which goes as follows:

Hamlet:  To be, or not to be, — that is the question: —

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? — To die, — To sleep, —

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is hier to, — ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d.  To die, — to sleep; —

To sleep!  perchance to dream: — ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin?  who would fardels bear

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,–

The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns,– puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all (Act III, Sc. I, 1088).

To call death the eternal sleep and to wish it upon ourselves no sooner that it must is the struggle that Hamlet surveys in this soliloquy.  His conclusion is that regardless the miseries we face and are conscious of in life, we are not going to rush off to deal with miseries we know nothing about, for death, even today, is still a mystery.  Our conscience, the way we perceive life, is what keeps us from ending life prematurely, which Shakespeare so eloquently writes as making cowards of us all.  Therein lies a great paradox, being that we are born to die some day but that we endure life and embrace it, often with great fear for death.  This is what it means to be mortal, and coming to terms with this is easier said than done.

Perhaps it is as easy as looking death in the face, as the famous scene from the image above portrays.  To take a skull in the hand and to look upon its visage, to analyze its features, to imagine it with flesh and hair, to see it as a living and breathing person who once laughed and cried and experienced:  all of these things can leave one in a melancholy mood, especially knowing that it could one day be your own skull, but it raises some interesting questions about mortality.  Hamlet has such a moment during Act V, scene I where he happens upon a gravedigger playing flippantly with a skull.  He inquires of the man whose skull it once was, to which he answers a “whoreson mad fellow” it was– Yorick’s, the king’s jester.  Hamlet knew him as a child, and he becomes immediately fascinated by this skull, hence why he grips it and observes it the way he does.  But, his fascination for Yorick’s skull goes beyond having known him at one point when he seeks to compare it to the skulls of great men, like Alexander and Caesar.  Shakespeare writes:

Hamlet: Let me see. [Takes the skull.] — Alas, poor Yorick! — I knew him, Horation; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it.  Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.  Where be your gibes now?  your gambols?  your songs?… Pr’ythee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Horatio:  What’s that, my lord?

Hamlet: Dost thou think Alexander [the Great; inserted by author] looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?

Horatio: E’en so.

Hamlet: And smelt so? pah! [Throws down the skull]

Horatio: E’en so, my lord.

Hamlet: 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 returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away: O, that that earth which kept the world in awe Should patch a wall to expel the winter’s flaw! — (Act V, Sc. I, 1106-7).

It is one thing for Hamlet to find humor in knowing that the skull he holds in his hand belonged to a jester with whom he played with in court, but to lightheartedly compare that skull and to imagine it being the same for great men like Alexander and Julius Caesar seems to make a mockery of the actions we take in life.  To think that all mortal men return to the earth, regardless of their stature and fame during their lifetime, puts a different spin on the discourse about death seen up to this point in the play.  It suggests that no one is impervious to death; that death humbles the boldest and noblest of people; that we all end up the same in the end — ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Conclusion

The final scene in Hamlet is where the tragedy lies, in that everyone in the cast dies, except for Horatio.  His last lines to Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, and the English Ambassadors who happen upon the final scene, suggest that the story will live on beyond their mortal means.  Hamlet begs him in his final death woes to “tell my story –” and Horatio does just that to the young Fortinbras:  “You from the Polack wars, and you from England, / Are here arriv’d, give order that these bodies / High on a stage be placed to the view; / And let me speak to the yet unknowing world / How these things came about: so shall you / hear” (Act V, Sc. II, 1112).   The act of telling the story of Hamlet and his family takes them from the mortal realm, where the fleshly bodies are no more, into the immortal realm where storytelling and narrative carries them into the future.  After all, am I not writing about Shakespeare even now, some 450 years after his lifetime.  Are you not good reader thinking about Shakespeare at this moment, pondering what you know about him or this play?  Take this notion of memory and put it into a context you can relate to; think of someone who was once dear to you, to someone you were fond of or who you once loved?  Isn’t your memory of them but a kernel of immortality?  Do they not live on through you?  There have been generations of people who have lived and died on this planet, and we know of them and their lives through the memories we share with future generations to come, often in the written word.   Who am I but a mere mortal man, writing about another mortal man who lived beyond his time through his writing.  A dear friend of mine once told me: there are only two things that outlive us in our lifetime– our children and our written ideas.  Even great men become dust in the end, but their greatness lives on in the stories told about them generations later.  Shakespeare is a true testament to this — his plays, written down in the first folios and performed on countless stages over the past four centuries,  will forever be remembered as the greatest works of drama ever to come from the English language.  Is this not immortality?

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.”  The Complete Works. New York: Random House, 1997. 1071-1112.  Print. Image source: Lafayette, James. “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.” 1880-1885.  Wikipedia. Wikipedia, inc., 20 Aug. 2008. Web. 02 Apr. 2015.