tragedy

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.

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Review of “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala [Audio]

WaveI don’t know what compelled me to download this book to read it.  I remember how shocking it was to learn about Sri Lanka and many of the other islands devastated by a tsunami caused by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake on 26 December, 2004.  I remember the shock and awe from watching  the news that Christmas holiday, as footage revealed beach-front homes being washed away in a matter of minutes.  One video that I remember was taken from the vantage point of a two-story building in the center of some town, where survivors of the rapidly advancing flood waters took cover in elevated places, watching and filming the street below as it channeled this massive and forceful current of muddy, oceanic water — cars and felled trees floating through the street with the slightest of resistance.  The vehement water took no notice to obstacles, destroying virtually everything in its path.  Those people caught in the aftermath, who weren’t drowned or killed by the suddenness of the tsunami, were displaced from their homes, traumatized by the experience of the Indian ocean assaulting the beachfront like an angry god, a conqueror, laying claim to the island for itself.

I think this is what intrigued me, lured me even, to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of those events.  I remember watching in disbelief as that force of nature devastated most of the coastal regions throughout that part of the Indian ocean and Indonesia.   Knowing this, and finding this book available at the library for download only set my curiosity in motion.  I had to read this book.  I wanted to know about this survivor, about what she endured, what she went through.  Reading the plot synopsis could have never prepared me for the vivid imagery of her experiences there in that beachfront hotel as the tsunami struck.  Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming account she tells of the ocean yanking her free of the jeep she rode to escape in with her family.  No — nothing could have warned me of the deep and awful pain of her loss, as she realizes that both of her parents, her two sons, and her husband — all of whom she was on vacation with for the holidays — would be lost to her forever.  This book, this memoir, has revealed something to me that no Gothic story could ever do:  ghosts do exist. They haunt through the memories of those who have suffered terrible and tragic loss from sudden and traumatic experiences.

I can understand why this heart-wrenching book was disliked by some readers, as this book is not for the faint of heart.  It is emotionally draining to think about her loss, and I feel this has a lot to do with the way the book has been seen by some readers.  To date, the social media website, Goodreads, reveals that this book was rated with 3-stars or less by 26 percent of readers within its community, from a pool totaling 4,917 people.  When singling out a few of those negative reviews, one reader saw it difficult to relate to the author, in saying that, “Wave is compelling, and extremely well written, but is just page after page of pain” (Greg).   Another reader confessed that “it’s hard to make a negative comment about this book without coming across as hard hearted…but I found it really hard to empathise with the author as she came across as cold, selfish and spoilt [sic]… I would hope that most people wouldn’t be as callous as she” (Avidreader).  Another commenter agreed with this reader, stating how, “I kept wondering throughout this admittedly well-written memoir how the thousands of others who lost families with less means made it through their grief…. I really liked and enjoyed the writing, but didn’t have much sympathy for the author because of this” (Lisa).  Some even go so far as to attribute Deraniyagala’s lack of empathy for those around her in the earlier parts of her memoir, when she was clearly in shock from her experiences, as a sign of her stature and wealthy status, what with her being a learned economics scholar from Cambridge and Oxford universities.  While I cannot attest to how this book will affect you, good reader, should you decide to pick it up and read it for yourself, I can say that the brutal honesty Deraniyagala writes in this book is not to appeal to you, as readers, in some way, but it is more for herself.   This memoir is about healing; it is about coming to terms with grief and living with those ghosts that haunt her.

Compound the loss of her entire family to that fateful Sunday morning with the traumatic experience of facing near death, herself, and you find this book is about expressing that which she cannot bring herself to express.  Throughout much of the memoir, she is reluctant to tell anyone of her experience, of her loss, for fear of letting too much reveal itself.  She doesn’t want to recall those painful memories, doesn’t want people to get too close to her, to pity her.  As Deraniyagala writes, “I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate.”  And she is right.  How can anyone imagine such a surreal tragedy?  How could anyone possibly endure such  terrible loss and still remain a sane person?  How can we as readers relate to her experience and say we truly understand her situation?  Unless you have personally suffered too, there is no way to do this.  If you read this book, you are merely along for the ride.  This is her struggle with grief and the trauma of her survival when all others failed to do so; you might even add a dash of survivor’s guilt because of this, as a few points in the book tend to reveal.

The imagery she weaves all throughout the memoir is haunting; the memories of her boys, of her husband, resonate all throughout the book, intermingling with her attempts to reminisce the life she once had.  Yet, she can never return to those moments before the tsunami.  As one critic for the New Yorker wrote: “‘Wave’ is really two stories in one.  The second story is about remembering the life of a family when they were happy.  The first is about the stunned horror of a woman who lost, in one moment, her past, present, and future” (Cole).  We get both experiences running parallel throughout the story as Deraniyagala asks herself questions like “Was I their mother?”  She tells us about other moments — intensely, emotionally rich moments, where she reveals insights into her previous life and what it was like to return to it:

I’ve pushed away thoughts of my children’s everyday hurts and fears, suggestions of their frailty and tenderness.  It’s easier to remember my boys with humor or to recall their cheek.  But now as I dare to peer more closely at them, they emerge more whole.

For years I’ve told myself it’s pointless to cherish my children’s personalities and their passions, for they are now dead.  But here in our home I am surrounded by proof of it all.  I unlock my mind a little and allow myself to know the wonder of them.

Deraniyagala repeatedly confides in her memorial to her family such revealing moments, where she seeks to come to terms with herself and the past she once had with her family.  The details she includes, ranging from the mud still on the doormat that would have been from her husband’s boots to the sounds of distant laughter resonating throughout a room, sounds from a time before the wave changed everything, seems to suggest what Cathy Caruth reveal as the enigmatic and confounding nature of trauma, in that we have not only confronted death, but we “hav[e] survived, precisely, without knowing it” (original emphasis, 64). Flashbacks from moments in the past return to haunt a survivor, often repeatedly, making it incomprehensible, she argues, to understand one’s own survival.  Linking this to Freud’s theory on the life and death drive, Caruth tells us that it is not the incomprehensibility of survival that creates an imposition for death, but a traumatic ‘awakening’ to life (64).  As a survivor, realizing one’s near-death experiences often leaves a person with little to no preparations for such moments, and the impact of this, the “failing to return to the moment of a [person’s] act of living” changes the future for that individual.  For Deraniyagala, her grief for the loss of family is what keeps her from moving on; it is the source of her personal trauma.  Her memories frequently haunt her, and the fact that she wrote this book nearly 9 years after-the-fact is a sign that she is still coming to terms with her loss but is nevertheless learning to live again.

There are moments in her writing where Deraniyagala tells us about shying away from or  utterly avoiding people who inquire about her family.  Only her closest friends know about her situation, and through them, she sees her boys grow older, the daughters of her London friends, an example of this.  She dreads their birthdays because the pain of knowing they’re no longer alive is too tormenting, always referring to each in the tense “would be.”  Whenever she is placed on the spot and someone asks about her family or her parents, she attempts to get out of answering their questions, a point she motions in the book as having caused a “pickle” when seeing the person a second time around.  “How are your parents?”  She would be asked, to which her response was “they’re fine,” always afraid to go into anymore detail than this.  But, this changes by the end of the book.  She confesses that it may have been the mojitos that loosened her up to reveal what she does, but she confides in a stranger, an inquisitive old Jewish man, asking about her family life, and this moment, much like the writing of this very book, is what reveals to us that she has found peace within herself and can move on with her life.  She tells us that it is becoming easier for her to live with the memories of her two boys and her husband, and that there is life beyond suffering.  One only has to endure to learn it.

I will be thinking about this woman’s story for a long time to come.  The use of the personal pronoun I not only makes it Deraniyagala’s story, but it makes it my own, and I cannot help but mourn the loss of her family with her, while celebrating the time I have now with my own.

Works Cited

Avidreader. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Cole, Teju. “A Better Quality of Agony.”  The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Deraniyagala, Sonali. Wave. New York: A.A Knopf, division of Random House, Inc., 2013. Digital Media Library. Audiobook. 17 Mar. 2014.

Lisa. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.