So much of the journey of Hamlet and the people that inhabit his world is along the precipice and finally into the eternal plummeting of death. (It is juxtoposed beautifully by the experiences and ramifications of life, however for the purpose of this entry, I will focus on the aspect of the hereafter.)
Early on in the rehearsal process David Daniel (who plays Polonius in American Players Theatre‘s production of Hamlet) mentioned that, working on Shakespeare for so many years, one forgets that death is a pretty monumental and important thing. People are always dying in Shakespeare. We go to see one of his plays and it’s fairly par for the course; we almost expect it. But that’s not how we normally receive death in real life, nor is that how the characters receive it.
I think one of the reasons the play Hamlet is so compelling to us as a piece of great art is because it spends a tremendous amount of time contemplating the very thing we spend much of our lives trying to defy… the inevitable. We are designed that way, whether it is intelligently done so, or simply extraordinary coincidence is beside the point. We have just enough awareness of death to keep us checking ourselves as to how we are living.
My regular life checks: Am I eating well enough? nope. Am I getting the right amount of exercise? hardly. Have I accomplished enough for a man my age? never. Have I done right by my friends and family? always short of the line. Am I making the world a better place for my being a part of it? that’s way too much to contemplate. Then, the fears: Should I get this lump checked out? probably, but I’ll wait a bit, I hate doctor visits. My hips are getting bad and neither stretching, exercise, nor rest seems to make it any better; am I already falling apart? best not to think about it and stop complaining, others have it far worse. My phone gets rotten service, what if I get in an accident in the country and can’t call for help? stop it. What if I forget to shut off the stove, replace the batteries in the smoke detector, and sleep through a house fire? What if this plane crashes? What if my heart stops? What if I drown? What if a murderer comes? AAAAAGGGHHH. Then, what happens if I go? Will I be held accountable for my unfinished works? my regretful actions? Where do I go? Where are those loved ones that have gone before me? Which do I really find to be more comforting: that there is another “life” beyond this, or that a return to galactic stardust is the great unifier?
HAMLET: To what base uses we may return, Horatio. Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?
HORATIO: ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
And most of us stop there… because ’twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
But Shakespeare pushes us past that comfort zone and invites us to dare to peer into oblivion with him for a while. The play starts with the spirit of the dead King haunting the battlements. Then, we learn that Hamlet would kill himself if God had not made it a crime…
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!
Then the Ghost of Hamlet’s father speaks from beyond the grave and tells of purgatory…
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
And of death by murder…
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abus’d. But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
Then, the players arrive and Hamlet asks to hear them speak out a tale of murder and lament. This gives him the thought to test his uncle for evidence. Why test him? Because the fear of the unknown…
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this: the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
Then, of course Hamlet is in his deepest and most dangerous contemplation. “To be or not to be…” – suicide. We are currently playing this as if Hamlet is quite literally on the verge of committing the act itself. (It has been written about and discussed in so many formats and with so many perspectives that I want to say this… first and foremost WHO CARES WHAT I THINK? Just come see the play and see what YOU feel, what YOU end up thinking.) One thing I love about this speech is that it gets interrupted. Hamlet is not settled by the end of this great thought experiment. The contemplation is interrupted near it’s zenith by a temporal drama; the awareness of Ophelia, Hamlet’s one true love. He asks her to pray for him. Stepping down from the edge of suicide he begs for help in salvation…
Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia!—Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.
Following the play before the King, with which Hamlet clearly stikes a chord, Claudius finds himself fearing the afterlife for the crimes he has committed and attempts to pray for forgiveness…
O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murther’?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murther-
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain th’ offence?
He tries anyway and in his silent moment of attempted penance, Hamlet sees an opportunity to kill him, but decides not to because he does not want to send him to heaven. He wants his soul to journey to the fiery pits of hell instead…
Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent.
When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage;
Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t-
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes.
Then… Hamlet kills. In a fervor, he stabs Polonius through a curtain, thinking it is the King hiding behind the arras. After having a serious “come to Jesus” conversation with his mother he addresses his deed…
Once more, good night:
And when you are desirous to be bless’d,
I’ll blessing beg of you. For this same lord,
I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him.
This makes me think about Romeo’s line to Paris in the tomb… “Lay not another sin upon my head by urging me to a fury.” Hamlet, like Romeo in that moment, is carrying the burden of possessing a soul that is condemned to damnation. What may a man do once he has gone past the point of no return?…
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
Our next tip toe into the contemplations of death come out of a white hot collision between Hamlet & his Uncle, the King. He talks of Polonius being supper for worms. He makes the biggest revelation of all that we ALL end up food for worms…
Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.
Then while Hamlet is shipped off to be killed by the English authorities, under Denmark’s royal command, Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself in grief over the loss of a father killed my the man who broke her heart. How is death depicted surrounding Ophelia? The first, Gertrude’s elegant and loving description…
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
The second depiction is a little more ugly, her burial. Before we get to that though we learn that Hamlet escapes his “escorts” and returns to Denmark, where he meets with Horatio in a cemetery; continuing Shakespeare’s dark and relentless theme. The scene starts out with two grave diggers riddling one another about death, the nature of suicide, and the honorable professions of those who cater to the dead…
First Clown: What is he that builds stronger than either the
mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?
Second Clown: The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a 40
First Clown: I like thy wit well, in good faith: the gallows
does well; but how does it well? it does well to
those that do in: now thou dost ill to say the
gallows is built stronger than the church: argal,
the gallows may do well to thee. To’t again, come.
Second Clown: ‘Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or
First Clown: Ay, tell me that, and unyoke.
Second Clown: Marry, now I can tell.
First Clown: To’t.
Second Clown: Mass, I cannot tell.
First Clown: Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull
ass will not mend his pace with beating; and, when
you are asked this question next, say ‘a
grave-maker: ‘the houses that he makes last till
This is followed by a delicate but thorough interview with Hamlet on the nature of the temporal experience of death. Before the interview, however, Hamlet is startled to see such disrespect of the dead. He is in awe of the gravedigger’s casual morbid song and how he tosses the skulls to the ground with so little regard. Hamlet asks how long a man will lie in the earth before he rots. To which the gravedigger gives very practical and scientific responses regarding the saturation of the flesh by water – “a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.” At this very moment Hamlet meets and old friend, Yorick. He asks him to his “face”…
Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
To which there is no answer. Hamlet is left with “not one now to mock your own grinning.” Nothing. He is gone. What was Yorick is no longer Yorick. Hamlet starts the scene disturbed by the mockery of the dead, but by the end of this face to face encounter with the dead, he himself mocks the departed…
Now get you to my lady’s table, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.
A familiar theme arises again and Hamlet returns to the idea that great men as well as simple men all come to the same place in the end. He is in the marveling thought that Alexander the Great might be now stopping up a hole in a beer barrel when the body of Ophelia arrives in a shameful ceremony reserved for those that take their own lives. Those that die by their own hand are not considered worthy of a proper burial.
Now we are to a breaking point. We must find our way out of this life that has gotten too tangled, too ugly, too fraught with murder and madness. Hamlet tells his friend of how he had his other dear friends murdered. He rationalizes this not only by their own insinuation into his life in favor of the King’s desires but by act of divine intervention. He starts the scene with…
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will,–
Hamlet tells how he uncovered their commission for his death and how some divine intervention afforded him the means to turn the tables on them. He forges a new commission, in name of the King, asking for their death. When Horatio asks him how this was sealed (because without a royal seal, such a commission would not be carried out) Hamlet tells how some divine hand supplied him with the a seal…
Why, even in that was heaven ordinant.
I had my father’s signet in my purse,
Which was the model of that Danish seal;
After all that has transpired, weighing all the crimes done against him, Hamlet FINALLY asks another living person for validation of his cause in killing Claudius. “Is it not perfect conscience to quit him with this arm?” Horatio does not get time to answer as a challenge is set before Hamlet to have a “gentleman’s duel” with Laertes. Many unfortunate events collapse here at the end of Hamlet. We enter the scene with Horatio and Hamlet sensing the imminent doom. Horatio offers to stop the events to which Hamlet responds in the most zen-like poetic piece of prose ever written in western literature…
Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes. Let be.
In the collapse of life that follows Laertes begs for mutual forgiveness at the point of his death…
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.
Hamlet complies, bids his mother adieu, and makes his way to the undiscovered country with one last thought on his mind… “tell my story.” He can not go without the assurance from Horatio that his wrongs will be righted in the eyes of the living. Because, after all…
The rest, is silence.