Hamlet and the Memento of Death

When the Renaissance brought about a rebirth of many of the philosophies and customs of antiquity, it resurrected the ancient stoical idea that by mediation upon death one might be able to come to terms with it and pass beyond grieving into a more rational relationship with the dead. Of course, even prior to the Renaissance, the culture of the middle ages had certainly been preoccupied with death. "More than any other period in history, the late middle ages were preoccupied with the thought of death," writes Henry Jacob in his book on Memento Mori and Shakespeare. He goes on to explain that during the middle ages, individuals lived with the constant reminder of mortality; they faced plagues and wars, famines and frequent problems with child birthing and high infant mortality - not to mention the constant slaughter and harvest implicit in farming life. Death was ubiquitous. As Jacobs describes the history, the medieval consciousness countered the horror of their daily lives and deaths with the hope of heaven, and the idea that death was only the doorway into another world. In this context the phrase Memento Mori, roughly translated "remember your death," was evoked to recall to mind the inevitability of death. A tradition and ideology came to surround this theme, which Jacobs divides into three parts: the meditation on death, the art of death, and the dance of death. The meditation was a reflection on dying, rotting and decay, and the skull. The art of death was, predictably, art that portrayed these themes and revealed the universality of death. The dance of death was not a physical trotting about, but rather the metaphor/image of a leader such as a pope or king being led by a dancing skeleton down into death, followed by all his subjects - it portrayed the idea that all would die, even the powerful. Shakespeare's masterpiece Hamlet can be seen as drawing strongly from this tradition. The entire play may be seen as embodying the concept of Memento Mori, and through it runs the imagery of the meditation and the mirror, of the art and dance of death.

The way in which all of Hamlet serves as a sort of meditation upon the theme of death is relatively and apparently obvious. The story begins with a funeral, and the appearance of a ghost who metaphorically proceeds to lead the your prince and all those about him in macabre dance. Through every scene and every act, there is a constant preoccupation with death, as Hamlet obsesses over the decay of his Father and the decay of the living state itself. Death follows death as Hamlet in his rage kills Polonius, orders the deaths of his childhood friends Rosencratz and Guildenstern, literally falls into the grave of his lover who has killed herself, caresses the skull of a former mentor - the play ends with the cataclysmic deaths of all the main characters except Horatio and Fortinbras (and one would be hard pressed to argue for them as main characters!). Yet a high death toll is not enough to bring home the way in which this is a meditation on death. It is the language itself which displays this fascination with death, for one notices the constant use of anatomical and physical terms through out the play is coupled with obsessive references to sickness, decay, and dissolution. The themes of sickness date to the very beginning of the play, when Francisco says, "I am sick at heart" and the ghost appears to be hailed as an omen like those of Rome, "sick almost to doomsday with eclipse." The rotting sense is continued even in the speeches which are not made by the loquatious Hamlet, as Marcelus says "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Even the King and Queen become almost stereotypical forms of the Memento Mori art, for both urge Hamlet to understand that death is "common," and that all fathers and all people must die.

Of course, Hamlet is the most obvious voice of the play, and the one who most frequently gives voice to the sense of the Memento Mori theme. His speeches are full of "powerful words" in which the themes of the anatomical body, of disease and rotting and death are "actualized." (Ewbank) for example, in the very beginning before he has even witnessed the ghost he wishes "O that this too solid flesh would melt..." This idea of dissolution is quickly transformed into a more grotesque and anatomical imagery, until even speaking of himself he refers not to limbs but to "sinews" in his discussion with the ghost. As he comes face-to-face with the afterlife, he begins to objectify himself as a body rather than a being. This is made more obvious when the very next scene in which he appears, he begins to refer madly to maggots and walking out of the air into his grave. From that point forward, the theme of death is continually on his lips. He puzzles whether life is even worth living, and considers death to be welcomed were it not for his lack of faith which makes him uncertain of his end. He speaks not of heaven (the themes of Memento Mori generally neglected that aspect in favor of considering the fate of the abandoned body, but Hamlet does speak not infrequently of worms and their diet, and the progress of rot. "We fat ourselves for maggots," he says, and likewise speaks of how all will return to dust.

As something of an aside, it should be mentioned that Hamlet's reflections on death, as portrayed at the beginning of Act Three, have a great deal in common with Cicero's famous arguments regarding mourning. In one of the classic Memento Mori texts, Cicero is reported as saying that we much always remember our deaths by remembering that we are human, and hence "born under a law which renders our life a target for all the slings and arrows of fortune, and it is not for us to refuse to live under the conditions of our birth, nor to resent so impatiently the misfortunes we can by no process of forethought avoid, but, by recalling to mind what has befallen others, to induce the reflection that what has happened to ourselves is nothing new." (in: Bottum) This is almost directly paraphrased, and questioned, by Hamlet in his speech, which proceeds more poetically to say that "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. / ... conscience does make cowards of us all."

Yet though there are many ways in which the wording and action is obviously obsessed with death, and the plot bound up in making the audience remember that death visits all, there are also very particular ways in which the word choice invokes the particulars of the Memento Mori ideology which are not so readily apparent.

One of the most important aspects of the ideology was that humans should reflect upon and consider death in all their waking days. The verb reflect is not ideally chosen, for there existed a re-occuring theme in the genre of mirrors and the way in which facing one's self in the mirror was a way of facing one's mortality. In Hamlet this meaning of reflection is consistently used, so much so that when Jeffery Triggs went to write about Memento Mori he actually chose Hamlet's visual stance holding the skull of Yurick as an archetype of the posing of the self in a traditional Memento Mori picture or portrayal. Of the idea of reflection, Triggs wrote: " [in the] memento mori motif, the pose of Hamlet can be seen in three distinct though interrelated forms: a man or woman contemplating a skull, a man contemplating the head of a statue, and a woman gazing at a mirror. The skull and mirror function interchangeably as truth-tellers and reminders of time and death." The man contemplating a skull is obviously apparent in Hamlet. It would be difficult to miss that scene, as it is one of the most parodied and stereotyped moments in the play. (the others would include Hamlet's "To be or not to be -- " speech which is, not incidentally, also a prime example of this same reflection) Hamlet cradles the skull of a departed jester, and graphically imagines the connection between the bones and the lips that once hung upon them. Yet he also becomes, after a fashion, the skeleton that holds a mirror to the face of the women in this play, and forces them to confront their own mortality as well. This is quite blatantly done, and actualized in his words, in his scene with Gertrude, where he says, "You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you." The language is so laid…