Death Before Glory: Death and Its Influence in Hamlet

It constantly fascinates me that the human race is so obsessed with death. It is the one constant and one of the most difficult unknowns to make sense of. Throughout literature, from the Greeks, to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, to Hemingway, Plath, and all the way to Shakespeare, death reigns supreme. Shakespeare explores death’s influence on the living throughout Hamlet. From the very opening scene and the appearance of King Hamlet’s ghost, we are driven into a world obsessed with death and obsessed with its influence. From Hamlet, to Ophelia, all the way to Fortinbras II, the appearance of death’s hold in one form or another is always apparent in the minds and lives of the characters. It is most notably (and also extremely apt), in Act 5.1, the scene in the graveyard (the final resting place).

Early in the scene we get somewhat of a prologue. The first clown (gravedigger), mentions that the beginning of his employment was signified by the death of Fortinbras I by the sword of Hamlet I. We also know Hamlet I has been haunting his son and others throuout the course of the play. As the scene progresses we see the characters completely consumed by even more ghosts (not physical spectres this time but death in the form of memory and loss, which can be even more powerful). In his famous speech to Horatio regarding “poor Yorick”, Hamlet laments upon innocence and happiness lost. He contrasts Yorick’s life of “infinite jest” and “most excellent fancy” with what he is now, “chop-fallen”! This is only the beginning, as he the proceeds to rant about how even the greatest of champions, like Alexander and Julius Caesar, run their courses and then eventually end up as dust. This is a very interesting speech that Hamlet gives because it is very much a paradox to how he has acted up to this point. He has been haunted by his father’s ghost and has dealt directly with a human corpse (Polonius), but here he trivializes that now the mighty dead have been made into plaster good enough to fill a hole in the wall. This seems strange coming from a man obsessed with the dead and exacting revenge upon his dead father’s murderers. This reminds me of any period of mourning. Emotions usually run high, memories tend to consume our thoughts and the recently deceased never leave our presences until we decide that we cannot keep going on in that way. Sometimes that realization never comes and we die in mourning. Like Hamlet, many of us grieve and seek retribution, and sometimes even in a maddening way.

Also in the graveyard are Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes, mourning the death of Ophelia. Her grave has been dug and as they are about to close it up forever. Laertes and Hamlet decide to let their longing for Ophelia turn the funeral into bedlam. They both jump into the grave and proclaim their love for her, (Laertes going as far as exclaiming “Hold off the earth a while, Till I have caught her once more in mine arms.”). Hamlet exclaims that they will both be interred with her and will fight for her love even after death. This of course is madness, but it just goes to show us that even the idea of death can lead us to preposterous choices. And death follows us all the way to the end of the play, with a bloodbath fit for royalty alone. As Shakespeare moved into the Jacobean era, the presence of the macabre and the obsession with death will become even more apparent. But Hamlet was a significant turning point in his career. First performed at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Hamlet signified in Shakespeare’s work, a fascination that would only strengthen moving forward.

Action v. Inaction: Laertes v. Hamlet

Hamlet and Laertes are in similar circumstances throughout Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Both men of around the same age, Laertes and Hamlet come into conflict during the play because Hamlet (accidentally) murdered Polonius, Laertes’s father. This becomes a distinct similarity between the two men because Hamlet’s father was also murdered. Hamlet has been asked, by his father’s ghost, to avenge his murder but Hamlet fears acting on impulse alone; Laertes does not need to be told to take revenge but instead intends to spring into action immediately after he hears that Hamlet has killed is father.

Hamlet’s most famous speech begins, “To be, or not to be; that is the question:”; while Hamlet is referring to taking his own life in this soliloquy, he is contemplating his ability to act as a whole. Hamlet is so unsure of his ability to murder his uncle that he believes it may be better to take his own life. In killing his uncle, Hamlet is committing treason which means his path to revenge is more or less a suicide mission. Hamlet goes on to say, “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,” (3.1.59-62). I interpret these lines as Hamlet asking whether it is worth the worry and suffering to kill his uncle, or if it will be as useless as attempting to fight the ocean only to lose. Hamlet then says says, “To die, to sleep-/ No more, and by a sleep to say we end/ The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to-’tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wished,” (3.1.62-66); he is almost longing for death, asking to sleep for eternity. Hamlet equates the heart’s suffering to the “thousand natural shocks” that humans are handed from generation to generation. By saying death is “consummation”, Hamlet relates dying to having sex after one is married. This metaphor is directly related to the pleasure that he believes dying would bring him.

The speech that Laertes makes about his plans for revenge is completely different from Hamlet’s speech. Laertes proclaims, “I will do’t,” (4.7.112); this bold, blunt and determined statement is evidence enough of the juxtaposition between Laertes and Hamlet: there is nothing wishy-washy about Laertes’s opening line. He then goes on to say, “And for that purpose I’ll anoint my sword./ I bought an unction of a mountebank/ So mortal that, but dip a knife in it, Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,/ Collected from all simples that have virtue/ Under the moon, can save the thing from death/ That is but scratched withal,” (4.7.113-118). Every word that Laertes speaks is in relation to his determination and references the action he is going to perform. Where Hamlet talks of sleeping and wishing he were dead in order to save him from doing what his father’s ghost has asked him to do, Laertes is ready to fight. Before this speech is given, Laertes wanted “To cut his throat i’th’ church”. This powerful and sacrilegious act that Laertes wants to perform juxtaposes Hamlet’s inability to kill his uncle while Claudius is praying. Instead of being frightened that Hamlet will not go to hell, Laertes wants to kill Hamlet in the most unholy and gruesome way he can.

Although the two men want the same thing, Laertes is more interested in taking action and while Hamlet calculates and schemes in order to enact his plan successfully. Both men’s fates are discovered at the end when both end up dead by the other’s hand. I suppose you could argue that both men are successful as they each avenge the deaths of their fathers…

A Document in Madness

In act 4 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Laertes comments on his sister Ophelia, who has fallen into insanity, by saying her antics are a “document in madness.” No other quote in the play characterizes as pointedly the text altogether. Obviously, Hamlet is a testament to the statement. Hamlet’s behavior throughout the play is documented by the characters around him as nonsensical. For example, how Ophelia reports his behavior to Polonius. Ophelia states that Hamlet, upon entering her room, looked as if “he had been loosed out of hell.” (2.1.1040) Lord Polonius chalks his disheveled behavior up to heartbreak, but this is one of the first instances where Hamlet is described as being “mad,” which Lord Polonius calls him in 2.1.1070. Readers understand at this point in the play that Hamlet has devised this characterization of himself, so the behavior he exhibits isn’t totally surprising. As the play progresses, though, the line in which Hamlet is pretending to be mad or whether he actually is mad blurs. An instance of this ambiguity between Hamlet’s self and devised self occurs in 3.4, where Hamlet kills Polonius, barrages his mother with insults (after the ghost of his father specified in act 1 not to leave her alone), and sees the ghost of his father again. Polonius’ death may have been an accident, but it shows how mad Hamlet has become, and consequently how carelessly he acts on things outside the realm of his goal. As upset as Hamlet is about his mother’s hasty remarriage, his main goal is to avenge his father by killing Claudius. Hamlet sidetracks himself by approaching his mother and pressing her guilt in 3.4. The ghost that Hamlet sees in this scene, a ghost that his mother doesn’t see (and no one else has “scene” since, other than Hamlet) even redirects Hamlets aggression by saying “Do not forget. This visitation/Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.” Hamlet’s purpose is even looked upon by the ghost of his father as dull, misdirected, and confused here. Hamlet’s display of misdirection, something his Father’s ghost witnesses, is even considerably “mad.” Hamlet has blurred the border between himself and who he’s pretending to be so much that the emotions of his actual being have convoluted the goals of his “antic disposition” (1.5.925).

Hamlet isn’t the only mad character in the play, though. In act 4, Ophelia parades around Gertrude, Claudius, and even Laertes, mostly in song. The stage direction dictates that Ophelia enters the scene as “distracted,” before she begins singing about the death of her father and her loss of love. This scene is, again, where Laertes says that her behavior is a “document in madness.” Not only are the readers able to understand this about Ophelia’s behavior, but the characters around her see it, too. In 4.7, it’s learned that Ophelia has drowned, whether she has killed herself or not, the death is a result of her own new found madness. She is “distracted.” She is distracted from the people around her, as well as the things surrounding her, madness making her ill-equipped in taking care of herself.

Furthermore, the premise that Gertrude and Claudius would marry so quickly after King Hamlet’s death is another trait of madness in the play. Neither character considers having a respectful amount of time between the funeral of King Hamlet and then the union between Gertrude and Claudius. Even madder is, as is learned after Hamlet meets the ghost, that Claudius killed King Hamlet. Subsequently, Claudius falsely, evading the consequences of his treasonous actions, inherits the crown and kingdom. Both of which, because Claudius killed King Hamlet, should be Hamlet’s, the original king’s heir.
The subtitles, “a document of madness,” isn’t only applicable to Hamlet. Arguably, this subtitle can be placed along with the titles of any of Shakespeare’s tragedies, as they deal contingently with the disruption of natural order. In writing Laertes line in act 4, Shakespeare seems to have redefined the genre of his tragic plays or, at least, found a more poignant subtit

Hamlet’s Strange Strategy

For my second time around reading Hamlet and especially after reading some plays with masters of rhetoric, I can’t help but find how ridiculous Hamlet’s plan to fake insanity (at least in the beginning of the play) just to both receive the chance to confront his uncle and mother about their marriage, but also the potential to murder his uncle, Claudius. After meeting whom he is convinced with utmost certainty is his father’s ghost, Hamlet is resolved to do as he describes “to put on an antic disposition” (1.5. 173) as a means of confronting his mother and uncle about what he sees as an incestuous marriage and the sheer lack of respect that his father got when he died. Hamlet’s blindness to all else but this one desire is astounding as even before he decides that the way he is going to enact his plan by faking madness, he decides “Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain unmixed with baser matter” (1.5. 97-104). After coming in contact with his father’s ghost, Hamlet decides that all he knows and does in unimportant compared to avenging his father’s death, going to far as to say that he removes all other information and experiences from his mind so that he can be fully dedicated to his mission and enact it without any form of distraction. Despite Hamlet’s dedication, I still find it odd that he would be so indirect with his means of confronting Claudius and Gertrude. From his interactions with others and especially with his soliloquies, Hamlet is shown to be fairly clever and witty with some of his word choice and could potentially sway others with his words, such as getting Horatio and the others to swear not to give away his plan. Granted Hamlet is not to Richard III, Antony’s, or even Iago’s level of rhetoric it still stands that he could have potentially used language as a means of confronting his family without having to go through such an elaborate and at times over winded plot. At the same time however, Hamlet (at least in my view) is meant to show what can happen to a character when they become too driven, especially by grief, and see what the end results can be when they simply refuse to let go of the past and move on.

“Peace Ho! Let Us Hear Him”

From my own personal acting standpoint, there is not a more compelling character in all of Shakespeare to play than Marc Antony in  The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. He is strong, decisive, charismatic, cunning, and passionate. From scene to scene we see a beautiful character arc from Antony. For one who may never have read the play, it’s incredible to see his rise from act one all the way up through act three, where he takes control, until the end of the play. Early on, we see him as a nobleman who is in favor of Julius Caesar: “when Caesar says do this it is performed (Act 1.2, 12-13).” He is barely a factor at all in the first half of the play. But then in Act three he comes in with a vengeance that truly marks him as the great hero of classical antiquity. In act 3.1, we see Antony dominate the scene after the conspirators have had their fun rejoicing over their slain ruler, Julius Caesar. He comes in and silences them. To have that kind of power on stage is truly an incredible feat, in itself, being able to silence a room, let alone an entire crowd, which Antony does later in the act. From the end of act three, scene one all the way through scene two, Antony undergoes a huge amount of character development. After the conspirators leave the senate building and he is left with Caesar’s bloody corpse to convey to his funeral, he laments over Caesar. He tells him: “O pardon me thou bleeding piece of Earth/that I am meek and gentle with these butchers…(3.1, 257-258).” With these opening lines to this soliloquy, Antony shows his vulnerability. He is apologizing to Caesar. He is saying: how could I have let this happen? He then praises Caesar: “thou are the ruins of the noblest man/that ever lived in the tide of times (3.1, 259-260).” And from there he goes straight to work. He gets his lament out of the way and then he begins to prophecise a curse that will come to all over Rome, as he cries “havoc”. With this speech we get to see deeper into the heart and mind of Marc Antony. He is alone onstage, save for Caesar’s corpse. We, the audience, in that moment get to live through the pain and anguish with him, as he develops his plan to avenge Caesar’s death. Here we get the raw, visceral, human emotions that tend to spew in the wake of a shocking discovery. In the following scene, we get to see more to Antony’s complex personality, in his recitation of one of the greatest speeches ever written.

In act three, scene two, we get to see the great orator at work. If this speech didn’t coin the term “voice of a generation”, I don’t know what did. This speech encapsulates everything about why I have always wanted to be an actor. Not only does it have the greatest opening line: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”, but his emotion and persuasiveness and charisma, really cement this for me. And the language that Shakespeare uses to gain our sympathies is astounding: “The evil that men do lives after them;/The good is oft interred with their bones./So let it be with Caesar.” Right now, on this day, the evil of Caesar may be hovering over us, but we must remember why we all followed him. The good has yet to be buried. Let us avenge him. He even goes as far as to conjure some manipulation in order to sway the crowd in his favor. When he proclaims his heart is in the coffin with Carsar at the end of the speech, he is asking for not only sympathy for Carsar but sympathy for himself, in order to drive his objective home. His use of repetition in the speech, suggests a tactical approach to win the crowd’s favor. Each time a new inflection or meaning is placed on the repeated word or phrase (“Brutus is an honorable man.”). He is easing the audience into sympathizing with himself and Caesar by gradually building his speech with a plethora of emotion, but a repetition of key phrases. The speech is a masterpiece in its own right, bug it is hard to think of this play and not instantly remember how important it is.

The Public and the Private in Julius Caesar

One thing that stood out to me both in the reading of the text and our discussions in class was the difference between public and private space. The difference affects the opinions, or strength of the opinions of many of the characters. This first time this came up in our group discussion when we were trying to find justification for the double report of Portia’s death. I mentioned that it may have something to do between the difference between public and private spaces. Cassius and Brutus have a tight relationship; and when Brutus tells Cassius of Portia’s death, they are in a private space (4.2.199). There is room for them to mourn, and when Lucius enters, Brutus immediately asks Cassius to put the news and the grief aside (4.2.210). 4.2.239-245 shows a public response to her death, where Messala tells him to take the news “like a Roman.” Brutus’ response here is much less emotional and Messala says that this response is what Romans expect of someone as great as Brutus. This differentiation between public and private is especially present in 2.1, when Brutus is repeatedly interrupted in his private thoughts. His first soliloquy also includes the difference between the personal and the political. Much of Brutus’s reluctance to kill Caesar comes from his friendship with him. He insists that his actions were completely motivated by the politics, not the personal. In 3.2, we see that there is danger Brutus’ separation of the public and the private. His funeral oration for Caesar is almost completely reliant on logos and ethos. There is a bit of an appeal to the friendship that Brutus and Caesar shared but Brutus claims that the public good was more important than private grief, and so diminishes the impact of that appeal. After he leaves, Mark Antony gives his funeral oration, which takes up the rest of the scene, and completely turns the Roman citizens against Brutus and the other conspirators. He’s able to do this by constantly putting emphasis on the personal rather than the political. He first acknowledges Brutus and the other men, and gives sound reasons against the claim that Caesar was ambitious. He quickly moves on to appeal to the emotional core of the citizens. He begins to cry, and says “Bear with me./ My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,/ and I must pause till it come back to me” (3.2.102-104). The plebeians opinions are changed already, and they begin to side with Mark Antony. Later he de-mystifies Caesar, and stirs the plebeians to rage by showing Caesar’s dead body (3.2.191-196). He then creates a personal bond between each of the citizens and Caesar by reading the will in which Caesar named all the Roman citizens his heirs (3.2.231-241). In Mark Antony and Brutus we see a blend of the personal and the political triumph over the separation of the two. This difference in behavior colors the play, with Antony making emotion public, and Brutus keeping it private. It is a major reason why the conspirators do not get away with their murder of Caesar, and the only moment where Brutus truly blends the public and the private is his death. He takes away political victory from Octavius and Antony while simultaneously settling his own personal troubles.

Antony: He was a rhetorical man

To start, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has an altogether remarkable reputation (that’s not the word I want to use, but I’ll try and think of something better as I go along). I’ve never read Julius Caesar before studying it in this class, but there are numerous quotes that I immediately recognized throughout the play. Some of which I hadn’t known even came from the text. For example, “Beware the ides of March.” (the Soothsayer to Caesar, 1.2.103) or “The fault, dear Brutus…” (1.3140). The most prominent, most recognizable part of the text for me, though, has been Marc Antony’s speech to the plebeians after Caesar’s death. Being able to recognize any of the play’s lines without having read the play says a lot about Shakespeare’s infinitely influential craft: how it continuously affects modern culture and can be studied out of context of itself. I’ve studied sections of his speech before in other courses (the first time during a craft of poetry course), but my appreciation for it now is much more significant than it had been previously. Being able to read the speech in context of Julius Caesar’s plot (being able to juxtapose it with Brutus’ speech) adds dimension and an understanding that I hadn’t been able to contextualize, making Antony’s rhetoric immensely more impressive.
It’s no secret that Antony’s speech is probably one of Shakespeare’s most incredibly written instances of decisive rhetorical set up and delivery. The most effective tool Marc Antony uses throughout his oration for Caesar is repetition, the most repeated phrases having to do with Caesar’s “ambition” and Brutus’ “honor.” The repetition of these sort of tropes is responsible for the sarcastic irony that eventually drips from Antony’s speech. As he repeats and emphasizes that “Caesar was ambitious” and that “Brutus is an honourable man,” Antony effectively changes the contextual meaning of each adjective (ambitious, honourable) subsequently swaying the plebeians’ anti-Caesar mindset (as presented by Brutus’ calling him ambitious) into a pro-Caesar, anti-Brutus one, instead.
Antony starts by announcing that he has “come to bury Caesar” (3.2.73), then continues from line 76 to 79, saying that Brutus
Hath told [the plebeians] Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.
This speech seems to begin as an argument for Brutus, an argument against Caesar. Caesar was ambitious, ambitious leads to tyranny, thus ambition is a flaw and Caesar had to be killed because of it: Brutus is honourable for knowing this and conspiring against Caesar. There’s a concealed and calculated sarcasm deeply rooted in Antony’s rhetoric, though. He knows he has to build his appeal to the plebeians slowly, he has to allow them to realize for themselves that Caesar was ambitious, but not with any sort of evil intent. So, he is subversive in seeming to be agreeable to the motives presented by Brutus. But, Antony slowly reveals that Caesar, according to his will, wants the people of Rome paid 75 ducats each– he wants the best for the people, when “the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept.” (3.2.88) Antony is even rhetorically manipulative in using a stronger verb to describe Caesar’s crying in comparison to the poor people. Caesar didn’t just cry, he wept– he was dramatically compassionate in sympathizing with the poor. Caesar’s ambition isn’t tyrannical, then, it’s nearly saintly. In fact, maybe Caesar wasn’t ambitious at all, as Antony says: “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.” (3.2.89). Antony has redefined ambition ironically, first it was a sinister trait, but now, as ambition becomes synonymous with Caesar’s pious sense of respect for the people, Antony has passively made clear that if Caesar was ambitious, it was something more honourable than Brutus previously interpreted.
Antony’s rhetorical pivoting builds line after line during his oration, and doing it the analytical justice it deserves here might be impossible, but that proves further how deft and how sound his speech really is. Shakespeare’s plays can easily make up a curriculum on rhetoricians from Iago and Othello, to Richard III, to Brutus and Antony, and so on. Antony may very well be at the center of such a course, though.

Beware the Ides of March: The Signs and Symbols of Julius Caesar

The characters in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar are faced with signs and symbols that create an atmosphere of fear and superstition. However, these symbols are interpreted and often reinterpreted to be less than ominous. Caesar and Brutus are the two characters that are struggling to find a balance between logic and reason and the supernatural and superstitious. This struggle is most evident when both characters are faced with obvious magic and voodoo.

The Soothsayer’s warning is the first evidence of the supernatural; he warns, “Beware the ides of March,” (1.2.23). Caesar is interested in listening to what the Soothsayer has to say, but does not heed his warning with much caution. When the ides of March finally arrives, Calphurnia has a prophetic dream which Caesar recounts to Decius Brutus: “Calphurnia here, my wife, stays me at home: She dreamt to-night she saw my statua,/ Which, like a fountain with a hundred spouts,/ Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans/ Came smiling, and did bath their hands in it:/ And these does she apply for warnings and portents,/ And evils imminent; and on her knee/ Hath begg’d that I will stay at home to-day,” (2.2.85-92). The certain doom that Calphurnia feels for her husband after having this predictive dream is not reflected in the way Caesar feels. Calphurnia is sure that her dream means that Caesar is going to be killed, but Caesar is not convinced; he has a level of hubris that makes him believe he is immortal. Decius Brutus reinterprets Calphurnia’s dream as the people bathing in the wealth of their great leader, Caesar. Caesar does not need anymore convincing, he immediately calls Calphurnia foolish for ever worrying about his safety. This, ultimately, leads to Caesar’s death; if he just stayed home with his wife, he may not have been murdered (at least at that moment…). The appearance of the Soothsayer and Calphurnia’s prophetic dream are referencing Caesar’s fate, who’s life is bound to end in a bloody conflict.

Brutus comes in contact with Caesar’s ghost during Act 4, an apparition attributed to Brutus’ guilt and honor. As the spirit appears, Brutus exclaims, “How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?/ I think it is the weakness of mine eyes/ That shapes this monstrous apparition./ It comes upon me. Art thou anything?/ Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,/ That mak’st my blood cold and my hair to stare?/ Speak to me what thou art,” (4.3.320-326). It is clear from his anxious response that Brutus does not treat her visions as Caesar treated Calphurnia’s. As egotistical and pompous as Caesar is, Brutus is logical and honorable. Brutus’s reaction to the supernatural is related to his natural instinct to be logical and reasonable. Of course it is hard to tell whether or not Brutus’s vision is only in Brutus’s mind or if a ghost has really appeared to him. If it Caesar’s ghost did really appear to Brutus, it was more than likely a sign of Brutus’s fate which he realizes is more than likely his life ending at Philippi. If the apparition was in Brutus’s mind, his subconscious is probably responding to the guilt he feels from killing Caesar unjustly. At a certain point, Brutus probably admitted to himself that his actions were not as honorable as he convinced himself they were.

The fates and the supernatural go hand in hand with logic and reason in Julius Caesar. It is hard for the characters to separate signs and coincidence. In this play, the two things are inseparable. There is no coincidence, only fate and human will.