Please use this blog to help us remember Joshua Lee Anderson, who made the tragic and fatal decision to take his life on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. Please post any memories or thoughts you may have in the comments.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Death, Grief and Suicide in Hamlet - Part II

Hamlet's depression continues as he wrestles with fulfilling the duty of avenging his father's death.
I have of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air - look you, this brave overhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire - why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors (II, II, 287 - 299).
And in one of the most famous lines of English literature, Hamlet ponders whether living, with all the "slings and arrows" that come our way is better than the eternal sleep of death, which puts an end to all "heartache and the thousand natural shocks."
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 heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to - 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished! (III, I, 57 - 65).
Hamlet is a tragedy of epic proportions. By the end of the play, almost everyone is dead.  In this midst of all this mayhem, I am most interested in how grief is portrayed.

Ophelia is the prince's love interest who is utterly rejected by Hamlet in his misery and paranoia.  Her father, Polonius is the well-meaning Lord Chamberlain of Claudius' court but often misguided.  He jumps to erroneous conclusions about Hamlet which causes him to set in motion events that lead to devastating consequences, one being his own demise.  When Ophelia hears of her dear father's death, she literally goes mad. Claudius's description:
Oh, this is the poison of deep grief.  It springs all from her father's death, and now behold!....Poor Ophelia divided from herself and her fair judgement, without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts (IV,V,73-74 and 82-84).
She wanders to the riverbank, climbs a tree and falls into the water.  She does nothing to save herself and so drowns.  At the cemetery, the gravediggers discuss how she who "willfully seeks her own salvation" would not normally be given a Christian burial and so conclude that she was from a wealthy family.

The burial ceremony by the priest is very brief.  Laertes, Ophelia's brother asks the priest to perform additional rites. Their short dialogue says it all:
L:  Must there no more be done? 
Priest:  No more be done.  We should profane the service of the dead to sing a requiem and such rest to her as to peace-parted souls. 
L: Lay her i' th' earth, and from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring!  I tell thee, churlish priest, a ministering angel shall my sister be when thou liest howling (V, I, 217 - 225).
My margin notes:  Agreed!  Priest is a self-righteous b***!

Hamlet has been watching this and now joins Laertes in Ophelia's grave. This is their expression of grief:
L:  Hold off the earth awhile till I have caught her once more in my arms.  Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead, till of this flat a mountain you have made, t' o'ertop old Pelion or the skyish head of blue Olympus.  
H:  What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I, Hamlet the Dane (V, I, 233-242). 
(Modern translation - Who is the one whose grief is so loud and clear, whose words of sadness make the planets stand still in the heavens as if they've been hurt by what they've heard?)
It is difficult to express the depths of my grief which is why I have come to love Shakespeare's tragedies.  He writes what I feel.


Amy336 said...

Have you read any of the writings of Mark Twain on the loss of his daughter? I was reading some recently and thought about you and about all mothers (including my own) who lose their beloved young children. Here is one link When asked about the death of his daughter he responded: "To attempt to communicate about such a loss would bankrupt the languages of the world." Best to you... Amy Ulness

Amy336 said...

Hi, I was reading some about Mark Twain and his writings about the death of his young daughter. I thought of my mother who lost a young child and of you. Here is a link When asked about his feelings about losing his daughter he responded
"that to attempt to communicate about such a loss would bankrupt the languages of the world."

Best to you, Amy Ulness