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Death is everywhere in Hamlet, Why?

Death is everywhere in Hamlet, Why?

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Christina Collins. Originally submitted for Arts at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr. Andrew King in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Christina Collins. Originally submitted for Arts at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr. Andrew King in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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Death is everywhere is Hamlet, Why?Death by its very nature provokes questions: why, how, when but it also, in this instance, raisessome textual and contextual issues. A fundamental query is: what is the function of so muchdeath in one play and what is it death is asking us to question, or at very least, to think about? Theanswer seems obvious but, in the social context of this play, a completely relevant one: death isdrawing our attention to the dead and how we remember those who are dead. For theShakespearian audience this was a day-to-day concern, or as Dutton puts it
how the dead are tobe remembered
’ was ‘the greatest controversy in the sixteenth century’
(Dutton 144).Remembering the dead in a neo-protestant society that condemns the traditional, catholic ritual of prayer for souls and where the dead
be immediately interred, without any ceremonies
(Watson88) as was forbidden by the Reformation, is the central concern of the play. Examining closelythe action surrounding the deaths and the dead in
we can hope to uncover further theworld of both Hamlet and Shakespeare and perhaps to understand finally the crisis of both.Therefore we will discuss the main cursors of death that deal with the presented topic: the ghost(concerning the soul and memory), and Ophelia
s demise (concerning burial).The ultimate manifestation of the soul, the ghost of King Hamlet, is thrust into the action of thefirst act of the play. We learn of murder and betrayal, incest and damnation. The message whichmost take away from the encounter between Hamlet and the Ghost is that Hamlet is to avenge hisfather
most unnatural murder
( 1.5. 25) which henceforth becomes the motive of the ensuingaction. However Dutton writes that we as audiences, as scholars, as critics, have made a vitalerror in that we have been
so preoccupied
the last 150 years with the psychological readingof Hamlet
s mysterious lack of inaction that we have ignored the central concern of the play withthe other world: specially the world of the soul and the dead
(Dutton 154). In fact if we truly ask ourselves to determine what exactly the Ghost
s purpose is, we should find that his quest to be
remembered is as important to him as avenging his death. He tells Hamlet to
not forget
(3.4.100) and to
remember me
(1.5. 91). Evidently Hamlet
s quick forgetfulness
(Knight18) is the initial cause of his gloomy temper, showing us that Hamlet, too, is fixated on hisfather
s memory. Watson implies that
revenge-tragedy serves partly as a displacement of prayersfor the dead forbidden by the Reformation
(Watson 75). If we were to expand on this, it could besuggested that the King
s death, in the social context of the time, serves to discuss indirectly thereligious practices of the Shakespearian audience and their unease with the new restrictionsinvolving remembrance and burial. The strictly protestant Elizabeth I sought to drastically change
her country’s religious practices, hence the burial traditions that were so connected with the
Catholic ethos had to be restricted, or eliminated as to change the philosophy concerning it.Furthermore it is apparent that it is not just the ghost who is concerned with being remembered inthe afterlife. Hamlet himself commands Horatio to
tell my story
(5.2 291) after he hasproclaimed that
I am dead
(5.2 280). Dutton comments on the final death scene, declaring it
amassive parody of the Eucharistic ceremony
(Dutton 152). The Eucharistic ceremony containingthe twice repeated
Do this in memory of me
, something we could say Hamlet asks Horatio to do
after he is dead. The similarities between Christ’s Passion and Hamlet’s final death scene are alsoevident when one considers that both men are pierced in the side by a sword. Both figures’
legacies have been concreted by their insistence for remembrance- Christ through the Eucharisticceremony and Hamlet through the apparent parody of this and through his unambiguous plea tobe remembered.Even Ophelia makes a final request to be remembered in death, handing the invisible rosemary toLaertes telling him
s for remembrance
.(4.5 173) before imploring him to
pray, love,remember.
(4.5 173-174). On a side note, the first appearance of King Hamlet
s ghost may wellhave been during the month of November (remembrance month), as is alluded to by Francisco
when he tells us
tis bitter cold
(1.2 6) and later on by Hamlet and Horatio as
The air bites
shrewdly’. Characters also describe the weather by saying ‘It is very cold.’
(1.4. 1), and
it is anipping air
(1.4.2) implying a winter month, but one that is not December due to the lack of snow. One must ask therefore (if the month is indeed November, the month of remembrance) if King Hamlet
s passage into the afterlife is thwarted by the lack of prayer for his soul, during atime designated to that purpose? The dramatic conclusion seems to be: if there is no prayer, thereis no remembrance; if there is no remembrance, there can be no passage; and if there is nopassage, then there is just death: and this, for the Elizabethans, was a great fear, taking intoaccount that without someone to pray for them, they would never enjoy everlasting life.The death of Ophelia further brings to light the Elizabethan preoccupations with the ban on thefuneral ritual. It is clear that the world of 
is a catholic one, therefore Shakespeare usesOphelia
s suicide to produce parallel scenarios in order to address the apprehension surroundingburials in the Elizabethan realm. The circumstances of her death explain the hushed funeral scene,recalling the Church
s stance on suicide at the time which condemned anyone who takes theirown life be buried outside the usual grounds of a graveyard. Laertes attempts to give Ophelia anhonourable funeral, but we suspect that he has failed in doing so when Hamlet describes theproceedings as
(5.1 202). Laertes demands if there must
be no more done?
(5.1 217)but considering the manner in which she died, this has been an unordinary occurrence
to beburied in Christian burial when she wilfully seeks her own salvation
(5.1.1-2) which usuallycondemns one to a burial outside the sacred ground of a graveyard. This used to be the case forCatholics who committed suicide, but Shakespeare uses it as a commentary on the newsocio-religious order of the Elizabethan era.In relation to death and the afterlife, the plays also
seems dominated by the notion of passage
 (Dutton 145), despite Hamlet
s declaration that
s a prison
(2.2 239). Both Ophelia

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