Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’: A Study of Grief

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In my post about Sonnet 18, I commented that Shakespeare very evidently understood grief.

Nowhere in the canon of Shakespeare’s work is this more evident than in Hamlet.In this play, we see a son struggling with grief for his father and anger at the circumstances of his death. In this one young man’s experience, Shakespeare demonstrates some crucial lessons about grief.

Grief is natural.It is an instinctive immediate reaction to loss. Nobody questions why Hamlet mourns his father, except for those who conspicuously do not mourn the late king.

CLAUDIUS
How is it that the clouds still hang on you?


GERTRUDE
Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not forever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know’st ’tis common, all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Hamlet, I.ii

It is those characters who do not feel or express grief who are portrayed as unnatural and heartless: had they been loyal, Gertrude, Claudius, and Polonius should all have been deeply affected by the death of the king and observed strict protocols of mourning as his wife, brother and trusted advisor. Instead, Gertrude marries Claudius, Claudius claims the throne that rightly should have gone to Hamlet, and Polonius switches his service seamlessly to the new regime. It’s all very convenient and it’s all very cold— but that’s how it goes when one is only in it for oneself.

This scene also demonstrates that grief is enduring. Unlike his mother, Hamlet doesn’t just “get over it”. That is not how most of us are designed. While it may change over time, grief is something that never fully goes away. It doesn’t take much to trigger a memory that unleashes a fresh wave of emotion.

HAMLET  
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn’d longer—married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married—O most wicked speed: to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets,
It is not, nor it cannot come to good,
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.

Hamlet I.ii

Grief is existential. Grief makes us question the meaning of life: what’s the point of it all? Why are we here? What am I doing with my life? Is it worth going on? These are natural questions that many of us ask in response to the end of life, although perhaps less eloquently than Hamlet did.

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 heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause; there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin; who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Hamlet, III.ii

We often make observations like “life will never be the same” and that is essentially true. Grief often causes us to consider what is important and sort our priorities for life Thinking about the  changes that someone’s death makes in our life can  cause us to consider what we will do with the time, freedoms and opportunities that still lie ahead of us. This can be a time of significant decision making and resolution in response to the unavoidable change in our lives as a result of the death of a loved one.

Grief is pervasive. It affects every part of life, directly influencing motivations and willingness to meet commitments that all of a sudden seem mundane or irrelevant. It can take the joy out of other aspects of life that would otherwise bring joy, such as one’s relationships, achievements and career.  Otherwise important things tend to be put on hold while grief holds the floor.

HAMLET
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 o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor women neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. 

Hamlet III.i

It also has flow-on effects in the lives and experiences of others:  when our emotions are most fragile, our relationships with others are proportionally vulnerable simply because of the impact of grief on one’s ability to connect and communicate effectively. The tendency to focus on one’s own self and situation may be a survival instinct in one sense, but it can also have a significant ripple effect among those around us.

Grief is relatable.The fact that we can all understand Hamlet’s feelings and responses show us that it is an integral element of life. Nobody lives forever, no matter how hard they try. That every society and culture has rituals and observances of death and mourning shows that grief is a universal experience: one which we will all encounter at some point in our lives.

From Hamlet, it is evident that there are constructive and destructive ways to deal with grief.

The pursuit of truth and justice, when necessary, is both healthy and appropriate. Questioning our priorities and examining our relationships can be a process of growth and refinement.

About, my brains! Hum—I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul, that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions:
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks,
I’ll tent him to the quick. If ’a do blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be a dev’l, and the dev’l hath power
T’ 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.

Hamlet, II.i

The observance and expression of grief is natural and should never be suppressed. The idea that men should not cry is not only unhealthy, it is absolute bunkum.

Grief complicates ones own emotions, affects mental and emotional health, adds pressure to relationships, and restricts one’s ability to ask for help.

It is crucial, then, to take great care to prevent grief leading us into self-destructive thoughts and behaviours.

HAMLET
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!
O God, God,How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah fie!

Hamlet, I.ii

Thoughts of self-harm and suicide are a definite sign that someone is not coping with their emotions and their circumstances, and that they need trustworthy help and support. 

Sacrificing our relationships with the living in the indulgence of grief for the dead. Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia clearly had devastating consequences for her life, and ultimately caused more grief for those who knew and loved her.

HAMLET
I have heard of your paintings, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t, it hath made me mad. I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already (all but one) shall live, the rest shall keep as they are. To a nunn’ry, go.

Exit.

OPHELIA
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectation and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’ observ’d of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled out of time, and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and stature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me
T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Ophelia withdraws.

Hamlet III.i

Had Hamlet and Ophelia shared their thoughts and feelings with each other and others instead of internalising everything and shutting them out, things may have ended far more positively for them both.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

Shakespeare demonstrates that grief is life-changing and long term. It is complex and challenging. Through the examples and experiences of the characters in Hamlet, we can consider and evaluate healthy and not-so-healthy ways of dealing with it. While everyone’s circumstances are different, we can each grow in empathy and understanding of the effects of grief on ourselves and other people.

Sonnet 18: An Expression of Grief

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

This sonnet is popularly believed to be a poem of love and admiration. That may be a fair interpretation of the first two lines, and I suppose that might be as far as some people read.

However, when one reads the whole poem, a much more somber message unfolds.

I cannot help but read this sonnet as a reflection on the fleeting seasons of life and an expression of grief as a beloved life comes to an end. As I read, I think of those whom I have loved and lost, particularly those who died young. Now, the foremost person in my mind when I read this sonnet is my beautiful cousin and friend Helen, who died last year- far too young and far “more lovely and temperate” than any summer’s day.

A summer’s day is lovely but soon over; a life is longer, embracing the growth of spring, the warmth of summer, the storms and changes of autumn, and the dormancy of winter. Just as summer fades, so do the vigour and health of youth.

How, then, does one achieve “eternal summer” that “shall not fade” and avoid wandering about in Death’s shadow? How does one not grow old and lose their beauty?

By dying in their youth.

When an old person dies, we reflect on what they achieved, and that they had a good, long life. When a young person dies, we feel shortchanged. It feels far less natural. We have a profound sense within ourselves that it’s just not fair.

One who dies too soon remains forever young in our minds and memories. They do not age, and faults and flaws are remembered far less than their talents and endearing qualities .

Shakespeare certainly understood grief: his son Hamnet died in 1596 when he was 11 years old. The powerful contrast of Hamnet’s “eternal summer” with the regular seasons of life would have been very real to Shakespeare and his family, as Hamnet’s twin Judith lived well into adulthood,  marrying and having children of her own.

Grief is a powerful muse — as a poet, I can attest to that myself— and the loss of a child in his youth could certainly have inspired a sonnet such as this. Those who are left behind understand the imagery of “rough winds [that] do shake the darling buds of May” and the tendency to cling to memories and the places and activities that honour and polish them.

“And this gives life to thee”… even when thou art long gone.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65: The Relentlessness of Time

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Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?

O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65

This sonnet expresses a reality of life: nothing can withstand the relentless power of time.  Erosion, degradation, and decay overwhelm not only the frail, but also the mighty. True, rocks and brass may outlast flowers and flesh, but they too will yield eventually.

This is a poem of contemplation and resignation, but also one of defiance: time may be relentless, and there may be no way to “hold his swift foot back”, but one who is immortalised or memorialised in ink lives on, albeit in a different way. We can continue to remember and honour them, and to express our love for them.  Our memories and mementos remain long after those who have fallen prey to time and mortality.

In Shakespeare’s time, they had fewer options for immortalising those who passed away than we do. They had eulogies and poetry – the black ink  in which “love may still shine bright”. They could create drawings and paintings.

Now, in addition to those, we have photographs, video, and voice recordings. Poetry and eulogies still touch our souls just as powerfully, though— whether written in the 21st century or the 16th, beautifully written tributes and reflections endure and move us still.

Desdemona’s Lament

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Often when I see a willow tree, I think of the  desperately sad song sung by Ophelia as she prepares for bed in Act 4, scene 3 of ‘Othello’.

‘Willow’ is a folk song that tells of lost love and resulting tragedy, although Ophelia doesn’t quite get that far in the song before she stops to talk with her maid, Emilia. The song was not written by Shakespeare, and it seems to have been widely enough known for the audience to have understood the gravity and foreboding of it being sung by Ophelia. 

Shakespeare did, however, make one significant change. The original song was about a man dying as the result of the cruelty of a woman, but when Ophelia sings it, the song is about a woman suffering at the hands of the man she loves. 

The poignancy of the song is heightened by Ophelia’s revelation to Emilia that her mother’s maid, from whom she learned the song, died tragically while singing it. 


The song takes another tragic twist when Emilia herself sings the song as she, too, dies from injuries inflicted by her own husband. 

Shakespeare uses this song to evoke pathos,  tragedy and foreboding in abundance. 

It seems to me that he willow tree, graceful and mournful at the same time, is a most fitting image for achieving that effect.


Desdemona’s Lament.
#Shakespeare #Othello #willow #tragedy #ShakesepeareNerd #blogpost

Life’s But A Walking Shadow

Macbeth, V.v

This short speech by Macbeth is his response to the news that Lady Macbeth is dead. It is not as emotional as Macduff’s response to the death of his wife and children, but instead is quite poignant and philosophical. A soliloquy might have been more expansive on his thoughts and feelings.

It is a reflection on the brevity and meaninglessness of life. Every day we live is someone else’s last, and our stories are full of noise and bother, but ultimately pointless. 

Perhaps he anticipated her death, given her descent into guilty madness. His observation that “She should have died hereafter; There would have been time for such a word” suggests that he thought he had bigger problems at that point, and he simply didn’t have time to grieve properly. Implying that her timing was inconvenient is the kind of self-interest that those who love to hate Macbeth might find satisfying. 

Either way, Macbeth’s musings on the futility of life contrast profoundly with his belief in his own invincibility and his headstrong determination to fight to keep the kingdom he usurped by killing Duncan and blaming it on his bodyguards. 

It just goes to show that you can not encapsulate a character in one quotation or by examining one event. Shakespeare’s leading characters are complex, conflicted individuals designed to provoke thought and conscience. Macbeth is no exception. 

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘Macbeth’

Macbeth is a play that has always fascinated people, engaging their superstitions as well as their imaginations. For this reason, its often called The Scottish Play by actors and theatre folk, as it’s believed to be unlucky to say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre.

It’s a cracker of a story. The supernatural ‘weird sisters’ tell Macbeth he’s going to be Thane of Cawdor, and then tell him he is going to be king. In response, Macbeth does everything in his power to make it happen, only to be haunted by his victims and unable to actually enjoy his success when it does. You really do have to wonder how it would have all worked out if he’d responded with, “That’s nice!” and let things happen as they would. 

Of course, you can’t just blame it all on Macbeth. His wife – whom I like to call Lady Macdeath – plays a significant part in engineering him onto the throne, mostly by bullying him into doing things he doesn’t really want to do.

The play has some fabulous macabre moments— the witches are spooky, their prophecies are uncanny, and you can bet your last dollar you don’t want to eat what they’re cooking in that cauldron. Even better is the part where Banquo’s ghost shows up for dinner shaking his “gory locks”: that is my favourite scene in the whole play.

Laced with suspense, intrigue, and dramatic irony, ‘Macbeth’ keeps the audience hooked to the very end, even though we all know by now how it’s going to work out. There’s more magic than just “Double, double, toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” in this play. 

Strangely enough, reading the text has brought me some odd comfort this weekend as I contemplate the fate of people who manipulate, lie and use others for their own nefarious purposes. I have taken dark satisfaction in seeing those who chose to do evil get what they deserved in the end. It may not be gracious, but it is quite therapeutic to think that maybe the Fates really do have things under control. Sometimes you need to take your catharsis wherever you can get it. 

That, of course, is the genius of all Shakespeare’s plays. He deals in the emotions we all understand – ambition, greed, love, anger, jealousy, pride, and the experience of being at the receiving end of the bad behaviour of others. The language may have changed slightly, but human nature certainly has not. 

Shakespeare doesn’t have to work hard to make the audience dislike Macbeth and his cold-hearted shrew of a wife: we get it. We have all seen people succeed by means of deceiving and manipulating others, or by stabbing someone else in the back, and we don’t like them, either.