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Hamlet or Shakespeare’s Anatomy of Death

Jean Du Verger

Résumés

Le dernier acte d'Hamlet (c. 1600) s'ouvre sur une scène étrange où l’on voit le jeune prince contempler le crâne de Yorick tout en méditant sur les mystères de la vie et de la mort. La scène du cimetière constitue, avec sa méditation approfondie sur la mortalité, une espèce d’« interlude prolongé » (Belsey, 37, 1997) à l’intérieur de la pièce. Cet article propose une réévaluation critique sur la manière dont Shakespeare dépouille ces personnages de leurs apparences pour mettre au jour la réalité de l’existence humaine et l’inéluctabilité de notre finitude. La pièce, parcourue de résonances iconographiques, philosophiques et spirituelles macabres, soulève la question de la mise en scène de la mort sur les scènes élisabéthaines et jacobéennes. Ces échos donnent une image assez précise de la manière dont la mort était perçue dans l'Angleterre de la Renaissance. À l’image du scalpel de l'anatomiste qui révèle les secrets du corps humain, la plume du dramaturge découvre les vérités cachées de la mort et de l’humaine condition, rendant ainsi visible l'invisible.

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  • 1 John Donne, Devotions upon Emerged Occasions and Death’s Duel, preface by Andrew Motion (New York: (...)
  • 2 Samuel Rowlands, Terrible Battell Betweene the two Consumers of the Whole World: Time, and Death (L (...)
  • 3 Cicero first mentioned the concept in his Tusculanæ Disputationes (1.8.15) to describe the misery o (...)

1On the 25 February 1631, in the last sermon he preached at Saint Paul’s, John Donne observed that ‘Life is but Hebdomada Mortium, a week of death’.1 Although this sermon was preached thirty years after Hamlet had been written, it nevertheless expressed the ubiquitous presence of Death in the minds of the English people who, as the character of Death notices in Samuel Rowlands’s Terrible Battell Betweene the two Consumers of the Whole World: Time, and Death (c. 1606): ‘[…] ma[d]e my picture a most common thing, / As if I were continual in their thoughts’.2 Critics and scholars have discussed the metaphysical and philosophical dimension of Shakespeare’s play that questions man’s place in the world as Hamlet confronts his own mortality, throwing into sharp relief the tragic nature of the humana conditio.3 Shakespeare crafts his examples of death and mortality by investing his plot with qualities conducive to imaginative seeing through ekphrasis, or detailed descriptions as he makes visible the manifold images of death, limned with moral and philosophical meanings. While ekphrasis translates the visual and sensual nature of a work of art into a verbal linguistic formulation, its appeal rests on the immediacy of an imagined presence. This article explores the creative relationship between visual and verbal art in the play. Hamlet emerged in a specific cultural context in which death was a major source of inspiration relying on familiar iconographic and literary conventions familiar to the Elizabethans and Jacobeans. The present article therefore shows through a series of close readings that Hamlet echoes the medieval and Renaissance iconographical and literary culture as the playwright uses and subverts the traditional pictorial representations of death. I shall first examine the different iconographical echoes that punctuate the play before dwelling on what I believe is a key aspect of the play: Hamlet’s role as anatomist. Finally, I shall focus my attention on the Graveyard Scene, which is at the core of the play, and may well be viewed as Shakespeare’s Triumph of Death.

1. Theatre of the Macabre: Shakespeare and the Visual Arts

  • 4 All quotations are taken from William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, 3rd ed., The New Camb (...)
  • 5 See 1.1.11, 16, 17, 21, 32, 35, 46, 65, and 1.2.198.
  • 6 I borrowed this phrase from Sarah Iles Johnston.
  • 7 Preserved panels of the altarpiece dedicated to all the saints, commissioned by Thüring Fricker for (...)
  • 8 See the Tomb Scene in John Marston, Antonio’s Revenge, 3.2.9–10.

2The play opens at night with Barnardo’s disturbing question ‘Who’s there ?’ (1.1.1)4, which immediately creates a sense of unease and uncertainty that is exacerbated by the play’s nocturnal, foggy and oppressive atmosphere. The latter is illustrated by the recurrent conjoined references to death, night and darkness. The repetition of the word night in the opening scene5 alongside with the references to a spectral figure – ‘this dreaded sight’ (1.1.25), ‘this apparition’ (1. 1. 28) – informs the spectators that the play’s nocturnal world is peopled with ‘restless dead’6 roaming the land at night, making one acutely aware of the play’s impending sense of doom. When Horatio declares that ‘The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets’ (1.1.115–16), he pinpoints how closely interwoven the world of the living and the realm of the dead were at the time. Horatio’s allusion, apocalyptic in character, foreshadows the Graveyard Scene and the catastrophe to come. This perplexing question of the interaction between the living and the dead was illustrated by the anonymous artist who painted the Retable of the Dead in the church tower of Bern in 1505.7 The diptych shows the living and the dead meeting at night, with corpses and skeletons rising from their tombs haunting and taunting the living.8 Likewise, Shakespeare casts light on the fragile boundary that separates life and death, as the stage morphs into a disquieting game of shimmers and shifts between the ‘quick’ (5.1.107) and the dead.

  • 9 Michael Hattaway, Elizabethan Popular Theatre: Plays in Performance (London: Routledge and Kegan Pa (...)
  • 10 Theodore Spencer, Death and Elizabethan Tragedy (New York: Pageant Books, Inc., 1960), p. 71.
  • 11 See also Isabel Karremann, ‘Artless Deaths in Hamlet: The Play as Danse Macabre’, in The Shakespear (...)
  • 12 John More, A Lively Anatomie of Death (London: G. S. for W. Jones, 1596), sig. A3r.
  • 13 2.2.4–18, 3.1.1–4, and 3.1.156–69.
  • 14 [Editor’s note] Karin Becker explains that the word ‘macabre’ derived from the Arabic maqbara meani (...)
  • 15 John Lydgate, The Dance of Death, ed. Florence Warren (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1971), p (...)
  • 16 Robert Mannyng, Robert of Brunne’s ‘Handlyng synne’, Early English Text Society (London: Frederick (...)
  • 17 See folio 38 of the 1641 edition of La grande danse macabre des hommes et des femmes historiée et a (...)

3Following Michael Hattaway’s analysis in Elizabethan Popular Theatre: Plays in Performance,9 I hope to show how the spectators were expected to see personifications rather than individuals. Not only Shakespeare’s personifications belong to the long tradition of the visual arts, they are also a way to picture Death through its many shapes and forms. Likely visual sources of inspiration can be traced back to the Dance of Death, the funeral tradition of the transi, the memento mori and the Triumph of Death. The startling effect of Shakespeare’s imagery of death rests on the idea that the ‘Elizabethans were gifted with a remarkable faculty for visualisation’.10 Consequently, I shall first argue that Hamlet may be viewed as the personification of Death itself.11 When Hamlet appears at the beginning of act 1 scene 2, the stage directions indicate that he is ‘dressed in black’. The iteration of the colour of Hamlet’s garb tends to show the dramatic importance given to his appearance by the playwright, whether it being Gertrude urging him to put off his ‘nighted colour’ (1.2.68) or Hamlet’s own repeated references to his black garb: ‘my inky cloak’ (1.2.78–9) and his ‘suit of sables’ (3.2.115–6). His appearance in a solemn black garb projects a sense of anomaly on stage. The possibility that Hamlet may be a personification of Death has not escaped Claudius, who is wary of Hamlet’s dark appearance (1.2.66). Death was described by John More in A Lively Anatomie of Death (1596) as ‘a terrour, and tormentour, both of soule and body’,12 and there is no doubt that Hamlet’s presence is a source of constant worry and torment for Claudius.13 Consequently, a figure or image of Death continually intrudes in the play’s dramatic action. In her edition of John Lydgate’s poem, The Dance of Death, Florence Warren mentions a remnant of the ancient dramatic representation of the Dance of Death in Saxony and Switzerland known as the ‘Black Man’. This ‘Black Man’ seems to have had a vital connection with the Danse Macabré,14 and was probably intended ‘as a personification of Death’.15 Robert Mannyng’s devotional work Handlyng Synne (1303) provides an early example of Death as the ‘Black Man’. In one of his exempla entitled The Tale of the Father who would not beat his child, Mannyng describes a young dying boy, crying out to his father: ‘blake men, blake, / Are aboutë me to take; […]’.16 We later find traces of the ‘Black Man’ in La grand dance Macabre des hommes & des femmes : Historiée & augmentée de beaux dicts en Latin (Troyes, 1610).17

  • 18 Thomas Dekker, The Wonderfull Yeare 1603, Elizabethan and Jacobean Quartos, ed. G. B. Harrison (New (...)
  • 19 This seems to be the case for the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.
  • 20 See also Nathalie Rivère de Carles, ‘“[T]he trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.86): Hamlet’s Text (...)

4The Closet Scene offers the viewers with a series of allusions and embedded portraits of Death, each illustrating a different facet of the Grim Reaper. The scene sheds light on one of Death’s main characteristics, its suddenness: ‘how sudden a stabber this ruffianly swaggerer [Death] is’18. After killing Polonius, Hamlet mocks him mercilessly in the same way Death laughs in the Dance at those it summons. Polonius’ mors improvisa (sudden death) occurs without time for him to be shriven. This was especially feared because of the possible eternal damnation it could result in.19 Furthermore, the verses, which commented on the different scenes of the Dance of Death, were written in the form of a dialogue, in which Death called its victims, often criticising them for their former ways of life. Likewise, Hamlet blames his mother Gertrude for her past and present behaviour (3.4.53–96).20

  • 21 Roland M. Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet. Issues and Responses in 1600 (Princeton: Princeton Universi (...)
  • 22 Émile Mâle, L’Art Religieux de la fin du Moyen Âge en France (Paris: Armand Colin, 1995), pp. 361–6 (...)
  • 23 More, A Lively Anatomie, sig. E5r.

5When addressing Rosencrantz in act 2 scene 2, Hamlet provides us with a miniature version of the Dance of Death itself. The prince’s gallery of portraits bears the inheritance of the medieval tradition with its grouping of social types who were led away by the skeletal figure of Death (2.2.298–303). While choreographing his own dance, Hamlet’s mind ‘races through a succession of social types,’21 which are found in the various versions of the Dance. Moreover, the dramatist alludes here to the tragedy’s metatheatrical aspect as the verb ‘plays’ and the word ‘players’ attest. Consequently, audience awareness is drawn to the theatrical allusions as much as the actor playing Hamlet is conscious of his own histrionic nature. Art historians have shown that the Danse Macabré had a theatrical origin.22 The Dance’s theatrical nature also finds a contemporary echo in A Lively Anatomie of Death (1596): ‘Our life is like a stage, on which men play theyr parts, and passe away’.23

  • 24 [Editor’s note] Transi tomb or cadaver monument: a type of church monument to deceased persons feat (...)
  • 25 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 231.
  • 26 Erwin Panofsky borrowed the expression from the very terms of the contract concluded between the sc (...)
  • 27 [Editor’s note] Anonymous English artist, transi image, f. 32v, ‘Disputacioun Betwyx the Body and W (...)
  • 28 See folio 50 from the 1641 edition of La Grande Dance Macabre des Hommes et des Femmes, op.cit. htt (...)

6The other representation of Death that resurfaces throughout the play is that of the transi.24 Roland M. Frye notes that the transi encompasses several subtypes or figures25 that trace the effects of death on the human body. Ophelia’s ‘representacion au vif26 of Hamlet’s alarming figure (2.1.75–82) brings to mind the portraits of the various rotting skeletal figures described by Frye, offering the audience a parodic, almost grotesque, variation on the transi depicting the rapid stages of decomposition.27 Like the transi, which shows its physical decomposition as it is progressively divested of its mundane attire, Hamlet’s unclothed appearance conveys metaphorically an impression of morbid decomposition as we visualise shreds of flesh rotting away (‘his doublet all unbraced’, l. 76), providing the spectators with a frightful vision of his shrunken flesh (‘Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle’, l. 78). The rattle of his bones (‘his knees knocking each other,’, l. 79) and his pale face (‘Pale as his shirt’, l. 79) convey the visual impression of his bones protruding through his flesh (clothes). The description of Hamlet as a decaying corpse is rendered all the more vivid by the way in which he grabs Ophelia’s arm with his hand (‘He took me by the wrist, and held me hard’) just in the same way the skeletal figures grab hold of their reluctant victims’ hands in the Dance of Death. Such a scene is depicted in the woodcut entitled ‘La mort. La pucelle vierge’ in La grand dance Macabre des hommes & des femmes.28

7While these selected passages illustrate the inherent theatricality of death, they also encapsulate how Shakespeare’s macabre spectacle provides the reader/viewer with the message expressed in the Dance of Death, namely the vanity of all things and the extreme brevity of life: ‘a man’s life’s no more than to say “one’”’. (5.2.74). While Shakespeare absorbs the existing motifs from the macabre art, he reinvents death onstage as the playwright ‘amaze[s] indeed / The [audience’s] very faculties of eyes and ears’ (2.2.517–8). The play offers its own vision of death providing the audience with a macabre spectacle – one in which anatomized images caught the spectators’ minds and helped reveal the true nature of the characters while hinting at the very mystery of death itself.

2. Hamlet: Death’s Anatomist

  • 29 Sir Philip Sidney, Defence of Poesie, Astrophil and Stella, and Other Writings, Everyman’s Library, (...)
  • 30 Ariès claims, ‘l’anatomie n’était pas utile aux seuls médecins et chirurgiens. Elle était aussi imp (...)
  • 31 Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: (...)
  • 32 David Hillman, ‘Visceral Knowledge: Shakespeare, Skepticism, and the Interior of the Early Modern B (...)
  • 33 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 207.

8Sir Philip Sidney argued in his Defence of Poesie (1598) that tragedy performed a sort of moral survey or anatomy: ‘[an] excellent Tragedy, [is one] that openeth the greatest wounds, and sheweth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue’.29 While anatomy had an obvious medical purpose it also possessed a moral and philosophical rationale.30 With the rise of anatomy and its ‘culture of dissection,’31 the opening of the human body was viewed as a central act in the obtainment of knowledge as it exposed the central mystery of death. Although Hamlet does not feature the word ‘anatomy’, the play is nevertheless rife with explicit and implicit allusions to the ‘human entrails’32 and anatomical references, which catch the reader/viewer’s attention through the ‘visual imagery of [Shakespeare’s] words’.33

9Following both Leonardo da Vinci and Alberti’s theoretical advice recommending that the painter first sketch the bones, then add the sinews and muscles before clothing the bones with flesh and clothes, Raphael’s drawing of the Baglioni’s Entombment (1507) portrays the Virgin Mary’s floating body emerging from a skeleton before being fleshed out and draped.34 By contrast, in Hamlet, Shakespeare, much like the anatomist, opens up his characters unveiling their true nature. As Devon L. Hodges observes, anatomy and anatomical representations of the body were associated with death and viewed as functional memento mori.35 Opening the body of another, and the uncanny thrill of strangeness caused by the sight of the human interior, was part of the macabre process. Yet words, as Sawday remarks, led also the enquiring subject to a form of self-analysis.36 Shakespeare’s play brings into bold relief the potent resemblance between the staging of anatomical and dramatic performances, transforming public dissections into ‘theatrical events’.37 The anatomical dissection was a long and tedious process that lasted three to five days. In his attempt to uncover human nature itself, the character of Hamlet plays both the part of the anatomist and that of executioner – the central figure of revenge tragedies – as he ventures to expose Claudius’s criminal mind.

  • 38 Thomas Dekker, The Wonderfull Yeare, p. 39. [Editor’s note] Dekker wrote this pamphlet the year whe (...)
  • 39 Samuel Purchas (the Elder), Hakluytus Posthumus: Purchas his Pilgrimes: Microcosmos; or, The Histor (...)
  • 40 Henry Chettle, The Tragedy of Hoffman (c. 1602), in Five Revenge Tragedies, ed. Emma Smith (London: (...)

10The anatomised body was still participating in the sensory world, and bodies, corpses or skeletal figures were portrayed as if they were still alive. In plays such as Henry Chettle's The Tragedy of Hoffman or a Revenge for a Father (1602), the word ‘anatomy’ denoted a skeleton – ‘image of bone death’ (1.3.16) – thus referring to an entity rather than a procedure. Shakespeare’s play edges out the older memento mori style of the dead and rotting skeletal bodies, with a subtler use of anatomy, while making the human body visible and tangible. Shakespeare articulates the relationship between the art of dramatic writing and death, evoking the way in which Thomas Dekker perceived Death in The Wonderfull yeare. 1603, namely as an author in its own right: ‘the fatall hand-writing of death’38. As for Samuel Purchas, he viewed the body as a text or book, ‘were all [his] members [were] written’.39 I would therefore suggest that the very act of writing and the role of the pen partake in the exploration and understanding of death and mortality, not unlike the way in which the anatomist’s ‘incision kni[fe]’ (Chettle, 1.3.6)40 reveals the hidden human nature. Shakespeare presents skin as something that needs to be penetrated to access interior truth, but also as a surface that can be read. The Elizabethan philologist Richard Mulcaster (1532–1611) described the pen as a surgical tool of sorts and writing as a process that implies the opening up of the sheet’s texture, while the ink settles into the paper’s fibers, revealing the author’s enclosed thoughts:

  • 41 Richard Mulcaster, The Educational Writings of Richard Mulcaster, ed. James Oliphant (Glasgow: Jame (...)

For the pen or some suche instrument did carve, first roughly and then completely, the letter or letter-like device, and thereby did the eye behold in outward form what the voice delivered to the ear in sound, so that writing was used as the interpreter of the mind, and reading became the expounder of the pen.41

  • 42 See Sarah Werner, ‘Anatomical Fugitive Sheet’ (1573), Early Printed Books, https://www.earlyprinted (...)
  • 43 K. B. Roberts and J. D. W. Tomlinson, The Fabric of the Body. European Traditions of Anatomical Ill (...)
  • 44 John Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy. Aeschylus to Armageddon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 4.

11Thus, the playwright’s pen carves into the writing surface to express his own vision of mortality, as well as through the characters’ textual envelopes. As for the character of Hamlet, he metaphorically peels the skin of those around him, folding it down to reveal their true nature while conjuring up a spectacle that resembles the body displayed on the dissecting slab at the centre of the anatomy theatre. The text transforms itself into a body-text of sorts, whose mobile shutters and multi-layered body parts are lifted by the reader/viewer evoking the flap- anatomies. These Fliegende Blätter or fugitive sheets, with their multilayered illustrations began circulating all over Europe from around 1538 onward.42 Such broadsheets, which were sold in the streets and on the markets by street sellers, were mainly intended ‘for barber-surgeons and lay persons’43, offering them a better understanding of the human body. Hamlet cut open bodies, shredding them of their corporeal apparel as he ‘draw[s] apart the body [of Polonius] he hath killed’ (4.1.24). The body parts are, as John Kerrigan notes, to be considered literally in revenge tragedies.44 Consequently, the fragment is being elevated to a position of central significance as it pinpoints the part’s relation to the entire body as we shall see later in the Graveyard Scene.

  • 45 Hillman and Mazzio (eds), The Body in Parts, p. 92. Numerous references and allusions are made to c (...)
  • 46 Hillman and Mazzio (eds), The Body in Parts, p. 83.
  • 47 Pesta, ‘Articulating Skeletons’, p. 27.
  • 48 William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, The New Cambridge Edition, ed. Anthony B. Dawson (Cambri (...)
  • 49 Gertrude re-echoes the physical effects of this metaphor later in the play (3.4.93).

12Hamlet’s own appearance sets him into stark relief from the other characters of the play. David Hillman observes that he displays recurrently his sense of the importance of corporeal insides: ‘his sense of being denied access to the interior by the bodies around him, leads to an urge to open these bodies’.45 This was also one of the features of Death in the Dance as it would scare the living by lifting up their clothes to reveal their true nature. The character of Hamlet embodies the variegated facets of the anatomist. As a consequence, he will perform throughout the play the role of the lector, who utters his text ex cathedra to Claudius, Gertrude, or Ophelia, of the ostensor, who points out the anatomical structure revealed by the dissection (his numerous allusions to body entrails), and finally of the sector or barber, who performs the cutting, turning the ‘corporeal insides, into a visible spectacle’:46 the cutting up of Polonius’s body and the revelation of Claudius’ true nature. Throughout the play, Hamlet’s role as anatomist generates a sense of theatricality as the human body becomes the central focus of the spectacle. Like the anatomist, the revenger acts as a revealer.47 Words have an almost physical nature in Hamlet and are, to borrow Hector’s words in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, like ‘The beacon of the wise, the tent that searches / To th’bottom of the worst’ (2.2.16–7)48. Words are also characterised by their sharpness – ‘cleave the general ear with horrid speech’ (2.2.515, emphasis added); ‘I will speak daggers to her but use none’ (3.2.357, emphasis added) – and can have lethal or physical effects on the listener49 as is the case when Horatio reads Hamlet’s letter to the sailor ‘I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb’ (4.6.20–1). Hence, words are performative instruments as Hamlet tells the players, ‘Suit the action to the word, the word to the action’ (3.2.15).

  • 50 See Pierre Kapitaniak, ‘Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Hamlet’s Ghost (But Were Afraid (...)
  • 51 Poets from Petrarch to Dante pinpointed their inability to describe the reality of death, an inabil (...)

13While words perform the tasks of the revenger-anatomist’s scalpel, the power of the gaze as a penetrative agent also proves instrumental in his ‘anatomical dissection’ when discussing how Claudius will react to the Mousetrap. When Hamlet declares ‘For I mine eyes will rivet to his face’ (3.2.75), he clearly views anatomy as a means of moral revelation. Hamlet’s anatomy works as a speculum of sorts, providing the audience with reflective images of the body as he holds a mirror up to the audience ‘to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature’ (3.2.18–19). The mirror thus acts as the revealer of one’s deepest thoughts bringing them to light, as Hamlet tells Gertrude: ‘You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you’ (3.3.19–20). Consequently, Shakespeare provides the audience with an instrument of self-knowledge, as Hamlet tells Osric: ‘his semblable is his mirror’ (5.2.110–11). Throughout the play the audience witness a series of visual and verbal reflections and deflections on the issue of death. In 1.2, the iteration of the verb ‘see’ – ‘see’ (184), ‘saw’ (186, 189) – and the noun ‘eye(s)’ (185, 203, 233)) clearly pinpoints the critical importance of sight in the play. The Ghost’s speech (1.5.13–20) is a way of deflecting the actual horror of Hell and Death that the living are unable to face, and if unfortunately they did, the consequences for them would be lethal.50 This reflection of Death is merely a replica, not the thing itself, yet the playwright clearly stresses the inadequacy of representation as the replica inevitably fails the original.51

  • 52 Alex Newell, The Soliloquies in Hamlet: The Structural Design (London and Toronto: Associated Unive (...)
  • 53 Newell, The Soliloquies in Hamlet, p. 33.
  • 54 This is a possible echo of the exchange between Hieronimo and Balthazar in Thomas Kyd, The Spanish (...)

14While uncovering the bodies of others, Shakespeare deals with Hamlet’s internal strife by using soliloquies, which provide a form of objective knowledge on the character’s inner body and flesh out his own anatomy of the human soul. In the opening lines of his first soliloquy, Hamlet’s tædium vitæ tone, ‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt,’ (1.2.129) gives impetus to his awareness of his body’s ‘corse corporeal existence’52 as he refers to ‘self-slaughter’ (1.2.133–4). It also portrays his perception of the world that is characterised by the vanitas tradition: ‘How weary, stale, fleet and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!’ (1.2.133–4). Alex Newell astutely claims that the soliloquy’s movement is regulated by Hamlet’s ‘acute awareness of all things,’53 a sharpness of mind that will probe into the minds of others as well as into his own, thus offering glimpses of his own anatomy as he uncovers the other characters’ mind and body. After his discussion with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet dwells on the action he needs to carry out. The rhetorical movement of the speech describes his own anatomy making for a grotesque dismembering of his persona, which is being scattered in a parodic and histrionic lesson of anatomy (2.2.524–7)54.

15Hence, actor, reader and spectator become interpreters of the text and characters as they move beneath the texture of the play’s surface, into the depths of the human body and soul that have progressively become permeable to the audience’s gaze. The play rests also on the anatomical knowledge of the spectators whose penetrating gaze had been exposed to the human body in flap-anatomies, anatomy theatres or the scaffold of disembowelment. Thus, we are made to appreciate Shakespeare’s subtle use of pictorial and anatomical images of death as shown in the Graveyard Scene. The latter’s imagery provides us with Shakespeare’s own Triumph of Death in which the dramatic presentation of complex intellectual and philosophical questions on death and mortality finally merge.

3. The Graveyard Scene, or Shakespeare’s Triumph of Death

  • 55 Spencer, Death and Elizabethan Tragedy, p. 185.

16The Graveyard Scene occupies a central part of the play, an apocalyptic moment, a moment of revelation for Hamlet in the unfolding drama. According to Theodore Spencer, this may be the first scene set in a graveyard, and probably the first scene in which skulls were used as stage properties55. The playwright uses this pivotal scene to depict and discuss the moral and physical decay of the human body as well as the vanity of life and world matters, while it explores the complex relationship between death and afterlife. The traditional Triumph of Death, which originated in Italy, emerged like the Dance in the shadow of the plague with its apocalyptic threat of mass annihilation. It depicts the transition from death to afterlife and portrays death as a figure of transformation from the earthly life to the new one.

17As Phoebe S. Spinrad notes, ‘the Dance [is] a summons, and the Triumph a final judgement’.56 Thus, while offering his own vision of the Dance of Death, Shakespeare’s Graveyard Scene, anticipating Milton’s reading of the world as a ruin, ‘A Universe of Death,’57 with its rampant annihilation of humanity and its sombre pessimism, may well be seen as the playwright’s own Triumph of Death – an apocalyptic vision encompassing all the living and the dead in a panorama of convulsive struggle. The Triumph is usually organised with Death and the heap of lifeless figures placed centrally, whereas the worldly noblemen and the poor are represented on the left and the right of the painting. Following the genre’s visual rhetoric, Shakespeare’s Graveyard Scene offers a combination of composite contiguous scenes. The organisation of the dramaturgical space walks the audience through various sites of mortality, while placing Hamlet visually at the centre of the scene. The scene is composed in a way that resembles that of the Triumph of Death fresco that was originally painted (c. 1440–45) in the entrance hall on the southern wall of the court of Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo.58 Shakespeare’s composition portrays no less than six different scenes all taking place in the graveyard: the gravediggers’ scene, Hamlet’s meditation on the skull, Ophelia’s funeral, Laertes and Hamlet’s confrontation, his conversation with Horatio, and Claudius’s proleptic description of Hamlet’s funeral monument. All these scenes are positioned around the central figure of Hamlet giving compelling insights into how death was seen by the Elizabethan audience.

18The suddenness with which we move from a room in the castle of Elsinore (4.7) to the graveyard’s deathscape echoes the brutal and sudden manner in which Death seizes Laura in Petrarch’s Triumph of Death and the way in which the vale morphs into the realm of the dead: ‘e’en there present suddenly, / Full of dead bodies that great place did lie, / In such a number that them for to rehearse / It cannot be counted in prose nor yet in verse’.59 The setting conveys the idea that the world is in ruins and collapsing to death. Elsinore’s cemetery with its disinterred skulls and bones gives a strong iconographic resonance to Hamlet’s verbal fencing with the witty gravedigger. The latter’s bitter tone and the allusion to his spade refers to his job as sexton – ‘Come, my spade; there is no ancient / gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and gravemakers; they hold up / Adam’s profession’ (5.1.24–6) –, while his allusion to Adam refers back to the original sin and to the origins of Death itself. The sexton’s piecemeal excavations in the churchyard illustrate the alteration of the articulate body into a disjointed, disarticulated set of skull and bones. Shakespeare’s fresco represents the passage from life to after-life, the transitus60 in which death is pictured as an agent of transformation between both realms. His use of concrete imagery and successful metaphors helps conjure a strong almost tense ductile imagery. When the gravedigger exposes the human remains for Hamlet’s perusal, the scene may be reminiscent of the painting by Giorgio Ghisi’s The Vision of Ezekiel (1554) in the Valley of the Dead.61 Yet, unlike the prophet, Hamlet has come to realise that he will probably be unable to accomplish his goal, namely, to reunite all the disjointed body parts (1.5.189–90).

19The Graveyard Scene, with the bones thrown about the charnel house revealing in a brutal manner the death of all mankind, shows how Hamlet’s ‘thanaphobic eye’62 is overwhelmed by the sight of the scattered bones as well as by the human remains and the stench of their putrefaction (5.1.169), making him feel nauseous (5.1.159). His reaction is however rather strange if we take into consideration the historical context depicted by historians such as Philippe Ariès63. Moreover, Vittore Carpaccio’s painting, Preparation of Christ’s Tomb (c. 1505) stands as a perfect illustration of the Renaissance’s familiarity with skulls and bones at graveyards.64 The way in which the stage directions emphasise the gravedigger’s way of dealing with the skulls – ‘play at loggets’ (5.1.77) – and Hamlet’s perplexity before this strange sight illustrates one of the main issues of the scene. By brushing the portrait of the earth throwing up the skulls and bones of its dead, which pile up in a shapeless jumble, Shakespeare is depicting here the death of all mankind, as the graveyard threatens to erase the image of the living. He is also illustrating the fact that death itself is a transitory state, as Émile Mâle observes: ‘les morts ne restaient pas longtemps dans cette terre sainte; sans cesse ils devaient faire place aux nouveaux venus’.65 By defining death as a concrete object (skulls and bones), the playwright is trying to define the unknown, the unpalatable. The scene therefore illustrates the way in which ‘the individual corpses lost all traces of identity,’66 which is probably the true cause of Hamlet’s disarray. His mind is faced with the incomprehensible, with chaos and ruins on too vast a scale to be fully comprehended, and desperately tries to ‘make the concept more familiar so that it can be dealt with’.67 Hamlet gives the impression to be overwhelmed and unable to absorb what he is seeing.

  • 68 Hamlet’s cogito mori on the skull has also been viewed as an echo of John Skelton’s poem ‘Uppon a D (...)
  • 69 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 209.
  • 70 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 212.
  • 71 Spinrad, The Summons of Death, p. 215.
  • 72 See Pietro da Lucca, who offers a variation on the same theme. A Dialogue of Dying Wel (Antwerp: A. (...)
  • 73 Enargeia (vividness) was one of the qualities with saphensia (clarity) and phantasia (mental image) (...)
  • 74 Karremann describes the scene as ‘a moment of individual nostalgia’, ‘Artless Deaths’, p. 285.

20The playwright next takes us to the scene of Hamlet’s meditatio mortis (‘death rehearsal’). Hamlet’s holding of the skull is an iconic moment of the play. He is contemplating Yorick’s skull as if he were gazing into a mirror at the image of his own decay.68 While he gazes at the leering figure of death, ‘the skull itself seems to fix us with an eyeless and bony stare’.69 The skull, which stands as the memento mori par excellence, was ‘one of the favourite themes of Shakespeare’s England’70 and a tangible reminder of people’s mortality. It was a rather efficient means, in dramaturgical terms, to invite the spectators to meditate on their own mortality. It highlights once more the transition from life to death as it morphs into a locus of condensed meditation on Death and Time while, at the same time, capturing the audience’s attention in the moment. As a consequence, the skull has two functions: it reflects the image of the gazer as death becomes a powerfully individuating experience, while at the same time representing nothing else but itself, a mere skull. This is illustrated in the way Hamlet moves in his aside from the name ‘Yorick’ to the ‘empty or dummy’ pronoun ‘it’, from the living subject to the lifeless object. Spinrad offers an insightful reading of the scene: ‘In the first view, one looks into the skull’s empty eye sockets and sees only the bone at the back of the head; in the second, one looks beyond the bone into infinity’.71 When contemplating Yorick’s skull (5.1.156–9), Hamlet has dropped his role as anatomist and assumes that of a painter. Like Raphael, his word-painting summons Yorick’s skeletal figure back to life as he fleshes it out so eloquently (5.1.159–65).72 Hamlet’s enargeia73 has an almost immediate effect on engaging the audience’s imagination. By remembering the past and Yorick’s facial features, the prince literally re-members the disjointed body of old Yorick. Nevertheless, Hamlet’s words have a melancholic, almost desperate tone74. His memory seems to be the sole remedy to death, the only way to revive the shades from the past. A past that once remembered will vanish again as the individual memory is recognised as being all too easily extinguished by death.

  • 75 Lina Perkins Wilder, ‘The Soul of Agrippina: Gender, Suicide, and Reproductive Rights in Hamlet’, i (...)
  • 76 See Edwards’s note (5.1.236–8) in Edwards and Hirschfeld (eds), Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, p. 229.

21Ophelia’s burial and the cause of her death, which is shrouded in uncertainty – ‘Her death was doubtful’ (5.1.194) –, serve as a pretext for Shakespeare’s musing on the issue of suicide, which was fiercely condemned by the medieval church. The gravediggers’ jocular speculations on the circumstances of Ophelia’s death express a more open-minded view on the issue, reflecting the Renaissance and early seventeenth century’s changing attitude toward suicide.75 Yet, one is overcome by a sense of perplexity when witnessing how Hamlet is suddenly overwhelmed by grief as the funeral procession enters the cemetery and realizing that it is Ophelia who is to be buried in the grave. Philip Edwards pinpoints this when discussing Ophelia’s rejection by Hamlet (3.1.90–155) earlier in the play.76 It is as if Hamlet were discovering the value of love and life, when it is all too late.

  • 77 James V. Holleran, ‘Maimed Funeral Rites in Hamlet’, English Literary Renaissance 19.1 (1989), pp.  (...)
  • 78 See Holleran, ‘Maimed Funeral Rites’, and Michael MacDonald, ‘The Medicalization of Suicide in Engl (...)
  • 79 Spencer, Death and Elizabethan Tragedy, p. 135.

22Because of its dramatic importance, Ophelia’s burial is crucial to the playwright’s concern with remembering the dead. When Hamlet appears at Ophelia’s funeral, he sees Laertes leap into the grave (Folio) holding his sister’s body for the last time. This scene could be read as a reversal image of Death in the Dance Macabré as we see here the living grab hold of the dead, in a desperate and vain attempt to redeem Time and conquer Death. Laertes curses Hamlet by holding him responsible for his sister’s death. In turn, Hamlet directly challenges Laertes and leaps into Ophelia’s grave to attack him. While brawling in churchyards was common in Tudor England,77 the tragedy of death is all the more distorted by this refusal of intimacy. As commentators have remarked, Ophelia’s onstage burial rites are maimed.78 Both characters’ grotesque antics distort the conventional funeral ritual not only reflecting the corruption of Claudius’ rule in Denmark (1.4.90), where the rapid disintegration of the state is akin to that of the human body, but also erasing once more the figure of Ophelia whose body disappears behind the two fighting shapes, depriving her (and the audience) of her final burial. Her body vanishes like her father’s. Laertes had moaned the absence of Polonius’s tomb (4.5.208–10) and the erasure of any trace of his past glory. It is all as if Polonius had been thrown into the abyss of oblivion, save for the memory of his son. Polonius’s body (or rather the absence of his body) is transmogrified into a parodic funeral monument, or double-decker monument, which combined the recumbent effigy (or gisant) of a living person above, while a decomposing corpse was sculpted on the bottom level, often shrouded or eaten away by worms. Laertes’s description moves from the fully fledged gisant to the display of an incomplete mausoleum, resulting in a vision of void and absence. As Laertes’s depiction of what should have been the top part of his father’s sculpted bier unfolds, the repetition of the negative ‘no’ (4.5.209) erases – as he itemises the list of symbols and rites that recorded the deceased’s earthly fame – the earthly presence of his father as his description results in the progressive amputation and erasure of Polonius’s existence. Both scenes clearly illustrate the early modern fear of being forgotten.79

  • 80 Robert N. Watson, The Rest is Silence. Death and Annihilation in the English Renaissance (Berkeley (...)

23The scene is also dominated by a revenant that dreads oblivion, illustrating how terrified the human mind is at the idea that it will extinguish itself ‘in the vast of time and space’.80 The importance of securing one’s offspring appears to be the only means to be remembered, in a mutable and time-ridden world. The fear of obliteration informs the entire play and does not only concern the Ghost, but is also a matter of concern for Laertes and Hamlet himself. The character of Hamlet bears a finality to it, having no children he will not be survived. Hamlet thus disrupts the natural cycle of life which had been depicted by Claudius, when referring to the filial obligation owed to a departed parent (1.2.88–91) in the early stages of the play. This cycle gave, so to speak, an access to immortality and was discussed by Samuel Purchas:

  • 81 Purchas, Hakluytus, p. 437.

So hath he denyed generation to immortall individualls, and hath given Sexe for immortality of the Kinde, where the Persons and Particulars are subject to mortality.81

24Generational succession is a way of spelling out the very paradox that lies at the core of man’s existence, namely his desire for immortality while remaining aware of the brevity of his own life. Hamlet’s preoccupation with memory and death highlights the vanity and tragedy of the human condition as we near the end of the play. By focusing on history and looking back on the past, Shakespeare’s character sets human existence into perspective. Purchas’ definition of history may prove here quite valuable in better understanding Hamlet’s predicament:

  • 82 Purchas, Hakluytus, p. 585.

Historie is entitled, the Witnesse of Times, light of Truth, Life of Memorie, Mistresse of Life; makes absent things present, gives Mortall things an Immortalitie; lengthens Mans short life […]82

  • 83 The contemptus mundi (‘denial of the world’) topos expressed a rejection of worldly matters and pro (...)
  • 84 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 253.

25Hence, while remembering the great historical figures of the past, Hamlet revives the sacrosancta vetustas laying all the more emphasis on the vanity of human existence in a manner reminiscent of the de contemptu mundi83 tradition (5.1.176–84). The Graveyard Scene ends with Claudius’s depiction of a funeral monument, which ironically will turn out to be Hamlet’s (5.1.264–6). Hamlet’s reflections in the graveyard ‘provide [as Frye notes] the transition between his earlier uncertainties and the settled assurance displayed in the play’s final scene’.84

26The Graveyard Scene functions as a threshold within the play’s structure, which provides Hamlet with a spatial frame to express the changes of his states of being. It punctuates Hamlet’s life experience with what happened before (the Old King’s murder, Hamlet’s progressive awakening to his mortality …) and with what follows, namely, the final revenge scene (5.2). A scene in which, much like in the Dance of Death, King, Queen, Prince, and Laertes all die. In the medieval tradition, the Triumph worked as an exemplum that stimulated the viewer to think about his own mortality. Hamlet’s reassessment of history clearly sets the play within the frame of history and time. Thus, while the Graveyard Scene gives shapes to thoughts that are beyond historical time and space, Death remains nevertheless an inescapable fact of an existence located within time and history – as displayed onstage. Like his father, the prince moves from the centre of the stage to its periphery, as his story finds itself relegated to the margins of history. Horatio notes, ‘I knew you must be edified by the margent ere you had done’ (5.2.140).

27To conclude, Hamlet is rife with visions of death inextricably linked to the medieval and Renaissance iconography of death. The play provided the audience with Shakespeare’s Imaginarium of death whose bold innovations contributed to the reinventing of death onstage, as the play embraces a wide spectrum of possible eschatological meanings. As for the anatomical aspect of the play, it increasingly edged out older memento mori associations of death and human remains. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses anatomy in the realm of drama by shedding light on the insistently visual dimension of the body and the skeleton. As for the character of Hamlet, he uses anatomy to reveal human nature by metaphorically opening bodies and reflecting, in his soliloquies, upon his own existence and mortality. The playwright made subtle use of the rhetoric of anatomy at the close of the Elizabethan era. His pen both fleshed out the characters of the play, displaying their varied and changing textures on the sheet of paper, while, at the same time, making their bodies visible and tangible onstage. The Graveyard Scene, or if one may say so, the play’s apotheosis, portrays the entire earth completely engulfed in the dead of the past. As the flame of life slowly ebbs away with Hamlet’s death – ‘I am dead, Horatio. […] Had I but time, as this fell sergeant death / Is strict in his arrest, oh I could tell you—’ (5.2.312; 315–16) – we realise that Death’s Triumph is more apparent than real, as Hamlet’s character will live on forever in Shakespeare’s fresco. The latter symbolises the triumph of human genius over Death itself. As the theatrical magic repeats itself almost indefinitely, the young prince dies to resurrect among the living to remind them of their mortality and the vanity of all things.

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Notes

1 John Donne, Devotions upon Emerged Occasions and Death’s Duel, preface by Andrew Motion (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), p. 160.

2 Samuel Rowlands, Terrible Battell Betweene the two Consumers of the Whole World: Time, and Death (London: W[illiam] Jaggard for John Deane, [c. 1606]), sig. B2r..

3 Cicero first mentioned the concept in his Tusculanæ Disputationes (1.8.15) to describe the misery of the human condition. Seneca also dwelt on the concept in his Epistulæ Morales. In his fourth epistle entitled The Terrors of Death, he observes that ‘Most men ebb and flow in the wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life’ (4.5.5–6). Seneca’s intellectually and emotionally challenging tragedies also dealt with the timeless issues of the human condition. The awareness of man’s miserable condition was a dominant trend in the spiritual and philosophical fields from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance as Lotario Dei Segni’s De miseria humane conditionis attests to. Lotario’s work was extremely influential in Britain during that period.

4 All quotations are taken from William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, 3rd ed., The New Cambridge Edition, ed. Philip Edwards and Heather Hirschfeld (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

5 See 1.1.11, 16, 17, 21, 32, 35, 46, 65, and 1.2.198.

6 I borrowed this phrase from Sarah Iles Johnston.

7 Preserved panels of the altarpiece dedicated to all the saints, commissioned by Thüring Fricker for the collegiate church in Bern, facing the working days, 1505 (Kunstmuseum Bern, on deposit with the Gottfried Keller Foundation): https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/fr/articles/014740/2005-02-22/ (accessed 18 February 2024).

8 See the Tomb Scene in John Marston, Antonio’s Revenge, 3.2.9–10.

9 Michael Hattaway, Elizabethan Popular Theatre: Plays in Performance (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), p. 177.

10 Theodore Spencer, Death and Elizabethan Tragedy (New York: Pageant Books, Inc., 1960), p. 71.

11 See also Isabel Karremann, ‘Artless Deaths in Hamlet: The Play as Danse Macabre’, in The Shakespearean Death Arts (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), pp. 281–306.

12 John More, A Lively Anatomie of Death (London: G. S. for W. Jones, 1596), sig. A3r.

13 2.2.4–18, 3.1.1–4, and 3.1.156–69.

14 [Editor’s note] Karin Becker explains that the word ‘macabre’ derived from the Arabic maqbara meaning ‘cemetery’. It first appeared in Jean Le Fèvre’s Répit de la mort (1376) and was later confused with the name of Judas Maccabaeus (Maccabé in French) who was said to have started the cult of the dead. As a result, the ‘danse macabre’ is also called ‘danse macabré’ in fifteenth-century texts, see ‘La liste dans la danse macabre. La danse macabre comme liste’ in Anheim, Étienne, et al., Le pouvoir des listes au Moyen Âge – II : Listes d’objets/listes de personnes (Paris: Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2020), pp. 61–82, Fn28, http://books.openedition.org/psorbonne/88530 (accessed 18 February 2024).

15 John Lydgate, The Dance of Death, ed. Florence Warren (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1971), pp. xix–xx. See also Gabriel Peignot, who quotes M. Dulaure’s book Description des Curiosités de Paris published in 1791: ‘Au-dessus de la voûte construite par N. Flamel, du côté de la rue de la Lingerie, étoit une peinture qui représentoit un homme tout noir : le temps l’avoit fait disparoître , tome II, p. 131. Peignot also observes that this ‘Homme TOUT NOIR’ can be traced in different editions of the Danse Macabre. Gabriel Peignot, Recherches historiques et littéraires sur les danses des morts (Dijon: Victor Lagier, 1826), p. 87. I am greatly indebted to Sophie Oosterwijk’s work on the Dance of Death.

16 Robert Mannyng, Robert of Brunne’s ‘Handlyng synne’, Early English Text Society (London: Frederick James Furnivall K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1901), ll. 4885–88, 251–52. See also Christian Kiening, ‘Le double décomposé. Rencontres des vivants et des morts à la fin du Moyen Âge’, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, (5)1995, pp. 1157–90, 1178. There are also numerous examples of Death being portrayed as a woman: Death and Liffe (1386 and 1399), the Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi detto Lo Scheggia’s Triumph of Death (1465–70), or Petrarch’s Triumphus Mortis (1555).

17 See folio 38 of the 1641 edition of La grande danse macabre des hommes et des femmes historiée et augmentée de beaux dicts en latin, BnF, département Arsenal, 4-BL-3117, https://gallica.bnf.fr/view3if/ga/ark:/12148/bpt6k1512004x/f38 (accessed 18 February 2024). Warren traces the connection back to the original Dance of Death mural scheme, painted in 1424–1425 on the walls of one of the charnel houses in the cemetery of Les Saints Innocents in Paris. John Lydgate, who visited the bonehouse walls of Les Saints Innocents, translated the verses that were written on the mural scheme in his Dance of Death probably some time before 1433. The Benedictine’s poem became part of a painted Dance of Death in the medieval cloisters of Pardon Churchyard at Old Saint Paul’s in London only years after the original had been painted in Paris. It was still mentioned during the sixteenth century by Sir Thomas More in a brief but telling allusion in De Quatuor Novissimis ([1522], 1557) and by London antiquary John Stow (1525–1605) in his Survey of London (1598). Due to its fame, other Dance of Death paintings appeared around the country and came to be known by the generic name of ‘Dance of Paul’s’. Petrus Comestor observed in his Historia scholastica that such paintings could be assigned the same function as books: ‘Etiam in picturis ecclesiarum quæ sunt libri laicorum hoc repræsentatur nobis’ (‘This is also represented in the church paintings, which are, in a way, the books of the laity’), my translation from the Latin. Petrus Comestor, Historia scholastica, (Patrologia latina, t. 198, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne [Paris, 1855]), p. 1540.

18 Thomas Dekker, The Wonderfull Yeare 1603, Elizabethan and Jacobean Quartos, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1966), p. 54.

19 This seems to be the case for the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.

20 See also Nathalie Rivère de Carles, ‘“[T]he trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.86): Hamlet’s Textile Imagination’, in Victoria Bladen and Yan Brailowsky (eds), Hamlet in the Twenty-First Century, (Paris: CNED Belin, 2022), pp. 219–42.

21 Roland M. Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet. Issues and Responses in 1600 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 241–2.

22 Émile Mâle, L’Art Religieux de la fin du Moyen Âge en France (Paris: Armand Colin, 1995), pp. 361–65. See also Phoebe S. Spinrad, The Summons of Death on the Medieval and Renaissance English Stage (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987), pp. 6–7, and Didier Jugan, ‘Le cadavre, la Mort et le revenant. Origines théâtrales de la danse macabré : scénario et nouvelles hypothèses’, Le Moyen Âge. Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie, vol. CXXVII, 1/2021, pp. 105–37.

23 More, A Lively Anatomie, sig. E5r.

24 [Editor’s note] Transi tomb or cadaver monument: a type of church monument to deceased persons featuring a sculpted effigy of a skeleton or an emaciated, even decomposing body.

25 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 231.

26 Erwin Panofsky borrowed the expression from the very terms of the contract concluded between the sculptor Conrad Meit and his patroness, Margaret of Austria, Governess of the Netherlands, for her tomb at Brou, Erwin Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture. Its Changing Aspects from Ancien Egypt to Bernini (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1992), p. 78. See Walter Colman, La Dance Machabre or Deaths Duell (London: William Stansby, 1633). In his commendatory verses (To the Author upon his Poem), the playwright James Shirley draws a comparison between skin and clothes: ‘our fleshie garment’.

27 [Editor’s note] Anonymous English artist, transi image, f. 32v, ‘Disputacioun Betwyx the Body and Wormes’ (c. 1435–40), British Library, London, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f2/Transitory_tomb_-_1435-40.jpg (accessed 18 February 2024).

28 See folio 50 from the 1641 edition of La Grande Dance Macabre des Hommes et des Femmes, op.cit. https://gallica.bnf.fr/view3if/ga/ark:/12148/bpt6k1512004x/f50 (accessed 18 February 2024). See also Hélinand de Froidmont, ‘Morz est la mains qui tot agrape’, Les Vers de la Mort. Poème du XIIe siècle (Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1983), XXXI. 2, p. 90.

29 Sir Philip Sidney, Defence of Poesie, Astrophil and Stella, and Other Writings, Everyman’s Library, ed. Elizabeth Porges (London: Orion Publishing Library, 1997), p. 105.

30 Ariès claims, ‘l’anatomie n’était pas utile aux seuls médecins et chirurgiens. Elle était aussi importante pour le philosophe’. Philippe Ariès, L’homme devant la mort 1. Le temps des gisants (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1985), p. 74.

31 Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge, 1995), p. vii.

32 David Hillman, ‘Visceral Knowledge: Shakespeare, Skepticism, and the Interior of the Early Modern Body’, in David Hillman and Carla Mazzio (eds), The Body in Parts. Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 81–105, 81.

33 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 207.

34 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1895-0915-617 (accessed 18 February 2024). See also Francis Ames-Lewis, The Draftsman Raphael (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 51.

35 Devon L. Hodges, Renaissance Fictions of Anatomy (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), p. 5.

36 Sawday, The Body Emblazoned, p. 110.

37 Duke Pesta, ‘Articulating Skeletons: Hamlet, Hoffman, and the Anatomical Graveyard’, Cahiers Élisabéthains 69 (2006), pp. 21–39, 23.

38 Thomas Dekker, The Wonderfull Yeare, p. 39. [Editor’s note] Dekker wrote this pamphlet the year when Elizabeth I died and James VI/I acceded the throne of England. 1603 was also marked by an outbreak of plague.

39 Samuel Purchas (the Elder), Hakluytus Posthumus: Purchas his Pilgrimes: Microcosmos; or, The Historie of Man […] (London: W[illiam] S[tansby] for Henry Fetherstone, 1619), p. 19.

40 Henry Chettle, The Tragedy of Hoffman (c. 1602), in Five Revenge Tragedies, ed. Emma Smith (London: Penguin Classics, 2012), p. 257.

41 Richard Mulcaster, The Educational Writings of Richard Mulcaster, ed. James Oliphant (Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons, 1903), pp. 36–7.

42 See Sarah Werner, ‘Anatomical Fugitive Sheet’ (1573), Early Printed Books, https://www.earlyprintedbooks.com/anatomical-fugitive-sheet_1573/ (accessed 18 February 2024) version 20190427.

43 K. B. Roberts and J. D. W. Tomlinson, The Fabric of the Body. European Traditions of Anatomical Illustration (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 52.

44 John Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy. Aeschylus to Armageddon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 4.

45 Hillman and Mazzio (eds), The Body in Parts, p. 92. Numerous references and allusions are made to corporeal innards, see for example: 1.3.116–7; 1.4.82, 83; 1.5.94; and 3.4.35–6.

46 Hillman and Mazzio (eds), The Body in Parts, p. 83.

47 Pesta, ‘Articulating Skeletons’, p. 27.

48 William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, The New Cambridge Edition, ed. Anthony B. Dawson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

49 Gertrude re-echoes the physical effects of this metaphor later in the play (3.4.93).

50 See Pierre Kapitaniak, ‘Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Hamlet’s Ghost (But Were Afraid To ask)’, in Bladen and Brailowsky (eds), Hamlet in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 111–32.

51 Poets from Petrarch to Dante pinpointed their inability to describe the reality of death, an inability that also affected authors who, like Dekker, described the dreadful effects of the 1603 Plague: ‘A stiffe and freezing horror sucks up the rivers of my blood: my haire stands on ende with the panting of my braines: mine eye balls are ready to start out, being beaten with the billowes of my teares: out of my weeping pen does the incke mournefully and more bitterly than gall drop on the palefac’d paper […]’, Dekker, The Wonderfull Yeare, p. 36.

52 Alex Newell, The Soliloquies in Hamlet: The Structural Design (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1991), p. 32.

53 Newell, The Soliloquies in Hamlet, p. 33.

54 This is a possible echo of the exchange between Hieronimo and Balthazar in Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1582–1592), 4.4.17–9.

55 Spencer, Death and Elizabethan Tragedy, p. 185.

56 Spinrad, The Summons of Death, p. 13.

57 John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Penguin Classics, 1989), 2.622, p. 44.

58 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trionfo_della_morte,_gi%C3%A0_a_palazzo_sclafani,_galleria_regionale_di_Palazzo_Abbatellis,_palermo_(1446)_,_affresco_staccato.jpg (accessed 18 February 2024).

59 Henry Parker, Lord Morley’s translation, l.115–18, in Alessandra Petrina, Petrarch’s Triumphi in the British Isle (Cambridge: MHRA Tudor 1 Stuart Translations, vol. 27, 2020), p. 164.

60 Christian Kiening notes: ‘[le] transitus, représente un abstractum, une connaissance latente, le joint toujours insaisisable entre ce qui est pensable et ce qui est impensable’, ‘Le double décomposé’, p. 1161.

61 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/359962 (accessed 18 February 2024).

62 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 237.

63 ‘[L]e cimetière est jonchée de débris de squelettes ou même de morceaux de momies, à moitié enfouis […] les crânes, les os traînent partout’, in Philippe Ariès, L’homme devant la mort. 2 La mort ensauvagée [Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1985], p. 66.

64 https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/preparation-of-christ-s-tomb-vittore-carpaccio/jQEpYkxk6NooqQ (accessed 18 February 2024).

65 Mâle, L’Art religieux, p. 360.

66 Michael Neill, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 20.

67 Spinrad, The Summons of Death, p. 13.

68 Hamlet’s cogito mori on the skull has also been viewed as an echo of John Skelton’s poem ‘Uppon a Dead Man’s Head’ (c. 1498), The Complete English Poems of John Skelton, ed. John Scattergood (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), l.7–18, p. 32.

69 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 209.

70 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 212.

71 Spinrad, The Summons of Death, p. 215.

72 See Pietro da Lucca, who offers a variation on the same theme. A Dialogue of Dying Wel (Antwerp: A. C., 1603), fos 15r–16r.

73 Enargeia (vividness) was one of the qualities with saphensia (clarity) and phantasia (mental image) that was associated with ancient ekphrasis.

74 Karremann describes the scene as ‘a moment of individual nostalgia’, ‘Artless Deaths’, p. 285.

75 Lina Perkins Wilder, ‘The Soul of Agrippina: Gender, Suicide, and Reproductive Rights in Hamlet’, in The Shakespearean Death Arts (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), pp. 261–80, 263. See also John Donne’s treatise on the subject. In Biathanatos, Donne exposes the possible mitigating factors in the moral evaluation of suicide or ‘Self-murder’: ‘Often Meditation of this [suicide] hath wonne me to a charitable interpretation of their action, who dy so: and provoked me a little to watch and exaggerate their reasons, which pronounce so peremptory judgements upon them’ (Biathanatos [London: Printed for Humphrey Moseley, 1648], p. 18).

76 See Edwards’s note (5.1.236–8) in Edwards and Hirschfeld (eds), Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, p. 229.

77 James V. Holleran, ‘Maimed Funeral Rites in Hamlet’, English Literary Renaissance 19.1 (1989), pp. 65–93, p. 76.

78 See Holleran, ‘Maimed Funeral Rites’, and Michael MacDonald, ‘The Medicalization of Suicide in England: Laymen, Physicians, and Cultural Change, 1500–1870’, The Milbank Quarterly, 67.1 (1989), pp. 69–91.

79 Spencer, Death and Elizabethan Tragedy, p. 135.

80 Robert N. Watson, The Rest is Silence. Death and Annihilation in the English Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), p. 19.

81 Purchas, Hakluytus, p. 437.

82 Purchas, Hakluytus, p. 585.

83 The contemptus mundi (‘denial of the world’) topos expressed a rejection of worldly matters and propagated the ideal of detachment from the mundane world which inevitably drew on the injunction to remember death.

84 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 253.

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Jean Du Verger, « Hamlet or Shakespeare’s Anatomy of Death »Arrêt sur scène / Scene Focus [En ligne], 13 | 2024, mis en ligne le 24 avril 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/asf/8547 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11njk

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Jean Du Verger

Jean Du Verger is currently teaching English for Engineering at SupMicroTech-ENSMM in Besançon, after teaching at the universities of Paris V and Paris XI. He was also a course lecturer at the Sorbonne, where he gave classes on contemporary British drama (Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard). He defended his doctoral thesis (‘Turning Writing into a Show: Collage and Rewriting in Tom Stoppard’s Plays’) at Sorbonne University under Professor Elisabeth Angel-Perez’s supervision. He has authored several articles on Shakespeare’s and Tom Stoppard’s works. He has also published three articles in Moreana. He is a member of VALE – Sorbonne University.

Jean Du Verger enseigne actuellement l’anglais à SupMicroTech-ENSMM à Besançon après avoir enseigné à Paris V et Paris XI. Il a aussi donné des cours sur le théâtre britannique contemporain à l’université de Paris IV–Sorbonne (Harold Pinter et Tom Stoppard). Il a soutenu sa thèse (« L’Écriture en spectacle : collage et réécriture dans le théâtre de Tom Stoppard ») à l’université Paris–Sorbonne sous la direction du professeur Élisabeth Angel-Perez. Il est l’auteur de plusieurs articles sur l’œuvre de William Shakespeare et Tom Stoppard. Il est également l’auteur de plusieurs articles dans Moreana. Il est membre de VALE-Sorbonne université.

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