Explore Shakespeares presentation of death and remembrance in Hamlet

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Explore Shakespeare’s presentation of death and remembrance in Hamlet. You must relate your discussion to relevant contextual factors and ideas from your critical reading

Throughout the revenge tragedy ‘Hamlet’, Shakespeare uses death and remembrance to explore his characters. Through death Ophelia not only regains her beauty and creates a sense of pathos, but her death also reflects contemporary ecclesiastical law. Furthermore, the death of Polonius reflects the court deception in both the court of Eisnore and in Elizabeth’s reign – both heavily influenced by Machiavelli. Remembrance, likewise, is an important notion throughout, not least for exploring Christian beliefs about the afterlife, and by providing the means through which Hamlet can live on – both in in the character’s memories and in ours.

There is a fundamental divide in both the critics and the characters in Hamlet surrounding the death of Ophelia. Many have seen her end as a suicide. For instance David Leverenz argues that she commits suicide as a result of her melancholy. Indeed, many Elizabethans would have understood that erotomania often led to suicidal tendencies. Feminist critics, such as Elaine Showalter, have also agreed that her death was a suicide. Her suicide, they claim, represents an act of partial existentialist awareness – ironically, by obliterating herself; she defines herself. The priest, like many in thinking that she killed herself, represents the view of the Catholic Church. He declares, “shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her”. The asyndetic listing, combined with the hard consonance symbolises the religious condemnation, which broke ecclesiastical law which said that even if someone committed suicide through insanity they would still not be entitled to a Christian burial. Yet, the fact that Ophelia received such a burial reflects the secular law in 16th century England, which permitted Christian burials for the insane (Thomas Regnier) – indeed, the first clown alludes to this “crowner’s quest law”. However, such a verdict of felo-de-se is unsupported by the text (Barbara Smith). Gertrude emphatically describes, with suspiciously intimate knowledge (her account “certainly implicates an eye witness” (J. S. Nosworthy)), the death of Ophelia. She depicts Ophelia as “clambering” up a tree before falling in and drowning after an “envious sliver broke”. Indeed, the use of pathetic fallacy is used to emphasise the accidental nature of her death. This zoomorphic description of the branch being “envious” aligns it with evil. Her clothes are personified as they rage against her death, trying to “bore her up”. Such use of pathetic fallacy imagery creates a sense of tragic irony, which, as Dr Samuel Johnson would say, is the ultimate point to her death. Yet, the emphatic role nature plays, emphasised by the pathetic fallacy, shows that her death was not a suicide. Indeed, Nosworthy argues – “the vital point is that Ophelia’s death…[is] accidental”. Furthermore, her death is deliberately portrayed as accidental so as to parallel the tragedy of another young woman, Katherine Hamlett, in Avon, December 1659. Hamlett fell and drowned whilst trying to fetch a pale of water. In this way, the semantic field of floral imagery describing Ophelia’s death (“willow, garlands, crow-flowers, nettles, daisies”) thus also acts to emphasise the touching death of Hamlett as well. The flora carries connotations of delicacy, beauty and elegance thus underling the tragedy of both accidental deaths. However, all other references to Ophelia portray her death as at least “doubtful” but most likely that “she drowned herself wittingly”. It seems likely therefore that Shakespeare added Gertrude’s speech as a touching eulogy of Hamlett, despite the glaring inconsistency it would create. In this way, death is used to create a sense of pathos through the death of Ophelia, which also parallels the death of Katherine Hamlett.

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There is also considerable debate around the death of Polonius and what it signifies. A. C. Bradley claims Polonius’ death is Hamlet being “punished” for not killing Claudius; Craig Hardin agrees that the mistake of not killing Claudius, led to the mistake of killing Polonius. Yet, this seems an unlikely explanation, Shakespeare would have undoubtedly created a greater purpose for his death than that. Roderick Benedix writes of Polonius' death as serving a dramatic purpose, "inasmuch as it is the cause of Ophelia's madness”. To which John Draper, L. L. Schücking and G. L. Kitteridge would agree. Yet, as ...

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