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Hamlet seems particularly interested with this idea of holding a mirror to the reality of situations to betray their alliances with death. He uses the same metaphor when speaking to the players: "the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show Virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."
The play which Prince Hamlet stages is vitally important not only in that it is a mirror and reflection of sorts, but also because it is in itself art. A great deal of fuss is made in the text about the proper form of the art of playing, as if to highlight that it's artistic merit were important to the story. This may be because putting the death of the king into play form is meant, within the story, to represent the way that death is turned into art as part of the Memento Mori ideology. Indeed, the "death as art" aspect of this ideology is, quite literally, embodied in every part of the story because Hamlet itself, as a play, is ars moriendi. In fact, it appears that to some degree Hamlet is aware of himself as just a character in a grand piece of death art. In the final scene, he seems to speak directly about this role, as he is dying an looking out at both the on-stage and off-stage audience: "That are but mutes or audience to this act, / Had I but time (as this fell sergeant, Death, /
Is strict in his arrest) O, I could tell you- but let it be. Horatio, I am dead..."
Additionally, references to the genre of death art are made through-out the play. Even the scene with Yorick's skull is actually a reference to a tradition in Renaissance painting at the time: "The contemplation of a skull is a common motif in paintings of the period. Often a saint is depicted with a skull, suggesting his awareness of the vanity of human endeavor... Cavarozzi's painting of St. Jerome, for instance, [has] in the foreground a skull facing outward..." (Triggs) it was common in this era for young, even foppish, romantics to be painted with skulls over which they brooded or considered their time on earth, while mystics tended to be consumed more with their spirituality, as Jerome who "pursues his characteristic work, which involves primarily the contemplation of divinity." (Triggs) it is important to recognize that painterly theme coming to the foreground in this scene, as in a couple others, because it highlights the connections between this as death art and that which exists in the external/non-literary world.
The final theme vital to the ideology of Memento Mori was that of the death dance. According to Jacobs, the point of the death dance was to illustrate that, through the universality of death, no man was above any other. The king or pope only led the rest of the world down into death, and he was not exempt from it himself. This is actually one of the most important themes in Hamlet, as the boy tries to reconcile himself both with his father's sudden death, his need to kill the new king, and his own impending death (as yet just sensed). He must learn -and then repeat to all those he encounters-- that being a king, or prince, is not enough to excuse one from the general order of things. This is actually a truth which is first set forth to him by Gertrude and Claudia, though from their lips it is somewhat suspect. As the queen says, "You knowst 'tis common. All that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity." To this Hamlet originally responds, "Ay, madam, it is common." From his tone here, and his later use of the word "common" to describe those who are not nobly born ("common players"), one might perceive him to be saying that only the common ought die. He indeed seems to protest that such a strong man should die as well. Yet once he faces he father's ghost and the reality sinks in, he quickly begins to preach the opposite message - that all are dying. So he argues that "a king may go a progress Through the guts of a beggar," and that "imagination [may] trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole..."
So Hamlet begins to tell the story of the death dance, which he finishes in blood in the final scene as the king and queen lead everyone else into death. That death is not reserved even just for nobleman is, however, made clear in the way that Rosencratz and Guildenstern, mere friends of his from school and common enough folk, are always caught up in the drama. Indeed, though their deaths seem to mean less than nothing in the final scene, they are retated here particularly so the reader, thinking they have faced all the deaths, maybe suddenly given two more - but also so that this reader may see that even the common follow the king in death.
So one may clearly see how the language and plot of Hamlet itself lends easily to the ideology of the memento mori, and also how each of the three major themes of the art movement are embodied in the plot of Hamlet. The story encompasses the reflection and meditation on death, the creation of death art for the play, and the way in which the king in his macabre political dance leads everyone to their deaths.
Bottum, J. "All That Lives Must Die."
First Things 63 (May 1996): 28-32. www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9605/articles/bottum.html
Ewbank, Inga-Stina. "Hamlet and the Powerful Words in Aspects of Hamlet." Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Laurie Langer Harris. Vol 1. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984: 270-275.
Jacobs, Henry E. "Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy, and the Ideology of the Memento Mori." Shakespeare Studies. Vol 21. (1993): 96-108.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Project Gutenberg: 1997. http://www.gutenberg.org
Triggs, Jeffery. "A Mirror for Manking: The Pose of Hamlet with the Skull of Yorick." The New Orleans Review 17.3 (Fall 1990): 71-79. www.leoyan.com/globallanguage.com/triggs/Hamletpose.html[continue]
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