Good Hamlet,” begs his mother at the audience’s first sight of the black-clothed prince, “cast thy nighted color off,”
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not forever with thy 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: Aye, Madam, ‘tis common.
Gertrude: If it be, Why seems it so particular with thee?
The scene is rich, as scenes in Shakespeare always are, with the play of language. Hamlet agrees that death is common, meaning the opposite of noble, but Gertrude had said that death is common, meaning the opposite of particular. With his downcast eyes the Prince may seem to seek for his father in the dust, but that is where his father in fact does lie—or perhaps does not, for the scene ends (ironically, just as Hamlet has said of his father, “I shall not look upon his like again”) with Horatio’s announcement of the ghost, and Hamlet’s eye will soon “look like a friend” on the dead Denmark up in the air on the battlements rather than down in the dust on the floor.
So too this second scene in Hamlet is rich with themes the play will later develop: the newly remarried Queen’s embarrassment before the still-grieving Prince; her new husband’s uneasy possession of the throne; her kittenish tendency—the impulse of the aging coquette—to please and comfort men; perhaps even her genuine and loving wish to see her son consoled. And yet, though Gertrude has complex reasons to want an end to Hamlet’s public mourning, her actual argument is simple: recollecting at last our knowledge that death is “common,” remembering at length our certainty that “all that lives must die,” we ought to leave off weeping.
Claudius too, and for equally complex reasons, seeks an end to Hamlet’s mourning. “You must know, your father lost a father,” he continues his wife’s argument, “That father lost, lost his.” Reflection ought to bring to mind the “common theme” of nature: not just that fathers die, but that fathers must die.
In obstinate condolment is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ‘tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d.
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense.
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ‘Tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corpse till he that died today,
“This must be so.”
Hamlet, of course, is not consoled—as the audience knows he surely ought not to be. Claudius, seeking some expression for the universality of death, lights on the obvious trope, “From the first corpse till he that died today.” But the first corpse was Abel, murdered by his brother, and the most recent corpse is Hamlet’s father, also murdered by a brother. Claudius—in the manner Freud taught us to watch for in Shakespeare—unconsciously confesses his guilt even as he tries to check the grief of the last mourner for his victim.
Something more, however, than merely guilty motives is wrong with the argument Gertrude and Claudius offer Hamlet. The crimes of the King and Queen are not incidentals in an otherwise valid consolation, but signals of the consolation’s invalidity. And the fact that Shakespeare puts it in the mouths of the guilty pair shows, I think, his awareness of that invalidity. What consolation, after all, is “This must be so”? Who tries to console a child for her broken doll by telling her that all dolls break, it’s what dolls do? Offered as a consolation, death’s universality would be comic if it were not so sad. What could a child feel at being assured that not only has her old doll broken, but so will every other doll she owns? Knowledge of universal death ought logically to make grief worse, not better: not only has my father died, but so will my mother, my spouse, my children, my friends, and everyone I ever love.
The world is full of theories about Hamlet, each more fantastic than the last. One theory I find helpful, however, claims that the play—in part, at least—presents the revulsion of medieval Christianity at the Renaissance revival of pagan philosophy. Fragments of Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism, the major schools of ancient philosophy, survived throughout the Middle Ages and had been reconciled to some degree with Christian theology. But the Renaissance rediscovered the minor, unassimilated schools of ancient pagan thought: Cynicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and, especially, Stoicism. Indeed, from Shakespeare’s time through the nineteenth century, “philosophical” meant in English primarily what in the twentieth century we would call “stoical.”
The woolly arguments of Gertrude and Claudius are thus not new, but merely bad examples of a general revival that marks Renaissance thought. In Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, in Renaissance translations of Seneca and Boethius, in the Renaissance forgery that claimed to be Cicero’s long-lost treatise on consolation, in Petrarch, and in Montaigne, there are better examples of the Renaissance rediscovery of ancient modes of consolation, and less troublesome instances of the Renaissance restoration of the ancient pagan scorn for grief. In our preference for the grief of Hamlet above the consolation of Gertrude and Claudius, however, Shakespeare shows us the problem created by this Renaissance revival.
We are unfair to both drama and philosophy when we suppose that Shakespeare wrote philosophy. And even where playwrights are philosophers (as the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca was), their plays have heroes more heroic than Hamlet and villains more villainous than Claudius. But Shakespeare shows (as Christopher Marlowe showed before him) that tragic clashes do not require paragons. Hamlet is no saintly Christian: “Now could I drink hot blood,” he swears. And Claudius is no noble Roman Stoic: a murderer, carouser, plotter, and seducer of his brother’s wife, he could never have been “philosophical” in the stoical sense of the word—never have hidden his fright when the play within the play manages “to catch the conscience of the King,” never have proved in suicide “more an antique Roman than a Dane.”
But the clash between Hamlet and Claudius may nonetheless be in part a clash between Christianity and Stoicism, for Hamlet’s mind moves in a way that St. Augustine would recognize and Claudius’ mind in a way that Seneca would know. It takes a Christian (albeit a bad one) to hesitate to kill a kneeling man—as Hamlet at least claims to hesitate to kill Claudius—for fear that, slain at prayer, the victim escape hellfire. It takes a Stoic (albeit a bad one) to urge his victim’s son to contemplate the naturalness of death. The irony of Claudius’ argument for consolation deserves our notice: Who better to trust than a murderer, after all, for the news that all men die?
No theory of Hamlet completely explains the notoriously difficult play, of course. And yet, some awareness of a clash between Christianity and Stoicism in the play gives us an insight into the oddity of being consoled by death’s universality: To take solace for the death of one human being in the fact that all human beings die is on its face absurd or even spiteful. But the logical invalidity of a consolation does not prevent it from being psychologically consoling, and there is, as the Stoics saw, a way in which universal death may actually console us for a particular death. Hamlet’s problem, and ours, is that this Stoical way of consoling grief ends in a denial of the reality of the dead person for whom the mourner grieves—a denial Gertrude and Claudius undoubtedly desire.
The thought that death is common, that all that lives must die, offers no obvious consolation. Be consoled, it seems to say, not only have you lost the one you mourn, but you will eventually lose everyone else you love. And yet, bad argument or not, a denial of the uniqueness of the dead person does seem to have some genuinely consoling effect in abstracting us from the particularity of our grief. The horror of loss originates in the helpless knowledge of the present absence of the person we once loved—and still would love, still do love, though the object of that love is now forever lost. But could we abstract from time, could we rise above the stream of time and see the future with the past, present loss would be beneath us. The Now in which we are powerless would not be the Now in which we powerfully subpoena past and future in contemplation of undying universals. To be able to rise above the self, to think of universal death, denies the helplessness of grief. Its power to console lies not so much in its thought as in its thinking.
The knowledge of universal death often involves a second abstraction as well, in the knowledge that everyone at some time must suffer grief. “There is a form of consolation, extremely commonplace I grant you, which we ought always to have on our lips and in our hearts,” writes Cicero,
to remember that we are human beings, born under a law which renders our life a target for all the slings and arrows of fortune, and it is not for us to refuse to live under the conditions of our birth, nor to resent so impatiently the misfortunes we can by no process of forethought avoid, but, by recalling to mind what has befallen others, to induce the reflection that what has happened to ourselves is nothing new.
As a thought, it must be acknowledged, this is mean and spiteful: it is vile to be consoled for suffering by the thought that everyone else must sometime suffer too. But as a thinking, this is in fact the most abstracting of consolations. To think it, we must perform a sort of double abstraction: first losing our own particular humanity in the abstraction to universal humanity, and then losing our own particular loss in the universality of that universal humanity’s universal experience of loss. Few of us can think many thoughts at once, and the complexity of this abstraction may be one reason for its apparent consolation: the thinking of it takes so much thought, we must put aside some grief. But even could we hold in mind every horror of our grief, still we are offered an escape from grief by this ancient Stoic thought that all the world must suffer—for the self who contemplates universal suffering is not the self who suffers.
The ancients were not children and did not imagine that they would live forever or that they must not mention death. “Always think on death,” Seneca writes to a dying man, “that you may never fear it.” But already in Rome’s Silver Age, traditional words of consolation for grief had come to seem tired, old, and used. Seneca himself writes of his need for new expressions. Pliny begs for arguments “uncommon and resistless.” A century later, Fronto (a famous orator and the teacher of the Stoic Emperor, Marcus Aurelius) observes the unlikeliness that “poets’ songs or philosophers’ precepts” will much console anyone for the loss of a child.
Complaints about a tradition, however, testify to its existence. It was Hellenistic Greek writers who developed and bequeathed to Rome the Consolatio—a formal essay of consolation, full of standard metaphors and arguments, and repeated turns of phrase. This ancient genre, in its Renaissance translation and imitation, is the ultimate source of the second-hand and second-rate arguments for consolation Claudius and Gertrude offer Hamlet. But the ancient Consolatio, even in its most polished Latin form (in Seneca’s hands, most famously), does not escape the immorality that Hamlet, I believe, senses in the arguments of his mother and stepfather.
Long before the Hellenistic Age, philosophers had written on consolation for fear at the death of the self, and mourners written on their sorrow at the death of others. Plato mentions consolation in both the third and tenth books of the Republic, and consolation is a constant theme in the trio of dialogues about Socrates’ death. Though we have lost a celebrated essay on death by Democritus and a dialogue by Aristotle, the surviving pseudo-Platonic Axiochus reveals the common Greek philosophical concern for consoling the fear of death. We have as well, from the earliest times, elegiac poetry, funeral orations, and gravestone inscriptions. But the Consolatio as a genre is born only when Hellenistic writers adapted these philosophical analyses and funeral phrases to arguments against grief.
By all accounts, Cicero was the first Roman to perform this adaptation, and in their early days, formal Latin consolationes could be distinguished from informal notes of sympathy and from poetry. But, so powerful does Cicero’s tradition become, little difference remained in later writers between the consolations offered in prose—formal or informal—and consolations in poetic epicedia: there are “definite words,” writes Cicero, appropriate to grief. Cicero is not an inconsiderable philosopher, but he begins a tradition of Latin consolation with serious philosophical problems.
Several arguments typify the Consolatio, and mark it as a genre. Some of these—“It is utter folly,” Cicero observes, “to be uselessly overcome by sorrow when one realizes that there is no possible advantage”; we are bound, he adds, by “the dictates of consistency” to cease mourning—simply beg the question. Why ought we to do what is useful? Why ought we to be consistent with our past behavior? Only if we had already accepted usefulness and consistency (which is to say, already accepted an active rationality defined in opposition to the passion of our grief) would we find consolation in an appeal to usefulness and consistency. The other typical arguments fare no better. Cicero writes that we must “anticipate by our wisdom what the passage of time is sure to bring us,” while his friend Servius Sulpicius argues that the dead themselves would stop our mourning if they could. Both these consolations are logically incomplete—what could personified Wisdom or the ghostly dead tell us except some other consolation?—and both betray a temporal confusion by importing future and past into the present.
This temporal confusion is the overwhelming device of the Consolatio, and, once having noticed it, we find it everywhere. All the typical consolations of the Consolatio assert the consoling power of the abstraction involved in knowing that everyone must die. To speak of usefulness is to bring the future within touch of the present. To speak of consistency is to bring the present within touch of the past. Knowledge of coming forgetfulness uses the future to testify against present grief, and knowledge of the dead uses the testimony of the past.
There is something absurd about a proof that all we love must someday cease to be. We know it by a sure induction. Things do not remain as we left them: our mothers and our fathers die, our friends, the places that we knew, the objects we regard. But this fact that all things die does not itself die. Nothing in the perpetual flux of Heraclitus is comprehensible, any more than we can step into the same flowing river twice. But our knowledge of the impermanence of things is itself a sort of permanence. We comprehend a deathless unity when we observe the dying multiplicity.
Explanations of this ceaseless flux range from Aristotle’s definition of time as the measure of motion to Isaac Newton’s equitable and absolute temporal flow. But all such explanations offer an escape from corruptible particulars to bright, unchanging universals. And though Aristotle himself notes time’s terrible destruction, and though Newtonian physics is itself a science of change, still we stand outside destruction when we see it; the perceiver of time is not in the time that he perceives. When we contemplate the stream of time, we transcend death in thought: thinking of our span of days, and supposing thus beyond them.
It seemed to the Stoics that this fact might be used for consolation not just of our fear at our own coming death, but of our grief at other people’s death, as well. Only if nothing were to die could we banish grief. But since things do die, the only way to say they do not is to emphasize the fact they do. This is less paradoxical than it sounds. To be consoled for grief by the thought that death is common is either absurd or spiteful. And yet, there is a consolation in the universal, for the ability to think of death implies the thinker stands above that death. In that horrifying letter in which he urges a dying man to think about death, Seneca means to be consoling: the more we emphasize death and destruction, the more we will rise above them; the more we think on death and destruction, the less real they will become. When the Stoic says that all men die, he means that they do not.
The gain of this Stoic memento mori, however—at least as it seeks to console grief at the death of others rather than to console fear at the death of ourselves—is purchased at a cost: not only does death become less real, but so do the particular things that die. In his struggle to keep alive the memory of his father that everyone else at Denmark’s court seems so willing to let go, Hamlet sees what all who have ever grieved must see: Knowledge of universal death cannot console us for the fact that a real, unique, and particular person has been ripped from being, that a hole exists in the fabric of the universe, that all the real possibilities which once depended upon that dead person are now no longer possible.
There is, of course, a remedy for grief in “the long lapse of time,” as Cicero writes, “slow-working, it is true, but effectual.” And yet, he adds, “it is not the mere lapse of time that produces this effect, but continued reflection. For if the circumstances are the same, and the person is the same, how can there be any change in the grief felt?” Our experience certainly is that grief weakens in time; indeed, in Mourning and Melancholia Freud describes grief as a form of insanity that we do not bother to treat as insane because we are confident that it will pass. But this, as Cicero sees, is exactly the problem. The passage of time, taken by itself, cannot be what dilutes our grief, for the cause of that grief remains untouched by time: the real person whom we really loved is just as dead and gone. Grief must be drowned, rather, by some event that happens in that passage of time.
For Cicero, this event is a slow but inevitable re-emergence of rationality. “There is no grief that is not diminished and mitigated by the lapse of years,” Sulpicius reminds him when Cicero himself seemed to over-mourn his daughter’s early death; “To await that lapse, instead of hastening to forestall the effect by applying your wisdom, is not creditable to you.” For Freud, too, time brings about a rationalization in which we accept the world of possibilities as actually constituted—in which we no longer seek the impossible object but become sane once again.
And yet, what right has grief to grow so thin? “Let love clasp grief lest both be drowned,” as Tennyson demands in In Memoriam,
Let darkness keep her raven gloss.
Oh, better to be drunk with loss,
To dance with death, to beat the ground
Than that the victor hours should scorn
The long result of love . . . .
Beyond the bare claim that grief ought to end, neither the philosopher nor the psychologist can give a reason for grief to end. We do a disservice to the dead when we accept and rationalize in abstraction the fact of death. We forget the life that was, we kill the corpse a second time, when we abandon grief’s struggle to maintain the always present absence of the beloved dead person whom we mourn.
The Stoics, in other words, are factually right: in abstraction to the knowledge of universal death, we can hasten the loss of grief’s sharp edge that time will eventually bring about anyway. But that does not make it morally right that we forget, and still less does it make right that we hasten the day of forgetting.
It is true that, insensibly, we do in fact let the dead slip away. “Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind,” Wordsworth writes after his daughter’s death,
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb . . . ?
But how could I forget thee? through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!
And it is true that the world does in fact go on in spite of grief. But neither of these facts makes it right that we forget or ever cease to grieve.
The first guilt felt in grief is that the guilty lover dares to live, even in grief; the second guilt is that the lover dares to live even after grief has ceased. Gradually, in care for other things, in the wants and the needs of the body, perhaps even in the burden of charity, the bustle draws us back and we cease at length to grieve. And one bright day, we notice that we have ceased to grieve, and all the world goes black in guilty grief again. But the inwardness of grief decays and we find it harder and harder to summon up the ghostly present absence of the dead. Like Wordsworth, C. S. Lewis, in his painstaking self-scrutiny after the death of his wife, observes the strange sharp guilt that accompanies the first awareness of having been for a moment not grieving”the guilt that accompanies the knowledge that grief is dying.
This guilt has always seemed to me to reflect a genuine moral impulse. The idea that death is common may remind us that we lack the strength and time to grieve for all the dead. “I had not thought death had undone so many,” T. S. Eliot remembers from Dante (remembering from Virgil, remembering from Homer). But that we must fail to grieve for all gives no sanction to our failure; virtue is not heroic save when it aims at what lies beyond our power. And, more important, that we must fail to grieve for all gives no reason to cease to grieve for some. I do not know all the dead, but those dead whom I know depend in some important way upon my grief:
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires,
Even from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Even in our ashes live their wonted fires
as Thomas Gray claims in his Elegy in a Country Churchyard.
The fact remains, as Cicero and Freud both saw, that—despite the guilt we feel as it fades—grief does seem to fade. But its fading ought to be a cause for deep suspicion to a moral imagination. “The only thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is,” Emerson writes after the death of his son.
Something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar . . . I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature. . . . I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition.
The desire of Gertrude and Claudius to hasten Hamlet’s forgetting proceeds, I believe, from a hope to implicate the Prince psychologically in their crime—a complicated ploy in which they hope that Hamlet will equate his griever’s guilt with their agent’s guilt and thereby find a psychologically compelling motive to hurry his forgetting. And Hamlet is saved from this ploy only by his suspicion of himself confronting the conflicting moral demands assailing him.
Unless the dead will stand again before us as themselves—unless death is in fact unreal—there is no consolation. “The immortality of souls brings us not the slightest consolation,” Fronto observes in a letter to Marcus Aurelius,
seeing that in this life we are bereft of our best-beloved ones. We miss the well-known gait, the voice, the features, the free air; we mourn over the pitiable face of the dead, the lips sealed, the eyes turned, the hue of life all fled. Be the immortality of the soul ever so established, that will be a theme for the disputations of philosophers, it will never assuage the yearning of a parent.
According to some interpretations of Hamlet, the Prince’s obstinate grief may have conjured or projected the ghost upon the Danish battlements, for he can find even a troubled consolation only in actual sight of his father. So too, perhaps, when Jesus wept for Lazarus, the consolation he chose was to call the corpse forth from the grave. A clear reading of Hamlet, a clear reading of ourselves, requires that we not lie to ourselves about this, any more than Hamlet does—though his honesty drives him nearly mad. Short of the immediate opening of the graves—short of resurrection now—there is no consolation: only the vilest of abstractions and the most self-serving of forgettings.
Joseph Bottum is Associate Editor of First Things.