All entries for Monday 18 April 2005
April 18, 2005
This is probably my favourite song so far off Rufus' new 'Want Two' album. Note living legend Levon Helm from The Band is playing the drums on this track. Saw him live recently and this song was one of the highlights. Intro chords are the same for the verses. Not sure about the chords towards the end in the 'into the early morning' bit, but it works generally.
¦ Am Em ¦ F Am ¦ F Am ¦ F E ¦
¦ Am Em ¦ F Am ¦ F Am ¦ E Am¦
The mind has so many pictures, why can’t I sleep with my eyes open
The mind has so many memories, can you remember what it looks like when I cry?
I’m trying, trying to tell you all that I can in a sweet and velvet tongue
But no words ever could sell you, sell you on me after all that I have done
Am G F Em Dm
I’m only the one you love
E Dm G E
Am I only the one you love?
The Lady Gloom and her hornets circling round is now before us
The screaming’s done without moving, one little move and for sure you will be stung
I’m singing ‘Oh Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem, see what he’s picked up in the park’
Let fuck this awful art party, want you to make love to me and only to me in the dark
I’m only the one you love
Am I only the one you love?
¦ Am Em ¦ F Am ¦ F Am ¦ F E ¦
¦ Am Em ¦ F Am ¦ F Am ¦ E Am¦
We’ve traded in our snapshots
C G C
We’re going through the motions
Into the view, I’m leaving you
Em G E Dm
Down Conduit Avenue into the early morning
Into the early morning
F Em Dm E Dm E Am
The one I love, are you only the one I love?
Ok here's some more – I'm just putting it on here now so I have another source in case my computer messes up, which is highly likely – but only when I've finished the dissertation and am about to hit the save button. I've done the section on the sprit now, though it's subject to revision.
The spirits of the dead, whether they appear in ghostly form or not, are ever-present right across the work of both Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians, and there are many characters, in both tragedy and comedy, whose actions and motivations become, to one extent or another, hugely affected by the death of a loved one. Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, for instance, sets itself up as a rather silly, conventional Menandrian romantic comedy right up until the last two hundred lines of the play, after which time a messenger arrives with the news of the death of the King of France. This has such a huge influence upon the Princess and her ladies-in-waiting that they are forced to leave the men that have been wooing them for the last five acts and return home to grieve. As Biron points out, this one death, of a character we never even see on stage, means that the very genre of the play is affected, and it ‘…doth not end like an old play. Jack hath not Jill’ (Love’s Labour’s Lost 5.2.851.2) . In the Greek tradition too, we see Euripides use two separate plays – The Trojan Women and Hecuba – to explore the Trojan queen’s descent into madness as she hears the news that, one by one, her family members are executed, enslaved or sacrificed by the Greeks.
It is perhaps surprising to note, though, that throughout the entire canon of the Ancient Greek tragedy still available to the modern reader, there are only three plays which actually feature ghosts as characters on stage – Aeschylus’ Eumenides (the third part of his Oresteia trilogy) and Persians, and Euripides’ Hecuba. Indeed, it could even be said that only in the Aeschylus plays do the spirits (the Ghost of Clytemnestra in Eumenides and the Ghost of Darius in The Persians) actually feature as part of the action of the play itself – in Hecuba, the murdered Polydorus appears as a Prologue, explaining plot details directly to the audience and not addressing any of the other characters, performing much the same function as, for example, the goddess Aphrodite at the beginning of Euripides’ Hippolytus, or Athene in Sophocles’ Ajax. While Euripides’ apparently unprecedented choice of effectively substituting a ghost for a god in his prologue is, in itself, interesting, is the furious, vengeful ghost of Clytemnestra which has much more in common with the Shakespearian spirits who haunt the likes of Hamlet and Macbeth.
Within Shakespeare as well, though, there are very notably different kinds of ghosts, their existence performing different functions depending on the different points the playwright is trying to make about death. Admittedly, what the ghosts who appear in four different Shakespeare plays do have in common is that all of them have been violently murdered by characters in the play who are still alive at the time of their appearance. However, while Banquo, Caesar and the victims of Richard III all appear in very similar ways and only haunt their murderers, it is clear that Shakespeare is doing something different with his ghost in Hamlet, where the king is seen by several characters and calls for revenge to be taken on his behalf.
Clearly, in the first three incidences, it seems pointless to argue in favour of the notion that the ghosts in any way ‘exist’ within the reality of their plays – certainly, the sinister and silent appearances of Banquo and Julius Caesar to Macbeth and Brutus says much more about the disintegrating mental state of the murderers than the existence of the supernatural, especially since it is made quite clear that no other characters on stage can see the ghosts. The fact that that Macbeth sees the ghost twice, both times not ten lines after he has toasted Banquo’s absence, not to mention Lady Macbeth’s insistence that he has a history of hallucinations (‘This is the air-drawn dagger which you said/Led you to Duncan’ Macbeth 3.4.61–2), hints that even Macbeth himself knows that the ghost he sees is not really there, but is a manifestation of his guilt. Similarly, Brutus and King Richard both openly acknowledge that they consider the ghosts they see to be products of their own feverish minds (note Richard’s exclamation ‘Have mercy, Jesu! – Soft, I did but dream’ Richard III, 5.5.132 and Brutus’ rationalisation ‘I think it is the weakness of mine eyes/That shapes this monstrous apparition’ Julius Caesar, 4.2.327–8).
Nevertheless, this does not make any of the ghosts any less terrifying to the three men, and certainly, it is no coincidence that their respective downfalls are greatly accelerated after the moment that they meet their victims’ ghosts, even if it what they see is not ‘real’. It is Brutus who seems to feel this more acutely, and he in particular seems to completely lose the courage of his convictions once he knows that even his own conscience is rebelling against him and willing him to fail – certainly, he hints that he expected to die even before the battle had begun when he admits to Volumnius that ‘The ghost of Caesar has appeared to me…I know my hour is come’ Julius Caesar, 5.5.16–19.
So, if we are to look at this first category of ghosts less of a nod towards the supernatural and more as indicators of the innermost thoughts and fears of the tragic protagonists, then it is equally interesting to look at the appearance of the ghost in Hamlet, which has ramifications of its own. The idea that the ghost of his father may be a figment of Hamlet’s imagination simply does not work, and not just because Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo also see it in the very first act of the play. Because this ghost is unique in Shakespeare due to its appearance before the avenger and not the murderer, we can assume that it is there to perform a very specific function. Most importantly, the material existence of the ghost within the world of the play (and the fact that this existence is never seriously called into question) signals that Hamlet is part of the tragic sub-genre of ‘revenge tragedy’.
Clytemnestra’s ghost in The Oresteia can be viewed in a similar way. Certainly, she resembles the ghost of King Hamlet in that she too calls for revenge – but there is also an argument for viewing her as a manifestation of Orestes’ guilt, like the ghosts in Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Richard III. Haruo Konishi points out that, at the beginning of Eumenides ‘the Furies, who were visible only to the eyes of the demented Orestes in the previous play, are now visible and alive to the audience ’, and goes on to assert that this signifies a transition from the ‘real’ world to some kind of hallucinatory landscape inside Orestes’ mind, in which his guilt at killing his mother shows itself through the appearance of the supernatural. While this is no doubt an interesting idea, and one which would constitute a fascinating interpretation of the play if it were ever to be used in the theatre, I would argue that it makes more sense to view Clytemnestra as a literal, vengeful ghost in the mould of King Hamlet, and therefore see Aeschylus’ Oresteia as the first example of revenge tragedy, a genre of which Hamlet and so much other Elizabethan and, indeed, Roman drama can be considered a part.
With this in mind, it would perhaps be beneficial to explore this very specific genre, in terms of how calling these plays revenge tragedies affects our interpretation of both the characters of the ghosts and of the plays as a whole. Firstly, it is worth pointing out that we are ascribing the name ‘revenge’ tragedy to Aeschylus’ play retrospectively, since for him there were no such tragic sub-genres – in Ancient Greece, plays were simply ‘tragedies’ or ‘comedies’, even if they can be categorised slightly differently by modern critics. Nevertheless, the traditional staples of this peculiarly Elizabethan genre – a ghost calling for vengeance against his murderers, hints of madness on the part of the protagonist, a violent and bloody murder (or series of murders) involving family members or close friends and the protagonist having to exact revenge by himself because of a corrupt or incompetent government – are all quite obviously there in The Oresteia.
This is perhaps unsurprising, given that although the genre was at its most popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime, it was inspired by the Roman plays of Seneca, who was in turn inspired by the Greeks. It seems entirely possible that Seneca took these elements for his plays particularly from The Oresteia, and the Elizabethan and Jacobean pioneers of the genre, such as Kyd, Shakespeare and Middleton, took their cue from Seneca. It follows, then, that despite the fact that Aeschylus was writing The Oresteia with no knowledge of these conventions for revenge tragedy, and Shakespeare was writing with such a comprehensive awareness of them that he may even have been trying to subvert them somewhat in Hamlet, the two plays are distinctly similar.
In terms of the convention of the vengeful ghost in revenge tragedy, in particular, then, the similarities between Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra and Shakespeare’s King Hamlet become obvious. Again, there appear to be certain conventions, exemplified by the cases of both Hamlet and Eumenides, to which the character of the ghost tends to adhere, even across the cultural and historical chasm that divides the two playwrights. On a very simple, plot-based level, for example, the ghost appears near the beginning, essentially performing the same function as a prologue (in that both ghosts, like Euripides’ Polydorus mentioned above, provide essential background information regarding events prior to the immediate action of the plays), but also interacting with other characters and acting as a catalyst for the revenge plot through direct instruction to the living characters as to exactly how its murderer should be punished. These two ghosts are not silent in their accusations, like Banquo, or prophetic in their assertions that their murderers’ end is coming, like Caesar or King Henry – they are active within the play and make a concerted effort to bring their murderers to justice.
Furthermore, the language of both Clytemnestra and King Hamlet suggests that they have much in common in terms of their physical appearance on the stage. Both still bear, at the very least only visually, the wounds inflicted upon them by their murderers, and, indeed, there are even hints that they still somehow feel the pain of these wounds – as shown by Clytemnestra’s ‘See here/This wound under my heart ’ (Eumenides, 98–99) and by the ‘vile and loathsome crust’ (Hamlet, 1.1.72) that covers King Hamlet’s skin. In the same way, both go on to make reference not just to the physical evidence of death upon their bodies, but also to the state of their souls.
It is these notions, of what constitutes the soul and what happens to the spirit after death, upon which Shakespeare and Aeschylus disagree, perhaps unsurprisingly. Though the two ghosts perform the same function within their plays, and perhaps even look rather similar physically, what they represent in their very existence upon the stage is naturally different given the ideological differences between Ancient Greece and Elizabethan England. Both ghosts describe the actual experience of living in the underworld in a discourse equally steeped in the imagery of extreme suffering, but Clytemnestra, perhaps unsurprisingly, calls to mind a Classical vision of a hell based on psychological torment, in which she is ‘abused unceasingly/Among the other dead…despised and shamed’ (Eumenides, 94–96). The account provided by Hamlet’s ghost, on the other hand, echoes Christian notions of purgatory, in which he is subjected to ‘sulph’rous and tormenting flames’ (Hamlet, 1.5.3) as penance for his sins on earth.
This fundamental difference in religious belief between Shakespeare and Aeschylus not only affects our interpretation of the ghosts themselves and what they signify, but it is also in evidence on a plot level when we look at notions of killing and vengeance from the perspectives of the two male protagonists of the these plays, Hamlet and Orestes. It is worth noting that, despite being faced with almost identical tasks at the beginning of the plays (that is, to avenge the murder of their fathers), the outcomes for these two characters are clearly very different – Orestes kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus with relatively little reflection beforehand upon what the consequences will be, is absolved of the murder and goes on to become king. Hamlet, on the other hand, spends five acts reflecting upon whether he should kill his uncle, finally doing so at the end of the play only to die himself minutes later. While this could be attributed simply to natural, inherent differences in the characters created by the two playwrights, it is interesting to apply the Christianity of the Elizabethans and the multitheism of the Greeks to Hamlet and Orestes and their attitudes towards revenge.
Most interestingly, if we compare the moment in which Hamlet arguably should have killed Claudius, at the end of Act III Scene III, to the moment where Orestes kills Clytemnestra in Choephori, we see both characters preoccupied with the idea of the gods, heaven, and the spirit of their proposed murder victims. Hamlet, on the one hand, refuses to kill Claudius whilst he is praying, because his soul would then go to heaven rather than the hell where Hamlet believes Claudius deserves to be. In a Christian world, there is a difference between killing a man to destroy his body and killing a man to destroy his spirit, and with Hamlet here we see that this makes the revenge act slightly more complicated.
For Orestes, on the other hand, revenge is slightly more clear-cut, at least from the point of view of religion. Though his task is, on a personal level, perhaps more difficult than Hamlet’s, in that he has to kill his own mother, he does have Apollo, the Oracle and eventually Athene on his side, not just as he commits the murder, but in its aftermath when the Furies come to claim him. Arguably, the end of The Oresteia, in which Athene intervenes to save Orestes’ life, proves that, in the Greek religion, conceptions of right and wrong are slightly more arbitrary than in Christianity, in that the gods can look at individual cases like Orestes’ and decide who deserves to be punished. The gods of Greek tragedy are much more like humans, in that they can take part in the action of the plays and make decisions independently of any rigid doctrine. In Hamlet, on the other hand, the concept of god is equally present but much more of an abstract concept in the minds of the characters, and one which would certainly never appear in person to provide judgement. Because of this, fixed concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are required, and so anybody who ‘sins’ must be punished, regardless of mitigating circumstances. To me, this is the reason why Hamlet dies where Orestes does not, and perhaps also the reason why Hamlet appears to reflect more upon the consequences of his actions.
However, while this ideological difference is important, I would argue that on a wider moral level, Shakespeare and Aeschylus are both using the idea of the vengeful spirit to address very similar issues with regard to the definition of ‘sin’, the nature of justice and, most crucially, the extent of the obligations of the living towards their dead relatives. Both Clytemnestra and King Hamlet attempt to legitimise the proposed execution of their respective murderers (Orestes and Claudius) by claiming that they are the perpetrators of an act so unspeakable that other, larger forces have been affected and can only be appeased with more blood. In particular, both cite the violation of fundamental familial bonds, with Clytemnestra’s talk of ‘Orestes, who killed me, his mother’ (Eumenides, 122) and King Hamlet’s similar disgust at the ‘damnèd incest’ (Hamlet, 1.5.83) of Claudius and Gertrude. Certainly, a sense of outrage permeates the language of both ghosts, as if the murders to which they have fallen victim are somehow even more ‘foul, strange and unnatural’ (Hamlet, 1.5.28) than usual, and both seem to be attempting to appeal to some kind of universal moral standard inherent within the agents to whom they have entrusted their revenge.
Interestingly, both ghosts also use another technique in order to persuade their charges to do their bidding, which is to speak on a much more personal level of specific debts which they are owed. Clytemnestra, for example, angrily reminds the Furies of the nourishment she gave to them, in the form of libations and sacrifices, while she was alive, and King Hamlet does something similar with the calculating emotional blackmail forced upon his son; ‘If thou didst ever thy dear father love…revenge his foul and most unnatural murder’ (Hamlet, 1.5.23–5).
At this point, with regard to these ideas of paternal love and inherent moral standards, it seems relevant to add another idea of death and revenge into the discussion. If it seems to be the case that one of the primary functions of the ghost character in revenge tragedy is to provide the living with reasons to kill one another, then perhaps it is not quite enough to look simply at the actual ghosts of Clytemnestra and King Hamlet who appear on stage, but also at characters like Agamemnon and Polonius who are killed and avenged but do not appear as ghosts, because they are clearly part of the revenge cycle as well.
Though Agamemnon’s spirit does not appear in the Oresteia at any point, from the moment that he is killed in the first play his memory drives the actions of Orestes (and Electra) just as potently as Clytemnestra’s haranguing drives the Furies – indeed, in Choephori, the crucial part in Orestes’ preparation for the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus consists of he and Electra visiting Agamemnon’s tomb invoking his spirit ‘Father, your own son calls you: stand at my side!’ (Choephori, 460). Similarly, Laertes’ merciless anger, directed first towards Claudius and then Hamlet, is propelled by his desire to ‘…be revenged/Most thoroughly for my father’ (Hamlet, 4.5.131–2), and exemplifies the powerful impulse for revenge which is apparent even when the ghost does not appear on stage.
What makes the moral framework of Hamlet and The Oresteia as revenge tragedies so complex for the protagonists, perhaps more so than in other revenge tragedy, is that all of the action takes place within two tiny, incestuous worlds inhabited by the royal families of both Denmark and Argos. The revenge they desire is not upon rival families, as in Titus Andronicus, with the Andronici fighting the Goths, or upon corrupt Kings and Dukes like Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy or Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy, but upon their own close family members. Both Hamlet and Orestes are forced, by codes of honour not of their own making, to choose between their mother and father.
From a modern, post-feminist perspective at least, Orestes and Electra’s treatment of Clytemnestra appears particularly harsh and, indeed, rather arbitrary – certainly, she has murdered their father, but, as I have already mentioned, he is also the man who killed their sister, and with this in mind, the extent of both their respect and forgiveness of their father and hatred of their mother seems disproportionate – it seems they could equally have justified supporting Clytemnestra given Agamemnon’s treatment of her. There is one small concession – Orestes’ uncertainty just before he kills Clytemnestra in his aside to Pylades: ‘…what shall I do? To kill a mother is terrible. Shall I show mercy?’ (Choephori, 898–9) – but from this moment on, once he has the reassurance he needs, he shows no remorse for his actions. Similarly, although the ghost of King Hamlet fortuitously provides the caveat to his son that he should not ‘…let thy soul contrive/Against thy mother aught (Hamlet, 1.5.85–6), Hamlet’s disgust at his mother’s lack of respect for his father is arguably as compelling as Orestes’. Indeed, Hamlet does seem to have to remind himself not to be violent towards her – ‘Let not ever/The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom…I will speak daggers to her, but use none’ (Hamlet, 3.2.363–6).
However, within the world of both plays, the reaction of both Prince Hamlet and Orestes to side with their fathers against their mothers is perfectly natural given what is at stake. Aside from this breaking of the familial bonds with which both King Hamlet and Clytemnestra seem preoccupied, there are other vested interests at work in the language of both ghosts, based on the fact that not only are the protagonists members of the same family, but they are also members of the royal family. I would argue that, underpinning both Hamlet’s conversation with his dead father and Orestes’ alliance with Electra is the tacit understanding that both men will become king in a straightforward coup d’état if they honour their revenge pact and kill those in power.
In the discourse of revenge, then, there is no room for equivocation – for any characters who has been murdered, it is crucial on both a personal, political and a wider moral level that their deaths are avenged and their murderers brought to justice. For both Shakespeare and Aeschylus, though, the legitimacy of the retribution proposed by the two ghosts is specious at best. While King Hamlet at least appears to have been killed as an innocent, and indeed, both ghosts have undoubtedly been treated in a manner which would be considered particularly abhorrent by any standard (through fratricide and matricide), it is made clear that the nature of the revenge act which he promotes is bound up in exactly the same kind of bloody violence to which he himself has fallen victim. Although we do not know enough about him as a living character to really judge his motives for revenge, it is clear that, for a man who is supposed to be in purgatory cleansing himself from sin, he is remarkably willing to remain involved in the politics of murder and, indeed, advocate the killing of his own brother.
A better example of this is perhaps in evidence with the behaviour of the Ghost of Clytemnestra, who talks of Orestes’ guilt at the beginning of the Eumenides as if her own equally heinous crime – that is, the murder of her husband Agamemnon, which we witnessed in the opening play of the trilogy – had never happened. The unnatural act for which she so condemns Orestes is one that she herself has committed, and so again, her moral authority in seeking revenge is exposed as questionable at best. Her difficulty perhaps lies in the fact that, at one point or another during the trilogy, Clytemnestra represents every point of view within the cycle of revenge. She begins the trilogy as the bereaved relative (her husband Agamemnon has killed her daughter Iphigenia) and then becomes the revenger, plotting to murder Agamemnon as punishment for his crime. This act in turn makes her the villain and murderess upon whom Orestes wreaks his revenge, and finally she becomes the victim again, the ghost calling to anyone who will listen for revenge to be taken on her behalf.
Despite the fact that Clytemnestra is technically the only character who fulfils every one of these roles, this notion of murder and revenge as a kind of unbreakable cycle which alternates between accusations of guilt and innocence that are wholly subjective is one that applies to all of the characters involved in revenge in both of these plays. The apparent moral absolutes of vengeance and justice inevitably become clouded because of the transient nature of guilt and innocence – from the moment that he mistakenly kills Polonius in Act III Scene IV, Prince Hamlet himself becomes akin to the thing he has been charged with destroying – the murderer of a father. In using murder as a means of atoning for murder, Hamlet, if only from the perspective of Laertes and Ophelia, finds himself on a similar level to Claudius.
Even with the spirits of those who have been killed but do not come back as ghosts, we find ourselves questioning the moral legitimacy of the acts perpetrated in their name. Certainly, if Aeschylus had chosen to create an ‘Agamemnon’s Ghost’ character, it would doubtless have displayed the same desire for revenge against their murderers as the ghosts we do see. Also like the ‘real’ ghosts, he would not have had the authority to speak from an entirely morally sound standpoint about justice either – especially Agamemnon. We learn from Clytemnestra in the first play of the trilogy that, aside from kidnapping and raping Cassandra, Agamemnon is ‘marked with his daughter’s blood’ (Agamemnon, 1420), having sacrificed the child Iphigenia to ensure safe passage to Troy for the Greek fleet. Perhaps, in this instance, even a ‘Ghost of Iphigenia’ would be required in order to remind us of the need for atonement for her killing – as, indeed, Deborah Warner provided in her 1991 production of Sophocles’ Electra.
Admittedly, Polonius’ guilt is much less clear-cut, as he does not kill anybody, but exploration into his constant manipulation of his daughter’s relationship with Hamlet in order to curry favour with Claudius and Gertrude reveals a more sinister side to his character than the bumbling, garrulous fool which he is often portrayed as . Note Act II Scene I, for example, in which Polonius charges his servant Reynaldo with spying on Laertes when he gets to Paris. While this may be motivated by nothing more than paternal concern for his son, when we also consider Act III Scene I, where he sets up the meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet so that Claudius can spy on them, we begin to realise that, at the very least, the old man knows how to manipulate and deceive people.
Though I am in no way comparing Polonius as a character to Agamemnon, or asserting that either or both of them particularly deserves to be killed, the crucial point here is that when both men are posthumously spoken of by their sons, there appears to be disparity between the characters we saw when they were alive and their sons’ memories and conceptions of them. Laertes in particular is ready to kill first Claudius and then Hamlet in the name of his ‘noble father’ (Hamlet, 4.7.25), while forgetting that Polonius, whatever else we can say about him, was loyal to the king almost to a fault (‘I hold my duty, as I hold my soul,/Both to my God and to my gracious King’ – Hamlet, 2.2.44–5), and would have been unlikely to have advocated violence against him, for any reason. Orestes and Electra, too, while strangely acknowledging only once in the play that their sister was ‘cruelly killed’ (Choephori, 244), then go on to be unequivocal in their eulogizing of Agamemnon, with their promises to ‘reverence this tomb above all other things’ (Choephori, 488). Even Hamlet himself, with his famous hyperbolic dismissal of Claudius as ‘My father’s brother, but no more like my father/Than I to Hercules’ (Hamlet, 1.2.152–3) seems to have fallen victim to this apparent fetishisation of the dead father.
However, this glorification of the dead in the consciousness of those close to them is probably to be expected – in the worlds of both plays, the dead hero has immense power. Particularly in the Greek tradition, we only have to look at, say, the sense of mystery and wonder surrounding the burial of Oedipus’ body in Sophocles’ Oedipus At Colonnus, and the way in which his spirit is used to keep Athens ‘free from harm forever ’ (Oedipus At Colonnus, 1765) to realise that this is no mere fetishisation on the part of the living characters, but a genuine attempt to tap into the power that surrounds conceptions of death. We see this power in Shakespeare, too – in Julius Caesar, for example, when both Caesar’s murderers and his avengers attempt to use the great emperor’s corpse to somehow invest themselves with his power. Brutus and Cassius, for instance, smear Caesar’s blood upon their hands before they go into the forum crying ‘peace, freedom and liberty!’ (Julius Caesar, 3.1.111), while later on the Plebeians are very specific about using the fire from Caesar’s funeral pyre to burn down the homes of the conspirators – ‘We’ll burn his body in the holy place/And with the brands fire the traitors’ houses’ (Julius Caesar, 3.3.243–4).
In both the Greek and Shakespearean worlds, the treatment of a dead character’s physical remains, especially in the case of a father, a king or a great warrior, goes hand in hand with the ideas that we have seen about the spirit and the afterlife. Part of Laertes’ anger in Hamlet is not simply that his father has been murdered, but that the body has been denied a formal burial, and given ‘no noble rite nor formal ostentation’ (Hamlet, 4.6.210), and thus has been dishonoured. This is particularly important in Christianity, and we see the other side of the argument in the death of Ophelia, where we perhaps detect some dissatisfaction in the Priest’s language that somebody who does not deserve such a burial in the eyes of the Church should be allowed one by royal proclamation – ‘but that great command o’ersways the order/She should in ground unsanctified have lodged/Till the last trumpet’ (Hamlet, 5.1.210–2).
We see the same ideas in the Greek tradition and, indeed, the eponymous heroine of Sophocles’ Antigone goes as far as giving up her own life for the principle, arguing that proper burial rites are necessary not only for the spirit of her brother, and for the family name, but simply because they are ‘the laws the gods hold in honour’ (Antigone, 91–2). Again, we are given the opposite viewpoint in Creon, who, like Hamlet and his decision not to kill Claudius, finds a way to punish his enemy even after death, extending the destruction of Polynices’ body in order to destroy his spirit.
In addition to addressing the ideological and spiritual problems associated with burial, the physical remains of the dead also have another specific function, which is very specific to the genre of revenge tragedy – the notion of the ‘memento mori’. The most famous instance of this in Shakespeare, perhaps in all theatre, is Hamlet’s discourse over Yorick’s skull. I would argue that it is this simple encounter, perhaps above the appearance of the ghost, his killing of Polonius and all of his soliloquies, which is the most powerful indicator to him personally of the finality of death. Clayton MacKenzie argues that Hamlet’s discovery of the skull of Yorick in particular, a man whom he knew well and was, indeed, something of a father figure, is the first time in the play that he sees the ‘harsh reality ’ of death as opposed to the detached intellectualising of it that we have seen previously. He can no longer glibly ask whether the anonymous skulls that went before belonged to lawyers and landlords – in fact, all he can do now is acknowledge the smell of death and throw the skull to the ground with an inarticulate ‘Pah!’ (Hamlet, 5.1.185). For the first time, Hamlet confronts his own inability to make sense of death.