More Things in Heaven and Earth

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has a wonderful exhibition on Treasured Possessions From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Of course the jewellery was my first port of call. One exhibit that particularly caught my eye was the display of mourning rings. Unlike the slightly macabre and ugly (to my eyes) memento mori of the Victorian period, these rings were exquisite and beautiful. One particularly interesting example was that of a ring containing a delicate miniature of a blue eye, signifying the soul of the departed. There were, of course, rings containing hair - a tradition that makes me shiver. Tradition is helpful after a death. Each culture has its own traditions surrounding death. Some wear memorial rings; others gather for prayers, hymns, and a eulogy; some lay out the favourite food of the deceased for the birds; some have huge parties to say goodbye, while some do so quietly, and others light candles and send them floating away down river. Just as each culture has its own traditions, so does each family. As Gertrude in Hamlet says, “When troubles come, they come not single spies but in battalions” and so families are often unfortunate enough to build up quite established traditions. I have not been so unfortunate, but we do have the odd family traditions to go with bereavement. After each death in the family, just as surely as there’s been whiskey and comfort food like fish and chips involved, someone has always quoted Gertrude’s other great truism: “Thou knowest tis common, all that lives must die, passing through nature into eternity”. Although this line has something of the British stiff upper lip about it, I have always found it a comfort, and not just because of the safety of repetition. Although death is never easy to understand, for me, there has always been some comfort in the idea that death is the natural end of life and so nothing to be feared; we are all part of the whirligig of time.

A mourning ring from the Fitzwilliam Museum

Recently, though, I was at a funeral at which my traditions of saying goodbye were useless. When Gertrude tells her son 'thou knowest tis common' he becomes angry. I realised that angry was exactly how I felt. While the majority of funerals I had attended were for relatives who had lived long and loving lives, and had passed through their natural time to a peaceful death, this one was different. It was the funeral of a very young man with seemingly boundless potential. I was angry and confused because it all seemed so unnatural. For me, Hamlet has always been about pondering: what is natural? That is the question. The first time we see the eponymous hero, he is being questioned about his inability to get over his father’s death. To others it seems unnatural. Claudius, his uncle, who has married his mother, tells him his grief is “a fault to nature.”
Gertrude: Thou knowest 'tis common, all that lives must die, passing through nature into eternity.
Hamlet: Ay Madam, 'tis common
Gertrude: If it be why seems it so particular with thee?
Hamlet: Seems, Madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems!
His mother, tries to soothe her son. She says that death is a natural part of life: all that lives must die. She asks Hamlet why he cannot cope with this natural occurrence. I noticed today that Hamlet, like any angry boy who doesn’t know the answer to a question, makes the argument about something else. He turns it into a conversation about seeming. As a reader, or a member of the audience already familiar with the plot (and I would suggest that it is not the plot of a Shakespeare play that is the surprise, but its rendering, and that an original audience would have as much chance of knowing the plot as we do) Gertrude’s comments about a natural death are laden with dramatic irony. Hamlet and Gertrude (we assume, depending on interpretation) do not yet know that his father was the victim of a foul and unnatural murder. His father did not gently pass through nature into eternity, but was forcibly thrust out into purgatory. Perhaps Hamlet’s excessive grief, his inability to let go is due to an unconscious knowledge that there is nothing natural at all about this situation.

Claudius’ fratricide and incestuous (as the play depicts it) marriage to Gertrude causes the entire kingdom to be seized by unnatural phenomena. In Act 1 Scene 1 Horatio explains that the country has been troubled with strange astronomical sights, such as comets and eclipses, similar to those that haunted the Romans just before the murder of Julius Caesar:
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;
As stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climature and countrymen.
Just as in a Classical tragedy, we are told at the beginning that it is all going to go horribly wrong! This subversion of the natural is echoed by other activities in the country, arms manufacturing has made the “night joint-labourer with the day” – a quite apocalyptic way to describe over-time. This sense of a sickness in nature is echoed in the way Hamlet sees the world he lives in. Hamlet is dissatisfied with the way those around him are behaving, it does not seem correct: “'Sblood, there is something in this more than natural, if / philosophy could find it out.” The world more than just the situation appears to be at odds with what it should be. “Fie on't! ah, fie!” he rages, “'Tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely.” For him it is deeply unnatural that his mother should settle for Claudius, a vastly inferior man to his father, and, perhaps, that Claudius should be living when his father is dead.

Rereading Hamlet’s condemnation of the world as an “unweeded garden”, however, has lead me to see that my customary interpretation of Hamlet is incorrect. The play is not about the natural and the unnatural, rather, it is about the things in nature that we do not understand. While the Romans saw comets and an eclipse of the moon as harbingers of “doomsday” or of “fierce events,” we now know them to be natural occurrences caused by the movement of cosmic bodies. The unweeded garden is as much, if not more, a part of nature as the ordered garden. Though Hamlet’s world is seized by “things rank and gross in nature” – their nature meaning their characteristics – these things, significantly, are of and in nature. When we say the unnatural, perhaps we mean those aspects of nature that frighten and confuse us. The unexpected death of a friend did indeed frighten and confuse me, and so it seemed unnatural. There are many things in nature that we cannot explain, but as Hamlet himself says to his friend,
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

Could there, perhaps, be a comfort in believing that, though we do not understand those horrible things which have happened, they are indeed part of nature? Perhaps. Perhaps, like comets and eclipses – because a death can feel like the eternal eclipse of a star – these things, we will one day discover, are nothing to be feared, but all part of the whirligig of time.


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