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All That Lives Must Die J. Bottum
"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. …….
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; … 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.
To persevere
In obstinate condolment is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ',,,,,,,,,
From the first corpse till he that died today,
"This must be so."
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 Shakespeareunconsciously confesses his guilt even as he tries to check the grief of the last mourner for his victim.…..
Offered as a consolation, death's universality would be comic if it were not so sad.
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 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: the rediscovery of ancient modes of consolation, and the 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.
But the
clash between Hamlet and Claudius may nonetheless be in part a clash between Christianity and Stoicism. 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?
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. …… 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 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.
Hellenistic Greek writers developed and bequeathed to Rome the Consolatio-a formal essay of consolation, full of
standard metaphors and arguments, and repeated turns of phrase.