We become aware that the ghost is “doomed” to “walk in the night” until his “most foul and unnatural murder is revenged”. This could perhaps be perceived as the Ghost being trapped in purgatory, where he will continue to suffer until Hamlet has sought revenge against Claudius. Critics tend to argue with regards to Hamlet that ‘its themes were quintessentially those of the Renaissance and Reformation’ and the idea of Purgatory is certainly no exception. During the Reformation many Protestants questioned the existence of Purgatory.
For Catholics, however, the concept of purgatory endured; one catholic account describes it as a place where “confined and imprison’d soul must, till expiated endure”. This corresponds to the ghost’s description of the “sulphurous and tormenting flames” in his “prison-house”. What is perhaps most important with regards to the theme of mortality is that the Ghost is responsible for introducing the idea of retributive justice – an idea well accepted during the Elizabethan period and commonly known as “blood-feuds”.
Although in “The Revenger’s Tragedy” there is no explicit reference to Purgatory, the theme of the supernatural does run throughout alongside the theme of death, with reference to “devils” and “hell and torment”. Critics have described Hamlet as “the ambassador of death walking amid life”: in many respects, it is Hamlet’s consciousness of death and the consequent bitterness, cruelty and inaction that not only grows in his mind disintegrating it as we watch; they also force him to question his existence or more than one occasion as we witness in the “to be or not to be” solioquy.
Referring back to the subject of the Ghost, Hamlet states “The spirit I have seen may have been the devil”. Arguably, the Ghost was the devil, metaphorically speaking, it was the devil of the knowledge of death – the knowledge that led to Hamlet’s demise. Hamlet is questioning the Ghost’s motive here and he perhaps seems somewhat willing to accept that the Ghost may be trying to get Claudius murdered under false-pretences. Hamlet’s consciousness of death spreads outwards like a blighting disease and as the play progresses it insidiously undermines the health of the state, adding victim upon victim. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” becomes particularly apt here, and furthermore it could be argued that the consciousness of mortality is fundamental to the corruption. Similarly, in “The Revenger’s Tragedy” Vindice sets about avenging the murder or his lover, Glorianna. Vindince’s consciousness of Glorianna’s death, like Hamlet’s, takes over him on his quest to give “Revenge her due” and spreads outwards. Vindice states “when the bad bleeds then the tragedy is good” which can also be applied to the perception of mortality in Hamlet: both plays were such successful Revenge Tragedy’s as a result of this prominent theme.
Gertrude tells Hamlet that “all that lives must die” when he is struggling with his grief as “Clouds hang over him still” with Claudius adding, “your father lost a father”. Shakespeare is attempting here to present death as somewhat natural concept; the fact Gertrude states “all that lives must die” plays on the idea that it doesn’t matter who you are – we will all be reduced to dust. Hamlet remains haunted by the theme of death until the very end of the play, before, ironically, he does realise his Mother was right.
Perhaps the most significant scene within the play with regards to the theme of mortality is the Graveyard scene: here, Hamlet holds his Father’s former jester’s skull. Hamlet is captivated of the transition Yorick undergoes after death as he is reduced to “dust of earth” from a state of “infinite jest”. Arguably, Shakespeare is conveying that if somebody as vibrant as a jester can be reduced to nothing – so can anybody else. This scene marks a rapid change in Hamlet’s character, one symbolised by his recognition of “Imperious Caesar” as “dead and turn’d to clay”.
If one of the greatest men that lived, in Hamlet’s view Julius Caesar, has now been reduced to nothing, then he realises so has is Father. This scene is fundamental in allowing Hamlet to purge the Ghost and lose his anxieties surrounding death. Comparatively, within “The Revenger’s Tragedy” we are never presented with the same overpowering sense of contemplation over death from our Protagonist. Vindice seems understanding of the fact “then those that did eat are eaten”, perhaps because he has held the skull of his most beloved.
Vindice’s mindset is simple: he is out to kill the Duke, achieve revenge and once he has completed this he states “Tis’ time to die”, a clear contrast in the two protagonists. The concept of suicide within the play is also important to note with regards to the theme of mortality. Hamlet wishes “his flesh would melt” because his Mother’s betrayal of his Father has made him believe the world is corrupted. In “The Revenger’s Tragedy” Vindice presents a similar view of the world because of his Mother’s deceit as he states “weren’t for gold and women, there would be no damnation”.
In the line“His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! ” conveys Hamlet lamenting in the fact suicide is a sin. The Elizabethan’s would have perceived suicide as inherently wrong due to the belief “God gives life and only God takes life away”. In the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, although many regard Hamlet as still being suicidal here, some critics have argued that Hamlet is in fact here simply contemplating why people in general do not commit suicide: the evidence for this argument is that this soliloquy does not contain any first person pronoun.
Hamlet concludes this soliloquy with the thought that the reason people do not commit suicide is not because of religious belief, but more simply, because they are in fear of what comes after death. He states that it is in “dread of something after death / The undiscovered country”. Elizabethan’s would have known what was waiting for them after death, so perhaps here Shakespeare presents a somewhat agnostic viewpoint. Contradictory to this however, towards the end of the play Hamlet appears to embrace the idea of Divine fate – stating “there’s a divinity that shapes ur ends”. The Church denies Ophelia a proper Christian burial based on the grounds that she killed herself. This would have been well received by Elizabethan audiences as this was a principle engrained into religious doctrine. Although Gertrude states Opheila “fell in the weeping brook” and more over that her death was an “accident”, she may, as many critics have pointed out, have been trying to spare Laertes or trying to diffuse another tantrum on his part.
However, the verb “fell” is very passive, which would fit the presentation of Opheilia throughout the course of the play, leading us to perhaps question whether Ophelia would have even tried to save her own life. The Priest tells us “should be in ground unsanctified log’d” which does however support the idea of her suicide pretty solidly and also illustrates the religious ideology surrounding suicide at the time Hamlet was written. Ophelia was led to kill herself due to the death of both her Father and her relationship with Hamlet.
In The Revenger’s Tragedy we are also presented with an account of female suicide: Antonio’s wife who’s “honour first drunk poison, and her life”. Arguably, Antonio’s wife has a more just reason for committing suicide, as she was raped; during the 16th and 17th centuries if a woman was raped, the only way to “pledge her honour” was to commit suicide. In Hamlet, suicide is a motif, but it is an act that Hamlet himself cannot commit in order for the story to be a Revenge Tragedy.
In conclusion, the theme of mortality is one threaded throughout Hamlet: almost every main character and relationship suffers from some form of physical or metaphorical death. Death begins the play, death drives the play and most importantly death ends the play. Both Hamlet and The Revenger’s Tragedy would not have been as successful as they are if they were not characterised by mortality and ultimately – without it they would simply be bland and lacklustre.