Death in the Bible and Death on the Renaissance Stage
First published : Ko-jon.Renaissance Drama
(The Korean Association for Classic and Renaissance Drama)
Vol. 2 (1994)
The enactment of death on the stage represents the greatest challenge imaginable to our "suspension of disbelief," for the simple reason that we know it cannot be true and have therefore to note, perhaps only half-consciously, that we are willingly participating in a game of "make- believe." The artificiality of the dramatic experience is brought home to us and we acknowledge the ambiguities inherent in dramatic art; a play truly becomes play when a character plays dead. Death is only real in life.
The acting out of death is an exciting game for children, with their cowboy/policeman/soldier games of "Bang, bang, you're dead." They get angry if you do not pretend a momentary decease of some kind, for there is almost certainly a secret, fundamental agressivity whispering the hope that it might one day come true. The wish to kill by looks or words or will is a deep fantasy from an early age and helps explain one part of the attraction exercised by dramatic death.
The essential quality of death, real or dramatic, is its finality, its utter absoluteness. "A dead person" is not a reality, as we all know when we stand before the body of someone we have loved and are forced to realize that this piece of cold flesh is not the person we knew, that the matter has lost its life and can only be revered for memory's sake. "This was my mother/husband/friend." A dead person is no person.
The ineluctable irony of the experience of death is that it is something that only happens to others; nobody can say or think "I am dead" with true meaning, since only the living can speak and think. When one person has died, the pain those around feel is always tinged with an awareness of how very much they are still alive. Their continuities in history and society pursue their course, but the lifeless matter in the bed or the coffin has no historical continuity beyond that of all dust, no "identity" in our human terms. It is natural for those who are still alive to feel strongly how alive they are at such moments, and to be thankful for it!
It is hardly surprising that many cultures have formulated some kind of theory of a binary "body-soul" form of human nature to express this experience of final departure that marks the end of a human life. A dead body is so very utterly lifeless that it is very natural to posit some kind of metaphor of an empty house just after the inhabitants have moved away to a new address.
In our human experience it is the ending of the relationship that marks most deeply, the awareness that those who remain must go on living without the company and continuities of the one who has died. On the stage that is also strongly the case. Death on the stage is what happens to the rest of the characters in the play, as they respond to the consequences of one character's decease, and to the audience as they react to the rupture in an imagined relationship.
The finality of the death moment, then, is its essential metaphoric function. The end, both as goal and as conclusion. In reading a work or in watching a play, you cannot formulate a "final evaluation" until you have read the last word, until the last scene is over. "The rest is silence" is only true for the one who is about to leave the scene of life; once they have gone, like at a party, everyone will start to talk about them. After the last word of a play's epilogue is spoken, though, the characters we have for a moment frequented all vanish into insubstantial silence.
Life, then, is the only thing that happens to us. Death, like darkness, is metaphoric of pure absence, no life, no light, no thoughts, feelings, or words. Death is not, strictly speaking, a concept at all, like zero. Yet it looms very real on the sidelines of life, replete with all kinds of mostly rather threatening messages. It is this ambiguous presence/absence of death that makes it so attractive to the writer and especially the dramatist. It is life's inevitable act of closure, and that was clear long before the word "closure" existed.
Death is, in the best possible view of it, a "consummation devoutly to be wished" because of the chance of escape and rest it offers the weary person. "To die? To sleep, no more..." Hamlet's speech echoes another famous speech made by One about to enter into rest at the end of a tremendous though hidden drama: "Consummatum est" is the Latin form of Christ's last word on the cross in John: "It is finished." Or as Donne put it, "virtuous men pass mildly away And whisper to their souls to go." "May they rest in peace" is a familiar Catholic prayer for the dead, implying repose after a busy life of love.
Yet the same prayer has another, more threatening and primitive overtone that is much more obvious in Korea than in the West. Suppose a soul cannot rest in peace? Immediately we are confronted with the dangers represented by the spirits of the unhappy dead for which Korean and many other Shamans offer remedies. If a person enters death unprepared, intent on life, not wishing to go yet or not expecting to go, may not their resentful ghost return and "haunt" the scenes of their life, bringing all kinds of trouble with it? As children we would always tremble at the thought of "dead bodies" lying in a nearby church before the funeral and imagine we might meet their wandering spirits.
Worst of all, they say, is the bitterness of the ghost of a young girl who has not yet known the satisfactions of marriage and childbirth! Or a royal father, man of action and war, cut off in the midst of life by a cunning poison poured into his ear as he slept in a garden! It is impossible to translate Korean "han" into English, yet it is a familiar thing. The restless dead come demanding help from the living; when they were murdered, the help they need has very long thought to be the punishment of their assassin. The act of revenge, although it may claim to be a form of "justice," is above all an exorcism, a washing in blood and even a human sacrifice, that is designed to set the spirit of the dead at rest, safely satisfied. That is the real reason for the juridical death sentence, too, for to deprive a person of their life is not in actual fact a punishment but a gruesome torment, a degradation of a society despairing of fulfilling its duty to enable every person in it to live and prosper happily.
Revenge, then, is a deeply primitive, an archaic notion, with roots in superstitious fears that lurk in the nearer depths of every culture. In a world of violence, revenge killing is still alive and well; last night the TV showed the mother of a boy killed while attempting to rob a man saying, "Justice will be done." She meant, of course, that she would ask family and friends to hunt down and kill the killer of her son.
In modern telelvision and film, the artificiality of the medium has encouraged the multiplication of scenes of violence and mass extermination. Certain moments in contemporary history have witnessed similar loss of all sense of the value of life. To what extent the renaissance "revenge plays" represent a similar diminution of value is open to debate.
One essential point is that the best revenge dramas are not "about" revenge as such, that is not the theme of the play. The question underlying them is a broader one, the way the past returns to haunt the present. Memory is the medium and time the continuity; how we are to lay the past to rest is a question that we all spend most of our lives failing to fully answer, as Freud tried to show. In particular the archetypal wounds deriving from birth and growth are a vital part of each person's humanity, there are no perfect parents, no totally unwounded childhoods, our very talents spring from our essential fragilities.
Yet, revenge drama tells us, there are ghosts of the past that we need to get rid of, to abolish radically if we are to live in the present at all, or die in peace, which is the same thing. Revenge drama's inherent spectacle of "delay" is often misunderstood. The delay is inherent in the theme of the battle between past and present, it is the condition of the delicate negociations that prepare the ultimate struggle. The subtlety and deceit required of the avenger are required of us all in our own negociations. If most revenge dramas end in blood-baths of doubtful efficacity, it is precisely because the past cannot be slaughtered, it has to be healed by patient loving. Today's Bosnia is the obvious example of how revenge killing represents the victory of the past over the present and heals nothing.
Two renaissance plays spring to mind especially for discussion in this context: Hamlet mainly and, rather in its shadow though earlier in date, The Spanish Tragedy. In criticism of them lurks the much-discussed question of the validity of revenge. The lex talionis demands "eye for eye, tooth for tooth," and, by extension, "death for death." It is a barbaric law, fit only for savages who have deliberately rejected the processes of thoughtful reflection. It offers no room for measuring the relative intentions of persons, for an impartial examination of circumstances and attenuating factors, for questions of guilt or innocence. There is no justice in this parodic semblance of "fair play" with no place for judge or jury.
Seneca developed the drama of revenge, not in terms of any kind of justice, but rather to show how cruel destiny was, and how indifferent the powers above are to human pain. In Seneca already, revenge is a manifestation of Hell on earth, the powers of chaos and destruction unloosed. Revenge-killing is not praised as a form of rough justice, but manifested as the total breakdown of order. Seneca did not, after all, have anything like the grim Judaeo-Christian saying, " 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." Neither probably did he feel much sympathy for the similar notions of posthumous justice expressed in the divisions of the Underworld into happy and painful regions found in Plato's Phaedo; certainly his plays' characters could not afford to wait so long.
Turning at last to Shakespeare, death coincides with closure at the end of Richard III, closing his bloody career and hearalding the Tudor era which (despite Tillyard) one might consider to have been hardly a shade better in historical fact. There is a sense of "wicked Richard gets his just deserts" inspired by the procession of "ghosts" the night before the battle. Death is seen as a judgement, almost as a purifying; we are not so far from the way in which the death of Macbeth is felt to bring healing to the body politic.
In Romeo and Juliet the romance theme of lovers' union in death, familiar from the Tristan tale and various Chansons de Geste, is linked with the "heroic" love-suicide found in Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe story. This death is so strongly patterned by its romantic origins that there is very little serious critical debate about the validity of suicide in such a situation, productions do not normally linger over the horrible idea of a steel blade slashing into the young flesh of Juliet guided simply by her own barely teen-aged hand. The end of the play is patheticized and we do not take our questions far into the "afterwards". The end of the play is the end of our concern, pity has closed the curtains.
Then Shakespeare dramatized the death of Julius Caesar. Here the main focus is not the question as to why he was killed but the unimaginable fact that such a man should have died at all. His almost superhuman stature in received history stands in sharp contrast to the vulnerability (in the literal sense) revealed by his death at the hands of his friend and other colleagues. Heroic reputation is something that outlasts the moments justifying it, Caesar is getting old and physically weak yet he is still Caesar. His death, then, is not the end, since he outlives even his death and the theatre comes to be the scene of his rememorizing. Ironically, this idea is put into the mouths of the murderers:
Cassius. . . . How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!
Brutus How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport. . .(III.i.111-4)
The death of Caesar is placed, not at the end, but in the very centre of the play, so that we first see the process of reponsibility, then the process of retribution, the end being the suicides of Cassius and Brutus on the swords with which they had killed the undying Caesar. They thought the future play would celebrate them as "The men that gave their country liberty" while in fact it portrays them only as "The men that slaughtered Caesar." Their deaths are a price paid, rather than a punishment administered.
If Shakespeare then turned at once to the rewriting of the old Hamlet play, it must have been in part with the intention of pursuing this theme and putting Caesar's ghost to rest by reducing him to Polonius. In Hamlet it is this silly old man who dies in the middle of the play, and behind an arras, as a rat, instead of at the foot of Pompey's statue. If Caesar's death in the middle of the play is no longer closure but crisis, King Hamlet's death before the play begins offers an even more exciting possibility of negociating the price of a life and the value of death. To invite an audience to sympathize at all with a man who is dead and buried before the play begins, is quite a challenge, especially if that man is the unknown king of a foreign country.
It is only after our imaginative sympathies have been engaged for half the play with composing an image of this dead king/Hyperion/brother/father/husband/man that the play offers us an image of his death on the stage, a stage within a stage since it is done in the mysterious dumb-show preceding the "Murder of Gonzago/Mousetrap" that the King and Queen seem not to see. We see it, though, and in a double way, since for us it portrays the "Murder of King Hamlet" and ought to have been presented before Act I began! The death of King Hamlet, like so many other things in the play, occurs twice, once out of sight in the past and once here.
Just before it, there comes a soliloquy (III.i.56-90) in which Hamlet reflects on some important questions. It is so well-known that we often fail to ask what it means. It is a strange speech, dramatically, because it is not a response to any prior event. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet reacts to his mother's marriage; in the second he has just seen a ghost that demanded revenge and did not stay for an answer; in the third he is struck by an actor's ready expression of emotions. The fourth soliloquy, though, comes just when the audience is eagerly expecting an interesting conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia. There is Ophelia, to one side, pretending to read her prayer-book, in comes Hamlet, then he speaks over thirty lines of obscure philosophy before he deigns even to see her.
"To be or not to be, that is the question" is often paraphrased as "To stay alive or to kill myself, that is my quandary." It is almost embarassing to insist that the words say no such thing. "The subject for class disputation today is that old riddle, whether or not people are ever right to say, when they are unhappy, 'I wish I were dead.' Is it better to be dead than unhappy? What meaning can life have when suffering is inevitable?" In other words, "To be alive or not to be alive, which is more worthy of a human being when confronted with intense suffering? that is the debating point." It was a familiar schools topic, then Shakespeare made it the main subject of King Lear.
Which is nobler, more worthy of the human person: to endure passively the slings and arrows of blind Chance's cruel attacks? Or to sink down overwhelmed in the attempt to drive back those unrushing waves against which no human weapon has any power? Neither of the two options is suicide, be it marked, for the Almighty has "fixed his canon 'gainst self-slaughter." To take arms in a hopelessly uneven battle might be a sort of heroic death, perhaps, but the main thought is of death as an end of pain, a release from torment, like sleep. . .
The dreams of sleep are no mere phantasms, but substantial experiences beyond our control. In our dreams we have open eyes; we laugh, we weep, we make love. What dreams may come in death, when the eyes of our eternal soul open on God's ultimate judgement, are dreams of heaven or hell, not phantasms but ultimate realities since neither will ever go away, and there is no waking up from the dreams of death since they are not fantasies but our eternal destiny.
To the prospect of damnation, as to the glories that are yet to be revealed, the "sufferings of this world are not worthy to be compared" (Romans 8:18) and those are the things listed in what follows, the petty unpleasantnesses, the silly irritations of this world where nothing is fair and we often do not get what we want. Not worthy to be compared, and certainly not reasons for killing ourselves, although some people sometimes think so. There is humour in the realization of the discrepancy.
No play looks back so often towards things that happened before it began as Hamlet does; no play looks ahead so far and so specifically beyond death as Hamlet does, with the Ghost's refusal to describe anything but the symptoms his tale would provoke if he told it, this soliloquy, the Graveyard scene speeches about what remains of the body, and Horatio's ultimate flights of angels. The familiar lines about "The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveller returns" add another possible riddle, since if no traveller returns what then did Hamlet see on the battlements? Hamlet is not thinking of that, of course, he is echoing an idea shared by the classical authors and the Bible, as well as by universal human experience.
Death is such an absolute frontier. The realm of human experience opens onto the Eternal only on condition that there is a clear boundary between the two. Orpheus and Hercules slipped through the filter in the legends, Odysseus saw his mother's ghost, but the fact of the matter is that nothing establishes to material humanity that there is any unseen existence awaiting us after we die.
Hamlet, like Hythloday in Utopia, feels (rather naively) that the fear of punishment after death is the main guarantee of present morality. We can easily escape human justice; the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper, as the Psalm says. But once we are dead, there's no escape. Death in this perspective is above all an entry into Truth where utterly strict Justice reigns. Whence the Dies Irae that we no longer sing at funerals, only at concerts!
Hamlet's predicament in all this speech, is not about whether he may or not kill himself to get out of a play he never wanted to have any part in; his question is how he can live his life so that he does not die into Hell. Hamlet knows that dramatic avengers come from Hell and return to it, dancing in glee in undying fires to have blasted so many lives in the process. He will have none of it.
To act or not to act? That is his quaestio, and he finds it impossible to simplify it because of the related one, "To think or not to think?" Responsibility is a prime human quality, and Hamlet will not shirk it; thinking is "conscience" and luckily that "makes cowards of us all" because it is unthinking acts like Laertes's that lead souls down the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire. "O Time, thou must untangle this, not I, It is too hard a knot for me to untie" says Viola (TN II.i.39-40) but it might have been Hamlet.
It is rather easier, and a deal less interesting, to discuss The Spanish Tragedy. The inconsistencies that characterize the last scenes, clear signs of a variety of solutions to intractable problems being fused together, make it difficult to be clearer than the text itself is. Part of this play's main interest is as a foil against which to read Hamlet. The two plays, both about death and revenge, were written in dialogue with a play about death and revenge that we do not possess, the so-called Ur-Hamlet assumed to have been written by Kyd.
Both plays begin after the death of someone who was not ready to die, Andrea or King Hamlet. A sole survivor, Bel-imperia or Hamlet, feels charged with the duty of revenge. The woman who loved the dead person transfers her affections to another man for reasons connected with her sexual needs. A further murder, Horatio's in the one, Polonius' in the other, provokes a quite separate quest for revenge, Hieronimo's or Laertes's. A play within the play offers a unique opportunity of advancing towards the goal in both. Madness real or assumed, hard to distinguish, serves to express violent emotions. At last all the thirsts for revenge are satisfied by a generous blood-bath leaving almost nobody alive.
Before looking at the end of Hamlet, the title of this paper promises a look at Death in the Bible. Not an easy topic. "You shall not surely die" says the snake to Eve, directly contradicting what the Lord had told his creatures. The Garden myth near the beginning of Genesis was originally the opening of the scroll, before the more scientific Creation account was added. The language is heavily symbolic. The Lord's warning might seem to suggest that in Paradise there was no death, and certainly Milton seems to have thought that. No death, because death is introduced as the apparent punishment for breaking God's command.
Yet a few lines later, the Lord expels the fallen pair from the garden to prevent them eating from the tree of life and so living for ever. This has often been assumed to mean that there is something similar to death inherent even in unfallen humanity; (not that so many people today, even among Christians, think that humanity was ever historically unfallen). The "be fruitful and multiply" command addressed to all living creatures is only realizable in finite proportions, or will lead to gross overcrowding. Death for Adam in the traditional interpretation would have been a free choice of the moment in which to lay down a body that had become too old for itself. The moment of death would have no shadows since there would have been no sin, no fear of judgement, it would be a perfect entry into whatever God intends us to enjoy beyond the limits of this present order.
For the Old Testament writers, life was the main theme because life was from God. God breathed into the clay to bring it alive when he made Adam, the life-breath of God is what we translate as spirit; at death it returned to God. While alive, the People of God were invited to realize their identity by keeping the Law God gave to Moses, the source of the Covenant. In the Law it said "Do not kill".
Life was the object of the exercise: "I set before you life and death, choose life!" God is made to say somewhere in the Law. For Israel's policy-makers, the Law was life. The prophets and a lot of others interpreted the various disasters in Jerusalem's history as being caused by failures to do what God had commanded. Disaster and death went together, the opposite of blessing. Life was the thing to live for.
What we do not find in the Old Testament, at least until a very late stage in its evolution, is any notion of there being an individual destiny extending beyond the grave. Death was the end of the individual, whose identity was continued in his children. National history, not the immortality of the soul, was the way life continued. The Old Testament does not then place the individual in the Hamlet situation of dreams after death. There might be a vague sheol where shades wandered but the concept of a judgement of the individual's soul in a divine court of law, followed by a sentence to bliss or damnation, is scarcely found until elements of other cosmologies and philosophies combined with the older Hebrew notions some time near the beginning of the Christian era.
The notion of a posthumous judgement of individual souls developed within Christianity only after the New Testament was completed, and exists in tension with the preaching of Christ as it is reported in the Gospels, where we find invitations to live the Kingdom of Heaven in the present combined with the late Old Testament apocalyptic tradition of the End of Time, the Day of the Lord's Coming. The Greek notion of Pluto's court where the individual soul was evaluated seems to have been taken into this when "the Last Day" and the individual's last breath came to be identified.
If there is a soul that is virtually untouched by the body's physical death, as Plato suggests in the Phaedo, then it has to go somewhere. At the same time, the moral question about justice demands answers; if naughty people have a lovely time sinning all through their lives, while good people go through one torment after another, where is God and what is the meaning of life? Inevitably there arose the mythical image of the King Christ waiting to judge each soul as it died, as well as in the General Resurrection at the Last Day, the scene found carved over Church porches. The fear of Hell was designed to urge people to "do good" but the mystery of God's salvation then gave way to a dreadful code of retribution.
There is a mechanism of merits and sins that naturally built up around the calculation of one's chances of Heaven once the free gift of God's salvation was thought to be conditioned by the failures and faults of each life history. If Justice is greater than Mercy, Christ might seem to have died in vain, the language of Hell and punishment has no proper place in the preaching of the Christian Gospel.
The ghost in Hamlet seems to be suffering atrociously in a place that has little to do with preparation for the Vision of God, although he claims to be describing Purgatory. Beyond the grave in Hamlet lies a realm of risks greater than anything suggested in Everyman. Who, indeed, can be saved? William Empson had great fun a long time ago in pointing out that the ambiguity central in Marlowe's Dr Faustus lay in the ambiguous possibility that Faustus's soul, always assuming there was such a thing, would open its eyes beyond death to find God and Mephisto hand in hand smiling at him. He enjoyed being provocative but after all, what does it say about their own prospects of salvation when so-called Christian critics gaily proclaim that Faustus and Macbeth "of course" end up in Hell? There is a very strict rule in Christianity saying that no one may ever suggest in any way that they know the limits of God's saving love.
Those were not questions that troubled Kyd and the audience watching The Spanish Tragedy, to judge by the intemperate ending of the business. The device of the murders set within the play-within-the-play is brilliantly effective in its mutiple layering; Bel-imperia and Hieronimo act out a conventional story of love and deceit ending in multiple stage murders that their audience (on the stage) assume to be the usual illusion until Hieronimo insists it is not:
Haply you think (but bootless are your thoughts)
That this is fabulously counterfeit,
And that we do as all tragedians do:
To die today, for fashioning our scene,
The death of Ajax or some Roman peer,
And in a moment starting up again,
Revive to please tomorrow's audience? (IV.iv.76-82)
Of course, the deaths are as "fabulous" as ever but made more striking by a double layer of irony. We watch an audience on the stage who think they are watching an ordinary play, while we know that what they believe to be play-acted deaths are "really" happening. The nearest we come to such complexity in Shakespeare is the moment in King Lear when blind Gloucester jumps off a cliff that we know is not there but yet which we believe in as firmly as he does because Edgar's description urges us to visualize it and therefore to believe in it.
The utter fantasy of the revenge climax in The Spanish Tragedy underlies and undermines the horror of Andrea's ghost's dreadful gloating: "Blood and sorrow finish my desires. . . These were spectacles to please my soul." He is given the enviable right to introduce the spirits of his dead friends into the Elysian Fields while the villains get the worst of the proverbial torments of pagan inhabitants of the place "Where none but furies, bugs, and tortures dwell." The utter excess of it all makes the play more than ever a "sport" far removed from "realities". To ask what the Christian dimension of it all is would be to miss the power of such a re-paganizing celebration of the un-evangelized aspects of life. To be able to join Andrea in his gloating is only possible because we know for sure that there is no such ghost; the theatre of revenge is a cathartic exercise of exorcism for some of the darker ghosts arising from our own unspoken resentments.
Hamlet is another matter altogether. Death in this play too is an absolute, certainly, but it inspires far different emotions in the one person who counts, Hamlet. First, he never calls the ghost "father" but such things as "poor ghost" and refers to it as "it," besides all the ways in which he mocks it after it disappears. Whenever he thinks of his dead father, his mind leaps away to his mother and her remarriage. For Hamlet, the dead do not exist as the still-living exist, he is incapable of allowing his life to dominated by shadows and absence.
If the "To be or not to be" speech is essentially a meditation on the way our hope of heaven and fear of hell sustain moral nobility, Hamlet's hope in life is to preserve his essential honesty in a world dominated by pretence. He knows that Revenge tragedy is always performed furtively, dishonestly, by deceit and in excess of justice. He somewhere knows that this cannot be his way and that if he can only wait long enough, the engineer will be "hoist with his own petard" (III.iv.208-9).
That evil is ultimately self-destructive must have been a strong conviction of Shakespeare's as well as of Hamlet's, who also knows that death always comes in the end, so that the only question in life is how we die. Lear shows how extreme are the limits of possible reponses. We die as we have lived, because until we are dead we are alive. Hamlet is honest, he will not be perverted by anything around him, that is why we love him so.
The play Hamlet is about Hamlet's "life and death." He sets out to deal with life as he can, not being Hyperion or Hercules. In the end, the tricks laid for him partly succeed and partly fail because his uncle the king is too clever by half. The excess of deaths at the end of The Spanish Tragedy is only matched by the excess of means of death arranged for Hamlet and failing. After the trick with the letter to England misfires it misfires again thanks to the pirates. The sword will be unbated, but he is not mortally wounded; it will be poisoned, which will kill Laertes and the king before him; and there will be poison for him in the wine that his mother drinks by mistake and the king by force, but he not at all.
The engineer flies sky-high thanks to all these petards, and the king dies doubly. Hamlet stabs him with the sword on learning that he himself is sure to die of the poison, then forces him to drink the poisoned wine that his mother has identified as the cause of her death. Justice, not revenge, because the criminal has here been caught in the act, flagrante delicto, and that was enough. The king pays the price of the death of Hamlet and the Queen. He dies twice.
There is no mention at the end of the play of the man whose death was the origin of the whole action, King Hamlet. He is in the same situation as Andrea; the man guilty of his death is now dead as the result of a quite different though related set of events. The great, the very great difference between the end of the two plays lies here. At the end of The Spanish Tragedy Andrea's ghost stands gloating in fiendish glee; at the end of Hamlet no ghost is to be seen at all, producers who bring him in to gaze on the play's last moments (as some do) are doing violence to the work.
His absence speaks louder than words, since he can now rest in peace, the rest is truly silence, the silence of the grave, and if there is any echo reaching us it must be the songs of flights of angels and not some hellish cackle. Hamlet departs into the imaginary realms of the eternally living. The play is strangely secular in its language; apart from the ghost almost nothing indicates a religious dimension.
The Church is significantly only represented by a priest who reminds us that even the suspicion of suicide cast doubts on the possibility of salvation. That serves to remind us that Resurrection is a mystery of Christ's humanity. God cannot die and does not need to rise again; it is fragile human nature that is swallowed up in death and fragile human nature that needs to know that the answer to Spenser's question, "And is there care in Heaven?" is "Yes." "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow" and Hamlet is one such sparrow, as was the obscure Galilean that Pilate handed over to a murderous mob a very long time ago. All that each of them was left with was his own unadorned authenticity, the one in truth, the other in fiction. Each of them passes beyond death, not as a ghost but as a living presence, the one in God's eternal design, the other by our imaginations. By both many have been made more humanly alive, and given more courage to be what mortals have to be, alive to the very last breath.