Broken Rites in Hamlet
In order to understand the role of the rites in Hamlet, one must conceptualize the ritual.The rites in Hamlet concern mainly marriage, mourning and funeral.It is crucial to distinguish their specific nature to detect how they participate in the tragedy.
Arnold van Gennep identified and elaborated in his works that birth, puberty, marriage and death are the principal changes in life of an individual and that of the society. He defined and qualified them in the book of the same name as The Rites of Passage (Van Geppen).
Every passage understands the successive phases of separation, liminality and re-corporation in order to allow the emotional adaptation of an individual to the transition. The transition can be particulary dangerous for the concord of the social life as its cataclysmal habitual order. Since the rites of passage are designed to avoid the possible disturbance when regulating each changing in the society, the broken rites of passage concieve the impetus for the desintegration.
In the course of this effort to disclose the extent of the broken rites in Hamlet of how it can affect on disjonction in the play, I will analyse them as the very motor of the tragic in the play. The investigation of the broken rites in Hamlet as those that became infallible when taking in consideration the socio-cultural pecularities of the historical period of the 16th and early 17th centuries. The Plague and also the Protestant movement resulted in the abolishment of the funeral rites that could be the last and only possible defence against the all powerful, inexorable death.
In the sequel, the deep and extreme human anxiety before the death rose. In the work of Michael Neil, The Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy, he made apparent how the loss of the ritual is connected with the loss of the identity. In these terms, the investigation of the broken rites is particularly relevant for the reconsideration of Hamlet because many inerpreters of the work have focused on Hamlet’s character as the central axis of the tragedy (Coyle). In choosing to focus on rites, one gets a more complex understanding on what occurs in the play and how the
problematical interaction between cultural expectations and individual tendencies are tragically intertwined. Exploring the substance of the broken rites in Hamlet which explicitly stands for unmasking and accusation of the order based on the lies throw the new light upon the mechanism of the tragedy. PART I: Broken Rites as the Starting Point of the Tragic Impulse. The play is obsessed with death. Its very exposition is marked by mortal events: the old King of Denmark kills the old King of Norway, the majesty of buried Denmark (1. I. I.
48) appears as a Ghost. However, the starting point of the tragic impulse is asserted by the broken rites of the funeral and marriage. The mirth in funeral and dierge in mariage/In equal scale weighing delight and dole (2. I. 2. 12). It is consequentially important to conceive that these two broken rites serve for the determinant in the inner disintegration of Hamlet. The dead King, Old Hamlet did not receive the proper mourning, due to him, hence the narration chain of his memory is broken. Especially when in a very short time, his wife marries his brother.
Two months dead-nay not so much, not two A little month, or ere those shoes were old, With which she followed my poor father’s body… a beast that wants discourse of reason Would have mourned longer-married with my uncle My father’s brother… the salt of most unrighteous tears… incestuous sheets!
(I. 2. 138-154) “No windy suspiration of forced breath, /No, nor the fritful river in the eye, /Nor the dejected havior of the visage”( I. 2. 79-81). Hamlet is alone to “give these mourning duties to your father” ( I. 2. 88) and to be dressed in black, while the rest of the court-including the queen-are already in the “remembrance of ourselves” ( I. 2. 7 ) by admitting with pleasure the changes of hierarchy and moral behavior that Claudius institutes: “The funeral baked meats/Did coldly furnish forth th emarriage tables” ( I. 2. 180-181).
The origin of the tragic must be detected properly. To do this, it is helpful to refer to Steiner’s definition of tragedy which is defined as “the tragic personage is broken by forces which can neither be fully understood, nor overcome by rational prudence… Tragedy is irreparable” (Dollimore). The irreparable begins with the irreparably broken rites of the funeral and marriage of Hamlet’s parents, the King and Queen of Denmark that Hamlet assumes on his own. Therefore before learning the truth from the Ghost, which will turn the tragedy into a revenge, the tragedy is set already.
Before learning the truth , the hero’s self is disjointed : O that this too too solid flesh would melt, /thaw and resolve itself into a dew,/Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter… ( I. 2. 129-133). Some historical facts are necessary to evoke in order to understand the whole picture of the tragedy. Funeral and mourning rites were substantial in the Elizabethan period maingly in order to maintain the social order and the psychological defense against mortality (Tylliard).
The Plague had brought in the brutal abolishment of funeral rites wherein the mass burials of all classes have no distinction in common pits without any hierarchy. The denial of the purgatory by Protestants resulted into “a painfully private apocalypse,” placing the deceased “beyond our help” (Neil). The tormenting thoughts that death strikes anyone at any moment and that “a king may go a progress through the guts of beggar” (4. 3. 30) roused extreme anxiety on the issues of death. This anxiety has developed into a profound meditation on mortality and identity.
That is why the melancholic character Hamlet had always “his eyes turned into his very soul. ” The certitude of anything, the balance were beyond any human power or will and hence any change seemed even more tormenting.The marriage to a deceased husband’s brother was forbidden by the Church, whether Catholic or Protestant (Shakespear). Claudius introduces the unnatural marriage by the shift from our “sometimes sister” to “wife” ( I. 2. 8-14). Therefore it is an already irreparably broken marriage rite before learning that Gertrude was seduced and then committed adultery in the sacred marriage.
The role of the rites of passage is to guarantee the smooth adaptation to change. But Hamlet was stuck in the phase of limination even before learning the truth from the Ghost. His limination phase was his mourning. He was between the live and the death, where the death was the material category. The impossibility of his passage out of mourning was reinforced by the fact that he already mentioned that he is the only mourned, hence twicely isolated. The phase of re-incorporation to the world of the dead is the most significant in the funeral rite (Van Geppen 210).
Assurance was not given to Old Hamlet, as there was no separation and liminality. Separation: he was honored no relief, no purification: “Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,/Unhouseled, dis-appointed, unaneled, /No reckoning made, but sent to my account/With all my imperfections on my head. ” Limination: no proper mourning. In the sequel, The King Hamlet was not re-incorporated and that is why he appears as a Ghost. He is ineffectual to reach “the country from wich nor traveller returns”( 3. 1. 80-81).
Horatio’s words about the Ghost seem unrelevant at first reading but in reality they are important for the perception of the tragedy structure. “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,/Or to the dreadful summit of cliff… Which might deprive your soveregnty of reson/and draw you into madness? ”( 1. 4. 48-53) The individuals that were not accorded with the proper funeral rites could never integrate into the world of the dead. This kind of dead was particularly dangerous as they were trying to penetrate there at the expense of the living beings. Usually they were marked by the desire of vengeance (Van Geppen 229-230).
The passage out the liminality is possible only through the successful re-incorporation (Van Geppen 211). Can King Hamlet be re-incorporated if Hamlet revenges? Or does the chase to repair forever broken store the true mousetrap for the hero himself? The same the re-incorporation phase of mariage is never re-incorporated by Hamlet. His mother not only reintegrated in the social life, but she lives her new marriage in the amplitude of plaesures. Having been re-incorporated by others, the rite of marriage does not concern the court as it concerns Hamlet.
The latter has not passed through the phases and that is why he finds himself ruptured from society. To reconstitute the inverted natural order of things, Hamlet must restore the broken chain of narration. His father must be remembered and Claudius must be punished. PART II Sleeping Dog But what restoring the memory that is restoring the broking rites inserts for the hero? Is his invocation for a retribution a possibility to reahibilitate the former natural order or is it a course towards an inevitable tragic end? One of the hero’s attempts to restore the memory is the introducing of the Moustrap.
The broken rites’ great instigation of the unnatural is contrasting with the situation in the speech on Priam’s slaughter. He maternity… and for a robe,/About her lank and fall o’er-teemed loins, A blanket in th’alarum… (2. 2. 498-99), wouild have made milch the burning eyes (2. 2. 508) is opposed to Gertrude’s adulltry unrighteous tears( 1. 2. 155). Hecube mourning was so intense that the death or the Fortune’s Wheel would treason have pronounced (2. 2. 502). It stressed the potent power of the rite. When the rite is devoutly respected, it can accomplish the miracles.
After his successful attempt to reveal the truth, Hamlet does not kill Claudious during his attempt to pray because he must ensure the bad phase of separation for him and not to “send him to heaven. ” He must be killed in “the blossom of his sin” as Old Hamlet to get stuck in the tormenting limination phase. Trying to resrore the irrepareble broken rites by restoring the memory of his father, the hero has desperately condemened to the tragic end. The atonement of the obscure past is impossible without the occurence of new tragic events. As a consequence, the individual crisis of Hamlet was becoming more contradictive and more tormenting.
The successive broken rites were reperpetuted throughout the play: the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deaths, the “hugger-mugger” way of Polonius burial which causes the disjunction in the minds of his children. It is relevant here to mark that Ophelia suffered quite the similar inner disintegration issued from the broken rites than that of Hamlet. Her father’s death was insultingly dishonorable. The marriage that she prepared was abolished and hence, she can only be analyzed as stuck in the phase of the liminality. The songs in her madness speak out: “Larded with sweet flowers, /Which bewept to the grave did not go /With true-love showers.
” “You promised me to wed…. Stricktly speaking, the death of innocent Ohelia is provoked by these two broken rites introducing a new variotion on “mirth in funeal and dierge in marriage:” “I thought thy bridebed to have decked, sweet maid” (5. 1. 154). The inexorable insistence on the irreparable collapse caused by the broken rites works up the tragedy. So considering Ophelia’s death “doubtful,” the priest deprieves her from the correct obsequious rites: “Yet here she is allowed her virgin rites… ”( 5. 1. 222); Hamlet: “And such maimed rites? This doth betoken/ The corpse they follow did with desp’rate hand” ( 5. 1. 209-210).
Moreover, one of the Clown concludes that “if this had not been a gentlewoman, she have been buried out of Christian burial” (5. 1. 23-24). Ophelia’s tragic accompined by the tokens of floral innocence end seems to be one of the most dramatic and the ambigues quarrel of Hamlet and Laertes on her coffin only exacerbates the task of restoring the rememberance. Claudious is speculating on the rite of mourning, when inciting Laertes agaings Hamlet. Was your father dear to you? /Or are you like the painting of sorrow,/A face without a heart? ( 4. 7. 95-96). The rite stakes in the sort: “To cut his throat i’th’church” ( 4. 7. 103).
PART III: The effect on the identity or how the broken rites change the perception of life Exploring the anxieties and in particular the anxieties concerning the funeral and mourning rites, the play is imminently influenced by the memento mori traditions. Making apparent the similitude of the skulls in the scene with the grave-diggers, Hamlet broods on the subject of death. The tragic emphasis intensified when unwillingly but opportunately the grief of Ophelia’s death was fractured by the joking with the Yourick skull: “Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint and inch thick, to this favor she must come.
Make her laugh at that”( 5. 1. 184-185). And accordingly if addressed to the living this joke would have brought rather melancholy than joy. Melancholy emerges with the awareness of the loss of a geocentric and athropocentric universe, the loss of the centre. In this mesh, “the melancholic finds the opportunity to re-centre himself” (Curti 156-157). Hamlet is trying to reconstitute himself through the restoration of the rememeberance which became his obsession. In the last scenes of the play, Hamlet was getting more and more aware of the imporance of the a good death also for himself.
The issue of the suicide was left aside in the first two acts. Hamlet percieved that the good end may be guaranteed by noone, but oneself. “Readiness is all” (5. 2. 169). This equivocal statement accounts also for the excuses that Hamlet presents to Laertes before his possible end. “The soldiers’ music and the rites of war/ Speak loudly for him” (5. 2. 352-53) can not truely be appease the initial disjointing of time and state. Even if the solemn obsequious march that ends the play indemnify on a certain level the lack of the accomplished rite, Fortinbras is a foreigner and the former enemy who had taken the rule in his hands.
The cost of this “truly delivered” ( 5. 2. 338) restoration of a piece of memory is the tragic end of the whole kindom. Conlcusion Exploring the role of the broken rites in Hamlet as the motor of the tragic in the play cannot be a delusion, but is a broad field of research of the precision in the approaches of the understanding of the tragedy. Alternatively, from the very broken cemectries of Caesar’s Rome and to the groteskly solemn funeral rites on Hamlet’s honor, the broken rites are confirmed to possessan an eldritch power to affect on the social as well as on the individual.
Proving their susceptibility to unremitting reproduction of the new broken rites that bind us towards a more sophisticated account of the mechanism of the emergence of the successive tragic impulses in the play, the critical reading of the play from the broken rites axis. Bearing in mind the social and cultural context of the 16 th and early 17th centuries and in particular the memento mori and the arts of death traditions, the play does not impend the remorseless broken rites to gratify the tragedy. Works Cited Coyle, Martin. Hamlet. UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992.
Curti, Lidia. Female Stories, Female Bodies. Narrative identity and Representation. New York: Macmillan Press, 1998. Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1984. Neil, Michael. Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. G. R. Hibbard. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987. Tylliard, Eustace M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. US: Penguin, 1990. Van Geppen, Arnold. Les Rites de Passage.