Suicide, Ghosts and Christian Burial: Historical Attitudes to Death in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Suicide, Ghosts and Christian Burial: Historical Attitudes to Death in Shakespeare's Hamlet

<p>Shakespeare’s tragedies remain a source of wisdom and reflection that frame contemporary attitudes to life and death. Those iconic scenes – Hamlet holding the skull, Ophelia’s watery death – how

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Shakespeare’s tragedies remain a source of wisdom and reflection that frame contemporary attitudes to life and death. Those iconic scenes – Hamlet holding the skull, Ophelia’s watery death – how were they shaped by Elizabethan ideas and practices? To truly understand the text, and why it still speaks to us, we must consider it’s historical context: Roman and Christian attitudes to suicide, Protestant and Catholic notions of free will, Elizabethan Coroner’s inquests, and Medieval superstition all shape this most-quoted of Shakespeare’s plays.


SUGGESTED READING

  • William Shakespeare, Hamlet


COURSE OUTLINE

  • Elizabethan attitudes to death: Death is considered part of the natural order, especially when one has an heir, or copy to replace them. Common superstition was therefore unkind to ghosts, who might torment the living or deliberately drive living folk mad.
  • Christian deaths: In a play that has a ghost actually return from purgatory, and the Church burial of a suspected suicide, Christian doctrine cannot be ignored.
  • The Graveyard Scene: The appropriate rituals for burial and handling of dead bodies is a focal point of Act 5, Scene 1, and has implications for the body’s rising at Judgement Day.


PLANNED LEARNING OUTCOMES
By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Understand the significance of the action on stage during Act 5, Scene 1 of Hamlet.
  2. Identify Elizabethan contextual values that shaped their attitudes to death.
  3. Explain the influence of Catholic, Protestant, Roman, and Medieval beliefs which shape the meaning of the play.