I had a hard time sleeping right after my mother died. The nights were long and had their share of what C.S. Lewis, in his memoir A Grief Observed, calls “mad, midnight … entreaties spoken into the empty air.” One of the things I did was read. I read lots of books about death and loss. But one said more to me about grieving than any other: Hamlet. I’m not alone in this. A colleague recently told me that after his mother died he listened over and over to a tape recording he’d made of the Kenneth Branagh film version.
I had always thought of Hamlet’s melancholy as existential. I saw his sense that “the world is out of joint” as vague and philosophical. He’s a depressive, self-obsessed young man who can’t stop chewing at big metaphysical questions. But reading the play after my mother’s death, I felt differently. Hamlet’s moodiness and irascibility suddenly seemed deeply connected to the fact that his father has just died, and he doesn’t know how to handle it. He is radically dislocated, stumbling through the world, trying to figure out where the walls are while the rest of the world acts as if nothing important has changed. I can relate. When Hamlet comes onstage he is greeted by his uncle with the worst question you can ask a grieving person: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” It reminded me of the friend who said, 14 days after my mother died, “Hope you’re doing well.” No wonder Hamlet is angry and cagey.
Hamlet is the best description of grief I’ve read because it dramatizes grief rather than merely describing it. Grief, Shakespeare understands, is a social experience. It’s not just that Hamlet is sad; it’s that everyone around him is unnerved by his grief. And Shakespeare doesn’t flinch from that truth. He captures the way that people act as if sadness is bizarre when it is all too explainable. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, tries to get him to see that his loss is “common.” His uncle Claudius chides him to put aside his “unmanly grief.” It’s not just guilty people who act this way. Some are eager to get past the obvious rawness in your eyes or voice; why should they step into the flat shadows of your “sterile promontory”? Even if they wanted to, how could they? And this tension between your private sadness and the busy old world is a huge part of what I feel as I grieve—and felt most intensely in the first weeks of loss. Even if, as a friend helpfully pointed out, my mother wasn’t murdered.
I am also moved by how much in Hamlet is about slippage—the difference between being and seeming, the uncertainty about how the inner translates into the outer. To mourn is to wonder at the strangeness that grief is not written all over your face in bruised hieroglyphics. And it’s also to feel, quite powerfully, that you’re not allowed to descend into the deepest fathom of your grief—that to do so would be taboo somehow. Hamlet is a play about a man whose grief is deemed unseemly.
Strangely, Hamlet somehow made me feel it was OK that I, too, had “lost all my mirth.” My colleague put it better: “Hamlet is the grief-slacker’s Bible, a knowing book that understands what you’re going through and doesn’t ask for much in return,” he wrote to me. Maybe that’s because the entire play is as drenched in grief as it is in blood. There is Ophelia’s grief at Hamlet’s angry withdrawal from her. There is Laertes’ grief that Polonius and Ophelia die. There is Gertrude and Claudius’ grief, which is as fake as the flowers in a funeral home. Everyone is sad and messed up. If only the court had just let Hamlet feel bad about his dad, you start to feel, things in Denmark might not have disintegrated so quickly!
Hamlet also captures one of the aspects of grief I find it most difficult to speak about—the profound sense of ennui, the moments of angrily feeling it is not worth continuing to live. After my mother died, I felt that abruptly, amid the chaos that is daily life, I had arrived at a terrible, insistent truth about the impermanence of the everyday. Everything seemed exhausting. Nothing seemed important. C.S. Lewis has a great passage about the laziness of grief, how it made him not want to shave or answer letters. At one point during that first month, I did not wash my hair for 10 days. Hamlet’s soliloquy captures that numb exhaustion, and now I read it as a true expression of grief:
O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Those adjectives felt apt. And so, even, does the pained wish—in my case, thankfully fleeting—that one might melt away. Researchers have found that the bereaved are at a higher risk for suicideality (or suicidal thinking and behaviors) than the depressed. For many, that risk is quite acute. For others of us, this passage captures how passive a form those thoughts can take. Hamlet is less searching for death actively than he is wishing powerfully for the pain just to go away. And it is, to be honest, strangely comforting to see my own worst thoughts mirrored back at me—perhaps because I do not feel likely to go as far into them as Hamlet does. (So far, I have not accidentally killed anyone with a dagger, for example.)
The way Hamlet speaks conveys his grief as much as what he says. He talks in run-on sentences to Ophelia. He slips between like things without distinguishing fully between them—”to die, to sleep” and “to sleep, perchance to dream.” He resorts to puns because puns free him from the terrible logic of normalcy, which has nothing to do with grief and cannot fully admit its darkness.
And Hamlet’s madness, too, makes new sense. He goes mad because madness is the only method that makes sense in a world tyrannized by false logic. If no one can tell whether he is mad, it is because he cannot tell either. Grief is a bad moon, a sleeper wave. It’s like having an inner combatant, a saboteur who, at the slightest change in the sunlight, or at the first notes of a jingle for a dog food commercial, will flick the memory switch, bringing tears to your eyes. No wonder Hamlet said, “… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Grief can also make you feel, like Hamlet, strangely flat. Nor is it ennobling, as Hamlet drives home. It makes you at once vulnerable and self-absorbed, needy and standoffish, knotted up inside, even punitive.
Like Hamlet, I, too, find it difficult to remember that my own “change in disposition” is connected to a distinct event. Most of the time, I just feel that I see the world more accurately than I used to. (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”) Pessimists, after all, are said to have a more realistic view of themselves in the world than optimists.
The other piece of writing I have been drawn to is a poem by George Herbert called “The Flower.” It opens:
How Fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
Quite underground, I keep house unknown: It does seem the right image of wintry grief. I look forward to the moment when I can say the first sentence of the second stanza and feel its wonder as my own.