Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hamlet's Last Words

I confess I never really thought of Hamlet's last words until I watched the PBS production of the recent Royal Shakespeare Company's performance. They take out the aftermath of Fortinbras picking up the shattered pieces of Denmark, and end simply with Horatio's words: "Good night, sweet prince, / and fights of angels sing thee to thy rest." Yet just before this, Hamlet's final words just before death are quite strange, eerie, interesting:

"The rest is silence" (V.ii).

The rest is silence. As in the interview for the PBS special, the actor who plays Hamlet says he is going off into oblivion. It is as if he has gotten his answer to the problem in the "to be or not to be" speech. For, indeed, it is the fear of things to come, the "undiscover'd country" that makes cowards of us all--that is, if living is cowardly. I am struck, as a specialist in the study of religion, in this particular phrasing--"the rest is silence." Indeed, the interpretation of oblivion may be preferred, may be most correct. But, there is another way to read it. Silence, indeed, need not mean oblivion--it need not be Lear's "nothing." Silence could be a more poignant word for peace. After the noise of life, a particularly neurotic one in Hamlet's case, silence/peace. Not the noise of the inferno, but perhaps not the choirs of heaven either: a completely unimagined, unimaginable silent peace; not oblivious nothing but superfluous silence. I am reminded, however, of ancient traditions of holy silence. For example, it is said (in the Letter of Aristeas) that the entire officiation in the temple is done in silence. It is as if silence is the necessary auditory posture before God. In the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, a Hermetic work, an adept ascending through the heavenly spheres, observes the angels singing songs in silence. This paradox of songs and silence also appears in the work found with the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, depicting heavenly praise by the heavenly host on the Sabbath. Silence, in fact, is often associated with the most holy and most heavenly, as if silence were the result of perfect harmony. Was Shakespeare tapping into something of the silence of an afterlife of rest? I mostly doubt it. But I do wonder...especially when we reread the second word of "the rest is silence."

As readers we have been assuming that "rest" means "what remains." But what if it means something more like "repose." The rest, the cessation of work, is silence, itself a synonym of rest. In this reading, "the rest is rest." It is a tautology, something the opposite of Lear's "nothing" because it is complete in and of itself. We should note that in the ancient Jewish tradition, particularly prominent in Rabbinical writings and thereafter the Sabbath--the day of rest--is a precursor of the world to come; that is, the world to come is an everlasting rest. This did carry over into Christianity--for example, St. Augustine's Confessions and City of God both end with a meditation of heavenly rest based upon an exegesis of Gen. 1:1-2:3. The afterlife as "rest" is such a truism these days that we abbreviate it as "R.I.P." Rest is peace. Rest is silence. Perhaps complete nothingness, complete oblivion would be best for Hamlet, but his last words have a doubled edge. It could mean that the "undiscover'd country" is no country at all, that it is nothing--a fairly radical statement. Or it could be tapping into the extensive Jewish and Christian associations of the afterlife with rest, peace, and silence. It is up to the audience to decide, and that ambiguity in phrasing that could go either way is, indeed, how Shakespeare's speech continues to live with us, how it speaks to so many different people of such different dispositions. It, it seems, never rests. It is never silent.

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