Internet Shakespeare Editions


Death: the undiscovered country

Traditional beliefs often held that untimely death was a punishment for sin and therefore was a thing to be feared. Since the medical knowledge of the time could not explain the plagues which could wipe out whole villages, it was assumed that these mass fatalities were signs of God's displeasure. (More on death and society.)

By Shakespeare's time, humanism and the revival of classical philosophy resulted in the growing influence of alternative ways of thinking about death. As a subject for dramatists, death became a more complicated issue than it had been in the earlier morality plays. Instead of representing death simply as a hooded figure who would call upon an Everyman or Mankind to account for his life, Shakespeare and other writers explored the many intellectual possibilities (and controversies) raised by new ways of thinking about mortality. Hamlet* in particular explores the idea of death as an "undiscovered country*,"* as opposed to the clearly defined territory of medieval Christian doctrine.

The dramatists drew on currents of thought which were being worked out by Renaissance intellectuals, as humanist and classical thought converged with traditional Christian beliefs. Click on the names below to read about what each figure had to say about death:

Some major figures of the Renaissance had real "death scenes" which were widely known and admired; Sir Philip Sidney's death* is a famous example.


  1. Dust to Dust

    A common fascination of Shakespeare and his contemporaries was the idea of matter transmuted from one form to another. Hamlet contains references to this idea in connection with death, the decay of the body, and mortality as the great leveler.

    After killing and disposing of Polonius, Hamlet cryptically notifies Claudius and muses on the nature of living and dead matter:

    Hamlet: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a King, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
    King: What does thou mean by this?
    Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go to progress through the guts of a beggar.

    (In typically punning fashion, Hamlet is using the word "progress" both for the act of digestion, and for the formal progresses that the monarch undertook through the kingdom.

    In the graveyard scene with Yorick's skull, a pensive Hamlet again meditates on the transitory nature of matter and worldly status, using Alexander the Great to illustrate the idea:

    Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer barrel?

  2. The not-so-sweet hereafter

    Claudio (in Measure for Measure) and Hamlet both exhibit a profound fear of death and whatever the afterlife might hold in store. Both characters represent a departure from the orthodox Christian belief in an afterlife which is clearly set out, where one can expect to end up in heaven, purgatory, or hell. To Hamlet and Claudio, death is the great unknown -- a frightening state of metaphysical uncertainty.

    In Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy, Hamlet hesitates in his consideration of suicide not because of an absolute Christian belief in divine retribution but because he is afraid of an afterlife of which he cannot be sure:

    Who would fardels bear,
    . . .
    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
    No traveler returns, puzzles the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
    Than fly to others we know not of.

    The only reason people keep on enduring life's pain is because they are afraid of the possibility of punishment if they kill themselves. This dread of the unknown -- of possibility rather than certainty -- prevents Hamlet from acting decisively and causes him to feel shame: "thus conscience does make cowards of us all".

    Claudio, when faced with his pending execution in Measure for Measure, also describes the afterlife as a fearful place because of the uncertainty it represents:

    to die, and go we know not where,
    . . .
    To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,
    And blown with restless violence round about
    The pendant world

    Claudio is so afraid to die that he asks his sister to sacrifice her honor (and virginity) as a bribe to have him freed. Like Hamlet, Claudio is made a coward by his fear and later reproaches himself for it.

  3. "Peacefully . . . and with a calm mind"

    The influential French philosopher Michel de Montaigne captured the essence of the chivalric view of death in his essay, That no man should be called happy until after his death. Montaigne believed that a person's life is like a drama and the final scene is the most important of all. As a person faces death, all of his or her outward appearances and affectations are stripped away to reveal the true self:

    in this last scene between ourselves and death, there is no more pretense. We must use plain words, and display such goodness or purity as we have at the bottom of the pot.

    A person's good name and reputation depended on their conduct at the time of their death:

    In judging another man's life, I always inquire how he behaved at the last; and one of the principal aims of my life is to conduct myself well when it ends -- peacefully, I mean, and with a calm mind.

  4. Sidney's death

    Sir Philip Sidney's death embodied the Elizabethan ideal of courtly chivalry. Charging into battle in 1586, Sidney was hit in the leg by a musket ball and spent 26 days dying from the wound. Courageous and dignified to the end (or so the legend goes), Sidney reportedly refused water when it was offered to him and asked that it be given to a common soldier lying nearby. Just as Sidney exemplified the ideals of the Renaissance courtier in life, so did his chivalric reputation flourish after his death.

    Sir Walter Raleigh's execution in 1618 was another greatly admired death. While imprisoned in the Tower, Raleigh had the bravado to begin writing a history of the world, though he never completed it. Raleigh's reputation for courage and self-possession was established by his final public speech from the scaffold. It lasted 45 minutes and completely won over the crowd, prompting one observer to comment that Raleigh "died like a Roman" (see the page on Stoicism and suicide).

  5. "Not the last stroake that fells the tree"

    John Donne wrote and delivered his own funeral sermon, called Deaths' Duell, shortly before he died in 1631. Like Castiglione, Donne believed that death should be welcomed as a release from life, especially since life itself is really a succession of metaphysical deaths:

    That which we call life, is but ... a weeke of deaths, seaven days, seaven periods of our life spent in dying, a dying seven times over; and there is and end. Our birth dies in infancy, and our infancy dies in youth, and youth and the rest die in age, and age also dies, and determines all.

    Donne contradicts Montaigne's argument that the last moments of a person's life are the most important:

    The tree lies as it falls its true, but it is not the last stroake that fells the tree, nor the last word nor gaspe that qualifies the soule. . . . Our criticall day is not the very day of our death: but the whole course of our life.

  6. "No such terrible enemy"

    In his essay, Of Death, Francis Bacon echoes the medieval Christian beliefs that death is "the wages of sin" and that contemplation of death is a spiritually healthy activity. However, Bacon also argues that fear of death is weak and cowardly because death is a natural part of life:

    Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.

    Like Montaigne, Bacon believed that death should be faced bravely and reasonably:

    there is no passion in the mind of man so weak, but it mates and masters the fear of death; and therefore death is no such terrible enemy.

  7. "A most happy and lively death"

    Castiglione'sBook of the Courtier describes the neoplatonic ideal of love which was popular in the courtly love tradition of the Renaissance (see the previous page). The neoplatonists viewed love as almost a religion in which genuine romantic love was a form of divine worship. Cardinal Bembo, an important neoplatonic figure in the book, describes the connection between death and courtly love:

    wee severed from ourselves, may bee changed like right lovers into the beloved, and after we be drawn from the earth, admitted to the feast of the angels, where fed with immortall ambrosia and nectar, in the end we may dye a most happy and lively death.

    In Castiglione's view (or Bembo's, at least), death was a release of the soul from the body. The ultimate goal of a true lover was to become spiritually united with the object of his love. Death enabled lovers (like Romeo and Juliet) to be freed from the restrictions of corporeal existence and find happiness in a divine state.