Hamlet is a masterpiece of a play by any measure, but the depth of its genius eluded me until I began rereading it recently. A few of the opening passages stuck out to me, and I’ve put together a theory explaining their role in a story that appears to be spiritually deeper than any other play, or even any other story, I’ve read, excepting perhaps the Iliad.
The opening scene of the final act involves clowns with spades (grave-diggers) preparing to bury a woman, and arguing over whether or not they are to bury her in a Christian manner or not, since she had drowned herself.
Later on in the same scene, Hamlet inquires of the grave-diggers how long a body will last in the ground before succumbing to decay, and the digger responds eight years, with tanners lasting nine:
Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that
he will keep out water a great while; and your water
is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.
Water has long been a powerful symbol in literature: rains denote cleansing, the equality of mortality, and the rebirth of Spring. Baptisms also denote rebirth, while rivers and oceans connect people, denote the unknown, potentialities, and broadly speaking, the unconscious. But here we have an eroding kind of water, the sort that might carve a canyon, or a body.
Given that Hamlet is arguably among the most introspective characters in all of classical fiction, I think it is reasonable to interpret this as a kind of foreshadowing: Shakespeare is hinting that our Princely hero is going to be faced with a choice, of action or inaction–life or death–and the cause of inaction, decay, and death would be dwelling too long in the corrosive water of the unconscious.
So, what is the moral of the story? In a manner of speaking, it appears that it is to be a tanner. Repetition and action–perhaps in a trade–are ways of lasting, and of keeping out the water, during life and even after death. The great antidote to the will-eroding current of introspective consciousness and the paralysis, stagnation, putrefaction, and death which follows is ritual.
In Nietzschean terms, this would be considered a tragic point: a Dionysian truth conveyed not only through Apollonian means, but pointing us towards an Apollonian (a Christian) relationship with the world.
More evidence for this interpretation is the concluding portion of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
And of course, it seems relevant that Ophelia drowns, after her last line being about “rue,” (a clever double entendre conjuring the verb through the use of the noun, which is used as a pain-reliever and occasionally as an abortive agent).
This all may sound far-fetched, but the point behind the story and the symbolism used to convey it are remarkably similar across a broad range of literature. A river separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, in both Greek mythology and in the oldest story we have: The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The myth of Narcissus and the pool hits upon precisely the same point as this interpretation of Hamlet.
Beyond symbolic and mythological interpretations, other, more literal texts convey the same point. The bible conveys this in Ecclesiastes, where the reader is enjoined not to seek happiness in wisdom, but in the good of his labor… as a tanner might. Likewise, much of Buddhism is designed to draw people out of being lost in thought, as Hamlet appears to be.
As a theory, I think it’s plausible. It’s at the very least interesting, and makes the opening of the play even more enjoyable… even if we run the risk of diving too deep, against the advice of the story itself.