A couple of days ago, I decided to watch again, for about the umpteenth time, Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet. It is a lavish 1996 production featuring some excellent performances as well as some tragic miscasts: Gérard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, and —alas!— the erstwhile sublime Julie Christie come to mind.
I particularly enjoyed, as one does, the graveyard scene in Act 5, sc. I, both for Billy Crystal’s satisfyingly clownish performance of the gravedigger’s part and for Branagh’s restrained, almost subdued rendering of the famous “Alas, poor Yorick” soliloquy. As everyone remembers, there is in this scene a “curious” (Horatio’s word) syllogism by Hamlet, to the effect that death, the great leveller, reduces even the high and mighty to “base uses” — to something as ignoble and squalid as clay.
HAMLETDost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?HORATIOE’en so.HAMLETAnd smelt so? Pah!(Puts down the skull)HORATIOE’en so, my lord.HAMLETTo what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?HORATIO‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.HAMLETNo, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into 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?Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
In its tongue-in-cheek speculation on the fate of the famous dead, this passage is an example of the widespread Ubi sunt? (“Where are they?”) motif — a rhetorical trope that drives home the transitoriness of human life by pointing out that the eminent or powerful figures of the past are no more. For obvious reasons, Alexander the Great was a particularly apposite example of the motif; indeed, already the witty satirist Lucian (a Greek-speaking Syrian of the 2nd century CE) stages a conversation, in Hades, between the dead Alexander and his equally dead father Philip, in which the latter asks his son the killer question:
Now that you’re dead, don’t you think that there are many who wax witty about that pretence of yours [=Alexander’s claim to be a god], now that they see the corpse of the “god” lying at full length, clammy and swollen like any other body? (Transl. M. D. Macleod)
Unsurprisingly, the dead Alexander motif caught on — it is found again in, e.g., William Rowley’s and Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling (1622), Act IV, sc. 1, 63-4: “Earth-conquering Alexander, | That thought the world too narrow for him, | In the end had but his pit-hole.”
But let’s move back to Hamlet’s curious syllogism for a moment. It consists of successive small logical steps, each of which, by itself, can seem trivial and even mocking: Alexander died, the dead turn into dust, the dust is earth, earth is used to make loam, and loam is used to “stop a beer-barrel” — therefore, someone as noble and illustrious as the god-like Alexander can be equated to something as cheap and ignoble as a plug blocking “a bung-hole”.
Now, Shakespeare was surely unaware of the fact that exactly the reverse process of thought is found in a number of Greek and Latin funerary epigrams, in which the point made is (appropriately) much more optimistic: “I am dead; the dead are dust; the dust is earth; the earth is divine; therefore, I am a god.” Here are two Greek examples, one from the 3rd century BCE, the other from the 2nd/3rd century CE (for the pedants amongst you, they are nos. I 1126 and I 1941 in W. Peek’s Griechische Vers-Inschriften, Berlin 1955):
Be happy, Diogenes, son of Diodorus, you who were by nature righteous and pious
If the earth is a god, then I am rightly a god too:
I sprang from the earth, I became a corpse, and the corpse became earth
Here I lie, a corpse, mere dust; but if I am dust, I am earth;
And if the earth is a god, then I am a god, no longer dead.
The same chain of ideas is also found in a couple of Latin epitaphs (nos. 1532 and 974 in F. Buecheler’s Carmina Latina Epigraphica, Leipzig 1895-97):
Here I lie dead, and I am dust; dust is earth;
if the earth is a god, I am a god too, I am not dead.
Dead, I was placed here.
I am dust, dust is earth, the earth is a god, thus I am not dead.
The boldest extant variant of this motif, however, is in an epigram attributed, falsely, to the Sicilian comic poet Epicharmus (297 Kassel-Austin):
I am dead, the dead are dung, the dung is earth;
but if the earth is a god, I am not dead but a god.
(The cynical idea that the dead are equivalent to dung goes back at least to the philosopher Heraclitus, but we’d better say no more about this unsavoury bit of ancient wisdom.)
One can take one’s pick between Shakespearean pessimism (“we will all be reduced to base clay after death”) and Greek and Roman optimism (“yes, but clay is earth, and the earth is divine”). Either way, one will have to rely on arguments that are trivial, tendentious, and verge on the ridiculous. And that’s the fun part.