Death and the Afterlife in Ecclesiastes and Hamlet

Ahmed Adly, “Human Skull in Black — Proud of Death” (2019)

Today we share the second of four pieces of public writing selected for publication from an assignment in ENGL 801 “Graduate Studies in English”: a piece of public scholarship (700-1,000 words) which tailors an academic paper and its scholarly intervention of 10-12 pages for a general-interest audience.

Read more about the assignment and the first publication, “Over the Garden Wall is Trying to Scare Your Kids, and That’s Not a Bad Thing” by Ben Trickey (MA ’23), in last Thursday’s post. Now, on to “Death and the Afterlife in Ecclesiastes and Hamlet” by Anne-Sophie Tooley (MA ’22)!

Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head / Instructor for ENGL 801 (Fall 2021)

Someday we will inevitably die…

And while many of us wonder what comes after death, can we ever truly know? What if, instead of consciousness living on in some spiritual form, we go out of existence?

Even though these questions may not seem that radical from a 21st century perspective, that wasn’t always the case. For example, in Shakespeare’s England, Protestant Christianity was the dominant religious influence, and the afterlife seemed an unquestionable reality.

At least, on the surface.

Believe it or not, tragedy is one of the exceptions during the English Renaissance that often subtly challenges the certainty of the Christian afterlife and expresses doubts about the soul’s immortality (Neill). Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece Hamlet stands out when it comes to these uncertainties.

It is important to note, though, that England was steeped in Christian zeal when Hamlet was composed and first performed, so what could possibly have influenced the tragedy’s unchristian doubts about death and the afterlife?

You may be surprised to find out that a biblical text could be partly to blame for Hamlet’s death anxieties. Perhaps you’ll be familiar with this text’s famous phrase, “All is vanity.” I’m specifically referring to Ecclesiastes, one of the Old Testament wisdom books. Ecclesiastes is presented as the reflections of King Solomon, who refers to himself as the Preacher, and meditates on the human condition, including issues of divine justice and the meaning of life in the face of death.

While many of us may be vaguely aware of this biblical text, Ecclesiastes was quite popular in sixteenth and early seventeenth-century England (Johanson 59). Its popularity could explain why this wisdom book likely influenced many of Shakespeare’s works. Specifically, according to Hannibal Hamlin and Arthur Kirsch, it likely played a role in influencing the more secular ideas in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Yes, you read that right. Ecclesiastes—a biblical text—offers some pretty radical ideas that question our ability to know what happens after death and even considers the possibility that the self will go out of existence. At least, depending on who’s reading and interpreting it.

Shakespeare’s engagement with Ecclesiastes’s ideas on death in Hamlet does not reflect the orthodox Christian reading of this wisdom book in his culture. By “orthodox,” I mean the mainstream Christian interpretation. For example, The Geneva Bible (1560), with its interpretive marginal notes, was the most popular Bible in Shakespeare’s day. By reading these marginal notes in Ecclesiastes, we get a good sense of the orthodox Christian interpretation of this text. These notes interpret the Preacher’s doubt about the existence of an afterlife in a way that supports Christianity’s belief in the soul’s immortality. But the similarities between Ecclesiastes and Hamlet’s ideas on death suggest that Shakespeare interprets this wisdom book’s meditations on mortality through an unorthodox lens—one that challenges Christianity’s certainty about the afterlife and reflects the possibility that the self will stop existing after death.

Take, for example, the Preacher’s meditation on death at the end of Chapter III in Ecclesiastes. As the Preacher puzzles over the fact that humans and animals share the same material fate when they die, he remarks, “All go to one place, and all was of the dust, and all shall returne to the dust” and then rhetorically questions, “Who knoweth whether the spirit of man ascende upward, and the spirit of the beast descend downeward to the earth?” (The Geneva Bible, Eccles. III.20-21). By rhetorically questioning whether the human spirit continues living on after death, the Preacher challenges human knowledge about the afterlife—tapping into the possibility that the “spirit of man” will not live on (III.21).

In this moment, the Preacher certainly doesn’t seem convinced that we can ever know what comes after death.

Despite the Preacher’s conviction that humans can’t know what comes after death, the Geneva marginal notes are quick to point out that he means we can only know what happens after we die through faith, not reason (Eccles. III.21k). On the other hand, Hamlet seems to echo the Preacher’s ideas, but without concluding that faith is what makes the afterlife certain.  

Hamlet’s “to be” speech echoes the Preacher’s attitude towards knowledge of an afterlife. Like the Preacher, Hamlet neither denies the afterlife nor endorses its existence; instead, he simply questions our ability to know what happens after death, inviting the possibility of non-existence. Hamlet begins his speech by comparing death to a dreamless sleep, which suggests a state of oblivion.

Think about it. When you’re sleeping and not dreaming, it’s almost as if you don’t exist. What’s the difference between a dreamless sleep and non-existence?

However, Hamlet also considers the possibility of an afterlife. For example, as he contemplates this dreamless sleep, his speech is suddenly interrupted by the thought that some form of consciousness beyond this life is a possibility when he states, “to sleep, perchance to dream” (Shakespeare 3.1.64). The word “perchance” conveys Hamlet’s uncertain attitude towards life after death, and his description of the “undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns” challenges any knowledge about this afterlife if it does indeed exist since the dead do not return to the world of the living (3.1.78-79).

Like the Preacher who challenges the certainty of an afterlife, Hamlet’s doubts towards this very issue are strikingly similar to Ecclesiastes and express the possibility that what comes after death may very well be nothing.

When we compare Hamlet’s meditation on mortality in his “to be” speech (and in many other moments in the play) to Ecclesiastes, the uncertainties the tragedy expresses about death and the afterlife don’t appear as crazy as they may have originally seemed. Significantly, the relationship between these two texts helps readers understand how Hamlet challenges the orthodox views of its day. By questioning the mainstream interpretation of a popular biblical text, Shakespeare’s play taps into this wisdom book’s more subversive ideas about death and undermines the Christian certainty in the afterlife.

Works Cited

The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 2021.

Hamlin, Hannibal. The Bible in Shakespeare. Oxford UP, 2013.

Johanson, Kristine. “‘Our brains beguiled’: Ecclesiastes and Sonnet 59’s Poetics of Temporal Instability.” The Sonnets: The State of Play, edited by Elizabeth Scott-Baumann and Clare Whitehead, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 55-75.

Kirsch, Arthur. “The Emotional Landscape of King Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 2, 1988, pp. 154-70. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/2870627.

Neill, Michael. Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. Oxford UP, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, revised ed., Bloomsbury, 2016.

— Anne-Sophie Tooley (MA ’22)

2 thoughts on “Death and the Afterlife in Ecclesiastes and Hamlet

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