I was curious to know if this was the case. Were Alexander’s remains, in fact, in the ground?
And it would seem that they were not. It would be quite difficult for Alexander’s body to make any contact with earth.
Apparently, his body was put into a gold honey-filled sarcophagus and that was put into a gold casket. A tomb was built for it – but on the body’s journey, it was waylaid several times before ending up in Alexandria in a tomb. That is a lot of layers from the earth. Honey, gold, gold, stone.
Turns out, he died in Babylon.
He was 32.
He fell ill and 11 to 14 days later, he was dead.
Many suspected poison
But it might have, just as easily,
Been bacteria, disease, contaminated water,
Hard living or infected mosquitos.
It doesn’t take anything particularly superhuman to end a human, even one seen as Great. He did manage to bend a lot of people to his will in three decades of life.
I’m not sure that makes him Great, though.
The modesty portion of this line intrigues me. Like, even though Alexander is dead, Hamlet is suggesting he’ll still respect his personal space, even as he follows the journey of his corpse. He’ll follow that corpse at a respectful distance.
I was working on my play that is a prequel to Comedy of Errors the other night. I was trying to find a balance between contemporary language and Elizabethan infused heightened language. As the first draft was written impossibly quickly, there were a lot of phrases and words that were, I knew, even as I wrote them, place-holders for better, richer words.
I found myself searching for the better ones in the numerous Shakespeare resources I have before consulted for acting, director or teaching purposes. And I also found myself searching for a sort of contemporary English to Shakespearean translator. I finally found one which was mostly a joke but I used it seriously. See, I knew there were a vast number of denigrating words for woman. I remember flinching through many of them while I sat onstage in Henry IV, waiting for my scenes. But when I typed “Woman” in translator, it gave me “Mistress” so I typed “lady” and it gave me “mistress” and then I tried “shrew” and it gave me “shrew” and then I tried “harridan” and it gave me “harridan.” And I realized that I had found the word I wanted from my own inner Shakespeare Thesaurus.
I searched for so many things I already knew and I discovered again how words like “jot” and “faith” even though they are still in use, can sound heightened just by how they’re used.
I’m trying to figure out how to make this something more than just a long way to say “That’s crazy, man, crazy!”
Like, I’m looking for a way to give Horatio some kind of push back to Hamlet. But – really – it’s just – how curious, man!
See – here’s what’s funny. Every note I’ve ever read about this line has defined bunghole as part of a beer barrel – and the dust of Alexander as part of the bung, which is the stopper or a cork. And that is the received wisdom.
However, I cannot help hearing bung-hole in a more scatological sense. I thought I was making it up – but, it is, in fact, common slang. Beavis and Butthead make extensive use of it.
And there is evidence that bunghole was used scatologically as early as 1653. Which explains why scholars may be hesitant to make that connection here…if no one else was using bung-hole scatologically in the early 1600s – than could that be what Shakespeare is doing here with our most beloved intellectual, philosopher prince? No way. Hamlet, the scholar, would never mean something as base as bung-hole in the poop sense.
But.. He is LITERALLY talking about base-ness here. He is talking about someone who has reached the highest heights being reduced to the lowest laws. Sure – yes – it could be the stopper made of clay. But I’m not sure that’s QUITE as base as being ingested and becoming the bung stopping up the colon of someone. Hamlet has already taken us on a journey of a king through the guts of a beggar…it is actually more logical and in line with the earlier images of the play to reference the body than a random piece of beermaking gear.
And yet – of course – he takes us through this with the beer barrel explicitly in the next line. So, yes, of course, he also means the bung-hole of the beer barrel but…it is not impossible that that is an attempt to soften the scatology of the previous line.
My friend’s husband is a pretty elegant guy. He wears tailored clothes and knows a lot about design. He is a champion of aesthetics in a lot of ways. When he became a parent, one of the things he marveled about was how primitive the experience was – how it all came back to the very base experience of the body. Eating, sleeping and shitting, essentially. I think he was particularly astounded by the shit.
And as death gets closer to us, we return to that same primitivity. We become eating, sleeping, shitting machines. We begin base, we end base – and in the middle, we are, of course, just as base as we are at the ends, we’re just better at hiding it, better at focusing on other things in addition to the things that are base. And once our lives are done, our bodies become literally part of the base of the world. We become dirt. We become dust. We are the basest of all.
When Horatio was in school, the kids nicknamed him “E’en so.” They sometimes spelled it Ian So and some just called him Ian.
Even as a young person, he was a bit of a Yes Boy. He nodded a lot. But even his silly nickname didn’t stop him saying “E’en so.”
This is such a genius way to express disgust. It’s not a word that exists. It is not a word like “ewww” – which we recognize as disgust. It’s got an exhalation built into the word. It’s propulsive. That P sends it away and the ah dissipates it.
Shakespeare is genius for so many big things – big ideas, big metaphors, big images, big characters – but a sound like “pah!” is just as much genius as those bigger things.
Is it the skull that smells? Really? I feel like, if it’s a skull, most of the smelly stuff would have long ago decayed and disappeared, consumed by worms or maggots or any of the matter-devouring organisms that clean a corpse of flesh. Might it simply smell of dirt?
On the other hand, this skull has been dug up in a grave that included multiple skulls, many bones – there may be bodies buried there that are fresher in their decay.
Or perhaps there is a smell to old bones that I have no sense of due to most skeletons I have seen being cleared up for medical use or museum display.
It’s a perhaps morbid curiosity – but what exactly is Hamlet smelling? The smell of death? The smell of another’s death? Decay? Vegetable matter? Rotten tendons? What could still smell after 23 years in the earth?