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“Gothic literature” is usually a term applied to dark, bleak, even frightening and bizarre literature written long after William Shakespeare had died, but it is possible to think of many examples of English Renaissance art that might be described as “gothic.” Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is a good example of such literature, as are many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, especially Hamlet.
One tradition in English Renaissance culture that might be described (in a very loose sense) as “gothic” was the “memento mori” tradition. This tradition seems relevant to Macbeth is a number of ways. The term “memento mori” means “Remember your death.” People in the Renaissance were constantly being reminded to remember the fact that they were mortal creatures and that they should therefore live their lives meaningfully and virtuously. Life was short, death was inevitable, and punishment for sin would inevitably follow death.
The “memento mori” tradition often involved confronting humans with physical symbols of death. Often, for instance, paintings showed beautiful women contemplating skulls. This common motif was intended to remind anyone viewing the painting of the “skull beaneath the skin”: All physical beauty vanishes; no one should take pride in any aspect of the flesh. Skeletons were a common feature of Renaissance art, intended to remind viewers that there is no escaping the grave or the rapid putrefaction of the body. The title character in Hamlet famously picks up a skull and contemplates death. The title character in Macbeth actually becomes not much more than a skull by the very end of the play. When Macbeth’s severed head is brought on stage at the conclusion of the play, Shakespeare is participating in the “memento mori” tradition. A few lines before the end of the play, Macduff, contemplating Macbeth’s severed head, says,
. . . behold, where stands
The usurper's cursed head . . .
Shakespeare’s audience would clearly have understood the symbolic significance of this moment. The fact that Macbeth’s bloody head is displayed onstage is evidence that power and money count for nothing in the face of death. As the English poet Philip Larkin reminds us, no one escapes the grave, no matter how rich or how powerful. People in Shakespeare’s day, who were highly familiar with the Bible, would have had no trouble recalling the passage from Ecclesiasticus 7:40 that reads "in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin." This, unfortunately, was a lesson Macbeth ignored, thus leading to the grimly gothic conclusion of Shakespeare’s play.
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