…and the rest is but a whimper

I came across a comparison I found rather interesting following my finishing of Hamlet.

Hamlet’s final line, “The rest is silence”, has within it countless interpretations, all incorporating variants on the meanings of the words “rest”, and even “silence”. For example, the meaning I see first, at a glance, is taken to be “The rest (as in, whatever remains of this entity) is silence (as in, without noise/noisy activity). Now, just what this “entity” I mentioned is, presents a problem. It in itself could be many things. It could be Hamlet’s life, it could be his ultimate existence, it could be the events that have transpired throughout the course of the play; the list goes on. I typically choose to view it as Hamlet’s existence (notice this is different from his life). Ergo, the rest of Hamlet’s existence is without pervasive, noisy activity. What remains; is nothing.

Another interpretation is that of “rest”, as in, a period of relaxation or non-activity. Hamlet is dying, and perhaps he sees this as a “rest”. In that case, the meaning of his line becomes similar to that of the previous interpretation, in that his rest (or, his death) will be silent. This is not the interpretation I side with, although it does hold merit.

The point to which I wanted to get is that of a similarity to another famous line this quotation bears. Consider the final lines of The Hollow Men (1925), by T.S. Elliot: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”. These lines too speak of a great ending that is not noisy as expected, but quite quiet.

Now, according to Wikipedia, these lines are an allusion to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which was a plan to assassinate King James I and VI of Scotland. Conspirators planned to blow up the House of Lords, but the plot was found out, with a man named Guy Fawkes discovered guarding a substantial amount of gunpowder. Elliot’s poem supposedly speaks to the world not ending with a bang (as intended in the Gunpowder Plot), but with a whimper (of Guy Fawkes as he was tortured and executed).

I obviously can’t say for sure if this is what Elliot was speaking about, or if the line’s remarkable similarity to Hamlet’s dying words were intended, but I find it very interesting. Of course, Hamlet came first, and he is given to be talking about himself when he says, “the rest is silence”. But what if he isn’t? What if Hamlet is talking about silence on a much larger scale – talking of silence of the world, as Elliot does? It’s impossible to know what Shakespeare intended Hamlet’s true meaning to be, but that’s the beauty of his plays. It’s up to us to decide.

Common themes are found across literature. So, it may be no coincidence that these two lines, hundreds of years apart, bear a certain resemblance to one another. However, it is still remarkable to consider that they do, and that they both explore the concept of a great ending to existence – be it death, apocalyptic catastrophe, or what have you – as something very different than what we typically imagine. Filled with the weightiness of silence, as opposed to a great din of commotion. To be able to hear yourself think, just as you are about to think no more. I find it fascinating, and ever more and more thought-provoking.

So, go and think. Don’t dwell in silence, just yet.


(here’s the Wikipedia page for The Gunpowder Plot, if you feel like learning more about it):

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